Inter Press Service » Editors’ Choice http://www.ipsnews.net Journalism and Communication for Global Change Wed, 23 Jul 2014 07:17:42 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.1 Gaza Under Fire – a Humanitarian Disaster http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/gaza-under-fire-a-humanitarian-disaster/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=gaza-under-fire-a-humanitarian-disaster http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/gaza-under-fire-a-humanitarian-disaster/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 12:05:54 +0000 Khaled Alashqar http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135676 Following an Israeli airstrike, Palestinian youth inspect the building their families lived in. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

Following an Israeli airstrike, Palestinian youth inspect the building their families lived in. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

By Khaled Alashqar
GAZA CITY, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

As a result of over two weeks of Israeli bombardment, thousands of Palestinian civilians have fled their homes in the north of Gaza and sought refuge in schools run by the UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees.

Among the worst affected are Gazan children who have been forced to live in constant fear and danger, according to Dr. Sami Awaida, a specialised child psychiatrist for the Gaza Mental Health Programme – a local civil society and humanitarian organization that focuses on war trauma and mental health issues concerning children and adults in Gaza.“Children in Gaza have already suffered from two recent violent and shocking experiences in 2009 and 2012 … This trauma now re-generates previous pain and shock and also leads to a mental state of permanent fear and insecurity among children here” – Dr. Sami Awaida, a specialised child psychiatrist for the Gaza Mental Health Programme

Describing the impact of the current trauma, Awaida told IPS:  “Children in Gaza are suffering from anxiety, fear and insecurity because of this war situation.  The challenge we now face as mental health practitioners is ‘post-traumatic disorder’.”

“This means that children in Gaza have already suffered from two recent violent and shocking experiences in 2009 and 2012,” he continued. “This trauma now re-generates previous pain and shock and also leads to a mental state of permanent fear and insecurity among children here.”

Since Monday July 7, Israel has subjected the Gaza Strip to a severe military assault and engaged with the Palestinian factions in a new round of violence.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health has so far reported 230 Palestinians killed; most of them are entire families who were killed in direct shelling of Palestinian houses. Meanwhile, the number of injured has risen to 2,500. Many of the injured and the dead are children.

Hospitals in Gaza are currently suffering from a severe shortage of medical supplies and medicines. Ashraf Al-Qedra, spokesperson for the Gaza Ministry of Health, has called on the international community “to support hospitals in Gaza with urgent medical supplies, as Israel continues its military attacks, leaving more than 800 houses completely destroyed and 800 families without shelter.”

Since Israel began its current offensive against Gaza, its military forces have been accused of pursuing a policy of destroying Palestinian houses and killing civilians. Adnan Abu Hasna, media advisor and spokesperson for UNRWA in Gaza, told IPS that “UNRWA has officially demanded from Israel to respect international humanitarian law and the neutrality of civilians in the military operation.”

He added: “UNRWA stresses the need to fulfill the obligations of the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to immediately stop violence, due to the increasing number of children and women killed in the Israeli striking and bombardment of Gaza.”

Assam Yunis, director of the Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, spoke to IPS about the stark violations of human rights and the urgent need for justice and accountability. “The current situation is catastrophic in every aspect,” he said.

“Human rights abuses are unbelievable and these include targeting medical teams and journalists, in addition to targeting children and women by Israel.  This points to clear violations of international law as well as war crimes.  Israel must be held legally accountable at the international level.”

Analysing the situation, Gaza-based political analyst and intellectual Ibrahim Ibrash says he believes that “Israel will never manage to end and uproot both Hamas movement and the Palestinian resistance from Gaza. On the other hand, the Palestinian militant groups will never manage to destroy and defeat Israel.”

He told IPS that the consequences for the Palestinians at the internal level after this military aggression ends will be critical, including “a split between the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority; many people will be outraged with the Palestinian leadership, and this of course will leave Gaza in a deplorable state.”

This critical crisis in Gaza comes against a backdrop of a continued blockade imposed on the territory by Israel, widespread unemployment, severe poverty, electricity cuts, closure of borders and crossings since 2006, destroyed infrastructure and a stagnant Gazan economy, combined with a lack of political progress at the Israeli-Palestinian political level.

The real truth that no one can deny is that the civilian population, including women and children, in Gaza are the real victims of this dangerous conflict.

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Stunting: The Cruel Curse of Malnutrition in Nepal http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/stunting-the-cruel-curse-of-malnutrition-in-nepal/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=stunting-the-cruel-curse-of-malnutrition-in-nepal http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/stunting-the-cruel-curse-of-malnutrition-in-nepal/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 11:59:26 +0000 Mallika Aryal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135646 Sadhana Ghimire, 23, makes sure to give her 18-month-old daughter nutritious food, such as porridge containing grains and pulses, in order to prevent stunting. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

Sadhana Ghimire, 23, makes sure to give her 18-month-old daughter nutritious food, such as porridge containing grains and pulses, in order to prevent stunting. Credit: Mallika Aryal/IPS

By Mallika Aryal
RASUWA, Nepal, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

Durga Ghimire had her first child at the age of 18 and the second at 21. As a young mother, Durga didn’t really understand the importance of taking care of her own health during pregnancy.

“I didn’t realise it would have an impact on my baby,” she says as she sits on the porch of her house in Laharepauwa, some 120 kilometers from Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, nursing her third newborn child.

It is late in the afternoon and she is waiting expectantly for her two older daughters to return from school. One is nine and the other is six, but they look much smaller than their actual age.

“They are smaller in height and build and teachers at school say their learning process is also much slower,” Durga tells IPS. She is worried that the girls are stunted, and is trying to ensure her third child gets proper care.

A recent United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) report shows that Nepal is among 10 countries in the world with the highest stunting prevalence, and one of the top 20 countries with the highest number of stunted children.

“Reducing stunting among children increases their chances of reaching their full development potential, which in turn will have a long-term impact on families’, communities’ and the country’s ability to thrive.” -- Peter Oyloe, chief of USAID Nepal’s Suaahara (‘Good Nutrition’) project at Save the Children-Nepal
UNICEF explains stunting as chronic under-nutrition during critical periods of growth and development between the ages of 0-59 months. The consequences of stunting are irreversible and in Nepal the condition affects 41 percent of children under the age of five.

“Nepal’s ranking […] is worrying, not just globally but also in South Asia,” Giri Raj Subedi, senior public health officer at Nepal’s ministry of health and population, tells IPS.

A 2013 progress report on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) done by Nepal’s National Planning Commission (NPC) says while the number of stunted children declined from 57 percent in 2001 to 41 percent in 2011, it is still high above the 30 percent target set by the U.N..

“Stunting is a specific measure of the height of a child compared to the age of the child, and it is indicative of how well the child is developing cognitively,” says Peter Oyloe, chief of party of USAID Nepal’s Suaahara, or ‘Good Nutrition’ project at Save the Children Nepal.

Oyloe adds, “Reducing stunting among children increases their chances of reaching their full development potential, which in turn will have a long-term impact on families’, communities’ and the country’s ability to thrive.”

Child health and nutrition experts argue that, while poverty is directly related to inadequate intake of food, it is not the sole indicator of malnutrition or increased stunting.

Saba Mebrahtu, chief of the nutrition section at UNICEF-Nepal, says the immediate causes include poor nutrient intake, particularly early in life. Fifty percent of stunting happens during pregnancy and the rest after infants are born.

“When we are talking about nutrient-rich food […] we are talking about ensuring that children get enough of it even before they are born,” says Mebrahtu. The time between conception and a child’s second birthday is a crucial period, she said, one of rapid growth and cognitive development.

Thus it is incumbent on expecting mothers to follow a careful diet before the baby is born.

Basic education could save lives

Sadhana Ghimire, 23, lives a few doors down from Durga. Separated by a few houses, their approaches to nutrition are worlds apart.

Ghimire breast-fed her 18-month-old daughter exclusively for six months. She continues to make sure that her own diet includes green leafy vegetables, meat or eggs, along with rice and other staples, as she is still nursing.

She gives credit to the female community health-worker in her village, who informed her about the importance of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life.

In preparation for her daughter’s feeding time, Ghimire mixes together a bowl of homemade leeto, a porridge containing one-part whole grains such as millet or wheat and two-parts pulses such as beans or soy.

“I was only using grains to make the leeto before I was taught to make it properly by the health workers and Suaahara,” she says.

However, making leeto was not the most important lesson Ghimire learned as an expecting mother. “I had no idea that simple things like washing my hands properly could have such a long term effect on my daughter’s health,” she says.

Even seemingly common infections like diarrhoea can, in the first two years, put a child at greater risk of stunting.

“That is because the nutrients children are using for development are used instead to fight against infection,” says Mebrahtu emphasising the need for simple practices such as proper hand washing and cleaning of utensils.

If children are suffering from infection due to poor hygiene and sanitation they can have up to six diarrhoeal episodes per year, she warns, adding that while “children recover from these infections, they don’t come back to what they were before.”

Fighting on all fronts

Food insecurity is one of the biggest contributing factors to stunting in Nepal. Rugged hills and mountains comprise 77 percent of the country’s total land area, where 52 percent of Nepal’s 27 million people live.

Food insecurity is worst in the central and far western regions of the country; the prevalance of stunting in these areas is also extreme, with rates above 60 percent in some locations.

Thus experts recognise the need to fight simultaneously on multiple fronts.

“Our work in nutrition has proven again and again that a single approach to stunting doesn’t work because the causes are so many – it really has to be tackled in a coordinated way,” says UNICEF’s Mebrahtu.

In 2009 the government conducted the Nutrition Assessment and Gap Analysis (NAGA), which recommended building a multi-sector nutrition architecture to address the gaps in health and nutrition programmes.

“The NAGA study stated clearly that nutrition was not the responsibility of one department, as was previously thought,” Radha Krishna Pradhan, programme director of health and nutrition at Nepal’s NPC, tells IPS.

Nepal is also one of the first countries to commit to the global Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, which recognises multiple causes of malnutrition and recommends that partners work across sectors to achieve nutritional goals.

Thus, in 2012, five ministries in Nepal came together with the NPC and development partners to form the Multi-Sector Nutrition Plan (MSNP).

Public health experts say MSNP is a living example of the SUN movement in action and offers interventions with the aim of reducing the current prevalence of malnutrition by one-third.

Interventions include biannual vitamin D and folic acid supplements for expectant mothers, deworming for children, prenatal care, and life skills for adolescent girls.

On the agricultural front, ministries aim to increase the availability of food at the community level through homestead food production, access to clean and cheap energy sources such a biogas and improved cooking stoves, and the education of men to share household loads.

MSNP’s long-term vision is to work towards significantly reducing malnutrition so it is no longer an impending factor towards development. The World Bank has estimated that malnutrition can cause productivity losses of as much as 10 percent of lifetime earnings among the affected, and cause a reduction of up to three percent of a country’s GDP.

At present the Plan is in its initial phase and has been implemented in six out of 75 districts in Nepal since 2013.

(END)

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Food Insecurity a New Threat for Lebanon’s Syrian Refugees http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/food-insecurity-a-new-threat-for-lebanons-syrian-refugees/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=food-insecurity-a-new-threat-for-lebanons-syrian-refugees http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/food-insecurity-a-new-threat-for-lebanons-syrian-refugees/#comments Tue, 22 Jul 2014 11:01:34 +0000 Mona Alami http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135672 By Mona Alami
BEIRUT, Jul 22 2014 (IPS)

A declining economy and a severe drought have raised concerns in Lebanon over food security as the country faces one of its worst refugee crises, resulting from the nearby Syria war, and it is these refugees and impoverished Lebanese border populations that are most vulnerable to this new threat.

A severe drought has put the Lebanese agricultural sector at risk. According to the Meteorological Department at Rafik Hariri International Airport, average rainfall in 2014 is estimated at 470 mm, far below annual averages of 824 mm.

The drought has left farmers squabbling over water. “We could not plant this year and our orchards are drying up, we are only getting six hours of water per week,” says Georges Karam, the mayor of Zabougha, a town located in the Bekfaya area in Lebanon.“Any major domestic or regional security or political disruptions which undermine economic growth and job creation could lead to higher poverty levels and associated food insecurity” – Maurice Saade of the World Bank's Middle East and North Africa Department

The drought has resulted in a substantial decline in agricultural production throughout the country. “The most affected products are fruits and vegetables, the prices of which have increased, thus affecting economic access of the poor and vulnerable populations,”says Maurice Saade, Senior Agriculture Economist at the World Bank’s Middle East and North Africa Department.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs. Although most households in Lebanon are considered food secure, lower income households are vulnerable to inflationary trends in food items because they tend to spend a larger share of their disposable income on staples, explains Saade.

Lebanon’s poverty pockets are generally concentrated in the north (Akkar and Dinnyeh), Northern Bekaa (Baalbek and Hermel) and in the south, as well as the slums located south of Beirut. These areas currently host the largest number areas of refugee population, fleeing the nearby Syria war.

According to Clemens Breisinger, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Lebanon currently imports about 90 percent of its food needs. “This means meant that the drought’s impact should be limited in term of the food available on the market,” he says.

However, populations residing in Lebanon’s impoverished areas are still at risk, especially those who are not financially supported by relatives (as is the custom in Lebanon) or benefit from state aid or from local charities operating in border areas. Lebanese host populations are most likely the most vulnerable to food insecurity, explains Saade.

According to the UNHCR, there are just over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. While the food situation is still manageable thanks to efforts of international donors who maintain food supplies to the population, “these rations are nonetheless always threatened by the lack of donor funding,” Saade stresses. In addition, refugee populations are largely dependent on food aid, because they are essentially comprised of women and children, with little or no access to the job market.

Given that Lebanon depends to a large extent on food imports, mostly from international markets, maintaining food security also depends on the ability of lower income groups to preserve their purchasing power as well as the stability of these external markets.

“This means that any major domestic or regional security or political disruptions which undermine economic growth and job creation could lead to higher poverty levels and associated food insecurity,” says Saade.

In addition any spikes in international food prices, such as those witnessed in 2008, could lead to widespread hunger among vulnerable populations.

Breisinger believes that despite increased awareness of the international community, the factors leading to a new food crisis are still present.Increased demand for food generally, fuel prices, the drop in food reserves, certain government policies as well as the diversion of grain and oilseed crops for biofuel production are elements that put pressure on the food supply chain and can eventually contribute to hunger in certain vulnerable countries.

