Latest Developments, May 16

In the latest news and analysis…

Fear of laws
Business Insider reports that US retailers Walmart and Gap are refusing to sign on to legally binding protections for Bangladesh’s garment workers:

“Gap has said it will sign the safety accord only if it’s amended to alleviate liability from the company. Wal-Mart introduced its own safety plan that mandates independent factory safety audits but isn’t legally binding.

But safety agreements that don’t carry any legal weight aren’t usually effective, said Bjorn Claeson, senior policy advisor for the International Labor Rights Forum.
‘What we need brands to do is be accountable for worker safety in Bangladesh,’ he told us in an interview last week. ‘The problem is that brands are not willing to make anything else but voluntary, non-binding commitments to worker rights and health and safety standards. … They are under no obligation to fix the problems, to make the factories safe or to tell workers the dangers they face.’ ”

A bribe by any other name
The CBC reports on Canadian engineering giant SNC-Lavalin’s use of the term “project consultancy cost” to conceal the bribes it routinely paid around the world:

“The documents show that from 2008 until 2011, the company included these ‘consultancy costs’ in 13 projects.
The terms ‘PCC’ or ‘CC’ appear as line items on eight of the projects in Nigeria, Zambia, Uganda, Ghana, India and Kazakhstan.

According to various company emails, cheques and other accounting records, the money was routinely calculated as a percentage of the total value of contracts, typically around 10 per cent.”

Rubber barons
A new Global Witness report shows how the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation and Germany’s Deutsche Bank are fuelling land grabs by rubber companies in Cambodia and Laos:

“Cambodia and Laos are undergoing a land grabbing crisis that has seen more than 3.7 million hectares of land handed over to companies since 2000, forty percent of which is for rubber plantations.

These investments [by IFC and Deutsche Bank] stand in stark contrast to both institutions’ public commitments on ethics and sustainability, as well as the World Bank’s core mandate to end global poverty”

Museum loot
The New York Times reports that Cambodia is asking US museums and collectors to return Khmer antiquities acquired during the country’s two decades of genocide and civil war in the late 20th Century:

“Hundreds of Cambodian antiquities are in American museums, as well as in the hands of foreign institutions and private collectors. Many were acquired after 1970 and lack paperwork showing how they left Cambodia.

Today, most museums have pledged not to collect items that lack a paper trail dating back to 1970, the year that a United Nations convention aimed at blocking illicit antiquities trafficking was adopted.”

Trade mission
The Canadian government has announced it is pushing for yet another “foreign investment promotion and protection agreement” with a poor country:

“ ‘Our government is committed to increasing trade and diversifying our engagement with fast-growth countries like Ghana,’ said [Canadian foreign minister John] Baird. ‘Ghana is very much a symbol of the new Africa—one in which aid recipients are becoming important trading partners, and political stability allows for economic dynamism.’
He added, ‘Such an agreement, once in effect, will help bolster investment confidence to make the most of the abundant opportunities that exist here, contributing to job creation and economic growth in both countries.’ ”

Policy damage
Michael Scaturro writes in the Atlantic about the “nasty downside” of economic austerity measures, such as healthcare spending cuts, in Greece:

“ ‘Greece is an example of perhaps the worst case of austerity leading to public health disasters,’ [Oxford University’s David] Stuckler explained in a telephone interview.
‘After mosquito spraying programs were cut, we’ve seen a return of malaria, which the country has kept under control for the past four decades. New HIV infections have jumped more than 200 percent,’ he noted.
Malaria returned because municipal governments lacked the funds to spray against mosquitoes. HIV spiked because government needle exchange programs ran out of clean syringes for heroin addicts. By Stuckler’s estimate, the average Greek junkie requires 200 clean needles in a given year.
‘But now they’re only getting three a year each,’ Stuckler said.”

Thoughtless harmonization
The Center of Concern’s Aldo Caliari argues that a review of the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings, which assess countries on the business friendliness of their policies, is “overdue”:

“The success of institutional reforms is strongly conditioned by the indigenous environment where they are implemented, an environment which varies country by country. So it is not thoughtless harmonization but attention to the particular requirements and nuances needed in each country and region which will make reform programs successful. The conceptual flaw Doing Business suffers from is the illusion that a universal numerical ranking can capture the evolution of variables whose significance for development (and even for businesses themselves) are bound to be quite different country to country. This is true whether we are talking about tax rates, licensing requirements, labor protection policies or access to credit.
It would not be so bad if, at least, the reductionist set of indicators Doing Business equates with a good investment climate were unequivocally positive, or neutral, for development and the well-being of the population.
But we cannot assume that.”

Locus of control
Former Norwegian foreign minister Erik Solheim calls for a “new model of partnership” in which conflict-affected and fragile states, rather than donors, determine their own priorities:

“The [New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States] recognizes what the history of peace-building teaches us: national leadership and ownership of agendas are key to achieving visible and sustainable results. As Kosti Manibe Ngai, South Sudan’s finance minister, has put it, ‘Nothing about us without us.’
In many conversations with South Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir, we have discussed setting out a short list of clear priorities for the new state. But such goals are meaningful only if a fragile state’s partners are ready to accept the lead from a capital like Juba rather than from their own headquarters.

As partners, we must accept this national leadership. After Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake in 2010, the country was dubbed ‘the republic of NGOs.’ Unable to create conditions in which Haitians themselves could take the lead in rebuilding their country, Haiti’s external partners undermined the establishment of a functioning internal governance system.”

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