Inter Press Service » Globalisation Journalism and Communication for Global Change Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:25:19 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Oil Lubricates Equatorial Guinea’s Entry into Portuguese Language Community Fri, 25 Jul 2014 16:10:59 +0000 Mario Queiroz Equatoguinean President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has sidestepped accusations of human rights violations and won his country membership in the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP). Credit: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea/CC-BY-ND-2.0

Equatoguinean President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has sidestepped accusations of human rights violations and won his country membership in the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP). Credit: Embassy of Equatorial Guinea/CC-BY-ND-2.0

By Mario Queiroz
LISBON, Jul 25 2014 (IPS)

Evidently, oil talked louder. By unanimous resolution, the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) admitted Equatorial Guinea as a full member, in spite of the CPLP’s ban on dictatorial regimes and the death penalty.

At the two-day summit of heads of state and government that concluded on Wednesday Jul. 23 in Dili, the capital of East Timor, Portugal was the last nation to hold out against the inclusion of the new entrant. Portuguese prime minister, conservative Pedro Passos Coelho, finally yielded to pressure from Brazil and Angola, the countries most interested in sharing in the benefits of Equatorial Guinea’s oil wealth.

The CPLP is made up of Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Portugal, and São Tomé and Príncipe.

“Obiang never thought entry to the CPLP would be possible, but in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, all the president’s goals are possible." -- Ponciano Nvó, a lawyer and distinguished defender of human rights
Between its independence in 1968 and the onset of oil exploration, Equatorial Guinea was stigmatised as a ferocious dictatorship.

But when the U.S. company Mobil began drilling for oil in 1996, the dictatorship of President Teodoro Obiang, in power since 1979, was afforded the relief of powerful countries “looking the other way.”

Gradually, the importance of oil took precedence over human rights and countries with decision-making power over the region and the world became interested in sharing in crude oil extraction. Oil production in Equatorial Guinea has multiplied 10-fold in recent years, ranking it in third place in sub-Saharan Africa behind Angola and Nigeria.

“The kleptocratic oligarchy of Equatorial Guinea is becoming one of the world’s richest dynasties. The country is becoming known as the ‘Kuwait of Africa’ and the global oil majors – ExxonMobil, Total, Repsol – are moving in,” said the Lisbon weekly Visão.

Visão said this former Spanish colony has a per capita GDP of 24,035 dollars, 4,000 dollars more than Portugal’s, but 78 percent of its 1.8 million people subsist on less than a dollar a day.

In the view of some members of the international community, “Since 1968 there have been two Equatorial Guineas, those before and after the oil,” Ponciano Nvó, a lawyer and distinguished defender of human rights in his country, told IPS during a three-day visit to Portugal at the invitation of Amnesty International.

In spite of average economic growth of 33 percent in the last decade, the enormous wealth of Equatorial Guinea has not brought better economic conditions for its people, although it has lent a certain international “legitimacy” to the regime, crowned now with the accolade of membership in the CPLP.

Since Equatorial Guinea’s first application in 2006, the CPLP adopted an ambiguous stance, restricting it to associate membership and setting conditions – like the elimination of the death penalty and making Portuguese an official language – that had to be met before full membership could be considered.

“Portugal should not accept within the community a regime that commits human rights violations; it would be a political mistake,” and also a mistake for the CPLP, Andrés Eso Ondo said in a declaration on Tuesday Jul. 22.

He is the leader of Convergencia para la Democracia Social, the only permitted opposition party, which has one seat in parliament. The other 99 seats are held by the ruling Partido Democrático de Guinea Ecuatorial.

In Portugal, reactions were indignant. The president himself, conservative Aníbal Cavaco Silva, remained wooden-faced in his seat in Dili while the other heads of state welcomed Obiang to the CPLP with a standing ovation. Meanwhile, in Lisbon, prominent politicians were heavily critical of the government’s accommodating attitude.

Socialist lawmaker João Soares said allowing Equatorial Guinea to join the CPLP is “shameful for Portugal and a monumental error,” while Ana Gomes, a member of the European Parliament for the same party, said it was unacceptable that the community should admit “a dictatorial and criminal regime that is facing lawsuits in the United States and France for economic and financial crimes.”

“The dead are not only those who have been sentenced to death in a court of law, some 50 persons executed by firing squad after being convicted; we should multiply that number by 100 to reach the figure for the people who have disappeared,” and who were victims of repression, Nvó told IPS.

In the 46 years since independence, “during the first government of Francisco Macías Nguema, all the opposition leaders were murdered in prison, without trial, having been accused of attempts against the president. The ‘work’ was carried out by the current president, when he was director of prisons and carried out a cleansing, before overthrowing his uncle,” he said.

Before oil was discovered, “Obiang never thought entry to the CPLP would be possible, but in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, all the president’s goals are possible,” he complained.

In Nvó’s view, joining the CPLP “is another step in Obiang’s strategy of belonging to as many international bodies as possible for the sake of laundering his image. He used to belong to the community of Hispanic nations, but then he came to believe that he would never get anywhere with Spain; then he joined La Francophonie, but that did not last because of his son’s troubles with the French courts.”

Now, however, the CPLP has been satisfied with a moratorium on the death penalty, which remains on the statute books. Its enforcement depends only on the fiat of the head of state. “It’s an intellectual hoax,” Nvó said.

The Equatoguinean foreign minister, Agapito Mba Mokuy, told the Portuguese news agency Lusa on Tuesday that his country “was colonised for a longer period by Portugal than by Spain (307 years under Portugal compared to 190 under Spain), so that the ties to Portuguese-speaking countries are historically very strong.”

“Joining the CPLP today is simply coming home,” he said.

In a telephone interview with IPS, former president of East Timor José Ramos-Horta said, “I agree with the forceful criticisms denouncing the death penalty and serious human rights violations that are committed in that country.” In his view the denunciations of the regime made by international organisations are to be credited.

However, Ramos-Horta believes that “concerted, intelligent, prudent and persistent action by the CPLP upon the regime in Equatorial Guinea will achieve the first improvements after some time.”

In exchange for admission, Ramos-Horta recommended the CPLP should establish an agenda to force Obiang to eliminate the death penalty, torture, arbitrary detentions and forcible disappearances.

It should also include, he said, improved facilities and treatment for prisoners; access to inmates by the International Red Cross; and later on, the opening of an office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Malabo.

One of the most critical voices raised against the events in Dili was that of political sciences professor José Filipe Pinto, who asserted that a sort of “chequebook diplomacy” had prevailed there, with Malabo offering to make investments in CPLP countries, relying on its resource wealth.

In his opinion, “an organisation must have interests and principles,” and he regretted that “some elites and the crisis conspired to exempt the latter.”


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Human Development Report Finds South Asia’s Poor on a Knife’s Edge Thu, 24 Jul 2014 14:58:30 +0000 Amantha Perera Women sleep on a crowded train in Myanmar. Globally, some 1.2 billion people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Women sleep on a crowded train in Myanmar. Globally, some 1.2 billion people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Jul 24 2014 (IPS)

Millions still live in poverty and even those who have gained the security of the middle-income bracket could relapse into poverty due to sudden changes to their economic fortunes in South Asia, the latest annual Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) revealed.

“In South Asia 44.4 percent of the population, around 730 million people, live on 1.25−2.50 dollars a day,” said the report, released in Tokyo Thursday.

It went on to warn that despite the region’s gains, the threat of more of its citizens being pushed back into poverty was very real and that there were large disparities in income and living standards within nations.

“Many who recently joined the middle class could easily fall back into poverty with a sudden change in circumstances,” the report’s authors stressed.

“The most successful anti-poverty and human development initiatives to date have taken a multidimensional approach, combining income support and job creation with expanded healthcare and education opportunities." -- UNDP Human Development Report 2014
Here in Sri Lanka, categorised as a lower middle-income country by the World Bank in 2011, overall poverty levels have come down in the last half-decade.

The Department of Statistics said that poverty levels had dropped from 8.9 percent in 2009 to 6.7 percent by this April. In some of the richest districts, the fall was sharper. The capital Colombo saw levels drop from 3.6 percent to 1.4 percent. Similar drops were recorded in the adjoining two districts of Gampaha and Kalutara.

However the poorest seemed to getting poorer. Poverty headcount in the poorest area of the nation, the southeastern district of Moneralaga, increased from 14.5 percent to 20.8 percent in the same time period.

The disparity could be larger if stricter measurements aren’t used, argued economist Muttukrishna Sarvananthan.

“There is a very low threshold for the status of employment,” he told IPS, referring to the ‘10 years and above’ age threshold used by the government to assess employment rates.

“Such a low threshold gives an artificially higher employment rate, which is deceptive,” he stressed.

The UNDP report said that in the absence of robust safeguards, millions ran the risk of being dragged back into poverty. “With limited social protection, financial crises can quickly lead to profound social crises,” the report forecast.

In Indonesia, for instance, the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s saw poverty levels balloon from 11 percent to 37 percent. Even years later, the world’s poor are finding it hard to climb up the earnings ladder.

“The International Labour Organisation estimates that there were 50 million more working poor in 2011. Only 24 million of them climbed above the 1.25-dollars-a-day income poverty line over 2007–2011, compared with 134 million between 2000 and 2007.”

Globally some 1.2 billion people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day, and 2.7 billion live on even less, the report noted, adding that while those numbers have been declining, many people only increased their income to a point barely above the poverty line so that “idiosyncratic or generalised shocks could easily push them back into poverty.”

This has huge implications, since roughly 12 percent of the world population lives in chronic hunger, while 1.2 billion of the world’s workers are still employed in the informal sector.

Sri Lanka, reflecting global trends, is also home to large numbers of poor people despite the island showing impressive growth rates.

Punchi Banda Jayasundera, the secretary to the treasury and the point man for the national economy, predicts a growth rate of 7.8 percent for this year.

“This year should not be an uncomfortable one for us,” he told IPS, but while this is true for the well off, it could not be further away from reality for hundreds of thousands who cannot make ends meet or afford a square meal every day.

While the report identified the poor as being most vulnerable in the face of sudden upheavals, other groups – like women, indigenous communities, minorities, the old, the displaced and the disabled – are also considered “high risk”, and often face overlapping issues of marginalisation and poverty.

The report also identified climate change as a major contributor to inequality and instability, warning that extreme heat and extreme precipitation events would likely increase in frequency.

By the end of this century, heavy rainfall and rising sea levels are likely to pose risks to some of the low-lying areas in South Asia, and also wreak havoc on its fast-expanding urban centres.

“Smallholder farmers in South Asia are particularly vulnerable – India alone has 93 million small farmers. These groups already face water scarcity. Some studies predict crop yields up to 30 percent lower over the next decades, even as population pressures continue to rise,” the report continued, urging policy-makers to seriously consider adaptation measures.

Sri Lanka is already talking about a 15-percent loss in its vital paddy harvest, while simultaneously experiencing galloping price hikes in vegetables due to lack of rainfall and extreme heat.

It has already had to invest over 400 million dollars to safeguard its economic and administrative nerve centre, Colombo, from flash floods.

“We are getting running lessons on how to adapt to fluctuating weather, and we better take note,” J D M K Chandarasiri, additional director at the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research Institute in Colombo, told IPS.

Smart investments in childhood education and youth employment could act as a bulwark against shocks, the report suggested, since these long-term measures are crucial in interrupting the cycle of poverty.

The report also urged policy makers to look at development and economic growth through a holistic prism rather than continuing with piecemeal interventions, noting that many developed countries invested in education, health and public services before reaching a high income status.

“The most successful anti-poverty and human development initiatives to date have taken a multidimensional approach, combining income support and job creation with expanded health care and education opportunities and other interventions for community development,” the reported noted.


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Touaregs Seek Secular and Democratic Multi-Ethnic State Wed, 23 Jul 2014 11:10:13 +0000 Karlos Zurutuza By Karlos Zurutuza
LEKORNE, France, Jul 23 2014 (IPS)

The government of Mali and Touareg rebels representing Azawad, a territory in northern Mali which declared unilateral independence in 2012 after a Touareg rebellion drove out the Malian army, resumed peace talks in Algiers last week, intended to end decades of conflict.

The talks, being held behind closed doors, are expected to end on July 24.

Negotiations between Bamako and representatives of six northern Mali armed groups, among which the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is the strongest, kicked off in Algiers on July 16. Diplomats from Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other international bodies are also attending the discussions.

Moussa Ag Assarid, MNLA spokesperson. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

Moussa Ag Assarid, MNLA spokesperson. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS

IPS spoke with writer and a journalist Moussa Ag Assarid, MNLA spokesperson in Europe.

You declared your independent state in April 2012 but no one has recognised it yet. Why is that?

