Inter Press Service » Trade & Investment Turning the World Downside Up Mon, 02 Mar 2015 21:42:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Namibian President Wins $5 Million African Leadership Prize Mon, 02 Mar 2015 20:08:52 +0000 Josh Butler By Josh Butler

Outgoing Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba was Monday named winner of the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, believed to be the most lucrative individual award in the world.

The award, with an initial $5 million prize and an annual $200,000 gift for life, “recognises and celebrates African leaders who have developed their countries, lifted people out of poverty and paved the way for sustainable and equitable prosperity,” according to organisers the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

The foundation, founded by and named after the Sudanese born philanthropist, grants the award to democratically elected African heads of state or government who have left office democratically in the previous three years, served their constitutionally mandated term, and demonstrated “exceptional leadership.”

At the event in Nairobi, President Pohamba was named just the fourth winner of the prize since its inception in 2007, and the first winner since 2011.

“During the decade of Hifikepunye Pohamba’s Presidency, Namibia’s reputation has been cemented as a well-governed, stable and inclusive democracy with strong media freedom and respect for human rights,” said Salim Ahmed Salim, Chair of the Prize Committee.

“President Pohamba’s focus in forging national cohesion and reconciliation at a key stage of Namibia’s consolidation of democracy and social and economic development impressed the ‎Prize Committee.”

Pohamba became president of Namibia in 2004, and will be succeeded later in March by president-elect Hage Geingob.

On Twitter, the foundation wrote that Namibia has “shown improvement in 10 out of 14 sub-categories of the [Ibrahim Index of African Government],”a framework that calculates good governance in areas including rule of law, human rights, economic opportunity and human development.

Mohamed ‘Mo’ Ibrahim called Pohamba “a role model for the continent.”

“He has served his country since its independence and his leadership has renewed his people’s trust in democracy. His legacy is that of strengthened institutions through the various initiatives introduced during his tenure in office,” he said.

The Ibrahim prize is not awarded unless judges can find a candidate of sufficient quality.

Former Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano was the inaugural winner in 2007, followed by Botswana president Festus Mogae in 2008. The next and most recent winner was Pedro Pires, former president of Cape Verde, in 2011 after judges did not award the prize in 2009 or 2010. Prizes were not awarded in 2012 and 2013.

Nelson Mandela was granted an honorary prize in 2007.

Speaking to Al-Jazeera, Ibrahim said the prize would only be awarded to deserving candidates.

“It is a prize for excellence in leadership. We are not lowering our standards,” he said.

“If this prize was offered to European presidents and leaders, how many … would have won this prize in the last eight years?”

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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Tobacco Workers in Cuba Dubious About Opening of U.S. Market Sat, 28 Feb 2015 15:57:26 +0000 Ivet Gonzalez Tobacco pickers carry leaves to one of the sheds where they are cured on the Rosario plantation in San Juan y Martínez, in Vuelta Abajo, a western Cuban region famous for producing premium cigars. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Tobacco pickers carry leaves to one of the sheds where they are cured on the Rosario plantation in San Juan y Martínez, in Vuelta Abajo, a western Cuban region famous for producing premium cigars. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

By Ivet González
SAN JUAN Y MARTÍNEZ, Cuba , Feb 28 2015 (IPS)

“We have to wait and see,” “There isn’t a lot of talk about it,” are the responses from tobacco workers in this rural area in western Cuba when asked about the prospect of an opening of the U.S. market to Cuban cigars.

“If the company sells more, I think they would pay us better,” said Berta Borrego, who has been hanging and sorting tobacco leaves for over 30 years in San Juan y Martínez in the province of Pinar del Río, 180 km west of Havana.

The region of Vuelta Abajo, and the municipalities of San Juan y Martínez, San Luis, Guane and Pinar del Río in particular, combine ideal climate and soil conditions with a centuries-old farming culture to produce the world’s best premium hand-rolled cigars.

In this area alone, 15,940 hectares are planted every year in tobacco, Cuba’s fourth top export.

While continuing to hang tobacco leaves on the Rosario plantation, Borrego told IPS that “there is little talk” among the workers about how they might benefit if the U.S. embargo against Cuba, in place since 1962, is eased, as part of the current process of normalisation of bilateral ties.

Borrego said “it would be good” to break into the U.S. market, off-limits to Cuban cigar-makers for over half a century. And she said that raising the pay of day workers and growers would be an incentive for workers, “because there is a shortage of both female and male workers since people don’t like the countryside.”

Cuban habanos, rum and coffee represent a trade and investment opportunity for Havana and Washington, if bilateral ties are renewed in the process that on Friday Feb. 27 reached the second round of talks between representatives of the two countries.

Habanos have become a symbol of the thaw between the two countries since someone gave a Cuban cigar to U.S. President Barack Obama during a Dec. 17 reception in the White House, a few hours after he announced the restoration of ties.

Berta Borrego in the shed where she hangs green tobacco leaves to dry. For over 30 years she has dedicated herself to that task and to selecting the dry leaves for making cigars, on the Rosario plantation in the Cuban municipality of Juan y Martínez. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Berta Borrego in the shed where she hangs green tobacco leaves to dry. For over 30 years she has dedicated herself to that task and to selecting the dry leaves for making cigars, on the Rosario plantation in the Cuban municipality of Juan y Martínez. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

Among the first measures approved by Washington to boost trade and ties between the two countries was the granting of permission to U.S. tourists to bring back 100 dollars worth of cigars and rum from Cuba.

But the sale of habanos in U.S. shops, where Nicaraguan and Dominican cigars reign, is still banned, and U.S. businesses are not allowed to invest in the local tobacco industry here.

Furthermore, the lifting of the U.S. embargo depends on the U.S. Congress, not the Obama administration.

In 2014, Tabacuba adopted a plan to double the production of tobacco leaves in the next five years, in the 15 Cuban provinces where over 16,000 producers, mainly private farmers or members of cooperative, produce tobacco.

Experts say that while Cuba stands out for the quality of its tobacco, it is not among the world’s biggest producers – which are China, the United States, Brazil, India and Turkey, in that order – nor is it among the countries with the highest yields –which are Taiwan, Spain, Italy, Japan and the United States.

In fact, due to armed conflicts in different parts of the world, high import tariffs in Europe, and climate change in Cuba, the sales of the country’s cigar company, Habanos SA, fell one percent from 2013 to 2014, to 439 million dollars.

But when it happens, annual sales of habanos in the U.S. market are expected to climb to at least 250 million dollars, according to estimates by the only company that sells Cuban cigars, Habanos SA, a joint venture between the state-run Tabacuba and Britain’s Imperial Tobacco Group PLC.

The corporation estimates that 150 million cigars from the 27 Cuban brands could be sold, once the U.S. market opens up.

The new permission for visitors to take home 100 dollars worth of cigars was called “symbolic” by Jorge Luis Fernández Maique, vice president of the Anglo-Cuban company, during the 17th Habanos Festival, which drew 1,650 participants from 60 nations Feb. 23-27 in Havana.

“The increase in sales in Cuba won’t be big,” the businessman forecast during the annual festival, which includes tours to tobacco plantations and factories, visits to auctions for humidors – a specially designed box for holding cigars – and art exhibits, and combined cigar, wine, rum and food tastings.

In its more than 140 locations worldwide, La Casa del Habano, an international franchise, sells a pack of 20 Cohiba Mini cigarrillos for 12 dollars, while a single habano cigar costs 50 dollars.

Premium cigars are the end result of a meticulous planting, selection, drying, curing, rolling and ageing process that involves thousands of humble, weathered hands like those of day worker Luis Camejo, who has dedicated eight of his 33 years to the tobacco harvest.

During the October to March harvest, Camejo picks tobacco leaves and hangs them in the shed on the Rosario plantation. Like the others, he is reticent when asked how he and his fellow workers could benefit from increased trade with the United States. “I wouldn’t know,” he told IPS.

A benefit auction for humidors in the Habanos Festival. The festival drew 1,650 participants from 60 countries to the Cuban capital this year. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

A benefit auction for humidors in the Habanos Festival. The festival drew 1,650 participants from 60 countries to the Cuban capital this year. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

He said he earns 1,200 Cuban pesos (50 dollars) a month during harvest season, and a bonus in convertible pesos after the plantation owner sells the tobacco to the state-run companies.

That is more than the average of 19 dollars a month earned by employees of the state, by far the largest employer in this Caribbean island nation. But it is not enough to cover people’s needs, given that food absorbs 59 to 75 percent of the family budget, according to the Centre of Studies on the Cuban Economy.

“To reach a dominant position in markets, we have to grow from below, that is, in quality and yield, because Vuelta Abajo isn’t growing,” said Iván Máximo Pérez, the owner of the 5.4-hectare Rosario plantation, which produces 2.5 tons of tobacco leaves per hectare. “In terms of production, the sky is our limit,” he told IPS with a smile.

In his view, “tobacco is profitable to the extent that the producer is efficient.”

“The current harvests even allow me to afford some luxuries,” he admitted.

He said he continues to plant tobacco because “it’s a sure thing, since the state buys everything we produce, at fixed prices based on quality.”

Pérez, known as “El Gallego” (the Galician) among his people, because of his northern Spanish ancestry, is using new technologies on his farm, where he employs 10 men and eight women and belongs to one of the credit and services cooperatives that produce for the tobacco companies.

He has his own modern seedbed, is getting involved in conservation agriculture, plants different varieties of tobacco, uses organic fertiliser, and has cut insecticide use to 30 percent.

“I never thought I’d reach the yields I’m obtaining now,” he said. “Applying science and different techniques has made me see tobacco in a different light.”

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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A New Forensic Weapon to Track Illegal Ivory Trade Wed, 25 Feb 2015 21:01:37 +0000 Thalif Deen Protected from external dangers, an elephant family roams peacefully in the Mikumi National Park in Tanzania. Credit: UN Photo/B Wolff

Protected from external dangers, an elephant family roams peacefully in the Mikumi National Park in Tanzania. Credit: UN Photo/B Wolff

By Thalif Deen

The wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC, is deploying a new forensic weapon – DNA testing – to track illegal ivory products responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of endangered elephants in Asia and Africa.

Widely used in criminal cases, forensic DNA examination (Deoxyribonucleic acid) can help identify whether the elephant tusk is from Asia or Africa.“The ability to use DNA and other forensic expertise provides great support to law enforcement." -- Adisorn Noochdumrong

Asked whether this is a first, Dr Richard Thomas, global communications coordinator at the UK-based TRAFFIC, told IPS: “It’s the first time I’m aware of when it’s been used to test ivory items for sale to prove their (illegal) provenance.”

However, he added, it’s worth noting that at the March 2013 meeting of CITES (the 1975 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), State Parties to the Convention were instructed that forensic information should routinely be gathered from all large-scale seizures of ivory (500kg).

Hence this is also an important demonstration of one technique that can be employed in the fight against the illegal trade in endangered species, he said.

The current project is a collaborative effort between Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) and TRAFFIC, to battle the widespread illegal trade of ivory in Thailand.

Asked whether African countries have similar projects in collaboration with TRAFFIC, Dr. Thomas told IPS, “Not currently, although the scope of DNA and stable isotope analysis of ivory are being examined by others as means to determine the geographic origin of ivory within Africa.”

He also pointed out that any wildlife product, by definition, is associated with life and therefore open for DNA examination.

“So, in theory it could be a very widely employed technique in addressing wildlife trafficking.”

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Sri Lankan and Sumatran elephants are on a list of endangered species, along with the black rhino, mountain gorilla, Bengal tiger, the blue whale and the green turtle, among others.

WWF says the global illicit wildlife trade is estimated at over 10 billion dollars annually and is controlled by criminal networks.

Specifically on the ivory trade, Dr Thomas told IPS, “We’re very wary about speculating over black market prices – in part, because they’re black market and therefore unverifiable, but more because of anecdotal evidence that high prices quoted in the media can lead to interest from the criminal fraternity in getting involved in trafficking.”

In a report released here, TRAFFIC said 160 items of small ivory products legally acquired by researchers, primarily from retail outlets in Bangkok, were subjected to DNA analysis at the DNP’s Wildlife Forensics Crime Unit (WIFOS Laboratory).

The aim of the exercise was to determine whether the ivory products were made from African elephant or Asian elephant tusks.

The African elephant Loxodonta africana is found in 37 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and the Asian elephant Elephas maximas is found in Thailand and 12 other Asian countries.

The study also said forensic results show that African elephant ivory accounted for a majority of the items tested.

“Whilst the relatively small number of samples cannot be considered as representative of the entire ivory market in Thailand, it indicates that African elephant ivory is prominently represented in the retail outlets in Bangkok,” it noted.

This capability supports the enforcement component of Thailand’s revised National Ivory Action Plan (NIAP) submitted to CITES in September 2014.

The plan was developed to control ivory trade in Thailand and strengthen measures to prevent illegal international trade and includes a strong focus on law enforcement and regulation, including the execution of a robust ivory registration system, according to the report.

“The ability to use DNA and other forensic expertise provides great support to law enforcement,” said Adisorn Noochdumrong, acting deputy director general of DNP.

“We are deeply concerned by these findings which come just at the moment a nationwide ivory product registration exercise is being conducted pursuant to recently enacted legislation to strengthen ivory trade controls in Thailand,” he added.

The report said the Thai government last month passed new legislation to regulate and control the possession and trade of ivory that can be shown to have come from domesticated Asian Elephants in Thailand.

With the passing of the Elephant Ivory Act B.E. 2558 (2015), anyone in possession of ivory – whether as personal effects or for commercial purposes – must register all items in their possession with the DNP from Jan. 22 until Apr. 21, 2015.

Penalties for failing to do so could result in up to three years imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of Thai Baht 6 million (nearly 200,000 dollars).

