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.”

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Latest Developments, October 16

In the latest news and analysis…

Bad timing
Oxford University’s David Priestland argues the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to the European Union at this point in time is “distinctly odd”:

“The introduction of the euro changed the EU from an institution that used economic integration to promote peace to one that is sacrificing peace on the altar of free-market economics. Brussels is being rewarded for its pacific past at the very moment it is provoking civil strife.

Nor did Europe’s eirenic outlook always extend beyond its borders. Individual countries have sometimes played a far from peaceful role in the world – especially the French and British meddling in their former empires. Europe’s protectionism has also damaged the interests of the developing world.”

Development by force
Human Rights Watch’s Jessica Evans criticizes the World Bank’s support for Ethiopia’s controversial “villagization” program:

“Once forcibly evicted and moved to the new villages, families are finding that the promised government services often do not exist, giving them less access to services than before the relocation. Dozens of farmers in Ethiopia’s Gambella region told us they are being moved from fertile areas where they survive on subsistence farming, to dry, arid areas. Ojod’s family farm was on the river, but as part of the villagization program, the government took his farm and forced his family to relocate to a dry area. There are reports that this fertile land is being leased to multinational companies for large-scale farms.
The villagization program is an Ethiopian government initiative, not one designed by the World Bank. But villagization appears to be the government’s way of implementing a certain World Bank project in five of Ethiopia’s eleven regions.”

Colonial legacy
Radio France Internationale reports that French President François Hollande has promised to hand over archives relating to a massacre of Senegalese troops fighting for France during World War II:

“ ‘The dark side of our history includes the bloody repression at the Thiaroye camp in 1944 which caused the death of 35 African soldiers who fought for France,’ Hollande told the Senegalese parliament.

In a speech where he also paid homage to the victims of the slave trade, Hollande declared that the Françafrique policy, often criticised as neo-colonialist, is over.
‘There is France and there is Africa,’ he declared, adding that he was not going to give the Senegalese moral lectures, in an indirect reference to his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial speech in Dakar five years ago.”

Poisonous siege
The Independent reports on a new study linking the siege of Fallujah by Western forces during the Iraq War to the city’s “staggering rise” in birth defects:

“The latest study found that in Fallujah, more than half of all babies surveyed were born with a birth defect between 2007 and 2010. Before the siege, this figure was more like one in 10. Prior to the turn of the millennium, fewer than 2 per cent of babies were born with a defect. More than 45 per cent of all pregnancies surveyed ended in miscarriage in the two years after 2004, up from only 10 per cent before the bombing. Between 2007 and 2010, one in six of all pregnancies ended in miscarriage.”

Patent override
The Guardian reports that the Indonesian government has taken steps to allow seven “important” but patented medicines to be manufactured cheaply and locally:

“The biggest fights now are in India, where Big Pharma is battling to preserve its patents, arguing that India’s thriving generic companies will sell not just to the poor but to the whole world.
But what has happened in Indonesia is remarkable for its scale. It appears that the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has decided to license the entire slate of medicines its population needs against HIV. It already had an order from 2007 for three older HIV drugs (efavirenz, lamivudine and nevirapine), but the new decree states specifically that this is ‘no longer sufficient’.
The drug patents belong to Merck, GSK, Bristol Myers Squibb, Abbott and Gilead.”

Tax hike
The New York Times reports that Mongolia is considering renegotiating the investment agreement it has with Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto regarding a $6 billion copper project:

“Last Monday, the caucus of Mongolia’s Democratic Party, which leads a coalition government in place since August, passed a budget proposal, which calls for a new sliding royalty on Oyu Tolgoi’s revenue that would rise to 20 percent depending on the copper price. The 2009 investment agreement set the royalty rate at 5 percent.
The new plan would also raise Oyu Tolgoi’s effective tax rate by eliminating income-tax allowances. The government would bring in 221.3 billion tugriks, or $160 million, from the royalty and 224.5 billion tugriks, or $163 million, from corporate income tax, according to estimates in the draft budget proposal.
This week, the plan is expected to reach Parliament, which will decide whether to adopt or modify the proposal.”