We are not for a Touareg state but for a secular and democratic multi-ethnic model of country. We, Touaregs, may be a majority among Azawad population but there are also Arabs, Shongays and Peulas and we´re working in close coordination with them.

Since Mali´s independence in 1960, the people from Azawad have repeatedly stated that we don´t want to be part of that country. We do have the support of many people all around the globe but the states and the international organisations such as the United Nations prefer to tackle the issue without breaking the established order.

And this is why both the United Nations and Mali refer to “jihadism”, and not to the legitimate struggle for freedom of the Azawad people.

However, we are witnessing a reorganisation of the world order amid significant movements in northern Africa, the Middle East, and even Europe, as in the case of the Ukraine. It´s very much a clear proof of the failure of globalisation and the world´s management.“We [the people of Azawad] do have the support of many people all around the globe but the states and the international organisations such as the United Nations prefer to tackle the issue without breaking the established order” – Moussa Ag Assarid

The French intervention in the 2012 war was seemingly a key factor on your side. How do you asses the former colonial power´s role in the region?

The French have always been there, even after Mali´s independence, because they have huge strategic interests in the area as well as natural resources such as the uranium they rely on. In fact, you could say that our independence has been confiscated by both the international community and France.

The former Malian soldiers have been replaced by the U.N. ones but the Malian army keeps committing all sort of abuses against civilians, from arbitrary arrests to deportations or enforced disappearances, all of which take place without the French and the U.N. soldiers lifting a finger.

Meanwhile, Bamako calls on the French state to support them under the pretext they are fighting against Jihadism.

Another worrying issue is the media blackout imposed on us. Reporters are prevented from coming to Azawad so the information is filtered through Bamako-based reporters who talk about “Mali´s north”, who refuse to speak about our struggle and who become spokesmen and defenders of the Malian state.

So what is the real presence, if any, of the Malian state in Azawad?

Mali´s army and its administration fled in 2012 and the state is only present in the areas protected by the French army, in Gao and Tombouktou. Paris has around 1,000 soldiers deployed in the area, the United Nations has 8,000 blue helmets in the whole country, and there are between 12,000 and 15,000 fighters in the ranks of the MNLA.

We coordinate ourselves with the Arab Movement of Azawad and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad. Alongside these two groups we hold control of 90 percent of Azawad, but we are living under extremely difficult conditions.

We obviously don´t get any support from either Mali or Algeria and we have to cope with a terrible drought. We rely on the meat and the milk of our goats, like we´ve done from time immemorial and we fight with the weapons we confiscated from the Malian Army, the Jihadists, or those we once got from Libya.

You mention Libya. Many claim that the MNLA fighters fought on the side of Gaddafi during the Libyan war in 2011. Is that right?

Many media networks insist on distorting the facts. Gaddafi did grant Libyan citizenship to the Touaregs but he later used them to fight in Palestine, Lebanon or Chad. In 1990, they went back to Azawad to fight against the Malian army and, even if we had the chance, we did not make the mistake of fighting against the Libyan people in 2011.

Gaddafi gave Touaregs weapons to fight in Benghazi but the Touareg decided to go to Kidal and set up the MNLA. It´s completely false that the MNLA is formed by Touaregs who came from Libya. Many of our fighters have never been there, neither have I.

Do Islamic extremists still pose a major concern in Azawad?

In January 2013, AQMI (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), a splinter group of AQMI and Ansar Dine attacked the Malian army on the border between Mali and Azawad.

Mali´s president asked for help from Paris to oust them but it´s us, the MNLA, who have been fighting the Jihadists since June 2012. The United States, the United Kingdom and France claim to fight against Al Qaeda but it´s us who do it on the ground. Ansar Dine has given no sign of life for over a year but AQMI and MUJAO are still active.

One of the most outrageous issues is that Bamako had had strong links with AQMI in the past, or even backed Ansar Dine, whose leader is a Touareg but the people under his command are just a criminal gang. Today, the Jihadists backed by Bamako have become stronger than the Malian army itself.

Are you optimistic about the ongoing talks with Bamako?

So far we have signed all sorts of agreements but none of them has ever been respected. Accordingly, we have already discarded the stage in which we would accept autonomy, or even a federal state. At this point, we have come to the conclusion that the only way to solve this conflict is to achieve our independence and live in freedom and peace in our land.

Mali has never fulfilled its word so that´s why we call on the international community, France and the United Nations.

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BRICS – The End of Western Dominance of the Global Financial and Economic Order Wed, 23 Jul 2014 07:17:42 +0000 Shyam Saran

In this column, Shyam Saran, former Indian Foreign Secretary and currently Chairman of India’s National Security Advisory Board, argues that the new financial institutions put in place by the BRICS countries at their recent summit in Brazil will alter the global financial landscape irreversibly.

By Shyam Saran
NEW DELHI, Jul 23 2014 (IPS)

The sixth BRICS Summit which has just ended in Brazil marks the transition of a grouping based hitherto on shared concerns to one based on shared interests.

Since the inception of BRICS (bringing together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in 2009, it has been seen as a mainly flag waving exercise by a group of influential emerging economies, with little in terms of convergent interest other than signalling their strong dissatisfaction over persistent Western dominance of the world economic, financial as well as security order, but unable to fashion credible alternative governance structures themselves.

However, with the Fortaleza Summit finally announcing the much awaited establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB) with a 50 billion dollar subscribed capital and a Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA) of 100 billion dollars, the monopoly status and role of the Bretton Woods institutions – the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – stand broken.

Shyam Saran

Shyam Saran

True, it may take the NDB and the CRA considerable time and experience to evolve into credible international financial institutions but that clearly is the intent.

BRICS leaders have kept the door open for other stakeholders, but will retain at least a 55 percent equity share. They have also been careful to declare that these new institutions will supplement the activities of the World Bank and the IMF, and this has also been the initial response from the latter.

Nevertheless, the emergence of an alternative source of financing with norms different from those followed by the established institutions will alter the global financial landscape irreversibly.

It may be noted for the future that the one component of the global financial infrastructure where Western companies still remain supreme is the insurance and reinsurance sector. Global trade flows, in particular energy flows are almost invariably insured by a handful of Western companies which also determine risk factors and premiums.

In Brazil, the BRICS countries have given notice that they will examine the prospect of pooling their capacities in this sector. A more competitive situation in this sector can only be a positive development for developing countries.“The emergence of an alternative source of financing [BRICS Bank] with norms different from those followed by the established institutions will alter the global financial landscape irreversibly”

The BRICS initiatives were born out of mounting frustration among emerging countries that even a modest restructuring of the governing structures of the Bretton Woods institutions, to reflect their growing economic profile, was being resisted. The commitment made in 2010 at the G20 to enlarge their stake in the IMF remains unfulfilled while the restructuring of the World Bank is yet to be taken up.

The longer the delay in such restructuring, the more rapid the consolidation of the new BRICS institutions is likely to be. It is this factor which played a role in helping resolve some of the differences among the BRICS countries over the structure and governance of these proposed institutions.

The setting up of the BRICS institutions owed a great deal to the energy and push displayed by China. It is doubtful that the proposals would have been actualised had China not put its full weight behind them and showed a readiness to accommodate other member countries, in particular India. Russia became more enthusiastic after being drummed out of the G8 and subjected to Western sanctions.

Chinese activism on this score must be seen in the context of other parallel developments in which China has also been the prime mover and sometimes the initiator. These are:

1. The proposal for setting up an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to fund infrastructure and connectivity projects in Asia, in particular, those which would help revive the maritime and land “Silk Routes” linking China with both its eastern and western flanks. The parallel with the NDB is hard to miss.

2. The consolidation of the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralisation (CMIM) and the associated Asian Multilateral Research Organisation (AMRO) among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) + 3 (China, Japan and the Republic of Korea). The CMIM is now a 240 billion dollar financing facility to help member countries deal with balance of payments difficulties. This is similar to the 100 billion dollar CRA set up by BRICS.

AMRO has evolved into a mechanism for macro-economic surveillance of member countries and provides a benchmark for their economic health and performance. This would enable sound lending policies and may very well be linked in future to the AIIB. The CMIM and the AMRO thus provide building blocks which could serve as the template for the NDB, the CRA and the AIIB.

3. In addition to the CMIM and the AMRO, there are ongoing initiatives within ASEAN + 3 to develop a truly Asian Bond Market which could mobilise regional savings into regional investments through local currency bonds. To support this initiative, a regional Credit Guarantee and Investment Facility has been established. A Regional Settlement Intermediary is proposed to facilitate cross-border multi-currency transfers.

These developments are taking place just when there is a rapidly growing Chinese yuan-denominated bond market, the so-called dim-sum bonds, which have become an important source of corporate financing. This reduces the dependence on euro and U.S. dollar-denominated bonds. The NDB could tap into this market to build up its own finances.

It is important to keep in mind this broader picture in assessing the significance of the decisions taken at the Fortaleza Summit. In systematically pursuing a number of parallel initiatives, China is attempting to create an alternative financial infrastructure which would have it in the lead role. The dilemma for other emerging countries is that there appear to be no credible alternatives, especially since the Western countries are unwilling to cede any enhanced role to them.

The Fortaleza Summit marks the beginning of the end of the post-Second World War Western dominance of the global economic and financial order. The existing institutions will now have to share space with the new entrants and may be compelled to adjust their norms to compete with the latter.

The prime mover behind the establishment of a rival network of financial institutions is China, whose global profile and influence is likely to increase as the various building blocks it has put in place come together to shape a new global financial architecture. This is still in the future but the trend is unmistakable. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

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Spain: A Precarious Gateway to Europe for Syrian Refugees Mon, 21 Jul 2014 23:01:27 +0000 Ines Benitez Spanish Refugee Aid Commission centre in the southern city of Malaga. The banner on the second floor balcony reads, “The right to live in peace.” Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

Spanish Refugee Aid Commission centre in the southern city of Malaga. The banner on the second floor balcony reads, “The right to live in peace.” Credit: Inés Benítez/IPS

By Inés Benítez
MALAGA, Spain, Jul 21 2014 (IPS)

Little Samir covers his face with his hands as he plays under the orange tree in the centre of the inner courtyard of the Spanish Refugee Aid Commission (CEAR) centre in the southern city of Malaga. He is four years old and has spent nearly a year in Spain, where he arrived with his parents, fleeing the war in Syria.

Samir (not his real name) and his family, who remain anonymous at their request, were among millions of Syrians who abandoned their homes and way of life to escape the conflict that flared up in March 2011.

Some of those who seek protection in the European Union come to Spain by plane with a visa, but others come through Morocco, crossing the borders into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa, with fake documents purchased on the black market.

“The journey from Syria to Spain can take up to three or four months,” Wassim Zabad, who is from Damascus and has lived in Malaga for 11 years, told IPS.

“Why does Spain offer less help to refugees and take longer to process asylum applications than Germany or Sweden? If I had known it, I would have travelled to another country." -- Adi Mohamed, a 33-year-old Syrian
Many people reach Morocco after travelling through Egypt, Libya and Algeria, said Zabad, who owns a travel agency specialising in taking Spanish tourists to Lebanon, Egypt and Syria. Business is bad because of the conflicts in those countries.

In his view, the conditions for refugees “are quite bad” in Spain, which is why “98 percent of Syrians” move on to other countries where they may have relatives or believe there are better facilities and economic assistance, especially France, Germany or Sweden.

Francisco Cansino, the CEAR coordinator for eastern Andalusia, told IPS that the majority of Syrians his organisation helps, coming from the Melilla Centre for the Temporary Stay of Immigrants (CETI), prefer to request asylum in other EU countries, although the standard procedure is for them to seek asylum in the country of entry, and this is what they are told.

The European Commission’s Dublin II Regulation of Feb. 18, 2003 establishes the principle that the first safe country entered by an asylum seeker is responsible for examining the asylum application, and provides for the transfer of an asylum seeker to that EU country.

“They don’t stay. They leave because they think their chances are better in other countries. They ask to leave the same day they arrive. They say they have relatives in Europe,” Cansino said. In his view, Syrian refugees are “suddenly facing an abyss of uncertainty.”

Four Syrians – a couple with two children – have been living at the Malaga CEAR centre for the past few weeks. They receive shelter, food, clothing, a monthly allowance (equivalent to 68 dollars per person), Spanish language classes and job training programmes. CEAR is an independent volunteer-based humanitarian organisation.

So far in 2014, some 200 people from Syria have been cared for in this centre, Cansino said.

“Only a minority of Syrian refugees come to Spain. The majority are displaced within Syria itself or seek safety in neighbouring countries,” David Ortiz, the head of the Red Cross Refugee Reception Centre in Malaga, told IPS.

At this Red Cross centre, one of seven in the country, 13 of the 20 beds are occupied by Syrians and Palestinians who were living in Syria. Among them are two families with children, who have been attending school since they arrived.