To avoid such a risk, some countries have implemented specific measures such as building grain reserves. “I am not sure how Lebanon has reacted so far,” says Breisinger.  With little government oversight and widespread corruption, Lebanon’s vulnerability to food insecurity has been compounded by unforgiving weather conditions, a refugee crisis and worsening economic conditions which, if left unattended, could spiral out of control.

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Refugees Living a Nightmare in Northern Pakistan http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/refugees-living-a-nightmare-in-northern-pakistan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=refugees-living-a-nightmare-in-northern-pakistan http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/refugees-living-a-nightmare-in-northern-pakistan/#comments Mon, 21 Jul 2014 14:15:26 +0000 Ashfaq Yusufzai http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135649 Doctors examine internally displaced children from North Waziristan Agency at a free medical clinic in Bannu, a district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

Doctors examine internally displaced children from North Waziristan Agency at a free medical clinic in Bannu, a district of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS

By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR, Pakistan, Jul 21 2014 (IPS)

Some fled on foot, others boarded trucks along with luggage, rations and cattle. Many were separated from families, or collapsed from exhaustion along the way. They don’t know where their next meal will come from, or how they will provide for their children.

In the vast refugee camps of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, civilians who fled the Pakistan Army’s military offensive against the Taliban in the country’s northern Waziristan Agency now walk around in a state of delirious confusion.

Medical officials here say that almost all the 870,000 internally displaced people in KP are deeply traumatised by over a decade of war in the northern provinces, where they were caught in the crossfire between government forces and militants who crossed the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in 2001.

“We examined about 300,000 patients at the psychiatry wards of the KP hospital in 2013; 200,000 of them belonged to FATA. This included 145,000 women and 55,000 children." -- Muhammad Wajid, a psychiatrist at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Teaching Hospital in Peshawar
Now, as the army conducts air raids on the 11,585-square-kilometre North Waziristan Agency in a determined bid to wipe out the Taliban, war-weary civilians are once again bearing the brunt of the conflict, forced to leave their ancestral homes and seek refuge in neighbouring KP where shelter, clean water, food and medical supplies are stretched thin.

IDPs have been streaming in since the military operation began on Jun. 15, reaching close to a million by mid-July, officials here say. So far, aid has come in the form of food rations and medical supplies for the wounded, as well as those left dehydrated by the scorching 45-degree heat.

But very little is being done to address the psychological trauma that affects nearly everyone in these camps.

“The displaced population has been living in rented houses or with relatives where they lack water, sanitation and food due to which they are facing water and food-borne ailments,” Consultant Psychiatrist Dr. Mian Iftikhar Hussain tells IPS. “But the main problems are psychological disorders, which are ‘unseen’.”

Sitting in front of the Iftikhar Psychiatric Hospital in Peshawar, capital of KP and 250 miles from the largest refugee camp in Bannu, 50-year-old Zarsheda Bibi tells IPS her entire family fled Waziristan, leaving everything behind.

Far worse than the loss of her home and possessions, she says, is the loss of her one-year-old grandson, who died on the long and arduous journey to KP.

“She doesn’t sleep properly because she dreams of her deceased grandson every night,” says Iftikhar, who is treating Bibi for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to Javid Khan, an official with the National Disaster Management Authority, PTSD is one of the most common ailments among the displaced.

He recounts to IPS his recent interaction with a woman in a camp in Bannu, whose husband was killed by shelling in Miramshah, the headquarters of North Waziristan.

“Now she is completely disoriented and extremely concerned about the future of her three sons and one daughter,” he says, adding that those who were uprooted are sure to develop long as well as short-term disorders as a result of prolonged stress, anxiety and fear.

Other conditions could include de-personalisation, classified by DSM-IV as a dissociative disorder in which a person experiences out-of-body feelings and severe disorientation; as well as de-realisation, an alteration in perceptions of the external world to the point that it appears unreal, or ‘dream-like’.

Experts say that people torn from their native villages, thrust into completely new surroundings and experiencing insecurity on a daily basis are highly susceptible to these types of conditions, which are associated with severe trauma.

Khan says women and children, who comprise 73 percent of IDPs according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), are likely to be disproportionately impacted by PTSD, as well as disorders related to anxiety, stress, panic and depression.

Muhammad Junaid, a psychologist working with the displaced, says that victims are also suffering from poor self-esteem, as they are forced to occupy tents and shacks, in extremely unsanitary conditions.

Mothers are particularly impacted by their inability to provide for their families, he tells IPS, adding that permanent phobias are not uncommon.

Another major concern among health officials here is how the situation will affect children, many of whom are at a very sensitive age.

“From childhood to adolescence, a child passes through dramatic phases of physical and mental development,” Junaid says. “During this transition, they gain their identity, grow physically and establish familial relationships, as well as bonds with their community and society as a whole.”

Ripped from their ancestral homes and traditional communities, he says, this process will be interrupted, resulting in long-term mental conditions unless properly addressed.

Parents are equally worried about what displacement might mean for their children’s education.

“Two of my sons are very good at their studies,” Muhammad Arif, a shopkeeper from Mirali, an administrative division in North Waziristan, confides to IPS. “They would do well in class and get good positions. Now there’s no school and I fear they will not progress with their education.”

Even if they were to return to Waziristan, he says, the future looks bleak, since the army operation has devastated homes, buildings and business establishments. Everything will have to be built back up from scratch before the people can return to a normal life, he laments.

After nearly a month in the camp, Arif’s 10-year-old son Sadiq has all but given up hope. Through tears, he tells IPS that children like him have “no sleep, no play, no education.”

“I don’t know what the future holds for us,” he says.

For long-time health experts in the region, the situation is a frightening climax of a crisis that has been building for years, ever since the army began a crackdown on insurgents in the rugged, mountainous regions of northern Pakistan nearly 12 years ago.

“Around 50 percent of the residents of FATA have suffered psychological problems due to militancy and subsequent military operations,” Muhammad Wajid, a psychiatrist at the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Teaching Hospital in Peshawar tells IPS.

“We have examined about 300,000 patients at the psychiatry wards of the KP hospital in 2013; 200,000 of them belonged to FATA. This included 145,000 women and 55,000 children,” he says.

Since 2005, nearly 2.1 million FATA residents have taken refuge in KP, according to Javid, posing a real challenge to the local government, which has struggled to balance the needs of the displaced with its own impoverished local population.

The latest wave of refugees has only added to the government’s woes, and many in the region fear the situation is on a knife’s edge, especially in the holy month of Ramadan, when there is a desperate need for proper sanitation and food to break the daily fast.

(END)

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Malnutrition Hits Syrians Hard as UN Authorises Cross-Border Access http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/malnutrition-hits-syrians-hard-as-un-authorises-cross-border-access/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=malnutrition-hits-syrians-hard-as-un-authorises-cross-border-access http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/malnutrition-hits-syrians-hard-as-un-authorises-cross-border-access/#comments Sat, 19 Jul 2014 12:09:41 +0000 Shelly Kittleson http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135643 Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria, in autumn 2013. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Syrian mother and child near Ma'arat Al-Numan, rebel-held Syria, in autumn 2013. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Shelly Kittleson
BEIRUT, Jul 19 2014 (IPS)

Gaunt, haggard Syrian children begging and selling gum have become a fixture in streets of the Lebanese capital; having fled the ongoing conflict, they continue to be stalked by its effects.

Most who make it across the Syria-Lebanon border live in informal settlements in extremely poor hygienic conditions, which for many means diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, and – for the most vulnerable – sometimes death.

By the end of January, almost 40,000 Syrian children had been born as refugees, while the total number of minors who had fled abroad quadrupled to over 1.2 million between March 2013 and March 2014.Most who make it across the Syria-Lebanon border live in informal settlements in extremely poor hygienic conditions, which for many means diarrhoeal diseases, malnutrition, and – for the most vulnerable – sometimes death.

Lack of proper healthcare, food and clean water has resulted in countless loss of life during the Syrian conflict, now well into its fourth year. These deaths are left out of the daily tallies of ‘war casualties’, even as stunted bodies and emaciated faces peer out of photos from areas under siege.

The case of the Yarmouk Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus momentarily grabbed the international community’s attention earlier this year, when Amnesty International released a report detailing the deaths of nearly 200 people under a government siege. Many other areas have experienced and continue to suffer the same fate, out of the public spotlight.

A Palestinian-Syrian originally from Yarmouk who has escaped abroad told IPS that some of her family are still in Hajar Al-Aswad, an area near Damascus with a population of roughly 600,000 prior to the conflict. She said that those trapped in the area were suffering ‘’as badly if not worse than in Yarmouk’’ and had been subjected to equally brutal starvation tactics. The area has, however, failed to garner similar attention.

The city of Homs, one of the first to rise up against President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, was also kept under regime siege for three years until May of this year, when Syrian troops and foreign Hezbollah fighters took control.

With the Syria conflict well into its fourth year, the U.N. Security Council decided for the first time on July 14 to authorize cross-border aid without the Assad government’s approval via four border crossings in neighbouring states. The resolution established a monitoring mechanism for a 180-day period for loading aid convoys in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

The first supplies will include water sanitation tablets and hygiene kits, essential to preventing the water-borne diseases responsible for diarrhoea – which, in turn, produces severe states of malnutrition.

Miram Azar, from UNICEF’s Beirut office, told IPS that  ‘’prior to the Syria crisis, malnutrition was not common in Lebanon or Syria, so UNICEF and other actors have had to educate public health providers on the detection, monitoring and treatment’’ even before beginning to deal with the issue itself.

However, it was already on the rise: ‘’malnutrition was a challenge to Syria even before the conflict’’, said a UNICEF report released this year. ‘’The number of stunted children – those too short for their age and whose brain may not properly develop – rose from 23 to 29 per cent between 2009 and 2011.’’

Malnutrition experienced in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life (from pregnancy to two years old) results in lifelong consequences, including greater susceptibility to illness, obesity, reduced cognitive abilities and lower development potential of the nation they live in.

Azar noted that ‘’malnutrition is a concern due to the deteriorating food security faced by refugees before they left Syria’’ as well as ‘’the increase in food prices during winter.’’

The Syrian economy has been crippled by the conflict and crop production has fallen drastically. Violence has destroyed farms, razed fields and displaced farmers.

The price of basic foodstuffs has become prohibitive in many areas. On a visit to rebel-held areas in the northern Idlib province autumn of 2013, residents told IPS that the cost of staples such as rice and bread had risen by more than ten times their cost prior to the conflict, and in other areas inflation was worse.

Jihad Yazigi , an expert on the Syrian economy, argued in a European Council on Foreign Affairs (ECFR) policy brief published earlier this year that the war economy, which ‘’both feeds directly off the violence and incentivises continued fighting’’, was becoming ever more entrenched.

Meanwhile, political prisoners who have been released as a result of amnesties tell stories of severe water and food deprivation within jails. Many were detained on the basis of peaceful activities, including exercising their right to freedom of expression and providing humanitarian aid, on the basis of a counterterrorism law adopted by the government in July 2012.

There are no accurate figures available for Syria’s prison population. However, the monitoring group, Violations Documentation Centre, reports that 40,853 people detained since the start of the uprising in March 2011 remain in jail.

Maher Esber, a former political prisoner who was in one of Syria’s most notorious jails between 2006 and 2011 and is now an activist living in the Lebanese capital, told IPS that it was normal for taps to be turned on for only 10 minutes per day for drinking and hygiene purposes in the detention facilities.

Much of the country’s water supply has also been damaged or destroyed over the past years, with knock-on effects on infectious diseases and malnutrition. A major pumping station in Aleppo was damaged on May 10, leaving roughly half what was previously Syria’s most populated city without running water. Relentless regime barrel bombing has made it impossible to fix the mains, and experts have warned of a potential humanitarian catastrophe for those still inside the city.

The U.N. decision earlier this month was made subsequent to refusal by the Syrian regime to comply with a February resolution demanding rapid, safe, and unhindered access, and the Syrian regime had warned that it considered non-authorised aid deliveries into rebel-held areas as an attack.

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Child Migrants – A “Torn Artery” in Central America http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/child-migrants-a-torn-artery-in-central-america/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=child-migrants-a-torn-artery-in-central-america http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/child-migrants-a-torn-artery-in-central-america/#comments Fri, 18 Jul 2014 22:39:35 +0000 Thelma Mejia http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135637 At the conclusion of the International Conference on Migration, Childhood and Family, civil society organisations called for migrants to be seen as human beings rather than just statistics in official files. Credit: Casa Presidencial de Honduras

At the conclusion of the International Conference on Migration, Childhood and Family, civil society organisations called for migrants to be seen as human beings rather than just statistics in official files. Credit: Casa Presidencial de Honduras

By Thelma Mejía
TEGUCIGALPA, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

The migration crisis involving thousands of Central American children detained in the United States represents the loss of a generation of young people fleeing poverty, violence and insecurity in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America where violence is rife.

Some 200 experts and officials from several countries and bodies met in Tegucigalpa to promote solutions to the humanitarian emergency July 16-17 at an International Conference on Migration, Childhood and Family, convened by the Honduran government and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The conference ended with a call to establish ways and means for the countries involved to implement a plan of action with sufficient resources for effective border control and the elimination of “blind spots” used as migrant routes.

They also called for the rapid establishment of a regional initiative to address this humanitarian crisis jointly and definitively, in recognition of the shared responsibility to bring peace, security, welfare and justice to the peoples of Central America.“It is like someone has torn open an artery in Honduras and other Central American countries. Fear, grinding poverty and no future mean we are losing our lifeblood – our young people. If this continues to happen, the hearts of our nations will stop beating” – Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras

But the declaration “Hoja de Ruta: Una Invitación a la Acción” (Roadmap: An Invitation to Action) does not go beyond generalisations and lacks specific commitments to address a crisis of unprecedented dimensions.

The U.S. government says that border patrols have caught 47,000 unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States this year. They are confined in overcrowded shelters awaiting deportation.

José Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), told the conference that in 2011 there were 4,059 unaccompanied minors who attempted to enter the United States. But this figure rose to 21,537 in 2013 and 47,017 so far in 2014.

“These huge numbers of children are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. According to the data, 29 percent of the minors detained are Hondurans, 24 percent are Guatemalans, 23 percent are Salvadorans, and 22 percent are Mexicans,” said Insulza, who called for the migrants not to be criminalised.