“We remind anyone registering possession of raw ivory or ivory products under Thailand’s new laws that African Elephant ivory is strictly prohibited and ineligible for sale in Thailand,” said Noochdumrong.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

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Big Trouble in the Air in India Wed, 25 Feb 2015 01:46:00 +0000 Neeta Lal Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, which could prompt a five-fold increase in poisonous gases emitted by cars and trucks. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, which could prompt a five-fold increase in poisonous gases emitted by cars and trucks. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Feb 25 2015 (IPS)

Like many others of her age, 15-year-old Aastha Sharma, a Class 10 student at a private school in India’s capital, New Delhi, loves being outdoors, going for walks with her friends and enjoying an occasional ice-cream. But the young girl can’t indulge in any of these activities.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a lung disorder likely caused by Delhi’s heavily polluted air, has severely cramped the girl’s lifestyle, confining her mostly to her home.

An estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India due to indoor and outdoor air pollution.
For the past three years, Sharma’s life has been a whirligig of doctors’ prescriptions, missed social outings and a restricted diet that does not include most of her favourite foods. Along with books and a lunchbox, she also packs a nebulizer in her satchel daily to ward off the wheezing attacks that she has now come to dread.

“I’m sick of the endless do’s and don’ts I have to follow. When will I be able to lead a free life?” the teen wonders.

Many other youngsters in Delhi are asking the very same question as they grapple with the effects of rampant air pollution in this city of 18 million, believed to be world’s most polluted.

Particulate matter: a deadly matter

Greenpeace India, an environmental NGO, recently released findings of its air quality monitoring survey highlighting how poor the air was inside five prominent schools in the capital.

“Air pollution levels inside Delhi’s schools are alarmingly high and children are consistently breathing bad air. The new government needs to acknowledge the severity of air pollution in the city,” said Aishwarya Madineni, a campaigner with Greenpeace.

Another study conducted in 2014, which monitored 11,628 school-going children from 36 schools in Delhi in different seasons, found that every third child in the city had reduced lung function because of particulate pollution.

In a report submitted last year to the Supreme Court, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority urged the apex court to order all schools in Delhi to shut down on days when air pollution levels posed a threat to public health.

Studies by the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) point out that when children are exposed to particulate matter – a complex mixture of acids (nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles – of 2.5 micrometers, it can trigger a raft of deadly respiratory illnesses.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified particulate matter pollution as carcinogenic to humans in 2013 and designated it as a “leading environmental cause of cancer deaths.”

“Apart from mucous membranes and nasal cavities, air pollution also severely irritates eyes and skin. Exposure to high levels of pollution can lead to serious health [issues] in the long run,” warns Dr. Abha Sood, a senior consultant oncologist at the New Delhi-based Max Hospital.

Mothers’ exposure to pollution for prolonged periods, adds the specialist, can lead to malformation of organs in newborns.

“[Particulate Matter] of less than 10 micrometers in diameter (PM 10) is particularly insidious as it gets lodged deep inside the lungs and penetrates the bloodstream, heightening a person’s vulnerability to cancer and heart disease,” she explains.

A national crisis

India’s high levels of air pollution, ranked by the WHO as being among the worst in the world, are adversely impacting the life spans of its citizens, reducing most Indian lives by over three years, says a study by economists from the Universities of Chicago, Harvard and Yale.

Over half of India’s population – roughly 660 million people – live in areas where fine particulate matter pollution is above India’s standards for what is considered safe, said the study.

If India reverses this trend to meet its air standards, this demographic would gain about 3.2 years in their expected life spans, according to the study. In other words, cleaner air would save 2.1 billion life-years, it said.

Furthermore, India has the distinction of recording the world’s highest death rate from chronic respiratory diseases, and more deaths from asthma than any other nation, according to the WHO. The health organisation also claims that India is home to 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities.

An estimated 1.5 million people die annually in India due to indoor and outdoor air pollution, which also contributes to both chronic and acute heart disease, the leading cause of death in the country.

In a report submitted to the Supreme Court in December 2014, the country’s Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority called for increasing the tax on diesel cars, and banning all private vehicles on high air pollution days.

The report also advised that cars older than 15 years be taken off the city’s roads and air purifiers installed at crowded markets; it also called for a crackdown on the burning of trash.

However, the implementation of these measures has been patchy at best, say health activists. Worse, vehicle ownership in India is projected to hit 400 million by 2040 from the current 170 million, says a joint study by the Energy and Resources Institute at the University of California, San Diego, and the California Air Resources Board.

This could result in a health crisis – a three-fold increase in PM 2.5 levels and a five-fold increase in poisonous, highly reactive gases emitted by cars and trucks, the study predicted.

The economic cost of pollution is already proving to be a heavy burden for Asia’s third largest economy. A 2013 World Bank Report highlighted how pollution and other environmental challenges costs India 80 billion dollars a year, nearly six percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

About 23 percent of child mortality and 2.5 percent of all adult deaths in the country can be attributed to environmental degradation, the study further stated.

Coal-based power: adding fuel to the fire

Air pollution is now the fifth-leading cause of death in India. Between 2000 and 2010, the annual number of premature deaths linked to air pollution across India shot up six-fold to 620,000, according to the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an advocacy group in New Delhi.

Another CSE study out this week has sounded alarm bells over air pollution, particularly from coal-based power plants. The two-year comprehensive environmental audit, conducted on 47 thermal power plants owned by the Centre, state governments and private players, has found that Indian thermal power plants were among the most inefficient in the world, on an average operating at 60 to 70 percent of their installed capacity.

The coal-based power plants were also found to have carbon dioxide emissions that were 14 percent higher than similar plants in China. Also, 76 percent of the plants were unable to meet the targets for ulitisation of ‘fly ash‘, imposed by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).

With the government showing little interest in formulating a cohesive action plan – involving all stakeholders – for tackling the many-headed hydra of air pollution, it looks like Sharma and her nebulizer will be inseparable for a while.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Tackling Corruption at its Root in Papua New Guinea Tue, 24 Feb 2015 15:50:04 +0000 Catherine Wilson Transparency International (PNG) organises an annual Walk Against Corruption in Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

Transparency International (PNG) organises an annual Walk Against Corruption in Papua New Guinea's capital, Port Moresby. Credit: Kanya D’Almeida/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Feb 24 2015 (IPS)

Corruption, the single largest obstacle to socioeconomic development worldwide, has had a grave impact on the southwest Pacific Island nation of Papua New Guinea. While mineral resource wealth drove high gross domestic product (GDP) growth of eight percent in 2012, the country is today ranked 157th out of 187 countries in terms of human development.

Key anti-corruption fighters in the country say that money laundering must be tackled to increase deterrence and ensure that stolen public funds earmarked for vital hospitals and schools do not pay for luxury assets abroad.

A patronage system of governance and a culture of secrecy have led to the misappropriation of an estimated half of Papua New Guinea's development budget of 7.6 billion kina (about 2.8 billion dollars) between 2009 and 2011 -- Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS)
“Our police officers, school teachers and health workers live and work in very squalid circumstances,” Lawrence Stephens, chairman of Transparency International (PNG), in the capital, Port Moresby, told IPS.

“So when we see the government awarding a contract for pharmaceutical and medical supplies to a company not qualified to tender, a company quoting a price 40 percent higher than the closest qualified tender and costing the equivalent of 160 new homes for nurses each year of the three-year contract, we blame corrupt individuals for destroying development.”

Papua New Guinea has been given a corruption score of 25/100, where 100 indicates clean governance, in comparison to the world average of 43/100, by Transparency International.

The country’s dedicated anti-corruption team, Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS), launched by the government in 2011, has described the country as a ‘mobocracy’, where a patronage system of governance and a culture of secrecy have led to the misappropriation of an estimated half of the development budget of 7.6 billion kina (about 2.8 billion dollars) from 2009 to 2011.

Large-scale theft of public funds, including foreign aid, is alleged to have occurred across government departments responsible for national planning, health, petroleum and energy, finance and justice.

A 2006 Public Accounts Committee Inquiry into the Lands Department alone concluded that it had conducted itself illegally over many years and given priority to the interests of private enterprise and speculators over the interests and lawful rights of the State. The department’s shortfall in revenue was 5.9 million kina (2.2 million dollars) in 2001 and 4.9 million kina (1.8 million dollars) in 2003.

State capture, where powerful private sector interests exert undue influence over state leaders, officials and procurement processes, has had devastating repercussions for national development. Approval of ‘white elephant projects’ has channelled windfalls to criminal syndicates, Sam Koim, the ITFS Chairman, reported in the Griffith Law Journal.

Koim told IPS that, of 302 cases of corruption entailing revenue of up to 5.3 billion kina (1.9 billion dollars) under investigation, 91 had been prosecuted. Twenty-eight senior public servants have been suspended or removed from office, while two Members of Parliament and two senior public servants have been convicted and jailed.

To date, 8.3 million kina (3.1 million dollars) in proceeds of crime have been recovered, but including all outstanding cases this figure could potentially rise to 500 million kina (187 million dollars). Investigation into corporate tax evasion has led to the restitution of 22.6 million kina (8.4 million dollars).

Globally it is estimated that corruption drains the developing world of up to one trillion dollars every year and what is lost is in the magnitude of 10 times the official development assistance budget, claims the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

This has impacted increasing inequality in countries such as PNG, where 40 percent of the population of seven million live below the poverty line, maternal mortality is 711 per 100,000 live births, literacy is just 63 percent and only 19 percent of people have access to sanitation.

It is a vicious cycle, as Koim also believes that the state becomes an alternative source of personal prosperity when there are few legitimate avenues available for people to economically improve their lives.

Banks crucial to fighting corruption

The majority of stolen funds have been transferred through banks to offshore investments. Australia receives about 200 million Australia dollars (155 million dollars) of illicit gains from the Melanesian island state every year, claims the Australian Federal Police.

Several PNG politicians have purchased luxury homes with a total estimated value of 11.5 million Australian dollars (8.9 million dollars) in the northern Australian city of Cairns.

“Without banks and financial institutions, it is impossible to commit economic crimes, such as fraud and money laundering,” states the Investigation Task-Force Sweep (ITFS).

In a report last year on the government’s payment of fraudulent legal fees, ITFS identified numerous control gaps, such as lack of written contracts, oversight of procurement and payment clearance processes and the failure of banks to prevent evidently suspicious transactions.

“The duty imposed on banks to avoid engaging in money laundering should not be limited to ticking the boxes or submitting periodic transaction reports, but also taking proactive steps including rejecting transactions and closing bank accounts,” the report recommended. Sixty-five percent of PNG’s financial sector assets are held by commercial banks, including foreign bank subsidiaries.

There are also gaps between national legislation and banking sector regulations. For instance, money laundering is a criminal offence under the Proceeds of Crime Act (2005), but there is no obligation on banks to check inexplicably large or unorthodox patterns of transactions.

Action is also required by recipient nations, experts say. Professor Jason Sharman of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Queensland’s Griffith University told IPS that there was a need for improved government “supervisory responsibility to make sure that Australian banks are not accepting suspect funds from PNG Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs).”

“One of the main weaknesses is in the Australian real estate sector with very little scrutiny of foreign money coming in, especially when, as is often the case, this money is routed via lawyers’ or real estate agents’ trust accounts,” he added.

But progress by the anti-corruption team has accelerated broader action. “A number of PNG-based banks have closed accounts of high risk customers and refused suspicious transactions”, while some international corresponding banks “have refused transactions they view to have originated from illicit sources,” ITFS reports.

Reducing and preventing corruption is a long-term battle, which includes addressing the cultural divide between an introduced western government system and centuries of traditional governance based on a leader’s ability to acquire and distribute resources to his own kin. But if corruption is driven largely by the lure of a quick route to untold personal wealth, then a critical measure now is eliminating safe havens for the plunder.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Argentina Moves Towards Marriage of Convenience with China Mon, 23 Feb 2015 22:33:52 +0000 Fabiana Frayssinet The entrance to Chinatown in Buenos Aires, where a sign promotes the renovation of Argentina’s railways, partly financed by Beijing. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

The entrance to Chinatown in Buenos Aires, where a sign promotes the renovation of Argentina’s railways, partly financed by Beijing. Credit: Fabiana Frayssinet/IPS

By Fabiana Frayssinet
BUENOS AIRES, Feb 23 2015 (IPS)

The government of Argentina is building a marriage of convenience with China, which some see as uneven and others see as an indispensable alliance for a new level of insertion in the global economy.

The process forms part of a radical change with respect to Argentina’s diplomacy, which years back involved ties with the United States described as “carnal relations.”

President Cristina Fernández called the new relationship with China an “integral strategic alliance,” after signing a package of 22 agreements with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb. 4.

The accords include areas like space technology, mining, energy, financing, livestock and cultural matters. They cover the construction of two nuclear and two hydropower plants, considered key to this country’s goal of energy self-sufficiency.

“Although they are important, the new agreements and others that were signed earlier are insufficient to gauge the dimension of the bilateral commitment,” said Jorge Castro, the director of the Strategic Planning Institute and an expert on China.

“For Argentina, the relationship with China has elements that are essential for insertion into the international system of the 21st century, along with other countries of the South, headed by Brazil,” he told IPS.

“These ties are between the new fulcrum of the global economy, China-Asia, and Argentina as a nation and as a regional unit,” he said.

Castro pointed out that Asia’s giant is currently South America’s leading trade partner, due to the volume of its purchases of raw materials, which implies a level of interdependence given that “China has placed the food security of its population in the hands of South American countries.”

In the case of Argentina, China is its second-largest trading partner, after neighbouring Brazil – displacing long-time partners like the United States and European countries.

In 2014, exports to China totalled five billion dollars while imports stood at 10.8 billion dollars – a bilateral record which represented 11.5 percent of this country’s trade balance, according to Argentina’s Chamber of Commerce.

Prior accords that cemented the alliance

Before Fernández’s visit to China, the two countries had already signed investment agreements in strategic sectors, such as the one between China’s Sinopec and Argentina’s YPF, two state-owned oil companies, for the exploitation of one of the Loma Campana deposits of unconventional oil and gas resources in Vaca Muerta in southern Argentina.