A total of 100,000 people have died in the war in Syria, 10,000 of them children. About 2.6 million people have fled to other countries, and 6.5 million are internally displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Syrian refugees come to us tremendously traumatised,” said Ortiz. They have to rebuild their lives, learn a new language and find work in a country like Spain, where the unemployment rate is over 25 percent, he said.

A report on the situation of refugees in Spain, presented by CEAR in June, indicates that the country received 4,502 applications for asylum in 2013, compared to 2,588 in 2012, owing to an increase in applications from persons from Mali (1,478) and Syria (725).

According to Eurostat data cited in the CEAR report, in 2013 some 435,000 asylum seekers came to the EU. The largest group came from Syria (50,000) and the applications were mainly directed to Germany, with 109,580 applications, followed by France and Sweden. But only three percent of Syrian refugees have been granted asylum in Europe.

“I hope to find stability here in Spain,” said Adi Mohamed, a 33-year-old Syrian, who had a visa that allowed him to fly to Malaga in April, where he lives with some Syrian friends. He owns a restaurant in Palmira, near Homs, and he is worried about the safety of his parents and the five brothers and sisters he left behind.

Mohamed, who ran a restaurant with fifty employees, asked, “Why does Spain offer less help to refugees and take longer to process asylum applications than Germany or Sweden? If I had known it, I would have travelled to another country,” he said.

The length of stay in the refugee reception centres is six months, renewable for the same period in the “very frequent” case that the asylum application has not yet been determined. Families with children may stay for up to 18 months, Ortiz said.

“Asylum processing times are different in different EU countries, and so are benefits for refugees,” said Ortiz. He complained that the Dublin Regulation was “unfair” to oblige refugees to apply for asylum in the country where they first enter the bloc.

In a report published Jul. 9, Amnesty International (AI) says that while 1.82 billion euros (2.46 billion dollars) of EU funding was allocated to control of its external borders between 2007 and 2013, only 700 million (950 million dollars) was spent on improving the situation for asylum seekers.

The AI report accuses EU migration policies of “putting the lives and rights of refugees and migrants at risk” when they try to cross into the EU, especially through Bulgaria, Greece and Spain, and warns that some 23,000 people have lost their lives trying to get into Europe since 2000.

Several NGOs have denounced inadequate conditions at the Melilla CETI, which houses hundreds of Syrian and sub-Saharan migrants, as well as delays in processing asylum applications, which prevents them from leaving Ceuta or Melilla under Spanish law.

According to the UNHCR report ‘Syrian Refugees in Europe: What Europe Can Do to Ensure Protection and Solidarity’, published Jul. 11, the CETI was housing 2,161 people as of Jun. 12, when its maximum capacity is 480. Among them were 384 Syrian adults and 480 children.


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International Reform Activists Dissatisfied by BRICS Bank Thu, 17 Jul 2014 21:39:24 +0000 Mario Osava Chandrasekhar Chalapurath, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, talks about development banks in India, at the International Seminar on the BRICS Bank. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Chandrasekhar Chalapurath, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, talks about development banks in India, at the International Seminar on the BRICS Bank. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

By Mario Osava
FORTALEZA, Brazil, Jul 17 2014 (IPS)

The creation of BRICS’ (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) own financial institutions was “a disappointment” for activists from the five countries, meeting in this northeastern Brazilian city after the group’s leaders concluded their sixth annual summit here.

The New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), launched Tuesday Jul. 15 at the summit in the northeastern Brazilian city of Fortaleza, represent progress “from United States unilateralism to multilateralism,” said Graciela Rodriguez, of the Brazilian Network for the Integration of Peoples (REBRIP).

But “the opportunity for real reform was lost,” she complained to IPS at the International Seminar on the BRICS Bank, held in this city Wednesday and Thursday Jul. 16-17 as a forum for civil society organisations in parallel to the sixth summit.

The format announced for the NDB “does not meet our needs,” she said.

The NDB will promote “a new kind of development" only if its loans are made conditional on the adoption of low-polluting technologies and are guided by the Millennium Development Goals and their successors, the Sustainable Development Goals. -- Carlos Cosendey, international relations secretary at the Brazilian foreign ministry
The bank’s goal is to finance infrastructure and sustainable development in the BRICS and other countries of the developing South, with an initial capital investment of 50 billion dollars, to be expanded through the acquisition of additional resources.

“We want an international system that serves the majority, not just the seven most powerful countries (the Group of Seven),” that does not depend on the dollar and that has an international arbitration tribunal for financial controversies, said Oscar Ugarteche, an economics researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

“It is unacceptable that a district court judge in New York should put a country at risk,” he told IPS, referring to the June ruling of the U.S. justice system in favour of holdouts (“vulture funds”) in their dispute with Argentina, which could force another suspension of payments.

“We need international financial law,” similar to existing trade law, and an end to the dominance of the dollar in exchange transactions, which enables serious injustice against nations and persons, like embargoes on payments and income in the United States, he said.

“Existing international institutions do not work,” and the proof of this is that they have still not overcome the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, said the Mexican researcher.

Major powers like the United States and Japan have unsustainable debt and fiscal deficits, yet are not harassed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in contrast to the treatment meted out to less powerful nations, particularly in the developing South.

During the seminar, organised by REBRIP and Germany’s Heinrich Böll Foundation, oft-repeated demands were for civil society participation, transparency, environmental standards and consultation with the populations affected by projects financed by the NDB.

These demands have not yet been included in the NDB but may be discussed during its operational design over the next few years, while the group’s parliaments ratify its approval, said Carlos Cosendey, international relations secretary at the Brazilian foreign ministry, in a dialogue with activists.

Participants at one of several panels at the International Seminar on the BRICS Bank, held Jul. 16-17 in Fortaleza, Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Participants at one of several panels at the International Seminar on the BRICS Bank, held Jul. 16-17 in Fortaleza, Brazil. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Cosendey said that a disadvantage of the multilateral bank was the need for its regulations not to be confused with infringement of national sovereignty of member states. The political, cultural, legal and ethnic differences between the five countries could pose a major obstacle to the adoption of common criteria, he said.

The NDB can be constructive “if it integrates human rights” into its principles and presents solutions for the social impacts of the projects it finances, said Nondumiso Nsibande, of ActionAid South Africa, an NGO.

“We need roads, other infrastructure and jobs, as well as education, health and housing,” but big projects tend to harm poor communities in the places where they are carried out, she told IPS. It is still not known what levels of transparency and social concern the bank will have, she said.

In the view of Chankrasekhar Chalapurath, an economist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, the NDB will alleviate India’s great needs for infrastructure, energy, long distance transport and ports. However, he does not expect it to make large investments in one key service for Indians: sanitation.

Having an Indian as the bank’s first president, as the five leaders have decided, will help attract more investments, but he said people’s access to water must remain a priority.

Cosenday said the NDB will promote “a new kind of development.”

But Chalapurath told IPS that this will only happen if its loans are made conditional on the adoption of low-polluting technologies and are guided by the Millennium Development Goals and their successors, the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as human rights and other best practices.

Adopting democratic processes within the bank will facilitate dialogue with social movements, parliaments and society in general, he said.

Incorporating environmental issues and gender parity is also essential, said Ugarteche and Rodriguez, who regards this as necessary in order to make progress towards “environmental justice.”

Not only roads and ports need to be built; even more important is the “social infrastructure” that includes sanitation, water, health and education, said Rodriguez, the coordinator of the REBRIP working group on International Economic Architecture.

Mobilising resistance to large projects that affect local populations in the places they are constructed will be part of the response to the probable priority placed by the NDB on financing physical infrastructure projects, she announced.

The social organisations gathered in Fortaleza, with representatives from Brazil, India, China, South Africa and other countries that are not members of the group, are preparing to coordinate actions to influence the way the bank and its policies are designed, and to monitor its operations and the actions of the BRICS group itself.

Brazilian economist Ademar Mineiro, also of REBRIP, said there was potential for national societies to influence the format and policies of the NDB, and time for them to organise and mobilise. “It is an unprecedented opportunity,” he told IPS.

Russia did not originally support the BRICS bank, preferring private funding. But Mineiro said its position changed after the United States and the European Union involved multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank in sanctions against Moscow for its annexation of Crimea, a part of Ukraine.

BRICS evolved “from the economic to the political,” with its members demanding more power in the international system. The alliance is one of the pillars of the Chinese strategy to conquer greater influence, including in the West, said Cui Shoujun, a professor at the School of International Studies of Renmin University in China.

“The BRICS need China more than the other way round,” he told IPS, adding that the Chinese economy is 20 times larger than South Africa’s and four times larger than those of India and Russia.

As well as seeking natural resources from other countries, among the reasons why China has joined and supports BRICS is strengthening the legitimacy in power of the Communist Party through internal stability and prosperity, the academic said.


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BRICS Forges Ahead With Two New Power Drivers – India and China Thu, 17 Jul 2014 18:07:51 +0000 Shastri Ramachandaran 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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North’s Policies Affecting South’s Economies Wed, 16 Jul 2014 08:40:13 +0000 Yilmaz Akyuz

In this column, Yilmaz Akyuz, chief economist of the South Centre in Geneva, argues that in recent years developing countries have lost steam as recovery in advanced economies has remained weak or absent due to the fading effect of counter-cyclical policies and the narrowing of policy space, and he recommends measures to reduce the external financial vulnerability of the South.

By Yilmaz Akyuz
GENEVA, Jul 16 2014 (IPS)

Since the onset of the crisis, the South Centre has argued that policy responses to the crisis by the European Union and the United States has suffered from serious shortcomings that would delay recovery and entail unnecessary losses of income and jobs, and also endanger future growth and stability. 

Despite cautious optimism from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the world economy is not in good shape. Six years into the crisis, the United States has not fully recovered, the Euro zone has barely started recovering, and developing countries are losing steam. There is fear that the crisis is moving to developing countries.

Yilmaz Akyuz

Yilmaz Akyuz

There is concern in regard to the longer-term prospects for three main reasons.

First, the crisis and policy response aggravated systemic problems, whereby inequality has widened. Inequality is no longer only a social problem, but also presents a macroeconomic problem. Inequality is holding back growth and creating temptation to rely on financial bubbles once again in order to generate spending.

Second, global trade imbalances have been redistributed at the expense of developing countries, whereby the Euro zone especially Germany has become a deadweight on global expansion.

Third, systemic financial instability remains unaddressed, despite the initial enthusiasm in terms of reform of governance of international finance, and in addition new fragilities have been added due to the ultra-easy monetary policy.“The external financial vulnerability of the South is linked to developing countries’ integration in global financial markets and the significant liberalisation of external finance and capital accounts in these countries” – Yilmaz Akyuz

The policy response to the crisis has been an inconsistent policy mix, including fiscal austerity and an ultra-easy monetary policy. While the crisis was created by finance, the solution was still sought through finance. Countries focused on a search for a finance-driven boom in private spending via asset price bubbles and credit expansion. Fiscal policy has been invariably tight.

The ultra-easy monetary policy created over one trillion dollars in fiscal benefits in the United States – which was more than the initial fiscal stimulus; the entire initial fiscal stimulus was limited to 800 billion dollars.

There was reluctance to remove debt overhang through comprehensive restructuring (i.e. for mortgages in the United States and sovereign and bank debt in the European Union). Thus, the focus was on bailing out creditors.

There was also reluctance to remove mortgage overhang and no attempt to tax the rich and support the poor, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States – where marginal tax rates are low compared with continental Europe. There has been resistance against permanent monetisation of public deficits and debt, which does not pose more dangers for prices and financial stability than the ultra-easy monetary policy.

The situation in the United States has been better than in other advanced economies. The United States dealt with the financial but not with the economic crisis, whereby recovery has been slow due to fiscal drag and debt overhang. And employment is not expected to return to pre-crisis levels before 2018.

As for the Euro zone, Japan and the United Kingdom, all have had second or third dips since 2008. None of them have restored pre-crisis incomes and jobs.

Meanwhile, trade imbalances have not been removed, but redistributed. East Asian surplus has dropped sharply and Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa have moved to large deficits. Developing countries’ surplus has fallen from 720 billion dollars to 260 billion dollars. On the contrary, advanced economies have moved from deficit to surplus, whereby U.S. deficits have fallen and the Euro zone has moved from a 100 billion dollars deficit to a 300 billion dollars surplus.

As tapering comes to an end and the U.S. Federal Reserve stops buying further assets, the attention will be turned to the question of exit, normalisation and the expectations of increased instability of financial markets for both the United States and the emerging economies.

This exit will also create fiscal problems for the United States because, as bonds held by the Federal Reserve mature and quantitative easing ends, long-term interest rates will rise and the fiscal benefits of the ultra-easy monetary policy would be reversed.

