Inter Press Service » Labour http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Fri, 26 Dec 2014 17:03:10 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.3 Small Grants for Big Solutions in Northeast Argentinahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/small-grants-for-big-solutions-in-northeast-argentina/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=small-grants-for-big-solutions-in-northeast-argentina http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/small-grants-for-big-solutions-in-northeast-argentina/#comments Fri, 26 Dec 2014 17:02:10 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138430 Soledad Olivera holds her young son in front of her new bathroom, whose toilet and running water replaced an improvised latrine next to her house in a settlement in Bonpland, in the northern Argentine province of Misiones. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

Soledad Olivera holds her young son in front of her new bathroom, whose toilet and running water replaced an improvised latrine next to her house in a settlement in Bonpland, in the northern Argentine province of Misiones. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
BONPLAND, Argentina , Dec 26 2014 (IPS)

Summers in northeast Argentina are hot and humid. At siesta time, the people of this rural municipality like to drink “tereré” (cold yerba mate), which until now they had problems preparing because of lack of clean water or electricity. But sometimes small donations can make a big dent in inequality.

Andrés Ortigoza, who lives in one of the villages in Bonpland, proudly shows off his simple new solar panel, which heats up an electric shower. In wintertime, tereré is replaced by hot yerba mate – a caffeinated herbal brew popular in Argentina and neighbouring countries – and taking a cold shower is not easy even for toughened gauchos (the cowboys of the Southern Cone countries) like him.

“We used to wash up with cold water, it was tough in winter….or we’d heat the water with firewood,” he told IPS.

Picada Norte, where Ortigoza lives, was not connected to the power grid until 2010. But service is still patchy and is expensive for local families.

The installation of solar water heaters is one of the projects financed in Bonpland by the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Small Grants Programme (SGP).

With its non-repayable grants of up to 50,000 dollars, the SGP has shown how small community initiatives have a positive impact on global environmental problems.

The expansion of forestry activity – mainly aimed at providing raw material for the pulp and paper industry – and the use of firewood as a source of energy are driving deforestation in the jungle in the province of Misiones, which accounts for fully half of Argentina’s biodiversity.

The area forms part of the eco-region of the Parana basin tropical moist forest, which takes a different name in each country that shares it: Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.

“At an international level, talking about these three countries, there were 80 million hectares around 1950, of which only four million hectares of forest are still standing today, and of them, 1.5 million are in Misiones,” Juan Manuel Díaz, the provincial sub-secretary of ecology, told IPS.

“Our province covers three million hectares and practically half of that is Parana jungle,” he said.

According to Ricardo Hunghanns, president of the Tabá Isiriri-Pueblos del Arroyo Association, 45 percent of productive land in Misiones is currently used by the forestry industry, which since the 1990s has changed the traditional distribution of land and modified the provincial economy.

“This has radically transformed the structure of agriculture in the province, where the paper industry rather than agriculture now represents 80 percent of GDP,” the head of the organisation, which is involved in two SGP projects, told IPS.

The main aim of his association, he said, “is to strengthen the social economy, from the perspective of the inclusion and productive development of our communities.”

For Hunghanns “it is essential to develop projects that diversify agricultural activity, above all to make it possible for those who have been expelled from their own land because their farms are too small, to return, as part of associations.”

In Bonpland, the association is trying to do that through the projects financed by the SGP. But it first has to work out basic questions of subsistence.

Sara Keller suffered from not having water for 45 years. Every day she went to the nearest stream, one km from her village, to haul back 20-litre buckets of water, whether she was pregnant or carrying one of her six children. Calculating the total, she walked over 20,000 km in her life, to fetch water.

But now the 52-year-old married mother of six and grandmother of five, who lives in the village of Campiñas, has running water in her home, thanks to a simple five-km pipe financed by another SGP initiative.

“I really suffered not having water, carrying it from far away in the dry season,” Keller, who now has free time to care for her vegetable garden, sew and even rest, told IPS.

One of the goals of all SGP projects is to include a gender perspective.

Women are often reluctant to take part in meetings because, due to cultural questions, they don’t like to express opinions in front of their husbands, said Hunghanns. But, he pointed out, it is women who establish the priorities for the projects.

That was the case of the project that replaced latrines with toilets. Soledad Olivera, 18, whose husband is a rural worker employed in the extraction of sap or resin, and who has a two-year-old son and is expecting her second child, is happy with the new bathroom in her house in Picada Norte, which replaced a “dirty, smelly latrine”.

“It’s so nice,” she says with a big smile on her face as she looks at the bathroom, complete with a toilet, electric shower, and, especially, running water.

The SGP, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is financing 20 projects in Misiones, which also include the care of water sources, sustainable agricultural development, ecotourism activities with Guaraní indigenous communities, waste management and the production of medicinal herbs.

“The term ‘small donations’ [the translation of small grants in Spanish] isn’t the best. Because it’s a commitment between two sides. We contribute something, and so do the community and the grassroots organisations,” said René Mauricio Valdés, the UNDP representative in Argentina.

In return for the aid, the recipients – whether individuals or institutions – provide labour power, training or machinery (in the case of municipal governments).

In Argentina, the SGP is involved in 52 projects in the provinces of Misiones, Corrientes, Entre Ríos, Formosa, Santa Fe and Chaco, for a total of 1.8 million dollars in grants.

Diana Vega, a representative of Argentina’s Secretariat of the Environment and Sustainable Development, explained to IPS that the SGP was not hurt by the global drop in development aid.

“We staked our bets on this programme because change at a local level is essential for generating real change,” she said.

“We realised that national policies often fail to reach the grassroots or community level. On the other hand, initiatives applied at a more local level, closer to the community, are the ones that can be replicated tomorrow at a provincial or national level.”

Silvia Chalukian, the chair of the SGP’s national committee of directors, said “One of the things I like the most about the SGP is that it is structured in such a way that all of the money reaches the ground level. It isn’t lost in office expenses or administration.”

Furthermore, because it involves small amounts of financing, “there is less red tape and fewer communications problems for the people managing it…people gradually learn to handle the financing during the nearly two years of the project.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Valerie Dee

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Ruble’s Rout Breeds Uncertainty for Central Asian Migrantshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/rubles-rout-breeds-uncertainty-for-central-asian-migrants/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rubles-rout-breeds-uncertainty-for-central-asian-migrants http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/rubles-rout-breeds-uncertainty-for-central-asian-migrants/#comments Fri, 26 Dec 2014 16:05:43 +0000 EurasiaNet Correspondents http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138428 Migrant workers ride in a bus through northern Kazakhstan in May 2014 on their way to find employment in Russia. As the value of the Russian ruble continues to fall, labour migrants from Central Asia say they are less inclined to work in Russia. Credit: Konstantin Salomatin

Migrant workers ride in a bus through northern Kazakhstan in May 2014 on their way to find employment in Russia. As the value of the Russian ruble continues to fall, labour migrants from Central Asia say they are less inclined to work in Russia. Credit: Konstantin Salomatin

By EurasiaNet Correspondents
TASHKENT, Dec 26 2014 (EurasiaNet)

Sardor Abdullayev, a construction worker from eastern Uzbekistan, had planned to go to Russia next spring to join relatives working construction sites in the Volga River city of Samara. But now, he says, “I am better off staying at home and driving a taxi.”

As the value of the Russian ruble plummets and Russia’s economy tumbles into recession, millions of Central Asian migrants have seen their real wages dwindle. On top of that, Russian authorities are introducing new, expensive regulations for foreigners who wish to work legally in the country.The return of tens of thousands of labour migrants and the prospect of them joining the vast pool of the already unemployed is making some officials nervous.

Some Uzbek migrants in Russia now say they are contemplating a return home. Such an influx of returnees could have uncertain ramifications for their impoverished country.

According to Russia’s ambassador to Uzbekistan, there are about three million Uzbek labour migrants in Russia, the most from any Central Asian country. Others estimate the number of Uzbeks could be twice that.

Unofficial estimates put their remittances in 2013 at the value of roughly a quarter of Uzbekistan’s GDP. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are even more dependent on labour migrants, with remittances contributing the equivalent of 30 percent and roughly 50 percent to their economies, respectively.

Data from Russia’s Central Bank shows that the funds Uzbeks send home dipped nine percent year-on-year during the third quarter of 2014. Analysts predict the fall will continue. The Russian business daily Kommersant estimates that remittances fell 35 percent month-on-month in October alone.

That was before the ruble, which has steadily fallen since Russian troops seized Crimea in February, nosedived earlier in December. Thanks to Western sanctions, the low price of oil, and systemic weaknesses in Vladimir Putin’s style of crony capitalism, the currency has lost roughly 50 percent against the dollar this year. Most migrants convert their rubles into dollars to send home.

“My salary was 18,000 rubles a month, which several months ago would be equivalent to 500 dollars. Now, it is less than 300 dollars,” Sherzod, a 29-year-old from the Ferghana Valley who was working at a shop in Samara, told EurasiaNet.org.

Sherzod returned home in November and he is not planning to go back to Russia. “The salary is too low.”

It is not only falling wages that labour migrants must consider. Starting on Jan. 1, Russia will require labour migrants to pass tests on Russian language, history and legislation basics, as well as undergo a medical examination and buy health insurance (the entire package will cost migrants up to 30,000 rubles (currently about 500 dollars), by some accounts).

The Moscow city government is also more than tripling the fee for work permits, from 1,200 rubles monthly to 4,000 rubles (currently 64 dollars).

Citizens of countries that are members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which will come into force on Jan. 1, will not be affected by the new regulations. That adds an incentive – some might say pressure – for migrant-feeder countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to join. (Kyrgyzstan is hoping to join in early 2015).

Sherzod, the Uzbek labourer, says that faced with falling real incomes, many Uzbeks working in Russia find themselves in a quandary. Thousands are eager to return home. But many simply do not have funds to buy a return ticket. Others worry about being seen in their native villages as failures.

Russian media outlets have quoted a migrant community leader who projected new requirements for guest workers, along with the falling ruble, will prompt up to 25 percent of migrants to leave Russia in the coming months.

With fewer dollars entering Uzbekistan, the Uzbek sum has fallen 15 percent against the greenback on the black market, according to several Ferghana-based shop owners interviewed by EurasiaNet.org. (The tightly managed official exchange rate has declined about 11 percent against the dollar this year. To help support it, from Jan. 1 fruit and vegetable exporters will be required to sell 25 percent of their hard currency earnings to the state at the official rate, Interfax news agency reported Dec. 18).

Despite the economic fallout from Russia, Uzbek leaders remain open to doing business with the Kremlin. During a visit to Tashkent on Dec. 10, Putin wrote off most of Uzbekistan’s 890-million-dollar debt. That deal paved the way for new loans from Moscow. It is unclear what Uzbek leader Islam Karimov promised in return.

Uzbek authorities and well-connected businessmen claim they are prepared to manage the economic fallout, and the large number of returning migrants.

“We have numerous [state-sponsored] urban regeneration construction projects across the country. One can say that the whole of Uzbekistan is a massive construction site. So if migrants return, many of them will find work,” Nazirjan, a former government official who how heads a private construction company in the Ferghana Valley, told EurasiaNet.org on condition his surname not appear in print.

On Dec. 15, President Karimov signed a decree that increased state employees’ salaries by 10 percent. Still, the return of tens of thousands of labour migrants and the prospect of them joining the vast pool of the already unemployed is making some officials nervous.

“The SNB [former KGB] has instructed local authorities and mahalla [neighbourhood] committees to create lists of labour migrants who are returning from Russia. The arrival of migrants usually increases the crime rate, and local authorities have also been instructed to be more vigilant,” a secondary school teacher in the Ferghana Valley told EurasiaNet.org.

This story originally appeared on EurasiaNet.org.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Q&A: “The Economy Needs to Serve Us and Not the Other Way Around”http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/qa-the-economy-needs-to-serve-us-and-not-the-other-way-around/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=qa-the-economy-needs-to-serve-us-and-not-the-other-way-around http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/qa-the-economy-needs-to-serve-us-and-not-the-other-way-around/#comments Tue, 23 Dec 2014 12:49:44 +0000 Peter Costantini http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138385

Peter Costantini interviews economist JOHN SCHMITT

By Peter Costantini
SEATTLE, Dec 23 2014 (IPS)

Since his college days, John Schmitt says, he’s been “very interested in questions of economic justice, economic inequality.”

john-schmitt-web-photo-credit-dean-manis resized

Photo courtesy of John Schmitt

He served a nuts-and-bolts apprenticeship in the engine room of the labour movement, doing research for several unions’ organising campaigns. Today, he’s an influential proponent of new approaches to low-wage work that have reoriented how many economists and policy-makers understand the issue.

Schmitt is a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He also serves as visiting professor at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, and was a Fulbright scholar at the Universidad Centroamericana “Jose Simeon Cañas” in San Salvador, El Salvador. He holds degrees are from Princeton and the London School of Economics.

IPS correspondent Peter Costantini interviewed him by telephone and e-mail between August and December 2014.

Q: Among policy prescriptions for reducing income inequality and lifting the floor of the labour market, where do you see minimum wages fitting in?

A: I think the minimum wage is very important. It concretely raises wages for a lot of low and middle-income workers, and it also establishes the principle that we as a society can demand that the economy be responsive to social needs.

It’s a legal, almost palpable statement that we have the right to demand of the economy that it serve us and not that we serve the economy. It’s not the solution, in and of itself, to economic inequality. But it’s an important first step.Two of the last three increases in the minimum wage were signed by Republican presidents, with substantial support from Republicans in Congress. So it’s a very American institution that has had a long history of bipartisan support.

And it’s an easy first step. It’s something that we’ve had in this country since the 1930s, and it has broad political support. It regularly polls way above 50 percent, even among Republicans. And in the population as a whole, 65 to 75 percent of voters support it.

Two of the last three increases in the minimum wage were signed by Republican presidents, with substantial support from Republicans in Congress. So it’s a very American institution that has had a long history of bipartisan support.

