Latest Developments, March 14

In the latest news and analysis…

Measuring inequality
The UN Development Programme has released its 2013 Human Development Report, which argues that the vast majority of countries have made progress in recent years but “national averages hide large variations” within countries:

“[Human Development Index] comparisons are typically made between countries in the North and the South, and on this basis the world is becoming less unequal. Nevertheless, national averages hide large variations in human experience, and wide disparities remain within countries of both the North and the South. The United States, for example, had an HDI value of 0.94 in 2012, ranking it third globally. The HDI value for residents of Latin American origin was close to 0.75, while the HDI value for African-Americans was close to 0.70 in 2010–2011. But the average HDI value for an African-American in Louisiana was 0.47. Similar ethnic disparities in HDI achievement in very high HDI countries can be seen in the Roma populations of southern Europe.”

Arming rebels
Time reports that France is pushing hard to lift a European embargo that is preventing the provision of arms to rebels fighting to topple Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad:

“In the most emphatic sign yet that Paris intends to get weapons and ammunition flowing to anti-Assad fighters, French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius said March 14 that if the E.U. and other international partners fail to heed that call, France may act on its own to bolster rebel fighting capacity.
‘The position we’ve taken, with [President] François Hollande, is to demand a lifting the arms embargo… [as] one of the only ways to get the situation moving politically,’ Fabius told France Info radio Thursday morning. Asked what France would do if its partners refused that request, Fabius indicated Paris would act unilaterally, reminding listeners that ‘France is a sovereign nation’.”

Outsourced borders
Jeune Afrique reports that Médecins Sans Frontières has alleged the European Union bears much of the responsibility for the grim conditions migrants endure in Morocco, where it is shutting its operations:

“ ‘In the last 10 years, Brussels has toughened its border controls and externalized its migration policy more and more. From a transit country, Morocco has also become a destination country by default,’ [the MSF report said]. As a result, a large number of undocumented migrants from south of the Sahara, 20,000 to 25,000 according to local organizations, are now waiting in Morocco for a hypothetical journey to European soil via Spain. According to MSF, their vulnerability increases with the length of their stay.” [Translated from the French.]

Chemical contamination
Reuters reports that oil giant Shell and chemical manufacturer BASF have agreed to pay hundreds of millions in compensation to former workers in Brazil for exposure to toxic substances:

“Brazil’s public labor prosecution service said 60 people were killed from prolonged exposure to chemicals used to make pesticides at the plant. The factory began operating in the 1970s in Paulinia in Sao Paulo state until government authorities ordered it to shut down in 2002.

Gislaine Rossetti, a spokeswoman at BASF, told Reuters the companies would not disclose the proportion of the total compensation each would pay. Shell would be solely responsible for reparations linked to soil pollution, she said.”

Gold on hold
Reuters also reports that a shipment from a mine owned by Canada’s two biggest gold mining companies is being detained in the Dominican Republic whose president recently demanded a renegotiation of the mine’s operating contract:

“Fernando Fernandez, director of customs in the Dominican Republic, said the shipment was halted because of a problem with documentation.
‘When it is resolved, the shipment will go out,’ he told reporters.
Pueblo Viejo, one of world’s largest new gold projects, is jointly owned by Barrick and Canada’s second largest gold miner, Goldcorp Inc.
On Feb. 27, in a speech marking the 169th anniversary of the Dominican Republic’s independence, Mr. Medina said the terms of the contract with the two Canadian miners were unacceptable and demanded more benefits from the mine. The contract was negotiated before Mr. Medina took office last August.”

Silent torture
A UN torture expert has called for an investigation into the use of solitary confinement in the Americas:

“ ‘Despite the fact that many examples show that the region of the Americas is not an exception to the global trend of abuses in the use of solitary confinement, I am concerned about the general lack of official information and statistics on the use of solitary confinement,’ Mr. Méndez said, recalling the harmful effects of this widespread practice he comprehensively documented in his 2011 global report to the UN General Assembly (see below).
‘The use of solitary confinement can only be accepted under exceptional circumstances, and should only be applied as a last resort measure in which its length must be as short as possible, it should be duly communicated and it should offer minimum due process guarantees when it is used as a disciplinary sanction,’ the Special Rapporteur said.