Developing countries lost steam as recovery in advanced economies remained weak or absent due to the fading effect of counter-cyclical policies and the narrowing of policy space. China could not keep on investing and doing the same thing. Another factor contributing to the change of context in developing countries has been the weakened capital inflows that became highly unstable with the deepening of the Euro zone crisis and then Federal Reserve tapering. Several emerging economies have been under stress as markets are pricing-in normalisation of monetary policy even before it has started.

The external financial vulnerability of the South is linked to developing countries’ integration in global financial markets and the significant liberalisation of external finance and capital accounts in these countries. These include opening up securities markets, private borrowing abroad, resident outflows, and opening up to foreign banks. While developing countries did not manage capital flows adequately, the IMF did not provide support in this area, tolerating capital controls only as a last resort and on a temporary basis.

Several deficit developing countries with asset, credit and spending bubbles are particularly vulnerable.  Countries with strong foreign reserves and current account positions would not be insulated from shocks, as seen after the Lehman crisis. When a country is integrated in the international financial system, it will feel the shock one way or another, although those countries with deficits remain more vulnerable.

In regard to policy responses in the case of a renewed turmoil, it is convenient to avoid business-as-usual, including using reserves and borrowing from the IMF or advanced economies to finance large outflows. The IMF lends, not to revive the economy but to keep stable the debt levels and avoid default. It is also inconvenient to adjust through retrenching and austerity.

Ways should be found to bail-in foreign investors and lenders, and use exchange controls and temporary debt standstills. In this sense, the IMF should support such approaches through lending into arrears.

More importantly, the U.S. Federal Reserve is responsible for the emergence of this situation and should take on its responsibility and act as a lender of last resort to emerging economies, through swaps or buying bonds as and when needed. These are not necessarily more toxic than the bonds issued at the time of subprime crisis. The United States has much at stake in the stability of emerging economies. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)


*   A longer version of this column has been published in the South Centre Bulletin (No. 80, 30 June 2014).

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OPINION: Why Asia-Europe Relations Matter in the 21st Century Mon, 14 Jul 2014 23:23:21 +0000 Shada Islam 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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Europe and the United States, Allies in Crisis Mon, 14 Jul 2014 06:25:23 +0000 Joaquin Roy

In this column, Professor Joaquín Roy, Professor of European Integration and Director of the European Union Centre at the University of Miami, argues that although the United States and Europe are in crisis, they are still a magnet for the rest of the world, as shown by the ceaseless waves of migrants they attract.

By Joaquín Roy
BARCELONA, Jul 14 2014 (IPS)

A few decades ago, even before the end of the Cold War and before and after Ronald Reagan’s election to the White House, analyses regularly referred to U.S. decadence. At other times, it was Europe’s turn for pessimistic descriptions, especially when it could not overcome its ambivalence over deepening integration, and above all because of the failure of its constitutional project. 

The West was in crisis. And now the pair are apparently going through a similar phase, with each one trying to outdo the other in inferiority.

The United States seems to be in the doldrums because of the apparently erratic foreign policy of President Barack Obama, who does not seem to be profiting from surmounting the legacy of George W. Bush’s actions in the Middle East.

Joaquín Roy

Joaquín Roy

Obama’s agenda based on “leading from behind” is creating serious problems that would damage his re-election chances if he were eligible (which he is not).

Hillary Clinton may inherit this liability if she finally decides to run for the presidency. What is certain is that indecision in Syria, the disaster of Iraq’s disintegration and the still unsolved challenge of Russia in Ukraine, create a picture of the United States in international decline.“Both partners [Europe and the United States] are still the natural allies that could lead the world out of the crisis. And the future of both is welded to their role as immigration destinations” – Joaquín Roy

The European Union, for its part, does not offer a more hopeful scenario, and only if it is able to strengthen its institutions following the European Parliament elections in May will it be able to overcome the generalised forecast of a problematic future.

Gripped by the rise of populism and neo-nationalism and with its economy weighed down by inequality and lack of sustained growth, the European Union is a long way from offering alternative leadership and hope for the rest of the planet, and appropriately partnering the United States to beat the global crisis.

Yet curiously, this odd couple, which can be subsumed in what is generously called the West, can pride itself on an immense capital that is a basis not only for survival, but of sustained leadership for the rest of the world.

In both cases, a systematic humanitarian tragedy reveals their mutual strength and guarantees their future survival. Dramatic, repeated migration processes produce huge human capital flows to both Europe and the United States compared with other regions.

On the one hand, thousands of Latin American teenagers are invading the United States in search of a much better future than they are leaving behind in Central America, racked by crime, poverty and inequality.

On the other hand, the shores of Italy are being bombarded by desperate migrants cast up by traffickers, resulting in shipwrecks and deaths by suffocation. Elsewhere, attempts to take the Spanish border by storm in the enclaves in Morocco have ceased to call attention as newsworthy.

What do these apparently dissimilar scenarios reveal?

Quite simply, that the strength of these partners in crisis is based on their relatively powerful magnetism for migrants.

For all the present difficulties suffered by many European countries, the prospect of life in Europe is comparatively far better than in Africa or Asia, and even Latin America, in spite of the fact that many immigrants are returning to their countries of origin.

The future and the present of the United States – as it always was in the past – remains linked to the immigration pool. Hence, U.S. sectors that oppose migration reform are not only destined to fail, they are also currently rendering poor service to their country.

Both regions, now engaged in exploring a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement, are destined to surpass other world regions in terms of standard of living and future expectations.

Both partners are still the natural allies that could lead the world out of the crisis. And the future of both is welded to their role as immigration destinations.

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Ever Wondered Why the World is a Mess? Fri, 11 Jul 2014 15:57:45 +0000 Roberto Savio

Addressing this column to the younger generations, Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and publisher of Other News, offers ten explanations of how the current mess in which the world finds itself came about.

By Roberto Savio
ROME, Jul 11 2014 (IPS)

While the Third World War has not been formally declared, conflicts throughout the world are reaching levels unseen since 1944.

Of course, for the large majority of people throughout the world, news about these conflicts is just part of our daily news, but another share of our daily news is about the mess in our countries.

This is so complex and confusing that many people have given up the effort to attempt any form of deep understanding, so I thought it would be useful to offer ten explanations of how we succeeded in creating this mess.

Roberto Savio. Credit: IPS

Roberto Savio. Credit: IPS

1)   The world, as it now exists, was largely shaped by the colonial powers, which divided the world among themselves, carving out states without any consideration for existing ethnic, religious or cultural realities. This was especially true of Africa and the Arab world, where the concept of state was imposed on systems of tribes and clans.

Just to give a few examples, none of the present-day Arab countries existed prior to colonialism. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Gulf Countries (including Saudi Arabia) were all parts of the Ottoman Empire. When this disappeared with the First World War (like the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires), the winners – Britain and France – sat down at a table and drafted the boundaries of countries to be run by them, as they had done before with Africa. So, never look at those countries as equivalent to countries with a history of national identity.“Do not go with the tide ... search for the other face of the moon. And if they tell you that they know, well, just look at the results” – Roberto Savio

2)   After the end of the colonial era, it was inevitable that to keep these artificial countries alive, and avoid their disintegration, strongmen would be needed to cover the void left by the colonial powers. The rules of democracy were used only to reach power, with very few exceptions. The Arab Spring did indeed get rid of dictators and autocrats, just to replace them with chaos and warring factions (as in Libya) or with a new autocrat, as in Egypt.

The case of Yugoslavia is instructive. After the Second World War, Marshal Tito dismantled the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and created the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. But we all know that Yugoslavia did not survive the death of its strongman.

The lesson is that without creating a really participatory and unifying process of citizens, with a strong civil society, local identities will always play the most decisive role. So it will take some before many of the new countries will be considered real countries devoid of internal conflicts.

3)   Since the Second World War, the meddling of the colonial and super powers in the process of consolidation of new countries has been a very good example of man-made disaster.

Take the case of Iraq. When the United States took over administration of the country in 2003 after its invasion, General Jay Garner was appointed and lasted just a month, because he was considered too open to local views.

Garner was replaced by a diplomat, Jan Bremmer, who took up his post after a two-hour briefing by the then Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice. Bremmer immediately proceeded to dissolve the army (creating 250,000 unemployed) and firing anyone in the administration who was a member of the Ba’ath party, the party of Saddam Hussein. This destabilised the country, and today’s mess is a direct result of this decision.

The current Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom Washington is trying to remove as the cause of polarisation between Shiites and Sunnis, was the preferred American candidate. So was the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, who is now virulently anti-American. This is a tradition that goes back to the first U.S. intervention in Vietnam, where Washington put in place Ngo Dihn Dien, who turned against its views, until he was assassinated.

There is no space here to give example of similar mistakes (albeit less important) by other Western powers. The point is that all leaders installed from outside do not last long and bring instability.

4)   We are all witnessing religious fighting and Islam extremism as a growing and disturbing threat. Few make any effort to understand why thousands of young people are willing to blow themselves up. There is a striking correlation between lack of development/employment and religious unrest. In the Muslim countries of Asia (Arab Muslims account for less than 20 percent of the world’s Muslim populations), extremism hardly exists.

And few realise that the fight between Shiites and Sunnis is funded by countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran. Those religions have been living side by side for centuries, and now they are fighting a proxy war, for example in Syria. Saudi Arabia has been funding Salafists (the puritan form of Islam) everywhere, and it has provided nearly two billion dollars to the new Egyptian autocrat, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, because he is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood, which predicates the end of kings and sheiks and power for the people. Iraq is also becoming a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, defender of the Sunnis, and Iran, defender of the Shiites.

So, when looking at these wars of religion, always look at who is behind them. Religions usually become belligerent only if they are used. Just look at European history, where wars of religion were invented by kings and fought by people. Of course, once the genie is out of the bottle, it will take a long time to put it back. So this issue will be with us for quite some time.

5)   The end of the Cold War unfroze the world, which had been kept in stability by the balance between the two superpowers. Attempts to create regional or international alliances to bring stability have always been stymied by national interests. The best example is Europe. While everybody was talking about Crimea, Ukraine and Vladimir Putin (who had been made paranoiac about Western encirclement, from the George Bush Jr. administration onwards) and how to bring him to listen to the United States and Europe, European companies continued trade in spite of a much talked about embargo. And now, Austria has quietly signed an agreement with Russia to join the South Stream, a pipeline that will bring Russian gas to Europe – so much for the unity of a Europe which has been clamouring about the need to reduce its energy dependence on Russia.

A multipolar world is in the making, but it has to be seen how stable it will be. In Asia, China and Japan are increasing their military investments, as are surrounding countries. And while local conflicts, like Syria, Iraq and Sudan, are not going to escalate into a larger conflict, this would certainly be the case in Asia.

6)   In a world more and more divided by a resurgence of national interests, the very idea of shared governance is losing its strength, and not only in Europe. The United Nations has lost its significance as the arena in which to reach consensus and legitimacy. The two engines of globalisation – trade and finance – are not part of the United Nations, which is stuck with the themes of development, peace, human rights, environment, education and so on. While these issues are crucial for a viable world, they are not seen as such by those in power. Conclusion: the United Nations is sliding into irrelevance.

7)   At the same time, values and ideas which were considered universal, such as cooperation, mutual aid, international social justice and peace as an encompassing paradigm are also becoming irrelevant. French President Francois Hollande meets U.S. President Barack Obama, not to discuss how to stop the genocide in Sudan, or the kidnapping of children in Nigeria, but to ask him to intervene with his Minister of Justice to reduce a giant fine on a French bank, the BNP-Parisbas, for fraudulent activities. The outstanding problem of climate control was largely absent in the last  G7 meeting, not to talk of nuclear disarmament … and yet these are the two main threats to the planet!

8)   After colonialism and totalitarian regimes, the key phrase after the Second World War was “implementation of democracy”. But after the end of the Cold War, democracy was taken for granted. In fact, in the last twenty years, the formula of representative democracy has been losing its glamour. Pragmatism has led to the loss of long-term vision, and politics have become more and more mere administration.

Citizens feel less and less related to parties, which have basically become self-centred and self-reliant.  International affairs are not considered tools of power by parties, and decisions are taken without participation. This leads to choices which often do not represent the feelings and priorities of citizens.

The way in which the bailout of Cyprus from its financial crisis a few years ago was treated in the European Commission was widely recognised as a blatant example of lack of transparency. Few people certainly make more mistakes than many …

9)   A very important element of the mess has been the growth of what its proponents, especially in the financial world, call the “new economy” – an economy that contemplates permanent unemployment, lack of social investments, reduced taxation for large capital, the marginalisation of trade unions, and a reduction of the role of the State as the regulator and guarantor of social justice. Inequalities are reaching unprecedented levels. The world’s 85 richest individuals possess the same wealth as 2.5 billion people.

