Inter Press Service » Asia-Pacific http://www.ipsnews.net Turning the World Downside Up Thu, 02 Jul 2015 04:05:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.5 Poor Bear the Brunt of Corruption in India’s Food Distribution Systemhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/poor-bear-the-brunt-of-corruption-in-indias-food-distribution-system/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=poor-bear-the-brunt-of-corruption-in-indias-food-distribution-system http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/07/poor-bear-the-brunt-of-corruption-in-indias-food-distribution-system/#comments Wed, 01 Jul 2015 22:21:41 +0000 Neeta Lal http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141383 With a network of 60,000 ration shops, India’s public food distribution system is mired in corruption and inefficiency, leaving millions starving while tonnes of grain rot in storage. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

With a network of 60,000 ration shops, India’s public food distribution system is mired in corruption and inefficiency, leaving millions starving while tonnes of grain rot in storage. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI, Jul 1 2015 (IPS)

Chottey Lal, 43, a daily wage labourer at a construction site in NOIDA, a township in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is a beleaguered man. After a gruelling 12-hour daily shift at the dusty location, he and his wife Subha make barely enough to feed a family of seven.

Nor is the couple ever able to procure the subsidized rations they are legally entitled to, under a government law, from their local fair price shop.

"I usually disappear at meal times from home, as it’s heart-wrenching to see so many people parcel out so little food among themselves. I now beg for food, though I live with my sons." -- Savirti, a 50-year-old woman who is cut off from India's public food distribution system
“Whenever we go to the outlet, we’re shooed away by the grocer saying stocks have run out. We end up buying expensive food from the market, which isn’t enough to feed the entire family. Everybody knows the shopkeeper is profiteering from selling grain on the black market. But what can we, the poor, do? We’ve complained at the local police station also, but no action has been taken against the vendor,” Lal told IPS.

Savirti, 50, and Kamla, 39, have a worse tale to share.

Both women, who are widows and live with their married sons, are dependent on their families for food and a roof over their heads. However, they have been reduced to beggary as the family income is meagre and the grain rations they receive from the fair price shops are barely enough to feed half the family.

“I usually disappear at meal times from home, as it’s heart-wrenching to see so many people parcel out so little food among themselves. I now beg for food, though I live with my sons,” Savitri told IPS.

Kamla similarly feels she “eats better outside the home than inside” due to strangers’ kindness.

Engulfed in corruption, leakages and inefficiency, India’s public food distribution system (PDS) – a network of about 60,000 fair price shops around this country of 1.2 billion people – is depriving millions of poor people of the food grain they are entitled to under the National Food Security Act (NFSA).

Essential commodities like rice, wheat, sugar, and kerosene are supposed to be supplied to the public through this network at a fraction of the market rates.

The NFSA aims to sustain two-thirds of the country’s population by providing 35 kg of subsidised food grains per person per month at one to three rupees (0.01 to 0.04 dollars) per kilo.

However, only 11 states and Union Territories (UTs) have so far implemented the law, which was passed by Parliament in September 2013. The rest of the 25 states or UTs have not implemented it yet.

To make matters worse, national surveys have highlighted how millions of tonnes of grain are siphoned off from the distribution system by unscrupulous merchants.

They sell this loot in the open market at high profits, or export it in collusion with corrupt officials from the state-run Food Corporation of India. Much of the food from the PDS is also diverted to neighbouring countries like Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and Singapore.

A government study done in Uttar Pradesh found that numerous, competing agencies, poor coordination and low administrative accountability have combined to cripple the delivery mechanism.

The Justice D. P. Wadhwa Committee, which was tasked by the Supreme Court of India with monitoring its orders in a public interest litigation case on the right to food in 2006, recently came out with a damning indictment of the PDS.

Investigating irregularities in the chain’s distribution, the committee revealed that 80 percent of the corruption in distribution happens even before supplies reach the ration shops.

Worse, nearly 60 percent of the food that is channeled through the public distribution system is either wasted or siphoned off in transit. “What reaches the poor beneficiaries is often not even fit for consumption,” explains food expert Devinder Sharma who helms the New Delhi-based collective, Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security.

Malnourished kids run around outside a ration shop in India. The lettering on the side of the building is part of an advertisement by a multinational telecom company, peddling cheap phones in the country that hosts the world’s largest population of hungry people. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

Malnourished kids run around outside a ration shop in India. The lettering on the side of the building is part of an advertisement by a multinational telecom company, peddling cheap phones in the country that hosts the world’s largest population of hungry people. Credit: Neeta Lal/IPS

This rampant and systemic abuse in the delivery chain augurs ill for a country like India, home to 194.6 million undernourished people, the highest in the world, according to the recent annual report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.

The report states that the numbers translate as over 15 percent of the country’s population, exceeding China in both absolute numbers and the proportion of malnourished people in the country.

“Higher economic growth has not been fully translated into higher food consumption, let alone better diets overall, suggesting that the poor and hungry may have failed to benefit much from overall growth,” says the 2015 State of Food Insecurity in the World about India.

Close to 1.3 million children die every year in India because of malnutrition, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world, and is nearly double that of sub-Saharan Africa, with dire consequences for mobility, mortality, productivity and economic growth, states the WHO.

In a bid to tackle the problem of chronic hunger, the Shanta Kumar Committee, tasked with a review of the PDS in India, submitted a report to Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier this year, recommending a gradual phasing out of the PDS and a move to cash transfers.

The proposed cash transfer, according to the committee, will whittle down poor beneficiaries’ reliance on PDS ration shops. Some experts have buttressed this idea with the argument that dismantling the food procurement system, by providing coupons or food entitlements in the form of cash to the beneficiaries and allowing them to buy their own quota from the market, is a far more foolproof system.

The belief is that if the people are given the subsidy directly, both the government and the consumers will benefit.

Each year India’s granaries burst with bumper harvests of wheat and rice, but the grain is either pilfered by middlemen or allowed to rot in the rain while millions starve.

The government also incurs a huge expenditure on the food grains it supplies through the system. The leakage of food grains supplied to the PDS is as high as 48 percent, say surveys, and the buffer stocks it maintains are often far above the requirement, leading to huge costs on maintenance.

Ironically, the PDS is one of the largest programmes in India aimed at social welfare of the poor. Renowned economist Jean Drèze has argued that the impact on poverty reduction can be considerable if the PDS works efficiently.

Currently, close to 23 percent of India’s people live on less than 1.25 dollars a day – an arbitrary line that the Asian Development recently found to be an inadequate measure of poverty, suggesting that a line of 1.51 dollars would better reflect the sum required to keep a person at a minimum standard of existence.

Regardless of how extreme poverty is measured, it is clear that millions in this country are at, or very close, to, the point of starvation every single day.

Experts like Dr. Ravi Khetrapal, an agricultural scientist formerly with the Ministry of Food and Civil Supplies, believe the PDS to be an essential component of Indian society because the prevailing market prices for essential commodities are beyond the reach of the downtrodden.

“If the poor don’t access this network, they will starve to death,” he told IPS. “The network can play a more meaningful role if it is streamlined to ensure micro-level success and availability of food grains for all poor households.”

India has an impressive list of programmes to fight hunger, and the budget allocation for these is increased every year, and yet the poor go hungry. In fact, according to U.N. data, the number of impoverished people in the country is increasing with every passing year.

The answer does not lie in dismantling the PDS system, but reforming the world’s largest food delivery system to cleanse it of corruption, and make it more effective.

“This is certainly possible, but given the extent of political meddling – from the allotment of ration shops to transportation of grains – it has never been attempted in earnest. We need to build a system that ensures food for all at all times. This is what constitutes inclusive growth. A hungry population is a great economic loss,” Sharma told IPS.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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China Hailed as Leader for New Climate Planhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/china-hailed-as-leader-for-new-climate-plan/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=china-hailed-as-leader-for-new-climate-plan http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/china-hailed-as-leader-for-new-climate-plan/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 17:55:18 +0000 Kitty Stapp http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141364 A wind farm outside Tianjin. China is the world's leading manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels. Credit: Mitch Moxley/IPS

A wind farm outside Tianjin. China is the world's leading manufacturer of wind turbines and solar panels. Credit: Mitch Moxley/IPS

By Kitty Stapp
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 30 2015 (IPS)

Environmental groups are praising China following the formal submission of Beijing’s highly-anticipated climate change strategy to the United Nations Tuesday.

The plan includes a commitment to peak emissions around the year 2030, reduce carbon intensity 60 to 65 percent from 2005 levels, and increase the share of non-fossil fuels in its energy mix by about 20 percent by 2030.

The pledges are part of China’s so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), which every country must submit ahead of the December U.N. climate talks in Paris (COP21). At that high-level meeting, a global climate deal is expected to be agreed which will come into force by 2025.

“China’s INDC is a positive boost to the ongoing international climate change process leading to Paris,” said Changhua Wu, Greater China Director of The Climate Group. “China’s efforts to align its domestic growth agenda and global climate change agenda is a leading example of how a fundamental shift is needed to grow the economy differently.”

According to data from The Climate Group, China is currently the world’s biggest investor in clean energy, spending a record 89.5 billion dollars last year to account for almost a third of the world’s total renewables investment.

China’s rapid economic growth is still largely based on coal, which still accounts for two-thirds of its energy mix. However, the growth of its renewables sector is already having an impact, with the National Bureau of Statistics of China reporting that in 2014 coal consumption fell 2.9 percent even while its total energy consumption grew, thanks to a 16.9 percent share from clean energy including wind and hydro.

Jennifer Morgan, Global Climate Director, Climate Program, World Resources Institute, said Tuesday that, “China’s plan reflects its firm commitment to address the climate crisis. Already, 40 countries have released their national commitments, showing the growing momentum behind international climate action this year.

“China is largely motivated by its strong national interests to tackle persistent air pollution problems, limit climate impacts and expand its renewable energy job force,” she said in a statement. “More than 3.4 million people in China are already working in the clean energy sector.”

China currently accounts for a quarter of the world’s CO2 emissions and one-third of the G20’s (which as a group produces 75 percent of the world’s emissions).

At the moment, the world seems set on a path for a potentially catastrophic temperature rise of up to 4 degrees C., not the less than 2 degrees that is seen as a critical threshhold, according to Janos Pasztor, the U.N.’s assistant secretary general and Ban Ki-moon’s chief adviser on climate change.

Around 40 countries have submitted INDCs thus far, but experts believe bolder targets are needed across the board.

The International Energy Agency has already warned that the INDCs submitted “will have a positive impact on future energy trends, but fall short of the major course correction required to meet the 2 Celsius degrees goal.”

“It is clear that China’s plan to tackle carbon emissions and build an economy on renewables and clean technology is firmly embedded at the highest level of government. We hope that India, Brazil and others will soon follow and show the required level of ambition,” said Mark Kenber, CEO of The Climate Group.

A survey released earlier this month found that China leads the world in public support for government action on climate change.

Some 60 percent of respondents in China favour a leadership role for their country, versus 44 percent in the United States and 41 percent in Britain.

And a new study by the London School of Economics (LSE) predicts that China’s greenhouse gas emissions could peak by 2025, five years earlier than the time frame indicated by Beijing, thanks to steady reductions in coal consumption.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Bangladeshi Migrants Risk High Seas and Smugglers to Escape Povertyhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/bangladeshi-migrants-risk-high-seas-and-smugglers-to-escape-poverty/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bangladeshi-migrants-risk-high-seas-and-smugglers-to-escape-poverty http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/bangladeshi-migrants-risk-high-seas-and-smugglers-to-escape-poverty/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 06:21:55 +0000 Naimul Haq http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141360 These men, aspiring migrants who were abandoned by traffickers on the open ocean, were recently rescued by the Border Guard Bangladesh  (BGB) and reunited with their families in Teknaf, located in the southern coastal district of Cox’s Bazar. Credit: Abdur Rahman/IPS

These men, aspiring migrants who were abandoned by traffickers on the open ocean, were recently rescued by the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and reunited with their families in Teknaf, located in the southern coastal district of Cox’s Bazar. Credit: Abdur Rahman/IPS

By Naimul Haq
TEKNAF, Bangladesh, Jun 30 2015 (IPS)

Though he is only 16 years old, Mohammad Yasin has been through hell and back. He recently survived a hazardous journey by sea, crammed into the cargo-hold of a rudimentary boat along with 115 others.

For 45 days they bobbed about on the Indian Ocean somewhere between their native Bangladesh and their destination, Malaysia, with scarcely any food, no water and little hope of making it to shore alive.

Midway through the ordeal, Yasin watched one of his fellow travelers die of starvation, a fate that very nearly claimed him as well.

The young man, who hails from a poor cobbler’s family in Teknaf, located on the southernmost tip of Bangladesh’s coastal district of Cox’s Bazaar, broke down in tears as he narrated the tale, putting a human face to the story of a major exodus of migrants and political refugees in Southeast Asia that has rights groups as well as the United Nations up in arms.

45 days of torture

“Horror unfolded as we sailed. Supplies were scarce and food and water was rationed every three days. Many of us vomited as the boat negotiated the mighty waves." -- ” Mohammad Ripon, a Bangladeshi migrant who survived a torturous maritime journey
Yasin tells IPS it all began when a group of men from the neighbouring Bandarban district promised to take him, and five others from Teknaf village, to Malaysia in search of work.

With an 80-dollar monthly salary and a family of four to look after, including a sick father, Yasin believed Malaysia to be a ‘dream destination’ where he would earn enough to provide for his loved ones.

“The men told us we would not have to pay anything now, but that they would later ‘deduct’ 2,600 dollars from each of us once we got jobs in Malaysia,” recounted the frail youth.

“On a sunny morning around the last week of April we were taken along with a larger group of men and women to the deserted island of Shah Porir Dwip, where we boarded a large wooden boat later that same evening.”

A little while into the journey on the Bay of Bengal, at the Chaungthar port located in the city of Pathein in southern Myanmar, a group of Rohingya Muslims joined the party.

This ethnic minority has long faced religious persecution in Myanmar and now contributes hugely to the movement of human beings around this region.

Together with the 10 organisers of the voyage, who turned out to be traffickers, the group numbered close to 130 people. Just how they would reach their destination, or when, none of the passengers knew. Their lives were entirely in the hands of the boat’s crew.