There was also an accord for China to provide some 2.5 billion dollars in financing for the reconstruction of the railway of the Belgrano Cargas y Logística company, which will transport Argentine and Brazilian agricultural products to Chilean ports on the Pacific ocean.

“The investment agreements with China are important to the extent that they facilitate the conditions to continue generating, for example, the infrastructure for development that Argentina needs, in a scenario” of a shortage of foreign currency, economist Fernanda Vallejos told IPS.

The Chinese space station under construction in the southern Argentine province of Neuquén, rejected by the political opposition of all stripes and social groups. Credit: Courtesy of DesarrolloyDefensa

The Chinese space station under construction in the southern Argentine province of Neuquén, rejected by the political opposition of all stripes and social groups. Credit: Courtesy of DesarrolloyDefensa

In July 2014, Argentina reached an 11 billion dollar currency swap agreement with China, to shore up this country’s weakened foreign reserves, of which it received one billion dollars in December.

The swap “has been a very powerful instrument,” which is added to measures by the government and the Central Bank to promote exchange stability and help slow down inflation, said Vallejos, a member of a group that advises the Ministry of the Economy and Public Finance.

Critical voices

Sectors of the business community are critical of the alliance with Beijing, such as the Argentine Industrial Union (UIA) or the Chamber of Exports, which sounded a warning about the asymmetrical nature of the relationship.

This country’s exports to China are only half of what it imports from the Asian giant, and they are basically raw materials or farm products. A full 75 percent is soy or by-products.

Imports, by contrast, are mainly machinery and electronics, computers, telephones, chemical products, motorcycles or parts for household appliances.

The UIA said the framework agreement on economic cooperation and investment, signed in July 2014 and pending final approval by the legislature, “contains clauses that pose an enormous risk to Argentina’s development.”

“Over the last decade, China’s strategy has pursued two central objectives: to consolidate its transnational companies in global value chains and to obtain commodities and inputs with little value-added, for its growing productive and employment needs,” the UIA said in a communiqué.

“In free trade agreements in this era of globalisation, the essential thing is not trade but investment,” said Castro, who questioned the concept of “asymmetry” and backed the agreement with China.

The China expert said the relationship should be analysed in a broader context. For example, by remembering that in the next 10 years, China’s foreign direct investment is estimated to climb to 1.1 trillion dollars.

“The question is how to manage to be part of China’s flow of investment in industry in the next 10 to 20 years,” Castro said.

The UIA agrees that it is important to be part of that current, but with allocations that would not harm local goods and services, which have no chance of receiving Chinese financing, the business chamber said.

The UIA and some trade unions also worry that Chinese labour power, which is included in several projects, will displace local workers.

“Don’t worry, we continue to defend Argentine workers and the business community’s participation,” said centre-left President Fernández, who urged those sectors to engage in technical discussions about the accords.

The new empire?

Some in Argentina see the China of the 21st century as the new England of the 19th century or the United States of the 20th century, in terms of economic and territorial hegemony and domination.

They also question the construction of a Chinese space tracking and control station in the southern Argentine province of Neuquén, which according to the government will monitor, control and gather data as part of China’s programme of missions to explore the moon and outer space.

Raúl Dobrusin, an opposition legislator from Neuquén, told IPS that the agreement, which grants China the use of 200 hectares for 50 years and is opposed by left-wing groups and social organisations, did not go through the Neuquén provincial legislature, which was not informed of the details of the accord.

So far there is no Chinese military presence in the construction project, said Dobrusin, but in his view, the space station poses “major geopolitical risks.”

“If there is a confrontation between powerful nations, we will be a place to be taken into account by the enemies of China…In short, we are getting into an area where the possibility of deciding whether or not to participate in conflicts is no longer a sovereign decision, they won’t ask us,” he warned.

“The alliance transcends economic matters and forms part of the search for independence, on both the economic and political fronts, which makes it possible to reach economic and social development goals, by breaking the yoke of neoliberalism and the empire-dependence logic,” said Vallejos.

China, in her view, “is far from the voracity of the Western powers…It is part of a new global order that is struggling to be born, where the role of emerging countries is no longer one of colonialism but of assuming the position of builders of our own destiny,” said the economist.

“That does not mean that China isn’t obtaining benefits from its ties with our nations, but that it is possible to build a win-win relationship for all of the parties involved,” she said.

Edited by Estrella Gutiérrez/Translated by Stephanie Wildes

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Analysis: Economic Growth Is Not Enough Mon, 23 Feb 2015 14:39:21 +0000 Jessica Faieta A shantytown in Guatemala. UNDP estimates suggest that more than 1.5 million people in the Latin American region will fall into poverty by the end of 2015. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

A shantytown in Guatemala. UNDP estimates suggest that more than 1.5 million people in the Latin American region will fall into poverty by the end of 2015. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

By Jessica Faieta
NEW YORK, Feb 23 2015 (IPS)

Recent new data show a worrying picture of Latin America and the Caribbean. Income poverty reduction has stagnated and the number of poor has risen — for the first time in a decade — according to recent figures from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

This means that three million women and men in the region fell into poverty between 2013 and 2014. Given the projected economic growth for this year, at 1.3 percent according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) figures, our U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates suggest that in 2015, more than 1.5 million people will also fall into poverty by the end of this year.We need to invest in the skills and assets of the poor and vulnerable — tasks that may take years, and in many cases, an entire generation.

They could be coming from the nearly 200 million vulnerable people in the region — those who are neither poor (living on less than four dollars a day) nor have risen to the middle classes (living on 10-50 dollars a day). Their incomes are right above the poverty line but still too prone to falling into poverty as soon as a major crisis hits, as another recent UNDP study showed.

Up and down the poverty line

Our analysis shows a clear pattern: what determines people to be “lifted from poverty” (quality education and employment) is different from what “avoids their fallback into poverty” (existence of social safety nets and household assets).

This gap suggests that, alone, more economic growth is not enough to build “resilience”, or the ability to absorb external shocks, such as financial crisis or natural disasters, without major social and economic losses. We need to invest in the skills and assets of the poor and vulnerable — tasks that may take years, and in many cases, an entire generation.

Exclusion beyond income

We simulated what would happen if the region grew during 2017-2020 at the same rate as it did during the last decade — that is 3.9 percent annually — yet our estimates show that fewer people in Latin America and the Caribbean would be lifted from poverty than in the previous decade.

While an average of 6.5 million women and men in the region left poverty every year during 2003 and 2012, only about 2.6 million a year would leave poverty behind (earning more than four dollars a day) between 2017 and 2020.

Clearly, ‘more of the same’ in terms of growth — and public policies — will no longer yield ‘more of the same’ in poverty and inequality reduction, according to our analysis. There are two reasons: easy sources of increased wages are declining and fiscal resources, crucial to expand social safety nets, have shrunk.

What lies ahead are harder challenges: addressing exclusion, discrimination and historical inequalities that are not explained by income alone.

Fundamentally, progress is a multidimensional concept and cannot simply reflect the idea of living with less or more than four or 10 dollars a day. Wellbeing means more than income, not a consumerist standard of what a “good life” entails.

These are central elements to our next Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean, which we are now preparing. It will also include policy recommendations that help decision makers lead an agenda that not only focuses on growth recovery and structural adjustment, but also redefines what is progress, development and social change in a region of massive inequalities and emerging and vulnerable middle classes.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Everything You Wanted to Know About Climate Change Thu, 19 Feb 2015 15:39:19 +0000 Manipadma Jena A woman watches helplessly as a flood submerges her thatched-roof home containing all her possessions on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar city in India’s eastern state of Odisha in 2008. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

A woman watches helplessly as a flood submerges her thatched-roof home containing all her possessions on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar city in India’s eastern state of Odisha in 2008. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

By Manipadma Jena
NEW DELHI, Feb 19 2015 (IPS)

So much information about climate change now abounds that it is hard to differentiate fact from fiction. Scientific reports appear alongside conspiracy theories, data is interspersed with drastic predictions about the future, and everywhere one turns, the bad news just seems to be getting worse.

Corporate lobby groups urge governments not to act, while concerned citizens push for immediate action. The little progress that is made to curb carbon emissions and contain global warming often pales in comparison to the scale of natural disasters that continue to unfold at an unprecedented rate, from record-level snowstorms, to massive floods, to prolonged droughts.

The year 2011 saw 350 billion dollars in economic damages globally, the highest since 1975 -- The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)
Attempting to sift through all the information is a gargantuan task, but it has been made easier with the release of a new report by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a think-tank based in New Delhi that has, perhaps for the first time ever, compiled an exhaustive assessment of the whole world’s progress on climate mitigation and adaptation.

The assessment also provides detailed forecasts of what each country can expect in the coming years, effectively providing a blueprint for action at a moment when many scientists fear that time is running out for saving the planet from catastrophic climate change.

Trends, risks and damages

The Global Sustainability Report 2015 released earlier this month at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit, ranks the top 20 countries (out of 193) most at risk from climate change based on the actual impacts of extreme climate events documented over a 34-year period from 1980 to 2013.

The TERI report cites data compiled by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) based at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, which maintains a global database of natural disasters dating back over 100 years.

The study found a 10-fold increase to 525 natural disasters in 2002 from around 50 in 1975. By 2011, 95 percent of deaths from this consistent trend of increasing natural disasters were from developing countries.

In preparing its rankings, TERI took into account everything from heat and cold waves, drought, floods, flash floods, cloudburst, landslides, avalanches, forest fires, cyclone and hurricanes.

Mozambique was found to be most at risk globally, followed by Sudan and North Korea. In both Mozambique and Sudan, extreme climate events caused more than six deaths per 100,000 people, the highest among all countries ranked, while North Korea suffered the highest economic losses annually, amounting to 1.65 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

The year 2011 saw 350 billion dollars in economic damages globally, the highest since 1975.

The situation is particularly bleak in Asia, where countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh and the Philippines, with a combined total population of over 300 million people, are extremely vulnerable to climate-related disasters.

China, despite high economic growth, has not been able to reduce the disaster risks to its population that is expected to touch 1.4 billion people by the end of 2015: it ranked sixth among the countries in Asia most susceptible to climate change.

Sustained effort at the national level has enabled Bangladesh to strengthen its defenses against sea-level rise, its biggest climate challenge, but it still ranked third on the list.

India, the second most populous country – expected to have 1.26 billion people by end 2015 – came in at 10th place, while Sri Lanka and Nepal figured at 14th and 15th place respectively.

In Africa, Ethiopia and Somalia are also considered extremely vulnerable, while the European nations of Albania, Moldova, Spain and France appeared high on the list of at-risk countries in that region, followed by Russia in sixth place.

In the Americas, the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia ranked first, followed by Grenada and Honduras. The most populous country in the region, Brazil, home to 200 million people, was ranked 20th.

More disasters, higher costs

In the 110 years spanning 1900 and 2009, hydro-meteorological disasters have increased from 25 to 3,526. Hydro-meteorological, geological and biological extreme events together increased from 72 to 11,571 during that same period, the report says.

In the 60-year period between 1970 and 2030, Asia will shoulder the lion’s share of floods, cyclones and sea-level rise, with the latter projected to affect 83 million people annually compared to 16.5 million in Europe, nine million in North America and six million in Africa.

The U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) estimates that global economic losses by the end of the current century will touch 25 trillion dollars, unless strong measures for climate change mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction are taken immediately.

As adaptation moves from theory to practice, it is becoming clear that the costs of adaptation will surpass previous estimates.

Developing countries, for instance, will require two to three times the previous estimates of 70-100 billion dollars per year by 2050, with a significant funding gap after 2020, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Adaptation Gap Report released last December.

Indicators such as access to water, food security, health, and socio-economic capability were considered in assessing each country’s adaptive capacity.

According to these broad criteria, Liberia ranks lowest, with a quarter of its population lacking access to water, 56 percent of its urban population living in slums, and a high incidence of malaria compounded by a miserable physician-patient ratio of one doctor to every 70,000 people.

On the other end of the adaptive capacity scale, Monaco ranks first, with 100 percent water access, no urban slums, zero malnutrition, 100 percent literacy, 71 doctors for every 10,000 people, and not a single person living below one dollar a day.

Cuba, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands also feature among the top five countries with the highest adaptive capacity; the United States is ranked 8th, the United Kingdom 25th, China 98th and India 146th.

The study also ranks countries on responsibilities for climate change, taking account of their historical versus current carbon emission levels.

The UK takes the most historic responsibility with 940 tonnes of CO2 per capita emitted during the industrialisation boom of 1850-1989, while the U.S. occupies the fifth slot consistently on counts of historical responsibility, cumulative CO2 emissions over the 1990-2011 period, as well as greenhouse gas (GHG) emission intensity per unit of GDP in 2011, the same year it clocked 6,135 million tonnes of GHG emissions.

China was the highest GHG emitter in 2011 with 10,260 million tonnes, and India ranked 3rd with 2,358 million tonnes. However, when emission intensity per one unit of GDP is additionally considered for current responsibility, both Asian countries move lower on the scale while the oil economies of Qatar and Kuwait move up to into the ranks of the top five countries bearing the highest responsibility for climate change.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: Developing Economies Increasingly Vulnerable in Unstable Global Financial System Mon, 16 Feb 2015 08:50:00 +0000 Yilmaz Akyuz

In this column, Yilmaz Akyuz, chief economist at the South Centre in Geneva, argues that emerging and developing economies have become more closely integrated into an inherently unstable international financial system and will probably face strong destabilising pressures in the years ahead.

By Yilmaz Akyuz
GENEVA, Feb 16 2015 (IPS)

After a series of crises with severe economic and social consequences in the 1990s and early 2000s, emerging and developing economies have become even more closely integrated into what is widely recognised as an inherently unstable international financial system. 

Both policies in these countries and a highly accommodating global financial environment have played a role. Not only have their traditional cross-border linkages been deepened and external balance sheets expanded rapidly, but also foreign presence in their domestic credit, bond, equity and property markets has reached unprecedented levels.