10)   All this brings its corollary. It is not by chance that all mainstream media worldwide have the same reading of the world. Information today has basically eliminated analysis and process, to concentrate on events. Their ability to follow the world mess is minimal, and they just repeat what those in power say. It is very instructive to see media which are very analytical about national affairs and very superficial about international issues. The media depend largely on three international news agencies, which represent the Western world and its interests. Have you read anywhere about the gas agreement between Austria and Russia?

So, a final point: never be satisfied with what you read in the newspapers, always try to get additional and opposite viewpoints through the net. This will help you to look at the world with your eyes, and not with the eyes of somebody else who is probably part of the system which has created this mess. Do not go with the tide … search for the other face of the moon. And if they tell you that they know, well, just look at the results. So, be yourself and, if you make a mistake, at least it will be your mistake. (END/IPS COLUMNIST SERVICE)

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Macau Gambling Away Its Future Tue, 08 Jul 2014 09:52:53 +0000 Martin Murphy A worker walks past Casino Lisbo, one of the largest casinos in Macau, China. Credit: Damon Garrett/CC-BY-2.0

A worker walks past Casino Lisbo, one of the largest casinos in Macau, China. Credit: Damon Garrett/CC-BY-2.0

By Martin Murphy
HONG KONG, Jul 8 2014 (IPS)

Macau’s gaming boom just keeps on giving. Gambling revenues soared to a new high of 45 billion dollars last year, a whopping 18.6 percent rise over 2012 and the city’s sixth straight year of record earnings.

Casinos in this former Portuguese colony, which returned to China in 1999, now earn seven times more than they do in Las Vegas.

Casino jobs, which pay 30 to 40 percent more than other sectors, employ nearly a quarter of the labour force. Add in casino-related positions like retailing and hospitality and about half the working population in this city of 600,000 is connected to the gaming industry. The result is an enviable unemployment rate of 1.8 percent.

So why not let the good times roll?

Macau’s mono-economy of gaming is creating a generation of workers steeped in the monotonous work of baccarat dealing and spinning roulette wheels, but with few of the transferable skills needed in today’s globalised knowledge economy.

With the economy and workforce increasingly dependent on Chinese gamblers from the mainland, however, there is little pressure for change —a situation that may suit Beijing just fine.

Some hit the jackpot, others pay the price

It should surprise no one that the city’s gaming boom, which produces 50 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), has spawned a dark side. Prostitution, organised crime and money laundering are daily affairs.

Not so obvious, though, are the multiple stress lines now tearing at a traditional society trying to cope with uncontrolled urban development, loss of green space, rising local gambling addiction and a general deterioration in the quality of life.

For the average resident, the challenges created by the gaming boom now outweigh its advantages. Poor transportation, worsening air pollution from casino shuttles serving the city’s 29 million visitors and soaring property prices are just a few of gaming’s by-products.
“Macau is a complete illusion of prosperity, because what we are building is only casinos, rooms, and some shops with famous brands.” -- legislator Jose Coutinho

Macau’s small and medium-sized businesses, about 95 percent of its enterprises, also pay a price in rising rents and loss of both staff and customers to the casinos. Adding to this are higher crime rates across almost every category.

Despite all the downsides, Macau’s casino executives and investors, including the big U.S. gaming houses, see unlimited possibilities for further growth and expansion. Their main complaint? A shortage of skilled labour.

With more mega casinos scheduled to open in 2016, Macau will need at least an additional 75,000 casino and hospitality workers, officials say.

Given that the city’s small and medium-sized businesses already struggle to compete against higher-paying casinos for limited talent, Macau will have to import not only casino workers, but also professionals from every walk of life.

But neither Macau nor the Chinese government seems to have a plan to deal with the city’s soaring labour deficit, nor is either willing to slam the breaks on what has become a runaway train of unregulated growth.

Worse, Macau is turning its back on policies meant to prepare its future generations for a more globalised, knowledge-driven economy. If trends continue, Macau risks morphing into a society of know-nothings —one whose future could be devoid of educated and skilled professionals, its pool of workers increasingly drawn to easy money to be made in the often mind-numbing work on casino floors.

Every few months, new reports present dire warnings. In December last year, one survey showed that nearly half of businesses polled “found difficulties in recruiting IT professionals” and predicted the shortage “could further worsen.”

Last April, an industry report cited the lack of accountancy professionals, with “only fractional increases” since 2007. Another complained of the city’s “lack of engineers and related professions.” All this points to a society at the breaking point, one that is mortgaging its future generations for short-term gains.

Even Macau’s lawmakers now complain that the boom has been building castles in the sand. Last year, legislator Jose Coutinho told the media, “Macau is a complete illusion of prosperity, because what we are building is only casinos, rooms and some shops with famous brands.”

But he and other critics hold a minority view in a legislature where 12 of the 33 members are indirectly elected by industry bodies and another seven are appointed by Macau’s Beijing-selected chief executive.

Betting it all on gaming

While Macau officials pay occasional lip service to the need to rebalance the economy and have floated a number of proposals, none so far have the transformative effect needed to set the city off in new directions.

One of the most talked about proposals recommends that Macau capture more of the region’s “meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions,” or MICE. But this has been slow to take off and relies disproportionately on the gaming sector.

For example, Macau’s biggest trade show is the Global Gaming Expo Asia. A plan to develop nearby Hengqin Island as a free trade zone will also do little to help the majority of Macau’s small businesses, given its emphasis on large-scale projects.

But the main obstacle to a more sustainable economic model is that Macau continues to grow fat on Chinese gambling, and Chinese leaders still see Macau as an important outlet for the country’s wealthy and middle class. The result is that no one in authority is even contemplating the day when China’s economy slows, the gamblers stop coming, and the boom ends, even though history has shown that the bigger the boom in a mono-economy, the greater the potential for a crash.

While China says it wants to see Macau rebalance its economy, Beijing’s reluctance to impose policy prescriptions or offer inducements to help it diversify is not surprising.

That’s because Macau may be right where Beijing wants it and China’s other peripheral regions to be—societies increasingly dependent on the mainland for their prosperity and therefore less willing to make annoying demands for such things as democracy and greater autonomy.


Martin Murphy is a former U.S. diplomat. He was head of the Economic-Political Section at the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong and Macau from 2009-2012. He can be found at

Read the original version of this article on Foreign Policy In Focus.

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Cambodian Migrant Workers Pay for Thai Documentation Scramble Thu, 03 Jul 2014 13:00:28 +0000 Michelle Tolson Mr. Kong, left, is among thousands of Cambodia workers eager to find higher paying jobs in neighboring Thailand. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

Mr. Kong, left, is among thousands of Cambodia workers eager to find higher paying jobs in neighboring Thailand. Credit: Michelle Tolson/IPS

By Michelle Tolson
Poipet, Cambodia, Jul 3 2014 (IPS)

Eight people, three women and five men, are crouched in the dirt in the center of a roundabout where the main road at Poipet –a major Cambodia border town– merges with the check point to Thailand. Dust swirls in the wind as they squint their eyes at the sun. Others playing the waiting game mill about on the road’s edges.

Last week a reported 220,000 Cambodian migrants hastily returned from Thailand in fear of a crackdown against undocumented workers, creating a migration crisis. The Cambodian government, United Nations and NGOs quickly mobilized to feed and transport them to their home towns.

This week Poipet is quiet, but a growing number or migrants have come back to the border since Thailand announced last Friday it opened a fast-track visa processing center at the border for undocumented workers. Their Thai construction employer, DC Company, is supposed to help them obtain official work permits for as little as 37 dollars.

I am here waiting for my employer to tell me he has the documents I need to cross,” Mr. Lin, a 36-year-old man from a village near Battambang, tells IPS.

“But I don’t know how much it is for a new document,” he adds.

Expensive documents

The Cambodian government, for its part, is trying to help the estimated quarter million repatriated undocumented migrant workers return to work and has introduced its own 4-dollar passport fee for students studying abroad and migrants, down from the previous 135 dollars charged.

Cambodia, as a least developed country (LCD), has one of the most expensive passports in the ASEAN region, contributing to the high rate of undocumented workers. Vietnamese passports cost just 12 dollars, while Laos and Thai ones go for 35 dollars and 30 dollars, respectively.

“Factories in Cambodia don’t pay you for two months sometimes. They smell bad, have fumes and are big and cold.” - Cambodian migrant worker Ms. Hun
Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) estimates that 50 to 55 percent of the 440,000 Cambodians that work in Thailand are undocumented.

In addition to passports, there are fees for foreign work permits.

“It costs 50 to 100 dollars to work in Thailand for two to four months, and 500 dollars for two years,” Mr. Kong, a young 19-year-old construction worker from Sisophon, tells IPS.

Like Lin and others interviewed for this story, Kong was only conformable providing part of his name, as policemen were closely watching the crowd and listening in on their statements.

According to Chaan Sokunthaea, Head of Women and Children Section and Alternative Dispute Resolution Sectionwith ADHOC, “the price for the work permit depends on the situation and the broker.” The Cambodian government is allowing brokers to help Cambodians get passports, enforcing a 49-dollar broker-fee limit, but the new scheme will take several weeks.

Speaking to IPS, Chaan said it was too early to comment on the process.

“Good money”

Kong was able to save money in Thailand as an undocumented worker because he didn’t owe a debt to a broker, he says. He made “good money” working in construction in Bangkok for a year, sending it home to his family by electronic wire.

“Because I was good at my job, sometimes I made 320 baht (about 10 dollars) a day,” he says. He managed to save 3,000 to 4,000 baht (92 to 120 dollars) a month.

All the families lingering by the border have tales of supporting elderly parents, aunts and uncles in the countryside, or they have children their grandparents are raising for them.

“There are no jobs in my village and we don’t have enough land to grow rice,” Mali, the 33-year-old wife of Lin, tells IPS.  The couple recounts leaving their 13-year-old daughter back home with their parents, where their foreign income puts her through school – a parent’s sacrifice to allow her to have a better life.

Like her husband, Mali works in construction. Mali earns 250 baht (approximately 7.70 dollars) a day. It’s 50 baht less than the men make, but she thinks this is “fair” because she is not as strong as they are. Still, she prefers it to working in garment factories in Cambodia.

“Factories in Cambodia don’t pay you for two months sometimes,” Ms. Hun, who works with Mali, tells IPS . “They smell bad, have fumes and are big and cold.”

With an average salary of just 100 dollars a month, making ends meet with factory work is near impossible for many.

As a result, “Most workers we talked to complained they have debt in [Cambodia]”, Tola Moeun, Head of Labor at Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), tells IPS. “They need the Cambodian government to set up a minimum wage to allow them enough to live on.”

They avoid garment factory work in Thailand “because they check documents,” a tour guide going by “Jim”, who is translating for the women, says.

Other migrants work as farmers or fisher folk, another industry known for undocumented workers.

Mr. Gumroun, 41, is sitting on a bench with his family waiting for work papers from his Thai boss. They had worked together on a Thai farm harvesting sugar cane, mangos and corn. His 16-year-old son sits next to him and his older daughter sits nearby.

“I don’t want to leave my son at home because he has no mother. We have no family in our village so it is safer working with me,” Gumroun tells IPS. He earns 300 baht (about 9.20 dollars) a day, while his children earn 200 baht (about 6.16 dollars). In Cambodia, in comparison, they might only bring home 3 dollars a day.


ADHOC’s Chaan says workers fled Thailand because of a rumour they would be killed if found without documents. “According to our research, brokers told workers this to get money from them for documents.”

A quarter million workers needing papers represents a lot of cash.

Workers who fled back to Cambodia said they were cheated by taxi drivers and police to pay bribes, according to CLEC.

Several died in traffic accidents from the panic. Military fired guns at workers’ vans and trucks, further increasing the hysteria, ADHOC reported.

The Thai government claims it was merely addressing the sudden downgrade by the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report to tier three, which resulted from reports that migrant workers were enslaved on Thai fishing boats.

While various migrants told IPS they are “very afraid” of the new Thai junta, the realization that they can’t survive in Cambodia continues to drive them across the border.

And so, as the Cambodian government scrambles to meet the needs of returnees by starting the untried 4-dollar passport system, migrants are trickling back to the border.

They put their faith in their bosses to help them navigate the new Thai document system they think will be faster.

“Our bosses are good to us,” 29-year-old Mr. Ta from Battambang tells IPS. “They like Cambodians more than Thai workers because we work all day – 12 hours, only stopping to eat lunch.”



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Africa Under “Unprecedented” Pressure from Rich Countries Over Trade Wed, 02 Jul 2014 18:14:13 +0000 Ravi Kanth Devarakonda By Ravi Kanth Devarakonda
GENEVA, Jul 2 2014 (IPS)

African countries are coming under strong pressure from the United States and the European Union to reverse the decision adopted by their trade ministers to implement the World Trade Organization’s trade facilitation agreement on a “provisional” basis.