He called for the absolute prohibition of solitary confinement on juveniles and persons with mental disabilities and for an equally absolute prohibition on indefinite or prolonged solitary confinement. For purposes of defining what constitutes prolonged solitary confinement, he suggested the benchmark of any term exceeding 15 days.”

Global pillage
Oxfam’s Ben Phillips is happy to report that the issue of land grabs – or “pillage” (on a “truly staggering” scale) as he calls it – has arrived on the agenda of the upcoming G8 meeting:

“Every six days land the size of London is bought and sold – often by people who have never even visited it, sometimes in an online click-and-buy. Some of those who take over the land will grow crops – often for biofuels rather than for food and, when for food, often for export rather than for locals. Others just put up a fence and wait for the price of the land to go up while around them people go hungry.”

Diplomatic anachronism
A Los Angeles Times editorial argues that the US should stop maintaining Cuba on its list of terrorist-sponsoring countries simply because “it disagrees with the United States’ approach to fighting international terrorism, not because it supports terrorism”:

“None of the reasons that landed Cuba on the list in 1982 still exist. A 2012 report by the State Department found that Havana no longer provides weapons or paramilitary training to Marxist rebels in Latin America or Africa. In fact, Cuba is currently hosting peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and President Juan Manuel Santos’ government. And Cuban officials condemned the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

Clinging to that designation when the evidence for it has passed fails to recognize Cuba’s progress and reinforces doubts about America’s willingness to play fair in the region.”

Latest Developments, November 23

In the latest news and analysis…

Mining aid
The Globe and Mail reports that Canada’s new international co-operation minister’s promotion of business opportunities abroad, particularly for mining companies, signals “a profound shift” in the Canadian approach to foreign aid:

“[Julian Fantino] said part of [the Canadian International Development Agency’s] work is to help small and medium enterprises in developing countries find their footing. But he also emphasized CIDA’s role in preparing those countries for foreign investment, suggesting the agency’s work can help make countries and people ‘trade and investment ready’ and even dissuade governments from nationalizing extractive industries.
‘CIDA can help develop the capacity to negotiate with other countries, implement international commercial agreements with Canada and other trading partners and help firms benefit from these agreements. We will be doing more of this in the future,’ he said.”

Setting limits
In a draft report on sustainability and the post-2015 development agenda, New York University’s Alex Evans calls for the successors to the Millennium Development Goals to include “explicit recognition of planetary boundaries”:

“Poverty reduction is the first casualty of unsustainability, with poor people disproportionately reliant on natural assets and vulnerable to climate and scarcity risks. At the same time, current models of development are also the main driver of unsustainability – most obviously in ‘developed’ countries, but increasingly also in emerging economies which, though far behind high income countries in per capita impacts, are nonetheless helping push the world towards ecological tipping points.

Environmental summitry has become the world’s principal breeding ground for multilateral zombies (staggering on, moaning piteously, never quite dying) with few if any really significant wins in the 15 years since Kyoto. This should surprise no-one, mirroring as it does the fact that in capitals all over the world, environment ministers lack the clout to make change happen. Sustainability advocates need to stop talking about mainstreaming and get on with it. That means bringing environment to the heart of debates about how we develop – not in some vague, aspirational way, but by starting from quantified estimates of how much environmental space is available for us to share between us.”

Vulture loss
The Guardian reports that politicians in Jersey have voted to prevent so-called vulture funds from using the British island’s courts as a venue to sue poor countries:

Vulture funds, which buy up poor nations’ debts on the cheap before suing them for up to 100 times the original amount, had attempted to take cases to Jersey after British law banned the practice.
In the latest case, multimillionaire speculator Peter Grossman used Jersey’s courts to sue the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for $100m (£64m) over a decades-old debt that started out at $3.3m. Grossman, who runs the FG Hemisphere fund, was able to take the case to Jersey’s courts because the island is a crown dependency not covered by all UK laws.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank estimate that vulture funds are seeking total claims of $1.47bn from countries including Cameroon, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, and the DRC.