And it’s effective in doing what it’s supposed to do, which is raise wages of workers at the bottom. It does exactly what a lot of people think our social policy should do: reward people who work. Almost everybody agrees that if you’re working hard, you should get paid a decent amount of money for that.

Also, it doesn’t involve any government bureaucracy other than a relatively minor enforcement mechanism. Because everybody knows what the minimum wage is. There’s a social norm and expectation that people who work should get at least the minimum wage. [More]

Q: Beginning in the early 1990s, a new approach surfaced that challenged the old contention that minimum wage increases reduce employment among low-wage workers.

A: It was called the New Minimum Wage research. A lot of economists at the time were looking at the experience of states that had increased the minimum wage, and were finding that state increases seemed to have little or no effect on employment.

It caused a lot of controversy, which is still raging. I think the profession has moved a lot towards the belief that moderate increases in the minimum wage, like the ones that we historically have done, have little or no impact on employment.

I think what most economists are persuaded by is that the empirical evidence is not that supportive of large job losses. There’s just a lot of good research out there that consistently finds little or no negative employment effects.

The textbook model for how the labour market works is just a vast oversimplification. It can be useful in some contexts, but it’s not useful to understand a pretty complicated thing, which is what happens when the minimum wage goes up.

One of the key insights is that employers aren’t operating in a competitive labour market nor are employees. There’s the possibility that employers make adjustments in other dimensions besides laying workers off: they raise their prices somewhat, or they cut back on hours [without layoffs].

And from a worker’s point of view, if they raise your salary by 20 percent and they cut your hours by five or 10 percent you’re still better off, right? Because you’re getting paid more money and you’re working fewer hours. So there are a lot of ways that firms can adjust to minimum wage increases other than laying people off. [More]

Q: So from a worker’s point of view, I still come out ahead. Low-income work is already very unstable.

A: An important ingredient here is labour turnover. There’s a new paper that looks very carefully at what happens to labour turnover rates before and after minimum wage increases, and finds substantial declines in turnover for different kinds of workers.

A different analysis looks at a living wage law that was passed at the San Francisco airport a few years back. They found something like an 80 percent decline in turnover of baggage handlers after the minimum wage went up, the living wage.

People who don’t work in business don’t fully appreciate that turnover is extremely expensive, even for low-wage workers. Filling a vacancy can be 15, up to 20 percent, of the annual cost of that job. The people who have to fill it are managers, using their more expensive time. And meanwhile, you’re losing customers.

So if the minimum wage reduces turnover, which evidence is increasing for, then it can go a long way towards explaining why we see so little employment impact of minimum wage increases. [More]

Q: What happens when cities increase the minimum wage?

A: I have a lot of faith in the democratic process. So when a city focuses on where to set the wage, a lot of people weigh in: business people, workers, unions, community organisations, low-wage workers, local academics.

There’s a city-wide conversation. And I think this is one reason why we consistently don’t see big employment effects: that process usually arrives at some wage that’s a vast improvement over what we currently have and within the realm of what the local economy can afford.

I think we probably consistently err on the side of caution rather than on the side of going too far. [More]

Q: How do you see the 15Now movement, the fast-food workers movement, changing the labour movement?

A: There’s a lot of dynamism behind the fast food and 15 folks and what’s happening in Seattle, a lot of city and state campaigns to increase the minimum wage. They’re putting a focus on wages and wage inequality, and the need to reward people for working hard.

They’re also focusing attention on other issues that are going to be really important in the future: for example, scheduling questions. One of the recurring problems for fast-food and retail workers is not just that their wages are so low, but also that they have little or no control over their schedules.

I think any time you have people agitating for economic and social justice and getting national attention, it’s encouraging for the possibility of turning around three going on four decades of rising economic inequality.

The single most important thing is to keep some oxygen flowing here so that this conversation can continue: the media cover it, people talk about it when they’re having a beer with friends, or when they’re downtown and they see a bunch of McDonald’s workers out making noise. That’s not something we’ve seen a lot of in the last 35 years. [More]

Edited for length and clarity. For full interview, see version on IPS blog. Edited by Kitty Stapp.

 

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GDP and the Unaccounted for 82 Percent of National Wealthhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/gdp-and-the-unaccounted-for-82-percent-of-national-wealth/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=gdp-and-the-unaccounted-for-82-percent-of-national-wealth http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/gdp-and-the-unaccounted-for-82-percent-of-national-wealth/#comments Fri, 19 Dec 2014 20:20:42 +0000 Anantha Duraiappah http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138348 Mismanagement of India’s vast river system has caused severe water stress in urban and rural landscapes, with many water bodies too polluted for human use. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

Mismanagement of India’s vast river system has caused severe water stress in urban and rural landscapes, with many water bodies too polluted for human use. Credit: Malini Shankar/IPS

By Anantha Duraiappah
NEW DELHI, Dec 19 2014 (IPS)

Virtually all countries use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as their primary measurement of economic progress and overall societal progress. At the same time, countries express allegiance to the doctrine of sustainable development. This exposes an obvious disconnect.

GDP measures the value of all the goods and services a country produces. Thus, maximising production is the best way of achieving high GDP. And increasing production is fine as long as it is within one’s means to maintain that production.When climate change, oil price fluctuations and total factor productivity is included, less than 50 percent of the 140 countries assessed are on a sustainable trajectory; more than half are consuming beyond their means.

But relate this in terms of personal spending patterns: our list of desirables are seemingly infinite –- the majority of us have insatiable appetites constrained only by personal budgets.

You can increase your spending by taking on debt, but this too is determined by your ability to pay. We are constrained!

At the country level, the situation is no different. A nation can’t produce goods and services without the required assets. It can borrow or buy from other countries but again, consumption is constrained by an ability to pay, which in a well-behaving market is determined by national assets.

Granted, the system of national accounts upon which GDP is computed tracks changes in capital assets such as infrastructure, transport and communications, among other types of national capital produced.

But the skills and education of people determine a country’s output. So too do natural assets, like land, minerals, fossil fuels, and forests, and the many other goods and services nature offers as direct production inputs.

Where are these assets accounted for in GDP?

The Inclusive Wealth Report, first introduced at the Rio+20 summit and welcomed by The Economist magazine as an ambitious effort, provides fresh insights.

This year’s second edition, IWR2014, created in a collaboration with the UN Environment Programme and the UN University, provides a comprehensive analysis of 140 countries, up from 20 two years ago. And the results are sobering, to say the least.

When climate change, oil price fluctuations and total factor productivity is included, less than 50 percent of the 140 countries assessed are on a sustainable trajectory; more than half are consuming beyond their means.

A key factor, according to the report: a lack of effort in promoting creativity and innovation, primarily in developed countries.

As well, the 2014 report further substantiates an earlier finding: Human capital in a country’s asset base is most highly valued by policymakers, followed by natural capital. Produced capital comes in third.

What does this mean?

Using a combination of market prices, when appropriate, and social prices when no market prices are available or are imperfect, the data shows people in most countries place highest value on human capital, key to which is education.

This is followed by natural capital — energy sources and timber, for example — but also the many ecosystem services nature provides to humankind.

Using these values, the IWR2014 report finds that the produced capital our national accounts help to track and manage only represents 18 percent of the total value of a country’s asset base.

In other words, some 82 percent of a nation’s productive base — its “inclusive” wealth — is not reflected in national accounts. This simply makes no economic sense. And, as the popular saying goes, “you manage what you measure.”

The remedy?

Let’s build momentum to revise the system of national accounts, expanding it to include education and natural resources as part of the core accounts.

While there has been some movement to develop satellite accounts for these categories, the scale of their contribution to the asset base of an economy makes it imperative that they be an integral part of core accounts. They can no longer be treated as externalities.

Developing inclusive wealth accounts is complex and challenging, involving some strong assumptions and projections of the future flows of existing asset bases for our offspring and theirs. Despite this degree of uncertainty, initial reactions from national statisticians have been positive.

The former prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, a prominent economist, established a high level panel under his national statistics office and the intellectual leadership of Cambridge economist Sir Partha Dasgupta to explore the development of inclusive wealth accounts.

The initial report was a innovative and intellectually robust national document identifying possible actions over the short, medium and long terms.

If a country such as India with its myriad challenges can acknowledge such a need, every country can embrace the challenge and start to revise its system of national accounts.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Changes to World Bank Safeguards Risk “Race to the Bottom”, U.N. Experts Warnhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/changes-to-world-bank-safeguards-risk-race-to-the-bottom-u-n-experts-warn/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=changes-to-world-bank-safeguards-risk-race-to-the-bottom-u-n-experts-warn http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/changes-to-world-bank-safeguards-risk-race-to-the-bottom-u-n-experts-warn/#comments Fri, 19 Dec 2014 01:11:37 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138341 By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Dec 19 2014 (IPS)

An unprecedented number of United Nations special rapporteurs and independent experts are raising pointed concerns over the World Bank’s ongoing review of its pioneering environmental and social safeguards, particularly around the role that human rights will play in these revamped policies.

In a letter made public Tuesday, 28 U.N. experts raise fears that the Washington-based development funder could foster a “race to the bottom” if proposed changes go forward. The document accuses the bank of selective interpretation of its own charter and its obligations under international law.“The bank is not just any old actor in relation to these issues. It is the gorilla in the room.” -- U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston

“[B]y contemporary standards the [safeguards revision] seems to go out of its way to avoid any meaningful references to human rights and international human rights law, except for passing references,” the letter, addressed to World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim, states.

“[T]he Bank’s proposed new Safeguards seem to view human rights in largely negative terms, as considerations that, if taken seriously, will only drive up the cost of lending rather than contributing to ensuring a positive outcome.”

The World Bank says its safeguards constitute a “cornerstone of its support to sustainable poverty reduction”, and the institution is currently updating these policies for the first time in two decades. Yet when the bank released a draft revision of those changes in July, the proposal set off a firestorm of criticism across civil society.

Critics warn that the revisions would allow the World Bank to shift responsibility for adherence to certain social and environmental policies on to loan recipients, while prioritising self-monitoring over up-front requirements. The new guidelines could also exempt recipient governments from abiding by certain aspects of the policies.

The bank has since extended the period intended to gather response to the draft, which was supposed to end this month, through this coming spring.

“The bank is not just any old actor in relation to these issues. It is the gorilla in the room,” Philip Alston, the U.N. Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told IPS. “What it does on safeguards, and what it doesn’t do on human rights, makes a huge difference in terms of setting global standards.”

The letter, which Alston spearheaded, is a rarity in multiple ways. Not only are formal missives from the U.N. human rights system to the World Bank uncommon, but close observers say that no such previous letter has garnered the support of so many U.N. rights experts.

Those who signed the letter “are deeply concerned that the bank is planning to turn the clock back 20 years or more,” Alston says, “and replace its existing standards with a system that will simply pass the blame for ignoring human rights considerations on to others, thus letting the bank off the hook.”

Competitive pressures

Since the 1970s, the World Bank has been a pioneer in working to ensure that its development assistance does not lead to or exacerbate certain forms of discrimination or environmental degradation.

Yet the institution has never mandated that the programmes it funds comply with international human rights standards, largely on the concern that politicising the bank’s lending could complicate its country-by-country anti-poverty focus. (Others, including Alston, maintain that human rights can no longer be considered a political issue.)

Consensus is growing, however, around the idea that sustainable development is impossible without a specific focus on human rights. Other multilateral institutions, including the U.N. Development Programme, have explicitly brought their assistance guidelines in line with international human rights obligations.

At the same time, the World Bank is experiencing greater competitive pressure. According to many analysts, including this week’s letter, this is due to the recent creation of several new multilateral development lenders, funded particularly by fast-rising economies including China, Russia and India.

These entities are widely expected to put less emphasis on prescriptive and at times laborious requirements such as the World Bank’s environmental and social safeguards. In such a context, however, Alston and others say the bank has an added responsibility to focus on the results that, they suggest, only core respect for human rights can bring.

The bank’s management counters that the institution has been a leader in highlighting the interdependence between respect for human rights and development outcomes for at least two decades. Today, officials involved with the safeguard review maintain that both human rights and non-discrimination principles have been expanded upon in the new draft.

“Our draft proposal goes as far or further than any other multilateral development bank in the degree to which it protects the vulnerable and the marginalized,” Stefan Koeberle, the bank’s director of operations risk, told IPS in a statement.

“We are currently engaged in extensive consultations on the draft, and we have received a variety of constructive proposals to strengthen the language further. We will continue to carry out our role as an organization charged with achieving poverty reduction and shared prosperity, through sound policies that achieve beneficial environmental, social, and economic outcomes for all concerned.”

U.S. leadership?

The concerns voiced by the U.N. experts come just after three U.S. lawmakers told the Obama administration that the World Bank’s safeguards revision were resulting in a “dilution of existing protections”.

In a letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, the lawmakers note that a November evaluation by an Asian Development Bank (ADB) auditor had “foreshadowed” some of these concerns. The trio urged U.S. intervention.

“The Department of Treasury has a history of successfully leading coalitions that call upon regional and national development banks to implement strong safeguards,” the letter states.

“We expect the Treasury to demonstrate similar leadership in this case, so that the World Bank’s safeguards are at least as strong as the strongest safeguards of the ADB and other multilateral financial institutions.”

The United States is the World Bank’s largest member, and watchdog groups say the new flurry of formal critical response is significant.

“U.N. human rights experts and the U.S. Congress have joined the chorus of voices trying to shake the World Bank into finally recognising that human rights should be central to all that it does, and particularly in safeguarding against harm,” Jessica Evans, a senior advocate with Human Rights Watch, told IPS.

If the bank refuses to institutionalise “rigorous human rights due diligence,” Evans continues, “the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the World Bank wants to retain an ability to finance violations of international human rights law while complying with its own policies.”