At last week’s summit of African Union leaders in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, “there was unprecedented [U.S. and European Union] pressure and bulldozing to change the decision reached by the African trade ministers on April 27 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to implement the trade facilitation (TF) agreement on a provisional basis under paragraph 47 of the Doha Declaration,” Ambassador Nelson Ndirangu, director for economics and external trade in the Kenyan Foreign Ministry, told IPS.

“This pressure comes only when the issues and interests of rich countries are involved but not when the concerns of the poorest countries are to be addressed,” Ambassador Ndirangu said.“This pressure [on African countries] comes only when the issues and interests of rich countries are involved but not when the concerns of the poorest countries are to be addressed … Clearly, there are double-standards” – Ambassador Nelson Ndirangu, director for economics and external trade in the Kenyan Foreign Ministry

“Clearly, there are double-standards,” the senior Kenyan trade official added, lamenting the pressure and arm-twisting that was applied on African countries for definitive implementation of the agreement.

The TF agreement was concluded at the WTO’s ninth ministerial conference in Bali, Indonesia, last year.  It was taken out of the Doha Development Agenda as a low-hanging fruit ready for consummation.  More importantly, the agreement was a payment to the United States and the European Union to return to the Doha negotiating table.

The ambitious TF agreement is aimed at harmonising customs rules and regulations as followed in the industrialised countries. It ensures unimpeded market access for companies such as Apple, General Electric, Caterpillar, Pfizer, Samsung, Sony, Ericsson, Nokia, Hyundai, Toyota and Lenovo in developing and poor countries.

Former WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy has suggested that the TF agreement would reduce tariffs by 10 percent in the poorest countries.

In return for the agreement, developing and least-developed countries were promised several best endeavour outcomes in the Bali package on agriculture and development. They include general services (such as land rehabilitation, soil conservation and resource management, drought management and flood control), public stockholding for food security, an understanding on tariff rate quota administration, export subsidies, and phasing out of trade-distorting cotton subsidies (provided largely by the United States) in agriculture.

The non-binding developmental outcomes include preferential rules of origin for the export of industrial goods by the poorest countries, a special waiver to help services suppliers in the poorest countries, duty-free and quota-free market access for least developed countries (LDCs), and a monitoring mechanism for special and differential treatment flexibilities.

African countries were unhappy with the Bali package because they said it lacked balance and was tilted heavily in favour of the TF agreement forced by the industrialised countries on the poor nations.

The Bali outcomes, said African Union Trade Commissioner Fatima Acyl, “were not the most optimal decisions in terms of African interests … We have to reflect and learn from the lessons of Bali on how we can ensure that our interests and priorities are adequately addressed in the post-Bali negotiations.”

The African ministers in Malabo directed their negotiators to propose language on the Protocol of Amendment – the legal instrument that will bring the TF agreement into force at the WTO – that the TF agreement will be provisionally implemented and in completion of the entire Doha Round of negotiation.

African countries justify their proposal on the basis of paragraph 47 of the Doha Declaration which enables WTO members to implement agreement either on a provisional or definitive basis.

The African position on the TF agreement was not acceptable to the rich countries. In a furious response, the industrialised countries adopted a belligerent approach involving threats to terminate preferential access. The United States, for example, threatened African countries that it would terminate the preferential access provided under the Africa Growth Opportunities Act (AGOA) programme if they did not reverse their decision on the TF, said a senior African trade official from Southern Africa.

The WTO has also joined the wave of protests launched by the industrialised countries against the African decision for deciding to implement the TF on a provisional basis. “I am aware that there are concerns about actions on the part of some delegations [African countries] which could compromise what was negotiated in Bali last December,” WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo said, at a meeting of the informal trade negotiations committee on June 25.

The African decision, according to Azevedo, “would not only compromise the Trade Facilitation Agreement – including the technical assistance element. All of the Bali decisions – every single one of them – would be compromised,” he said.

The United States agreed with Azevedo’s assessment of the potential danger of unravelling the TF agreement, and the European Union’s trade envoy to the WTO, Ambassador Angelos Pangratis, said that “the credibility of the negotiating function of this organisation is once again at stake” because of the African decision.

The United States and the European Union stepped up their pressure by sending security officials to Malabo to oversee the debate, said another African official.  He called it an “unprecedented power game rarely witnessed at an African heads of nations meeting.”

In the face of the strong-arm tactics, several African countries such as Nigeria and Mauritius refused to join the ministerial consensus to implement the TF agreement on a provisional basis.  Several other African countries subsequently retracted their support for the declaration agreed to in April.

In a nutshell, African Union leaders were forced to change their course by adopting a new decision which “reaffirms commitment to the Doha Development Agenda and to its rapid completion in accordance with its development objectives.”

The African Union “also reaffirms its commitment to all the decisions the Ministers took in Bali which are an important stepping stone towards the conclusion of the Doha Round …  To this end, leaders acknowledge that the Trade Facilitation Agreement is an integral part of the process.”

Regarding capacity-building assistance to developing countries to help them implement the binding TF commitments, African Union countries still want to see up-front delivery of assistance.  The new decision states that African Union leaders “reiterate in this regard that assistance and support for capacity-building should be provided as envisaged in the Trade Facilitation Agreement in a predictable manner so as to enable African economies to acquire the necessary capacity for the implementation of the agreement.”

The decision taken by the African leaders is clearly aimed at implementing the TF decision, but there is no clarity yet on how to implement the decision, said Ndirangu. “We never said we will not implement the TF agreement but we don’t know how to implement this agreement,” he added.

In an attempt to ensure that the rich countries do not walk away with their prized jewel in the Doha crown by not addressing the remaining developmental issues,  several countries – South Africa, India, Uganda, Tanzania, Solomon Islands and Zimbabwe – demanded Wednesday that there has to be a clear linkage between the implementation of the TF agreement and the rest of the Doha Development Agenda on the basis of the Single Undertaking, which stipulates that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed!

More than 180 days after the Bali meeting, there is no measurable progress on the issues raised by the poor countries. But the TF agreement is on course for final implementation by the end of 2015.

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Inequality Blocks Path to “Gold” in Latin America Tue, 01 Jul 2014 15:45:26 +0000 A. D. McKenzie By A. D. McKenzie
PARIS, Jul 1 2014 (IPS)

Inequality, poor infrastructure and declining trade are some of the problems that Latin America needs to overcome if the region truly wishes to achieve a “golden age”, according to Peru’s President Ollanta Humala.

“We haven’t found the gold yet,” said Humala, a keynote speaker at the 6th International Economic Forum on Latin America and the Caribbean held this week in Paris. “We need to build a more modern and efficient state that offers services to everyone … We cannot overlook poor or vulnerable populations.”“Erasing inequality is absolutely fundamental because equality itself is a very important human right … At the same time, it’s a key to economic and social development. No country can reach high levels of development with huge levels of inequality” – Danilo Astori, Vice President of Uruguay

The conference, titled ‘Beyond the Golden Decade? Logistics and infrastructure, pillars of regional integration and global trade opportunities’, brought together policy-makers, economists, private-sector representatives and other experts from across Latin America, exploring measures to achieve inclusive growth and structural transformation in the region. Specific Caribbean issues seemed absent from the agenda, however.

The main mantra, repeated by many participants, was that inequality is a huge barrier to Latin America fulfilling its development potential.

“Erasing inequality is absolutely fundamental because equality itself is a very important human right,” the Vice President of Uruguay, Danilo Astori, told IPS. “At the same time, it’s a key to economic and social development. No country can reach high levels of development with huge levels of inequality.”

Income gaps between groups, whether based on ethnicity or gender, are not just “moral issues, they’re also macro issues”, said Julie Katzman, Executive Vice President of the Inter-American Development Bank, a co-organiser of the conference along with the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and France’s Ministry for the Economy and Finance.

Katzman said that 70 percent of those excluded from the financial system are women and that there was an 86 billion dollar financing gap for women-owners of small and medium-sized enterprises.

She told IPS that if this gap were closed by 2020, gross domestic product in Latin America would be 12 percent higher by 2030.

“The private sector has a big role to play,” she added. “When you combine financial inclusion and better infrastructure, then you can begin to address the issues being discussed.”

Danilo Astori, Vice President of Uruguay. Credit: Alecia McKenzie/IPS

Danilo Astori, Vice President of Uruguay. Credit: Alecia McKenzie/IPS

She and other participants emphasised the need for better infrastructure as an “instrument of development”, the main subject of the conference. Roberto Zurli Machado, Director of Infrastructure and Basic Petrochemicals for Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Economico e Social (BNDES), said that the region had to modernise to bring its infrastructure to the desired level.

According to the OECD, logistic costs in the region account for between 18 and 35 percent of the value of products, compared with around 8 percent in OECD countries. Meanwhile, the quality of the road system in Latin America is below the level for middle-income countries, the organisation says.

Studies also indicate that improvements in logistics could increase labour productivity in the region by about 35 percent.

“All this affects the competitiveness of exports and the potential for integration,” said Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the Paris-based OECD.

Peru’s President Ollanta Humala (left) meets France's Economics Minister Arnaud Montebourg (centre) with OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria (right). Credit: Alecia McKenzie/IPS

Peru’s President Ollanta Humala (left) meets France’s Economics Minister Arnaud Montebourg (centre) with OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria (right). Credit: Alecia McKenzie/IPS

He said that developing an integrated logistics policy and improving the efficiency of customs procedures, through technology, could bring significant benefits in a short time span.

Such measures would also have an impact on inequality, Gurría said. “We need to raise awareness and to strengthen cooperation,” he told IPS, reiterating that “Latin America is not the poorest region but the most unequal.”

The conference, which brings together some 400 experts annually, is one way to address the region’s challenges, Gurría added. This year’s discussions are seen as particularly important because after a decade of relatively strong growth, “Latin America’s economic prospects are becoming more convoluted,” as the OECD puts it.

The region has been affected by the weakness of the euro zone and has experienced “declining trade, moderation of commodity prices and increasing reservation surrounding external monetary and financing conditions,” the organisation says.

It stresses that the rise in the prices of commodity exports “has led Latin American economies to substitute locally manufactured goods with imports, and contributed to a certain decrease in the region’s productive capacities.”

Achieving “improved logistics performance” would help bolster structural change in the region and “represent an opportunity for the insertion of the continent into the global trade,” according to the OECD.

Humala, the president of Peru, said that the region has great potential but faces many challenges, including the impact of climate change [the United Nations climate change conference – COP 20 – is scheduled to be held in Peru in December].

He said that Latin America would truly achieve a “golden age” when it solves its productivity problems and becomes more egalitarian. “The golden era is coming … hard times force us to look at opportunities,” he added.

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Looking to Africa’s LDCs to Learn How to Save the Lives of Millions of Mothers and their Babies Mon, 30 Jun 2014 20:27:42 +0000 Nqabomzi Bikitsha Bosena, 25, sits on the side of a busy road in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, with a baby in her arms. Ethiopia is among the countries listed as having made significant progress in reducing child and maternal mortality rates. Credit: Jacey Fortin/IPS

Bosena, 25, sits on the side of a busy road in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, with a baby in her arms. Ethiopia is among the countries listed as having made significant progress in reducing child and maternal mortality rates. Credit: Jacey Fortin/IPS

By Nqabomzi Bikitsha

Every year, three million newborn babies and almost 6.6 million children under five die globally, but if the rest of the world looked towards the examples of two of Africa’s least-developed countries (LDCs), Rwanda and Ethiopia, they would perhaps be able to save these children.

At the 2014 Partners’ Forum being held in Johannesburg, South Africa from Jun. 30 to Jul. 2 – hosted by the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH), the South African government and other partners - significant commitments in finance, service delivery and policy were announced that could put an end to these deaths. In total, there were 40 commitments from stakeholders, governments and the private sector who are committed to ending child and maternal mortality were revealed at the forum today.

It was noted that while remarkable progress has been made in reducing maternal and child mortality rates globally, over the last two decades the reduction in the rates of newborn deaths has lagged behind considerably.