Yilmaz Akyuz

Yilmaz Akyuz

New channels have thus emerged for the transmission of financial shocks from global boom-bust cycles.

Almost all developing countries are now vulnerable, irrespective of their balance-of-payments, external debt, net foreign assets and international reserve positions, although these play an important role in the way such shocks could affect them.

Stability of domestic banking and asset markets is susceptible even in countries with strong external positions.

Those heavily dependent on foreign capital are prone to liquidity and solvency crises as well as domestic financial turmoil.

The new practices adopted in recent years – including more flexible exchange rate regimes, accumulation of large stocks of international reserves or borrowing in local currency – would not provide much of a buffer against severe external shocks such as those that may result from the normalisation of monetary policy in the United States. “The surge in capital inflows that started in the early years of the new millennium, and continued with full force after a temporary blip due to the collapse in 2008 of the Lehman Brothers financial services firm, holds the key to the growing internationalisation of finance in developing countries”

And the multilateral system is still lacking adequate mechanisms for an orderly and equitable resolution of external financial instability and crises in developing economies.

This process of closer integration was greatly helped by highly favourable global financial conditions before 2008, thanks to the very same credit and spending bubbles that culminated in a severe crisis in the United States and Europe. The crisis did not slow this process despite initial fears that it could lead to a retreat from globalisation.  Integration has even accelerated since then because of ultra-easy monetary policies pursued in advanced economies, notably in the United States, in response to the crisis.

The surge in capital inflows that started in the early years of the new millennium, and continued with full force after a temporary blip due to the collapse in 2008 of the Lehman Brothers financial services firm, holds the key to the growing internationalisation of finance in developing countries.

It has resulted in a rapid expansion of gross external assets and liabilities of developing economies. More importantly, the structure of their external balance sheets has undergone important changes, particularly on the liabilities side, bringing new vulnerabilities.

The share of direct and portfolio equity in external liabilities has been increasing. An important part of the increase in equity liabilities is due to capital gains by foreign holders. In many developing countries presence in equity markets is greater than that in the United States and Japan.

While still remaining below the levels seen a decade ago as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), external debt build-up has accelerated since the crisis in 2008. This is mainly due to borrowing by the private sector, which now accounts for a higher proportion of external debt than the public sector in both international bank loans and security issues. A very large proportion of private external debt is in foreign currency. There is also a renewed tendency for dollarisation in domestic loan markets.

As a result of a shift of governments from international to domestic bond markets and opening them to foreigners, the participation of non-residents in these markets has been growing. The proportion of local-currency sovereign debt held abroad is greater in many developing countries than in reserve-issuers such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. It is held by fickle investors rather than by foreign central banks as international reserves.

International banks have been shifting from cross-border lending to local lending by establishing commercial presence in developing countries. Their market share in these countries has reached 50 percent compared with 20 percent in developed countries.

These banks tend to act as conduits of expansionary and contractionary impulses from global financial cycles and increase the exposure of developing economies to financial shocks from advanced economies.

One of the key lessons of history of economic development is that successful policies are associated not with autarky or full integration into the global economy, but strategic integration seeking to use the opportunities that a broader economic space may offer while minimising the potential risks it may entail. This is more so in finance than in trade, investment and technology.

For one thing, the international financial system is inherently unstable in large part because multilateral arrangements fail to impose adequate discipline over financial markets and policies in systemically important countries which exert a disproportionately large impact on global conditions.

For another, the multilateral system also lacks effective mechanisms for orderly resolution of financial crises with international dimensions.

Thus, closer integration of several into the international financial system in the past ten years, after a series of crises with severe economic and social consequences, is a cause for concern.

In all likelihood, these countries will be facing strong destabilising pressures in the years ahead as monetary policy in the United States returns to normalcy after six years of flooding the world with dollars at exceptionally low interest rates.

In weathering a possible renewed instability, they cannot count on the more flexible currency regimes they came to adopt after the last bouts of crises or the reserves they have built from capital inflows or the reduced currency exposure of the sovereign.

It is important that they, as well as the international community, avoid going back to business-as-usual in responding to a new round of financial shocks, bailing out investors and creditors and maintaining an open capital account at the expense of incomes and jobs.

They need to include many unconventional policy instruments in their arsenals to help lower the price that may have to be paid for the financial excesses of the past several years

They should also take the occasion to rebalance the pendulum and to bring about genuine changes in the international financial architecture. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

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

* This column is based on Internationalization of Finance and Changing Vulnerabilities in Emerging and Developing Economies, South Centre Research Paper 60, January 2015, which is available here.

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Millennium Development Goals: A Mixed Report Card for India Sat, 14 Feb 2015 13:12:08 +0000 Neeta Lal India is home to one-fourth of the world’s poor. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

India is home to one-fourth of the world’s poor. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Feb 14 2015 (IPS)

Despite being one of the world’s fastest expanding economies, projected to clock seven-percent GDP growth in 2017, India – a nation of 1.2 billion – is trailing behind on many vital social development indices while also hosting one-fourth of the world’s poor.

While the United Nations prepares to wrap up a decade-and-a-half of poverty alleviation efforts, framed through the lens of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), by the end of this year, the international community has its eyes on the future.

"A focus on accelerating sustainable, inclusive and balanced growth is key to poverty eradication." -- Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Social Research (CSR)
The coming development era will be centred on sustainability, driven by targets set out in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Home to one-sixth of the world’s population, India’s actions will determine to a great extent global efforts to lift millions out of destitution in the coming years.

Experts say its patchy progress on the MDGs offers some insights into how the country will both assist and hold back global development efforts in the post-2015 era.

Earlier this month the U.N. released a report lauding India’s efforts to half the number of poor people living within its borders to the current 270 million since the country joined hands with 189 U.N. member states to draft the MDGs 15 years ago.

While making strides in poverty reduction, India is also on track to achieve gender parity at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels on the education front by the year’s end though it lags significantly on the goal of empowering its women.

“The proportion of women working in decent jobs outside agriculture remains low; their participation in the overall labour force is also low and declining in rural areas; women in farming are constrained by lack of land ownership; and women are poorly represented in parliament,” the U.N. report stated.

The report recommends a continued emphasis on increasing both growth and social spending. However, experts point out this will be a significant challenge against the backdrop of India’s new Hindu nationalist government slashing social sector spending by about 30 percent in the supplementary budget.

Wretched poverty persists

The allocation for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), an initiative to provide employment to all adult members of poor Indian families for five dollars per day, is now the lowest it has been in five years.

Despite robust economic growth, scenes of destitution are visible all throughout India, a nation of 1.2 billion people. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Despite robust economic growth, scenes of destitution are visible all throughout India, a nation of 1.2 billion people. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By the end of last year, state governments had reported a drop of 45-percent in funds allocated by the Centre, from 240 billion to 130 billion rupees (3.8 million to 2.1 million dollars) – the sharpest decline since the scheme’s inception in 2005.

India needs to balance its economic growth while tackling poverty as the latter can considerably erode the progress achieved from high GDP numbers, say economists.

“Removing poverty is clearly the most important of the goals as it has clear linkages to the other MDGs,” Delhi-based economist Parvati Singhal, a visiting professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told IPS.

“It needs to be central to the post-2015 development agenda. Higher income resulting from growth is the best panacea for poverty […],” Singhal elaborated.

According to Sabyasachi Kar, associate professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, with the University of Delhi, a major reason for continuing poverty in India is the country’s below-par industrial growth, which scuppers job creation.

“Programmes like NREGA and food-for-work programmes are at best safety nets that will keep people from starving. We need robust growth in the industrial and manufacturing sectors to generate employment and alleviate poverty while raising incomes permanently.

“Effective domestic resource mobilisation and incentivising the private sector to invest in sustainable green technologies will also help to tackle poverty,” the economist added.

Though Asia’s third largest economy has shown good progress in achieving its poverty reduction target, the malaise has ironically become more visible.

The sight of homeless construction workers, beggars, rag pickers, child labourers – the ensemble cast of India’s apparently prospering megacities – reflects its harsh underbelly.

According to a report entitled ‘Effects of Poverty in India: Between Injustice and Exclusion’, “The spectacular growth of cities has made poverty in India more visible and palpable through its famous slums.”

U.N. data shows that 93 million people in India live in slums, including 50 percent of the population in its capital, New Delhi.

Meanwhile, the megacity of Mumbai, home to 19 million, hosts nine millions slum-dwellers, up from six million just 10 years ago.

Dharavi, the second largest slum in Asia, is located in central Mumbai and is home to between 800,000 and one million people, crammed into just 2.39 square kilometres of space.

Investing in women and children: crucial for development

Public health in India is also an area of concern, with the country trailing in the realms of infant and child mortality as well as maternal health.

According to the World Bank India accounts for 21 percent of deaths among children below five years of age. Its maternal mortality ratio (MMR) – the number of women who die during pregnancy, delivery or in the first 42 hours of a termination per 100,000 live births – is 190. Countries like Ecuador and Guatemala fare better than India, with MMRs of 87 and 140 respectively.

Addressing these issues will be a considerable challenge as India is home to 472 million children or about 20 percent of the world’s child population, while nearly 50 percent of its population is comprised of women.

Health activists are advocating for greater capital investment in public health. India currently spends an abysmal one percent of its GDP on health, half the sum allocated by neighbouring China.

Even Russia and Brazil, two other nations in the BRICS association of emerging economies of which India is a part, invest 3.5 percent of their respective GDPs on health.

“A focus on accelerating sustainable, inclusive and balanced growth is key to poverty eradication,” Ranjana Kumari, director of the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Social Research (CSR), told IPS.

The activist feels that growth and development should not only be measured in GDP terms but also in terms of per capita income and per capita spending.

“Right now, there is inequitable distribution of wealth in India. Money is concentrated in the hands of a few while the masses struggle to get two square meals a day. This inequity needs to be addressed as there’s no conflict in the growth of social justice and GDP growth; both ought to work in tandem for success.”

Speaking at the launch of the U.N. report on India last week, Shamshad Akhtar, under-secretary-general of the U.N., advocated for a new sustainable agriculture-based green revolution, which could contribute to ending hunger not only in India but across South Asia at large.

With eight percent of India’s population engaged in agriculture, amounting to some 95.8 million people, sustainable development will be impossible without lifting India’s farmers out of poverty, researchers contend.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Keeping Food Security on the Table at U.N. Climate Talks Fri, 13 Feb 2015 22:32:29 +0000 Denise M. Fontanilla and Chris Wright The UN climate talks open in Geneva, Switzerland on Feb. 8. Credit: Jenny Lopez-Zapata

The UN climate talks open in Geneva, Switzerland on Feb. 8. Credit: Jenny Lopez-Zapata

By Denise M. Fontanilla and Chris Wright
GENEVA, Feb 13 2015 (IPS)

Food security has become a key issue of the U.N. climate negotiations this week in Geneva as a number of countries and observers raised concerns that recent advances in Lima are in jeopardy.

While food security is a core objective of the U.N. climate convention, it has traditionally been discussed in relation to adaptation.“If we succeed in having food security within mitigation, we can say that one of the biggest concerns of Southern countries will have been taken into account." -- Ali Abdou Bonguéré, a negotiator for Niger

“Ask any African country what’s adaptation about – they’re going to say agriculture,” said Teresa Anderson of the international charity ActionAid. She added that 90 percent of countries who developed national adaptation plans identified agriculture as the key element.

Food security is referenced throughout the latest draft of the new climate agreement, which was released Feb. 12. One proposal for adaptation recognises the need “to build resilience of the most vulnerable linked to pockets of poverty, livelihoods and food security in developing countries.”

This language has recently been strengthened during negotiations in Lima. These discussions were seen as a minor victory for many developing nations seeking to include specific provisions for food security.

“Since Lima we have worked hard for food security to be taken into account. Food security was finally included into the adaptation section and we are currently working hard to have it also included in the mitigation negotiations as well,” said Ali Abdou Bonguéré, a negotiator for Niger.

However, this week a number of non-governmental organisations and negotiators alike have raised concerns that food security may be coming under threat.

As Teresa Anderson of ActionAid explained, there have been recent changes to the language being used within mitigation discussions that may have a long term impact on food security, especially in developing and marginalised nations.

Augustine Njamnshi, executive member of Cameroon’s Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme and part of the Panafrican Climate Justice Alliance. Credit: RTCC

Augustine Njamnshi, executive member of Cameroon’s Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme and part of the Panafrican Climate Justice Alliance. Credit: RTCC

These concerns began when “a few countries proposed submissions on a long term mitigation goal of ‘net zero’ emissions”. This was seen as a largely positive move, as negotiations developed a broader perspective and a number of countries proposed possible long-term pledges to reduce fossil fuel emissions by 2050 to ‘net’ or ‘near’ zero.

However, while the terms “near zero emissions” and “net zero emissions” may sound similar, some NGOs here believe they can have the exact opposite meaning. According to Anderson, while a goal of near zero emissions would be essential to addressing climate change, a long term “net zero” goal would mean that developed countries in particular could continue their emissions business as usual , while using alternative approaches to suck carbon out of the air instead of implementing real change.

Of the “net-zero” emissions approaches currently on the table, most are land-based, and would involve the scaling up of biofuels, biochar or BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage). “All of these approaches would use massive amounts of land, and this could create significant competition for food production,” she adds.

“In Africa we need land to grow our crops. You cannot be solving another problem by creating another problem,” said Augustine Njamnshi, executive member of Cameroon’s Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme and part of the Panafrican Climate Justice Alliance.

“We call for zero emissions, actually reducing emissions. Net zero means continuing pollution in some countries while stocking carbon dioxide in other countries, which will not be helpful to the communities in Africa,” he added.

This then could have a multiplying effect on food security, as “land use” was this week also introduced into the negotiations on mitigation.