Bank officials say the next draft of the safeguards revision should be made public by mid-2015.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Cuba’s Reforms Fail to Reduce Growing Inequalityhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/cubas-reforms-fail-to-reduce-growing-inequality/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=cubas-reforms-fail-to-reduce-growing-inequality http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/cubas-reforms-fail-to-reduce-growing-inequality/#comments Tue, 16 Dec 2014 22:21:58 +0000 Patricia Grogg http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138300 Mercado Amistad, one of the shops that only accept hard currency, officially called “foreign currency recovery stores”, in central Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Mercado Amistad, one of the shops that only accept hard currency, officially called “foreign currency recovery stores”, in central Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Dec 16 2014 (IPS)

One of the major challenges assumed by President Raúl Castro when he launched a series of reforms in Cuba is improving living standards in a country still suffering from a recession that began over 20 years ago and has undermined the aim of achieving economic and social equality.

Inequality has been growing since the start of the crisis triggered by the break-up of the Soviet Union and East European socialist bloc – Cuba’s main trade and aid partners – in the early 1990s. The “special period” – the euphemistic term used to refer to the lengthy recession – “has even morally affected the concept of inequality,” economist Esteban Morales told IPS.

To ease the recession in the 1990s, the government of Fidel Castro (1959-2008) opened the doors to foreign investment, fomented tourism, legalised the dollar, and created the “foreign currency recovery stores”, among other measures whose economic benefits also came accompanied by greater social inequality.: “What is annoying is that people with less education and fewer responsibilities earn more than a professional. When I started studying in the 1980s that’s not how things were. People’s salaries stretched much farther.” -- Cuban schoolteacher

However, María Caridad González appreciates the sense of equality that still exists in Cuban society, which she says has made social inclusion possible for her 10-year-old son, who knows that “to do well in life he just has to study and become a professional.”

Since the 1959 revolution, free universal healthcare coverage and education have been important tools for achieving social equality in Cuba.

González, who comes from a family of small farmers, moved to Havana in the mid-1990s. “It was hard at first. There were shortages of everything, but I stayed anyway and got married here. Now there are a lot of stores and farmers’ markets, and what is lacking is money to buy things,” said the 36-year-old, who works in the cleaning service at a company that is partly foreign owned.

Other people are worse off than González, who manages to add to her monthly income working as a domestic in the homes of families she knows, which brings her another 80 CUC – the Cuban peso convertible to dollars – or 1,920 pesos.

That is more than four times the average public sector salary of 470 pesos (19 dollars) a month. “Thanks to my income we survived the months when my husband, who is a cook in the tourism industry, was out of work,” said González.

She is in a much better position than her neighbor, a 55-year-old primary schoolteacher who earns 750 pesos a month and has no source of dollars or other foreign currency – a mainstay for many Cuban families, who receive remittances from relatives abroad or who work in tourism, where they earn tips.

The teacher, who is married and has two adult children aged 20 and 25, told IPS: “What is annoying is that people with less education and fewer responsibilities earn more than a professional. When I started studying in the 1980s that’s not how things were. People’s salaries stretched much farther.”

The inequality gap has widened as the differences in incomes have grown.

Those who only earn a public salary – the state is still by far the biggest employer, despite a reduction in the public payroll as part of the reforms – or who depend on a pension or are on social assistance find it impossible to meet their basic needs. According to statistics from the Centre for Studies of the Cuban Economy, food absorbs between 59 and 75 percent of the family budget in Cuba.

A farmers’ market on Vapor street in Old Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A farmers’ market on Vapor street in Old Havana. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

However, Cuba’s free universal healthcare and education, social security system, and social assistance for the poor have been preserved in spite of the country’s economic troubles, and were key to Cuba’s ranking in 44th place on the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI) this year.

The HDI is a composite index that measures average achievement in three basic dimensions of human development: long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living.

The schoolteacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said “I understand and appreciate that, but it is no less true that the differences in income differentiate us when it comes to putting food on the table or buying clothes.”

Morales agrees with the government’s aim of “equal rights and opportunities” rather than egalitarianism. In his view, the distribution of income based on work is still unequal. “It would be ethical if people received in accordance with what they contributed, and those who needed assistance would receive it through social spending, to balance out the inequalities,” he argued.

The academic defends the idea of subsidising specific people rather than products, which is still being done through the ration card system that distributes a certain quantity of foodstuffs at prices subsidised by the state, to all citizens, regardless of their income.

The system covered the basic dietary needs of families until the 1980s. But that is no longer the case, and Cubans now have to complete their diet with products sold in the hard currency stores and the farmers’ markets, where one pound (450 grams) of pork can cost 40 pesos (1.60 dollars) – the same price fetched by a pound of onions at certain times of the year.

In its 2014-2020 pastoral plan, the Catholic Church complains that broad swathes of society are plagued by “material poverty, the result of wages that are too low to provide a family with decent living standards.”

That situation, it says, impacts semi-skilled workers as well as professionals.

After acknowledging that the expansion of opportunities for self-employment and for setting up cooperatives in non-agricultural sectors of the economy has opened up opportunities for some, the church warns that the current economic reforms “have failed to reactivate the economy in such a way that it benefits the entire population.”

Not all segments of society are in equal conditions to take advantage of the changes that have been ushered in. Researchers like Morales or Mayra Espina say women, people who are not white, and young people are at a disadvantage, whether due to a lack of formal training and education, or of assets and resources for starting up their own businesses.

According to the last official statistics on poverty published in Cuba, from 2004, 20 percent of the urban population was poor. In this Caribbean island nation, 76 percent of the population of 11.2 million lives in towns and cities. Experts worry that the proportion today is even higher, and they say decision-makers need to know the exact percentage in order to properly tailor social policies to the actual situation.

But Espina and other academics say the reforms approved in April 2011 do not put a high enough priority on social aspects, ignore the questions of poverty and inequality, and contain weak measures for guaranteeing equality.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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‘Record’ Illicit Money Lost by Developing Countries Triples in a Decadehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/record-illicit-money-lost-by-developing-countries-triples-in-a-decade/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=record-illicit-money-lost-by-developing-countries-triples-in-a-decade http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/record-illicit-money-lost-by-developing-countries-triples-in-a-decade/#comments Tue, 16 Dec 2014 21:46:25 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138297 There is a broad spectrum of potential avenues for the illegal skimming from or shifting of profits in developing countries, carried out by criminal entities, corrupt officials and dishonest corporations.  Credit: epSos .de/cc by 2.0

There is a broad spectrum of potential avenues for the illegal skimming from or shifting of profits in developing countries, carried out by criminal entities, corrupt officials and dishonest corporations. Credit: epSos .de/cc by 2.0

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Dec 16 2014 (IPS)

Developing countries are losing money through illicit channels at twice the rate at which their economies are growing, according to new estimates released Tuesday. Further, the total volume of these lost funds appears to be rapidly expanding.

Findings from Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a watchdog group based here, re-confirm previous estimates that developing countries are losing almost a trillion dollars a year through tax evasion, corruption and other financial crimes. Yet in a new report covering the decade through 2012, GFI’s researchers show that the rate at which these illicit outflows are taking place has risen significantly.“If we take [these] findings seriously, we can address extreme poverty in our lifetimes.” -- Eric LeCompte

In 2003, for instance, cumulative illicit capital leaving developing countries was pegged at around 297 billion dollars. That’s significant, of course, but relatively little compared to the more than 991 billion now estimated for 2012 – a record figure, thus far.

In less than a decade, then, these illicit outflows more than tripled in size, totalling at least 6.6 billion dollars. GFI reports that this works out to an adjusted average growth of some 9.4 percent per year, or twice the average global growth in gross domestic product (GDP).

One of the most common mechanisms for moving this money has been the falsification of trade invoices.

“After turning down following the financial crisis, global trade is going up again and so it’s increasingly easy to engage in misinvoicing – a lot more people are coming to understand how to do this and are willing to indulge,” Raymond Baker, GFI’s president, told IPS.

“These rates are not only growing faster than global GDP but also faster than the rate of growth of global trade.”

Further, these estimates are likely conservative, and don’t cover a broad spectrum of data that is not officially reported – cash-based criminal activities, for instance, or unofficial “hawala” transactions.

Baker emphasises that these capital losses are a problem affecting the entire developing world. Yet given that illicit outflows run in tandem with a country’s broader interaction with global trade, these rates are particularly strong in the world’s emerging economies, led by China, Russia, Mexico and India.

There are also significant differentials between regions, both is size and the rate at which they’re increasing. In the Middle East and North Africa, for instance, illicit financial flows are growing far higher than the global average, at more than 24 percent per year.

Even in sub-Saharan Africa, home to some of the world’s poorest communities, these rates are growing at more than 13 percent per year. Such figures eclipse both foreign assistance and foreign investment – indeed, the 2012 figure was more than 11 times the total development assistance offered on a global basis.

“If we take [these] findings seriously, we can address extreme poverty in our lifetimes,” Eric LeCompte, an expert to U.N. groups that focus on these issues, said Monday. “Countries need resources and if we curb these illicit practices, we can get the money where it’s needed most.”

Lucrative misinvoicing

There is a broad spectrum of potential avenues for the illegal skimming from or shifting of profits in developing countries, carried out by criminal entities, corrupt officials and dishonest corporations. And for the first time, certain of these key issues are receiving new and concerted international attention.

Multiple nascent multinational actions are now unfolding aimed at cracking down particularly on tax evasion by transnational companies. New transparency mechanisms are in the process of being rolled by several multilateral groups, including the Group of 20 (G20) industrialized nations and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based grouping of rich countries.

Such initiatives are receiving keen attention from civil society groups, and would likely constrict these illicit flows. Yet in fact, GFI’s research suggests that the overwhelming method by which capital is illegally leaving developing countries is far more mundane and, potentially, complex to tackle.

This has to do with simple trade misinvoicing, in which companies purposefully use incorrect pricing of imports or exports to justify the transfer of funds out of or into a country, thus laundering ill-gotten finances or helping companies to hide profits. Over the past decade, the new GFI report estimates, more than three-quarters of illicit financial flows were facilitated by trade misinvoicing.

And this includes only misinvoicing for goods, not services. Likely the real figure is far higher.

Experts say that stopping misinvoicing completely will be impossible, but note that there are multiple ways to curtail the problem. First would be to ensure greater transparency in the global financial system, to eliminate tax havens and “shell corporations” and to require the automatic exchange of tax information across borders.

Efforts are currently underway to accomplish each of these, to varying degrees. Last month, leaders of the G20 countries agreed to begin automatically sharing tax information by the end of next year, and also committed to assist developing countries to engage in such sharing in the future.

GFI’s Baker says that developing countries need to bolster their customs systems, but notes that other tools are already readily available to push back against trade misinvoicing.

“There is a growing volume of online pricing data available that can be accessed in real time,” he says. “This gives developing countries the ability to look at transactions coming in and going out and to get an immediate idea as to whether the pricing accords with international norms. And if not, they can quickly question the transaction.”

Development goal

There is today broad recognition of the monumental impact that illicit financial flows have on poor countries’ ability to fund their own development. Given the centrality of trade misinvoicing in this problem, there are also increasing calls for multilateral action to take direct aim at the issue.

In particular, some development scholars and anti-poverty campaigners are urging that a related goal be included in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), currently under negotiation at the United Nations and planned to be unveiled in mid-2015.

Under this framework, GFI is calling for the international community to agree to halve trade-related illicit flows within a decade and a half. The OECD is hosting a two-day conference this week to discuss the issue.

“We’re not talking about an aspirational goal but rather a very measurable goal. That’s doable, but it will take political will,” Baker says.

“We think the SDGs should incorporate very specific, targetable goals that can have huge impact on development and helping developing countries keep their own money. In our view, that’s the most important objective.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Latin America Faces the Novelty and Challenge of Ageinghttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/latin-america-faces-the-novelty-and-challenge-of-ageing/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=latin-america-faces-the-novelty-and-challenge-of-ageing http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/latin-america-faces-the-novelty-and-challenge-of-ageing/#comments Tue, 09 Dec 2014 21:58:54 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138179 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/latin-america-faces-the-novelty-and-challenge-of-ageing/feed/ 0 Only Half of Global Banks Have Policy to Respect Human Rightshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/only-half-of-global-banks-have-policy-to-respect-human-rights/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=only-half-of-global-banks-have-policy-to-respect-human-rights http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/only-half-of-global-banks-have-policy-to-respect-human-rights/#comments Tue, 09 Dec 2014 01:07:33 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138161 Children from one of the communities in Ocean Division, southern Cameroon, who lost much of their forestland after the government leased it to a logging company. Credit: Monde Kingsley Nfor/IPS

Children from one of the communities in Ocean Division, southern Cameroon, who lost much of their forestland after the government leased it to a logging company. Credit: Monde Kingsley Nfor/IPS

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Dec 9 2014 (IPS)

Just half of major global banks have in place a public policy to respect human rights, according to new research, despite this being a foundational mandate of an international convention on multinational business practice.

Further, of the 32 global banks examined, researchers found that none has publicly put in place a process to deal with human rights abuses, if identified. None has even created grievance mechanisms by which those impacted by potential abuses can complain to the banks.“The findings of this report are quite sobering about what can be expected from self-regulatory principles.” -- Aldo Caliari

The findings, published by BankTrack, an international network of watchdog groups, come three and a half years after the adoption of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These principles, unanimously endorsed by the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2011, specify a range of actions and obligations for all businesses, including the financial sector.

Yet banks have a unique role in underwriting nearly all of the business activity around the globe, even as they are typically shielded from the impacts of those investments.

“Banks covered in this report have been found to finance companies and projects involving forced removals of communities, child labour, military backed land grabs, and abuses of indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination,” the report, released last week, states.

“Policies and processes, open to public scrutiny and backed by adequate reporting, are important tools for banks to ensure that these kinds of abuses do not happen, and that where they do, those whose rights have been impacted have the right to effective remedy … If these policies and procedures are to be meaningful, the finance for such ‘dodgy deals’ must eventually dry up.”

One of the banks studied in the new report, JPMorgan Chase, is one of the leading U.S. financiers of palm oil, through loans and equity investments. While the bank does have a human rights policy, BankTrack’s researchers find this policy applies only to loans, not investments.