Vulture win
The Financial Times reports that Argentina’s government has described as “a kind of legal colonialism” a US court ruling that the country should pay $1.3 billion to hedge funds:

“The victory for several hedge funds against Argentina has sparked fears that the country could be plunged into yet another debilitating sovereign default and threatens to make government restructurings more difficult in the future.
In what has been dubbed the ‘trial of the century’ for sovereign debt restructurings, a US District Court judge on Wednesday ordered Argentina to pay the hedge fund creditors – led by Elliott Associates and Aurelius Capital – in mid-December.

Buenos Aires could choose to default rather than repay the hedge funds it considers ‘vultures’, in a case that experts say has far-reaching ramifications for international finance.

The decision still has to be confirmed by the appeals court and could end up before the US Supreme Court. But if upheld, it would open a chink in the armour of sovereign immunity against creditors that countries have largely enjoyed for the past century.”

Unnecessary incentives
TrustMedia reports that the African Tax Administration Forum is calling for a review of tax incentives granted by African governments to multinational corporations:

“[ATAF’s Logan Wort] said most tax incentives agreements were entered into without wide consultations as to how they impact on African countries’ ability to mobilise domestic resources for development.
‘We believe African countries are losing millions of dollars through tax incentives, which are mostly negotiated by the political elite.’

Zambia, for instance, has given specific tax incentives to companies operating in copper mining, the country’s traditional export sector, with conditions varying from one company to another. ATAF thinks this kind of incentive is not necessary.
‘We believe investors will come with or without tax incentives, therefore they are not necessary,’ Thulani Shongwe, a tax expert at the ATAF secretariat, commented. He said the organisation was now on a ‘crusade’ to review the benefits.”

Corn fears
Via Campesina expresses concern that multinational giants Monsanto, Dow and DuPont look likely to get the green light to plant genetically modified maize on 2.4 million hectares of Mexican land, “a surface area equivalent to that of El Salvador”:

The situation is extremely alarming since Mexico is the world’s centre of maize diversity, with thousands of varieties in the fields of peasant and indigenous communities. Maize is currently one of the world’s three main food staples, so the contamination of Mexican maize by dangerous GMOs is a threat to the entire planet.”

Human development
The University of London’s Simon Reid-Henry writes that Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s conception of development “requires thinking about poverty not simply as an aberration, as something that we might somehow solve.”

“It involves acknowledging, rather, that ‘our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering’, as Susan Sontag puts it. The problem of development lies as much in what we classify as wealth and how we go about promoting that as it does in poverty.

Accordingly, development becomes not so much about making up for what people lack (modernisation, say) so much as removing the ‘unfreedoms’ that stop them living in a way they might otherwise choose: market inequalities, perhaps, or state violence.”

Latest Developments, November 2

In the latest news and analysis…

Equity and sustainability
The UN Development Programme has released its new Human Development Report, in which it links the dual goals of global equity and sustainability – not for the first time, as illustrated by its quoting of another UN report from 1987.
“Many problems of resource depletion and environmental stress arise from disparities in economic and political power. An industry may get away with unacceptable levels of water pollution because the people who bear the brunt of it are poor and unable to complain effectively. A forest may be destroyed by excessive felling because the people living there have no alternatives or because timber contractors generally have more influence than forest dwellers. Globally, wealthier nations are better placed financially and technologically to cope with the effects of climatic change. Hence, our inability to promote the common interest in sustainable development is often a product of the relative neglect of economic and social justice within and amongst nations.” (emphasis in original)

A step backward
A group of NGOs is warning that international negotiations set for later this month in Geneva threaten to undo much of the progress to date on banning cluster munitions.
“Over the last few months, under pressure from several military powers that are opposed to the [Convention on Cluster Munitions], such as the United States, France has thrown it support behind a proposed international agreement, known as “Protocol VI” that would once again authorize the use of cluster munitions produced after 1980. A step backward, contradicting the norm established by the Convention, that would be unprecedented in international humanitarian law.
From Novermber 14th to 25th, country representatives will meet in Geneva to discuss the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW) and will decide on the adoption of this new text. If it is passed, these barbaric weapons would once again be considered legitimate by certain states.” (Translated from the French.)

