Latest Developments, July 11

Flying and a wedding made last weekend another long one for Beyond Aid, so we have some catching up to do on the latest news and analysis…

The biggest news of the last few days was of course the birth of a new country. All may not be well between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, but South Sudan officially came into being on Saturday, even if maps may take a little time to catch up with the new reality. Map aficionados will appreciate the Guardian’s interactive political map of Africa, which shows the continent’s shifting borders since 1900. Its creators, however, apparently forgot about Ceuta and Melilla, the final European possessions on the African mainland, which may be too small for the map’s scale but deserved a mention in the accompanying text.

The UN declared in its annual progress report on the Millennium Development Goals that the objectives set over a decade ago are still attainable by the 2015 deadline. While there has been progress in many parts of the world, much of the reduction in those living in poverty has occurred in East Asia. So, even though there has been some good news out of India, 54 percent of its people still live on under $2 a day.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon marked World Population Day with a call for an end to global poverty and inequality: “We have enough food for everyone, yet nearly a billion go hungry. We have the means to eradicate many diseases, yet they continue to spread. We have the gift of a rich natural environment, yet it remains subject to daily assault and exploitation. All people of conscience dream of peace, yet too much of the world is in conflict and steeped in armaments.” The UN press release also points out that many wealthier countries are worried about low fertility and aging in a world where the population has doubled since 1968.

Joseph Stiglitz touches on the problems posed by this apparent lack of solidarity when he argues for an overhaul of the global financial system, which he says is bad for rich and poor, but especially the poor: “If you just focus on nationalities, you cannot be self-regulated. This kind of valuation focuses on individual units, but not the whole system.” Similarly, George Soros argues the eurozone’s biggest problem is trying to find national solutions to continental problems.

The US has announced it will withhold $800 million in military assistance to Pakistan, while it has delivered only two percent of the agricultural aid it pledged at the 2009 G8 summit in L’Aquila, according to a new report by anti-poverty group ONE.

Senegal announced it would extradite former Chadian president Hissène Habré, who is accused of being responsible for at least 40,000 deaths during his reign in the 1980s, back to his native country. But the Senegalese government had a change of heart after the UN expressed concerns the man who once enjoyed French and US backing in a war with Gadhafi’s Libya could be subjected to torture upon his return. The case has long been controversial in Senegal, as many there feel the pressure to try Habré comes from outside the continent, thereby fuelling the perception that African rulers are held to account far more than their counterparts from wealthier countries.

Such objections might be calmed by the release of a new Human Rights Watch report – authored by none other than Reed Brody who has played a lead role in the campaign to try Habré – calling for former US president George W. Bush to be investigated over the use of torture during his administration. The report also names his vice-president Dick Cheney, former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and ex-CIA director George Tenet. “The US has a legal obligation to investigate these crimes,” according to Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth. “If the US doesn’t act on them, other countries should.” Roth added: “When the US government shields its own officials from investigation and prosecution, it makes it easier for others to dismiss global efforts to bring violators of serious crimes to justice.”

Also, following the European court of human rights rulings against Britain in a pair of cases involving UK abuses in Iraq, Human Rights Watch’s Clive Baldwin says an independent body, rather than the military itself, should investigate allegations of serious wrongdoing.

Canada has announced it will boycott the UN Conference on Disarmament until North Korea’s chairmanship ends next month, at which point it will push for changes that go beyond the rotating presidency. The US, on the other hand, does not believe a controversial chair can cause much damage in a consensus-based organization. The requirement of a consensus is one of the aspects Canada would like to see changed.

In a Guardian piece on the UK’s Department for International Development’s newfound enthusiasm for turning to the private sector to help reduce world poverty, a department official opines: “We suspect that the development community as a whole hasn’t looked hard enough at non-state provision of services.” The author characterizes the comment as “quite bold given that developing countries were very much forced to look at “non-state provision of services” in the 1980s when the World Bank and the IMF introduced its structural adjustment programme, which actually reversed development progress in some countries.” It is, however, more difficult to dispute the DFID official’s assertion that NGOs are not accountable to the public either.