Images of hundreds of children, on their own or accompanied by relatives or strangers, climbing on to the Mexican freight train known as “The Beast” on their way to the U.S. border, finally aroused the concern of regional governments.

The U.S. administration’s announcement that it would begin mass deportations of children apprehended in the past few months was also a factor. Honduran minors began to be deported on July 14.

The Tegucigalpa conference brought together officials and experts from countries receiving and sending migrants. According to analyses by participants, in Guatemala migration is motivated by poverty, while in El Salvador and Honduras people are fleeing citizen insecurity and criminal violence.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández said these migrants were “displaced by war” and that an emergency “has now erupted among us.”

Out of every nine unaccompanied minors who cross the border into the United States, seven are Hondurans from what are known as the “hot territories” of insecurity and violence, the president said.

Ricardo Puerta, an expert on migration, told IPS that the Central American region is losing its next generation. “This is hitting hard, especially in countries like Honduras where people are fleeing violence and migrants are aged between 12 and 30.

“We are losing many new and good hands and brains, and in general they will not return. If they do come back it will be as tourists, but not permanently,” he said.

Laura García is a cleaner. She earns an average of 12 dollars for each house or office she cleans, but she can barely get by. She wants to emigrate, and does not care about the risks or what she hears about the hardening of U.S. migration policies, whose officials endlessly repeat that Central American migrants are “not welcome”.

“I hear all that, but there is no work here. Some days I clean two houses, some days only one and sometimes none. And as I am over 35, no one wants to give me a job because of my age. I struggle and struggle, but I want to try up in the North, they say they pay well for looking after people,” she told IPS in a faltering voice.

She lives in the poor and conflict-ridden shanty town of San Cristóbal, in the north of Tegucigalpa, which is controlled by gangs. After 18.00, they impose their own law: no one goes in or out without permission from the crime lords.

“They say that a lot can happen on the way (migrant route), attacks, kidnappings, rapes, they say a lot of things, but with the situation as it is here, it’s the same thing to die on the way than right here at the hands of the ‘maras’ (gangs), where you can be shot dead at any time,” Garcia said.

At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington on July 7, Honduran cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga spoke about the despair experienced in Honduras and the rest of Central America.

“It is like someone has torn open an artery in Honduras and other Central American countries. Fear, grinding poverty and no future mean we are losing our lifeblood – our young people. If this continues to happen, the hearts of our nations will stop beating,” said the cardinal in a speech that has not yet been disseminated in Honduras.

Rodríguez Maradiaga criticised the mass deportations of Honduran children who have started to arrive from Mexico and the United States. “Can you imagine starting your adult life being treated as a criminal? Where would you go from there?” he asked.

The Catholic Church in Honduras has insisted that fear and extreme poverty, together with unemployment and violence, lead parents to take the desperate measure of sending their children off on the dangerous journey of migration in order to save their lives. The Church is demanding inclusive public policies to prevent the flight of a generation.

Violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is considered to have grown as a result of the displacement of drug trafficking cartels from Mexico and Colombia, due to the war on drugs waged by the governments of those countries.

In 2013, the homicide rate in El Salvador was 69.2 per 100,000 people, in Guatemala 30 per 100,000 and in Honduras 79.7 per 100,000, according to official figures.

At present over one million Hondurans are estimated to reside in the United States, out of a total population of 8.4 million. In 2013 remittances to Honduras from this migrant population amounted to 3.1 billion dollars, according to the Honduran Association of Banking Institutions.

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Do Not GM My Food! http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/do-not-gm-my-food/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=do-not-gm-my-food http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/do-not-gm-my-food/#comments Fri, 18 Jul 2014 18:19:50 +0000 Julio Godoy http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135627 By Julio Godoy
BERLIN, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

Attempts to genetically modify food staples, such as crops and cattle, to increase their nutritional value and overall performance have prompted world-wide criticism by environmental, nutritionists and agriculture experts, who say that protecting and fomenting biodiversity is a far better solution to hunger and malnutrition.

Two cases have received world-wide attention: one is a project to genetically modify bananas, the other is an international bull genome project.

In June, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it has allocated some 10 million dollars to finance an Australian research team at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), working on vitamin A-enriched bananas in Uganda, by genetically modifying the fruit.

On the other hand,  according to its project team, the “1000 bull genomes project” aims “to provide, for the bovine research community, a large database for imputation of genetic variants for genomic prediction and genome wide association studies in all cattle breeds.”“It makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of (traditional, organic) technologies that have proven to substantially increase yields, especially in many developing countries” – ‘Failure to Yield’, a study by the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists

In both cases, the genetic modification (GM) of bananas and of bovines is an instrument to allegedly increase the nutritional value and improve the overall quality of the food staples, be it the fruit itself, or, in the case of cattle, of meat and milk.

James Dale, professor at QUT, and leader of the GM banana project, claims that “good science can make a massive difference here by enriching staple crops such as Ugandan bananas with pro-vitamin A and providing poor and subsistence-farming populations with nutritionally rewarding food.”

In the ‘1000 bull genomes project’, the scientists involved (from Australia, France, Germany, and other countries) have sequenced – that is, established the order of – the whole genomes of hundreds of cows and bulls. “This sequencing includes data for 129 individuals from the global Holstein-Friesian population, 43 individuals from the Fleckvieh breed and 15 individuals from the Jersey breed,” write the scientists in an article published in Nature Genetics of July 13.

The reactions from environmental activists, nutritionists, and scientists could not be more critical. The banana case has even prompted a specific campaign launched in India – the “No to GMO Bananas Campaign”.

The campaign, launched by Navdanya, a non-governmental organisation founded by the international environmental icon Vandana Shiva, insists that “GMO bananas are … not a solution to” malnutrition and hunger.

The group argues that so-called bio-fortification of bananas – “the genetic manipulation of the fruit, to cut and paste a gene, seeking to make a new or lost micronutrient,” as genetic expert Bob Phelps has put it – is a waste of time and money, and constitutes a risk to biodiversity.

“Bananas are highly nutritional but have only 0.44 mg of iron per 100 grams of edible portion,” a Navdanya spokesperson said. “All the effort to increase iron content of bananas will fall short the (natural) iron content of indigenous biodiversity.”

The rationale supporting bio-fortication suggests that the genetic manipulation can multiply the iron content of bananas by six. This increase would lead to an iron content of 2.6 mg per 100 grams of edible fruit.

“That would be 3,000 percent less than iron content in turmeric, or lotus stem, 2,000 percent less than mango powder,” the spokesperson at Navdanya said. “The safe, biodiverse alternatives to GM bananas are multifold.”

Scientists have indeed demonstrated that the GM agriculture has so far failed to deliver higher yields than organic processes.

In a study carried out in 2009, the U.S. Union of Concerned Scientists demonstrated that the yields of GM soybeans and corn have increased only marginally, if at all. The report, “Failure to Yield“, found out that increases in yields for both crops between 1995 and 2008 were largely due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices.

“Failure to Yield” also analyses the potential role in increasing food production over the next few decades, and concludes that “it makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of (traditional, organic) technologies that have proven to substantially increase yields, especially in many developing countries.”

Additionally, the authors say, “recent studies have shown that organic and similar farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers in such developing regions as Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Yet another ground for criticism is the fact that Bill Gates has repeated an often refuted legend about the risk of extinction of the banana variety Cavendish, grown all over the world for the North American market.

In his blog, Gates claims that “a blight has spread among plantations in Asia and Australia in recent years, badly damaging production of … Cavendish. This disease, a fungus, hasn’t spread to Latin America yet, but if it does, bananas could get a lot scarcer and more expensive in North America and elsewhere.”

The risk of extinction, however, is practically inexistent, as the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), among other institutions, had already shown in 2003.

“What is happening is the inevitable consequence of growing one genotype on a large scale,” said Eric Kueneman, at the time head of FAO’s Crop and Grassland Service. That is, monoculture is the main cause of the fungus.

“The Cavendish banana is a “dessert type” banana that is cultivated mostly by the large-scale banana companies for international trade,” recalled Kueneman, today an independent consultant on agriculture.

On the other hand, as FAO numbers show, the Cavendish banana is important in world trade, but accounts for only 10 percent of bananas produced and consumed globally. Virtually all commercially important plantations grow this single genotype, and by so doing, make the fruit vulnerable to diseases. As FAO said in 2003, “fortunately, small-scale farmers around the world have maintained a broad genetic pool which can be used for future banana crop improvement.”

Actually, the most frequent reasons for malnutrition and starvation can be found in food access, itself a consequence of poverty, inequity and social injustice. Thus, as Bob Phelps, founder of Gene Ethics, says, “the challenge to feed everyone well is much more than adding one or two key nutrients to an impoverished diet dominated by a staple food or two.”

The same goes for the genome sequencing of bulls and cows, says Ottmar Distl, professor at the Institute for Animal Breeding and Genetics at the University of Hannover. “Some years ago, we thought that it would impossible to obtain more than 1,000 kilograms of milk per year per cow,” Distl said. “Today, it is normal to milk 7,000 kilograms, and even as much as 10,000 kilograms per year.”

But such performance has a price – most such “optimised” cows calve only twice in their lives and die quite young.

And yet, the leading researchers of the “1000 bull genomes project” look at further optimising the cows’ and bulls’ performance by genetic manipulation of the cattle in order to, as they say in their report, meet the world-wide forecasted, rising demand for milk and meat.

Distl disagrees. “Whoever increases the milk output hasn’t yet done anything against worldwide malnutrition and hunger.” In addition, he warned, the constant optimisation of some races can lead to the extinction of other lines, thus affecting the populations depending precisely on those seldom older races.

It goes without saying that such an extinction would hardly serve the interests of the world’s consumers.

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As Winds of Change Blow, South America Builds Its House with BRICS http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/as-winds-of-change-blow-south-america-builds-its-house-with-brics/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=as-winds-of-change-blow-south-america-builds-its-house-with-brics http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/as-winds-of-change-blow-south-america-builds-its-house-with-brics/#comments Fri, 18 Jul 2014 14:36:36 +0000 Diana Cariboni http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135624 Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff, President of China Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma take a family photograph at the 6th BRICS Summit held at Centro de Eventos do Ceara' in Fortaleza, Brazil. Credit: GCIS

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, President of Brazil Dilma Rousseff, President of China Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma take a family photograph at the 6th BRICS Summit held at Centro de Eventos do Ceara' in Fortaleza, Brazil. Credit: GCIS

By Diana Cariboni
MONTEVIDEO, Jul 18 2014 (IPS)

While this week’s BRICS summit might have been off the radar of Western powers, the leaders of its five member countries launched a financial system to rival Bretton Woods institutions and held an unprecedented meeting with the governments of South America.

The New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement signal the will of BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to reconcile global governance instruments with a world where the United States no longer wields the influence that it once did.“The U.S. government clearly doesn't like this, although it will not say much publicly.” -- Mark Weisbrot

More striking for Washington could be the fact that the 6th BRICS summit, held in Brazil, set the stage to display how delighted the heads of state and government of South America – long-regarded as the United States’ “backyard”— were to meet Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

At odds with Washington and just expelled from the Group of Eight (G8) following Russia’s intervention in the Ukrainian crisis, Putin was warmly received in the region, where he also visited Cuba and Argentina.

In Buenos Aires, Putin and the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández, signed agreements on energy, judicial cooperation, communications and nuclear development.

Argentina, troubled by an impending default, is hoping Russian energy giant Gazprom will expand investments in the rich and almost unexploited shale oil and gas fields of Vaca Muerta.

Although Argentina ranks fourth among the Russia’s main trade partners in the region, Putin stressed the country is “a key strategic partner” not only in Latin America, but also within the G20 and the United Nations.

Buenos Aires and Moscow have recently reached greater understanding on a number of international issues, like the conflicts in Syria and Crimea, Argentina sovereignty claim over the Malvinas/Falkland islands and its strategy against the bond holdouts.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Washington and Buenos Aires remains cool, as it has been with Brasilia since last year’s revelations of massive surveillance carried out by the National Security Agency against Brazil.

Some leftist governments –namely Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador— frequently accuse Washington of pursuing an imperialist agenda in the region.

But it was the president of Uruguay, José Mujica –whose government has warm and close ties with the Barack Obama administration— who better explained the shifting balance experienced by Latin America in its relationships with the rest of the world.

Transparency clause

In an interview before the summit, Ambassador Flávio Damico, head of the department of inter-regional mechanisms of the Brazilian foreign ministry, said a clause on transparency in the New Development Bank’s articles of agreement “will constitute the base for the policies to be followed in this area.”

Article 15, on transparency and accountability, states that “the Bank shall ensure that its proceedings are transparent and shall elaborate in its own Rules of Procedure specific provisions regarding access to its documents.”

There are no further references to this subject neither to social or environmental safeguards in the document.

After a dinner in Buenos Aires and a meeting in Brasilia with Putin, Mujica said the current presence of Russia and China in South America opens “new roads” and shows “that this region is important somehow, so the rest of the world perhaps begins to value us a little more.”

Furthermore, he reflected, “pitting one bloc against another… is not good for the world’s future. It is better to share [ties and relationships, in order to] keep alternatives available.”

Almost at the same time, Washington announced it was ready to transfer six Guantanamo Bay detainees to Uruguay, one of the subjects Obama and Mujica agreed on when the Uruguayan visited the U.S. president in May.

Mujica has invited companies from United States, China and now Russia to take part in an international tender to build a deepwater port on the Atlantic ocean which, Uruguay expects, could be a logistic hub for the region.

But beyond Russia, which has relevant commercial agreements with Venezuela, the real centre of gravity in the region is China, the first trade partner of Brazil, Chile and Perú, and the second one of a growing number of Latin American countries.

China’s president Xi Jiping travels on Friday to Argentina, and then to Venezuela and Cuba.

“The U.S. government clearly doesn’t like this, although it will not say much publicly,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“With a handful of rich allies, they have controlled the most important economic decision-making institutions for 70 years, including the IMF [International Monetary Fund], the World Bank, and more recently the G8 and the G20, and they wrote the rules for the WTO [World Trade Organisation],” Weisbrot told IPS.

The BRICS bank “is the first alternative where the rest of the world can have a voice.  Washington does not like competition,” he added.