Paradigm shift
Intellectual Property Watch reports on a recent roundtable where one of the participants argued that global health justice will require “a body of hard and soft laws”:

“ ‘When I first entered global health, I thought global health was mostly about making rich countries devote resources to those who lack the capacity to do it,’ [Georgetown University’s Larry Gostin] said. This ‘is a northern view based upon guilt, but it is really the wrong view,’ he said.

There are still residual international responsibilities, but they are based on a flawed idea of international development assistance for health, which is ‘very much charitable-based, with a benefactor and a recipient.’ It is not justice-based, he said, and lacks a sense of shared responsibility, adding, ‘We need to change this paradigm.’ ”

Food futures
The Observer’s Heather Stewart decries the lack of action by rich-country governments to rein in the price of food, which she says depends more on “all-but-irrelevant events in Brussels or Berlin” than on supply and demand:

“Any tougher crackdown – forcing greater transparency about who is betting on what, with whom, for example – looks highly likely to be scuppered by the same kind of concerted lobbying that sank proposals for regulating other derivatives markets in the years before the crisis.
In the US, for example, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is facing a legal battle over its attempts to impose ‘position limits’, constraining the share of the market single investors can hold in a number of commodities, including corn and cocoa. The proposal was struck down by a court in Washington, in a case brought by several financial sector trade bodies – though the CFTC has not given up on introducing position limits in some form.”

Latest Developments, January 26

In the latest news and analysis…

Tax breaks
Reuters reports that iron ore exports could propel Sierra Leone to 51.4 percent GDP growth in 2012, but the extent to which the country’s people will benefit may depend as much on two UK-based companies as on the government.
“Sierra Leone adopted a new mining law in 2009 designed to improve the state share of the country’s resource wealth by raising royalty rates. Previous legislation also established a tax rate of 37.5 percent for mining companies.
Both London Mining and African Minerals obtained substantial tax discounts in their contracts and are paying well below the percentages outlined, even after London Mining’s accord was renegotiated.

‘The limited tax contribution from the mining companies has huge implications for poor people in Sierra Leone,’ Danish watchdog DanWatch said in a recent report.”

Mining denial
The National Post is the first Canadian newspaper to report on last week’s death of a Mexican protester near a Canadian-owned mine, which Fortuna Silver says had nothing to do with its operations.
“A spokeswoman for the Canadian group MiningWatch criticized the company’s position.
‘There has been conflict over this project and worries over potential impacts on local water supplies for several years,’ said Jen Moore.
‘Instead of trying to deny any responsibility, the company should work to help diminish tensions.’ ”

Human-free bombing
The Los Angeles Times reports that the US Navy is testing a new drone that “has no pilot anywhere,” a development that raises a number of ethical questions.
“ ‘Lethal actions should have a clear chain of accountability,’ said Noel Sharkey, a computer scientist and robotics expert. ‘This is difficult with a robot weapon. The robot cannot be held accountable. So is it the commander who used it? The politician who authorized it? The military’s acquisition process? The manufacturer, for faulty equipment?’
Sharkey and others believe that autonomous armed robots should force the kind of dialogue that followed the introduction of mustard gas in World War I and the development of atomic weapons in World War II. The International Committee of the Red Cross, the group tasked by the Geneva Conventions to protect victims in armed conflict, is already examining the issue.”

Chevron lawyers up
The Am Law Daily reports oil giant Chevron has disclosed that it is employing “no fewer than 39 law firms” to defend itself against a multi-billion dollar lawsuit over pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
“By the Ecuadorian plaintiffs’ count (which we did not verify), Chevron employs close to 500 outside lawyers or paralegals to counter their claims.