“As land use is now being proposed in mitigation text, there are fears from many NGOs and countries I have talked to that an overemphasis on mitigation relating to agriculture and land will become the priority over adaptation…countries will have to sequester carbon to meet their mitigation goals,” Teresa said.

Dr. Alicia Ilaga, climate director of the Philippine agricultural ministry. Credit: Lou Del Bello via

Dr. Alicia Ilaga, climate director of the Philippine agricultural ministry. Credit: Lou Del Bello via

This, she fears, means that developed countries could supplement their mitigation goals with plans on purchasing land used for agriculture and turning it into biofuels or biochar. As Teresa added, if this was in fact to occur, it could affect poor and subsistence farmers, especially in developing countries.

“What we have learned from the biofuel land grab, it is always the hungriest, the poorest, the most marginalised who suffer the most. In the end, they get pushed off their land and thrown into poverty as they can’t afford the price of food.”

However, a number of negotiators, including some from developing countries, have argued that these concerns are exaggerated, and assumes these negotiations are occurring in bad faith.

“I don’t think that’s the way [the European Union] would see it like that because there’s actually a lot of measures you can take within the agriculture sector that have benefits for food security, adaptation and mitigation,” according to Irish delegate Gemma O’Reilly.

This is in the context of a week of negotiations that many feel was among the most successful and collegial in the recent history of the U.N. climate negotiations. As such, O’Reilly still believes we can achieve a win-win situation in the long term.

“There are measures you want to take that’s win-win-win and that’s what you can encourage. And land-grabbing – I don’t think so,” she added.

While Geneva may have closed (the talks ran Feb. 8-13), negotiations on mitigation remain open as we move closer to a Paris deal at the end of the year. It is therefore the hope among many developing nations that the inclusion of specific safeguards within mitigation could help protect against a future climate-fuelled land grab.

“If we succeed in having food security within mitigation, we can say that one of the biggest concerns of Southern countries will have been taken into account,” Bonguéré said.

This was reiterated by Dr. Alicia Ilaga, climate director of the Philippine agriculture ministry.

“Adaptation is our priority. If there are mitigation co-benefits, okay, even better, why not? And there are co-benefits for food security. Food security is adaptation, but there are adaptation strategies with mitigation potential,“ she said.

Saying that, climate justice groups this week reminded negotiators that the greatest threat to food security remains the lack of efforts to dramatically reduce carbon emissions before 2020.

Instead of delaying what may become an inevitable climate crisis for farmers and fisherfolk in the future, they call on countries to “take up the call of local communities to transform our energy systems today”.

This approach, partnered with a rapid phase-in of renewable energies and agro-ecological farming practices, could possibly achieve the co-benefits Dr. Ilaga hopes will support food security and prevent further climate change.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Women Pick Up the Slack as Fishing Declines on India’s Southern Coasts Thu, 12 Feb 2015 04:55:30 +0000 Nachammai Raman On average, women in self-help groups in a small fishing town in Tamil Nadu make about 80 dollars each month; it is just about enough to sustain fisher families, who receive free housing from the Indian government. Credit: Nachammai Raman/IPS

On average, women in self-help groups in a small fishing town in Tamil Nadu make about 80 dollars each month; it is just about enough to sustain fisher families, who receive free housing from the Indian government. Credit: Nachammai Raman/IPS

By Nachammai Raman
NAGAPATTINAM, India, Feb 12 2015 (IPS)

Geeta Selvaraj and a few other women take turns to prepare meals with just one large gas cooker in a tiny shop.

The piquant smell of masala wafts out to the crowded street to mix with plumes of vehicle exhaust and tantalize customers, who are mostly from the surrounding area of Nagapattinam, a predominantly fishing town in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

“We want self-help groups to be a tool to transform women into individual entrepreneurs. We want to build self-reliant communities." -- Senthil Kumar, reporting and monitoring officer for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)
Selvaraj’s income from her catering business has doubled over the last few years as her fisherman husband’s shrinks. “The men are not going out to sea like before,” she tells IPS, but she seems to have come to terms with this reality. “Because we [women] work, we don’t have to ask anyone for money and it helps with the household expenses.”

India is a major supplier of fish in the world and the industry employs an estimated 14.5 million people. The sector contributes about one percent of the country’s total GDP. Nagapattinam’s long coastline makes fishing its second most important industry after agriculture. According to the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, there are roughly 90,000 fishermen in what it calls the ‘fisheries capital’ of Tamil Nadu.

Traditionally, the women in the fishing community in this region stay at home or sell the fish their husbands bring back. But over the past few years, fishermen have been putting out to sea less often because of the scarcity of fish near the Indian coast and the fear of being caught by the Sri Lankan navy if they stray into the island’s territorial waters.

So, women in the community have stepped into the breach to provide for their families. They’re doing this by starting micro-enterprises and they’re the happier for it.

“Besides an income, it gives me a chance to get out of the house and interact with other people and know a little bit about what’s going on in the world,” says Selvaraj.

Micro-enterprises bring big changes

Nagapattinam district has a population of some 1.6 million people and a sex ratio of 1,025 women to 1,000 men. So, women form an important part of all development strategies in the district.

In a bid to weave women into the economic fabric of the region, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is assisting a Post-tsunami Sustainable Livelihood Programme that has given rise to thousands of micro-enterprises in the region, known locally as self-help groups.

IFAD, which is a specialised agency of the United Nations, is working with the local government. The goal is to establish at least 12,000 micro-enterprises in six coastal areas in Tamil Nadu by 2016.

Between 9,000 and 10,000 are already in operation now.

“We want self-help groups to be a tool to transform women into individual entrepreneurs. We want to build self-reliant communities,” says Senthil Kumar, who is the IFAD Reporting and Monitoring Officer for the programme in Tamil Nadu.

Since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, fishing in the coastal areas of Tamil Nadu has taken a big hit. The damage to the fishing industry was about 4.8 billion rupees (about 65 million dollars).

Prior to the disastrous tsunami, fishing was considered a lucrative activity by the standards here. Fishermen on average could make about 300 dollars per month. Now, they say it’s whittled down to half of that.

Firstly, it was because the fishermen had lost their boats and nets. The government offered compensation to about 17,672 affected fishermen, but even after all the equipment was repaired or replaced, the industry did not rally to its pre-tsunami days.

Then, fishermen claim, there’s less fish near the Indian coast since the tsunami, which makes them sail into Sri Lankan waters for a better catch. But the Sri Lankan Navy impounds their boats and detains the fishermen. In the past few months, this has turned into a contentious issue between the Indian and Sri Lankan governments.

“More than 80 boats have been caught by the Sri Lankan navy,” says Govindaswamy Vijayan, a fisherman who owns two fishing boats. “Today we need bigger boats to avoid crossing the international border into Sri Lankan waters and sail out to deep sea. But most fishermen can’t afford them.”

Sustainable plans to sustain fisher communities

With fewer men putting out to sea in the primarily fishing town of Nagapattinam in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, women are stepping into the breach through micro-enterprises. Credit: Nachammai Raman/IPS

With fewer men putting out to sea in the primarily fishing town of Nagapattinam in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, women are stepping into the breach through micro-enterprises. Credit: Nachammai Raman/IPS

The IFAD programme was created with a view to making coastal communities less dependent on fishing. However, as the men in the community refused to consider other trades, the prime beneficiaries of the programme have turned out to be women.

Women’s self-help groups were already burgeoning in the district after the tsunami as a means of income generation.

“When there’s a disaster, women are expected to care for the family. Feeding the children or other family members becomes their first concern and they immediately start getting involved in various activities,” says Vasudha Gokhale, a Pune-based professor at the BN College of Architecture who has studied how women in Tamil Nadu’s coastal areas coped with the tsunami.

But not all these self-help groups were successful because government officials chose their core activities. “Many of the women started micro-enterprises that they had little affinity for,” says Madhavan Krishnakumar, who works for a non-governmental organisation called Avvai Village Welfare Society.

Some of the micro-enterprises that fizzled out were involved in making plastic doors, bricks and candles. Their products were initially sold under the ‘Alaimagal’ brand.

“The government gave them funding incentives, but their entrepreneurial skills were not properly developed. They were not able to do the marketing or face professional competition, so they failed,” Krishnakumar explains.

A few NGOs such as the People’s Development Association were also involved in developing micro-enterprises in the district earlier on, but have now limited themselves to skills training for youth, according to its director, Joe Velu.

“There were too many people doing it. There was a lot of duplication and overlap. We felt it was becoming too much like moneylending.”

When IFAD came into the picture six years ago, the first thing they did was to conduct a survey. “We wanted to stabilise the movement,” says Kumar. “We graded self-help groups based on their performance and found the weaknesses that needed to be addressed to make the groups viable. Then we restructured the weak ones.”

Sufficient earnings, big savings

On average, the women in these self-help groups can take home about 5,000 rupees (about 80 dollars) per month, which a family of four can just about manage on thanks to the provision of free housing for fisher folk affected by the tsunami.

Revathi Kanakaraj belonged to a self-help group that was formed as far back as 2000, but it disintegrated after the tsunami. Then three years ago, she joined a new one under the IFAD umbrella. She finds it rewarding. “I’ve learned about micro-credit and I’ve learned about savings,” she tells IPS.

Financial literacy is one of the key components of the IFAD-assisted livelihood programme because its ultimate aim is to enable women to access credit on their own and encourage the habit of saving. “Previously, women in self-help groups didn’t know about interest rates and banking. But they’re managing their money very well now.”

The Tamil Nadu government reports that self-help groups across the state had a total savings of around 34 billion rupees (543 million dollars) as of 2012. Most of the women interviewed say they contribute between 20 and 120 rupees (0.32-1.92 dollars) per month.

Kasturi Ravi used to look forward to her husband’s return to shore and a nice income from the sale of the fish he had caught. But on Boxing Day ten years ago, her husband was washed back to shore dead in the devastating tidal waves that killed more than 6,000 people here, the worst affected district in India.

As she cleans dried fish for packing in a small salty-smelling shed with other members of her self-help group, she remembers how difficult it was to eke out a living after her husband’s death. She’s proud of where she is now.

She makes an average of four dollars per day. Although not a lot, it’s enough for subsistence. “I’m grateful for this because I can stand on my own feet,” she tells IPS.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Money Pipeline Flowing Between U.S. Congress and Big Oil Thu, 12 Feb 2015 00:02:16 +0000 Kitty Stapp Representatives from a coalition of over 30 environmental and progressive groups delivered more than 800,000 messages to Democratic Senator Harry Reid and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell in 2012 urging them to block attempts to resurrect the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Credit: by 2.0

Representatives from a coalition of over 30 environmental and progressive groups delivered more than 800,000 messages to Democratic Senator Harry Reid and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell in 2012 urging them to block attempts to resurrect the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Credit: by 2.0

By Kitty Stapp
NEW YORK, Feb 12 2015 (IPS)

With battle lines sharpening over the stalled Keystone XL pipeline, a new analysis details the intense industry lobbying of both houses of the U.S. Congress since 2013 – to the tune of 58.8 million dollars by five refinery companies alone.

According to MapLight, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organisation that reveals money’s influence on politics, the oil and gas industry gave, on average, 13 times more money to members of the House of Representatives who voted “yes” (43,375 dollars) on the bill called H.R. 3 than those who voted against it (3,610 dollars)."Another climate denier-controlled House vote in favour of oil isn't a surprise, and the Democrats who voted with them of course are oil-funded politicians too." -- Kyle Ash of Greenpeace

The bill would allow TransCanada to build the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline without a presidential permit or additional environmental review. It passed the House on Wednesday with a vote of 270-152.

The U.S. Senate approved a virtually identical measure last month.

“How can we truly trust legislators to vote in the public interest when they are dependent on industry campaign funding to get elected?” Pamela Behrsin of MapLight told IPS. “Our broken money and politics system forces lawmakers into a conflict of interest between lawmakers’ voters and their donors.”

She noted that Rep. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota and the sponsor of the legislation, received 222,400 dollars from the oil and gas industry, the ninth most among members of the House voting on H.R. 3.

Figures for the Senate were comparable, with the oil and gas industry giving, on average, 10 times more money to senators who supported the measure (236,544 dollars). The Senate sponsor, John Hoeven – also a Republican from North Dakota – received 275,998 dollars.

“Big Oil thinks it can buy votes in DC, and unfortunately the Keystone vote shows that is still possible in the halls of Congress,” David Turnbull of Oil Change International, a nonprofit working to promote a shift away from fossil fuels, told IPS.

“But what’s more important is that Big Oil can’t buy the American people, who are standing up to the industry’s bullying in Washington and demanding the president reject the pipeline and take bold action to move us off fossil fuels and towards a safer climate future.”

President Barack Obama has 10 days to decide on a veto. Since the 1,179-mile pipeline crosses national borders, Obama needs to issue a permit declaring the pipeline serves the “national interest” in order for it to be approved. The new legislation would circumvent such approval.

The pipeline has united every prominent U.S. environmental group in opposition, and even prompted the venerable Sierra Club to suspend its 120-year ban on civil disobedience. The group’s executive director, Michael Brune, was arrested in front of the White House during a protest against Keystone in February 2013, and there have been massive rallies against it since then.

Studies have shown that burning the heavy oil the pipeline would carry would emit more than 181 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide each year – equal to the emissions of nearly 38 million cars or 51 coal-fired power plants.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has warned that two-thirds of proven fossil fuel reserves need to be kept in the ground in order to have a 50 percent chance of staying below the two-degree threshold of warming that could avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Kyle Ash of Greenpeace told IPS that since the House had already passed the companion of the Senate bill, normally each chamber would reconcile their respective bills in conference, especially since both chambers are now controlled by the Republicans.

Instead, the full House went ahead and voted on the Senate version without making any changes, “apparently because GOP leaders fear that House Republican conferees will be too crazy”.

“As the Senate votes on climate amendments like Hoeven and Schatz also demonstrated, that the House voted on S.1 (the Senate version of the bill) ironically may be a sign that at least the crassest of congressional fossil fuel love is no longer in vogue,” he said.