However, the United States’ foreign priorities are elsewhere: Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

And with the exception of the migration crisis on its southern border and evergreen concerns about security and defence, Washington seems to have little in common with its Latin American neighbours.

“I wish they were really indifferent. But the truth is, they would like to get rid of all of the left governments in Latin America, and will take advantage of opportunities where they arise,” said Weisbrot.

Nevertheless, new actors and interests are operating in the region.

The Mercosur bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the European Union are currently negotiating a trade agreement.

Colombia, Chile, México and Perú have joined forces in the Pacific Alliance, while the last three also joined negotiations to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In this scenario, the BRICS and their new financial institutions pose further questions about the ability of Latin America to overcome its traditional role of commodities supplier and to achieve real development.

“I don’t think that the BRICS alliance is going to get in the way of that,” said Weisbrot.

According to María José Romero, policy and advocacy manager with the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad), the need to “moderate extractive industries” could lead to “changes in the relationship with countries like China, which looks at this region largely as a grain basket.”

Romero, who attended civil society meetings held on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, is the author of “A private affair”, which analyses the growing influence of private interests in the development financial institutions and raises key warnings for the new BRICS banking system.

BRICS nations should be able “to promote a sustainable and inclusive development,” she told IPS, “one which takes into account the impacts and benefits for all within their societies and within the countries where they operate.”

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BRICS Forges Ahead With Two New Power Drivers – India and China http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/brics-forges-ahead-with-two-new-power-drivers-india-and-china/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=brics-forges-ahead-with-two-new-power-drivers-india-and-china http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/brics-forges-ahead-with-two-new-power-drivers-india-and-china/#comments Thu, 17 Jul 2014 18:07:51 +0000 Shastri Ramachandaran http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135604 By Shastri Ramachandaran
NEW DELHI, Jul 17 2014 (IPS)

The Sixth BRICS Summit which ended Wednesday in Fortaleza, Brazil, attracted more attention than any other such gathering in the alliance’s short history, and not just from its own members – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Two external groups defined by divergent interests closely watched proceedings: on the one hand, emerging economies and developing countries, and on the other, a group comprising the United States, Japan and other Western countries thriving on the Washington Consensus and the Bretton Woods twins (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund).

The first group wanted BRICS to succeed in taking its first big steps towards a more democratic global order where international institutions can be reshaped to become more equitable and representative of the world’s majority. The second group has routinely inspired obituaries of BRICS and gambled on the hope that India-China rivalry would stall the BRICS alliance from turning words into deeds.The stature, power, force and credibility of BRICS depend on its internal cohesion and harmony and this, in turn, revolves almost wholly on the state of relations between India and China. If India and China join hands, speak in one voice and march together, then BRICS has a greater chance of its agenda succeeding in the international system.

In the event, the outcome of the three-day BRICS Summit must be a disappointment to the latter group. First, the obituaries were belied as being premature, if not unwarranted. Second, as its more sophisticated opponents have been “advising”, BRICS did not stick to an economic agenda; instead, there emerged a ringing political declaration that would resonate in the world’s trouble spots from Gaza and Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Third, and importantly, far from so-called Indian-China rivalry stalling decisions on the New Development Bank (NDB) and the emergency fund, the Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA), the Asian giants grasped the nettle to add a strategic dimension to BRICS.

With a shift in the global economic balance of power towards Asia, the failure of the Washington Consensus and the Bretton Woods twins in spite of conditionalities, structural adjustment programmes and “reforms”, financial meltdown and the collapse of leading banks and financial institutions in the West, there had been an urgent need for new thinking and new instruments for the building of a new order.

Despite the felt need and multilateral meetings that involved developing countries, including China and India which bucked the financial downturn, there had been no sign of alternatives being formed.

It is against this backdrop – of the compelling case for firm and feasible steps towards a new global architecture of financial institutions – that BRICS, after much deliberation, succeeded in agreeing on a bank and an emergency fund.

From India’s viewpoint, this summit of BRICS – which represents one-quarter of the world’s land mass across four continents and 40 percent of the world population with a combined GDP of 24 trillion dollars – was an unqualified success. The success is sweeter for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because the BRICS summit was new Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first multilateral engagement.

For a debutant, Modi acquitted himself creditably by steering clear of pitfalls in the multilateral forum as well as in bilateral exchanges – particularly in his talks with Chinese President Xi Jiping, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff – and by delivering a strong political statement calling for reform of the U.N. Security Council and the IMF.

In fact, the intensification and scaling up of India-China relations by their respective powerful leaders is an important outcome of the meeting in Brazil, even though the dialogue between the Asian giants was on the summit’s side-lines. Nevertheless, Modi and Xi spoke in almost in one voice on global politics and conflict, and on the case for reform of international institutions.

The new leaders of India and China, with the power of their recently-acquired mandates, sent out an unmistakable signal that they have more interests in common that unite them than differences that separate them.

Against this backdrop, Indian Prime Minister Modi’s outing was significant for other reasons, not least because of the rapport he was able to strike up, in his first meeting, with Chinese President Xi. The stature, power, force and credibility of BRICS depend on its internal cohesion and harmony and this, in turn, revolves almost wholly on the state of relations between India and China. If India and China join hands, speak in one voice and march together, then BRICS has a greater chance of its agenda succeeding in the international system.

As it happened, Modi and Xi hit it off, much to the consternation of both the United States and Japan. They spoke of shared interests and common concerns, their resolve to press ahead with the agenda of BRICS and the two went so far as to agree on the need for an early resolution of their boundary issue. They invited each other for a state visit, and Xi went one better by inviting Modi to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in China in November and asking India to deepen its involvement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

Modi’s “fruitful” 80-minute meeting with Xi highlights that the two are inclined to seize the opportunities for mutually beneficial partnerships towards larger economic, political and strategic objectives. This meeting has set the tone for Xi’s visit to India in September.

Although strengthening India-China relationship, opening up new tracks and widening and deepening engagement had been one of former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s biggest achievements in 10 years of government (2004-2014), after a certain point there was no new trigger or momentum to the ties. Now Xi and Modi are investing effort to infuse new vitality into the relationship which will have an impact in the region and beyond.

As is the wont when it comes to foreign affairs and national security, Modi’s new government has not deviated from the path charted out by the previous government. BRICS as a foreign policy priority represents both continuity and consistency. Even so, the BJP deserves full marks because it did not treat BRICS and the Brazil summit as something it had to go through with for the sake of form or as a chore handed down by the previous government of Manmohan Singh.

Before leaving for Brazil, Modi stressed the “high importance” he attached to BRICS and left no one in doubt that global politics would be high on its agenda.

He pointed attention to the political dimension of the BRICS Summit as a highly political event taking place “at a time of political turmoil, conflict and humanitarian crises in several parts of the world.”

“I look at the BRICS Summit as an opportunity to discuss with my BRICS partners how we can contribute to international efforts to address regional crises, address security threats and restore a climate of peace and stability in the world,” Modi had said on eve of the summit.

Having struck the right notes that would endear him to the Chinese leadership, Modi hailed Russia as “India’s greatest friend” after he met President Vladimir Putin on the side-lines of the summit.

India belongs to BRICS, and if BRICS is the way to move forward in the world, then BRICS can look to India, along with China, for leading the way, regardless of political change at home. That would appear to be the point made by Modi in his first multilateral appearance.

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BRICS Build New Architecture for Financial Democracy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/brics-build-new-architecture-for-financial-democracy/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=brics-build-new-architecture-for-financial-democracy http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/brics-build-new-architecture-for-financial-democracy/#comments Wed, 16 Jul 2014 20:41:04 +0000 Mario Osava http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135601 The five BRICS leaders pose for the cameras at the sixth annual summit in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza. Credit: Agência Brasil/EBC

The five BRICS leaders pose for the cameras at the sixth annual summit in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza. Credit: Agência Brasil/EBC

By Mario Osava
FORTALEZA, Brazil, Jul 16 2014 (IPS)

The BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) launched the New Development Bank (NDB) and Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA) during its sixth summit, institutionalising a new financial architecture for the emerging powers.

Two other agreements, one for Cooperation among Export Credit and Guarantees Agencies and another on Cooperation for Innovation among national development banks, complete the structure established Tuesday Jul. 15 by the five heads of state in the northeastern Brazilian city of Fortaleza.

The BRICS Summit concludes Wednesday with a meeting between the five leaders and the presidents of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) held in Brasilia, as well as several bilateral meetings.

The NDB and CRA are not being created “against anyone,” but as a “response to our needs,” said the summit host, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, at a press conference after the meeting with Vladimir Putin (Russia), Narendra Modi (India), Xi Jinping (China) and Jacob Zuma (South Africa).

BRICS leaders reject interpretations that the mechanisms have been created in opposition to or as alternatives to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), part of the Bretton Woods global financial system established in the 1940s.

Social inclusion - a voice from India

A key promoter of the New Development Bank and the country that will appoint the first NDB president, India was also the voice of social concerns at the Sixth BRICS Summit.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in Fortaleza that fighting poverty should be the main focus of the group, especially through construction of the Sustainable Development Goals which will shape the development agenda after 2015.

Food security is another issue that Modi identified as a priority, as did members of the Indian business community who participted in the BRICS Business Forum on Monday Jul. 14. It is a highly sensitive topic in India, where hundreds of millions of people live in poverty, most of them subsistence farmers in rural areas.

BRICS should not be a centralised, hierarchical institution, but should focus attention on local areas and people, and involve youth, Modi said in his speech at the Summit. He suggested the creation of a Young Scientists’ Forum and a BRICS university, using the internet for intensive contact between students in the five countries.

The uniqueness of BRICS, he said, is that “for the first time” it brings together a group of nations on the basis of “future potential,” rather than existing characteristics. This “forward looking” idea creates fresh perspectives and institutional changes for a more stable world, overcoming present economic conflicts and turbulence, Modi said.

The theme of the BRICS Summit is “Inclusive growth: sustainable solutions.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country, which is the major trading partner of 128 nations, seeks “win-win” cooperation to promote better world economic governance.

Africa is in urgent need of “inclusive and dynamic growth,” said Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, while Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the formation of a BRICS Energy Association, with a fuel reserve bank to ensure the energy security of its member states.

The NDB will complement existing multilateral and regional financial institutions, whose lack of resources constrain financing of infrastructure projects in developing countries, according to the summit’s final declaration, signed by the participating heads of state.

The CRA, a mechanism through which the five countries make available a total of 100 billion dollars from their reserves, is a currency pool that provides financial security for its members, without departing from the IMF, summit speakers said.

If one of the BRICS countries wishes to borrow more than 30 percent of the sum it is entitled to, in order to overcome threats to its balance of payments, it will have to face questions from the IMF about conditions of payment, said the Brazilian finance minister, Guido Mántega.

Brazil, Russia and India can withdraw up to the value of their contributions of 18 billion dollars each. South Africa may take out twice the five billion dollars it will contribute to the mechanism, and China up to half its 41 billion dollar commitment.

The new institutions “consolidate” the BRICS alliance, Mántega said. Before they become operational, they must be ratified by the countries’ parliaments, he said.

The bank and the reserve fund are so constituted as to prevent aspirations of dominance, Rousseff said. The countries will have equal shares in the NDB, of 10 billion dollars each, and equal voting rights. The capital may later be doubled.

Bank presidents and its governing councils will be appointed on a rotating basis.

China will contribute 41 percent of CRA funds but decisions will be taken by a broader majority, reaching consensus for the negotiation of larger loans, Mántega said.

But the NBD headquarters will be located in the Chinese city of Shanghai, and it will be difficult to avoid the economic and monetary weight of the Asian power from translating into greater decision-making power for Beijing.

The NDB’s composition avoids inequalities at the outset, but equal participation is only a formality as “in practice the future trend will be towards greater Chinese influence,” according to Carlos Langoni, former president of the Brazilian Central Bank.

To be effective, the bank will have to increase its initial capital of 50 billion dollars, recruiting new financing resources, and in this as well as in crises the “dominant role” of the country offering most capital and guarantees is an influential factor, added Langoni, who is the present director of the World Economics Centre at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.

China is interested in diversifying its investments, in multilateral and regional institutions as well as bilaterally. In recent years it has become the largest investor in Latin America.

It already participates in several regional financial mechanisms, such as the Chiang Mai Initiative, similar to the CRA and involving countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and it is seeking to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as an alternative to the Asian Development Bank in which Japan has decisive influence.

Langoni believes that the BRICS, with the CRA resting on “mega-economies” with their enormous currency reserves, will in the long term be able to “grow faster and have more weight than the IMF, which is already facing difficulties raising funds because of its rules.”

However, the IMF will remain the most powerful multilateral financial body over the next decade, he said.

The rise of the BRICS reflects a multipolar world, as the alliance includes military powers like Russia and China, nuclear powers like both these countries and India, and “moderators” without military ambitions like Brazil and South Africa.

Progress in strengthening and institutionalising the group at its Fortaleza summit could help reduce border tensions existing between China and India, or between Russia and the West, Langoni said.

In his view, what cements the group is its “frustration over the action of multilateral bodies, particularly the IMF,” in the face of the financial crises. These institutions are very complex and made up of a large number of countries.

The BRICS countries can operate with greater ease with their own financial instruments, which can also supply their urgent needs for investment in infrastructure, especially in Brazil and India, he argued.

The BRICS “found their identity” by working with the Group of Twenty (G20) industrial and emerging countries to defend the stimulation of growth, rather than recession-inducing austerity, after the 2008 global financial crisis, Mántega pointed out. Later they came to demand reform of the IMF, which spearheaded response to the crisis.

Some reforms to grant emerging countries greater participation in IMF decision-making were approved by the G20, but then stalled because they were rejected in the U.S. Congress.

The IMF is regarded as extremely undemocratic, because the United States has power of veto and some countries of the industrial North have a majority of votes, in contradiction with the present correlation of economic forces and the weight of emerging powers.

The absence of reforms “negatively impacts on the IMF’s legitimacy, credibility and effectiveness.” The reforms must lead to the “modernisation of its governance structure so as to better reflect the increasing weight of emerging markets and developing countries (EMDCs),” says the Fortaleza Declaration, signed by the five BRICS leaders.