“Horror unfolded as we sailed,” recalled Mohammad Ripon, who also joined the journey at the behest of traffickers from the central Bangladeshi district of Narayanganj.

“Supplies were scarce and food and water was rationed every three days. Many of us vomited as the boat negotiated the mighty waves,” he told IPS.

During the day the crew opened the hatch of the cargo vessel to let in the blistering sun. At night it was kept shut, leaving the passengers to freeze. No one could sleep; the shrieks and cries of sick and frightened passengers kept the entire company awake all night long.

From time to time, the boat stalled on the choppy waters, “probably to change crews”, the passengers told IPS.

But no one knew for sure, and none dared ask for risk of being physically abused or thrown overboard. By this time, their captors had already beaten a number of the passengers for asking too many questions.

After nearly a month and a half of this torture, the Bangladesh Coast Guard steered the boat in to Saint Martin’s island, off the coast of Cox’s Bazar – very close to where the hopeful immigrants had begun their journey.

It was not until the malnourished passengers emerged, with sunken eyes and protruding ribs, that they realised the crew had long since abandoned the ship.

Traffickers exploiting poverty

Though their dreams were dashed, this group is one of the lucky ones; they escaped with their lives, their possessions and their money.

For too many others, these illicit journeys result in being robbed, pitched overboard or even buried in mass graves by networks of smugglers and traffickers who are making a killing by exploiting economically desperate and politically marginalised communities in Southeast Asia.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 88,000 people –mostly poor Bangladeshis and internally displaced Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar – attempted to cross the borders into Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia in a 15-month period.

This includes 63,000 people between January and December of 2014 and an additional 25,000 in the first quarter of this year.

Of these, an estimated 300 people died at sea in the first quarter of 2015. Since October 2014, 620 people have lost their lives during hazardous, unplanned maritime journeys on the Bay of Bengal.

To make matters worse, the discovery of trafficking rings has prompted governments in the region – particularly Thai and Malaysian authorities – to crack down on irregular arrivals, refusing to allow ships to dock and sometimes going so far as to tow boatloads of people back out to sea despite the presence of desperate and starving people on-board.

From humble aspirations to hazardous journeys

Aspiring migrants from Bangladesh are fleeing poverty and unemployment in this country of close to 157 million people, 31 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

Data from the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) suggests that the unemployment rate is 4.53 percent, putting the number of out-of-work people here at close to 6.7 million.

Mohammad Hasan, 34, is one of many who dreamed of a more prosperous life in a different country.

A tall, dark welder from Boliadangi, a village in the northwestern Thakurgaon district, he told IPS, “I sold my ancestral land to travel to Malaysia where I hoped to get a welding job in a construction company, because my earnings were not enough to support my six-member family.”

At the time, he was earning less than 100 dollars a month. Feeding seven people on 1,200 Bangladeshi taka (about 15 dollars) a day is no easy task. Desperate, he put his life in the hands of traffickers and set out for the Malaysian coast.

Earlier this year, abandoned by those who had promised them safe passage, he and close to 100 other men were discovered drifting off the coast of Thailand. Fortunately, all of them survived, but the money they paid for the journey was lost.

Forty-one-year-old Kawser Ali from Gangachara, a village in the northern Rangpur District, had a similar tale. He says he made a break for foreign shores because his earnings as a farmer simply weren’t enough to put enough food on the table to keep his eight-member family, including his in-laws, alive.

Millions of people here share his woes: between 60 and 70 percent of Bangladesh’s population relies on agriculture for a livelihood, and the vast majority of them struggle to make ends meet.

Thus it should come as no surprise that Kawser was recently found deep within a forest in Thailand where he and some 50 others had been led by traffickers and abandoned to their own fate.

He told IPS that most of his companions along the journey were marginal farmers, like himself. “We have no fixed income, and can never earn enough to improve our economic condition. I would like to see my son go to a better school, or take my wife to market on a motorbike.”

It is these humble aspirations – together with tales from friends and neighbours who have made the transition successfully – that have led scores of people Kawser to the coast, to board unsafe vessels and put themselves at the mercy of the sea and smugglers in exchange for a chance to make a better life.

Aninda Dutta, a programme associate for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Bangladesh, told IPS, “In Bangladesh, there is a strong link between migration and smuggling, in which a journey that starts through economic motivations may end up as a trafficking case because of the circumstances.”

These ‘circumstances’ include extortionate fees paid to so-called agents, essentially rings of smugglers and human traffickers; beatings and other forms of intimidation and abuse – including sexual abuse – during the journey; theft of all their possessions while at sea; or abandonment, penniless, in various locations – primarily Thailand or Malaysia – where they are subject to the ire of immigration authorities.

In a bid to nip the epidemic in the bud, the Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) recently set up more checkpoints to increase vigilance, and proposed that the government tighten regulations regarding the registering of boats.

But until the government tackles the underlying problem of abject poverty, it is unlikely that they will see an end to the exodus any time soon.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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U.S. Urged to Ramp up Aid for Agent Orange Clean-Up Efforts in Vietnamhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/u-s-urged-to-ramp-up-aid-for-agent-orange-clean-up-efforts-in-vietnam/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=u-s-urged-to-ramp-up-aid-for-agent-orange-clean-up-efforts-in-vietnam http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/u-s-urged-to-ramp-up-aid-for-agent-orange-clean-up-efforts-in-vietnam/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 17:54:42 +0000 Zhai Yun Tan http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141347 An estimated 4.5 million Vietnamese people were potentially exposed to Agent Orange during the decade 1961-1972. Credit: naturalbornstupid/CC-BY-SA-2.0

An estimated 4.5 million Vietnamese people were potentially exposed to Agent Orange during the decade 1961-1972. Credit: naturalbornstupid/CC-BY-SA-2.0

By Zhai Yun Tan
WASHINGTON, Jun 29 2015 (IPS)

A key senator and a D.C.-based think tank are calling for Washington to step up its aid in cleaning up toxic herbicides sprayed by the United States in Vietnam during the war that ended 40 years ago.

Speaking last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a major think tank here, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who has long led the efforts in the U.S. Congress to compensate Vietnamese war victims, called on Washington to do more, arguing that it will further bolster renewed ties between the two countries.

“We can meet the target of cleaning up the dioxin and Agent Orange between now and the year 2020, but the target is very difficult to get to. We need more assistance.” -- Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States Pham Quang Vinh
Leahy’s remarks were echoed by Charles Bailey, former director of Aspen Institute’s Agent Orange in Vietnam Program – a multi-year initiative to deal with health and environmental impacts of the estimated 19 million gallons of herbicides that were sprayed over 4.5 million acres of land in Vietnam from 1961 to 1970.

Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States Pham Quang Vinh expressed similar sentiments at the event.

Hanoi’s ambassador said his government has been spending 45 million dollars every year to deal with the many problems created by Agent Orange and other herbicides used by U.S. military forces during the war.

“We can meet the target of cleaning up the dioxin and Agent Orange between now and the year 2020, but the target is very difficult to get,” he said. “We need more assistance.”

An estimated 4.5 million Vietnamese people were potentially exposed to Agent Orange. The Vietnam Red Cross estimates that three million Vietnamese people were affected, including 150,000 children born with birth defects.

Those who bore the brunt of the chemical spraying suffered cancer, liver damage, severe skin and nervous disorders and heart disease. The children and even grandchildren of people exposed to Agent Orange have been born with deformities, defects, disabilities and diseases.

Huge expanses of forest and jungle, including the natural habitats of several species, were devastated. Many of these species are still threatened with extinction.

In some areas, rivers were poisoned and underground water sources contaminated. Erosion and desertification as a result of the herbicide sprays made barren fields out of once-fertile farmlands.

The United States currently funds aid operations in Vietnam through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). According to Bailey, 136 million dollars have been appropriated to date. But some observers of the programme say still more should be done.

Merle Ratner from the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign said that too little of the aid has gone to the people. Most of it is given to international NGOs, who are then contracted to do the work, she said.

“We are suggesting that the aid go directly to NGOs in Vietnam because who knows the people better than their own organisations?” Ratner told IPS.

“People should be involved in their own solutions to the situation.”

The renewed attention comes at a time when the U.S. and Vietnam have moved closer together, particularly in light of the two nations’ growing concerns over China’s recent assertiveness in the South China Sea, parts of which are claimed by Vietnam, as well as the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

“I want to turn Agent Orange from being a symbol of antagonism into an area where the U.S and Vietnamese governments can work together,” Leahy said. “At a time when China is actively seeking to extend its sphere of influence and United States has begun its own re-balance towards Asia, these Vietnam legacy programs have taken on greater significance.”

The general secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Nguyen Phy Trong, is scheduled to visit the United States this year, the first such trip by the nation’s ruling party chief.

The warming relationship has helped Leahy further his cause. Leahy met with much resistance in the early 2000s when Washington was clearly reluctant to take responsibility for the destruction wrought by its forces during the war in which an estimated two million Vietnamese and some 55,000 U.S. troops were killed.

Vietnam, on the other hand, put the issue on the backburner as it focused on gaining preferential trade status (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) for exports to the huge U.S. market.

While Washington and Hanoi established full diplomatic relations in 1995, it wasn’t until 2002 that the two governments held a joint conference on the impact of Agent Orange and other herbicides on Vietnam and its people.

In Dec. 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law the Fiscal Year 2015 Appropriations Act that specifically makes available funds for the remediation of dioxin contaminated areas in Vietnam.

Much of those funds have been earmarked for a clean-up project at the former giant U.S. military base at Da Nang, which is 824 km from the capital, Hanoi. The project is expected to be completed in 2016.

The U.S. military sprayed Agent Orange and other herbicides over many parts of rural Vietnam, destroying millions of hectares of forests in an attempt to deny the Viet Cong insurgents and their North Vietnamese allies cover and food.

Two-thirds of the herbicide contains dioxin. According to the National Institute for Environmental Health Science, dioxin is a compound found to cause cancer and diabetes, as well as a host of other diseases.

A scientific report in 1969 also concluded that the herbicide can cause birth defects in laboratory animals, thus leading U.S. forces to halt the use of Agent Orange in 1970.

A 1994 Institute of Medicine study records that there was a growing number of Vietnam veterans who have fathered handicapped children. Many still dispute the link between Agent Orange and birth defects—Vietnam veterans in the United States still cannot claim benefits for birth defects in their children.

While welcoming Washington’s new aid programme, some activists who have long called for the U.S. to help Vietnam address the problems left behind by Agent Orange insist that U.S. should both do more and provide more direct assistance to Vietnamese groups on the ground who believe that the United States’ funds could be better distributed.

Susan Hammond, executive director of the War Legacies Project, said she hopes to see more of the money go to rural Vietnam.

“U.S. funding, at this point, is pretty much limited to the Da Nang area,” Hammond said. “In rural areas, families are pretty much left on their own.”

Tim Rieser, Leahy’s chief staffer with the Senate subcommittee that deals with foreign aid, recalled that it was initially very difficult to obtain any funding from the government.

“The State Department and Pentagon were very resistant to the idea of any kind of action by the U.S. that might be interpreted as reparations or compensation,” he said.

“It took over a year to reach an agreement with them that what we were talking about was not either of those things, but it was of trying to work with the Vietnamese government to address the problems that we obviously have responsibility for.”

Rieser said he is currently urging the Pentagon to help fund the cleanup of the Bien Hoa airbase, 1,702 km from the capital. He said the area could well contain even higher levels of dioxin than Da Nang. And he urged Obama to include additional money in his proposed 2016 budget.

“Ideally, if the president would include money in the budget, it would make our lives much easier,” he said. “But at the very least when there are opportunities – like when the president goes to Vietnam or the general secretary comes here – to reaffirm the commitment of both countries to continue working on this issue. [That] is almost as important as providing the funds.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Afghanistan: No Place for Childrenhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/afghanistan-no-place-for-children/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=afghanistan-no-place-for-children http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/afghanistan-no-place-for-children/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 03:56:46 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141344 Aid from the UK is supporting a network of orthopaedic centres across Afghanistan to assist those affected by mobility disabilities, including hundreds of mine victims. Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development/CC-BY-2.0

Aid from the UK is supporting a network of orthopaedic centres across Afghanistan to assist those affected by mobility disabilities, including hundreds of mine victims. Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 29 2015 (IPS)

No one will deny that when a child – any child – is killed, it is a tragedy. Imagine, then, the extent of the tragedy in Afghanistan where, in just four years, 2,302 children have lost their lives as a result of ongoing fighting in this country of 30 million people.

According to his latest report on children and armed conflict in Afghanistan, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon states that more kids were killed or maimed in 2014 than in any previous year under review.

During the reporting period from Sep. 1, 2010, to Dec. 31, 2014, an additional 5,047 young people were badly injured, leaving many crippled for life.

Ground engagements were reportedly the number one cause of child casualties, leaving 331 children dead and 920 injured in 2014; these figures represent a doubling of the number from the previous year.

Armed groups’ use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in populated areas resulted in 664 casualties, while suicide attacks took the lives of 214 children – an increase in 80 percent compared to 2013.

The report also stated that “explosive remnants of war killed or maimed 328 children”, while international military airstrikes left 38 kids either dead or injured – including eight from drone strikes alone.

The biggest culprits appear to have been the Taliban and the Hizb-e-Islami, followed closely by the Afghan National Securities Forces, who were responsible for 126 killings and 270 injuries.

Five kids were killed and 52 injured in cross-border shelling from Pakistan. The U.N. was unable to verify the cause of death in 163 cases, and chalks up a further 505 injuries to “crossfire”, without being able to attribute responsibility to any particular group.

“These tragically high casualty numbers show that children are bearing the brunt of the conflict, and unfortunately this trend continues with the deterioration of the security environment into 2015,” Leila Zerrougui, the Secretary-General’s special representative for children and armed conflict said in a press release last week.

Various actors, primarily the Taliban and similar armed groups, forcibly recruited an estimated 68 children into their ranks. In an even more troubling trend, kids continue to carry out suicide attacks for the Taliban and perform a range of dangerous or potentially life threatening tasks like planting IEDs or acting as spies.

Detention and torture of children is also a major cause of concern for rights activists, with the ministry of justice reporting 258 boys held in juvenile detention centres on charges relating to national security, including “association with armed groups”.