“When it comes to reporting on implementation, the bank falls flat, making the policy little more than window-dressing,” Jeff Conant, an international forests campaigner with Friends of the Earth U.S., a watchdog group that is working on palm-oil financing, told IPS.

“We’ve spoken with JPMorgan Chase about the need to give impacted people an opportunity to file complaints about the human rights impacts of its financing, with the belief that this is a first step towards accountability. Frankly, from the bank’s response, I don’t see them stepping up anytime soon.”

While private finance today facilitates almost the full range of corporate activity, Conant notes, “the finance institutions themselves are wholly unaccountable.”

Sobering results

According to the new study, a few banks appear to be well on their way to conformity with the Guiding Principles. The top-ranked institution, the Dutch Rabobank, received a score of eight out of 12, with Credit Suisse and UBS close behind.

These are the exceptions, however. Against a set of 12 criteria, the average score was only a three.

Many scored at or near zero. While those ranked at the very bottom include several Chinese institutions, they also include banks in the European Union and the United States.

Indeed, Bank of America, one of the largest financial institutions in the world, scored just 0.5 out of 12, receiving a minor bump for having expressed some commitment to carrying out human rights-related due diligence. (The bank failed to respond to request for comment for this story by deadline.)

“The findings of this report are quite sobering about what can be expected from self-regulatory principles,” Aldo Caliari, the director of the Rethinking Bretton Woods Project at the Center of Concern, a Washington think tank, told IPS.

“The Guiding Principles are the bare minimum of any human rights framework in the corporate sector, a framework that has the companies’ consent. So the fact that there is so little [adherence to] such a relatively weak tool, where every effort to court corporations’ support has been made, is, indeed, very telling.”

Despite the spectrum of findings on implementation, the financial services industry as a whole has taken note of the Guiding Principles.

In 2011, four European banks met to discuss the principles’ potential implications for the sector. Three more banks eventually joined what is now called the Thun Group, and in October 2013 the grouping released an initial paper on the results of these discussions, including recommendations for compliance.

A previously existing set of voluntary guidelines for the banking sector, known as the Equator Principles, were also updated in 2013 to reflect the new existence of the Guiding Principles. So far, the Equator Principles have been signed by 80 financial institutions in 34 countries.

“To date, banks’ efforts to implement the UN Guiding Principles have mainly revolved around producing discussion papers on the best way forward,” Ryan Brightwell, the new report’s author, said in a statement.

“BankTrack has welcomed these discussions, but some three and a half years on from the launch of these Principles, it is time to move onto implementation.”

Strengthening accountability

The new findings on lagging implementation will strengthen arguments from those who want to tweak or supplant the Guiding Principles. Some suggest, for instance, that the framework be changed to treat financial institutions differently from other sectors.

“[T]he financial sector requires an exceptional treatment when it comes to the application of the Guiding Principles,” the Center of Concern’s Caliari wrote last year in comments for the Working Group on Business and Human Rights.

“Financial companies, more than other companies, have the potential, with their change of behaviour, to influence the behaviour of other actors. That means they also should be upheld to a greater level of responsibility when they fail to do so.”

Caliari and others are also part of a movement to move beyond voluntary frameworks such as the Guiding Principles (at least in their current form), and instead to see through the creation of a binding mechanism.

This decades-long effort received a significant boost in June, when the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to allow negotiations to begin toward a binding treaty around transnational companies and their human rights obligations. (This same session also approved a popular second resolution, aimed instead at strengthening implementation of the Guiding Principles process.)

The new data on banks’ relative lack of compliance with the Guiding Principles, Caliari says, is one of the reasons the call for a legally binding treaty “has been gaining ground.”

He continues: “It is increasingly clear that mechanisms that rely on the consent of the companies cannot be the total of available accountability mechanisms. More is needed.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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OPINION: Women Must Be Partners and Drivers of Climate Change Decision-Makinghttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/opinion-women-must-be-partners-and-drivers-of-climate-change-decision-making/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-women-must-be-partners-and-drivers-of-climate-change-decision-making http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/opinion-women-must-be-partners-and-drivers-of-climate-change-decision-making/#comments Mon, 08 Dec 2014 23:03:07 +0000 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138154 Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Photo Courtesy of UN Women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Photo Courtesy of UN Women

By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
UNITED NATIONS, Dec 8 2014 (IPS)

As leaders from around the world gather in Lima, Peru this week to discuss global cooperation in addressing climate change, a woman in Guatemala will struggle to feed her family from a farm plot that produces less each season.

A mother in Ethiopia will make the difficult choice to take her daughter out of school to help in the task of gathering water, which requires more and more time with each passing year.Women have proven skills in managing natural resources sustainably and adapting to climate change, and are crucial partners in protecting fragile ecosystems and communities that are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

A pregnant woman in Bangladesh will worry about what will happen to her and her children if the floods come when it is her time to deliver.

These women, and millions of women around the world, are on the front lines of climate change. The impacts of shifting temperatures, erratic rainfall, and extreme weather events touch their lives in direct and profound ways.

For many, these impacts are felt so strongly because of gender roles – women are responsible for gathering water, food and fuel for the household. And for too many, a lack of access to information and decision-making exacerbates their vulnerability in the face of climate change.

Our leaders in Lima this week will meet to lay the critical foundations for a new global agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

They seek to resolve important questions about collective action to reduce carbon emissions that cause climate change, to build resilience in communities to the climate change impacts we can’t avoid, and to provide the finance needed for climate-smart development around the world. It is critical that in all of these efforts, our leaders recognise the importance of ensuring that climate change solutions are gender-responsive.

What does it mean for climate change solutions to be gender-responsive? It means, for example, that in formulating strategies for renewable energy women are engaged in all stages and that these strategies take into consideration how women access and use fuel and electricity in their homes.

It means that vulnerability assessments and emergency response plans take into account women’s lives and capabilities. And critically, it means women are included at decision-making tables internationally, nationally, and locally when strategies and action plans are developed.

Going beyond the acknowledgment that men and women are impacted differently by climate change and thus, the need for climate policies and actions to be gender-responsive, we must also examine and support pathways to greater empowerment for women.

When women are empowered, their families, communities, and nations benefit. Responding to climate change offers opportunities to enhance pathways to empowerment. This requires addressing the underlying root causes such as gender stereotypes and social norms that perpetuate and compound inequality and discrimination.

Examples abound and these include removing restrictions to women’s mobility, providing full access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, ensuring access to education and employment opportunities as well as access to economic resources, such as land and financial services.

Enhancing women’s agency is key to a human rights-based and equitable climate change agenda. In September during the U.N. Secretary General’s Climate Summit in New York, UN Women and the Mary Robinson Foundation–Climate Justice brought together more than 130 women leaders for a forum on “Women Leading the Way: Raising Ambition for Climate Action.”

We heard remarkable stories of women’s leadership in addressing all aspects of the climate crisis.

Women have proven skills in managing natural resources sustainably and adapting to climate change, and are crucial partners in protecting fragile ecosystems and communities that are increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Women leaders mobilise communities, promote green investments, and develop energy efficient technologies. Indeed, if we are serious about tackling climate change, our leaders in Lima this week must ensure that women are equal partners and drivers of climate change decision-making.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Chilean Activists Change the Rules of the Gamehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/chilean-activists-change-the-rules-of-the-game/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=chilean-activists-change-the-rules-of-the-game http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/chilean-activists-change-the-rules-of-the-game/#comments Sat, 06 Dec 2014 16:07:36 +0000 Sebastian Rosemont http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138137 Michele Bachelet (left) and student leader Camilla Vallejo. Credit: Wikipedia

Michele Bachelet (left) and student leader Camilla Vallejo. Credit: Wikipedia

By Sebastian Rosemont
SANTIAGO, Dec 6 2014 (IPS)

In 2011, students in Chile made headlines when they launched a nationwide strike lasting almost eight months.

The trigger was high tuition costs that drove students and their families into debt. There were coordinated marches in all major cities. At some universities students took over buildings. The marches took on almost a carnival atmosphere with students engaging in “kiss-ins” and pillow fights.More than two thirds of the population supported the student movement and its demands for education reform. The students consistently rejected the government’s attempts to appease the protesters as grossly insufficient.

Before long, the marches became multifaceted. Opponents of the massive HidroAysén dam project in Patagonia joined in. Students and trade unions joined forces when workers staged strikes and marched in Santiago and other major cities.

Tasha Fairfield, an assistant professor for the London School of Economics’ Department of International Development, said the strikes were pivotal. “The student movement played a critical role in creating political space,” Fairfield said. It “dramatically changed the political context in Chile and helped to place the issues of Chile’s extreme inequalities centrally on the national agenda.”

Although most of the demonstrations were peaceful, some protestors wanted more direct confrontation with the police. Masked protesters armed with stones clashed with police forces equipped with riot gear, tear gas, and armoured vehicles with water cannons. The harshness of the government crackdown drew international criticism.

More than two thirds of the population supported the student movement and its demands for education reform. The students consistently rejected the government’s attempts to appease the protesters as grossly insufficient. Their goal was free university tuition.

President Sebastian Piñera, the first conservative president since the 1988 plebiscite that ended General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, saw his ratings plummet to the lowest of any leader in the post-authoritarian era. Ordinary Chileans had made clear that they wanted to see changes in their society.

This set the stage for Michelle Bachelet to run for election in 2013. She was previously president from 2006-2010, but Chile’s laws prevented her from running for a second consecutive term.

This time around, her platform was much more radical. Bachelet pledged to reform the tax system and, with the increased revenue, reform the education system. She won the election and immediately took the first step. She raised the corporate tax rate and closed significant loopholes.

The 2013 elections

Bachelet was backed by the Nueva Mayoria (New Majority), a center-left coalition made up of her own Socialist Party, the Christian Democratic Party, and the Party for Democracy, among others. After falling just short of an absolute majority in the first round of elections, Bachelet won handily in the runoff, taking home over 62 percent of the vote.

The elections remade the legislature. Isabel Allende (from the Socialist Party), daughter of Salvador Allende, became the first woman president of the senate. Several student leaders, including Camila Vallejo (of the Communist Party) and Gabriel Boric (an Independent), launched political careers by winning their bids to join the Chamber of Deputies. The left was swept into power by a wave of public support and gained strong majorities in both houses of the National Congress.

Bachelet had been given a clear mandate. The government put together a package that would raise corporate income taxes from 20 percent to at least 25 percent and close tax loopholes for companies and wealthy business owners. The changes promised to bring in an estimated 8.3 billion dollars each year.

The government pledged to put half of these funds toward providing free education for all Chileans by the year 2020 and to roll back the for-profit schools that emerged during Pinochet’s dictatorship. The remainder would be used to improve the health care system and other social programs.

The bill easily passed through the Chamber of Deputies. When it moved over to the senate it ultimately secured a 33-1 victory, although some changes were made to placate some of the more moderate and conservative doubters of the reform.

“The government negotiated various compromises on the bill in the Senate in order to secure votes from the Christian Democrats,” Fairfield said.

On Sep. 28, Bachelet signed the bill into law.

Debate over tax reform

In a key tactical move, the corporate tax hikes touched only the largest firms. An estimated 95.5 percent of businesses will not face higher taxes. This expanded the measure’s base of support and somewhat insulated the reformers against the charge that the bill was anti-business.

Beyond raising the corporate tax rate, the reform targets the profits of large businesses and their owners in other ways. The law eliminates the FUT (Taxable Profit Fund), a provision that allowed businesses to set profits aside without paying taxes on them— funds that at last count held 270 billion dollars.

The reform also addresses the owners of these businesses. In years past, wealthy business owners enjoyed incentives to avoid withdrawing all of their income from the company’s profits so that they would pay the more favourable corporate tax rate of 17-20 percent compared to nearly 40 percent, the highest personal income tax bracket.

However, the owners would then find ways for the profits to make their way back into their own pockets, either legally or illegally. The tax reform therefore opened up a new range of taxable income, money previously out of the government’s reach.

There is some concern that the tax reform will drag down the already faltering Chilean economy. Opposition groups claim the new rules will hurt future investments, and this seems to resonate with the public — Bachelet’s approval rating has dipped below 50 percent.

However, Justice Minister José Antonio Gómez insists that on the contrary, with more than 50 percent of the 8.3 billion dollars going toward implementing free, quality education, it will in turn result in increased productivity.

Even if productivity fails to rise immediately, the political support of thousands of households with college students who see their tuition bills cut in half or more is likely to create a broad constituency to keep core elements of the tax and spending package in place.

It is unlikely that any significant changes will be made affecting the new law before the next presidential election in 2018 because senators are elected for eight-year terms and deputies serve four years (half the Senate and the entire Chamber of Deputies are selected every presidential election). This allows time for the law to be fully integrated into the system without being derailed by detractors focusing on immediate concerns.

Although many of the protests of 2011 — the year of Occupy Wall Street — have faded, Chilean students and workers managed to win many of their demands. This experience offers important lessons for popular movements struggling for similar goals around the world. By focusing on tangible demands, making broad partnerships, and linking to the larger platform of economic inequality, Chilean protesters changed the rules of the game.

Edited by Kitty Stapp. This story originally appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.

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Climate Finance Flowing, But for Many, the Well Remains Dryhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/climate-finance-flowing-but-for-many-the-well-remains-dry/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=climate-finance-flowing-but-for-many-the-well-remains-dry http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/climate-finance-flowing-but-for-many-the-well-remains-dry/#comments Thu, 04 Dec 2014 13:25:29 +0000 Desmond Brown http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138082 Communities like this one in Grenada, which depend on the sea for their survival, stand to suffer the most with the loss of the fishing industry due to climate change. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Communities like this one in Grenada, which depend on the sea for their survival, stand to suffer the most with the loss of the fishing industry due to climate change. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
LIMA, Dec 4 2014 (IPS)

For more than 10 years, Mildred Crawford has been “a voice in the wilderness” crying out on behalf of rural women in agriculture.