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Big Business Opportunities Seduce BRICS Entrepreneurs http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/big-business-opportunities-seduce-brics-entrepreneurs/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=big-business-opportunities-seduce-brics-entrepreneurs http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/big-business-opportunities-seduce-brics-entrepreneurs/#comments Tue, 15 Jul 2014 20:49:23 +0000 Mario Osava http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135585 Brazilian officials at an information meeting prior to the Sixth BRICS Summit. Credit: Agência Brasil/EBC

Brazilian officials at an information meeting prior to the Sixth BRICS Summit. Credit: Agência Brasil/EBC

By Mario Osava
FORTALEZA, Brazil, Jul 15 2014 (IPS)

The growing vitality of the group of countries made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), which is beginning to formalise its institutions even as it tries to bridge very disparate realities, seems to be partly cemented by increasing links between its companies.

The complementary nature of their economies was highlighted at the BRICS Business Forum on Monday Jul. 14, one of the meetings prior to the sixth annual summit of the five leaders, inaugurated Tuesday Jul. 15 in the northeastern city of Fortaleza and closing on Wednesday in Brasilia.Trade between the five countries has multiplied 10-fold between 2002 and 2012, reaching 276 billion dollars.

More than 700 members of the business community participated in the entrepreneurial debates, designed to promote 3.9 billion dollars worth of contracts in the sectors of agriculture, infrastructure, logistics, information technology, health and energy.

The Business Forum of the BRICS group of emerging powers began its work five years ago.

There is “an immense complementarity” among BRICS members, which can be appropriately used to greatly benefit all its countries, said Marcos Jank, head of corporate affairs at BRF, a Brazilian transnational and leading meats exporter.

“China has an enormous market and Brazil has vast reserves of natural resources,” with a lot of productive land to supply large populations, he said.

This is one way of looking at what many criticise as unbalanced trade, in which Brazil exports virtually exclusively commodities, especially soya and iron ore, and imports mainly manufactured goods from China.

But integration of production chains and higher added value in exports can happen even in the agriculture and livestock business, Jank said. Instead of importing soya to feed its meat production, China could import the meat from Brazil, he said.

A major hurdle to the growth of trade and productive integration between the BRICS countries are barriers of all kinds, tariff and non-tariff, technical, subsidies and other protectionist measures that affect trade, particularly in agricultural products, Jank complained.

India has prohibitive tariffs of up to 100 percent on Brazilian chicken, while South Africa “is closed” and Russia is a “volatile” market, opening and closing in rapid succession for Brazilian meats, he said.

Nevertheless, trade between the five countries has multiplied 10-fold between 2002 and 2012, reaching 276 billion dollars, according to the World Trade Organisation. The share of the BRICS group in global trade has doubled from eight to 16 percent between 2001 and 2011.

Two new instruments that will be formally created at the Summit contradict views that the group had little chance of integration because of its political and historical differences, disparate levels of development and even commercial strategies.

These are the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA), a common fund to combat financial crises.

The progress seen in only a few years, since the BRIC acronym was coined in an analysis of emerging economies by an economist at a U.S. bank, contrasts with the stagnation of other coalitions, like the IBSA Dialogue Forum involving India, Brazil and South Africa, which interrupted its summit meetings in 2011.

“What unites the emerging BRICS countries is power,” according to Narinder Wadhwa, executive director of SKI Capital Services, in India.

Jointly, the BRICS have 46 percent of the world’s population and 26 percent of its land mass. The BRICS countries’ combined gross domestic product, based on purchaing power parity (PPP), is greater than that of the U.S. or the European Union, “so it is natural that they should demand greater participation in decision-making bodies,” he told IPS.

This seems to have fuelled the group’s high rate of progress since its first summit was held in 2009.

Another factor accelerating integration is the potential for exchange of trade and investments in these large countries with a combined population of nearly three billion people, where numbers of middle class consumers have grown rapidly in recent decades.

For this reason, Wadhwa says he is “optimistic” about the future of what many people are already calling a “bloc,” although no treaties have been signed that would justify the term and its governments are reluctant to be considered as such.

But realising this potential calls for pragmatism, said Sergy Katyrin, president of the BRICS Business Council in Russia, and Rubens de La Rosa, of Brazil’s BRICS Business Council and executive director of Marco Polo, a Brazilian transnational company that produces large vehicles, especially buses.

Africa is a new frontier for global trade and investment, with consumption growing rapidly in the middle population sectors, the president of the African Business Council, Patrice Motsepe, told IPS.

Motsepe, a mining magnate regarded as the first black South African billionaire, chaired a report on the business potential of the five countries that underscored Africa’s high potential.

According to the African Development Bank, trade between the continent and BRICS reached 340 billion dollars in 2012 and is expected to rise to 500 billion dollars in 2015. Sixty percent of this trade is with China.

Each national chapter of the Business Council is made up of 25 business people, who have set up five working groups to study potential joint business enterprises in infrastructure, financial services, manufacturing, energy and capacity development.

Much still remains to be done to increase economic integration between the BRICS countries, which were formerly practically unknown to each other, these business leaders said.

De la Rosa said that among the proposals to be made to heads of government in Fortaleza was promoting trade in national currencies, because this would “reduce the cost of transactions” and could favour trade and investments.

Facilitating visas for business trips, harmonising technical standards, intensifying communication between companies in the different countries and overcoming barriers, including red tape, will be some of the other recommendations made by Robson Andrade, the president of the Brazilian National Confederation of Industry (CNI) which organised the Business Forum in Brazil.

The main concern of Brazilian industrialists is the trade deficit of Brazil with its partners, which amounted to 101 billion dollars in 2013, equivalent to 21 percent of Brazilian trade.

More than 70 percent of Brazilian exports to China, India, Russia and South Africa are soya, iron ore and oil, while in the opposite direction 95 percent of what Brazil imports from these countries are manufactured goods, according to CNI.

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U.N.’s New Development Goals Must Also Be Measurable for Rich http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-n-s-new-development-goals-must-also-be-measurable-for-rich/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-n-s-new-development-goals-must-also-be-measurable-for-rich http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/u-n-s-new-development-goals-must-also-be-measurable-for-rich/#comments Tue, 15 Jul 2014 17:45:50 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135580 A water kiosk in Blantyre, Malawi. Activists argue that water and sanitation must be a stand-alone goal in the post-2015 framework. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

A water kiosk in Blantyre, Malawi. Activists argue that water and sanitation must be a stand-alone goal in the post-2015 framework. Credit: Charles Mpaka/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 15 2014 (IPS)

The United Nations is on the verge of releasing a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – perhaps 17 or more – to replace the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which will run out by the end of 2015.

The proposed new SDGs, which will make amends for the shortcomings of the MDGs, will be an integral part of the U.N.’s post-2015 development agenda which, among other things, seeks to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger from the face of the earth by 2030."Why not have a target to close down all tax havens by 2020?" -- Jens Martens

Neelie Kroes of the European Commission says the new development agenda is being described as “the most far-reaching and comprehensive development-related endeavour ever undertaken by the United Nations in its entire history.”

But Jens Martens, director of the Global Policy Forum, told IPS that in general, the current list of proposed goals and targets is not an adequate response to the global social, economic and environmental crises and the need for fundamental change.

The proposed SDG list, he pointed out, contains a mix of recycled old commitments and vaguely formulated new ones (such as the goal 1.a. to “ensure significant mobilization of resources from a variety of sources to provide adequate and predictable means to implement programmes and policies to end poverty in all its dimensions.”).

According to some development experts, the world’s rich nations have mostly failed to meet their obligations on MDG target 8 which called for a “global partnership for development” between developed and developing nations.

As the Geneva-based South Centre points out, “The SDGs should not be a set of goals for only developing countries to undertake as a kind of conditionality or new obligations.”

The Rio-plus-20 outcome document, adopted at an international conference in Brazil in 2012, specifically said the new goals should be “universally applicable to all countries,” including developed countries.

The 17 new goals, as crafted by an open-ended working group (OWG), include proposals to end poverty, eliminate hunger, attain healthy lives, provide quality education, attain gender equality and reduce inequalities.

The list also includes the sustainable use of water and sanitation, energy for all, productive employment, industrialisation, protection of terrestrial ecosystems and strengthening the global partnership for sustainable development.

The OWG is currently holding its 13th – and perhaps final – round of negotiations ending Friday, after which a report is to be submitted to the General Assembly in August.

The final set of goals is to be approved by world leaders in September 2015.

Until then, said one senior U.N. official, “there may be plenty of deletes and inserts.”

Martens told IPS governments should not repeat the mistake of MDG 8 on “global partnership”, which was formulated so vaguely it did not imply any binding commitments for the North.

“What we need instead are measurable goals for the rich,” said Martens, who has been monitoring the last 12 sessions of the OWG.

He said any post-2015 agenda must address the structural obstacles and political barriers that prevented the realisation of the MDGs, such as unfair trade and investment rules (including the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism) and the problems of tax evasion and tax avoidance by TNCs and wealthy individuals.

“Why not have a target to close down all tax havens by 2020?” he asked.

Among activist groups, there was widespread criticism that water and sanitation was not a “stand alone goal” in the current MDGs but only a secondary goal under Goal 7 on “environmental sustainability.”

Nadya Kassam, global head of campaigns at the London-based WaterAid, told IPS, “We believe water and sanitation must be a stand-alone goal for the post-2015 framework, and we are encouraged by what we’ve seen so far.”

She said it is unthinkable that water, sanitation and hygiene could not be included – they are critical to so many other outcomes such as good health, education and economic growth.

U.N. Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson has made the importance of sanitation clear, with his campaign to end open defecation, which WaterAid strongly supports.

After nearly 15 years on from the MDGs, the original goal on water to halve the proportion of people without has been reached globally. Yet coverage in sub-Saharan Africa remains poor, with 36 percent of the population still living without this essential service.

Kassam said access to sanitation is lagging the furthest behind, and at the current rates of progress, it would take sub-Saharan Africa, as a region, over 150 years just to reach the existing goal of halving the proportion of people without.

“So water, and in particular sanitation, need to be of central importance going forward,” she said.

Martens said it is a positive signal that the current draft list of proposed SDGs contains a goal on reducing inequality within and between countries.

“It will be of utmost importance that this goal does not get lost in the final phase of the negotiations,” he stressed.

However, it would not be sufficient to just have a single goal on inequality — each SDG should have targets and indicators on distribution and inequality, Martens said.

Meanwhile in a statement released Monday, Reporters Without Borders said there was “heated discussion and opposition from certain OWG members such as Russia, Cuba and China” on a proposed SDG covering media and information.

The protection of the right to information is in danger of being weakened or disappearing altogether, to be replaced by a vague reference to freedom of expression, the statement added.

At the Millennium Summit held in New-York in September 2000, 189 U.N. member-states adopted the Millennium Declaration based on the outcomes of several international conferences of the 1990s, including population, human rights, the environment, habitat and social development.

A year later, in August 2001, the U.N. Secretariat released the eight MDGs.

But the goals were devised not by governments through an open debate but by a working committee drawn from several U.N. bodies, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (MF), the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

The goals were not the object of a formal resolution of the U.N. General Assembly.

The eight MDGs included eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensuring environmental sustainability and developing a global partnership for development.

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If You Cut One, Plant Two http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/135576/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=135576 http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/135576/#comments Tue, 15 Jul 2014 10:18:44 +0000 Amy Fallon http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135576 Students from Kisule Primary School in Kampala at the International Children’s Climate Change Conference (ICCCC), July 2014, Uganda. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

Students from Kisule Primary School in Kampala at the International Children’s Climate Change Conference (ICCCC), July 2014, Uganda. Credit: Amy Fallon/IPS

By Amy Fallon
KAMPALA, Jul 15 2014 (IPS)

Olga Mugisa, 11-years-old, takes to the microphone in front of her peers, the Ugandan flag proudly draped behind her and green plants framing the stage. She has an important message to share with her fellow students: “If you cut one, plant two.”

“I tell all of you here you to plant trees at school, at home, everywhere,” she says in a loud and confident voice to participants at Africa’s first International Children’s Climate Change Conference held in the Ugandan capital at the weekend.

“If you plant those trees you will get air that you breathe in and (you) will breathe in oxygen as you produce carbon dioxide,” adds the Primary 5 student at Mirembe Junior, an international school in Namuwongo, traditionally a slum area of Kampala.“Children are the future generation, but at the moment we are in this climate change quagmire because adults cut trees with impunity. We do not think twice … we didn’t plant them” – Joseph Masembe, founder of Uganda’s Little Green Hands

Joining forces with Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Uganda’s Little Green Hands NGO organised the International Children’s Climate Change Conference, which brought together about 280 “child delegates”, aged between five and 12, from 23 schools in four Ugandan districts, at Kampala’s GEMS Cambridge International School. There were also students representing 35 countries including Spain, France and the United States.

Students performed skits, sang and recited poems, as well as posing questions and giving PowerPoint presentations in their own style. Everything revolved around the causes and effects of, and solutions for, climate change.

Children can bring hope, especially when it comes to climate change, says lawyer turned social entrepreneur, environmentalist and founder of Little Green Hands, Joseph Masembe. He is showcasing a “new form of environmental stewardship” in Uganda involving young people.

According to The State of Uganda’s Population Report, released in February 2013, the east African nation has the world’s youngest population, with over 78 percent aged under 30.

“A wise man once told me a child’s mind is like wet cement -when you write on it, it’s permanent,” Masembe tells IPS. “So involving children at such a tender age in environment conservation means the future is ensured and it’s guaranteed.

“Children are the future generation, but at the moment we are in this climate change quagmire because adults cut trees with impunity. We do not think twice … we didn’t plant them.

“But if we get these children to start planting trees at a tender age, by the time they grow up they will have sentimental value attached to these trees, so they won’t chop them down,” Masembe explains.

It’s getting thumbs green that was the focus of the Little Hands Go Green Festival, an annual eventcreated by Masembe in 2012. In December that year, more than 16,000 children flocked to Kampala’s Kololo Airstrip, where they were given seedlings to take home and plant fruit trees. Masembe says “Africa’s only green festival” was even “gate-crashed” by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, after he heard about the large gathering of children. Out of it, sprang the ICCCC.

As highlighted in the The State of Uganda’s Population Report2013, Uganda has been identified as one of the world’s least prepared and most vulnerable countries when it comes to the climate change. The study stressed that Global Climate Change models project the nation will experience an increase in average temperatures up by up to 1.5 oC in the next 20 years.