From the vaults: Religion and politics in Senegal

At the risk of deviating slightly from my mandate, I’ve decided to post an unpublished piece I wrote in 2007, shortly after covering Senegal’s last presidential election and one of the country’s major religious pilgrimages. I feel that the burning of a Jehovah’s Witness temple in suburban Dakar (in the very suburb where my narrative begins) over the weekend, as well as the recent controversy over proposed constitutional changes in the run-up to next year’s election, makes the piece timely again and I hope it can give a small insight into Senegal’s complex politico-religious culture.

But please do bear in mind the text is four years old, so the statistics at the very least are out of date. For an update on the interplay of politics and religion in Senegal, read this.

Dakar, Senegal – On the western edge of a city and a continent, a green-domed mausoleum sits just beyond the endless pounding of Atlantic breakers. “Sacred place. No sports allowed,” reads a sign in hand-painted French, staking out a little piece of sand for a 19th Century holy man to rest in peace. On either side of the shrine, teams of young boys chasing footballs mirror the ocean’s ebb and flow. A little further, Western tourists loll about in Speedos and bikinis, partially veiled only by a thin salt mist.

In this West African nation of 12 million, a secular constitution combines with intercommunal marriages and cultural traditions – most notably teranga, or hospitality – to foster tolerance and blur the lines separating the estimated 95-percent majority Muslims from the Christian and animist minorities.

“Everybody pretty much practices their religion without worrying about what others are doing,” said Abass Fall, a 40 year-old teacher, fresh from an annual pilgrimage which draws hundreds of thousands of devotees to the holy city of Tivaouane just northeast of the capital. “And during religious holidays, each community invites the other to join in the festivities.”

Senegal may have its share of problems – it ranks below Sudan, Haiti and Zimbabwe on the UN’s Human Development Index and has an estimated urban unemployment rate of nearly 50 percent – but religion is not a major fault line, according to a Western official in Dakar who spoke on condition of anonymity. While he did not know whether to attribute Senegalese tolerance to the influence of the country’s dominant brand of Islam – an unorthodox form in which charms and icons are widespread and the majority belong to mystical Sufi brotherhoods – or vice versa, he said there was no recent history of religious radicalism or fanaticism.

This apparent absence of radical Islam is good news in intelligence circles increasingly concerned northwestern Africa’s porous borders and vast unpoliced areas are ideal for recruiting and training terrorists. But Senegal’s own brand of Islam produces its own set of challenges.

Though a devout member of the Tijani brotherhood, Abdoul Aziz Kébé, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Civilization at Dakar’s Cheikh Anta Diop University, fears the increasing political role of religion in the country may threaten the republican values of equality and legality. He believes Senegal is sliding towards a dangerous situation under President Abdoulaye Wade who was reelected for a five-year term earlier this year. His allegiance and submission to the head of the Mouride brotherhood – the most powerful Senegalese order both politically and economically but second to the Tijani in numbers – is typical of its adherents but when Wade behaves in this way, he is choosing religion over the very constitution that is intended to leave people free to worship as they choose.

“If the president submits to another power,” Kébé said, “he places all Senegalese people under the power of that authority, even if they don’t belong to that brotherhood.”

In the lead-up to last month’s parliamentary elections, a number of media voices condemned Wade’s open patronage of Mouride leaders who have the power to deliver huge numbers of votes to friendly politicians. The country’s much vaunted democracy – Senegal is the only West African nation never to have experienced a military coup – lost some of its lustre due to the opposition’s boycott of the vote. But in Kébé’s view, Wade’s favouring of one brotherhood over the others can have consequences long after election day.

“The impression that one group or another is the chosen people is very dangerous in a republic,” he warned. “It marks everyone else out as the damned.”

Still, it is not just Muslims who feel that Senegalese Islam is for the most part getting things right. Given the country’s demographic realities, Christians benefit from the maintenance of a secular, tolerant society. For now, they do not seem too worried about their lot.

“Fundamentalism gets drowned in Senegal’s culture of openness and respect for others,” said Reverend Gabriel Sarr who leads the congregation at Dakar’s oldest church. But despite the constitution and the fact that Easter Monday is a national holiday and street vendors peddle inflatable Santas and miniature Christmas trees every December, he guards against complacency. “Sometimes a small thing can undo a whole tradition of peace.”