Between February 2013 and December 2014, the U.N. interviewed 105 child detainees, 44 of who claimed they had experienced ill-treatment or torture.

Another aspect of the conflict that directly impacts children here is the systematic and sustained attack on schools throughout the country.

U.N. researchers verified 163 incidents, including the placement of explosive devices within school premises, attacks on schools used as polling stations, threats against protected personnel or teachers, and the targeting of girls’ education by way of intimidation, propaganda, or physical attacks.

The U.N. believes that 469 Afghan schools are closed as a result of the shaky security situation, with an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 Taliban fighters reportedly active in most provinces around the country.

Children are also at risk of sexual assault – in the review period, eight boys and six girls were victims of sexual violence, with four of the verified cases traced back to the national police and one to a “pro-government militia commander.”

Furthermore, “Twenty-four boys and two girls were abducted in 17 separate incidents, resulting in the killing of at least four boys by the Taliban, the rape of two girls by the local police, and the rape of a boy by a pro-Government militia,” according to the U.N.

As a new government attempts to gain control over the situation, U.N. experts are hopeful that the deadly tide can be reversed.

“I look forward to working with the Government of Afghanistan even more intensively in the months ahead as we move towards fully implementing the country’s Action Plan for ending recruitment and use of children,” Zerrougui said at the report’s launch this past Thursday.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: The ACP at 40 – Repositioning as a Global Playerhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/opinion-the-acp-at-40-repositioning-as-a-global-player/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-the-acp-at-40-repositioning-as-a-global-player http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/opinion-the-acp-at-40-repositioning-as-a-global-player/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 16:25:36 +0000 Patrick I. Gomes http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141340 ACP Secretary-General Patrick I. Gomes, who sees the group’s role as “a global player defending, protecting and promoting an inclusive struggle against poverty and for sustainable development in a world enmeshed in inequality”. Photo credit: ACP Press

ACP Secretary-General Patrick I. Gomes, who sees the group’s role as “a global player defending, protecting and promoting an inclusive struggle against poverty and for sustainable development in a world enmeshed in inequality”. Photo credit: ACP Press

By Patrick I. Gomes
BRUSSELS, Jun 28 2015 (IPS)

In his memoirs, Glimpses of a Global Life, Sir Shridath Ramphal, then-Foreign Minister of the Republic of Guyana, who played a leading role in the evolution of the Lomé negotiations that lead to the birth of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States, pointed to the significant lessons of that engagement of developed and developing countries some 40 years ago and had this to say:

“As regards the Lomé negotiations, the process of unification – for such it was – added a new dimension to the Third World’s quest for economic justice through international action. Its significance, however, derives not merely from the terms of the negotiated relationship between the 46 ACP states and the EEC, but from the methodology of unified bargaining which the negotiations pioneered.

Never before had so large a segment of the developing world negotiated with so powerful a grouping of developed countries so comprehensive and so innovative a regime of economic relations. It was a new, and salutary, experience for Europe; it was a new, and reassuring, experience for the ACP States.

“Forty years later, that lesson remains retains its validity. Unity of purpose and action remains the touchstone of ACP’s meaning and success.”

With a conscious appreciation of that founding unity of purpose and action, the ACP Group convened a high-level symposium at its headquarters in Brussels on Jun. 6. The event marked the milestone of four decades of trade and economic cooperation, vigorous and contentious political engagements and a range of development finance programmes – all aimed at the eradication of poverty from the lives of the millions of people in its 79 member states.“The ACP will craft its future path to continue the struggle against power, inequality and injustice, the core purpose for which it was established in 1975”

In 1975, it was 46 developing countries that met in the capital city of Guyana, to sign the Georgetown Agreement and give birth to the ACP Group. They had recently embarked on their post-colonial path of independence following successful negotiations of non-reciprocal trade arrangements with the then nine-member European Economic Community (EEC) in February.

Known as the Lomé Agreement, after the capital of Togo where it was signed, this legally-binding, international agreement had a life-span of 25 years to 2000. Essentially, it comprised three pillars of trade and economic cooperation, development assistance – mainly through grants from the European Development Fund (EDF) – and political dialogue on issues such as human rights and democratic governance.

During that period, the preferential trade and aid pact undoubtedly gave an impetus to various aspects of economic and social development in the ACP Group. Substantial revenue was received from preferential access to the European market for exports of clothing, banana, sugar, cocoa, beef, fruit and vegetables, for example, and with the accompanying aid programmes.

The benefits were seen in the economies of Mauritius, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Namibia, Guyana and Fiji, to name a few. Member states of the ACP Group, less-developed countries (LDCs), landlocked states and small island developing states (SIDS), had access to returns from trade for improved social services and in this sense, the first decades of Lomé were certainly gains for development in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific.

But these gains entrenched an aid-dependency of commodity export economies with minimal structural transformation through value-added manufacturing and related service sectors in ACP countries.

The fierce trade-liberalising world of the late 1990s, rising indebtedness due to enormous increase in the cost of energy and pressure from the challenge of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to the European Union’s discriminatory practice of preferential trade and aid to this exclusive set of developing countries meant that post-Lomé ACP-EU trade relations had to be WTO-compatible.

Finding compatibility for “substantially all trade” between the economies of the ACP’s 79 members – grouped in six regions of Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific – and Europe, and ensuring that development criteria take precedence over tariff reductions and WTO rules have proven contentious in this long-standing partnership.

With this overhang of tensions in its troubled access to its principal market, the ACP faces the conclusion of the 20-year Agreement signed in Cotonou, the Republic of Benin, in 2020.

A soul-searching and vigorous process to be repositioned as a global player defending, protecting and promoting an inclusive struggle against poverty and for sustainable development in a world enmeshed in inequality is the singular task on which the ACP now concentrates.

Such a task has entailed a series of actions that are informed by the report of the Ambassadorial Working Group on Future Perspectives for the ACP Group of States that was approved by the Council of Ministers in December 2014.

The main thrust of the transformation and repositioning of the ACP is captured in the strategic policy domains identified in the report.

These are in five thematic areas that address:

a) Rule of Law & Good Governance;

b) Global Justice & Human Security;

c) Building Sustainable, Resilient & Creative Economies; and

d) Intra-ACP Trade, Industrialisation and Regional Integration;

e) Financing for Development.

In each of these, and in ways that are mutually reinforcing, very specific programmed activities of an annual action plan are being prepared and will be executed.

For example, the annual plan will address the thematic area of “sustainable, resilient and creative economies” through the mechanism of an ACP Forum on SIDS with financial resources, mainly from the intra-ACP allocation of the EDF and the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), one of the partner agencies of the UN system with which the ACP Group works very closely.

Conceptualised so as to address systemic and structural factors affecting sustainable development, the ACP emphasises South-South and triangular cooperation as a major modality for implementation of its role as catalyst and advocate.

The current stage of rethinking and refocusing provides an opportunity for 40 years of development through trade by which the ACP Group and the European Union could recast the world’s most unique and enduring North-South treaty of developed and developing countries to effectively participate in a global partnership where no one is left behind.

The ACP has social and organisational capital accumulated from a rich experience on trade negotiations with the world’s largest bloc of Europe and its 500 million inhabitants.

Undoubtedly marked by contentious issues on trade provisions to satisfy the WTO’s non-discriminatory behaviour among its member States, ACP-EU relations reveal the persistent battle of poor versus rich with a view to finding common ground on issues of mutual interest.

The 40th anniversary celebration by the ACP Group at a High-Level Inter-regional Symposium on Jun. 4 and 5 witnessed reflections on achievements and failures, as well as limitations in the performance of the ACP Group, in itself as a group and among its member states, as well as in its partnership with the European Union and the wider global arena.

The theme of the symposium covered the initial Georgetown Agreement and the ambitious objectives that were set in 1975. The high point was the keynote address by H.E. Sam Kutesa, President of the UN General Assembly.

Interestingly, discussions revealed how relevant and timely they remain and of special note was the “promotion of a fairer and more equitable new world order”.

This retrospective conversation has been recognised as fundamental for how, and in what direction, the ACP will craft its future path to continue the struggle against power, inequality and injustice, the core purpose for which it was established in 1975.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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

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High Hopes in Iran as Nuclear Talks Head Into Final Roundhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/high-hopes-in-iran-as-nuclear-talks-head-into-final-round/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=high-hopes-in-iran-as-nuclear-talks-head-into-final-round http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/high-hopes-in-iran-as-nuclear-talks-head-into-final-round/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 21:07:03 +0000 Jasmin Ramsey http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141334 Iran's lead negotiator and foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was greeted by a cheering crowd back home in Tehran after a framework for a final nuclear deal was reached Apr. 2 in Lausanne, Geneva. Credit: ISNA/Borna Ghasemi

Iran's lead negotiator and foreign minister, Javad Zarif, was greeted by a cheering crowd back home in Tehran after a framework for a final nuclear deal was reached Apr. 2 in Lausanne, Geneva. Credit: ISNA/Borna Ghasemi

By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON, Jun 26 2015 (IPS)

A final deal on Iran’s nuclear programme wouldn’t only make non-proliferation history. It would also be the beginning of a better life for the Iranian people—or at least that’s what they’re hoping.

Iranians, who are keeping a close eye on the talks, which resumed Saturday in Vienna amidst the looming June 30 deadline, believe that significant economic improvements would result from a final accord in the near term, according to a major new poll and study released here last week.“It may take a while, but the aligning of Rouhani's promises with the people’s expectations regarding the resolution of the nuclear issue will give him more tools to pursue his other agenda items regarding cultural and political opening and economic liberalisation.” -- Farideh Farhi

Majorities of the Iranian public say they expect to see better access to foreign medicines and medical equipment, significantly more foreign investment, and tangible improvements in living standards within a year of the deal being signed, according to the University of Tehran’s Center for Public Opinion Research and Iran Poll, an independent, Toronto-based polling group working with the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland (CISSM).

Asked how long they believed it would take for changes resulting from a deal to materialise, 61 percent of respondents said they would see Iranians gaining greater access to foreign-made medicines and medical equipment in a year or less while a similar number—62 percent—thought they would see “a lot more foreign companies making investments in Iran” in a year or less.

A slightly lesser 55 percent thought they would see “a tangible improvement in people’s standard of living” within a year.

The poll—based on telephone interviews with over 1,000 respondents between May 12 and May 28—found strong support for a nuclear deal, but that support appears to be contingent on the belief that the U.S. would lift all sanctions as part of the deal, not just those related to Iran’s nuclear activities, and that economic relief would come relatively quickly.

The timeframe for and extent of sanctions removal remains, however, a major obstacle in the negotiations, the exact details of which are being kept private while talks are in progress.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who holds the final say on all matters related to the state—reportedly demanded in a major speech Tuesday that all U.S. sanctions be lifted as of the signing of a deal, a demand that could further complicate the negotiations.

“While there is majority support for continuing to pursue a deal,” said Ebrahim Mohseni, a senior analyst at the University of Tehran’s Center and a CISSM research associate, “it is sustained in part by expectations that besides the U.N. and the E.U., the U.S. would also relinquish all its sanctions, that the positive effects of the deal would be felt in tangible ways fairly quickly, and that Iran would continue to develop its civilian nuclear programme.”

He added that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani might have “difficulty selling a deal that would significantly deviate from these expectations.”

Tempered expectations

A 34-page study conducted by the New-York based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) also found that civil society, which continues to support the negotiations even while criticising the government’s domestic policies, is hopeful for an agreement that will end years of sanctions and isolation.

Of the 28 prominent civil society members interviewed by ICHRI between May 13-June 2, 71 percent of respondents expect economic benefits from an accord, citing increased investment and oil revenues, and gains to employment, manufacturing, and growth.

However, one-fifth of those expecting economic gains believe these benefits could be lost to ordinary Iranians due to governmental mismanagement.

In fact, a significant number of the civil society leaders were skeptical of the Rouhani government’s ability to deliver tangible results from a final deal to the general public.

Thirty-six percent of the interviewees expected no improvement in political or cultural freedoms, citing either Rouhani’s lack of authority or lack of willingness, while 25 percent of all respondents said they expected economic benefits to reach only the wealthy and politically influential.

“Mr. Rouhani is not in control,” Mohammad Nourizad, a filmmaker and political activist told ICHRI. “Whatever he wants to implement, he would first have to seek permission from the Supreme Leader’s office.”

“The expectations we have of Mr.Rouhani do not match his capabilities,” he added.

However, 61 percent of the respondents still believe a deal would grant the Rouhani administration the political leverage required to implement political and cultural reforms.

“It may take a while, but the aligning of Rouhani’s promises with the people’s expectations regarding the resolution of the nuclear issue will give him more tools to pursue his other agenda items regarding cultural and political opening and economic liberalisation,” Farideh Farhi, an independent scholar at the University of Hawaii, told IPS.

“He will still face still resistance and competition but there is no doubt he’ll be strengthened,” she said.

While the ICHRI’s civil society respondents expressed a greater degree of scepticism and nuance than the general population surveyed by the CISSM, a substantial majority in both polls argued that sanctions were significantly hurting ordinary Iranians, an effect that would only increase if no deal is reached.

“[Failed negotiations] would cause terrible damage to the people and to social, cultural, political, and economic activities,” Fakhrossadat Mohtashamipour, a civil activist and wife of a political prisoner, told ICHRI.

“The highest cost imposed by the sanctions is paid by the people, particularly the low-income and vulnerable groups.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Donors Pledge Over 4.4 Billion Dollars to Nepal – But With a Caveathttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/donors-pledge-over-4-4-billion-dollars-to-nepal-but-with-a-caveat/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=donors-pledge-over-4-4-billion-dollars-to-nepal-but-with-a-caveat http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/donors-pledge-over-4-4-billion-dollars-to-nepal-but-with-a-caveat/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 20:24:40 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141332 Nepalese people carry UK aid shelter kits back to the remains of their homes, 10 days after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country on 25 April 2015. Credit: Russell Watkins/DFID

Nepalese people carry UK aid shelter kits back to the remains of their homes, 10 days after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country on 25 April 2015. Credit: Russell Watkins/DFID

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 26 2015 (IPS)

Blessed with more than 4.4 billion dollars in pledges at an international donor conference in Kathmandu on Thursday, the government of Nepal is expected to launch a massive reconstruction project to rebuild the earthquake-devastated South Asian nation.