Crawford, 50, who grew up in the small Jamaican community of Brown’s Hall in St. Catherine parish, was “filled with enthusiasm” when she received an invitation from the World Farmers’ Organisation (WFO) to be part of a civil society contingent to the 20th session of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP20), where her voice could be heard on a much bigger stage."Many countries are actually putting their own money into adaptation because they don’t have any other option, because they can’t wait for a 2015 agreement or they can’t wait for international climate finance flows to get to them." -- UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres

But mere days after arriving here for her first-ever COP, Crawford’s exhilaration has turned to disappointment.

“I am weary, because even in the side events I don’t see much government representatives coming to hear the voice of civil society,” she told IPS.

“If they are not here to hear what we have to say, there is very little impact that will be created. Already there is a gap between policy and implementation which is very serious because we talk the talk, we don’t walk the talk.”

Crawford said women farmers often do not get the attention or recognition they deserve, pointing to the important role they play in feeding their families and the wider population.

“Our women farmers store seeds. In the event that a hurricane comes and resources become scarce, they would share what they have among themselves so that they can have a rebound in agriculture,” she explained.

WFO is an international member-based organisation whose mandate is to bring together farmers’ organisations and agricultural cooperatives from all over the world. It includes approximately 70 members from about 50 countries in the developed and emerging world.

The WFO said its delegation of farmers is intended to be a pilot for scaling up in 2015, when the COP21 will take place in Paris. It also aims to raise awareness of the role of smallholder agriculture in climate adaptation and mitigation and have it recognised in the 2015 UNFCCC negotiations.

The negotiations next year in Paris will aim to reach legally-binding agreements on limits on greenhouse gas emissions that all nations will have to implement.

Mildred Crawford, a farmer from Jamaica, is attending her first international climate summit in Lima. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Mildred Crawford, a farmer from Jamaica, is attending her first international climate summit in Lima. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

Diann Black-Layne speaks for a much wider constituency – Small Island Developing States (SIDS). She said adaptation, finance and loss and damage top the list of issues this group of countries wants to see addressed in the medium term.

“Many of our developing countries have been spending their own money on adaptation,” Black-Layne, who is Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador on climate change, told IPS.

She said SIDS are already “highly indebted” and “this is borrowed money” for their national budgets which they are forced to use “to fund their adaptation programmes and restoration from extreme weather events. So, to then have to borrow more money for mitigation is a difficult sell.”

The executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres agrees that such commitments by developing countries needs to be buttressed with international climate finance flows, in particular for the most vulnerable.

“There is no doubt that adaptation finance needs to increase. That is very clear that that is the urgency among most developing countries, to actually cover their adaptation costs and many countries are actually putting their own money into adaptation because they don’t have any other option, because they can’t wait for a 2015 agreement or they can’t wait for international climate finance flows to get to them (so) they are actually already doing it out of their own pocket,” Figueres said.

Loss and Damage is a facility to compensate countries for extreme weather events. It also provides some level of financing to help countries adjust to the creeping permanent loss caused by climate change.

“At this COP we are focusing on financial issues for loss and damage,” Black-Layne said. “In our region, that would include things like the loss of the conch industry and the loss of the fishing industry. Even if we limit it to a two-degree warming, we would lose those two industries so we are now negotiating a mechanism to assist countries to adapt.”

In the CARICOM region, the local population is highly dependent on fish for economic and social development. This resource also contributes significantly to food security, poverty alleviation, employment, foreign exchange earnings, development and stability of rural and coastal communities, culture, recreation and tourism.

The subsector provides direct employment for more than 120,000 fishers and indirect employment opportunities for thousands of others – particularly women – in processing, marketing, boat-building, net-making and other support services.

In 2012, the conch industry in just one Caribbean Community country, Belize, was valued at 10 million dollars.

A landmark assessment presented Wednesday to governments meeting here at the U.N. climate summit said hundreds of billions of dollars of climate finance may now be flowing across the globe.

The assessment – which includes a summary and recommendations by the UNFCCC Standing Committee on Finance and a technical report by experts – is the first of a series of assessment reports that put together information and data on financial flows supporting emission reductions and adaptation within countries and via international support.

The assessment puts the lower range of global climate finance flows at 340 billion dollars a year for the period 2011-2012, with the upper end at 650 billion dollars, and possibly higher.

“It does seem that climate finance is flowing, not exclusively but with a priority toward the most vulnerable,” Figueres said.

“That is a very, very important part of this report because it is as exactly as it should be. It should be the most vulnerable populations, the most vulnerable countries, and the most vulnerable populations within countries that actually receive climate finance with priority.”

The assessment notes that the exact amounts of global totals could be higher due to the complexity of defining climate finance, the myriad of ways in which governments and organisations channel funding, and data gaps and limitations – particularly for adaptation and energy efficiency.

In addition, the assessment attributes different levels of confidence to different sub-flows, with data on global total climate flows being relatively uncertain, in part due to the fact that most data reflect finance commitments rather than disbursements, and the associated definitional issues.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at destinydlb@gmail.com

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Illegal Logging Wreaking Havoc on Impoverished Rural Communitieshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/illegal-logging-wreaking-havoc-on-impoverished-rural-communities/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=illegal-logging-wreaking-havoc-on-impoverished-rural-communities http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/12/illegal-logging-wreaking-havoc-on-impoverished-rural-communities/#comments Mon, 01 Dec 2014 08:37:00 +0000 Catherine Wilson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=138026 Customary landowners in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, both rainforest nations in the Southwest Pacific Islands, are suffering the environmental and social impacts of illegal logging. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Customary landowners in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, both rainforest nations in the Southwest Pacific Islands, are suffering the environmental and social impacts of illegal logging. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Dec 1 2014 (IPS)

Rampant unsustainable logging in the southwest Pacific Island states of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, where the majority of land is covered in tropical rainforest, is worsening hardship, human insecurity and conflict in rural communities.

Paul Pavol, a customary landowner in Pomio District, East New Britain, an island province off the northeast coast of the Papua New Guinean mainland, told IPS that logging in the area had led to “permanent environmental damage of the soil and forests, which our communities depend on for their water, building materials, natural medicines and food.”

Four years ago, a Malaysian logging multinational obtained two Special Agricultural Business Leases (SABLs) in the district, but local landowners claim their consent was never given and, following legal action, the National Court issued an order in November for the developer to cease logging operations.

“Within ten years nearly all accessible forests will be logged out and at the root of this problem is endemic and systematic corruption." -- Spokesperson, Act Now PNG
According to Global Witness, the company had cleared 7,000 hectares of forest and exported more than 50 million dollars worth of logs.

“We never gave our free, prior and informed consent to the Special Agricultural Business Leases (SABLs) that now cover our customary land … and we certainly did not give agreement to our land being given away for 99 years to a logging company,” Pavol stated.

One-third of log exports from PNG originated from land subject to SABLs in 2012, according to the PNG Institute of National Affairs, despite the stated purpose of these leases being to facilitate agricultural projects of benefit to local communities.

Pavol also cited human rights abuses with “the use of police riot squads to protect the logging company and intimidate and terrorize our communities.”

Last year an independent fact-finding mission to Pomio led by the non-governmental organisation, Eco-Forestry Forum, in association with police and government stakeholders, verified that police personnel, who had been hired by logging companies to suppress local opposition to their activities, had conducted violent raids and serious assaults on villagers.

Papua New Guinea, situated on the island of New Guinea, home to the world’s third largest tropical rainforest, has a forest cover of an estimated 29 million hectares, but is also the second largest exporter of tropical timber.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicts that 83 percent of the country’s commercially viable forests will be lost or degraded by 2021 due to commercial logging, mining and land clearance for oil palm plantations.

Papua New Guinea recently pledged to bring forward plans to end deforestation by a decade at the Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit held in Sydney, Australia, but indigenous activists remain unconvinced.

“Within ten years nearly all accessible forests will be logged out and at the root of this problem is endemic and systematic corruption,” a spokesperson for the non-governmental organisation, Act Now PNG, said.

“We do not have tough penalties for law breakers and our laws are not enforced,” Pavol added, a view supported by London’s Chatham House.

Environmental devastation and logging-related violence is increasing adversity in Pomio, one of the least developed districts in East New Britain, where there is a lack of health services, decent roads, water and sanitation. Life expectancy is 45-50 years and the infant mortality rate of 61 per 1,000 live births is significantly higher than the national rate of 47.

In the neighbouring Solomon Islands, where 2.2 million hectares of forest cover more than 80 percent of the country, the timber-harvesting rate has been nearly four times the sustainable rate of 250,000 cubic metres per year.

While timber has accounted for 60 percent of the country’s export earnings, this is unlikely to continue, given the forecast by the Solomon Islands Forest Management Project that accessible forests will be exhausted by next year.

High demand for raw materials by growing Asian economies is a major driver of legal and illegal logging in both countries, with the industry dominated by Malaysian companies, and China the main export destination.

Unscrupulous practices, including procuring logging permits with bribes and breaching agreed logging concession areas, are extensive. More than 80 percent of the wood-based trade from PNG and Solomon Islands derives from unlawful extraction with illegal log exports from both island states worth 800 million dollars in 2010, reports the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Since 2003, international companies, most involved with logging, have gained access to 5.5 million hectares of forest in PNG, in addition to the 8.5 million hectares already subject to timber extraction, through fraudulent acquisition of SABLs, according to a Commission of Inquiry and study by the California-based Oakland Institute.

The UNODC highlights the collusion between transnational crime networks, logging companies, politicians and public officials.

“In Solomon Islands the links between politicians and foreign logging companies are complex and well-entrenched. We regularly hear stories of politicians using their power to protect loggers, influence police and give tax exemptions to foreign businesses. In return, loggers fund politicians,” a spokesperson for Transparency Solomon Islands said.

Many national forestry offices in developing countries lack the technical and human resources to adequately monitor logging operations and are ill-equipped to deal with organised crime networks that facilitate the extraction and movement of illicit timber. Associated money laundering is also an issue with the Australian Federal Police estimating that 170 million dollars of funds deriving from crime in PNG are laundered through banks and property investment in Australia every year.

But while an Illegal Logging Prohibition Act recently came into force in Australia, making it a criminal offence to import or process illegal timber, no such legislation exists in the main market of China.

Transparency Solomon Islands says that government accountability needs to be strengthened and rural communities educated about their rights, the law and affective action that can be taken at the local level.

Inequality and low human development among the rural poor is further entrenched by the failure of both countries to channel resource revenues into provision of infrastructure, basic services and equitable economic opportunities.

In Papua New Guinea, one of the most unequal nations with a Gini Index of 50.9, poverty increased from 37.5 percent in 1996 to 39.9 percent in 2009, according to the World Bank.

In the Solomon Islands, logging has been the government’s main source of revenue for nearly 20 years, with GDP growth reaching 10 percent in 2011.

But the Pacific Islands Forum reports that “strong resource-led growth is failing to trickle down to the disadvantaged”, with the country ranked 157th out of 187 countries for human development.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Elections Offer Little Solace to Sri Lanka’s Poorhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/elections-offer-little-solace-to-sri-lankas-poor/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=elections-offer-little-solace-to-sri-lankas-poor http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/elections-offer-little-solace-to-sri-lankas-poor/#comments Fri, 28 Nov 2014 08:19:49 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137995 Sri Lanka is gripped by election fever, but the impoverished majority fears that the presidential race will not ease their financial hardships. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Sri Lanka is gripped by election fever, but the impoverished majority fears that the presidential race will not ease their financial hardships. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Nov 28 2014 (IPS)

Priyantha Wakvitta is used to seeing his adopted city, Colombo, transform into a landscape of bright sparkling lights and window dressing towards the end of the year.

This year, he says, he is having a double dose of visual stimulation, with publicity materials for the January Presidential Election competing with Christmas décor at every turn.

Though the presidential race could shape up to be a close one, there is no competition over which event will take Colombo by storm: political propaganda is drowning out the festive mood on every street corner.

“[Politicians] are spending millions just to get their faces all over the city, while I am struggling to keep my family fed and my children in school." -- Priyantha Wakvitta, a 50-year-old bread seller in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo
Four days after the elections were announced on Nov. 21, at least 1,800 cutouts of the incumbent president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had been deployed within the limits of the Colombo Municipality, according to national election monitors with the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE).

Head of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), Rajapaksa has enjoyed massive support around the country for his role in decimating the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, thus bringing an end to nearly three decades of civil war in 2009.

But as the post-war years revealed themselves as a time of hardship of a very different nature – economic rather than political – his popularity has waned.

His main challenger in the presidential race, Maithripala Sirisena, was until recently the general secretary of Rajapaksa’s own political party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Last week Sirisena stepped out of government and into the role of Rajapaksa’s contender as the common opposition candidate.

The election is turning out to be a keen contest; already there have been eight defections from the ruling coalition’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), while the powerful nationalist party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya, once the government’s staunch ally, has declared its opposition to the Rajapaksas.

The poster campaign around the capital city and throughout the country is a bid to win hearts and minds, but the beaming cutouts of politicians have left people like Wakvitta at best annoyed, at worst disgusted.

“They are spending millions just to get their faces all over the city, while I am struggling to keep my family fed and my children in school,” said the 50-year-old father of two, originally from the southern district of Galle, but self employed in the capital for the last decade.

Wakvitta is an enterprising man. He runs his own small bakery in a Colombo suburb and makes a living by distributing bread to households. He used to make a profit of around 30,000 rupees, or roughly 250 dollars, a month. But that figure has been going down steadily over the last year.

He tried to branch out to a small vegetable business earlier this year, but burnt his hands and lost his 100,000-rupee investment, the equivalent of about 700 dollars, no small sum in a country where the average annual income is about 550,000 rupees or 4,100 dollars.

“People don’t have money, they are finding it hard to make ends meet,” Wakvitta said.

Though Sri Lanka has maintained an impressive economic growth rate of 7.5 percent and the Rajapaksa government has a string of high-profile infrastructure projects under its belt, including a new seaport and airport, low-income earners say they are struggling to survive.