Corruption’s supply side
Transparency International has released a new Bribe Payers Index, which examines the “supply side of bribery” – the likelihood that companies from a given country or sector will offer bribes when operating abroad – and for the first time includes bribes paid between companies, rather than simply to the public sector.
“While this particular form of bribery remains largely overlooked by researchers and policy-makers, its impact is likely to be significant. Its effects can be felt through the entire supply chain, distorting markets and competition, increasing costs to firms, penalising the smaller companies that cannot afford to compete on these terms and those firms with high integrity that refuse to do so. This not only prevents a fair and efficient private sector but also reduces the quality of products and services to the consumer.”

Human trade
The Inter Press Service reports on the complex human trafficking networks that are flourishing in the Horn of Africa’s context of conflict, drought and hunger.
“According to one Kenyan human trafficking agent, the networks have links to politicians, senior police officers, non-governmental organisations, senior immigration officials, airline officers and resettlement officials in various countries.
‘These powerful people, including foreign diplomats and ministers in Kenya, have transformed access to foreign visas into a growth industry matched possibly only by piracy, selling visas for 10,000 to 15,000 dollars each to leaders of the networks,’ the agent says.”

EU reform fallout
The Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO) has released a report suggesting the EU is undertaking financial reforms without regard for sustainability or their impact on poor countries.
“The new SOMO report provides some concrete recommendations on how the EU’s financial reforms need to be improved. All financial services, products and derivative trading need to be assessed for their risks and usefulness to society and the environment, as well as for financial stability. The supervisors and regulators of developing countries should have a say in the supervision and decisions concerning European banks that are operating in their country. Overall, speculative banking and financial markets need to be separated from retail banking and basic financial services, and that also means preventing financial links (e.g. loans) between banks and hedge funds.”

Due diligence
Following last month’s collapse of a French-owned hydroelectric plant in Panama, Counter Balance is calling on the European Investment Bank to investigate the troubled project for which it provided $220 million in loans.
“This is not the first problem with this project. In August 2010 a nearby village was flooded after the company opened a sluice. Other damage to private property was caused by detonations in the early stages of the construction. Additionally the Counter Balance report [published in the spring] lists a number of problems related to the project such as the excessive cost of the project (3 times higher than average for these projects), the alleged speculation on land which the company could buy below marked prices and the failure by the project promoters to properly consult local communities.”

There will be blood
The Courthouse News Service reports California-based Occidental Petroleum has been accused in a federal complaint of giving millions of dollars to a Colombian army unit whose alleged misdeeds included the killings of three union activists.
“The Colombian army provided security to an ‘association’ made up of [Colombia’s state oil company] Ecopetrol, Occidental and Spanish oil company Repsol, the plaintiffs say. Occidental’s Colombian subsidiary, Oxy Colombia, committed roughly $3 million to the army under the agreement, an amount ‘so large that Occidental’s U.S.-based leadership must have approved the 2004 Security Agreement,’ the complaint states.”

Enforcing transparency
The Taskforce on Financial Integrity and Economic Development has issued a statement ahead of the G20 summit in Cannes, in which it suggests concrete ways that world leaders can “focus on the underlying, systemic causes of the current financial crisis.”
“A free-market cannot flourish when rules of fair play are perverted by the corruption and legally-condoned tax cheating that has resulted from 30 years of de-regulation, liberalization and increasing financial secrecy provided by tax havens.
As the living standards and job prospects of billions of people suffer, the fundamental injustice of the current financial system has led to the groundswell of anger represented by the ‘Occupy’ movements around the world. Many of the ill effects currently suffered by ‘rich country’ economies have been endured by the developing world for decades.”