“Another climate denier-controlled House vote in favour of oil isn’t a surprise, and the Democrats who voted with them of course are oil-funded politicians too.”

Indeed, MapLight found that the oil and gas industry gave, on average, 3.2 times more money to Democratic Senators voting for S.1 (73,279 dollars) compared to Democratic and Independent Senators voting against it (22,882 dollars).

The industry gave, on average, five times more money to Democratic Representatives voting “yes” (18,199 dollars) on H.R. 3 compared to Democratic and Independent Representatives voting “no” (3,610 dollars).

“We’ve done quite a bit of work on the massive amount of money members of Congress receive from the industry,” Turnbull said. “Indeed, it’s unfortunately not a surprise.”

The pipeline would carry petroleum from Canada’s oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast, and MapLight notes that some of Keystone XL’s strongest supporters are the Gulf Coast refinery companies that have expanded their facilities and would benefit from Canadian oil that will flow through the pipeline.

Valero, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66, and Motiva Enterprises (a company owned by Shell and the Saudi Arabian state oil company Saudi Aramco) constitute the five companies with the most refinery capacity along the Gulf Coast, the group says.

Together, the five companies control 45 percent of the refining capacity in the U.S., and all have been reported as possible customers of the pipeline.

“The vote in Congress on Keystone XL is a desperate distraction by an oil-soaked Congress. The president has said numerous times that he will veto the bill, and he’s right to do so,” Turnbull said.

“As the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] recently laid out, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline clearly fails the president’s own climate test, and should be rejected. The president has all the information he needs to reject the pipeline and we hope he does so as soon as possible, so we can all move on to building the clean energy economy rather than catering to the whims of Big Oil.”

A Washington Post/ABC News poll last month found 34 percent of respondents wanted the pipeline built now, while 61 percent said the environmental impact reviews – including by the State Department and the heads of eight other government agencies – should continue.

“The House is expediting this bill getting to the president so they can gloat about how Congress loves oil and he doesn’t – despite the Obama administration going out of its way to expand oil drilling on public lands,” Ash said.

“However, the KXL pipeline may have died when the president agreed with New York Times reporter Tom Friedman last June that growing fossil fuel supply is bad for the climate (‘we can’t burn it all’). I believe he will do as he said and veto this bill.”

Edited by Roger Hamilton-Martin

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Diabetes Epidemic Threatens Development Gains in Pacific Islands Wed, 11 Feb 2015 11:56:59 +0000 Catherine Wilson Increasing people's consumption of fresh produce and daily exercise are part of preventing a non-communicable disease crisis in the Pacific Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

Increasing people's consumption of fresh produce and daily exercise are part of preventing a non-communicable disease crisis in the Pacific Islands. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Catherine Wilson
SYDNEY, Feb 11 2015 (IPS)

The rapid rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the Pacific Islands, which now cause 75 percent of all deaths, is one of the greatest impediments to post-2015 development, health ministers in the region claim.

The Western Pacific has the world’s highest regional prevalence of diabetes, an NCD disease that is exacerbated by unhealthy eating habits, obesity and sedentary lifestyles, according to the International Diabetes Foundation. National prevalence rates have reached 25 percent in the Cook Islands, 29 percent in Tokelau and 37 percent in the Marshall Islands.

“Many amputations are done in our Pacific hospitals each day and people are losing their vision constantly due to diabetes." -- Spokesperson for Fiji-based Pacific Disability Forum (PDF)
Experts are increasingly concerned about the impact of the disease on the rate of disability, particularly the amputation of limbs and visual impairment, which threatens to undermine efforts to reduce poverty and inequality.

In Papua New Guinea, a southwest Pacific Island state that is home to over seven million people, “diabetes is increasing its prevalence in the general population, including children 12 years and younger, and the amputation of limbs is known among adults as young as 23 years,” Gerard Saleu, senior nursing officer at the country’s Institute of Medical Research, told IPS.

“Diabetes is certainly having an impact on disability in the region where not everyone can afford wheelchairs or walking and visual aids,” he added.

There has been a marked rise in NCDs in the Pacific Islands since at least the 1970s, experts say.

The incidence of Type 2 diabetes in Apia, capital of the South Pacific Island state of Samoa, rose from 8.1 percent to 9.5 percent in men and 8.2 percent to 13.4 percent in women between 1978 and 1991.

Considerable blame has been placed on the lure of globalised consumer-based lifestyles in a region with a long history of subsistence living, and the increasing influx of imported processed foods, high in fat and sugar content.

Local diets originally based on fresh fish, vegetables and fruit now include a high intake of instant noodles, packaged biscuits and carbonated drinks. Less than 10 percent of adults in Kiribati, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands eat a sufficiently nutritious diet, while more than 60 percent are obese in American Samoa, Tokelau, Cook Islands and Tonga, according to the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC).

Increasing urbanisation has accelerated people’s susceptibility to NCD risk factors, including decreased daily physical activity. In Fiji, one study revealed that diabetes afflicted an estimated 11.3 percent of women living in urban centres, compared to 0.9 percent in rural areas.

The onset of diabetes, when the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin to regulate blood sugar levels, can lead to blood circulatory problems and damage to the nerves, heart, eyes and kidneys. This heightens the risk of blindness, stroke and amputation of limbs, commonly feet and lower legs.

Globally, NCDs, including diabetes, account for about 66.5 percent of all years lived with disability.

“Many amputations are done in our Pacific hospitals each day and people are losing their vision constantly due to diabetes,” a spokesperson for the Fiji-based Pacific Disability Forum (PDF) told IPS.

In the Pacific Islands, up to 47 percent of diabetes sufferers experience loss of sight and an estimated 17 percent require amputations, reports the Pacific Islands Forum.

From 2010-2012, the main referral hospital in Fiji, home to over 881,000 people, performed 938 diabetes-related lower limb amputations. Most amputees were aged 45 years and over, but more than 100 were in the 25-44 age group.

Meanwhile the main hospital in the South Pacific Island state of Tonga, home to some 103,000 people, witnessed a 400-percent increase in these amputations over the past decade.

The subsequent loss of mobility, decline in economic participation and increase in household medical expenses is entrenching hardship and inequality, especially for those families that are already economically disadvantaged.

For many islanders with disabilities, “most public buildings are not accessible, employers do not have reasonable accommodation in the workplace and many are unable to work, which is a lost income for the family,” said the spokesperson for the PDF.

While awareness of and political will to address the needs of disabled people, who comprise about 17 percent of the Pacific Islands population, is growing, they continue to be “among the poorest and most marginalised members of their communities…with limited access to education, employment and basic social services, which leads to social and economic exclusion and perpetuates poverty,” according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

In Fiji, for instance, an estimated 89 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed.

There is also an absence of rehabilitation services to assist those with diabetes-related impairment to cope with new physical and psychological challenges in their daily lives, the PDF reports.

The devastating toll that NCDs are inflicting on the lives of Pacific Islanders, in turn denying them better human development outcomes, is matched by the unaffordable economic burden on public health services.

The cost of dialysis for diabetes-related kidney failure in Samoa was 38,686 dollars per patient per year in 2010-11, with the total cost to government equal to more than twelve times the nation’s gross national income, reports the World Bank.

With Pacific Island governments currently funding up to 90 percent of national health services, there is little, if any, capability for them to increase health expenditure to address an NCD epidemic.

Pacific health ministers are driving a focus on prevention and calling for a scale-up of actions and investment in prevention and control strategies with a ‘whole-of-government and whole-of-society’ approach.

That means scrutinizing food industry practices in the interests of better public health. Samoa, Nauru and the Cook Islands have now introduced taxes on food and drinks with high sugar content and eleven countries in the region have developed plans to reduce salt levels in foods.

Non-governmental organisations, such as the Pacific Network on Globalisation, have also expressed concern about the impact of international trade agreements, which, in the aim of liberalising trade, can increase the influx of cheap, imported, but unhealthy foods and beverages and disadvantage local food producers.

But lifestyle interventions are also needed to change consumer and exercise habits among people of all ages, including children.

Saleu, the nursing officer for Papua New Guinea’s Institute of Medical Research, said that in PNG, some awareness about NCDs and education for prevention is being done among the general population, but in line with the view of regional health authorities, current resources and preventive efforts still fall short of matching the scale of the crisis.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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In the Shadow of Displacement, Forest Tribes Look to Sustainable Farming Tue, 10 Feb 2015 18:06:31 +0000 Stella Paul Forest tribes in India’s southwestern Andhra Pradesh state fear they will soon be homeless when a dam floods their ancestral lands. They are turning to sustainable agriculture in preparation for displacement to less fertile areas. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Forest tribes in India’s southwestern Andhra Pradesh state fear they will soon be homeless when a dam floods their ancestral lands. They are turning to sustainable agriculture in preparation for displacement to less fertile areas. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
CHINTOOR, India, Feb 10 2015 (IPS)

Laxman, a 10-year-old Koya tribal boy, looks admiringly at a fenced-in vegetable patch behind his home in southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state. Velvety-green and laden with vegetables, the half-acre patch is where Laxman’s family gets their daily quota of nutritious food.

But one day soon it will disappear under several feet of water, thanks to the Polavaram multipurpose project – a 45-metre-high, 2.32-km-long mega dam currently under construction on the Godavari, the second-longest river in India after the Ganges.

Experts say nearly 200,000 members of India's forest-dwelling tribes could be displaced by construction of the Polavaram Dam in the southwestern state of Andhra Pradesh.
A crucial link in the federal government’s river-linking project, the Polavaram dam will submerge at least 276 villages, including Narakonda, where Laxman’s family lives.

Blissfully unaware today, young Laxman will soon be among the nearly 200,000 tribal people who experts say will be displaced en masse by the development project.

Laxman’s parents, Sitamma Rao and Sodi Bhimaiah, know that when the water comes, they will have to pack up and leave their village. The government has expressed its intention to properly compensate those affected but the community here has neither heard of nor seen the results of such promises.

To this day, no government official has visited these villages, where many tribal families earn about 30 Indian rupees (0.50 dollars) each day.

Diversifying crops

They know they must prepare for hard times ahead, but with no advice, support or official assistance forthcoming from the government, tribal villagers have embarked on their own quest for alternative livelihoods.

In dozens of villages along the dam site, in the foothills of the Papi mountain range, the hunter-gather Koya and Kondareddi tribes, both listed as particularly vulnerable tribal communities by the Indian government, are learning sustainable farming to better feed their families – and save what little they can for the dark days to come.

Having dwelt in the Papi hill ranges on either side of the Godavari gorge for generations, practicing small-scale farming and selling minor forest products at nearby markets, the tribes are now looking at more sustainable practices that will increase their yield and perhaps even provide them a surplus of food and income.

Helping them in this quest is Kovel Foundation – a local non-profit that trains forest tribes in entrepreneurial and alternative livelihood skills. Under a three-year project, Kovel is training 2,000 marginal women farmers from 46 villages in the ‘Annapurna Model’ – a multi-crop farming technique – as well as providing them with seeds and financial assistance.

The model was originally conceived by the federal government to help rural women farmers achieve food security and maintain a yearly income of between 50,000 and 100,000 rupees (800 to 1,600 dollars).

Prior to this scheme, tribal communities in the region gathered forest fruits and herbs, and earned a meager monthly salary of between eight and 24 dollars by selling forest products.

Now they are diversifying crops, spreading out their risks and increasing their modest yields.

Hailing from the nearby village of Aligudem, which will also be submerged by the dam, a farmer named Laxamma Raju shows IPS her year-old garden: half an acre of land divided into 15 beds, each of them seven feet wide.

A narrow trench separates the beds, made from rich soil topped with silt, compost and cow dung. Growing on each of these nutrient-filled plots is a different crop: radish, okra, eggplant, carrot, onion, bitter gourd, pumpkin, cow bean, tomatoes, chili and coriander.

There are also banana saplings, planted alongside mango and custard apple trees.

Interspersed among them are yellow marigolds and sunflowers. The bright flowers attract pests, working as organic insect traps, explains Satya Raju, Laxamma’s husband.

The idea of growing and consuming so many crops excites farmers here, who have never before enjoyed such a varied diet.

“Earlier, we grew rice, some millets and chickpeas,” Laxamma tells IPS. “But from last year, we have been growing multiple crops, and harvesting a basket of vegetables every week,” she adds, pointing to a bag of tomatoes that she is going to sell in the market for 15 rupees a kilo. All told, she will take home about 1,200 rupees (about 20 dollars) each month from her multi-crop farm.

These are no small strides for forest tribes, 70 percent of whose population lives below the poverty line according to government data. Few attend school, or learn to read and write. The literacy level among such remote tribes in Andhra Pradesh is estimated at 47 percent.

When development means displacement

One of the major challenges for tribes in this area is the lack of irrigation facilities, says Beera Voina Murali, a Koya tribesman and a trainer with the Kovel Foundation.

“The monsoon is the only source of water,” Murali tells IPS. “Though the department of tribal affairs offers a 50 percent subsidy on diesel-powered pumps, they still cost over a lakh (2,000 dollars) – marginal farmers cannot afford that kind of money.”

And even those who do manage to install these costly devices struggle to pay for the fuel. Laxmamma, for example, spends about 10 dollars every day just to keep the pump going, since it guzzles roughly nine litres of diesel daily.

Meeting this irrigation challenge in the region is one of the stated goals of the Polavaram dam project; with a storing capacity of 551 million cubic metres, the dam promises to irrigate 700,000 acres of land.

But this “solution” represents disaster for over a quarter of a million people in this area, including farmers like Sitamma, who are will be completely inundated once the project is completed.

“Today, we can’t cultivate well because we don’t have water. But tomorrow when the water comes, we will lose our home,” says Edu Konda, another Kovel Foundation trainer who has been actively protesting the construction of the dam, but with little hope of a change in government policy.