But the pledges came with a caveat.“It is critical that the international community and Nepal learn from the mistakes of past emergencies, where up to half of pledges are never delivered on." -- Caroline Baudot of Oxfam

“While donors were generous, many of them strongly emphasised the need for Nepal to strengthen efficiency, transparency and accountability in handling international assistance,” Kul Chandra Gautam, a former deputy executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, told IPS..

“They also emphasised the need for political stability, early local elections and speedy completion of the long pending Constitution drafting process,” said Gautam, a native of Nepal and a former U.N. assistant secretary-general, who is based in Kathmandu.

A jubilant finance minister, Ram Sharan Mahat, told reporters the donors’ meeting, titled the International Conference on Nepal’s Reconstruction, was “a grand success”.

“The total pledge made today was 4.4 billion, which was more than expected… 2.2 billion in loans and 2.2 billion in grants,” he said.

India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj pledged 1.0 billion dollars while China promised 3.0 billion yuan (483 million dollars) in assistance.

Additional pledges included 600 million from the Asian Development Bank, 260 million from Japan, 130 million from the U.S., 100 million from the European Union and 58 million from Britain, supplementing an earlier offer of up to 500 million dollars from the World Bank.

Nepal had a projected goal of 6.7 billion dollars for the next phase of rehabilitation and reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure and services.

This was a rather conservative or realistic needs assessment, considering that the estimated loss and damage from the earthquake was over 7.0 billion dollars, and it usually costs more to “build back better” than just the replacement cost of the destroyed and damaged infrastructure, Gautam said.

It was understood, he pointed out, about one-third of the estimated needs would be met from national resources and two-thirds would come from donors.

Donors really opened their hearts for the suffering people of Nepal, he said.

“We were delighted that even small poor countries like neighbouring Bhutan and faraway Haiti were forthcoming with generous pledges of 1.0 million dollars each,” said Gautam.

The United Nations estimated that about eight million people – almost one-third of the population of Nepal – were affected by the earthquake in April, described as “the largest disaster the country has faced in almost a century.”

More than 8,600 people were reported to have died, and according to U.N. figures, more than 20,000 schools were completely or significantly damaged and about a million children and 126,000 pregnant women are estimated to have been affected.

Caroline Baudot, Oxfam’s Humanitarian Policy Adviser, told IPS the proposed investment provides Nepal with a golden opportunity to get people back on their feet and better prepared for the future.

“Now that pledges have been made, Oxfam is calling for communities to be consulted when the reconstruction plan is developed and implemented, continued attention to livelihoods and access to services, and that future disaster risks are reduced through reconstruction.”

She said donors and the Government of Nepal must now ensure there is a long-term plan which listens to communities – putting people at the center of the reconstruction process, which builds improved basic services like hospitals and ensures new buildings are safe and earthquake resilient.

“It is critical that the international community and Nepal learn from the mistakes of past emergencies, where up to half of pledges are never delivered on. Donors must make good on their promises and ensure the finance they have committed reaches those who need it,” said Baudot.

In a message to the conference, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Nepal has stood strong during this crisis.

“I commend the exceptional efforts of the country’s government and people – in particular the youth who have found new and innovative ways to help their country.”

He also said that the United Nations “stands ready to support the government and people of Nepal in this endeavor. I am confident that Nepal, with its resilient people will be able to recover from this devastating disaster.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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Ghosts Of War Give Way to Development in Sri Lankahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 19:13:18 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141323 http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/ghosts-of-war-give-way-to-development-in-sri-lanka/feed/ 19 Billions Pledged for Nepal Reconstruction – But Still No Debt Reliefhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/billions-pledged-for-nepal-reconstruction-but-still-no-debt-relief/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=billions-pledged-for-nepal-reconstruction-but-still-no-debt-relief http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/billions-pledged-for-nepal-reconstruction-but-still-no-debt-relief/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 03:08:06 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141317 By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 26 2015 (IPS)

A major donor conference in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, came to a close on Jun. 25 with foreign governments and aid agencies pledging three billion dollars in post-reconstruction funds to the struggling South Asian nation.

An estimated 8,600 people perished in the massive quake on Apr. 25 this year, and some 500,000 homes were destroyed, leaving one of the world’s least developed countries (LDCs) to launch a wobbly emergency relief effort in the face of massive displacement and suffering.

Two months after the disaster, scores of people are still in need of humanitarian aid, shelter and medical supplies.

Speaking at the conference Thursday, Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala assured donors that their funds would be used in an effective and transparent manner.

Rights groups have urged the government to focus on long-term rebuilding efforts rather than sinking all available monies into emergency relief.

In a statement released ahead of the conference, Bimal Gadal, humanitarian programme manager for Oxfam in Nepal, warned of the impacts of unplanned reconstruction and stated, “The Nepalese people know their needs better than anyone and their voices must be heard when donors meet in Kathmandu. They have been through an ordeal, and now it is time to start rebuilding lives.”

“This conference is a golden opportunity to get people back on their feet and better prepared for the future,” he said.

“This can only happen if the government of Nepal is supported to create new jobs, build improved basic services like hospitals and clinics, and to ensure all new buildings are earthquake-resilient.”

Despite a huge thrust from civil society organisations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has announced that the country does not qualify for debt relief under its Catastrophe Containment and Relief (CCR) Trust, which recently awarded 100 million dollars in debt relief to Ebola-affected countries in West Africa.

The Jubilee USA Network, an alliance of over 75 U.S.-based organisations and 400 faith communities worldwide, has been pushing for major development banks, including the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to ease debt payments from Nepal, one of the world’s 38 low-income countries eligible for relief from the IMF’s new fund.

According to Jubliee USA, “Nepal owes 3.8 billion dollars in debt to foreign lenders, including 54 million dollars to the IMF and approximately three billion dollars to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

“According to the most recent World Bank numbers,” said Jubilee USA in a statement, “Nepal paid 217 million dollars in debt in 2013, approximately 600,000 dollars in average daily debt payments, or more than 35 million dollars since the earthquake.”

Considering that the earthquake and its aftershocks caused damages amounting to about 10 billion dollars – about one-third of the country’s total economy – experts have expressed dismay that the country’s creditors have not agreed on a debt-relief settlement.

“This is troubling news,” said Eric LeCompte, a United Nations debt expert and executive director of Jubilee USA Network. “Given the devastation in Nepal, it’s hard to believe that the criteria was not met.”

“This fund was created for situations just like this and debt relief in Nepal could make a significant difference,” said LeCompte.‎ “Beyond the IMF, the World Bank and Asian Development Bank who hold about three billion dollars of Nepal’s debt have unfortunately not announced any debt relief plans yet.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Heat Wave Picking Off Pakistan’s Urban Poorhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/heat-wave-picking-off-pakistans-urban-poor/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=heat-wave-picking-off-pakistans-urban-poor http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/heat-wave-picking-off-pakistans-urban-poor/#comments Thu, 25 Jun 2015 16:23:52 +0000 Zofeen Ebrahim http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141304 Children from informal settlements in Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi, are often sent out with large containers to fetch water from taps outside private homes, set up by wealthier residents as an act of charity. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

Children from informal settlements in Pakistan’s most populous city, Karachi, are often sent out with large containers to fetch water from taps outside private homes, set up by wealthier residents as an act of charity. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

By Zofeen Ebrahim
KARACHI, Jun 25 2015 (IPS)

Over 950 people have perished in just five days. The morgues, already filled to capacity, are piling up with bodies, and in over-crowded hospitals the threat of further deaths hangs in the air.

Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, home to over 23 million people, is gasping in the grip of a dreadful heat wave, the worst the country has experienced since the 1950s, according to the Meteorology Department.

“In all my 25 years of service, I’ve never seen so many dead bodies arriving in such a short time." -- Mohammad Bilal, head of the Edhi Foundation’s morgue
Temperatures rose to 44.8 degrees Celsius on Saturday, Jun. 20, dropped slightly the following day and then shot back up to 45 degrees on Tuesday, Jun. 23 putting millions in this mega-city at risk of heat stroke.

Though the entire southern Sindh Province is affected – recording 1,100 deaths in total – its capital city, Karachi, has been worst hit – particularly due to the ‘urban heat island’ phenomenon, which climatologists say make 45-degree temperatures feel like 50-degree heat.

In this scenario, heat becomes trapped, turning the city into a kind of slow-cooking oven.

Every single resident is feeling the heat, but the majority of those who have succumbed to it come from Karachi’s army of poor, twice cursed by a lack of access to electricity and condemned to live in crowded, informal settlements that offer little respite from the scorching sun.

Already crushed by dismal health indicators, the poor have scant means of avoiding sun exposure, which intensifies their vulnerability.

Anwar Kazmi, spokesperson for the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s biggest charity, tells IPS that 50 percent of the dead were picked up from the streets, and likely included beggars, drug users and daily wage labourers with no choice but to defy government advisories to stay indoors until the blaze has passed.

Two days into the crisis, with every free space occupied and corpses arriving by the hundreds, the city’s largest morgue, run by the same charity, began burying bodies that had not been claimed.

“In all my 25 years of service, I’ve never seen so many dead bodies arriving in such a short time,” Mohammad Bilal, who heads the Edhi Foundation’s mortuary, tells IPS.

The government has come under fire for neglecting to sound the alarm in advance. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah issued belated warnings by ordering the closure of schools and government offices.

Hospitals, meanwhile, are groaning under the strain of attempting to treat some 40,000 people across the province suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Saeed Quraishy, medical superintendent at Karachi’s largest government-run Civil Hospital, says they have stopped all elective admissions in order to focus solely on emergencies cases.

Experts say this highlights, yet again, the country’s utter lack of preparedness for climate-related tragedies.

And as always – as with droughts, floods or any other extreme weather events – the poor are the first to die off in droves.

Energy and poverty

The crisis is shedding light on several converging issues with which Pakistan has been grappling: energy shortages, the disproportionate impact of climate change on the poor and the fallout from rapid urbanisation. In Karachi, the country’s most populous metropolis, these problems are magnified manifold.

Though a census has not been carried out since 1998, NGOs say there are hundreds of millions who live and work on the streets, including beggars, hawkers and manual labourers.

More than 62 percent of the population here lives in informal settlements, with a density of nearly 6,000 people per square kilometre.

Many of them have no access to basic services like water and electricity, both crucial during times of extreme weather. The ‘kunda’ system, in which power is illegally tapped from the electrical mains, is a popular way around the ‘energy apartheid’.

Just this month, the city’s power utility company pulled down 1,500 such illicit ‘connections’.

But even the 46 percent of households across the country that are connected to the national electric grid are not guaranteed an uninterrupted supply. With Pakistan facing a daily energy shortage of close to 4,000 mega watts, power outages of up to 20 hours a day are not unusual.

At such moments, wealthier families can fall back on generators. But for the estimated 91 million people in the country who live on less than two dollars a day, there is no ‘Plan B’ – there is only a battle for survival, which too many in the last week have fought and lost.

For the bottom half of Pakistani society, official notifications on how to beat the heat are simply in one ear and out the other.

Taking lukewarm showers, using rehydration salts or staying indoors are not options for families eking out a living on 1.25 dollars or those who live in informal settlements where hundreds of households must share a single tap.

The government has advised residents of Pakistan’s port city of Karachi to stay indoors until a deadly heat wave passes, but for daily wage labourers this is not an option: no money means no food. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

The government has advised residents of Pakistan’s port city of Karachi to stay indoors until a deadly heat wave passes, but for daily wage labourers this is not an option: no money means no food. Credit: Zofeen T. Ebrahim/IPS

Lashing out at the government’s indifference and belated response to the crisis, Dr. Tasneem Ahsan, former executive director of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC), tells IPS that preventive action could have saved countless lives.

“The government should have taken up large spaces like marriage halls and schools and turned them into shelters, supplying electricity and water for people to come and cool down there.”

She also says officials could have parked water bowsers in poorer localities for people to douse themselves, advised the population on appropriate clothing and distributed leaflets on simple ways to keep cool.

The media, too, are at fault, she contends, for reporting the death count like sports scores instead of spreading the word on cost-effective, life-saving tips “like putting a wet towel on the head”.

Government inaction

Intermittent protests against power outages, aimed largely at the city’s main power company, K-Electric, served as a prelude to the present tragedy.

Though the country has an installed electricity capacity of 22,797 MW, production stands at a dismal 16,000 MW. In recent years, electricity demand has risen to 19,000 MW, meaning scores of people are either sharing a single power line or going without energy.

Meanwhile, civil society has been stepping in to fill the void left by the government, with far better results than some official attempts to provide emergency relief.

With most hospitals paralyzed by the number of patients, volunteers like Dr. Tasneem Butt, working the JPMC, have taken matters into their own hands. Using social media as a platform, she has circulated a list of necessary items including 100-200 bed sheets, 500 towels, bottled water, 15-20 slabs of ice and – perhaps most importantly – more volunteers.

“I got them immediately,” she tells IPS. “Now I’ve asked people to hold on to their pledges while I arrange for chillers and air-conditioners.

“The emergency ward is suffocating,” she adds. “It’s not just the patients who need to be kept cool, even the overworked doctors need this basic environment to be able to work optimally.”

Last week, the government of the Sindh Province cancelled leave for medical personnel and brought in additional staff to cope with the deluge of patients, which is expected to increase as devout observers of the Holy Ramadan fast succumb to fatigue and hunger.

The monsoon rains are still some days away, and until they arrive there is no telling how many more people will be moved from the streets into graves.

Interestingly, while other parts of the province have recorded higher temperatures, the deaths have occurred largely in Karachi due to urban congestion and overcrowding, experts say, with the majority of deaths reported in poor localities like Lyari, Malir and Korangi.