The national poverty rate is 6.7 percent but most rural areas report higher figures. In Wakvitta’s native Galle District it is 9.9 percent, in the south-central district of Moneragala it is 20.8 percent and in Rathnapura, capital of the southwestern Sabaragamuwa Province, it is 10.4 percent, according to government data.

The problems the poor face are multi-faceted; while wages have remained static, basic commodities have quietly increased in price. Most significant among them has been the upward trend in the cost of rice, a dietary staple here.

Fueled by an 11-month drought that has caused a loss of almost a third of the planted area, the 2014 rice harvest is expected to be at least 20 percent less than last year’s four million metric tons, and a six-year low.

Rice prices have risen 33 percent according to the World Food Programme (WFP), and vegetable and fish prices have also shown periodic upward movement primarily due to inclement weather.

Token gestures or sound economic policies?

Cognizant of the hardships faced by the Sri Lankan masses, political parties across the spectrum frequently use the election run-up to promise the earth to the average voter – from subsidies to assistance packages – pledging to make life easier for those who form the majority of the electorate.

But Ajith Dissanayake, who is from the southern Galle District and makes a living from paddy cultivation, says that token gestures will not do.

“Election handouts will not work, there needs to be some kind of concerted plan to help the poor,” he told IPS.

In the northern regions of the country, where the population is still trying to shake off the residual nightmare of nearly 30 years of civil war, the situation is even worse.

The conflict ended in May 2009, and since then the government has injected over three billion dollars into the reconstruction effort in the Northern Province, largely for major infrastructure projects.

But the region is mired in abject poverty. The Mullaithivu District, which witnessed the last bloody battles in the protracted conflict between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE over five years ago, is the poorest in the nation, with a poverty ratio of 28.3 percent.

The adjoining Kilinochchi District has a recorded poverty headcount of 12.7 percent.

“It is very difficult, it is like we are fighting another conflict: this time with poverty,” said Thiyagarasa Chandirakumar, a 38-year-old disabled father of two from Oddusuddan, a small village located deep inside Mullaithivu.

He told IPS that despite new electrification programmes, many in his village are still waiting for the supply to light up their homes.

“Most of us don’t have the money to get new connections, we don’t even have money sometimes to take a bus,” explained Chandirakumar, who is confined to a wheelchair due to a wartime injury.

Both Wakvitta and Chandirakumar have simple requests from the candidates standing for the highest office in the country: “Make sure our lives are better off than they were before,” Wakvitta said.

That request, however, is unlikely to be realised any time soon. News of the snap election, coupled with the surprise announcement this past week of a common opposition candidate, has thrown the country into a period of uncertainly, at least in the short term.

Two days after elections were announced, the Colombo Stock Market took a nose-dive, with the All Share Price Index falling by 2.3 percent on Monday, Nov. 24 – the worst slide since August 2013.

Analysts say that investors are likely to hold off for the time being, with long-term policy measures also taking a back seat to what promises to be a fierce contest.

“Investors – whether local or foreign – like certainty,” Anushka Wijesinha, an economist with the national think-tank the Institute for Policy Studies, told IPS.

“Policy and political certainty have been established fairly well over the last few years and any disruption to this would no doubt be viewed negatively by investors. So, the recent political developments will be watched closely,” he added.

Wijesinha also said that elections should be more about long term policies than about handouts aimed at wining votes.

“This calls for a shift from the heavy focus on subsidies, welfare payments, and other generous transfers for rural populations – which may help alleviate poverty in the short term – to improving skills, productivity and access to new economic opportunities, which help raise living standards on a more sustained basis,” he said.

Despite the end of the war ushering in renewed hopes of development, income disparities have stubbornly persisted. According to government data, the country’s richest 20 percent still enjoy close to half of the nation’s income, while the poorest 20 percent only share five percent of national wealth among them.

For those like Wakvitta and Chandirakumar, the future looks bleak, with or without elections. Both know for sure that in the short term nothing much will change for the better.

“Hopefully whoever becomes the next president will take the bold steps needed to help people like me,” Wakvitta said as he sped away on his motorbike, looking for his next customer.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Women on the Edge of Land and Lifehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/women-on-the-edge-of-land-and-life/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=women-on-the-edge-of-land-and-life http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/women-on-the-edge-of-land-and-life/#comments Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:36:05 +0000 Manipadma Jena http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137977 In the Indian Sundarbans, impoverished women band together to fight against hunger, economic insecurity and climate change. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

In the Indian Sundarbans, impoverished women band together to fight against hunger, economic insecurity and climate change. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

By Manipadma Jena
SUNDARBANS, India, Nov 26 2014 (IPS)

November is the cruelest month for landless families in the Indian Sundarbans, the largest single block of tidal mangrove forest in the world lying primarily in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal.

There is little agricultural wage-work to be found, and the village moneylender’s loan remains unpaid, its interest mounting. The paddy harvest is a month away, pushing rice prices to an annual high.

For those like Namita Bera, tasked with procuring 120 kg of rice per month to feed her eight-member family, there is seldom any peace of mind.

“When their very existence is at stake, the island communities are of course adapting in their own ways, but the government of West Bengal needs to do much more." -- Tushar Kanjilal, the 79-year-old pioneer of development in the Sundarbans
That is, until she came together with 12 other women from the poorest households in the Dakshin Shibpur village of the Patharpratima administrative division of West Bengal to insure their families against acute hunger.

Humble women with scant means at their disposal to withstand savage weather changes and national food price fluctuations, they did the only thing that made sense: set up a grain bank under the aegis of their small-savings, self-help group (SHG) known as Mamatamoyi Mahila Dal.

The system is simple: whenever she can afford it, each woman buys 50 kg of low-priced paddy and deposits it into the ‘bank’, explains Chandrani Das of the Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC), the Kolkata-based non-profit that matches the quantity of grain in a given number of community-based banks.

In this way, “At least one-third of the 75-day lean period becomes manageable,” Shyamali Bera, a 35-year-old mother of three, whose husband works as a potato loader at a warehouse in the state’s capital, Kolkata, told IPS.

For impoverished families, the bank represents significant savings of their meagre income. “Earlier, the only spare cash we had on us was about 10 to 25 rupees (0.16  to 0.40 dollars),” she added. “Now we have about 100 rupees (1.6 dollars). We buy pencils and notebooks for our children to take to school.”

The women’s ingenuity has benefited the men as well. Namita’s husband, a migrant worker employed by a local rice mill, borrowed 10,000 rupees (about 160 dollars) from the SHG last winter and the family reaped good returns from investing in vegetables, seeds and chemical fertilisers.

The scheme is putting village moneylenders out of business. Their five-percent monthly interest rates, amounting to debt-traps of some 60 percent annually, cannot compete with the SHG’s two-percent rates.

But their problems do not end there.

Battling climate change

Designated a World Heritage Site for its unique ecosystem and rich biodiversity, the Sundarbans are highly vulnerable to sea-level rise and intense storms.

Half of the region’s mass of 9,630 square km is intersected by an intricate network of interconnecting waterways, which are vulnerable to flooding during periods of heavy rain.

Roughly 52 of the 102 islands that dot this delta are inhabited, comprising a population of some 4.5 million people. Having lost much of their mangrove cover to deforestation, these coastal-dwelling communities are exposed to the vagaries of the sea and tidal rivers, protected only by 3,500 km of earthen embankments.

Most of the islands lie lower than the 3.5-metre average of surrounding rivers.

Using data from India’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the West Bengal government’s latest Human Development Report warns that sea-level rise over the last 70 years has already claimed 220 sq km of forests in the Sundarbans.

Increased frequency and intensity of cyclonic storms due to global warming poses a further, more immediate threat to human lives and livelihood, the report added.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF), analyses of 120 years’ worth of data show a 26-percent rise in the frequency of high-intensity cyclones.

Nearly 90 percent of people here live in mud and thatched-roof homes. Paddy is the primary crop, grown only during monsoon from mid-June to mid-September.

Forests and fisheries, including harvesting of shrimps, provide the only other source of income, but with a population density of 1,100 persons per square km, compared to the national average of 382 per square km, poverty among island households is twice as high as national rates.

The issue of food security coupled with the damage caused by natural disasters presents itself as an enourmous twin challenge to women here who by and large see to the needs of their families.

Resilient as the forests around them, they, however, are not giving up.

Fuel, fodder, food

At low tide, the river Gobadia flows just 100 metres away from the Ramganga village embankment, where members of the Nibedita self-help group gather to talk to IPS.

Typically, landless agricultural labourers who comprise some 50 percent of the Sundarbans’ population live in villages like this one, totaling no more than 7,500 people, because natural resources are close at hand.

Population density is high here.

The members tell IPS that four fairly severe storms from May to December are the norm now. Rain spells continue for a week instead of the earlier two days.

When 100 km-per-hour winds coincide with the two daily high tides, storm surges are likely to breach embankments, cause saline flash floods, devastate both homes and low farmlands, and leave the area water-logged for up to four months.

“The local village government kept promising that it would stone-face the embankment’s river flank and brick-pave the embankment road, which becomes too slippery [during the rains] to cycle or even walk,” group members told IPS.

When these promises failed to materialize, the women took matters into their own hands. Using money from their communal savings, they leased out part of the land along the embankment and planted 960 trees over 40,000 square feet of the sloping property, hoping this would arrest erosion.

“For the nursery they chose 16 varieties that would provide firewood, fodder to their goats, and trees whose flowers and [fruits] are edible,” said Animesh Bera of the local NGO Indraprastha Srijan Welfare Society (ISWS), which guides this particular SHG.

Nothing is wasted. All the forestry by-products find their way into the community’s skilful hands. The mature trees fetch money in auctions.

Coaxing nutrition from unyielding soil

A 2013 DRCSC baseline survey found that three-quarters of households in Patharpratima block live below the poverty line. Financial indebtedness is widespread. Fragmentation of landholdings through generations has left many families with only homesteads of approximately 0.09 hectares apiece.

Maximizing land is the only option.

In Indraprastha village, women are growing organic food on their tiny 70-square-foot plots, adapting to local soil, water and climate challenges by planting an array of seasonal vegetables, from leafy greens and beans, to tubers and bananas.

These miniature gardens are now ensuring both food and economic security, pulling in a steady income from the sale of organic seeds.

Tomatoes are trained to grow vertically, ginger sprouts from re-used plastic cement bags packed with low-saline soil, while bitter gourds spread outwards on plastic net trellises.

Multi-tier arrangements of plants to maximize sunlight in the garden, the use of cattle and poultry litter as bio-fertilizer, and recycling water are all steps women here take to coax a little nutrition from a land that seems to be increasingly turning away from them.

While NGOs praise the women of the Sundarbans for their ingenuity in the face of extreme hardships, others blame the government of West Bengal for failing to provide for its most vulnerable citizens.

“When their very existence is at stake, the island communities are of course adapting in their own ways, but the government of West Bengal needs to do much more,” Tushar Kanjilal, the 79-year-old pioneer of development in the Sundarbans, told IPS at his Kolkata residence.

“It needs to urgently formulate a comprehensive plan for Sundarbans’ development anchored on a reliable database and make one agency responsible for all development work,” added the head of the non-profit Tagore Society for Rural Development (TSRD).

Until such time as the government takes development into its own hands, self-help groups like those budding all over the Sundarbans – comprising thousands of members – will be the only chance poor communities stand against poverty, hunger, and natural disasters.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Jewellery Industry Takes Steps to Eliminate “Conflict Gold”http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/jewellery-industry-takes-steps-to-eliminate-conflict-gold/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=jewellery-industry-takes-steps-to-eliminate-conflict-gold http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/jewellery-industry-takes-steps-to-eliminate-conflict-gold/#comments Tue, 25 Nov 2014 00:50:39 +0000 Carey L. Biron http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137936 Gold from eastern Congo. The war in Congo is fueled by a thriving gold trade today, with armed groups controlling mines and earning an estimated 50 million dollars last year from selling gold and minerals. This gold is from a day's work at Kaniola mine. Credit: ENOUGH Project/cc by 2.0

Gold from eastern Congo. The war in Congo is fueled by a thriving gold trade today, with armed groups controlling mines and earning an estimated 50 million dollars last year from selling gold and minerals. This gold is from a day's work at Kaniola mine. Credit: ENOUGH Project/cc by 2.0

By Carey L. Biron
WASHINGTON, Nov 25 2014 (IPS)

Major U.S. jewellery companies and retailers have started to take substantive steps to eliminate the presence of “conflict gold” from their supply chains, according to the results of a year-long investigation published Monday.

Rights advocates, backed by the United Nations, have been warning for years that mining revenues are funding warlords and militia groups operating in the Great Lakes region of Africa, particularly in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In 2010, such concerns resulted in landmark legislation here in the United States aimed at halting this trade, and those laws have since spurred similar legislative proposals in the European Union and Canada.“Just a few years ago, jewellery companies were pretty resistant to making progress on this, but today there is clearly interest in supporting peace and finding out more about the role they can play in this issue." -- Holly Dranginis of Enough Project

Three of the most problematic of these “conflict minerals” – tin, tantalum and tungsten, collectively known as 3T – are used primarily by the electronics industry. In recent years, that sector has made notable progress in certifying and otherwise regulating its use of these materials.

Yet forward movement has been slower on the fourth conflict mineral from the Great Lakes region – gold.

“Over two-thirds of the eastern Congo’s 3T mines are conflict-free today,” a new report from the Enough Project, a Washington-based watchdog group, states.

“Gold, however, remains a major financial lifeline for armed actors. Ninety-eight percent of artisanally mined gold … is smuggled out of the country annually, and much of that gold benefits armed commanders.”

Last year, the report estimates, some eight to ten tons of gold were smuggled out of eastern DRC. That would have been worth more than 400 million dollars.

Much of this smuggling is thought to take place through Congo’s neighbours, particularly Uganda and Burundi, and onwards to Dubai. From there, most of this gold is able to anonymously enter the global marketplace.

The jewellery industry, meanwhile, is the largest user of global gold supplies, constituting slightly less than half of worldwide demand. “Conflict gold thus taints the industry as whole,” the report warns.