According to the plaintiffs’ unverified count, Chevron lists 60 lawyers from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher alone. The plaintiffs estimate that Gibson Dunn charged Chevron $250 million in 2010, and the same amount again in 2011, but they don’t explain their calculations. This number seems at least two times too high, since according to The American Lawyer‘s published figures Gibson Dunn’s total litigation billings in 2010 were approximately $595 million.”

Genocide denial
In the wake of the recent report by a French judge on the events that triggered the Rwandan genocide, freelance journalist Julie Owono calls for France to re-examine its role in “the first genocide in Africa of the 20th century” perpetrated against the Bamileke people of western Cameroon in the early 1960s.
“Much less about this is known however, since the archives detailing direct French involvement remain under the seal of secrecy by the French state. The recent publication of a journalistic and historical thesis by two French journalists and a Cameroonian historian, recounts in detail the war by France on the edge of the independence of Cameroon to impose the first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, to a population which in a majority supported the Cameroonian Independence Party, testimony in support of survivors of the massacres and actors, as well as the paradoxically more accessible archives of the Cameroonian army, and has gradually begun to open the wall of silence in which the French authorities had sealed the question of this genocide.
The answer given by French Prime Minister François during his official visit in Yaounde in 2009 might therefore attest the same memoricide will: ‘I absolutely deny that the French forces were involved in anything related to murder in Cameroon. All this is pure invention.’ ”

Counterintuitive capital movements
The London School of Economics’ Keyu Jin wonders why it is that “capital-scarce (and young) developing countries” are exporting rather than importing capital that they need for consumption and investment.
“China is a case in point. With its current-account surplus averaging 5.5% of GDP in 2000-2008, China has become one of the world’s largest lenders. Despite its rapid growth and promising investment opportunities, the country has persistently been sending a significant portion of its savings overseas.
And China is not alone. Other emerging markets – including Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico, Argentina, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Middle Eastern oil exporters – have all increased their current-account surpluses significantly since the early 1990’s. Collectively, capital-scarce developing countries are lending to capital-abundant advanced economies.”

Disputed hunger figures
The Guardian’s Claire Provost looks critically at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s oft repeated estimate that there a billion hungry people in the world, a figure from which even the UN body is distancing itself.
“Unfortunately, little of the uncertainty surrounding global hunger estimates is ever reported alongside the emotive, top-line figures.

While the FAO hunger indicator has long dominated discussions, it is not the only way to measure food insecurity. Over the years, it has been criticised on many fronts: for the poor quality of underlying data; for the focus on calorie intake, without consideration of proteins, vitamins and minerals; and for the emphasis on availability – rather than affordability, accessibility or actual use – of food. Some say we’d be better off focusing on improving household consumption surveys, opinion polls, and direct measures of height and body weight.”

Latest Developments, November 17

In the latest news and analysis…

Mali’s land rush
The Guardian reports on a new study that found foreign investment in Mali’s arable land, much of which has been worked for generations by farmers with no formal ownership rights, increased by 60 percent from 2009 to 2010.
“The bulk of these land deals – covering an area the report says could sustain more than half a million small farmers – were negotiated by just 22 foreign agri-investors. Less than 5% of west Africa’s largest country is arable.

The report levels significant blame on the World Bank, which it says has ‘shaped the economic, fiscal and legal environment of Mali in a way that favours the acquisition of vast tracks of fertile lands by few private interests instead of bringing solutions to the widespread poverty and hunger plaguing the country’.”

Zambia doubles up on miners
The Centre for Trade Policy and Development has welcomed the Zambian government’s proposal to double royalty rates on mining companies to six percent.
“Our analysis of the mining sector’s tax payments, its contribution to employment and supporting backward and forward linkages to local supply chains reveals that these are not commensurate to the levels of incentives and concessions that the government currently gives to the industry. The cost structure of most of the mining entities is weighted to promote shifting of profits outside the country through such schemes as transfer pricing, use of derivatives and thin capitalization,” according to CTPD’s Savior Mwambwa.