Hot days are increasing, cold days decreasing; glaciers on the Rwenzori Mountains are continuing to melt and almost all regions of the country are experiencing “intense, frequent and prolonged droughts,” the report said.

“You find that now the rains do not come as they used to come, the seasons are changing and it’s a lot hotter,” Masembe tells IPS. “The dry season takes a lot longer. Farmers are telling you their crops are being affected a lot. You have mudslides in Bududa (eastern Uganda) almost every other year.”

Despite her age, Olga is all too aware of the impact of climate change on her country, which she notes is called the “Pearl of Africa” but which, because of climate change, “will no longer be the Pearl of Africa. Lake Victoria and (Lake) Albert will dry up… climate (change) is something that can destroy a country.”

“The ozone layer is the layer that protects from the direct sunshine, so when it’s spoilt we shall get the direct sunshine and the plants will dry up, drought will be there,” she adds.

As she plants a tree at the end of the ICCCC, Olga says that she will encourage her mother, father and two siblings to do the same. “I’ll keep encouraging people to plant trees … They have a responsibility.”

Olga is fortunate that she attends an international school where the study of climate change is on the curriculum. “In the international schools they teach it, in the local schools, which is the majority, they don’t,” says Masembe. “So we have to find other ways to sneak it in, through extracurricular activities for instance.”

“The Green Festival (to be held on August 24) is one opportunity. And this conference, which will become annual, will become part of the way whereby children can use their voices and hopefully adults can start to listen.”

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South Sudanese Children Starving While Aid Falling Short http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/south-sudanese-children-starving-while-aid-falling-short/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=south-sudanese-children-starving-while-aid-falling-short http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/south-sudanese-children-starving-while-aid-falling-short/#comments Tue, 15 Jul 2014 00:20:56 +0000 Julia Hotz http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135568 By Julia Hotz
WASHINGTON, Jul 15 2014 (IPS)

Even as aid workers are warning that children in South Sudan are falling victim to mass malnutrition, international agencies are said to be missing their fundraising goals to avert a looming famine in the country.

On Monday, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the international medical relief organisation, reported that nearly three-quarters of the more than 18,000 patients admitted to the agency’s feeding programmes in South Sudan have been children. South Sudan has experienced mounting civil violence in recent months, which humanitarian groups warn has directly impacted farmers’ ability to plant and grow crops.

A child snacks in her family's new shelter, at Protection of Civilians (POC) camp III, near UN House, in Juba. Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

A child snacks in her family’s new shelter, at Protection of Civilians (POC) camp III, near UN House, in Juba. Credit: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

Yet even as South Sudan’s malnutrition epidemic intensifies, seven major international aid agencies, all of which prioritise food security in South Sudanese villages, may have to shut down their projects due to severe funding gaps.

Naming South Sudan to be “the most pressing humanitarian crisis in Africa,” CARE International, a U.S.-based relief agency, has stated that the United Nations’ most recent appeal for South Sudan is less than half funded.

The U.N. says some 1.8 billion dollars is urgently needed in the country, yet CARE says that seven implementing agencies are short by some 89 million dollars.

“We will be staring into the abyss and failing to avert a famine if funds do not start arriving soon,” Mark Goldring, chief executive of Oxfam, said in CARE’s report.

“This is a not a crisis caused by drought or flood. It is a political crisis turned violent. The people of South Sudan can only put their lives back together once the fighting ends. In the meantime… we are asking the public to help us with our urgent humanitarian work, but mainly we are calling on governments to fund the aid effort before it is too late.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of State announced it would provide another 22 million dollars in humanitarian assistance to facilitate “basic life support” in South Sudan. Yet the following day, three U.S. lawmakers wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, expressing “grave concern” over the growing conflict in South Sudan’s border region and urging “renewed diplomatic engagement” with the international community.

While solving the political problem at the root of South Sudan’s current violence is a significant priority, aid workers say the international community’s most dire concern should be for the nutritional needs of South Sudanese children.

“Many of these children have walked for days to receive medical care and food security, and these are only the ones we see,” Sandra Bulling, media coordinator for CARE International, told IPS from South Sudan. “We don’t even know about the ones hiding in the bush.”

Centrality of nutrition

The malnutrition crisis comes amidst tumultuous domestic politics in South Sudan, resulting in fighting that has raged since December. Some 1.5 million South Sudanese residents are now estimated to be displaced within the country, thereby decreasing their access to reliable food sources and requiring them to share already-limited supplies.

Dr. Jenny Bell, a medical worker and expert on South Sudan with the University of Calgary in Canada, acknowledges that “the nation’s health situation wasn’t brilliant before December,” but warns that the civil conflict has “compounded” the country’s medical issues.

South Sudan “already had the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, and it had been estimated that one in five South Sudanese children die before they reach age five,” she told IPS.

“But even though there had barely been enough food before, now there really won’t be enough, as [internally displaced] farmers were unable to grow crops [due to the violence], and cannot do so now because South Sudan is well into [its] rainy season.”

Adequate nutrition needs to be South Sudan’s top priority, Bell emphasises. The three leading causes of death in the country – malaria, diarrhoea and respiratory infections – are much more likely for a person to contract when he or she is malnourished, she notes.

Yet she adds that despite the “amazing agricultural potential” of South Sudan, funding for this purpose has been weak.

“The United States’ monetary aid to the region is complicated because they don’t trust the South Sudanese government,” she says. “Because of this, they’ve shifted everything to humanitarian aid, and all the development efforts have been wiped out.”

In addition to monetary aid for agricultural development, Bell says health-care facilities urgently need both supplies and personnel.

CARE’s Bulling agrees that training medical personnel is of key importance in South Sudan, adding that her focus is to work with local staff but fly in as many experts as possible.

“But it is mainly money that we need, so we can procure medicines and all of the necessary nutritional requirements,” she says.

When asked what it would take for the international community to react to the need for more funding in South Sudan, Bulling cited a technique that she says has historically been effective.

“We need to have photos of children starving and dying before the world reacts to such a disaster,” she says.

“This is what has worked for Somalia … you need these pictures to talk. For South Sudan we do all these press releases and calls to action, but as long as there is no big report with photos to show how bad the situation is, there is no response.”

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OPINION: Why Asia-Europe Relations Matter in the 21st Century http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/opinion-why-asia-europe-relations-matter-in-the-21st-century/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-why-asia-europe-relations-matter-in-the-21st-century http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/opinion-why-asia-europe-relations-matter-in-the-21st-century/#comments Mon, 14 Jul 2014 23:23:21 +0000 Shada Islam http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135562 By Shada Islam
BRUSSELS, Jul 14 2014 (IPS)

Hopes are high that the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting – or ASEM summit – to be held in Milan on October 16-17 will confirm the credibility and relevance of Asia-Europe relations in the 21st century.

ASEM has certainly survived many storms and upheavals since it was initiated in Bangkok in 1996 and now, with ASEM’s 20th anniversary in 2016 approaching rapidly, the challenge is not only to guarantee ASEM’s survival but also to ensure that the Asia-Europe partnership flourishes and thrives.

Talk about renewal and revival is encouraging as Asians and Europeans seek to inject fresh dynamism into ASEM through changed formats and a stronger focus on content to bring it into the 21st century.

ASEM’s future hinges not only on whether governments are ready to pay as much attention to ASEM and devote as much time and energy to their partnership as they did in the early years but also on closer engagement between Asian and European business leaders, civil society representatives and enhanced people-to-people contacts.  An ASEM business summit and peoples’ forum will be held in parallel with the leaders’ meeting.

Shada Islam. Courtesy of Twitter

Shada Islam. Courtesy of Twitter

Significantly, the theme of the Milan summit – “Responsible Partnership for Sustainable Growth and Security” – allows for a discussion not only of ongoing political strains and tensions in Asia and in Europe’s eastern neighbourhood, but also of crucial questions linked to food, water and energy security.

Engagement between the two regions has been increasing over the years, both within and outside ASEM. Five of the 51 (set to rise to 52 with Croatia joining in October) ASEM partners – China, Japan, India, South Korea and Russia – are the European Union’s strategic partners. Turkey and Kazakhstan have formally voiced interest in joining ASEM, although approval of their applications will take time.  There is now a stronger E.U.-Asian conversation on trade, business, security and culture.

Exports to Asia and investments in the region are pivotal in ensuring a sustainable European economic recovery while the European Union single market attracts goods, investments and people from across the globe, helping Asian governments to maintain growth and development.  European technology is in much demand across the region.

Not surprisingly, Asia-Europe economic interdependence has grown.  With total Asia-Europe trade in 2012 estimated at 1.37 trillion euros, Asia has become the European Union’s main trading partner, accounting for one-third of total trade.  More than one-quarter of European outward investments head for Asia while Asia’s emerging global champions are seeking out business deals in Europe.  The increased connectivity is reflected in the mutual Asia-Europe quest to negotiate free trade agreements and investment accords. For many in Asia, the European Union is the prime partner for dealing with non-traditional security dilemmas, including food, water and energy security as well as climate change. Europeans, too, are becoming more aware of the global implications of instability in Asia.

ASEM’s connectivity credentials go beyond trade and economics.  In addition to the strategic partnerships mentioned above, Asia and Europe are linked through an array of cooperation accords. Discussions on climate change, pandemics, illegal immigration, maritime security, urbanisation and green growth, among others, are frequent between multiple government ministries and agencies in both regions, reflecting a growing recognition that 21st century challenges can only be tackled through improved global governance and, failing that, through “patchwork governance” involving cross-border and cross-regional alliances.

Discussions on security issues are an important part of the political pillar in ASEM, with leaders exchanging views on regional and global flashpoints.  Given current tensions over conflicting territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, this year’s debate should be particularly important.

Asian views of Europe’s security role are changing. Unease about the dangerous political and security fault lines that run across the region and the lack of a strong security architecture has prompted many in Asia to take a closer look at Europe’s experience in ensuring peace, easing tensions and handling conflicts.  As Asia grapples with historical animosities and unresolved conflicts, earlier scepticism about Europe’s security credentials are giving way to recognition of Europe’s “soft power” in peace-making and reconciliation, crisis management, conflict resolution and preventive diplomacy, human rights, the promotion of democracy and the rule of law.

In addition, for many in Asia, the European Union is the prime partner for dealing with non-traditional security dilemmas, including food, water and energy security as well as climate change. Europeans too are becoming more aware of the global implications of instability in Asia, not least as regards maritime security.

Meanwhile, over the years, ASEM meetings have become more formal, ritualistic and long drawn-out, with endless preparatory discussions and the negotiation of long texts by “senior officials” or bureaucrats. Instead of engaging in direct conversation, ministers and leaders read out well-prepared statements.  Having embarked on a search to bring back the informality and excitement of the first few ASEM meetings, Asian and European foreign ministers successfully tested out new working methods at their meeting in Delhi last November.

The new formula, to be tried out in Milan, includes the organisation of a “retreat” session during which leaders will be able to have a free-flowing discussion on regional and international issues with less structure and fewer people in the room.  Instead of spending endless hours negotiating texts, leaders will focus on a substantive discussion of issues.  The final statement will be drafted and issued in the name of the “chair” who will consult partners but will be responsible for the final wording.  There are indications that the chair’s statements and other documents issued at the end of ASEM meetings will be short, simple and to-the-point.

ASEM also needs a content update.  True, ASEM summits which are held every two years, deal with many worthy issues, including economic growth, regional and global tensions, climate change and the like. It is also true that Asian and European ministers meet even more frequently to discuss questions like education, labour reform, inter-faith relations and river management.

This is worthy and significant – but also too much.  ASEM needs a sharper focus on growth and jobs, combating extremism and tackling hard and soft security issues. Women in both Asia and Europe face many societal and economic challenges.  Freedom of expression is under attack in both regions.

ASEM partners also face the uphill task of securing stronger public understanding, awareness and support for the Asia-Europe partnership, especially in the run up to the 20th anniversary summit in 2016.

The 21st century requires countries and peoples – whether they are like-minded or not – to work together in order to ensure better global governance in a still-chaotic multipolar world.

As they grapple with their economic, political and security dilemmas – and despite their many disagreements – Asia and Europe are drawing closer together.  If ASEM reform is implemented as planned, 2016 could become an important milestone in a reinvigorated Asia-Europe partnership, a compelling necessity in the 21st century.

Shada Islam is responsible for policy oversight of Friends of Europe’s initiatives, activities and publications. She has special responsibility for the Asia Programme and for the Development Policy Forum. She is the former Europe correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review and has previously worked on Asian issues at the European Policy Centre. 

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From Tigers to Barbers: Tales of Sri Lanka’s Ex-Combatants http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/from-tigers-to-barbers-tales-of-sri-lankas-ex-combatants/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=from-tigers-to-barbers-tales-of-sri-lankas-ex-combatants http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/from-tigers-to-barbers-tales-of-sri-lankas-ex-combatants/#comments Mon, 14 Jul 2014 17:56:12 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135538 Aloysius Patrickeil, once a member of the feared Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), now spends his time giving his loyal customers haircuts in a small town in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Aloysius Patrickeil, once a member of the feared Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), now spends his time giving his loyal customers haircuts in a small town in Sri Lanka's Northern Province. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka, Jul 14 2014 (IPS)

People are willing to wait a long time for a few minutes in the hands of Aloysius Patrickeil, a 32-year-old barber who is part-owner of a small shop close to the northern town of Kilinochchi, 320 km from Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.

Old men with bushy moustaches sit on chairs alongside youngsters sporting trendy haircuts and beards in the latest styles from Tamil movies, while mothers drag their kids into the long line for the barber’s coveted chair.

“He is the best in town,” Kalliman Mariyadas, a young man waiting his turn, says confidently.

“They want a better life, they want to live like ordinary people.” -- Murugesu Kayodaran, rehabilitation officer for the Kilinochchi District Divisional Secretariat
A few years ago, Patrickeil wasn’t such a famous man, nor did he wish to be one. Till 2009 he was a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the armed separatist group that fought a 26-year-long civil war with successive Sri Lankan governments for independence for the country’s minority Tamil population.

Patrickeil, now the father of a one-and-a-half year-old infant, was part of the LTTE’s naval arm known as the Sea Tigers until a military offensive decimated the rebel group in 2009.

Today, he is wary of divulging details of his past career.