The end may be in sight for now, but as climate change becomes more extreme, incidents like these are only going to increase in magnitude and frequency, according to climatologists like Dr. Qamar-Uz-Zaman Chaudhry

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Critics of World Bank-Funded Projects in the Line of Firehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/critics-of-world-bank-funded-projects-in-the-line-of-fire/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=critics-of-world-bank-funded-projects-in-the-line-of-fire http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/critics-of-world-bank-funded-projects-in-the-line-of-fire/#comments Mon, 22 Jun 2015 23:16:41 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141252 The World Bank has increased financial support for the cotton sector in Uzbekistan, despite evidence that the industry is rooted in a system of forced labour. Credit: David Stanley/CC-BY-2.0

The World Bank has increased financial support for the cotton sector in Uzbekistan, despite evidence that the industry is rooted in a system of forced labour. Credit: David Stanley/CC-BY-2.0

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 22 2015 (IPS)

For an entire month beginning in February 2015, a group of between 40 and 50 residents of the Durgapur Village in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand would gather at the site of a hydroelectric power project being carried out by the state-owned Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC).

All day long the protestors, mostly women and their children, would sit in defiance of the initiative that they believed was an environmental and social danger to their community, singing folk songs that spoke of their fears and hopes.

“I had expected a very constructive conversation with the World Bank. Instead all I am hearing are non-responses." -- Jessica Evans, senior advocate on international financial institutions at Human Rights Watch
Their actions were well within the bounds of the law, but the reactions of THDC employees to their peaceful demonstration were troubling in the extreme.

According to one of the women involved, THDC contractors and labourers routinely harassed them by hurling abusive slurs – going so far as to call the women ‘prostitutes’ and make derogatory comments about their caste – and attempted to intimidate them by threatening “severe” consequences if they didn’t call off their picket.

In a country where activists and communities demanding their rights are routinely subjected to identical or worse treatment at the hands of both state and private actors, this tale may not seem at all out of the ordinary.

What sets it apart, however, is that this hydroelectric project was not simply a government-led scheme; it is financed by a 648-million-dollar loan from the World Bank.

Governed by a set of “do no harm” policies, both the Bank and its private sector lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) have – on paper at least – pledged to consult with and protect local communities impacted by its funding.

But according to a new report by Human Rights Watch, the Bank has not only systematically turned a blind eye to reports of human rights abuses associated with its projects, it also lacks necessary safeguards required to avoid further violations in the future.

When silence and negligence equals complicity

Based on research carried out over a two-year period between May 2013 and May 2015, in Cambodia, India, Uganda and Kyrgyzstan – the latter following allegations of rights abuses in Uzbekistan – the report entitled ‘At Your Own Risk: Reprisals Against Critics of World Bank Group Projects’ found that Bank officials consistently fail to respond in any meaningful way to allegations of severe reprisals against those who speak out against Bank-funded projects.

In some cases, the World Bank Group has even turned its back on local community members working with its own officials.

Addressing the press on a conference call on Jun. 22, the report’s author, Jessica Evans, highlighted an incident in which an interpreter for the Bank’s Inspection Panel was flung into prison just weeks after the oversight body concluded its review process.

Withholding all identifying details of the case for the security of the victim, Evans stated that, besides questioning government officials “behind closed doors”, the Bank has so far remained completely silent on the fate of an independent activist working to strengthen the Bank’s own process.

Such actions, or lack thereof, “make a mockery out of [the Bank’s] own stated commitments to participation and accountability,” the report concluded.

HRW has identified dozens of cases in which activists claim to have been targeted – harassed, abused, threatened or intimidated – for voicing their objections to aspects of Bank or IFC-funded initiatives for a range of social, environmental or economic reasons.

Because the bulk of communities in close proximity to major development schemes tend to be among the poorest or most vulnerable, and therefore lack the access or ability to formally lodge their complaints, the true number of people who have experienced such reprisals is “sure” to be much higher than the figures stated in the report, researchers revealed.

Evans told IPS, “On this issue of reprisals the World Bank’s silence and inaction has already crossed the line” into the realm of compliance.

She added that the Inspection Panel raised the issue of retaliation back in 2009, giving the Bank ample time to take necessary steps to address a chronic and pervasive problem.

Instead, it continues to engage with governments that have a poor human rights track record, while remaining apparently deaf to pressures and demands from civil society to strengthen mechanisms that will protect powerless and marginalized communities from violent backlash.

Take the case of Elena Urlaeva, who heads the Tashkent-based Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, and who was arrested in a cotton field on May 31, 2015, while documenting evidence of the Uzbek government’s massive system of forced labour in cotton production.

According to HRW, Urlaeva was detained, abused and sexually violated during an extremely violent cavity probe. On the grounds that they were searching for a data card from her camera, male doctors and policemen conducted such a rough and invasive search that the ordeal left her bleeding.

She was forbidden from using the bathroom and eventually forced to go outside the station in the presence of male officers who called her a “bitch”, filmed her in the act of relieving herself and threatened to post the video online if she complained about her treatment.

Evans told IPS all of this occurred against a backdrop of the World Bank’s increased financial support of the cotton sector – already it has pledged over 450 million dollars to three major agricultural projects of the Uzbek government – despite evidence that the industry is rooted in a system of forced labour.

In the absence of any robust mechanism within the World Bank to make continued funding conditional on compliance with international human rights standards, there is a “real risk” that independent monitors and rights activists will continue to face situations as horrific as the one Urlaeva recently endured, Evans stressed.

A ‘disappointing’ reaction

Both the World Bank and the United Nations have tossed the issue of development-related rights abuses from one forum to another.

In his May 2015 report to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC), Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston stressed the urgency of “putting questions of resources and redistribution back into the human rights equation.”

He decried several member states’ attempts to keep international economics, finance and trade “quarantined” from the human rights framework, and blasted international financial institutions (IFIs) for contributing to this culture of impunity.

“The World Bank can simply refuse to engage with human rights in the context of its policies and programmes, IMF does the same, and the World Trade Organisation is little different,” Alston remarked, adding that these bodies throw the issue at the HRC, while the latter simply knocks the ball back into the financiers’ court.

It is becoming akin to a game of political ping-pong, with the ball representing the human rights of some of the most impoverished people in the world – at whom multi-million-dollar development projects are ostensibly targeted.

Gretchen Gordon, coordinator of Bank on Human Rights, a global coalition of social movements and grassroots organisations working to hold IFIs accountable to human rights obligations, told IPS, “You can’t have successful development without robust civil society participation in setting development priorities, designing projects, and monitoring implementation.”

If development banks and their member states neglect to take leadership and implement the necessary protocols and policies, she said, “they will continue to see increasing development failures, human rights abuses, and conflict.”

If the World Bank Group’s initial reaction to HRW’s comprehensive research is anything to go by, however, Bank on Human Rights and other watchdogs of its ilk have their work cut out for them.

Though HRW’s researchers invited the Bank and the IFC’s input with an in-depth list of questions back in April, they have received nothing but a rather “bland response” that failed to address the issue of reprisals at all and simply stated that the Bank “is not a human rights tribunal.”

“I had expected a very constructive conversation with the World Bank,” Evans said. “Instead all I am hearing are non-responses. We have proposed really pragmatic recommendations for how the Bank can work effectively in challenging environments, but we are a long way from that at the moment.”

Both the Bank’s Inspection Panel and the IFC’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) have greeted the report with enthusiasm, but they are independent bodies and remain largely powerless to effect change at the management level of the World Bank Group.

This power lies with the Bank’s president, Jim Yong Kim, who will have to “take the lead and send a clear message to his staff that the question of reprisals is a priority issue,” Evans concluded.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Take Good News on Afghanistan’s Reconstruction With a ‘Grain of Salt’http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/take-good-news-on-afghanistans-reconstruction-with-a-grain-of-salt/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=take-good-news-on-afghanistans-reconstruction-with-a-grain-of-salt http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/take-good-news-on-afghanistans-reconstruction-with-a-grain-of-salt/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 23:09:29 +0000 Kanya DAlmeida http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141228 Students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

Students at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music. Credit: Shelly Kittleson/IPS

By Kanya D'Almeida
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

Since 2002, a year after it invaded Afghanistan, the United States has poured over 100 billion dollars into developing and rebuilding this country of just over 30 million people. This sum is in addition to the trillions spent on U.S. military operations, to say nothing of the deaths of 2,000 service personnel in the space of a single decade.

Today, as the U.S. struggles to salvage its legacy in Afghanistan, which critics say will mostly be remembered as a colossal and costly failure both in monetary terms and in the staggering loss of life, many are pointing to economic and social gains as the bright points in an otherwise bleak tapestry of occupation.

“Much of the official happy talk on [reconstruction] should be taken with a grain of salt – iodized, of course – to prevent informational goiter.” -- John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction
Among others, official groups like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) say that higher life expectancy outcomes, better healthcare facilities and improved education access represent the ‘positive’ side of U.S. intervention.

From this perspective, the estimated 26,000 civilian casualties as a direct result of U.S. military action must be viewed against the fact that people are now living longer, fewer mothers are dying while giving birth, and more children are going to school.

But the diligent work undertaken by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) suggests that “much of the official happy talk on [reconstruction] should be taken with a grain of salt – iodized, of course – to prevent informational goiter.”

Formed in 2008, SIGAR is endowed with the authority to “audit, inspect, investigate, and otherwise examine any and all aspects of reconstruction, regardless of departmental ownership.”

In a May 5 speech, John F. Sopko, the Special Inspector General, called the reconstruction effort a “huge and far-reaching undertaking” that has scarcely left any part of Afghan life untouched.

Poured into endless projects from propping up the local army and police, to digging wells and finding alternatives to poppy cultivation, funds allocated to rebuilding Afghanistan now “exceed the value of the entire Marshall Plan effort to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.”

“Unfortunately,” Sopko said, “from the outset to this very day large amounts of taxpayer dollars have been lost to waste, fraud, and abuse.

“These disasters often occur when the U.S. officials who implement and oversee programs fail to distinguish fact from fantasy,” he added.

‘Ghost schools, ghost students, ghost teacher’

In one of the most recent examples of this disturbing trend, two Afghan ministers cited local media reports to inform parliament about fraud in the education sector, alleging that former officials who served under President Hamid Karzai had falsified data on the number of active schools in Afghanistan in order to receive continued international funding.

“SIGAR takes such allegations very seriously, and given that they came from high-ranking individuals in the Afghan government, and also that USAID has invested approximately 769 million dollars in Afghanistan’s education sector, SIGAR opened an inquiry into this matter,” a SIGAR official told IPS.

Submitted on Jun. 18 to the Acting Administrator for USAID, the official inquiry raises a number of questions, including over widely cited statistics that official development assistance has led to a jump in the number of enrolled students from an estimated 900,000 in 2002 to more than eight million in 2013.

While USAID stands by these figures, sourced from the Afghan Ministry of Education’s Education Management Information System (EMIS), it is unable to independently verify them.

Faced with allegations of “ghost schools, ghost students, and ghost teachers”, SIGAR has requested an immediate response from USAID as to whether the agency is able to investigate allegations of fraud, and verify that it is receiving accurate data, in order to ensure that U.S. tax dollars are not being wasted, the SIGAR official explained.

This is no easy undertaking in a place where students are spread out over an estimated 14,226 schools primarily in rural areas, and where even the education ministry does not keep tabs on security threats, or the literacy of teachers, let alone the particulars of curricula.

Last year SIGAR reported that the education ministry continues to count students as ‘enrolled’ even if they have been absent from school for three years, suggesting that the actual number of kids in classrooms is far below the figure cited by the government, and subsequently utilised by U.S. aid agencies.

In his May 5 speech Sopko claimed that a top USAID official believed there to be roughly four million children in school – less than half the figure on which current funding commitments is based.

There is no question that continued funding is needed to bolster Afghanistan’s education system.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) office in Kabul, the country continues to boast one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, standing at approximately 31 percent of the population aged 15 years of age and older.

There are also massive geographic and gender-based gaps, with female literacy levels falling far below the national average, at just 17 percent, and varying hugely across regions, with a 34-percent literacy rate in Kabul compared to a rate of just 1.6 percent in two southern provinces.

These are all issues that must urgently be addressed but according to oversight bodies like SIGAR, they must be addressed within a system of efficiency, transparency and accuracy.

Furthermore, discrepancies between official statistics and reality are not limited to the education sector but manifest in almost all areas of the reconstruction process.

Take the issue of life expectancy, which USAID claimed last year had increased from 42 years in 2002 to over 60 years in 2014.

If accurate, this would represent a tremendous stride towards better overall living conditions for ordinary Afghans. But SIGAR has cited a number of different statistics, including data provided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook and the United Nations Population Division, which offer much lower numbers for the average life span – some as low as 50 years.

Although the original data comes directly from the USAID-funded Afghanistan Mortality Survey, conducted in 2010 by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, and would therefore appear to pass the reliability test, SIGAR is concerned that “USAID had not verified what, if anything, the ministry had done to address deficiencies in its internal audit, budget, accounting, and procurement functions.”

While SIGAR is not able to put a concrete number on losses resulting from poorly planned programmes, theft and corruption by both American and Afghan elements, and weak administration of monies placed directly in the hands of Afghan ministries, a SIGAR official told IPS it is hard to imagine that the overall cost to U.S. taxpayers “is not in the billions of dollars.”

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Opinion: Building Civil Service Excellence in the Post-2015 Development Agendahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/opinion-building-civil-service-excellence-in-the-post-2015-development-agenda/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-building-civil-service-excellence-in-the-post-2015-development-agenda http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/opinion-building-civil-service-excellence-in-the-post-2015-development-agenda/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 10:35:55 +0000 Kairat Abdrakhmanov http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141215

Ambassador Kairat Abdrakhmanov is Permanent Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United Nations.

By Kairat Abdrakhmanov
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

This September, we usher in the post-2015 development agenda with a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed upon by Member States, with civil society participation, based on national, regional and global consultations.

These goals are transformative and their impact goes far beyond the current Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in vision, complexity, outreach and implications.

kairat2

Kairat Abdrakhmanov, Permanent of Representative of the Republic of Kazakhstan to the United Nations. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Amongst them is Goal 16, according to which countries will “promote peaceful and inclusive societies with justice for all and build effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels”.

Building civil service excellence will therefore certainly be critical to achieving this goal. Likewise, the proposed Goal 17 on means of implementation calls for institutional capacity building in developing countries to support national plans to operationalise all the SDGs, including through North-South, South-South and Triangular cooperation.