Last year, concerned community members met with the project officer in charge of the dam at the department of tribal affairs in Rampachodavaram and made an appeal to save the threatened lands.

“He said, ‘You will be relocated into good, fertile areas,’” Konda recalls, “but the very next month he was transferred out of this district. Now, we are back to level zero,” she tells IPS.

India’s track record of relocating and rehabilitating tribal communities displaced by development projects leaves a lot to be desired. One such example is the Sardar Sarovar dam over the river Narmada in central India that displaced 300,000 tribal people in 2005.

Over a decade later, 40,000 of these people are still waiting to be relocated, or compensated for their lost lands.

A similar controversy unfolded around the site of the Hasdeo Bango dam in central India’s Chhattisgarh state. Construction of the dam that began in 1962 and ended in 2011 affected 52 mostly tribal villages. But they have been poorly relocated and even today have few basic facilities and even fewer livelihood opportunities, according to government data.

Against this backdrop, some community members feel it is futile to adopt new farming techniques when they could soon be landless. The vast majority, however, are convinced that their newly acquired sustainable agricultural practices will serve them well – even if they are forcibly moved to less fertile areas.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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OPINION: People Power, the Solution to Climate Inaction Tue, 10 Feb 2015 11:15:55 +0000 Rob McCreath If we keep on burning coal, oil and gas at ‘business as usual’ levels, our grandchildren will inhabit a planet some 5 degrees Celsius hotter by the end of the century. Credit: Bigstock

If we keep on burning coal, oil and gas at ‘business as usual’ levels, our grandchildren will inhabit a planet some 5 degrees Celsius hotter by the end of the century. Credit: Bigstock

By Rob McCreath
BRISBANE, Feb 10 2015 (IPS)

Nothing is more important to farmers like me than the weather. It affects the growth and quality of our crops and livestock, and has a major impact on global food supply.

The world’s weather is being messed up by global warming, mainly caused by the burning of fossil fuels, which releases heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere.If your bank lends money to coal, oil and gas projects, then take your business to one that doesn’t. It will put a smile on your face.

Every national science organisation in the developed world agrees that global warming is real and caused by human activities. That’s good enough for me.

If we keep on burning coal, oil and gas at ‘business as usual’ levels, our grandchildren will inhabit a planet some 5 degrees Celsius hotter by the end of the century – rendering large parts of it uninhabitable, including many currently densely populated areas, which will be under water due to melting glaciers and ice caps.

The impacts on farming in Australia (and everywhere else) of such a rise in temperature would be very severe indeed.

To avoid such a bleak future, we simply must stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If our politicians had any common sense, they would change quickly to renewable energy, but sadly they are captives of the fossil fuel industry that funds their re-election campaigns.

Just look at the Nationals, who in spite of claiming to represent farmers, this month declared donations of 30,000 dollars from oil & gas company Santos, 25,000 from coal miner Peabody, and 50,000 dollars from prominent climate change denier and coal & oil company director Ian Plimer.

So, for the sake of future generations, we have to make this change happen ourselves, and the best way to do this is to disrupt the business model of companies trying to make money from fossil fuels by pulling the financial rug out from underneath them.

It’s called divestment, which is simply the opposite of investment. Here’s how it works. If you’ve got shares in fossil fuel companies, then sell them and invest in something that won’t wreck the planet.

If your super fund invests in fossil fuels, then transfer your money to a fund that doesn’t. If your bank lends money to coal, oil and gas projects, then take your business to one that doesn’t. It will put a smile on your face.

The global movement to divest from fossil fuels is gaining momentum, and the more people that take part, the better it works. Share prices (just like wheat and cattle prices) are set by supply and demand, so as more people sell, the price falls.

When a company’s share price falls far enough, it finds it more difficult to borrow money, with which to fund its next coal mine. Take oil and gas company Santos, for example. Due mainly to the recent plunge in oil prices, in the past six months its share price has dropped by almost 50 percent.

As a result, the company has announced plans to cut back on expenditure and reduce its operations.

On the flip side, the more money that flows into companies involved in renewable energy, energy efficiency and green technology, the faster they will grow and the sooner we can put a lid on runaway climate change.

A brave new world awaits. Let’s divest together and change the future!

Global Divestment Day will be taking place on Feb. 13-14. Hundreds of events spanning six continents will be taking place. Join an event near you. For more information visit:

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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

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OPINION: China – The Future, After 4,000 Years of History Mon, 09 Feb 2015 11:24:19 +0000 Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung is Professor of Peace Studies and Rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University, and the author of over 150 books on peace and related issues, including '50 Years – 100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives' published by TRANSCEND University Press. In this column, he describes a China marked by relative coherency of dynasties and the West as a series of empires that decline and fall.

By Johan Galtung
PENANG, Malaysia, Feb 9 2015 (IPS)

A theory serves comprehension, prediction and identification of conditions for change. Seven such historical-cultural pointers will be indicated for China – using the West in general, and the United States in particular, for comparison.

Look at a map combining world history and geography, time and space. China shows up through 4,000 years as relatively coherent dynasties with complex transitions and the West as empires-birth-growth-peaking-decline-fall, like the Roman, British and now U.S. empires – duration vs bubbles that burst, China-centric vs hegemonic.

Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung

China marginalised space peopled by South-West-North-East barbarians – outside the “Chinese pocket” between the Himalayas-Gobi desert-Tundra-Sea, except for the East China-East Africa silk roads, destroyed by Portugal and England from 1500, colonising Macao-Hong Kong.

A goal of current Chinese foreign policy is to restore the silk roads and lanes: high speed trains for Eurasia, cooperating for mutual and equal benefit, harmony.

The United States marginalises time by disregarding past history, and with the idea that creates future New Beginnings for immigrants, and New History for itself, for other countries, for the whole world.

For Daoism, valid knowledge is holistic and dialectic, based on big, complex units of thought (whole humans, China, the world) riveted by forces and counter-forces, yin-yang, good vs bad, themselves yin-yang, with what is suppressed growing and what is dominant declining until the next turn. The holon may jump from one contradiction tapering off to the next.

For the West, valid knowledge is based on subdivision and accumulation of knowledge about elements, woven together in theories.

For Mao Zedong the basic contradiction was foreign imperialism with landowners vs the people, students-peasants-workers. The 1949 revolution started a distribution vs growth dialectic with jumps every nine years (1958-1967-1976): Mao’s death, four chaotic years.“China shows up through 4,000 years as relatively coherent dynasties with complex transitions and the West as empires-birth-growth-peaking-decline-fall, like the Roman, British and now U.S. empires”

For Deng Xiaopeng, it was misery vs lack of growth. The 1980 revolution accumulated capital with farmers near cities and in Shenzen (26 percent annual growth), and re-created merchants. Then nine years distribution vs growth again: from 1989 (Tiananmen!) distribution, 1998, 2007, 2016: new focus on growth.

China draws on Daoist insights, on Confucian ideas of hierarchies with harmony, and Buddhist small community equality: Buddhism for distribution, Confucianism for growth, Daoism for jumps between them.

The West could have drawn upon the positives in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but focused on negatives for discrimination-prejudice-war-genocide – now as Judeo-Christianity vs Islam – with unused synergies.

Chinese Mandarin rulers combined rule by rules with high culture, over farmers and artisans, and merchants marginalised at the bottom; Western aristocrat rulers combined rule with force, trade and clergy benediction; later to become State, Capital, Intelligentsia. A basic difference was marginalisation vs integration of merchants.

The Chinese Emperors were Sons of the Heaven trading with those who paid tribute to the Emperor; in the West, Heaven was the only God for the whole world at all time, creating and taking life, the monarch being the only person with a Mandate from God-rex gratia dei-by the grace of God, also entitled to take life, delegated to His army.

The English refused to pay tribute, using opium wars, “gunboat diplomacy”, burning (with the French) the imperial palace instead; China was never violent outside the “pocket” (except when provoked by India in 1962).

The Mandate of the Heaven is lost when People shout in the streets, and regained by addressing their grievances and ideas in the ancient petition system – by “idea democracy, not arithmetic democracy”; the West counting votes in multi-party national fair and free elections.

The Cultural Revolution shouted in the streets against Confucian rule by older men with high education from East China, paving the way for the young, the women and West China – also in 80 million educated “communist” Party members, presumably wise enough to understand the yin-yang dialectics. Tiananmen 1989 was not about democracy, “no votes for uneducated”, but – like Hong Kong (?) – about losing their feudal position to wealthy farmers, merchants, private and state capitalists.

China is China-centric, the deep culture is still holistic-dialectic with a Western surface, the three civilisations synergy is there. So is the Chinese inability to handle the “pocket”: Taiwan-Tibet-Uighurs-Mongolians-Vietnamese-Koreans.

But China indeed went global; trading with barbarians; upgrading merchants-traders-money people; accumulating huge wealth. Mao opened up society for huge masses of Chinese, the young, women, and the West; Deng lifted the bottom 300-400 million up 1991-2004, with the communist focus on the needs of the neediest, into capitalism: capi-communism. Beijing 1980: six million bicycles 0 private cars; 2010: 0 vs five million.

The West, out-competed by BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa), did more killing than learning.

China’s ruling class, steeped in culture, linked dynastic cycles to yin-yang thought, and traders to barbarians. Today’s rulers, deep in money shouting to beget more money, link money to corruption – and speculation? And competition from Latin America+Africa – shouting in the streets may send China packing – and the end of a dynasty is near.

China’s lead is not forever. Nothing ever was. Except, maybe, some China. A more spiritual dynasty, after materialist “communism”? (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

Edited by Phil Harris   

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

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Taiwanese Activists Push for Citizen-Based Constitution Thu, 05 Feb 2015 14:39:00 +0000 Dennis Engbarth Participants in a forum outside the national legislature in Taipei City during the ‘Sunflower’ occupation in April, 2014, call for the principles of distributional justice and direct democracy to be inserted into Taiwan’s constitution. Credit: Dennis Engbarth/IPS

Participants in a forum outside the national legislature in Taipei City during the ‘Sunflower’ occupation in April, 2014, call for the principles of distributional justice and direct democracy to be inserted into Taiwan’s constitution. Credit: Dennis Engbarth/IPS

By Dennis Engbarth
TAIPEI, Feb 5 2015 (IPS)

“The clock is ticking.” Those were the words of Taiwan Democracy Watch Director Yeh Chueh-an on Feb. 4, as scores of civil society organisations in the capital, Taipei, began a countdown for a citizen-based rewriting of Taiwan’s constitution aimed at safeguarding human rights and social equity.

Composed of over 20 human rights and social activist organisations, the Alliance for the Promotion of a Citizen Constitutional Council has launched a campaign for an overhaul of Taiwan’s political framework that, for the first time, could feature the “bottom–up” participation of the country’s 23 million citizens.

“Citizens, not political elites, must be the subjects of constitutional reform." -- National University Professor of Political Science Chen Chun-hung
The digital clock was set at 116 days and 12 hours – meaning a deadline of May 31, marking the end of the current session of Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan.

Proposed constitutional amendments must first be approved by three fourths of Taiwan’s 112-seat national legislature and announced six months in advance of a national referendum in which at least half of Taiwan’s over 18 million eligible voters must vote “yes” if the changes are to be ratified.

Draft amendments to the constitution – including one prepared by opposition legislator Cheng Li-chun  – are likely to include safeguards on human dignity, freedom of residence, assistance for the destitute, better working conditions, and confidential communications and privacy.

On Jan. 12, the Alliance to Promote a Citizen Constitutional Council proposed a two-stage process in which a ‘national affairs conference’ would bring political parties, legislators, civil society organisations and other civic leaders together to brainstorm how best to bring about grassroots-based constitutional changes.

“Citizens, not political elites, must be the subjects of constitutional reform,” said National University Professor of Political Science Chen Chun-hung.

“We must set in place robust procedures for ordinary people to participate and feel a close connection and involvement in this process if it is to succeed,” added Chen, also a director of Taiwan Democracy Watch.

Breaking China’s historic hold

The current constitution of the ‘Republic of China’ (Taiwan’s official name) was drafted in mainland China, and imposed on Taiwan by the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) government of the late autocrat Chiang Kai-shek after the KMT lost the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s.

Its modest provisions for democratic and citizen rights were deep-frozen during four decades of martial law rule through the late 1980s.

Seven sets of revisions through “additional articles” spurred by Taiwan’s first native-born president Lee Teng-hui in the 1990s left Taiwan with a democratically elected but unwieldy political system in which power and responsibility are not commensurate.

Although directly elected, the president has no direct role in state administration; the premier or head of government is appointed by the president and is not responsible to the national legislature; and no feasible methods exist to resolve deadlocks between the executive and legislative branches.

“We have a system in which the president can do what he wants with impunity and there is no way that the people or even the legislature can stop him no matter how low his support is or how unpopular his policies [are],” said Economic Democracy Union convenor Lai Chung-chiang.

“The existing governmental system is unable to solve the pressing and urgent problems faced by the people, including issues impinging on their right of survival [such as] lax food safety, wealth inequality, threats to their right of residence and inadequate social welfare,” added Taiwan Labour Front Secretary-General Sun Yu-lien.

Once considered impossible due to opposition by President Ma Ying-jeou and his hard-line KMT government, the question of constitutional re-engineering was re-energised during the past year of social and political activism, punctuated by the Mar. 18-Apr. 10 ‘Sunflower Movement’ occupation of Taiwan’s national legislature.

The occupation was touched off by Ma’s insistence on ramming through the legislature a bill to ratify a controversial Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement with China despite widespread concerns that the covertly negotiated pact would harm local industries and employment, exacerbate wealth inequalities and undermine democratic freedoms.

The campaign, which included a mass rally of over 300,000 on Mar. 30, stymied the pact’s ratification and was followed by street demonstrations in late April 2014 that scuttled plans to complete a bitterly contested 10- billion-dollar nuclear power plant.

During the occupation, activists called for a Citizen Constitutional Council and held democratic deliberations among several thousand citizens on its agenda.