“There is no point – what happened, happened. I don’t want to go back there,” he tells IPS, while massaging the head of one of his middle-aged clients.

His main aim now is to make sure his enterprise keeps making money. “People will always want to get haircuts, so it is a good job selection,” he says with a smile.

A beloved member of the community, he loves to talk of his shop and his future plans, but not so much about his violent past and involvement in a conflict that claimed some 100,000 lives on both sides.

A man transports bananas in the northern town of Jaffna, the political and cultural hub of Sri Lanka's Northern Province, which has reaped at least some of the peace dividends. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

A man transports bananas in the northern town of Jaffna, the political and cultural hub of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, which has reaped at least some of the peace dividends. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

When the Sri Lankan government declared victory over the Tigers in May 2009, after a bloody battle in the former rebel-held areas in the north and east of the country, close to 12,000 LTTE cadres either surrendered or were apprehended by military forces, according to government data.

By June this year over 11,800 were released following rehabilitation programmes of varying length, leaving 132 in detention.

Patrickeil himself was in detention, and then underwent rehabilitation (including vocational training) until February 2013; like thousands of other former militants, he must now navigate the former war zone as a civilian.

“They want a better life, they want to live like ordinary people,” says Murugesu Kayodaran, rehabilitation officer for the Kilinochchi District Divisional Secretariat.

But after years of war, violence and no sense of what “ordinary” life means, he tells IPS, this seemingly simple task is harder than it first appears.

Of the released ex-Tigers, most are engaged in manual labour in the north, according to data provided by the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. Other popular areas of employment include the fishing industry, the farming sector or the government’s civil defence department.

14652000325_ab5f725cb4_zCurrently, 11 percent of rehabilitated former LTTE fighters are listed as unemployed, more than two-and-a-half times the national unemployment rate.

Very few official programmes offer assistance. One government loan scheme provides individuals with up to 25,000 rupees (192 dollars), but so far only 1,773 who qualify for the programme have received the money, according to existing records.

An initiative undertaken by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) offers grants of 50,000 rupees (roughly 380 dollars), but since 2013 only 523 have received the modest sum.

“We try to help the most deserving cases after careful evaluation,” M S M Kamil, head of ICRC’s Economic Security Department, tells IPS. The lack of complimentary schemes, however, means that thousands are floundering without a steady income.

Kayodaran says that sustained long-term assistance is needed to foster careful reintegration of thousands of ex-combatants, many of whom still feel stigmatised.

“They feel they need financial independence to be able to feel normal like the others, but there are other underlying issues like depression, trauma and lack of family support that remain unaddressed,” he says.

A little help goes a long way

Just a few miles west of Patrickeil’s popular salon, 37-year-old Selliah Bavanan works alone in his tire repair shop in the small town of Mallavi. Also a former Tiger, he is evasive about his role in the group.

All he confides to IPS is that “the situation at the time demanded that we make the decision to join the group.”

Selliah Bavanan, an ex-LTTE cadre, now runs a tire repair shop in the Northern Province, and avoids talking about his past. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Selliah Bavanan, an ex-LTTE cadre, now runs a tire repair shop in the Northern Province, and avoids talking about his past. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Now he keeps a close eye on the road that links Kilinochchi, the main financial hub in the region, with the western parts of the district.

“My primary customers are the big vehicles,” he states, adding that there are many that take the route these days, ferrying material for the large-scale development work taking place in areas that were held by the Tigers until early 2009.

When he received the ICRC grant earlier this year, Bavanan made an astute decision – he invested the money in equipment for his humble enterprise and has seen a sharp spike in customers ever since.

“I make between 1,500 and 3,000 rupees (about 11-21 dollars) daily; it is good money,” he insists, while repairing a large, punctured tire.

Patrickeil received a similar grant and invested the money in mirrors, scissors and other accessories for the shop that was owned by a friend. “I pay half my daily income to the owner,” says Patrickeil who also makes about 3,000 rupees per day in a region where the monthly cost of living is some 25,000-30,000 rupees (190-230 dollars).

Life on this small income is not easy, with many ex-combatants in the region supporting extended families. One injured former LTTE cadre that IPS spoke with was supporting a family of three, plus a younger brother and two ageing parents.

Those left disabled by the war, both civilians and ex-combatants, make up over 10 percent of the population of Sri Lanka's Northern Province, but very little official assistance is directed at them. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Those left disabled by the war, both civilians and ex-combatants, make up over 10 percent of the population of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, but very little official assistance is directed at them. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Officials like ICRC’s Kamil say that rehabilitated former female combatants find job options even more restrictive than their male counterparts.

Psychological assistance programmes for those traumatised by years of war are just getting off the ground in the former conflict areas, but none of them are designed specifically for ex-combatants.

There is also no official data on how many former LTTE members were wounded, but government records suggest that at least 10 to 20 percent of the Northern Province’s population of some 1.1 million people are war-injured, a large number of which were combatants during the conflict.

They say their biggest challenge now is social acceptance and financial independence. While the immediate outlook is bleak, many harbour aspirations of improved circumstances in the years to come.

“First there was war, then there was peace; now we have poverty, and hopefully the next stop will be prosperity,” says Patrickeil’s customer Mariyadas, standing up for his turn with the Sea Tiger-turned-barber.

(END)

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New Palestinian World Heritage Site Under Threat of Defacement http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/new-palestinian-world-heritage-site-under-threat-of-defacement/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=new-palestinian-world-heritage-site-under-threat-of-defacement http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/new-palestinian-world-heritage-site-under-threat-of-defacement/#comments Sun, 13 Jul 2014 17:56:20 +0000 Ido Liven http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135527 View of the terraces in the Palestinian village of Battir, now a World Heritage site. Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia

View of the terraces in the Palestinian village of Battir, now a World Heritage site. Credit: Courtesy of Wikipedia

By Ido Liven
BATTIR, West Bank, Jul 13 2014 (IPS)

The Palestinian village of Battir, just six kilometres southwest of Jerusalem and a similar distance from Bethlehem, is the latest to be trapped in the gap between international recognition and Israel’s policies in the West Bank.

The village’s agricultural terraces covering the surrounding hill slopes, and the spring water-fed open irrigation channels that run through them, have been in use for centuries.

Last month, this unique landscape was designated a World Heritage site by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), making it only the second such Palestinian site after the Old City of Jerusalem site.

Already in autumn last year, the World Monuments Fund, an international organisation working to preserve important cultural heritage sites, had added Battir’s ancient terraces to its 2014 World Monuments Watch.Local residents, who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, have been campaigning against the six-kilometre long Separation Barrier plans since 2005, and fear the barrier will take a toll, not only on the centuries-old living landscape, but also on their way of life.

The decision to inscribe Battir in the World Heritage list comes amid Israeli plans to establish a new section of its Separation Barrier at the foot of the terraced hill slopes, cutting through the Palestinian village’s lands.

According to the Israeli military authorities, this section of the Separation Barrier is mainly intended to protect the railway on the margins of the village’s lands. Military representatives told the Israeli Supreme Court in 2011, there is “specific intelligence about attempts of terror organisations to infiltrate into Israel from this direction.”

However, they also reiterated that “the abovementioned security threat is not at all posed by residents of Battir, but from other hostile elements active in this area and those especially coming to the Battir area due to the fact the barrier route is still incomplete there.”

Local residents, however, who depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, have been campaigning against the Separation Barrier plans since 2005, fearing the new six kilometre-long barrier will take a toll, not only on the centuries-old living landscape, but also on their way of life.

Over the years, their campaign has garnered much support, including from environmental groups such as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME). Two perhaps unlikely other sources of support have been an Israeli field school in the settlement bloc of Gush Etzion and the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority (INPA).

Their environmental support might be genuine, but their objection to the Separation Barrier also fits well with their own political agenda, says Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.

INPA, in particular, has added its voice in support of protecting the Palestinian village’s traditional terraces, while managing a number of national parks – some of which are included in the tentative list of Palestine’s World Heritage sites.

In May last year, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered suspension of the works on the section of the barrier in Battir’s lands, but a final ruling is still pending. Now, the petitioners from the village and from FoEME are hopeful that the new World Heritage status could influence the court’s decision.

Nevertheless, Battir’s eggplants, vines and olives are closely intertwined with the greater Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The World Heritage nomination was submitted under a special emergency procedure a day after the latest court session, and right before this year’s deadline.

But it could have been made already a year earlier if it had not been for a request from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, according to Israeli daily Haaretz. Freezing the Palestinian bid, the paper reported, was meant to allow the renewal of peace negotiations. “Senior Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem noted that Israel is keeping track of the Palestinian move and will try to prevent it,” Haaretz added.

Palestinian news agency Ma’an reported that suspending Battir’s nomination was part of a deal whereby, in exchange, Israel would allow a UNESCO team to examine the Old City of Jerusalem, another World Heritage site.

Eventually, Battir’s application was successful and, in acknowledging the threat to the site, the World Heritage Committee also agreed to include it in its ‘in danger’ list, despite an expert opinion from the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the professional cultural heritage body advising UNESCO, which was generally sceptical about the merits of the site’s inscription.

However, Israel’s Ministry of Defence remains intent on going ahead with the barrier plan. “The barrier’s route in the area of Battir is intended to protect the citizens of Israel from terrorists and terror entering [the country],” read a statement from the ministry to IPS.

“The Security Barrier’s route will be established with no harm to natural assets,” it continued. “No terrace will be destroyed and the irrigation system will not be harmed. The IDF [Israel Defence Forces] is sensitive to the natural assets at the site, but it is first and foremost committed to the security of the citizens of Israel.”

And it does seem rather unlikely that Battir’s World Heritage inscription will have a significant impact on the Supreme Court ruling.  “I’d be surprised if, on these grounds, the Supreme Court categorically rejects building the barrier there,” Zalzberg told IPS.

“I think that’s not good for the image of Israel to be destroying World Heritage sites,” says Nader al-Khateeb, FoEME’s Palestinian co-director.

But Zalzberg believes such designation would not be seen by the Israeli government as a major factor. “There are already places where Israel has taken its own stance on things that are much more serious in the eyes of the international community,” he said.

Rather, an Israeli decision to go ahead with the barrier in Battir, thus defying the U.N. agency, “could be part of a trend where Israel further pushes UNESCO to the wall on anything related to managing sites, possibly also in Jerusalem.”

From the court proceedings, it seems that a barrier will eventually be built. In its latest session on the case, in January, the Supreme Court focused on ways to mitigate damage to the terraces, for example by examining the option of removing one of the train tracks, and by ordering the Israeli military to allow Battir farmers access to their lands through gates in the barrier.

Opponents, however, are concerned about additional, collateral damage to the ancient terraces landscape from the construction process involving heavy machinery.

Akram Bader, mayor of Battir, is concerned that building the barrier would not only take a toll on the local cultural heritage, but also on the peaceful situation in the area. “Through the last 64 years there have been no incidents in the area, so why are they saying they want to build a Security Barrier?” he asks.

In fact, establishing the barrier, ostensibly to ensure Israel’s security, could lead to violence, Bader warns. “If the terraces are damaged, it means that the people will not think about peace in this area. They will change their minds about it.”

Israel is, at least formally, committed to protecting cultural heritage in the West Bank, as a member of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and also as one of the earliest signatories of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the Event of Armed Conflict.

Meanwhile, Battir might not be the last case of its kind. At least two proposals on Palestine’s World Heritage Tentative List could overlap the route of Israel’s Separation Barrier. In one, Umm Al-Rihan Forest, the barrier already exists. In another, El-Bariyah, also known as the Judean desert, plans to establish a stretch of the Separation Barrier triggered vocal protest from Israeli environmentalists six years ago.

In response, Amir Peretz, then Defence Minister and today Environmental Protection Minister, ordered works to be halted.

In July 2004, the International Court of Justice had issued an Advisory Opinion on Israel’s Separation Barrier, concluding that it was “contrary to international law” and calling on Israel to cease its construction. Exactly ten years later, Israel’s Separation Barrier looks set to defy the international community once again.

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Time to “Drop the Knife” for FMG in The Gambia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/time-to-drop-the-knife-for-fmg-in-the-gambia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=time-to-drop-the-knife-for-fmg-in-the-gambia http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/time-to-drop-the-knife-for-fmg-in-the-gambia/#comments Sun, 13 Jul 2014 11:23:18 +0000 Saikou Jammeh http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135524 Circumcisers in the Gambia publicly declaring that they have abandoned the practice of FGM. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

Circumcisers in the Gambia publicly declaring that they have abandoned the practice of FGM. Credit: Saikou Jammeh/IPS

By Saikou Jammeh
BANJUL, Jul 13 2014 (IPS)

Women’s rights activists in the Gambia are insisting that more than 30 years of campaigning to raise awareness should be sufficient to move the government to outlaw female genital mutilation (FMG).

The practice remains widespread in this tiny West African country of 1.8 million people, but rights activists believe that their campaign has now reached the tipping point.

Two years ago, GAMCOTRAP, an apolitical non-governmental organisation (NGO) committed to the promotion and protection of women and girl children’s political, social, sexual, reproductive health and educational rights in The Gambia, and one of the groups behind the anti-FGM campaign, sponsored a draft bill which has been subjected to wide stakeholder consultations.

Several previous attempts to legislate against FGM have failed, with no fewer than three pro-women laws having had clauses on FGM removed from draft bills. But activists now appear determined to make the final push and hope that when introduced this time round, the bill will go through.“We’ve caused lots of suffering to our women ... if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem” – former circumciser Babung Sidibeh

The time has now come for final action, says Amie Bensouda, legal consultant for the draft bill. “There can be no half measures. The law has to be clear. It’s proposed by the law that FGM in all its forms is prohibited. This discussion cannot go on forever. The government should do what is right.”

“The campaign has reached its climax,” Dr Isatou Touray, executive director of GAMCOTRAP, told IPS. “A lot of work has been done. I am hopeful of having a law because women are calling for it, men are calling for it. I know there are pockets of resistance but that’s always the case when it comes to women’s issues.”

“In 2010, we organised a workshop for the National Assembly,” she continued. “They made a declaration, pledging to support any bill that criminalises FGM. I am happy to report that, since 2007, more than 128 circumcisers and 900 communities have abandoned the practice. This trend will continue to grow.”