Both of these gave birth to the idea of creating the Regional Hub of Civil Service in Astana, at the initiative of the Republic of Kazakhstan with a view to seek innovative mechanisms to ensure equitable, effective and efficient delivery of public service to its people.

But the intent was also for the wider region of Central Asia and CIS countries to gain from it through advancing “the knowledge base, evidence-informed solutions, practical tools and guidance, and pursuit of emerging and innovative public administration and management models and thinking”.

The idea of setting up this Hub arose from the struggles of a country in transition. Kazakhstan, since its Independence, just like other newly independent nations in the region witnessed profound political, socio-economic and administrative transformations.This scholarship scheme has been serving to level the playing field by providing access to quality education and developing capable and well qualified human capital.

In the early nineties, the economic linkages of Kazakhstan with other 14 republics were abruptly discontinued which led to increased unemployment, devaluation of savings and galloping inflation of up to 2500 per cent.

Against this backdrop, the President of Kazakhstan, H.E. Mr. Nursultan Nazarbayev, first of all, initiated socio-economic reforms, followed by innovations and reforms in the administrative sphere, which the evolving times demanded.

Having no experience of market economy, the Government had to implement reforms with the available personnel. However, the President’s long term vision of subsequent reforms required a new generation of public sector leaders and technocrats which resulted in a generous scholarship programme offered by the Government.

The objective was to provide talented youth with free access to education in leading universities globally. Since 1993, about 10,000 Kazakh students gained degrees in the best universities and joined the job market at home, including the civil service.

This scholarship scheme has been serving to level the playing field by providing access to quality education and developing capable and well qualified human capital.

Having stabilised economic growth in the 1990s, Kazakhstan went further and was first among the CIS countries to significantly modernise its civil service with meritocracy as the key principle.

We acknowledged that the sustainability of reforms was heavily dependent on the quality of institutions, and of the civil service, in particular.

Importantly, the key characteristics of reforms in Kazakhstan have always been logical consistency and continuity. A clear indication of this is the set of five institutional reforms recently announced by our President, the first of which is improved civil service modernisation.

The aim here is to form a professional, accountable and transparent state apparatus in order to ensure sustainable development of the country. The responsible body for this is the National Commission on Modernisation headed by the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan.

Under this process of transformation, criteria will be established to monitor activities and evaluate the efficiency of each Government agency, concerned minister or local governor.

The role of communities in state bodies and local administration will also be strengthened by allowing them to participate and monitor results of strategic plans and development programmes. Civil society will also be engaged in the process of identifying budgets, relevant laws and regulations.

In this endeavour, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) as a trusted partner has been continuously supporting the reform efforts in Kazakhstan since our Independence. Now, we count on the longer term strategic partnership with UNDP all the more, particularly with regards to all the five institutional reforms.

Clearly, Kazakhstan believes in sharing accumulated experience and knowledge, as well as promoting cooperation among the countries and institutions in its region and beyond. Therefore, Kazakhstan’s initiative of the Regional Hub of Civil Service in Astana was founded by 25 countries and five international organisations, at a founding conference in 2013, with UNDP as the key partner.

The aim of the Astana Hub is to facilitate regional, as well as inter-regional professional dialogue in order to promote civil service excellence. This idea has resonated with the Hub today comprising more than 30 countries in 2014, including OECD and EU member countries, as well as China, India, Turkey, and CIS countries. The Hub is thus fostering dialogue between countries of Europe and Asia.

Last year also saw the Hub taking concrete shape with an agreement between the Government of Kazakhstan and UNDP, by which Kazakhstan agreed to make considerable resources available to support the Hub and thus expand its scope and gains to enhance the field of civil service in the region and beyond.

As Helen Clark, the Administrator of UNDP, noted, “establishment of the Hub and its success has been made possible because countries like Kazakhstan are ready to share their experiences with reforms…such as the introduction of meritocracy into professional civil service”.

According to UNDP, “the Hub also offers the potential for continuing Kazakhstan’s emerging global role in providing official development assistance (ODA) to other countries”.

Kazakhstan, with guidance from UNDP, has established its national agency for international aid, called KazAID, which marks an important evolution and achievement in the country’s significance regionally and globally. The support and partnership will focus on Africa, the landlocked countries and small island developing states.

Kazakhstan will continually aspire to serve as an active contributor to the global development agenda. Our efforts will add practical solutions for implementing the post-2015 phase most effectively, with particular relevance to Sustainable Development Goal 16, which calls for inter alia promoting accountable institutions and ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.

To conclude, Kazakhstan, stands ready and is fully committed to help facilitate regional and interregional initiatives in civil service excellence, and contribute concretely to the achievement of the SDGs in the coming years.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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Farmers Find their Voice Through Radio in the Badlands of Indiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/farmers-find-their-voice-through-radio-in-the-badlands-of-india/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=farmers-find-their-voice-through-radio-in-the-badlands-of-india http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/farmers-find-their-voice-through-radio-in-the-badlands-of-india/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 05:57:18 +0000 Stella Paul http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141212 Radio Bundelkhand, based in central India, has about 250,000 listeners, of whom 99 percent are farmers. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

Radio Bundelkhand, based in central India, has about 250,000 listeners, of whom 99 percent are farmers. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
TIKAMGARH, India, Jun 19 2015 (IPS)

Eighty-year-old Chenabai Kushwaha sits on a charpoy under a neem tree in the village of Chitawar, located in the Tikamgarh district in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, staring intently at a dictaphone.

“Please sing a song for us,” urges the woman holding the voice recorder. Kushwaha obliges with a melancholy tune about an eight-year-old girl begging her father not to give her away in marriage.

“The radio station is by, of and for the people of this region." -- Naheda Yusuf, head of Radio Bundelkhand
The melody melts into the summer air, and the motley crowd that has gathered around the tree falls silent.

“Thanks for so much for singing to ‘Radio Bundelkhand’,” says Ekta Kari, a reporter-producer at the community radio station based in this predominantly farming district, before switching off the device.

With a listenership of some 250,000 people spread across over a dozen villages in Bundelkhand, an agricultural region split between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the station is lifting up some of India’s most beaten down communities by getting their voices out on the airwaves and bearing good tidings in a place long accustomed to nothing but bad news.

Endless hardships

Some 18.3 million people occupy this vast region. The majority of them are farmers, and the list of hardships they face on a daily basis is endless.

According to the Planning Commission of India, a loss of soil fertility caused by erratic weather, coupled with severe depletion of the groundwater table, has made life extremely hard for those who work the land.

Crop losses due to unseasonal rains and recurring heat waves have also become common over the last decade. Last year, a majority of farmers lost over half of their winter crop due to unexpected heavy rains.

Two out of every three farmers interviewed by IPS concurred that extreme weather has made farming, already a backbreaking occupation, something of a nightmare in these parts.

Recurring droughts between 2003 and 2010 forced many people to abandon traditional mixed cropping of millets and pulses and switch to mono-cultures like wheat, which require heavy inputs.

NGOs have also pointed to unequal land distribution policies in the region as a major cause of farmers’ strife, with millions of families unable to practice anything beyond very small-scale, subsistence agriculture given the paltry size of their plots.

Earlier this year, plagued by poor weather, miserable harvests and alleged apathy to their plight by both state and federal government bodies, scores of starving and debt-ridden farmers threw in the towel.

In the first two weeks of March, roughly a dozen farmers in Bundelkhand had committed suicide.

This follows a pattern in the region that speaks to the desperation these rural communities face – according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 3,000 farmers in Bundelkhand committed suicide between 1995 and 2012.

While this represents only a fraction of all suicides across the country’s agricultural belt, which is now approaching 300,000, Bundelkhand’s death toll is no trifling number.

Given this harsh reality, an outsider might find it hard to fathom how an intervention as simple as a community radio station could make a difference. But for the listeners who toil here daily, the radio has become something of a lifeline.

“Our station, our issues”

Naheda Yusuf, a senior programme manager at the Delhi-based media non-profit Development Alternatives, which helped launch Radio Bundelkhand back in 2008, tells IPS that 99 percent of the listeners are farmers.

Although the villages that make up the bulk of the audience lie in different states, they all fall into the larger Bundelkhand region and so share a distinct culture, traditions and dialect.

“The radio station is by, of and for the people of this region,” Yusuf explains. “It connects with them in their Bundeli dialect, and provides information on issues that concern them.”

Over 75 percent of the shows are dedicated to agricultural issues including farming techniques, pest control practices, market prices, weather forecasts, and climate change updates.

While some of the information is sourced daily from government agencies like the departments of agriculture and meteorology, most of it comes from six reporter-producers who interact directly with the community to gather news and views most relevant to their listeners.

Every day, each of them produces at least one live show, during which the audience is asked to call in with their questions and comments.

“It’s your show,” one commentator announces on the air, “so if you don’t share your opinions, we can’t get it right.”

One of the most popular shows on Radio Bundelkhand is ‘Shuv Kal’ meaning good tomorrow. Its central theme is climate change and its effect on the farming community.

One of the show’s two producers, Gauri Sharma, says they discuss water access, deforestation and solar energy. They also pay homage to the river Betwa, a tributary of the Yamuna that waters these lands, and encourages farmers not to waste the precious resource.

“We discuss planting trees around the farms, so excess water from irrigation pumps can be utilised,” Sharma tells IPS. “We also spread awareness about renewable energy.”

The response from the audience has been encouraging, she adds, especially among the youth who call and write in to share how the station has shaped their practices.

In one such letter, an 18-year-old farmer from the village of Tafarian shared that he had “planted 22 fruit trees around his farm, stopped using polythene and begun vermicomposting” as a result of listening to the show.

Portable, affordable, accessible

Another listener, Jayanti Bai of Vaswan village, says the radio station literally saved her entire crop. “The leaves of my okra plants were turning yellow,” she tells IPS. “Then I heard of a medicine on the radio, which I sprayed on the leaves – it saved me.”

She now wants to buy a radio for the entire community and tie it to a tree so the women in her neighbourhood can listen to it together. It will take some saving – the most popular device used here costs about 1,000 rupees (about 15 dollars) and that is more than she can afford in one go.

But in a region that experiences eight to 10 hours of power cuts a day, and where only 48 percent of the female population and just over 70 percent of the male population is literate, a radio is a far more viable option than a television, or newspapers.

Farmers also tell IPS a radio’s portability makes it a more attractive choice since it can be taken to “work” – meaning carried into the fields and played loud enough for workers to hear as they go about their tasks.

Because the station caters to a largely female audience, it tackles issues that are particularly relevant to women listeners. One of these is the question of suicide, which many women see as a male phenomenon.

“Have you ever heard of a woman farmer committing suicide?” asks 46-year-old Ramkumari Napet, of Baswan village. “It is because she thinks, ‘What will happen to my children when I am gone?’”

Women contend that men require more help in understanding their relationships both to themselves and their families. And indeed, the radio station is helping them determine these blurry lines.

“Last week an anonymous caller said his brother was thinking of committing suicide,” Sharma tells IPS. “He [the caller] said he was going to try to talk his brother out of it.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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Donor Conference to Tackle Nepal Reconstructionhttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/donor-conference-to-tackle-nepal-reconstruction/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=donor-conference-to-tackle-nepal-reconstruction http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/donor-conference-to-tackle-nepal-reconstruction/#comments Wed, 17 Jun 2015 22:32:09 +0000 Zhai Yun Tan http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141188 A family stands beside a damaged house near Naglebhare, Nepal. The housing sector bore the brunt of the April earthquake, accounting for three-fifths of all damages. Credit: Asian Development Bank/CC-BY-2.0

A family stands beside a damaged house near Naglebhare, Nepal. The housing sector bore the brunt of the April earthquake, accounting for three-fifths of all damages. Credit: Asian Development Bank/CC-BY-2.0

By Zhai Yun Tan
WASHINGTON, Jun 17 2015 (IPS)

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Nepal in April, and the numerous aftershocks that followed, left the country with losses amounting to a third of its economy.

As this South Asian nation of 27 million people struggles to get back on its feet, a major donor conference scheduled for Jun. 25 promises to bring some relief, but the extent of the disaster means that Nepal will be dealing with the fallout from the quake for a long time to come.

“The economy of Nepal took a huge hit from these earthquakes and there is a danger that many of the country’s impressive gains in overcoming poverty could be reversed." -- Annette Dixon, vice president for the South Asia Region at the World Bank
The country’s post-disaster needs assessment reported damages of 5.15 billion dollars, losses of 1.9 billion dollars and recovery needs of 6.6 billion dollars. The housing sector bore the brunt of the disaster, accounting for three-fifths of the damages and half of the country’s most pressing needs.

Nepal Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat has called this the worst disaster in Nepal’s history. Over 8,000 lives were lost, 22,000 people were injured and over 1,000 health facilities were destroyed, according to government data.

“One in three Nepali people have been affected by the earthquakes. One in 10 has been rendered homeless,” the foreign minister said. “Half a million households have lost their livelihoods, mostly poor, subsistence farmers.”

An additional three percent of the population, which amounts to roughly a million people, has been pushed into poverty because of this disaster, according to the World Bank.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on its website that 8.1 million people are in need of humanitarian support and 1.9 million require food assistance.

Only 129 million dollars of the 422-million-dollar humanitarian appeal by United Nations have been raised.

Nepal, a developing country saddled with debts up to 30 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) and dependent on external aid, had nonetheless been making developmental and economic gains before the disaster struck.

For instance, government data indicate that the percentage of people living in poverty fell from 42 percent to 23.8 percent within the last 20 years.

“The disaster has dealt a severe blow to our aspirations,” Mahat said.

The donor conference later this month, to be held in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, is expected to tackle strategies for reconstruction and the provision of financial support.

“The economy of Nepal took a huge hit from these earthquakes and there is a danger that many of the country’s impressive gains in overcoming poverty could be reversed,” said Annette Dixon, vice president for the South Asia Region at the World Bank.

“The country needs resources to pay for the recovery that can be channeled through credible programmes to make itself more resilient to the next natural disaster and ensure that those most in need receive the help they deserve.”

The conference will be jointly conducted by the Nepal government, the Asian Development Bank, the European Union, the government of India, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the United Nations and the World Bank.