But it was not until the ruling KMT suffered a severe electoral defeat in nationwide mayoral elections this past November that the feasibility of constitutional change emerged on the immediate political agenda.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 13 mayoral posts, compared to six for the ruling KMT and three for independent candidates, including prominent surgeon Ko Wen-je, who won the nation’s capital of Taipei City.

A survey of 1,069 Taiwanese adults released last December by Taiwan Thinktank showed that nearly 60 percent of those polled saw the mayoral elections as a vote of no confidence in the Ma government and its pro-China and pro-conglomerate policies.

The debacle triggered Ma’s resignation from the KMT chairmanship on Dec. 3. Although Ma remains president, the moderate New Taipei City Mayor Chu Li-lun replaced him as ruling party leader on Jan. 19 and called for constitutional amendments to move Taiwan toward a cabinet system of government.

A research fellow at the Academia Sinica Institute of Jurisprudence, Huang Kuo-chang, told IPS that the March occupation exposed to the Taiwan people the grave dysfunction of the political system, adding, “The Nov. 29 elections have finally forced the KMT to consider the necessity of constitutional reform.”

Securing basic rights

In December, the KMT and DPP legislative caucuses formed task forces on constitutional revision, but the two parties remain mainly concerned with revamping the central government structure and the legislative election system.

However, the top priority for social activist and human rights organisations is securing the equivalent of a constitutional Bill of Rights.

As National Taiwan University Professor of Law Chen Chao-ju noted, “[C]onstitutions in other new democracies, such as South Africa, have special provisions to ensure substantive equality and social justice.

“We need to incorporate detailed provisions to protect basic human and social rights from discrimination or infringement by the state and substantive abrogation by government-business collusion,” she added.

Such changes could help people uphold and defend, among other things, their own labour rights, in a country that is consistently failing to provide equally for all its citizens.

Although the unemployment rate fell slightly in 2014 to 3.96 percent, the lowest since the KMT returned to power, joblessness among youth (15-24 years of age) averaged 12.63 percent that same year.

Taiwan’s unemployment rate was higher than Japan’s (3.5 percent), South Korea (3.4 percent) and Hong Kong (3.3 percent).

Meanwhile, according to the official Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, the share of labour compensation to gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 0.87 percentage points to 44.65 percent in 2013, the second lowest in Taiwan’s history. During the same period, the ratio of enterprise profits to GDP rose by 1.41 percentage points to 33.45 percent.

“The fruits of economic growth have been taken by conglomerates and major stockholders while wages have stagnated and the numbers of working poor have continued to rise,” summed up Taiwan Labour Front Secretary-General Sun You-lien.

All across the spectrum, ordinary citizens and experts on social, economic and political policy are counting down the days for constitutional reform that could usher in an era of democracy and development that many here had started to believe was unattainable.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Asia to Drive Strong Growth in Global Tourism Wed, 04 Feb 2015 22:35:29 +0000 Lakshman Ratnapala

Lakshman Ratnapala is Emeritus President & CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

By Lakshman Ratnapala

Global tourism, which stood at a mere 25 million international travelers in 1950 has, over the past decades, experienced such phenomenal growth and diversification that today it has become one of the fastest growing economic sectors in the world.

The resilience of the global travel industry to face calamities is well known.With both technology and travelers' habits changing, the Asian millennial traveler will make a very large chunk of the world travel demographics.

The tourism industry has achieved remarkable growth, from 278 million in 1980 to 528 million in 1995, 1,017 million in 2013 and to an unprecedented 1,138 million in 2014, an increase of 4.7 percent over the previous year.

Modern tourism is closely linked to development and encompasses a growing number of new destinations. These dynamics have turned tourism into a key driver for socio-economic progress.

According to the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the business volume of tourism today equals or even surpasses that of oil exports, food products or automobiles.

Tourism has become one of the major players in international commerce and represents at the same time, one of the main income sources for many developing countries.

This growth goes hand in hand with an increasing diversification and competition among destinations and has produced economic and employment benefits in many related sectors-from construction to agriculture or telecommunications.

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) reports that travel and tourism’s contribution to the global economy has risen to 9.5 percent of global gross domestic product (seven trillion dollars) – not only outpacing the wider economy but also growing faster than other key sectors such as financial and business services, transport and manufacturing.

What is more important than the number of tourist arrivals in various destinations, is the growth in value in international tourism receipts because income from foreign tourism is critical to the well being of many of the world’s economies and in some cases to their very existence.

In fact, many governments promote investment in tourism, as a key driver of socio-economic progress through export revenues, the creation of jobs and enterprises and infrastructure development.

UNWTO forecasts international tourist arrivals to grow between 3 percent and 4 percent in 2015 with the strongest growth expected in Asia and the Americas (both 4 percent to 5 percent). Over 300 tourism experts have cited the following reasons for this optimistic forecast for 2015 –

* Continuing demand through 2015, as the world economic situation improves.
* Decline of oil prices.
* Lower transport costs will boost economic growth by lifting purchasing prices and private demand in oil importing economies.

The currently rising value of the U.S. dollar will encourage more Americans to take advantage of better travel deals.

The purchasing power of the American dollar has grown 15 percent against the euro, 10 percent against the yen and 21 percent against the Argentine peso.

While this may be good news for the American traveler, it is bad news for others, the most glaring example of which is Russia where revenue from oil exports have fallen drastically and harsh economic sanctions by the Europeans and the U.S. have sent the Russian economy into a spin, sending the U.S. dollar rocketing to 49 percent against the ruble.

Russia has been a good provider of tourists to several countries, who will now certainly see a drop in arrivals.

Over the next 10 years substantial growth will be driven by Asian inbound destinations and outbound source markets with China leading the way.

The total number of trips abroad from China is estimated to have increased by 11 million to 109 million in 2014. Expenditure was up by 17 percent in the first three quarters of 2014.

China is the world’s largest outbound source market since 2012 with a total expenditure of 129 billion dollars in 2013. With both technology and travelers’ habits changing, the Asian millennial traveler will make a very large chunk of the world travel demographics.

The International Monetary Fund reported that global Gross Domestic Product grew 3.4 percent for 2014 up from 3 percent in 2013. China, India and South East Asia were the key drivers of this growth.

A joint study by the Singapore Tourism Board, Visa and Mc Kinsey & Co. revealed that over the next decade, Asian millennial traveler (AMT) expenditure on international travel is expected to increase by 1.6 times to 340 billion dollars. AMT covers approximately a quarter of Asia’s total population.

The UNWTO expects the number of international arrivals to increase by an average of 3.3 percent a year over the period 2010 to 2030. Over time, the rate of growth will gradually slow on top of growing base numbers.

In absolute numbers, international tourist arrivals will increase by some 43 million a year, compared with an average increase of 28 million a year during the period 1995 to 2010.

At the projected rate of growth international tourist arrivals worldwide are expected to reach 1.4 billion by 2020 and 1.8 billion by the year 2030.

International tourist arrivals in the emerging economy destinations will grow at double the rate (+4.4 percent a year) of that of advanced economy destinations (+2.2 percent a year). As a result, arrivals in emerging economies are expected to exceed those in advanced economies before 2020.

In 2030, 57 percent of international arrivals will be in emerging economy destinations (versus 30 percent in 1980) and 43 percent in advanced economy destinations (versus 70 percent in 1980).

The strongest growth will be seen in Asia where arrivals are forecast to increase by 331 million to reach 535 million in 2030 (+4.9 percent per year). The Middle East and Africa are also expected to more than double their arrivals in this period.

Europe (from 475 million to 744 million) and the Americas (from 150 million to 248 million) will grow comparatively more slowly.

Thanks to their faster growth, the global market shares of Asia (to 30 percent in 2030 up from 22 percent in 2010), the Middle East (to 8 percent, from 6 percent) and Africa (to 7 percent from 5 percent) will all increase.

As a result, Europe (to 41 percent from 51 percent) and the Americas (to 14 percent from 16 percent) will experience a further decline of their share of international tourism.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Where the Right to Information and Good Governance Go Hand in Hand Tue, 03 Feb 2015 10:46:16 +0000 Amantha Perera The 2009 murder of prominent editor Lasantha Wickrematunge sent shock waves through Sri Lankan media circles. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

The 2009 murder of prominent editor Lasantha Wickrematunge sent shock waves through Sri Lankan media circles. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Feb 3 2015 (IPS)

On Jan. 8, 2009, the Sri Lankan media suffered a debilitating attack.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, an editor and unashamed critic of Sri Lanka’s then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government, was killed just five minutes away from his office in Ratmalana, a suburb of the capital Colombo. Motorcycle-riding assailants, none of whom have been identified, waylaid him and assassinated him in broad daylight.

The murder sent shockwaves through the media community, already besieged by an administration that had a zero-tolerance policy towards criticism while it pushed for a military victory to end a long-running separatist war with Tamil rebels in the north of the island.

In 2014, Sri Lanka was ranked 85th on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), with just 38 out of 100 points, indicating a strong need for anti-corruption measures -- Transparency International
The Wickrematunge murder was a catalyst that drove many others to take shelter outside of Sri Lanka, as state repression increased. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) at least 13 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka, while dozens have fled in fear of deadly reprisals, since Mahinda Rajapaksa assumed office in 2005.

His assassination was also seen as an attack on one of the few news outlets committed to exposing corruption, revealing nepotism and pushing for good governance at a time when the so-called “right” to information was a pipedream.

Exactly six years to the day of the murder, Rajapaksa lost the presidency. Some of Wickrematunge’s close family members and associates have called the defeat divine retribution. And it has been hard to ignore the coincidence.

Since the election, the Sri Lankan media as a whole have been breathing lightly. The new government has eased travel restrictions and granted access to blocked or banned websites. New ministers have been quick to assure the public that national intelligence personnel have been ordered to stop listening in on private phone calls.

“The State Intelligence Service has been asked to strictly limit itself to national security operations, nothing else,” Cabinet Spokesperson and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne told foreign correspondents on Jan. 28 in the capital.

The government is also pushing ahead with a long-delayed Right to Information (RTI) Act, which is likely to be presented to parliament by Feb. 20, little over a month after the new government took office.

A committee has been set up to draft the bill. It has been meeting with media rights groups and others to prepare a draft to be presented to the cabinet by Feb. 16.

This is not the first time such a bill has been moved in Sri Lanka’s parliament. In September 2010, Karu Jayasuriya, the deputy leader of the opposition United National Party (UNP), presented an RTI bill to parliament but was forced to withdraw it following strong resistance from the regime.

That was the last anyone heard of the transparency initiative for five years.

Under the new governing coalition helmed by President Maithripala Sirisena, however, the issues of transparency and good governance are finally drifting closer to the top of the agenda.

According to Gayantha Karunathilaka, the new minister of media, “There is a lot of house cleaning we have to do and we don’t want to waste any time.”

The bill will mandate by law the right to seek information from public offices and officials, and also protect those who seek such information. The new government has also appealed to those who fled the country to return though none have yet done so.

Ignorance fuels corruption

Economic analysts here feel that an RTI bill could act as a deterrent against rampant corruption, one of the main grievances with the Rajapaksa regime.

Corruption and waste by the former president and his detail was so extreme that the current interim budget, prepared ahead of General Elections in April, has indicated a cut of some 80 billion rupees (over 600,000 dollars) in the funds hitherto allocated to the presidential secretariat.

Experts say it is only the tip of the iceberg of the degree to which state funds were gobbled up by those in the president’s immediate family or closely allied with the regime.

“In countries like India, the RTI Act appears to have reduced corruption as reflected in the improvement in India’s rating in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) produced by Transparency International [from 94th place in 2012 to 85th last year],” economist Muttukrishna Sarvananthan told IPS. “Many other developing countries have also experienced improvement in the CPI after Right To Information [Acts].”

He feels that such a step would pave the way for more scrutiny of public spending from the media when there is legal guarantee to seek such information from governments.

In 2014, Sri Lanka was ranked 85th on the CPI, with just 38 out of 100 points, indicating a strong need for anti-corruption measures, according to the watchdog group.

In one of the most startling examples of corrupt public spending, the last government reportedly spent 846 million rupees, or roughly six million dollars, in a failed bid to host the Commonwealth Games in Sri Lanka.

Last week local newspapers reported that the Ministry of Highways, whose portfolio came under the former president, had spent 50 billion rupees in excess of its budget allocations in 2014, almost all of it on election campaigning for Rajapaksa who eventually lost the race.

Replacing self-censorship with public awareness

Sunil Jayasekera, convener of the Free Media Movement (FMM), the island’s foremost media rights group, said that the RTI Act formed part of a wider agenda.

“It is just one block in a larger wall that we need to build to reinforce civic rights here. Along with the RTI Act, the government should also look at establishing an independent commission for the judiciary and police […],” he stated.

Jayasekera said that the last five years have seen media rights erode like never before. The FMM official said that while scores of journalists have fled the country others have been forced to practice self-censorship.

“It is not only through fear and intimidation – they were the more obvious modes – there was a lot of censorship by way of financial control,” he added.

Several privately-held media houses changed ownership in the last five years, including The Sunday Leader, the leading English-language daily edited by Wickrematunge that at times acted as the lone deterrent against nepotism.

Most of the new investors were suspected of supporting the Rajapaksa administration.

In one such instance, a leading weekly newspaper management told its staff soon after the election that it had lost all advertising revenue, simply because over 90 percent of its ads came from government agencies.

The newspaper also had an unwritten law of not writing anything about the casino-related investments entered into by the Rajapaksa government – estimated at over one billion dollars.

The self-imposed restriction was suspected to be due to the new ownership’s business interests in gaming.

“That is just one example, there are dozens of such in the last decade or so,” Jayasekera explained.

He said that the new government should set the tone without delay to indicate that it supports a vibrant media culture.

“The FMM was one of over 40 civil organisations that supported the Sirisena campaign on a broad reform agenda, and the government is duty-bound to keep those pledges,” he stressed.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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