Pledging to stay

According to the Enough Project’s new rankings, however, the industry is starting to respond to these concerns. Researchers looked at both past and pledged actions by 14 of the largest jewellery companies and retailers in the United States – part of an industry worth some five billion dollars a year – and found a spectrum of initiatives already underway.

On the one hand, some companies appear to have undertaken no conflict minerals-related initiatives whatsoever, at least as far as the new report’s metrics were concerned. Three companies scored zero points, while others – including major retailers such as Walmart, Sears and Costco – scored very low.

On the other hand, the researchers found a few key companies that have undertaken particularly notable responses. They say there is reason to believe that these leaders could now influence the rest of the industry.

“We really wanted to focus on the leading jewellery retailers in the U.S. because of their leverage over the industry – we wanted to take lessons from our experience with the electronics industry, that leading companies can move an entire industry,” Holly Dranginis, a policy analyst with the Enough Project and the lead author on the new report, told IPS.

“Just a few years ago, jewellery companies were pretty resistant to making progress on this, but today there is clearly interest in supporting peace and finding out more about the role they can play in this issue. We found two very clear leaders among the 14.”

Those are two of the most recognizable jewellery brands and retailers in the world, Signet Jewelers and Tiffany & Co. Three others highlighted for recognition in the rankings are the commercial retailers J.C. Penney Company, Target Corp. and Cartier.

The Enough Project researchers sent a broad questionnaire to these companies, and Signet and Tiffany received the highest overall rankings. Yet Dranginis notes that what differentiates these companies is merely the fact that they have put in place policies around the sourcing of gold from the Great Lakes region.

Perhaps more importantly, these companies have also started engaging on the ground in countries such as the DRC. Over the past three years, for instance, Signet has pledged to continue sourcing certified gold from the country, rather than simply moving on to another country entirely. The company is also making its sourcing strategies open to others in the industry.

“We see our involvement in industry guidance and standards in the gold sector and the development and implementation of the Signet Responsible Sourcing Protocols as part of a broader initiative of ensuring responsible business practices through the entire jewellery supply chain, for gold and for all other materials,” David A. Bouffard, a vice president for Signet Jewelers, told IPS in a statement.

“It is important to us that our SRSPs are open public protocols which can be used by anyone in our industry, and which Signet’s suppliers can use to their benefit in their relationships with other customers.”

Tiffany, meanwhile, is making a concerted effort to assist local communities, particularly small-scale miners and their families. Both companies reportedly have individual executives that have taken a particular interest in the issue.

“One of the concerns has been that compliance with [U.S. conflict minerals laws] has pushed some companies to think they should leave the region and source elsewhere,” the Enough Project’s Dranginis says.

“Supporting community initiatives in the region is critical, because a lot of communities are affected by major market changes. We also need to ensure that gold miners and their families are supported in a comprehensive way, looking into sustainable projects, alternative livelihoods, financial inclusion and related issues.”

Certification capacity

Action by major brands is, of course, a key component in driving the global response to the impacts of conflict gold. Yet an important collection of multistakeholder and trade mechanisms has also sprung up in recent years, directly facilitating these initiatives.

Central to any attempt at tracking and regulating raw commodities, for instance, is a system of certification. And just as the electronics industry has been able to use metals smelters as an important lynchpin in this process, so too has the gold industry been able to start certifying gold refiners.

According to the new report, in 2012 just six gold refiners had been certified as “conflict free” by one such initiative, the Conflict Free Smelter Program. Two years later, that number has risen to 52 – though “there are still many refiners outside the system,” the study notes.

Advocates are also calling for stepped-up and coordinated action by governments. While the United States, European Union and Canada could all soon have legislation on the use of conflict minerals, some are increasingly pushing for action from the government of the United Arab Emirates aiming to constrict the flow of conflict gold through Dubai.

Likewise, India, Pakistan and China are among the most prominent consumers of gold worldwide, and thus constitute key sources of demand.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be reached at cbiron@ips.org

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Lessons from Jamaica’s Billion-Dollar Droughthttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/lessons-from-jamaicas-billion-dollar-drought/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=lessons-from-jamaicas-billion-dollar-drought http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/lessons-from-jamaicas-billion-dollar-drought/#comments Mon, 24 Nov 2014 14:17:20 +0000 Desmond Brown http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137917 The Yallahs River, one of the main water sources for Jamaica's Mona Reservoir, has been dry for months. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

The Yallahs River, one of the main water sources for Jamaica's Mona Reservoir, has been dry for months. Credit: Desmond Brown/IPS

By Desmond Brown
MORANT BAY, Jamaica, Nov 24 2014 (IPS)

As Jamaica struggles under the burden of an ongoing drought, experts say ensuring food security for the most vulnerable groups in society is becoming one of the leading challenges posed by climate change.

“The disparity between the very rich and the very poor in Jamaica means that persons living in poverty, persons living below the poverty line, women heading households with large numbers of children and the elderly are greatly disadvantaged during this period,” Judith Wedderburn, Jamaica project director at the non-profit German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), told IPS."The food production line gets disrupted and the cost of food goes up, so already large numbers of families living in poverty have even greater difficulty in accessing locally grown food at reasonable prices." -- Judith Wedderburn of FES

“The concern is that as the climate change implications are extended for several years that these kinds of situations are going to become more and more extreme, [such as] greater floods with periods of extreme drought.”

Wedderburn, who spoke with IPS on the sidelines of a FES and Panos Caribbean workshop for journalists held here earlier this month, said Caribbean countries – which already have to grapple with a finite amount of space for food production – now have the added challenges of extreme rainfall events or droughts due to climate change.

“In Jamaica, we’ve had several months of drought, which affected the most important food production parishes in the country,” she said, adding that the problem does not end when the drought breaks.

“We are then affected by extremes of rainfall which results in flooding. The farming communities lose their crops during droughts [and] families associated with those farmers are affected. The food production line gets disrupted and the cost of food goes up, so already large numbers of families living in poverty have even greater difficulty in accessing locally grown food at reasonable prices and that contributes to substantial food insecurity – meaning people cannot easily access the food that they need to keep their families well fed.”

One local researcher predicts that things are likely to get even worse. Dale Rankine, a PhD candidate at the University of the West Indies (UWI), told IPS that climate change modelling suggests that the region will be drier heading towards the middle to the end of the century.

“We are seeing projections that suggest that we could have up to 40 percent decrease in rainfall, particularly in our summer months. This normally coincides with when we have our major rainfall season,” Rankine said.

“This is particularly important because it is going to impact most significantly on food security. We are also seeing suggestions that we could have increasing frequency of droughts and floods, and this high variability is almost certainly going to impact negatively on crop yields.”

He pointed to “an interesting pattern” of increased rainfall over the central regions, but only on the outer extremities, while in the west and east there has been a reduction in rainfall.

“This is quite interesting because the locations that are most important for food security, particularly the parishes of St. Elizabeth [and] Manchester, for example, are seeing on average reduced rainfall and so that has implications for how productive our production areas are going to be,” Rankine said.

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced recently that September 2014 was the hottest in 135 years of record keeping. It noted that during September, the globe averaged 60.3 degrees Fahrenheit (15.72 degrees Celsius), which was the fourth monthly record set this year, along with May, June and August.

According to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Centre, the first nine months of 2014 had a global average temperature of 58.72 degrees (14.78 degrees Celsius), tying with 1998 for the warmest first nine months on record.

Robert Pickersgill, Jamaica’s water, land, environment and climate change minister, said more than 18,000 small farmers have been affected by the extreme drought that has been plaguing the country for months.

He said the agricultural sector has lost nearly one billion dollars as a result of drought and brush fires caused by extreme heat waves.

Pickersgill said reduced rainfall had significantly limited the inflows from springs and rivers into several of the country’s facilities.

“Preliminary rainfall figures for the month of June indicate that Jamaica received only 30 per cent of its normal rainfall and all parishes, with the exception of sections of Westmoreland (54 percent), were in receipt of less than half of their normal rainfall. The southern parishes of St Elizabeth, Manchester, Clarendon, St Catherine, Kingston and St. Andrew and St. Thomas along with St Mary and Portland were hardest hit,” Pickersgill said.

Clarendon, he said, received only two percent of its normal rainfall, followed by Manchester with four percent, St. Thomas six percent, St. Mary eight percent, and 12 percent for Kingston and St. Andrew.

Additionally, Pickersgill said that inflows into the Mona Reservoir from the Yallahs and Negro Rivers are now at 4.8 million gallons per day, which is among the lowest since the construction of the Yallahs pipeline in 1986, while inflows into the Hermitage Dam are currently at six million gallons per day, down from more than 18 million gallons per day during the wet season.

“It is clear to me that the scientific evidence that climate change is a clear and present danger is now even stronger. As such, the need for us to mitigate and adapt to its impacts is even greater, and that is why I often say, with climate change, we must change,” Pickersgill told IPS.

Wedderburn said Jamaica must take immediate steps to adapt to climate change.

“So the challenge for the government is to explore what kinds of adaptation methods can be used to teach farmers how to do more successful water harvesting so that in periods of severe drought their crops can still grow so that they can have food to sell to families at reasonable prices to deal with the food insecurity.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at destinydlb@gmail.com

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Pakistan’s Paraplegics Learning to Stand on their Own Feethttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/pakistans-paraplegics-learning-to-stand-on-their-own-feet/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=pakistans-paraplegics-learning-to-stand-on-their-own-feet http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/pakistans-paraplegics-learning-to-stand-on-their-own-feet/#comments Mon, 24 Nov 2014 13:34:03 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137914 Over 2,000 paraplegic women have received treatment and training at the Paraplegic Centre of Peshawar, in northern Pakistan, enabling them to earn a living despite being confined to a wheelchair. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Over 2,000 paraplegic women have received treatment and training at the Paraplegic Centre of Peshawar, in northern Pakistan, enabling them to earn a living despite being confined to a wheelchair. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan , Nov 24 2014 (IPS)

When a stray bullet fired by Taliban militants became lodged in her spine last August, 22-year-old Shakira Bibi gave up all hopes of ever leading a normal life.

Though her family rushed her to the Hayatabad Medical Complex in Peshawar, capital city of Pakistan’s northern-most Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, doctors told the young girl that she would be forever bed-ridden.

Bibi fell into a deep depression, convinced that her family would cast her aside due to her disability. Worse, she feared that she would not be able to care for her daughter, particularly since her husband had succumbed to tuberculosis in 2012, making her the sole breadwinner for her family.

“All credit goes to the Paraplegic Centre of Peshawar (PPC), which enabled me to become a working man. Otherwise, my family would have starved to death." -- 40-year-old Muhammad Shahid, a victim of spinal damage
In the end, however, all her worries were for naught.

Today Bibi, a resident of the war-torn North Waziristan Agency, part of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is a successful seamstress and embroiderer, and is skillfully managing the affairs of her small family.

She says it is all thanks to the Paraplegic Centre of Peshawar (PPC), the only one of its kind in Pakistan, where she is currently undergoing intensive physiotherapy. Already Bibi is showing signs of recovery, but this is not the only thing that is making her happy.

“Her real joy is her craft, which she learned here at the Centre,” Bibi’s mother, Zar Lakhta, tells IPS. “We are no longer concerned about her future.”

According to PPC’s chief executive officer, Syed Muhammad Ilyas, the majority of those who suffer injury to their spinal cords remain immobile for life, unable to work and fated to be a burden on loved ones.

“Breaking a bone or two is one thing,” Ilyas tells IPS. “Breaking one’s back or neck is another story altogether.

“Unlike any other bone in our body, the spine, or back bone, not only keeps our body straight and tall, it also protects the delicate nervous tissue called the spinal cord, which serves as a link between our body and the brain,” he asserts.

If this link is severed, a person can literally become a prisoner in their own body, losing bowel and bladder control, as well as the use of their legs. The physical aspect of such an injury alone is enough to plunge a patient into the deepest despair; but there is yet another tragic twist to the story.

“Believe it or not about 80 percent of our patients are the only bread winners of their respective families,” Ilyas explains, “while more then 90 percent live below the poverty line [of less than two dollars a day].”

As a result, finding employment for paraplegics is just as vital as offering physical therapy that might help them regain the use of their lower bodies.

“This is why we have employed experts who teach tailoring, computer sills, dress-making, glass painting and embroidery to our patients,” Ilyas says.

Most families travel between 100 and 400 km to reach the Centre, but their efforts are always rewarded. In addition to skills training, the PPC offers individual and group counseling sessions, all part of a holistic treatment programme aimed at helping patients find dignity and self-worth, to be able to function on their own after being discharged from the PPC.

This has certainly been the case for 40-year-old Muhammad Shahid, who suffered a backbone injury in the Swat district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province back in 2008.

“I was sent to the PPC, after surgery in a government-run hospital, where I learnt embroidery,” he tells IPS. “Now I am working in my home and earn about 300 dollars a month, which I use to educate and feed my two sons and daughter.”

“All credit goes to the PPC, which enabled me to become a working man. Otherwise, my family would have starved to death,” he tells IPS over the phone from his hometown in the Swat Valley.

The PPC was established in 1979 by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide free treatment to those wounded in the 1979-1989 Soviet War in Afghanistan. Later, the KP government took control of the facility, opening it up to locals in the tribal areas.

The Centre has been a godsend for the thousands who have sustained injuries in crossfire between militants and government forces, who since 2001 have been battling for control of Pakistan’s mountainous regions that border Afghanistan.

Director-general of health services for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Dr. Waheed Burki, says more than 40,000 people, including 5,000 security personnel and 3,500 civilians, have been killed since 2005 alone. A further 10,000 have been injured.

Burki says about 90 percent of those who frequent the PPC were injured in war-related incidents.

But Amirzeb Khan, a physiotherapist at the Centre, says that the patients are not all victims of violence. Some have sustained injuries from road traffic accidents and small firearms, while others suffered spinal cord damage as a result of falls from rooftops, trees and electricity poles.