More challenges lie ahead for Nepal as the annual monsoon season approaches, potentially displacing thousands more people. Charity groups such as CARE are scrambling to provide iron sheeting to households and those in temporary shelters to keep them dry, according to the group’s recent update.

“Our biggest priority now is to make sure we get people through the monsoon safe and dry,” said CARE shelter expert Tom Newby in the Jun. 5 release. “Families want to know how to rebuild their homes safer and better and our job is to help them do this.”

Orla Fagan, public information officer at OCHA’s Asia Pacific regional office, said in an email to IPS that providing shelter is a key concern.

“There were around 500,000 families affected and left without homes after the two earthquakes,” Fagan said, adding that greater relief efforts are needed before the country can move on to reconstruction.

Rupa Joshi, communications manager for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Nepal, is concerned about the country’s fragile hillsides.

“The monsoon is already upon us,” Joshi said in an email to IPS. “We feel when the rain comes in, or pour like it did last week in eastern Nepal, our mountains will see numerous large landslides.”

Agencies like UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) are working to help children return to school, provide safe birth-centers and deliver food to people in Nepal’s hard-to-reach mountainous areas.

Meanwhile, groups like Jubilee USA Network, an alliance of over 75 U.S.-based NGOs and 400 faith communities, are fighting to help Nepal obtain debt relief from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to which Nepal owes about 54 million dollars.

“The country pays 600,000 dollars a day [to its creditors],” Eric LeCompte, executive director of the coalition, told IPS. “It is a significant amount that can be freed up for relief efforts.”

Nepal could also qualify for assistance under the IMF’s Catastrophe Containment and Relief Trust (CCR), which aims to relieve debt burdens of low-income countries like Nepal.

To qualify for the trust, Nepal will have to demonstrate that the natural disaster has directly affected at least one third of its population and destroyed more than a quarter of its productive capacity.

Jubilee USA Network has succeeded in securing similar debt-relief schemes for several Ebola-stricken countries by applying pressure on the IMF.

LeCompte said the Jun. 25 conference is crucial for Nepal.

“The Nepal government is expected to ask for debt relief at the conference,” LeCompte said. “It will push the decision-making process onto the banks.”

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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From Residents to Rangers: Local Communities Take Lead on Mangrove Conservation in Sri Lankahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/from-residents-to-rangers-local-communities-take-lead-on-mangrove-conservation-in-sri-lanka/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=from-residents-to-rangers-local-communities-take-lead-on-mangrove-conservation-in-sri-lanka http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/from-residents-to-rangers-local-communities-take-lead-on-mangrove-conservation-in-sri-lanka/#comments Wed, 17 Jun 2015 17:24:57 +0000 Amantha Perera http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141176 Young mangrove plants tended by women beneficiaries from the Small Fishers Federation of Lanka have helped the Puttalam Lagoon regain some of its lost natural glory. The success of the programme has prompted the government to support an island-wide project worth 3.4 million dollars. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Young mangrove plants tended by women beneficiaries from the Small Fishers Federation of Lanka have helped the Puttalam Lagoon regain some of its lost natural glory. The success of the programme has prompted the government to support an island-wide project worth 3.4 million dollars. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By Amantha Perera
KALPITIYA, Sri Lanka, Jun 17 2015 (IPS)

Weekends and public holidays are deadly for one of Sri Lanka’s most delicate ecosystems – that is when the island’s 8,815 hectares of mangroves come under threat.

“The mangroves are a part of our life, our culture. We destroy them, we destroy ourselves.” -- Douglas Thisera, also known as Sri Lanka's Mangrove Master
With public officials, forest rangers and NGO workers on holiday, no one is around to enforce conservation laws designed to protect these endangered zones. Except the locals, that is.

Residents of the Kalpitiya Peninsula in the northwest Puttalam District are no strangers to the wanton destruction of the area’s natural bounty. Kalpitiya is home to the largest mangrove block in Sri Lanka, the Puttalam Lagoon, as well as smaller mangrove systems on the shores of the Chilaw Lagoon, 150 km north of the capital, Colombo.

For centuries these complex wetlands have protected fisher communities against storms and sea-surges, while the forests’ underwater root system has nurtured nurseries and feeding grounds for scores of aquatic species.

Perhaps more important, in a country still living with the ghosts of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, mangroves have been found to be a coastline’s best defense against tidal waves and tsunamis.

Many poor fisher families in western Sri Lanka also rely heavily on mangroves for sustenance, with generation after generation deriving protein sources from the rich waters or sustainably harvesting the forests’ many by-products.

But in Sri Lanka today, as elsewhere in the world, mangroves face a range of risks. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that the unique ecosystems, capable of storing up to 1,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare in their biomass, are being felled at three to five times the rate of other forests.

Over a quarter of the world’s mangrove cover has already been irrevocably destroyed, driven by aquaculture, agriculture, unplanned and unsustainable coastal development and over-use of resources.

On the west coast of Sri Lanka, despite government’s pledges to protect the country’s remaining forests, the covert clearing of mangroves continues – albeit at a slower rate than in the past.

But a small army of land defenders, newly formed and highly dedicated, is promising to turn this tide.

Douglas Thisera, better known as the Mangrove Master, has spent the last two-and-a-half decades protecting the mangroves of Sri Lanka’s northwest Puttalam District. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Douglas Thisera, better known as the Mangrove Master, has spent the last two-and-a-half decades protecting the mangroves of Sri Lanka’s northwest Puttalam District. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

When residents become rangers

They call him the ‘Mangrove Master’, but his real name is Douglas Thisera. A fisherman turned vigilante, he is the director for conservation at the Small Fisheries Foundation of Lanka (Sudeesa) and spends his days patrolling every nook of the Chilaw Lagoon for signs of illegal destruction.

Massive Boost for Mangroves

Last month, the Sudeesa programme received a massive boost from the U.S.-based NGO Seacology to expand its operations island-wide. The Sri Lankan government also signed on as a major partner for the five-year, 3.4-million-dollar mangrove protection scheme.

The project will use Sudeesa’s original initiative as a blueprint to pair conservation with livelihood prospects on a much larger scale.

The plan is to provide assistance to over 15,000 persons, half of them widows and the rest school dropouts, living close to Sri Lanka’s 48 lagoons where mangroves thrive.

There will be 1,500 community groups who will look after the mangroves and also plant 3,000 hectares’ worth of saplings.

In a further boost to conservationists, on May 11 the Sri Lankan government declared mangroves as protected areas, bringing them under the Forest Ordinance.

The move now makes commercial use of mangroves illegal, and the government has pledged to provide forest officials for patrols and other members of the armed forces for replanting programmes.

This is a huge step away from previous governments' policies and reflects a commitment from the newly-elected administration to conservation and sustainability - both priorities at the international level as the United Nations moves towards a pot-2015 development agenda.

“We can dream big now,” says the Mangrove Master, scanning the horizon.
He has been replanting and conserving mangroves since 1992, so he knows these forests – and its enemies – like the back of his hand.

“Suddenly we will see earth movers and other machinery clearing large tracts of mangroves – by the time pubic officials are alerted, the destruction is already done,” he tells IPS.

This pattern follows decades of state-sanctioned deforestation that began in the early 90s, when an aggressive government-backed prawn-farming scheme was taking root around the lagoon and private corporations as well as politically-linked business enterprises were eyeing and clearing the mangroves indiscriminately.

For years Thisera tried to draft the local community into conservation efforts, but they were up against a Goliath.

He recalls one instance, back in 1994, when a powerful politician cleared a 150-metre stretch of forest almost overnight. “We were helpless then, we did not have the organisational capacity to take on such figures.”

By 2012, prawn farming, salt panning, solid waste disposal and hotel construction for the country’s thriving tourist sector had conspired to cut Sri Lanka’s mangrove cover by 80 percent, according to some estimates.

Today, under the aegis of a major mangrove conservation programme in the region, Thisera not only has financial backing for his efforts – he has a network of residents just as dedicated to the task as he is.

The project is led by Sudeesa, whose chairman, Anuradha Wickramasinghe, believed that only “community-based” action could hope to save the disappearing forests.

But this was easier said than done.

Poverty stalks the population of Sri Lanka’s northwest coast, and the most recent government statistics indicate that the average income among fisher families is just 16 dollars a month, with 53 percent of the population here living below the national poverty line.

Unemployment is roughly 20 percent higher than the island-wide average of 4.1 percent, and most families spend every waking moment struggling to put food on the table.

So Sudeesa created a micro-credit scheme to incentivize conservation efforts, and tailored the programme towards women. Women are offered a range of loans at extremely low interest rates to start home-based sustainable ventures. In exchange, they care for young saplings, help replant stretches of mangrove forest and take it upon themselves to prevent illegal clearing for commercial purposes.

Together they have planted 170,000 saplings covering an area of 860 hectares in the district – and they are working to multiply this number.

Futures tied to the land

The entire scheme relies on community action.

Women are put in charge of designated locations, mostly close to their homes. When encroachment or illegal harvesting takes place, they use local networks and cell phones to get the word out.

Here, the Thisera plays a pivotal role, acting as an intermediary between local watchdogs and networks of public officials, which he can activate when the women raise a red flag.

Last year this rudimentary conservation machine managed to halt encroachment by a private company with a stake in prawn farming by forcing it to dismantle fencing around the mangroves and retreat to demarcations laid down in government maps of the area.

Thisera says powerful business interests present the biggest menace to locals. Although an epidemic in the late 1990s decimated most of the prawn farms, leaving large, empty man-made tanks in place of mangrove ecosystems, companies have been reluctant to retreat and many continue to pay taxes on former areas of operations.

“They want to keep a legal hold on the land for other purposes,” Thisera explains, such as tourism on the northern ridge of the Puttalam Lagoon that has seen a revival since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009.

Already two islands have been leased out to private companies, though no major construction operations have yet begun.

When they do, however, they will be forced to reckon with Thisera and his unofficial rangers.

“The mangroves are a part of our life, our culture,” Thisera explains. “We destroy them, we destroy ourselves.”

Self-confidence and self-reliance

Cut off from the country’s commercial hubs and major markets, women in this district have long had to rely on their wits to survive.

Take Anne Priyanthi, a 52-year-old widow with two children who until three years ago had struggled to feed her family. She tried to lift herself out of poverty by applying for a bank loan – but was refused on the basis that she did not “meet the criteria”.

In 2012 Sudeesa granted her a loan of 10,000 rupees – about 74 dollars – which she used to start a small pig farm. Today, she earns a monthly income of 25,000 rupees, or 182 dollars.

It seems a pittance – but it means her kids can stay in school and in these impoverished parts that is a monumental success.

Another beneficiary of Sudeesa’s conservation-livelihood project is 58-year-old Primrose Fernando, who now works as a coordinator for the NGO. The widow has three daughters, one of whom has a minor disability.

With her loan she was able to set up a small grocery shop for the disabled daughter and also invest in an ornamental fish breeding business.

“Without this assistance I would have been left destitute,” Fernando tells IPS.

Since 1994 Sudeesa had given out loans to the tune of 54 million rupees (over 400,000 dollars) to 3,900 women in the Puttalam District. Officials say that the loans have a repayment rate of over 75 percent.

By conserving the mangroves, thousands of women have also carved out a better life for themselves and their families and no longer spend every waking moment wondering where their next meal will come from. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

By conserving the mangroves, thousands of women have also carved out a better life for themselves and their families and no longer spend every waking moment wondering where their next meal will come from. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Now the loans scheme falls under a registered public organisation called Sudeesa Social Enterprises Corporation, of which 683 of the most active women are shareholders.

“It is the shareholders who run the orgainsation now, who decide on loans, repayments and follow-up action in case of defaulters,” explains Malan Appuhami, a Sudeesa accountant.

The operation is not your average micro-credit scheme – interest rates are less than three percent, and since the women are all part of the same community, they are more interested in helping each other succeed than hunting down defaulters.

For instance during the months of June to September, when rough seas limit a fisher family’s catch, the shareholders create more flexible repayment plans.

In a country where the female unemployment rate is over two-and-a-half times that of the male rate, and almost twice the national figure of 4.2 percent, the conservation-livelihood scheme is a kind of oasis in an otherwise barren desert for women – particularly older women without a formal education, as many in the Puttalam District are – seeking paid work.

Suvineetha de Silva, a Sudeesa credit officer, tells IPS that there has been a visible shift in women’s outlooks and attitudes – no longer ragged and shy, they now ripple with the confidence of those who have taken matters into their own hands.

Some have even been able to send their kids to university, de Silva says, something that was “unheard of” a decade ago, when the simple act of completing primary school was considered a luxury for youth whose parents needed the extra labour to help feed the family.

Other women are spending more time at home, with the result that sustainable cottage industries like home bakeries, dress making ventures and even hairdressing operations are thriving.

Best of all is that Puttalam’s mangroves now have a fighting chance, with determined women keeping watch over them.

Globally, an estimated 100 million people live in the vicinity of mangrove forests. What would it mean for the future of biodiversity if all of them followed Sri Lanka’s example?

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

This article is part of a special series entitled ‘The Future Is Now: Inside the World’s Most Sustainable Communities’. Read the other articles in the series here.

 

This reporting series was conceived in collaboration with Ecosocialist Horizons
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Opinion: We Have a Moral Imperative to Act on Climate Changehttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/opinion-we-have-a-moral-imperative-to-act-on-climate-change/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-we-have-a-moral-imperative-to-act-on-climate-change http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/opinion-we-have-a-moral-imperative-to-act-on-climate-change/#comments Wed, 17 Jun 2015 10:13:32 +0000 Edwin Gariguez http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141165 Candlelight vigil co-organised by 350.org, the global grassroots climate movement, held just before the Pope's visit to the Philippines in January this year. Photo credit: LJ Pasion

Candlelight vigil co-organised by 350.org, the global grassroots climate movement, held just before the Pope's visit to the Philippines in January this year. Photo credit: LJ Pasion

By Edwin Gariguez
MANILA, Jun 17 2015 (IPS)

My country, the Philippines, is one of the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Even though we are among those countries that hardly contributed emissions and benefited least from burning fossil fuels, we find ourselves at the frontline of the climate crisis.