Seventy-eight percent of Gambian women undergo FGM as a ‘rite of passage’. However, after more than three decades of the anti-FGM campaign in Gambia, a wind of change is blowing, sweeping even conservative rural communities.

Sustained awareness-raising programmes have resulted in public declarations of abandonment of FGM by hundreds of circumcisers. Babung Sidibeh, custodian of the tradition in her native Janjanbureh, the provincial capital of Central River Region, 196 kilometres from Banjul, was one of them. The old woman assumed the role after the death of her parents, but she has since “dropped the knife”, as no longer practising FGM is known here.

Sidibeh did so after receiving training in reproductive health and women’s rights. “Soon after we circumcised our children in 2011,” she told IPS, “Gamcotrap invited me for training. I was exposed to the harm we’ve been doing to our fellow women. If I had known that before what I know today, I would never have circumcised anyone.”

With a tinge of remorse, she added: “We’ve caused lots of suffering to our women. That’s why I told you that if my grandparents had known what I know today, they would not have circumcised anyone. Ignorance was the problem.”

Mrs Camara-Touray, a senior public health worker at the country’s heath ministry confirmed to IPS that her ministry has since taken a more proactive role on FGM.

She explained: “The ministry has created an FGM complication register. We’ve also trained nurses on FGM. Until recently, when you asked most health workers about the complications that can arise with FMG, they would say it has no complications. That’s because they were not trained. Since 2011, we’ve changed our curriculum to include these complications. After we put the register in place, within three months, we’d go to a region and see that hundreds of complications due to FGM had been recorded.”

In March, Gamcotrap organised a regional religious dialogue that sought to de-link FGM from Islam. Touray said that the workshop was a prelude to the introduction of the proposed law in parliament.

“Islamic scholars were brought together from Mali, Guinea, Mauritania and Gambia,” she told IPS. “We had a constructive debate and it was overwhelmingly accepted that FGM is not an Islamic injunction, it’s a cultural practice. It was recommended that a specific law should be passed and a declaration was made to that effect.”

However, there is resistance in some quarters. An influential group of Islamic scholars, backed by the leadership of the Supreme Islamic Council, continue to maintain that FGM is a religious injunction.

With a large following and having the ears of the politicians, these clerics have in recent times also intensified their pro-FGM campaign.

“It will be a big mistake if they legislate against FGM,” Ebrima Jarjue, an executive member of the Supreme Islamic Council, told IPS.

“Our religion says we cut just small. We should be allowed to practise our religion. If some people are doing it and doing it bad, let them stop it. Let them go and learn how to do it. If circumcising the girl child when she’s young is causing problems, then let’s wait until she grows up. That’s what used to happen.”

Meanwhile, the Women’s Bureau, the implementing arm of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, is hesitant about legislating against FGM.

“As far FGM is concerned, the position of the Women’s Bureau is that there’s need for more sensitisation and dialogue to push the course forward,” Neneh Touray, information and communication officer of the Women’s Bureau, told IPS. She declined to comment on whether the bureau thought that the bill was premature.

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Reproductive Rights to Take Centre Stage at U.N. Special Session http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/reproductive-rights-take-centre-stage-at-u-n-special-session/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=reproductive-rights-take-centre-stage-at-u-n-special-session http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/reproductive-rights-take-centre-stage-at-u-n-special-session/#comments Thu, 10 Jul 2014 19:23:02 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135488 This is part of a series of special stories on world population and challenges to the Sustainable Development Goals on the occasion of World Population Day on July 11.]]> A basket of condoms is passed around during International Women’s Day in Manila. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

A basket of condoms is passed around during International Women’s Day in Manila. Credit: Kara Santos/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jul 10 2014 (IPS)

As the United Nations continues negotiations on a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for its post-2015 development agenda, population experts are hoping reproductive health will be given significant recognition in the final line-up of the goals later this year.

At the same time, an upcoming Special Session of the General Assembly in mid-September may further strengthen reproductive rights and the right to universal family planning."Advocates are rallying to ensure that SRHR remains as central to the next set of goals as it is to women's lives." -- Gina Sarfaty

Gina Sarfaty of the Washington-based Population Action International (PAI) told IPS, “We are at a critical juncture for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).”

As the conversation around the next set of SDGs begins to heat up, she said, “Advocates are rallying to ensure that SRHR remains as central to the next set of goals as it is to women’s lives.

“The stakes are high, and the need for action is paramount,” cautioned Sarfaty, a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist and research associate at PAI.

World population, currently at over 7.2 billion, is projected to increase by 3.7 billion people by 2100. Much of this growth will occur in developing countries, with 64 percent concentrated in just 10 countries, according to PAI.

In eight of these nations – Nigeria, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia – an important driver of population growth is persistently high fertility.

The remaining two countries accounting for the world’s increase – India and the United States – are those with already large populations and high net migration.

The ongoing negotiations for SDGs take place against the run-up to the upcoming special session of the General Assembly commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1994 landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo.

The special session, to be attended by several heads of state, is scheduled to take place Sep. 22 during the 69th session of the General Assembly.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, under-secretary-general and executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), told IPS the principles set at the ICPD in 1994 are as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.

“But we need to act strong and fast to realise the Cairo vision and achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, including family planning,” he added.

The special session presents the perfect opportunity for governments, at the highest level, to recommit to its success and to renew their political support for actions required to fully achieve the goals and objectives of its Programme of Action and achieve sustainable development, he said.

This will also place the Cairo principles firmly in the post-2015 development agenda, said Dr. Osotimehin, a former Nigerian minister of health.

Purnima Mane, president and chief executive officer of Pathfinder International, told IPS the September meeting represents an opportunity for world leaders to assess progress made over the past 20 years against the goals and strategies developed in 1994, identify any remaining gaps in performance that require increased attention and investment, and realign their efforts moving forward.

“This is a very important session for all of us working on sexual and reproductive health since it provides a critical forum for reaffirming and unifying international commitment to ICPD goals and for making an added push to do more on areas and in countries where we are lagging,” she said.

Asked why there wasn’t a follow-up international conference, perhaps an ICPD+20 on the lines of the Rio+20 environment conference in 2012, Mane said the Cairo Programme of Action developed a very forward-looking agenda and set the bar high for the international community 20 years ago.

She said its goals are still relevant and actionable, and the agenda is unfortunately not yet finished.

“My sense is that having a follow-up conference in such an environment was seen as neither strategic nor a good use of resources,” Mane said.

The upcoming special session “is intended to heighten focus on the goals established in the 1994 Programme of Action, stimulate discussion around what we will do to complete the unfinished agenda, re-engage on commitments already made and also push for more.

“I would hope the upcoming U.N. session will highlight the need to include sexual and reproductive health and rights upfront as a core component of the Sustainable Development Goals as the Open Working Group continues to develop its proposal,” said Mane, who oversees sexual and reproductive health programmes in more than 20 developing nations on an annual budget of over 100 million dollars.

Asked about the current status of world population growth, PAI’s Sarfaty told IPS that despite the fact that mortality has declined substantially, women in sub-Saharan Africa currently have more than five children on average, representing a modest decrease from the average of 6.5 children they had in the 1950s.

Compared to Latin America and Asia, she said, a slower pace of fertility decline has characterised sub-Saharan Africa, with stalls and even reversals along the way.

Of 22 countries where recent survey data is available, 10 are transitioning towards lower childbearing while 12 are currently experiencing fertility stalls.

“Therefore, the expectation that fertility will steadily decline in Africa, as the U.N. projects, will not hold without concerted policy and programme effort,” she warned.

The polar opposite fertility scenario is happening in the high income countries with low levels of fertility.

It is estimated that 48 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where women have fewer than 2.1 children on average in their lifetimes, she pointed out.

While fertility rates in these countries may be below replacement level, their need for family planning does not disappear, she declared.

Sarfaty said family planning use continued in Iran, for example, after the government discontinued its funding of family planning programmes in an attempt to encourage higher birth rates.

In addition to being ineffective, restricting access to family planning also restricts the right of a woman to determine her family size, she added.

Meanwhile, in a report released Thursday, the United Nations said the world’s population is increasingly urban, with more than half living in urban areas today and another 2.5 billion expected by 2050.

With nearly 38 million people, Tokyo tops U.N.’s ranking of most populous cities followed by Delhi, Shanghai, Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Mumbai.

The largest urban growth will take place in India, China and Nigeria: three countries accounting for 37 per cent of the projected growth of the world’s urban population between 2014 and 2050.

By 2050, India is projected to add 404 million urban dwellers, China 292 million and Nigeria 212 million.

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El Niño Triggers Drought, Food Crisis in Nicaragua http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/el-nino-triggers-drought-food-crisis-in-nicaragua/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=el-nino-triggers-drought-food-crisis-in-nicaragua http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/07/el-nino-triggers-drought-food-crisis-in-nicaragua/#comments Thu, 10 Jul 2014 17:10:35 +0000 Jose Adan Silva http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=135475 The Las Canoas lake in Tipitapa, near Managua, dries up every time Nicaragua is visited by the El Niño phenomenon, leaving local people without fish or water for their crops. Credit: Guillermo Flores/IPS

The Las Canoas lake in Tipitapa, near Managua, dries up every time Nicaragua is visited by the El Niño phenomenon, leaving local people without fish or water for their crops. Credit: Guillermo Flores/IPS

By José Adán Silva
MANAGUA, Jul 10 2014 (IPS)

The spectre of famine is haunting Nicaragua. The second poorest country in Latin America, and one of the 10 most vulnerable to climate change in the world, is facing a meteorological phenomenon that threatens its food security.

Scientists at the Nicaraguan Institute for Territorial Studies (INETER) say the situation is correlated with the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a weather cycle that periodically causes drought on the western Pacific seaboard and the centre of the country, in contrast with seasonal flooding in the north and the eastern Caribbean coast.

Crescencio Polanco, a veteran farmer in the rural municipality of Tipitapa, north of Managua, is one of thousands of victims of the climate episode. He waited in vain for the normally abundant rains in May and June to plant maize and beans.

Polanco lost his bean crop due to lack of rain, but he remains hopeful. He borrowed 400 dollars to plant again in September, to try to recoup the investment lost by the failed harvest in May.

ENSO brings drought

The warm phase of ENSO happens when surface water temperatures increase in the eastern and central equatorial areas of the Pacific Ocean, altering weather patterns worldwide.

Experts at the Humboldt Centre told IPS that in Nicaragua, the main effect is “a sharp reduction in available atmospheric humidity”, leading to “significant rainfall deficits” and an irregular, sporadic rainy season from May to October.

Over the last 27 years there have been seven El Niño episodes, and each of them has been associated with drought, they said.

If the rains fail again, it will spell economic catastrophe for him and the seven members of his family.

“In May we spent the money we got from last year’s harvest, but with this new loan we are wagering on recovering what we lost or losing it all. I don’t know what we’ll do if the rains don’t come,” he told IPS.

His predicament is shared by thousands of small producers who depend on rainfall for their crops. Some 45 kilometres south of Tipitapa, southwest of Managua, campesino (small farmer) Luis Leiva regrets the total loss of three hectares of maize and squash to the drought.

Leiva sells his produce in the capital city’s Mercado Oriental market, and uses the profits to buy seeds and food for his family. Now he has lost everything and cannot obtain financing to rent the plot of land and plant another crop.

“The last three rains have been miserable, not enough to really even wet the earth. It’s all lost and now I just have to see if I can plant in late August or September,” he told IPS with resignation.

Rainfall in May was on average 75 percent lower than normal in Nicaragua. According to INETER, there was “a record reduction in rainfall”, up to 88 percent in some central Pacific areas, the largest deficit since records began.

Based on data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), INETER has warned that the drought could last until September.

The nightmare is affecting all farmers on the Pacific coast and in the centre of the country. Sinforiano Cáceres, president of the National Federation of Cooperatives, a group of 300 large farming associations, expounded the sector’s fears to the inter-institutional National Board for Risk Management.

“We have already lost the early planting (in May), and if we lose the late planting (in August and September) there will be famine in the land and a rising spiral of prices for all basic food products,” he told IPS at a forum of producers and experts seeking solutions to the crisis. There is a third crop cycle, in December, known as “apante”.

The country’s main dairy and beef producers raised their concerns directly with the government. Members of the Federation of Livestock Associations and the National Livestock Commission told the government that meat and milk production have fallen by around 30 percent, and could drop by 50 percent by September if the ENSO lasts until then, as INETER has forecast.

Moreover, the National Union of Farmers and Livestock Owners said that over a thousand head of cattle belonging to its members have perished from starvation.

It also warned that the price of meat and dairy products will rise because some livestock owners are investing in special feeds, vitamins and vaccines against diseases to prevent losing more cattle on their ranches.

The agriculture and livestock sector generates more than 60 percent of the country’s exports and earns 18 percent of its GDP, which totalled 11 billion dollars in 2013, according to the Central Bank of Nicaragua.

In the view of sociologist Cirilo Otero, head of the non-governmental Centre for Environmental Policy Initiatives, a food crisis would have a particularly severe economic impact on a country that has still not recovered from a plague of coffee rust that hit plantations in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America over the last two years.

“Thousands of small coffee farmers and thousands of families who depended on the crop have still not been able to recover their employment and income, and now El Niño is descending on them. I don’t know how the country will be able to recover,” he told IPS.

According to Otero, if ENSO continues its ravages for the rest of the rainy season, thousands of families will suffer from under-nutrition in a country where, in 2012, 20 percent of its six million people were undernourished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

“Producers do not know how to mitigate the effects of climate change, nor the mechanisms for adapting to soil changes. Unless the government implements policies for adaptation to climate change, there will be a severe food crisis in 2014 and 2015,” he told IPS.

The government has set up commissions to monitor the phenomenon, as well as information meetings with farmers and livestock producers.

The authorities have also expanded a programme of free food packages for thousands of poor families, and are providing school meals for over one million children in the school system, as well as a number of small programmes for financing family agriculture.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega ordered urgent imports in June of 20.5 million kilograms of beans and 73.5 million kilograms of white maize to supply local markets, where shortages were already being felt. The government’s intention is to lower the high prices of these products while hoping for a decent harvest in the second half of this year.

The price of red beans has doubled since May to two dollars a kilogram, in a country where over 2.5 million people subsist on less than two dollars a day, according to a 2013 survey by the International Foundation for Global Economic Challenge.

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