“The majority of the patients are between 20 and 30 years old, which means they fall into the ‘most productive’ age-group,” Khan tells IPS.

Many of these young people come to the Centre fearing the worst; yet almost all leave as productive members of society, armed with the skills necessary to make a living despite being confined to a wheelchair.

Those with minor injuries have even learned how to walk again.

“About 3,000 of our patients are now prospering,” Khan adds. “Of these, roughly 2,000 are women.”

In a country where the average annual income is 1,250 dollars, according to government data, the cost of treating spinal injuries is far greater than most families can afford. In places like the United States and Europe, experts tell IPS, rehabilitating such a patient could run up a bill touching a million dollars.

By offering their services for free, and developing low-cost technologies and equipment, the PPC has closed a yawning health divide in a vastly unequal country, at least for paraplegics.

An administrator named Ziaur Rehman tells IPS that plans are afoot to turn the PPC into a ‘Centre of Excellence’ for patients with spinal cord injuries from all over the country and the region over the next five years.

The hope is to create a multiplier effect, whereby those who receive training here will take their newly acquired skills and pass them on to their respective communities.

A living example of this is 24-year-old Shaheen Begum, who now runs her own embroidery centre in the Hangu district of KP. Immobilised by a back injury in 2011, she underwent rigorous physical therapy at the Centre, while also learning computer skills and fabric painting.

“Now I am imparting these skills to women in my neighbourhood and my children are in good schools,” she tells IPS happily.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Will Myanmar’s ‘Triple Transition’ Help Eradicate Crushing Poverty?http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/will-myanmars-triple-transition-help-eradicate-crushing-poverty/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=will-myanmars-triple-transition-help-eradicate-crushing-poverty http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/will-myanmars-triple-transition-help-eradicate-crushing-poverty/#comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 14:21:38 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137872 Novice monks beg for alms near the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. The barbed wire barricades behind them were once a permanent feature on this busy road, but have been pushed aside to make way for peace. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Novice monks beg for alms near the Sule Pagoda in downtown Yangon. The barbed wire barricades behind them were once a permanent feature on this busy road, but have been pushed aside to make way for peace. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
YANGON, Nov 21 2014 (IPS)

Myanmar is never out of the news for long. This has been the case since a popular uprising challenged military rule in 1988. For over two decades, the country was featured in mainstream media primarily as one unable to cope with its own internal contradictions, a nation crippled by violence.

Since 2011, with the release of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, as well as democratic reforms, the country experienced a makeover in the eyes of the world, no longer a lost cause but one of the bright new hopes in Asia.

U.S. President Barack Obama has visited the country twice since 2011, most recently this month for the 9th annual East Asia Summit (EAS).

But beneath the veneer of a nation in transition, on the road to a prosperous future, lies a people deep in poverty, struggling to make a living, some even struggling to make it through a single day.

A woman loads bags full of vegetables on to a train carriage in Yangon. Many use the slow-moving passenger trains to transport goods that they will sell in outlying villages, since few can afford road transportation. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A woman loads bags full of vegetables on to a train carriage in Yangon. Many use the slow-moving passenger trains to transport goods that they will sell in outlying villages, since few can afford road transportation. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

Arranging vegetables into small bundles, this vendor tells IPS she wakes up at three a.m. three days a week to collect her produce. She makes roughly three dollars each day. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Arranging vegetables into small bundles, this vendor tells IPS she wakes up at three a.m. three days a week to collect her produce. She makes roughly three dollars each day. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The commercial capital, Yangon, is in the midst of a construction boom, yet there are clear signs of lopsided and uneven development. By evening, those with cash to burn gather at popular restaurants like the Vista Bar, with its magnificent view of the Shwedagon Pagoda, and order expensive foreign drinks, while a few blocks away men and women count out their meagre earnings from a day of hawking home-cooked meals on the streets.

The former likely earn hundreds of dollars a day, or more; the latter are lucky to scrape together 10 dollars in a week.

 

A woman waits for passersby to buy bird feed from her in Yangon. The World Bank estimates that over 30 percent of Myanmar's 53 million people lives below the national poverty line. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A woman waits for passersby to buy bird feed from her in Yangon. The World Bank estimates that over 30 percent of Myanmar’s 53 million people lives below the national poverty line. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

A man pushes a cartful of garbage near a busy intersection in Yangon. The 56-billion-dollar economy is growing at a steady clip of 8.5 percent per annum, but the riches are obviously not being shared equally. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man pushes a cartful of garbage near a busy intersection in Yangon. The 56-billion-dollar economy is growing at a steady clip of 8.5 percent per annum, but the riches are obviously not being shared equally. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The World Bank estimates that the country’s 56.8-billion-dollar economy is growing at a rate of 8.5 percent per year. Natural gas, timber and mining products bring in the bulk of export earnings.

Still, per capita income in this nation of 53 million people stands at 1,105 dollars, the lowest among East Asian economies.

The richest people, who comprise 10 percent of the population, control close to 35 percent of the national economy. The government says poverty hovers at around 26 percent of the population, but that could be a conservative estimate.

According to the World Bank’s country overview for Myanmar, “A detailed analysis – taking into account nonfood items in the consumption basket and spatial price differentials – brings poverty estimates as high as 37.5 percent.”

 

A man collects his harvest from a vegetable plot that is also a putrid water hole just outside of Yangon. The World Bank estimates that at least 32 percent of all children below five years of age in Myanmar suffer from malnutrition. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man collects his harvest from a vegetable plot that is also a putrid water hole just outside of Yangon. The World Bank estimates that at least 32 percent of all children below five years of age in Myanmar suffer from malnutrition. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

Women walk with heavy loads after disembarking from a train. Thousands still rely on the dilapidated public transport system, with its century-old trains and belching buses, because they cannot afford anything else. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Women walk with heavy loads after disembarking from a train. Thousands still rely on the dilapidated public transport system, with its century-old trains and belching buses, because they cannot afford anything else. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The country’s poor spend about 70 percent of their income on food, putting serious pressure on food security levels.

But these are not the only worrying signs. An estimated 32 percent of children below five years of age suffer from malnutrition; more than a third of the nation lacks access to electricity; and the national unemployment rate, especially in rural areas, could be as high as 37 percent according to 2013 findings by a parliamentary committee.

Over half the workforce is engaged in agriculture or related activities, while just seven percent is employed in industries.

 

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi admits that Mynmar suffers from a long list of woes, but insists that the first step to healing is the return of the rule of law. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi admits that Mynmar suffers from a long list of woes, but insists that the first step to healing is the return of the rule of law. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

 

Large-scale construction is not unusual in downtown Yangon, where foreign investments and tourist arrivals are pushing up land prices. Officials say they expect around 900,000 visitors this year. Arrivals have shot up by 49 percent since 2011. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Large-scale construction is not unusual in downtown Yangon, where foreign investments and tourist arrivals are pushing up land prices. Officials say they expect around 900,000 visitors this year. Arrivals have shot up by 49 percent since 2011. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Development banks call Myanmar a nation in ‘triple transition’, a nation – in the words of the World Bank – which is moving “from an authoritarian military system to democratic governance, from a centrally directed economy to a market-oriented economy, and from 60 years of conflict to peace in its border areas.”

 

A man pushes his bicycles laden with scrap in the streets of Yangon. Despite rapid economic growth, disparities seem to be widening, with 10 percent of the population enjoying 35 percent of Myanmar’s wealth. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man pushes his bicycles laden with scrap in the streets of Yangon. Despite rapid economic growth, disparities seem to be widening, with 10 percent of the population enjoying 35 percent of Myanmar’s wealth. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The biggest challenge it faces in this transition process is the task of easing the woes of its long-suffering majority, who have eked out a living during the country’s darkest days and are now hoping to share in the spoils of its future.

 Edited by Kanya DAlmeida

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Inequality in Mexico Is All About Wageshttp://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/inequality-in-mexico-is-all-about-wages/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=inequality-in-mexico-is-all-about-wages http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/11/inequality-in-mexico-is-all-about-wages/#comments Thu, 20 Nov 2014 16:09:50 +0000 Emilio Godoy http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=137848 Street vendors on Moneda street in the historic centre of Mexico City. The huge informal economy is one expression of the enormous pay inequality in the country. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Street vendors on Moneda street in the historic centre of Mexico City. The huge informal economy is one expression of the enormous pay inequality in the country. Credit: Emilio Godoy/IPS

By Emilio Godoy
MEXICO CITY, Nov 20 2014 (IPS)

Sandra G. works Monday through Saturday in a beauty salon on the south side of Mexico City, where she earns slightly more than the minimum wage, which in this country is just five dollars a day.

The 30-year-old, who studied cosmetology and asked that her last name not be published, does beauty treatments and sells products like skin cream and lotions, which boost her income thanks to small commissions on her monthly sales.

But the pressure to reach the minimum sales target of 3,000 dollars a month makes the work “quite stressful,” she said.

“The owner told me that since she was just starting up her business she could only pay minimum wage, but that if I was good with sales, I could increase my income,” she told IPS.

Sandra said she and her husband, an engineer, get by but without anything left over for luxuries.“There has been no in-depth effort to tackle the causes of the poverty that comes from the poor distribution of income, and the concentration of wealth and of capital in general. The approach is to attack the final effects, one of which is wages.” -- Alicia Puyana

“My husband was unemployed for a couple of months and things were really tight,” she said. “He found work and that gave us some breathing room, but we’re worried that the possibility of prospering is far off because wages are too low compared to the cost of living.”

Stories like Sandra’s are typical and illustrative of the inequality that reigns in this country of 118 million people. But the current debate over a rise in the minimum wage seems to ignore the reality of millions.

“The issue of wages is a question of inequality,” said Miguel López, a member of the Observatory of Wages at the private Iberoamerican University of Puebla, a city in central Mexico. “Wages can be a mechanism to mitigate inequality. But there are more workers and they get a smaller piece of the pie. It’s a problem of redistribution.”

In its 2014 report, published in April, the Observatory underlined that “the absolute impoverishment of the working class is reflected in the reduction of the cost of labour, the more intense exploitation of the working day, and the growing precariousness of working conditions, housing and living conditions in general.”

The current minimum wage of around five dollars a day is the lowest in Latin America, followed by Nicaragua, Haiti and Bolivia, according to the Observatory.

But the most worrisome aspect is the enormous wage gap, as reflected by a 2013 study by the global management consultancy, Hay Group, on the difference between the pay earned by senior employees and new workers.

According to the report, the base salary of an executive in Mexico City is 10,000 dollars a month, just 417 dollars less than what an executive in a similar company in New York earns. But in the United States, the federal minimum wage is 7.25 dollars an hour, compared to 5.05 dollars a day in the Mexican capital.

The Presidents’ Compensation Study by the international human resources consultancy Mercer found that in Mexico the CEO of a large company earned 121 times the minimum wage – the biggest gap in Latin America.
Article 123 of the Mexican constitution states that “the minimum wage in general should be sufficient to meet the normal needs of the head of the family, in material, social and cultural terms, and to provide obligatory education for the children.”

According to official figures, Mexico’s economically active population totals 52 million, of whom more than 29 million work in the informal sector. The official unemployment rate stands at 4.8 percent and underemployment at seven percent.

“Factory of the poor”

A study by the Multidisciplinary Research Centre (CAM) of the National Autonomous University of Mexico found that 4.4 million workers in Mexico earn from one to three times the minimum wage.

The report, “Factory of the Poor”, published in May, adds that just over two million workers earn from three to five times the minimum wage.

According to the report, the number of Mexicans who earn up to two times the minimum wage grew nearly three percent from 2007 to 2013, while the number of those who earned three to five times the minimum wage shrank 23 percent – a reflection of the impoverishment of the middle class.

Ernesto C. earns nearly 5,000 dollars a month, plus a productivity bonus, at one of the largest private banks in Mexico.

“The pay is good, it’s at the same level as other banks in the country and is similar to what is earned by colleagues from the United States who I deal with,” said the 34-year-old executive, who lives with his girlfriend in an upscale neighbourhood on the west side of the city.

Ernesto, who also asked that his last name not be used, and who drives the latest model SUV and spends nearly 300 dollars on an evening out, said he obtained financing to study abroad.

“When I came back, it wasn’t like I had expected – it was actually hard for me to find a good job. But I finally found one and I managed to climb up the ladder quickly,” he said.

The Federal District sets an example

On Sept. 25, Miguel Mancera, Mexico City’s left-wing mayor, presented a proposal to raise the minimum wage for city employees to six dollars a day as of June 2015, with the aim of extending the measure to the private sector.

The study “Policy for restoring the minimum wage in Mexico and the Federal District; Proposal for an accord”, drawn up by a group of experts, which forms the basis of Mancera’s offer, reported that the real value of wages has gone down 71 percent at a national level.

That reduction, the document says, pulls down other remunerations, just as “the minimum wage affects the entire income structure.”

Alicia Puyana, a researcher at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico, says the fight against poverty has been given higher priority than efforts to reduce inequality.

“There has been no in-depth effort to tackle the causes of the poverty that comes from the poor distribution of income, and the concentration of wealth and of capital in general. The approach is to attack the final effects, one of which is wages,” she said.

In Mexico, 53 million people are poor, according to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policies.

By contrast, the number of billionaires, and their fortunes, grew between 2013 and this year, says the report “Billionaire Census 2014”, produced by the Swiss bank UBS and the Singapore Wealth-X consultancy.

The number of billionaires in Mexico grew from 22 to 27 and their combined income increased from 137 billion to 169 billion dollars.

“We need a social pact and a real policy on wages. What better social policy could there be than one that directly tackles the distribution of income?” López said.

The Multidisciplinary Research Centre says the minimum wage needed to cover a basic diet would be 14 dollars a day, while the Mexico City Federal District government sets it at 13 dollars a day.

“Raising the minimum wage 15 or 20 percent is just a crumb. It doesn’t compensate the general decline, which could be remedied with a progressive fiscal policy, to capture part of the major income flows,” Puyana said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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