The catastrophe we experienced from Super Typhoon Haiyan [in early November 2013], one of the most powerful storms ever recorded, which killed thousands and damaged billions of properties, is proof to this. Almost two years later, our people are still struggling to recover from its devastating impact.“If it is wrong to wreck the planet, then it is wrong to benefit from its wreckage; a growing global movement to divest from fossil fuels takes this ethos at heart”

It should therefore not come as a surprise that concern about climate change is higher in the Philippines than elsewhere. A recent public consultation showed that 98 percent of Filipinos are “very concerned” about the impacts of climate change, compared with a global average of around 78 percent.

The Church cannot remain a passive bystander. It is our moral imperative to give voice to the voiceless.

The Catholic Church in the Philippines has pronounced its strong opposition to coal mining because it will make our country contribute to climate change, and endanger ecosystems as well as the health and lives of people.

Our churches have often led the struggles against dirty energy. In my hometown of Atimonan, Quezon, for example, more than 1,500 protesters led by church leaders staged a demonstration against a proposed coal-fired power plant last week.

Similarly, Catholic priests in Batangas are at the forefront of the fight against the construction of a new coal power plant. Last month, about 300 priests held a prayer rally ahead of a committee hearing that discussed the project.

Pope Francis also understands that climate change is not only an environmental issue but a matter of justice. His upcoming encyclical is anticipated to bring the link between climate change and the poor to centre stage.

In the Philippines, we are grateful that Pope Francis came to visit and held mass in areas hit the hardest by Typhoon Haiyan.

We admire him for standing in solidarity with us, using his position to inject momentum for faith communities around the world to take a moral stance on climate change.

A papal encyclical is an extraordinary way to send a powerful message to world leaders whose actions to date lag far behind the scale of the response that is necessary.

We hope that the Pope’s message will remind world leaders of their moral duty to act as we approach the climate summit in Paris [in December], where a new international climate agreement is supposed to be reached.

The moral imperative to act could not be stronger and the world now needs to stand united in the face of the climate crisis that knows no geographic boundaries, while the worst impacts still can be avoided.

Through the Pope’s encyclical, the Church will raise critical issues that need to be taken into account in the global response to this unprecedented threat.

Global capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty by burning fossil fuels. On the flipside, it has also created vast inequalities and sacrificed the environment for the sake of short-term gain. Now is the time to break the stranglehold of fossil fuels over our lives and the planet.

If it is wrong to wreck the planet, then it is wrong to benefit from its wreckage; a growing global movement to divest from fossil fuels takes this ethos at heart.

The Pope’s critique of today’s destructive, fossil-fuel dependent economy will not go down well with the powerful interests that benefit from today’s status quo.

But we, the Church and the people of the Philippines, will stand alongside the Pope as strong allies in the struggle for a socially just, environmentally sustainable and spiritually rich world that Pope Francis and the broader climate movement are fighting for.

Edited by Phil Harris    

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

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Opinion: What the Philippines Can Learn from Morocco, Peru and Ethiopiahttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/opinion-what-the-philippines-can-learn-from-morocco-peru-and-ethiopia/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=opinion-what-the-philippines-can-learn-from-morocco-peru-and-ethiopia http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/opinion-what-the-philippines-can-learn-from-morocco-peru-and-ethiopia/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 23:47:12 +0000 Chris Wright and Jed Alegado http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141161 NGOs call for an energy revolution at the Bonn talks. Credit: IISD

NGOs call for an energy revolution at the Bonn talks. Credit: IISD

By Chris Wright and Jed Alegado
MANILA, Jun 16 2015 (IPS)

(Last week, Australian Climate Activist offered an apology to the Philippines for his country’s lack of action. Today, he partners up with climate tracker from the Philippines Jed Alegado to talk about what the Philippines can do to show its leadership in tackling climate change.)

There has been a lot of pressure on the Philippines in the last week. Climate Change Commission Secretary Lucille Sering faced a senate hearing about the Philippines’ commitment to its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs.

Under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), INDCs were introduced in Warsaw in 2013 to hasten and ensure concrete climate action plans from countries.We have already seen this year how cities like New Delhi and Beijing have become almost unlivable due to the dangerously polluted air. What will happen to the Philippines if it follows a similar path?

During the visit of French President Francois Hollande to the Philippines last February, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III announced that his country’s INDC will be submitted by August this year after he delivers his final State of the Nation Address. However, during the Senate hearing last week, Sering said that the Philippines aims to submit the INDC before the October 2015 deadline.

In an interview last month, civil society representative to the Philippine delegation, Ateneo School of Government Dean Tony La Vina, clarified the process conducted by the Philippine government for its INDC. According to La Vina,  INDC orientation and workshops were conducted among government agencies in January 2015. A technical working group was formed last March followed by stakeholder discussions last month which included civil society groups, key government agencies and the private sector.

For a country which has played a leadership role and has become a rallying point for the global call for climate action due to its former lead negotiator Yeb Sano and the Super Typhoon Haiyan which wreaked havoc in the central Philippines in 2013, there has been a lot of pressure for the Philippines to come up with a definitive and clear commitment for its INDC.

Last month, Sering announced that the Philippines’ INDC might focus on a renewable energy and low-carbon sustainable development plan: “low emission and long-term development pathway to involve private sector and other stakeholders”. Sering also said that the Philippines intends to increase the use of renewable energy.

However, last week, the Palawan Community for Sustainable Development gave the go-ahead to a company to construct a coal-powered plant in Palawan in the western part of the Philippines, often described as the country’s last frontier. Environmental NGOs based in the province have been trying to stop the construction of this 15-megawatt coal plant to be built by one of the major construction companies in the Philippines.

In the past two years, the government has also approved the construction of 21-coal powered projects despite the President Aquino’s declaration that the Philippines intends to “nearly triple the country’s renewable-energy-based capacity from around 5,400 megawatts in 2010 to 15,300 MW in 2030.”

In spite of these events happening in the Philippines, the second week of the Bonn intersession has also been characterised by developing countries who have stood proud and shown the world just what they can do to stop global warming.

Reform, Accountability and Ambition

It may therefore be timely for the Philippines to take some lessons from three recent INDC announcements that have each drawn great praise at the U.N.

Step 1: Reform

The first lesson comes from Morocco, which this week came out as the first country to address “fossil fuel subsidy reform” in their Climate Action Plan. As the first Arab country to make an international Climate Action Plan, they naturally shocked a lot of people.

However, when you dive into their commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 32 per cent by 2030 compared to what they call “business as usual”, I guess it’s understandable that some of us are having apprehensions.

But what is good about their efforts is to “substantially reduce fossil fuel subsidies”. This is one of the truly ‘unspoken’ aspects of transitioning away from fossil fuels.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we need to stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible to keep us below two degrees of warming. In order to give Filipinos a chance at a safe future, we need a global phase-out of fossil fuels by 2050, and the first step to get there is to cut fossil fuel subsidies.

Globally, the IMF estimates that the fossil fuel industry receives 10 million dollars every minute. If the world is ever going to move into a fossil-free future, reforming these subsidies will be critical. This is one way the Philippines can show some real leadership with their Climate Action Plan.

Step 2: Accountability

Late last week, Peru publicly announced their Climate Action Plan. While they haven’t yet officially submitted it to the U.N., what they have produced is very impressive.

In developing their Climate Action Plan, Peru has carefully calculated exactly how much emissions they can cut based on a concrete number of projects which they clearly outline in the plan. As such, their plan to cut emissions by 31 per cent based on business as usual is backed up by 58 clearly outlined different mitigation projects.

This makes it very easy for Peru to ask for support from developed countries to help them improve on their commitments. In fact, they have even outlined how they can increase their emissions cuts to up to 42 per cent with an extra 18 projects.

While they haven’t made a specific ask for international assistance to meet this difference, this level of transparency could make it a very simple step in the future. What’s more, they have now opened this plan up to public consultations until July 17.

They will be holding workshops across Peru and asking a wide range of citizens what their views on the Climate Action Plans are.

If the Philippines want to ask for international support to help increase their ability to combat global warming, this level of international and domestic transparency will be a critical step to take.

Step 3: Ambition

It is definitely true that the Filipinos have not caused climate change. In fact, the Filipinos are among the smallest contributors to climate change per person. What’s more, the energy needs across the country are critical. But is coal really the answer?

With 26 coal plants planned over the next ten years, what will become of the air that everyone has to breathe? We have already seen this year how cities like New Delhi and Beijing have become almost unlivable due to the dangerously polluted air. What will happen to the Philippines if it follows a similar path?

One country seeking to link their development needs to combatting climate change is Ethiopia. Yesterday they released a Climate Action Plan which aims at a 64 per cent reduction on their business as usual predictions.

With 94 million people, and over a quarter of those in extreme poverty, Ethiopia is a great model for the Philippines to follow. They have focussed their emissions cuts around agricultural reform, reforestation, renewable energy and public transport. These are all reforms which are possible for the Philippines to also make.

Ethiopia is not simply giving in to a broken development model that relies on fossil fuels, but neither is it living a “green” fantasy. It is among the fastest growing countries in the world and the fastest growing non-oil-dependent African country.

With international support, it plans to double its economy while still achieving carbon-negative growth. This, Ethiopia believes, is best for not only for the health of its economy in the long term, but their people.

If the Philippines is going to show the type of global leadership it has strived for over recent years at the U.N. climate negotiations, there are three easy steps for them to take forward; Reform, Accountability and Ambition.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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

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Climate Justice: Trial by Public Opinion for World’s Pollutershttp://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/climate-justice-trial-by-public-opinion-for-worlds-polluters/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=climate-justice-trial-by-public-opinion-for-worlds-polluters http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/climate-justice-trial-by-public-opinion-for-worlds-polluters/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 21:31:49 +0000 Thalif Deen http://www.ipsnews.net/?p=141158 Campaigners at the September 2014 NYC Climate March say, “We need a cooperative model for climate justice.” Credit Roger Hamilton-Martin/IPS

Campaigners at the September 2014 NYC Climate March say, “We need a cooperative model for climate justice.” Credit Roger Hamilton-Martin/IPS

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Jun 16 2015 (IPS)

The United Nations, which is tasked with the protection of the global environment, has asserted that climate change affects people everywhere – with no exceptions.

Still, one of the greatest inequities of our time is that the poorest and the most marginalised individuals, communities and countries — which have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions — often bear the greatest burden, says the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.“Our climate-impacted communities have a moral and legal right to defend our human rights and seek Climate Justice by holding these big carbon polluters accountable." -- Tuvalu delegate Puanita Taomia Ewekia

With an increasing link between climate change and human rights, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, which is conscious of the growing threat of rising sea levels to Pacific island nations, is seeking “climate justice,” including both redress and accountability.

“For the first time anywhere in the world,” says Greenpeace, it will submit a petition to the Philippines Commission on Human Rights asking the Commission to investigate the responsibility of the world’s biggest polluters for directly violating human rights or threatening to, due to their contribution to climate change and ocean acidification.

Anna Abad, climate justice campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, told IPS: “The filing of the human rights petition before the Philippine Commission on Human Rights is a first step to investigate the responsibility of the Carbon Majors (a.k.a. big carbon polluters) for their human rights violations or threatened human rights violations resulting from climate change and ocean acidification impacts.”

Asked whether there is a possibility of the issue being taken up either by the Security Council or the International Court of Justice, she said Greenpeace Southeast Asia is also exploring other avenues – both legal and transnational – to amplify the urgency of climate justice and to ensure that those responsible for the climate crisis are held accountable for their actions.

“This is a collective effort between our partners and allies. With the climate justice campaign, we have certainly begun the trial by public opinion,” Abad said.

Zelda Soriano, legal and political advisor from Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said climate change is a borderless issue, gravely affecting millions of people worldwide.

“The U.N. Human Rights Council has recognised that climate change has serious repercussions on the enjoyment of human rights as it poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world.”

In this light, she said, “We view climate change as a social injustice that must be addressed by international governments and agencies, most especially those responsible for contributing to the climate crisis.”

Last week, the President of Vanuatu Baldwin Londsdale joined climate-impacted communities from Tuvalu, Kiribati, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, as well as representatives from the Philippines, at “an emergency meeting” in Vanuatu vowing to seek ‘Climate Justice’ and hold big fossil fuel entities accountable for fuelling global climate change.

The Climate Change and Human Rights workshop was held on board the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, with the participation of about 40 delegates and civil society groups from Pacific Island nations.

“It is now more important than ever before that we stand united as affected communities in the face of climate change, rising sea-levels and changing weather patterns. Let us continue to stand and work together in our fight against the threats of climate change,” Londsdale told delegates.

The workshop concluded with participants signing on to the ‘People’s Declaration for Climate Justice,’ which was handed over to the President of Vanuatu.

According to Greenpeace, human-induced climate change is forecast to unleash increased hardship on the Philippines and Pacific Island nations due to stronger storms and cyclones.

A new study, Northwestern Pacific typhoon intensity controlled by changes in ocean temperatures, suggests that with climate change, storms like Haiyan, which in 2013 devastated Southeast Asia and specifically the Philippines, could get even stronger and more common.

It projects the intensity of typhoons in the western Pacific Ocean to increase by as much as 14 percent – nearly equivalent to an increase of one category – by century’s end even under a moderate future scenario of greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenpeace says it believes that those most vulnerable will continue to suffer, representing a violation of their basic human rights.

According to Greenpeace, recent research has shown that 90 entities are responsible for an estimated 914 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) of cumulative world emissions of industrial CO2 and methane between 1854 and 2010, or about 63 percent of estimated global industrial emissions of these greenhouse gases.

Abad said: “These big carbon polluters have enriched themselves for almost a century with the continued burning of coal, oil and gas. They are the driving force behind climate change.”

She said time is running out for these vulnerable communities and the world’s big carbon polluters have a moral and legal responsibility for their products and to meaningfully address climate change before it is too late.

Tuvalu delegate Puanita Taomia Ewekia was quoted as saying: “Climate change is not a problem for one nation to solve alone, all our Pacific Island countries are affected as one in our shared ocean.”

She said governments must stand up for their rights and demand redress from these big carbon polluters for past and future climate transgressions.

“Our climate-impacted communities have a moral and legal right to defend our human rights and seek Climate Justice by holding these big carbon polluters accountable and to seek financial compensation,” she declared.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@aol.com

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