Africa’s Fast-Track Countries That Have Made Significant Progress in Saving Women and Children

•Reduced under-five mortality by 47 percent between 2000 and 2011 to from 166 to 88 per 1,000 live births
•Although Ethiopia still has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Africa it has reduced by 22 percent from 871 in 2000 to 676 per 100,000 live births in 2011
•Expanded community-based primary care for women and children through the deployment of close to 40,000 Health Extension Workers
•Achieved near parity in school attendance by 2008/09: at 90.7 percent for girls and 96.7 percent for boys from 20.4 percent and 31.7 percent respectively in 1994/1995

•Achieved under-five mortality reduction of 50 percent between 1992 and 2010 from 151 to 76 per 1,000 live births
•Reduced maternal mortality by 22 percent from 611 to 476 per 100,000 births between 1992 and 2010 (and by 55 percent from 2000 to 2010 from an increase to 1,071 to 476 per 100,000 live births)
•Increased coverage of skilled birth attendance from 31 percent in 2000 to 69 percent in 2010
•In 2013, women constituted 64 percent of parliamentarians, the highest percent in the world
*Sources for all statistics are official national data, and international data, as agreed at country multistakeholder policy reviews.

However, Rwanda and Ethiopia were among 10 countries across the globe listed as having made significant  progress in reducing child and maternal mortality rates, according to a new global action plan launched at the forum.

The Every Newborn Action Plan (ENAP) provides evidence on the effective interventions needed to end preventable stillbirths and newborn deaths. It also outlines a strategy to prevent 2,9 million newborn deaths and 2,6 million stillbirths annually.

These countries invested in high-impact health interventions, including immunisation, family planning, education and good governance.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs, told IPS that multi-sectoral investments, and not just direct investments in the health sector, would help reduce maternal and child mortality.

“If we don’t invest in agriculture, water and sanitation as well as the health sector then any gains we make in reducing child and maternal mortality will be futile.

“Community-based health care workers helped reduced Ethiopia’s mortality rates for mothers and children.”

According to the ENAP, newborn deaths account for 44 percent of all under five deaths worldwide, and investments in quality care at birth could save the lives of three million women and children each year.

“Now is the time to focus on action and implementation, to ensure more lives are saved,” said Graça Machel, co-chair of the PMNCH.

“Other countries have made progress and others have not, we need to learn from them, so we keep momentum.”

Accompanying the launch of the ENAP, was the launch of Countdown to 2015 report titled “Fulfilling the Health Agenda for Women and Children”, which serves as a scorecard of gains made in maternal and child health.

According to the report, which studied the progress of 75 countries in child and maternal mortality efforts, substantial inequities still persist.

“The theme of the Countdown report is ‘unfinished business,’” said Machel. “Too many women and children are dying when simple  treatment exists.”

Over 71 percent of newborn deaths could be avoided without intensive care, and are usually a result of three preventable conditions; prematurity, birth complications and severe infections.

Dr. Mariame Sylla, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) regional health specialist, told IPS that countries needed to learn from one another.

“Community-based approaches, where governments bring health services to the people and people to the services, have shown to be effective,” she told IPS.

“Monitoring of results is also very important to ensure accountability in the health sector.”

Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, South Africa’s Minister of Health, said “having professional midwives would also help new mothers understand motherhood better and help reduce mortality rates among women and children.”

However,  Ethiopia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs pointed out that “these  efforts are are simple but often hard to deliver.”

“Least-developed countries like Ethiopia were able to make strides in curbing child and maternal mortality through their political will,” Dr. Janet Kayita, health specialist for maternal, newborn and child health for UNICEF, told IPS.

But she pointed out that “Ethiopia’s key to success, was not just about the leadership making the decision to reduce child and maternal mortality rates, but also organising at community level.”

“Ethiopia is one of the few LDC’s to institutionalise quality improvement in the health sector, using the mechanism of rewarding good quality health services and holding accountable those not performing.”

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U.S. Reaction to New Immigrant Influx Could Violate International Law Sun, 29 Jun 2014 07:54:06 +0000 Michelle Tullo A child holds a sign at a rally for immigration reform. Credit: Progress Ohio/cc by 2.0

A child holds a sign at a rally for immigration reform. Credit: Progress Ohio/cc by 2.0

By Michelle Tullo
WASHINGTON, Jun 29 2014 (IPS)

Rights advocates and lawmakers are expressing increased concern over the United States’ handling of the sudden influx of tens of thousands of undocumented child and female migrants from Central America.

Last week, President Barack Obama announced that military bases would be converted to detention centres to house the nearly 50,000 unaccompanied minors that have arrived at the southern U.S. border in recent months. Recent data says some 3,000 are being apprehended daily, though the reasons for their arrival remain debated.

Meanwhile, sentiment is building against the plan, with some suggesting the detention centres could violate international rights obligations.

“We’re very disturbed to hear that the Obama administration plans to open more family detention centre spots, starting with a large facility in New Mexico,” Clara Long of Human Rights Watch, a watchdog group, told IPS.

“There’s evidence that detaining children causes severe and sometimes lasting harm, including depression, anxiety and cognitive damage. That’s why detaining children for their immigration status is banned under international law.”

Friday morning the Artesia Detention Centre in New Mexico began housing families, mostly women with children, with plans to deport them within two weeks.

In 2009, fewer than 20,000 minors were apprehended in the United States on immigration charges. Yet between October 2013 and May, there have been more than 47,000 apprehensions, more than a 50 percent increase.

Following the marked increase of children with refugee concerns, the United Nations has interviewed more than 400 children on their experiences in their home countries. Nearly 60 percent reportedly meet the requirements for international protection, in what the U.N. called a conservative estimate.

“We heard stories of children watching classmates tortured, dismembered, threats against girls,” Leslie Velez, of the U.N. Refugee Agency, told reporters last week. “This wasn’t just about gangs but criminal armed groups, drug trafficking, cartels, transnational criminal organisations – all operating with greater and greater impunity.”

Detention as deterrence

When a child is apprehended by border patrol, they are typically held at a border patrol station and, within 72 hours, are moved to a federal resettlement office. From there, some 90 percent are released to a sponsor in the U.S., usually a family member, and then must appear before court.

The recent influx, however, means that many kids are now staying at border control offices for more than the 72-hour limit, according to the Inter-American Commission for Human rights (IACHR). Over 100 reports of physical, verbal and sexual abuse by agents towards children have also been filed in a complaint by NGOs against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We understand that we need to get people away from the border and process them, so we don’t necessarily object to a short-term facility,” Michelle Brane, of the Women’s Refugee Commission, an advocacy group, told IPS.

“But there’s a lot of talk about ‘stopping the flow,’ to use detention as a deterrence, which we are against … Stopping people’s access to asylum is not in compliance with international refugee law.”

Brane notes that the United States regularly asks countries around the world to uphold international protection standards, with Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan currently accepting millions of Syrian refugees into their much smaller countries. “The numbers here are small in comparison,” she says.

In 2006, Brane visited a family detention centre where she found children who were losing weight, were stressed and could not go outside.

“When we asked children and mothers how they were doing, they broke down … there is no humane way to lock babies in,” she says.

Brane describes community alternatives to detention centres that she calls cheaper and more efficient. Under such programmes, she says, undocumented migrants report to court 96 percent of the time.

Others say that conditions today are not as bad.

“It’s definitely a place where everyone going through feels that it’s not an ideal place for children. But are children’s basic needs being taken care of? Yes, they are,” Juanita Molina, executive director of Border Action Network, a rights group, told IPS about her recent visit to a detention centre in Arizona.

Molina said that many government officials were doing their best to treat the children well, with some facilities now having toys. But she warns that the lack of facilities and staff can defeat even the best-intended workers.

“The federal government needs to reframe how they look at this,” she says, “not as a detention crisis, but as a humanitarian and refugee crisis.”

Both Molina and Brane both voice concerns over the speed with which the government is able to process cases.On Friday, the Obama administration announced it would process cases at Artesia within 10 to 15 days.

“The lack of due process feels irresponsible,” Molina says. “It’s possible that it’s lawful, but it’s not moral.”

Root causes

Meanwhile, immigration specialists argue that the root cause of the issue is violence in Central America – not lenient U.S. immigration policies, as many conservative lawmakers here are claiming.

“This child migration is not a result of failed border security,” Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank here, told IPS.

“It is the result of profound push factors in Central America – violence, instability and lack of economic opportunity – coupled with the consequences, sometimes unintended, of humane, well-meaning U.S. laws, policies and court rulings … and increasingly sophisticated human smuggling networks that have telegraphed to Central Americans that their children can enter the U.S.”

To address violence in Central America, Vice-President Joe Biden announced from Guatemala last week some 254 million dollars in related aid.

“The Obama administration’s response, thus far, hits on some of the immediate and longer-term responses necessary to deal with this significantly increased flow,” Mittelstadt says.

“The various forms of assistance for Central America represent a recognition of the deep factors in the region that are responsible for part of the flow, including endemic poverty, lack of economic opportunity and gang violence.”

Yet she notes that it remains unclear whether the new assistance represents a one-time commitment or a longer-standing pledge.

Also unclear is the effect this crisis will have on legislative attempts to overhaul the United States’ immigration policies.

“I think this crisis underscores the dire need for comprehensive immigration reform,” Human Rights Watch’s Long says.

“Immigration reform would simultaneously address ongoing rights abuses in the immigration system, including family separation and communities living in fear. It would also provide certainty about the law and who is or who is not eligible for legal status.”

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Higher Food Prices Can Help to End Hunger, Malnutrition and Food Waste Wed, 25 Jun 2014 07:31:45 +0000 Andrew MacMillan

In this column, Andrew MacMillan, former director of the Field Operations Division of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and joint author with Ignacio Trueba of ‘How to End Hunger in Times of Crises’, counters conventional wisdom – which holds that low food prices are a “good thing” and can reduce hunger – with a call for higher food prices backed by targeted social protection programmes.

By Andrew MacMillan
ROME, Jun 25 2014 (IPS)

The choice of foods displayed on supermarket shelves can be quite bewildering. This abundance encourages us to take it for granted that we will always be able to buy the food we want at affordable prices.

Any customers who give thought to how and where all the different foods are produced and end up in their shopping trolleys will start to uncover a rather disturbing situation.

They will find that in most countries, people working at all levels in the food system – in supermarkets, in meat processing and packing plants, as fruit harvesters or farm labourers, or as waitresses in fast-food restaurants – are among the worst paid of all workers.

Andrew MacMillan

Andrew MacMillan

They will discover that many of the skilled families that run the small-scale farms that produce most of the world’s food live precariously  They are exposed to multiple risks caused by fluctuating markets, pests and diseases and extreme weather problems, whether frosts, hailstorms, floods, typhoons or droughts.

They will also learn that in most developing countries hunger is heavily concentrated in rural areas, where some 70 percent of the world’s 842 million chronically hungry people live, largely dependent on farming, fishing and forestry. Much urban poverty results from people fleeing rural deprivation. And many of the conflicts that threaten global stability have their origins in areas of extreme poverty.

It seems dreadfully wrong that the very people who produce so much of our food should be those who suffer most from deep poverty and food shortages.

One reason for this apparently unjust situation is what economists call asymmetrical relationships in the food chain. For instance, supermarkets engage in cut-throat competition for customers by lowering their prices, reducing what they pay to their suppliers who, in turn, cut back on their workers’ pay.

Most governments like to keep food prices “affordable”, claiming that it makes food accessible to poor families, thereby preventing hunger and malnutrition. The main policy instruments used by rich and emerging nations include tax-funded subsidies that compensate their farmers for low-priced food sales. They also set low taxes on most foods.“It seems dreadfully wrong that the very people who produce so much of our food should be those who suffer most from deep poverty and food shortages”

The idea that low food prices will reduce the scale of the hunger problem is flawed since the main reason for people being hungry is that they cannot afford the food they need, even when prices are low.

Rather than, as now, shielding all consumers from paying a full and fair price for food, it seems to make more sense to let prices rise and increase the food buying power of the poor. As Fair Trade customers have discovered, higher retail prices can be passed back to all those involved in the food production chain, especially farm labourers. They probably offer the best market-driven option for cutting rural poverty and hunger.

But to eliminate hunger quickly, income transfers, targeted on poor families and with their value indexed to food prices, are also needed, at least until countries begin to manage their economies more equitably.

Policies that support low food prices, apart from exacerbating rural hunger, also add momentum to the other big food-related problems now facing the world, including:

  • The serious mismatch between healthy diets and what people choose to eat as their incomes rise. This is most visible in the rapid rise in over-consumption of food, leading to more than 1.5 billion people being overweight or obese, creating a massive future health burden and huge losses in human productivity. It also shows up in the fast growth in demand for foods with high environmental footprints;
  • The horrendous wastage of food at retail and household level, amounting to about 30% of output in industrialised countries (or more than the total annual net food production of Africa!);
  • The rapid expansion of non-sustainable intensive farming systems. These are placing huge stresses on the increasingly scarce natural resources needed by future generations to meet their food needs – soils, fresh water, forests, marine fish stocks and biodiversity. They are also stoking the processes of climate change by generating large green-house gas emissions.

Many people think that the big food challenge for the future will be to produce enough to feed the hungry. Closing the hunger gap for over 800 million fellow humans, however, can be done today if we are willing to take direct measures to improve food access.