Air battle
Reuters reports that Nigeria is fining two British airlines for overcharging on flights between the two countries, claiming flights from the UK to nearby Ghana are considerably cheaper.
“’We are charging British Airways $135-million and Virgin Atlantic $100-million for abuse of a dominant position, fixing prices, abusing fuel surcharges and taking advantage of passengers,’ said Harold Demuren, director-general of Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA).
‘We have been investigating for the last six months. Lagos to London has the highest route yield in the world. Our market is open for exploration, not exploitation.’”

Generic pressures
The Inter Press Service reports that even though there are international mechanisms – such as the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and Public Health laid out in the Doha Declaration of 2001 – that theoretically enable poor countries to prioritize public health over intellectual property rights, important obstacles to generic treatments persist.
“Surprisingly, very few developing countries, including South Africa, have amended their Patent Acts to make use of the possibilities the Doha Declaration provided – mainly due to international pressure from the pharmaceutical industry, the United States and European Union, where many of the world’s patented drugs are manufactured, health experts argue.”

Green economics
The International Institute for Environment and Development’s Kate Munro says green economics has yet to “leap the chasm that divides it from mainstream economic thinking” but it is gaining political traction in “developing” countries.
“However as the [New Forests Company] project in Uganda illustrates, the wide range of activities that can fly the green flag currently includes development projects with major negative social impacts. Such cases risk leaving popular audiences in developing countries unconvinced that green economics really can provide solutions to the problems they face, such as poverty, inequity and a lack of social justice.”

Understanding the Western brain
Saleemul Huq of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh has some tips on how the Climate Vulnerable Forum should present its message if it wants to get the attention of policy makers in rich countries.
“The most important factor is the high level political strategy and messaging. Firstly, it is time to stop repeating that we are the most vulnerable and not responsible for the emissions that cause climate change. While this remains true, it is not new (we have repeated it ad nauseum) and so attracts no media attention. Nor does it find resonance among the developed countries, as they find the accusatory tone unpalatable. It is therefore time to drop the tone of “victimhood” and move on to a more positive message as follows:
Even though we are the most vulnerable and lowest emitters, we are nevertheless prepared to do what we can to reduce our own emissions of Green House Gases (GHGs) because every ton of carbon dioxide, regardless of whether it is produced in Bangladesh, China, or USA, causes the same amount of climate change. Therefore, reducing a ton of carbon dioxide contributes as much to the solution, whether it is done in Bangladesh, China or USA. We, as most vulnerable countries, are prepared to do our best to reduce our emissions and encourage and recommend other to do all they can do as well, whether or not there is any global agreement.”

Journalistic imperialism
Freelance journalist Stanley Kwenda writes about the experience of filming his own documentary for Al Jazeera after years of working as a fixer for foreign journalists telling stories about his native Zimbabwe even if they had “little or no knowledge of the local landscape or culture.”
“Africa’s story has often been about crises, about war, poverty and hunger but Al Jazeera has established a means through which other stories about Africa can be showcased. Those stories may be about Africa’s problems too, but in telling them ourselves it shows that we understand them and can work to find our own solutions.”

Hunger numbers
Oxfam’s Richard King writes about the dodginess of global hunger estimates and the Food and Agriculture Organization’s ongoing attempts to come up with way to get more reliable numbers.
“But all this will take time to overhaul, and will likely still result in indicators that are more suited to measuring recent chronic food insecurity rather than current acute hunger. For that, we may have to turn to more subjective indicators, such as those in the Gallup World Poll surveys recently analysed by [the International Food Policy Research Institute], in which people were asked: ‘Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy the food that you or your family needed?’ (yes or no). This is an imperfect alternative, not least because ‘food’ and ‘need’ are more abstract than counting calories and are likely to be interpreted differently depending on respondents’ location.”