When I calculated what this would take, I was surprised to find that enabling all the world’s hungry to rise above the hunger threshold would raise demand by under 2 percent of present global food production.

Others see population growth as the main concern. Birth rates are dropping fast, but obviously further reductions will make the task of feeding the world easier. Interestingly, much of the growth in the number of mouths to feed – from 7 billion now to 9 billion in 2050 – will come from people living longer, the positive result of better hygiene, health and education.

The reality is that we who already have more than enough to eat and those who expect to emulate our unhealthy diets as their incomes rise are the main culprits, accounting for about half of the 60 percent increase in food demand forecast by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for 2050!

What seems to be needed now is to mainstream the concepts of fairness, healthy eating and sustainability throughout the food management system. We could usefully adopt the aspiration of the Slow Food movement that “all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet.”

Already many developing countries, inspired by the success of Brazil’s Zero Hunger programme, are starting to move in these directions. They are linking expanded social protection for poor families and the buying of food for school lunches to the promotion of small-scale sustainable farm development.

But industrialised countries must also deliver on their responsibilities for cutting their negative impacts on food management which hurt not only their people but also the rest of the world. A first move could be to redirect existing farm subsidies towards promoting healthy eating, cutting food wastage, and accelerating the necessary shift to farming systems that are truly sustainable from technical, environmental and social perspectives.

Rises in retail food prices would be part of the adjustment process, with consumers meeting a progressively rising share of “full and fair” production costs. Though they may complain, this should be readily affordable for the hundreds of millions of people who typically spend less than 20 percent of their disposable income on food. It will also be accessible for poorer families when they are served, as we propose, by expanded social protection.

If you think about it, it is a small price to pay for a healthier and safer world for us and our children! (END/COLUMNIST SERVICE)

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IT and Internet Offer Possibilities of Overcoming Blockade in Gaza Thu, 19 Jun 2014 10:39:44 +0000 Khaled Alashqar Khalid Salim (left) and Yassir Younis (right) , owners of the Motawiron mobile applications and software development company that grew out of the Technology Incubator in Gaza. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

Khalid Salim (left) and Yassir Younis (right) , owners of the Motawiron mobile applications and software development company that grew out of the Technology Incubator in Gaza. Credit: Khaled Alashqar/IPS

By Khaled Alashqar
GAZA CITY, Jun 19 2014 (IPS)

“After graduating, I joined the thousands of other graduates on the list of the unemployed. Then I read about a project that offers a technology incubator for youth projects, applied, was accepted and now I’m no longer on that list!

Yasser Younis, who is now co-owner of a mobile applications and software development company, was describing his experience of the Palestine Information and Communications Technology Incubator, a unique programme set up and run by the University College of Applied Sciences (UCAS) in Gaza, with the support of Oxfam, which has the ambitious aim of bypassing the blockade imposed on Gaza.

The idea behind the programme is to provide graduate students with the necessary sponsorship and financial support to develop their projects during a gestation period of six months, with project staff on hand to help them network with companies abroad and market their products online.“Ideas are accepted on the basis of specific criteria and the ability of the idea to overcome the blockade on Gaza and market products abroad via the Internet” – Professor Saeed Azzibda, Manager of Development Programmes at UCAS, Gaza

Describing this promising programme, Professor Saeed Azzibda, Manager of Development Programmes at UCAS, told IPS: “Ideas are accepted on the basis of specific criteria and the ability of the idea to overcome the blockade on Gaza and market products abroad via the Internet. If such essential criteria are met, we would embrace the idea and develop it until it becomes a product with foreign trade potential.”

The Technology Incubator qualifies five companies in each assessment session and some of its start-up projects have already developed their own programs and applications that are being sold in the global market of mobile phone software.

The programme has been very well received in the Palestinian community and at international level, with some Arab investors offering successful participants the opportunity to travel and work in Qatar and other Arab countries interested in the field of technology and online markets, or to open headquarters for budding start-ups outside Gaza and increase investment in them.

“We have two dimensions to corporate incubation,” Professor Azzibda told IPS.  “The first is that the company sells its products via the Internet to overcome the blockade of Gaza, and the second dimension is for those students who have created their own companies here to explore opportunities outside the borders of Gaza border and develop strong companies and investments abroad with the aim of also supporting their people in Gaza.”

Two of the graduates from the OCAS programme are Yasser and Khalil Salim, owners of the Motawiron mobile applications and software development company. They graduated from the UCAS programme after six months of incubation and the company is now selling its products online for companies in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and some other countries.

Motawiron recently won a ticket to represent Palestine inthe “Imagine Cup”, the global student technology competition organised by Microsoft Corporation for the best software and applications to serve the world. This was the first time ever that Palestine had been represented in the competition.

Nevertheless, the blockade on Gaza prevented Younis and Salim from travelling earlier this month to Qatar for the Pan-Arab semi-finals of the “Imagine Cup”, although they possessed the necessary papers and the official invitation and tickets.

“Our company has developed the ‘HOPE’ application for mobile phones which helps the deaf communicate with people and integrate into society. We got the first position for Palestine and now compete in the world but we could not travel.  We have shared this application in competitions in order to expand horizons and start relationships with international companies,” Yassir told IPS.

Graduates make up a significant segment of Palestinian society where over 40,000 studentsgraduate each year, creating an urgent need to find creative ways to accommodate young graduates and their talents in the labour market. But the market in Gaza suffers from major weakness and serious decline at various levels because of the continued siege and closures imposed by Israel.

Some international donor organisations, including Oxfam, work in Gaza and try to support domestic markets and the local economy.

They manage large development projects through which they provide significant support to UCAS graduates to deliver their products to the outside world via the internet despite the challenges they face in Gaza, particularly the electricity blackouts for 12 hours a day and the difficulty of bringing in supporting equipment for emerging companies.

“Information technology is among the emerging and promising sectors in Gaza, where products that are blocked from access tomarkets by traditional ways due to the blockade can be offered via the Internet,” Alun Macdonald, Media and Communication Coordinator at Oxfam, told IPS.

“A company producing animated advertising has so far won six contracts outside Gaza with companies in the Gulf states, Canada and Saudi Arabia. Some of the companies have also proved themselves in the local market,” he added.

Meanwhile, young female journalist Nour Al-harazin is taking the media approach in her initiative to overcome physical and political barriers and reach the outside world, by preparing to launch and operate an English-speaking news channel from Gaza via YouTube.

“It would be the first in the Arab world and Palestine.This channel intends to provide reports and human stories from besieged Gaza to the outside world. It will be, for the first time, our right as Palestinians to convey our suffering ourselves to the outside world without any parameters. This is the main idea of the project,” Nour told IPS.

A support network of activists from Western countries is taking shape across social networking sites to help this Palestinian journalist with her project. Having launched an online page for fundraising, Nour has also released a short video on YouTube calling on activists and supporters of justice in the world to provide assistance and financial help for her project so that she can deliver the message of the Palestinians and the people of Gaza in particular.

“The siege and travel ban have always been an obstacle to Palestinians, so I thought of using the Internet and social media to reach out to the world that cannot reach us. The Internet has now become a means to break this siege,” said Nour.

Day after day, Gazans like Nour, Yassir and Khalil continue the struggle to find new ways to break the siege imposed on them and create access to the outside world through commercial relations and media outlets. The global Internet and social media have opened new doors and are now being used as an essential space to challenge closure and isolation.

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U.S. Turns Attention to Ocean Conservation, Food Security Thu, 19 Jun 2014 01:28:33 +0000 Michelle Tullo The administration of President Barack Obama pledged to massively expand U.S.-protected parts of the southern Pacific Ocean. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

The administration of President Barack Obama pledged to massively expand U.S.-protected parts of the southern Pacific Ocean. Credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS

By Michelle Tullo
WASHINGTON, Jun 19 2014 (IPS)

A first-time U.S.-hosted summit on protecting the oceans has resulted in pledges worth some 800 million dollars to be used for conservation efforts.

During the summit, held here in Washington, the administration of President Barack Obama pledged to massively expand U.S.-protected parts of the southern Pacific Ocean. In an effort to strengthen global food security, the president has also announced a major push against illegal fishing and to create a national strategic plan for aquaculture.

“If we drain our resources, we won’t just be squandering one of humanity’s greatest treasures, we’ll be cutting off one of the world’s leading sources of food and economic growth, including for the United States,” President Obama said via video Tuesday morning.

The “Our Ocean” conference, held Monday and Tuesday at the U.S. State Department, brought together ministers, heads of state, as well as civil society and private sector representatives from almost 90 countries. The summit, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, focused on overfishing, pollution and ocean acidification, all of which threaten global food security.

In his opening remarks, Kerry noted that ocean conservation constitutes a “great necessity” for food security. “More than three billion people, 50 percent of the people on this planet, in every corner of the world depend on fish as a significant source of protein,” he said.

Proponents hope that many of the solutions being used by U.S. scientists, policymakers and fishermen could serve to help international communities.

“There is increasing demand for seafood with diminished supply … We need to find ways to make seafood sustainable to rich and poor countries alike,” Danielle Nierenberg, the president of FoodTank, a Washington think tank, told IPS.

“For instance, oyster harvesters in the Gambia have really depleted the oyster population, but a U.S.-sponsored project has been able to re-establish the oyster beds – by leaving them alone for a while. The same strategy – to step back a bit – worked with lobster fishers in New England.”

Nierenberg predicted that with diminishing wild fish, the future of seafood will be in aquaculture.

“What aquaculture projects need to do now is learn from the mistakes made from crop and livestock agriculture,” she said. “It doesn’t always work – for instance, maize and soybeans create opportunities for pest and disease. Overcrowding animals creates manure.”

*Seafood fraud*

The Obama administration also hopes to jumpstart the United States’ own seafood production capabilities. According to a White House fact sheet, the United States today imports most of its seafood, though highly regulated U.S. aquaculture is widely seen as particularly safe.

Early on in his first administration, President Obama created a new national ocean stewardship policy which also sought to streamline more than 100 U.S. laws governing the oceans and coordinating the country’s approach to these resources.

This week’s actions will further simplify aquaculture production, while aiming to ensure that U.S. aquaculture does not exceed the population size an environment can naturally support.

“The U.S. is really good at innovating, but not at producing, largely because of the amount of regulatory hurdles,” Michael Tlusty, director of research at the New England Aquarium, told IPS. “Roughly 17 different agencies have roles in aquaculture regulation, so streamlining the process will put all of them together at the same table to efficiently provide permits.”

Tlusty also applauded the administration’s announcement to create a comprehensive programme to deter illegal fishing and seafood fraud.

“We can’t turn a switch and fix the ocean – we need lots of different strategies,” Tlusty said. “Cutting carbon dioxide emissions is very important … as is cutting illegal, underreported and underegistered fishing.”

Advocacy groups have likewise applauded the initiatives.

“President Obama’s announcement is a historic step forward in the fight against seafood fraud and illegal fishing worldwide. This initiative is a practical solution to an ugly problem and will forever change the way we think about our seafood,” Beth Lowell, campaign director for Oceana, a watchdog group, said Tuesday.

“Because our seafood travels through an increasingly long, complex and non-transparent supply chain, there are numerous opportunities for seafood fraud to occur and illegally caught fish to enter the U.S. market.”

Oceana points to recent research noting that nearly a third of wild-caught seafood coming into the United States comes from pirate fishing.

The World Wildlife Fund, a major conservation group, called Obama’s announcements “a turning point” for the world’s oceans.

*Breakneck acidification*

Ocean acidification constitutes a particularly broad and worrisome danger to marine life, shellfish production and ocean-based food security, and received prominent attention at this week’s summit. This process has come about particularly from carbon dioxide emissions resulting from air pollution, which changes the delicate acidity level of the oceans.

“The entire ocean is acidifying, and at an incredibly rapid pace … more in the last 15 years than it has in the whole last 50,000 years,” Catherine Novelli, under-secretary for economic growth, energy and the environment at the U.S State Department, told IPS.

“If you’ve ever had a fish tank, you’ll know that it is an incredibly delicate balance. And once it gets out of balance, things can’t survive.”

Novelli pointed to innovate projects such as one undertaken by the Prince of Monaco, which aims to determine where acidification is taking place and to offer early warning systems for fish farmers.

“It absolutely affects shellfish farmers, as shellfish are very sensitive to these acidity levels,” said Novelli.

“There’s been some pioneering work done off the coast of Oregon, where shellfish farmers have worked with the state government to monitor the acidification. If the acidity level is changing, they can shut off their water intake from the ocean and preserve their shellfish until waves pass and go in a different direction.”

While the conference looked at a variety of short- and medium-term possibilities for monitoring and adapting to such problems, the discussions also recognised that the issue will likely be subsumed under broader climate change negotiations.

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