Latest Developments, August 4

In the latest news and analysis…

After controversy and delay, the UN Environment Programme has released the results of a 14-month study of the oil industry’s impacts on Nigeria’s Ogoniland region. According to the report, “there are, in a significant number of locations, serious threats to human health from contaminated drinking water to concerns over the viability and productivity of ecosystems. In addition that pollution has perhaps gone further and penetrated deeper than many may have previously supposed.” It goes on to say clean up could take decades and cost billions. Shell Petroleum Development Company, a Nigerian subsidiary of the world’s second largest oil company, says it ceased oil production in Ogoniland in 1993 and blames the majority of spills on illegal bunkering by local inhabitants. But Nigerian NGO Environmental Rights Action wants Shell to apologize to the Nigerian people and pay for clean up and compensation. It is calling for a $100 billion remediation fund and environmental audits of other drilling areas in the Niger Delta.

French oil giant Total, its CEO and a number of French politicians are being charged for their roles in a scandal involving bribe paying and the UN’s oil-for-food program which operated in Iraq from 1996 to 2003. French law allows for corporations to be “declared a legal entity and be prosecuted,” according to Radio France International. The trial is expected to begin next year.

Although much of the blame for the severity of Somalia’s current humanitarian crisis has been heaped on the Islamist rebels who have banned many foreign agencies from operating in the country’s south, the Guardian’s Xan Rice reports “delays in procuring food aid and raising funds” are every bit as much of a problem. A problem that makes the international humanitarian community look bad, according to one aid worker, given that warnings of a looming food shortage started months ago. A Globe and Mail editorial calls the current situation a crisis of unpreparedness, anarchy and sloth.

The Economist says “developing” countries have surpassed their “developed” counterparts – a division it call “more than a tad arbitrary – on a number of economic indicators. While the former still only account for 38 percent of global GDP, that figure is twice what it was two decades ago and when adjusted for purchasing-power parity, it climbs to 54 percent. These same countries also accounted for more than half of foreign direct investment inflows, energy consumption and mobile-phone subscriptions. But in none of these categories does their share equal their proportion of the global population.

US President Barack Obama has issued a directive establishing a new “standing interagency Atrocities Prevention Board” in order to remedy the fact that “66 years since the Holocaust and 17 years after Rwanda, the United States still lacks a comprehensive policy framework and a corresponding interagency mechanism for preventing and responding to mass atrocities and genocide.”

Oxfam’s Duncan Green points out some of the things World Food Programme head Josette Sheeran left out of her TED talk on ending hunger: “Globally, apart from an oblique reference to food subsidies, there is little mention of rich country policies on biofuels, or cutting aid to agriculture, or land grabs, or driving risks down the value chain to small farmers, or failing to do anything on climate change, which all contribute to the problem.”

Reuters’ Barry Malone writes about the predictable nature of the food crises he covers. He laments “that every few years we’re faced with an “emergency” that could have been prevented, that aid groups must frantically try to raise money to respond, that journalists need to find emaciated babies at death’s door and film and photograph and write about them before the world gives a damn.” And he is sceptical of foreign charities that “talk about long-term plans to help people become self-sufficient but they’ve been failing to achieve them for 20 years.” Saving perhaps his harshest criticism for his own profession, Malone quotes an Ethiopian girl who was moved to tears while watching foreign journalists interacting with a Somali woman in a refugee camp: “All she had left was her dignity,” the girl tells him. “And then they took that, too.”

With the EU currently looking into establishing rules on corporate transparency, Christian Aid’s Joseph Stead argues it should draw inspiration from US legislation requiring oil, gas and mining companies listed on American stock exchanges to divulge how much they pay to foreign governments, thereby making it easier for citizens of poor countries to hold their elected officials to account. But Stead believes the EU should go a step further by requiring European businesses to disclose their profits, sales and number of employees on a country-by-country basis. These requirements, unlike the US ones, would address the two main ways the inhabitants of poor countries miss out on the benefits of resource wealth: In addition to bringing to light government corruption, the information Stead suggests “would also help identify suspected corporate tax dodging. The latter is a problem that Christian Aid estimates costs poor countries $160bn a year – much more than they receive in aid.”

In a wide-ranging Q&A, City University of New York’s Talal Asad talks about the fear among many Western observers that the Arab Spring will eventually hand the reins of power to Islamist groups, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: “I don’t think, in principle, that just because a movement declares itself to be religious, it should be made the object of special suspicion. In my view, one shouldn’t trust anyone who hankers after state power, whether they call themselves religious or secular. The modern state is at once one of the most brutal sources of oppression and a necessary means for providing common benefits to citizens. Whether it is secular or religious seems to me much less important than the fact that it is a state. If we look back over the twentieth century and this should become obvious.”

Latest Developments, August 2

In the latest news and analysis…

American senators Carl Levin and Chuck Grassley have brought forth legislation that aims to greatly reduce international financial secrecy and wrongdoing by requiring anyone setting up a company in the US to divulge the name of the beneficial owner. “Until this law is passed, foreign corrupt politicians, terrorists and drug traffickers can continue legally to hide their identities and their dubious assets behind the secrecy provided by American companies,” according to Global Witness’s Stefanie Ostfeld who hailed the bill’s introduction. As did Global Financial Integrity’s Heather Lowe who said, as things stand, it is “far too easy to gain access to financial services in the U.S. through anonymous U.S. corporations, while it is far too difficult for law enforcement groups to figure out who is really behind those corporations.

Plaintiffs in Papua New Guinea have obtained a temporary injunction “preventing a mine from dumping millions of tonnes of waste into the sea.” The news came less than a week after a national court judge had ruled the Chinese-Australian copper project’s proposed method of waste disposal “amounts to an abuse and depletion of Papua New Guinea’s natural resources and environment” but refused to impose a permanent ban. PNG’s Supreme Court will examine the case later this month.

A new Food and Agriculture Organization report suggests that, contrary to popular belief, growing demand for grain in China and India has little to do with increasing food prices.  In fact, the FAO says cereal imports to the two Asian giants actually declined between 2000 and 2007 and points to the rise of biofuels as the main driver of growth in demand. And a new report by the New Economics Foundation suggests EU fisherman have discarded more than 2 million tonnes of cod over the last half-century.

Somalia’s Islamist Al Shabab “has destroyed whatever legitimacy it had, by obstructing humanitarian organizations from entering the country to provide relief from the severe famine,” according to a Globe and Mail editorial. Meanwhile, the US has decided to ease up on some obstruction of its own by loosening restrictions on aid to Somalia that threatened to prosecute any organization deemed to have provided any financial or material support to Al Shabab. Food aid aside, the rebel group which controls much of Somalia, including the famine-stricken south, has reportedly gotten its hands on a large number of American-made weapons.

Arguing “we live in an era when political boundaries, not the lives of nomadic pastoralists, are sacrosanct,” Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs takes on the role of arbitrary colonial-era borders in the Horn of Africa’s food crisis. He points to the fact that many Somali people live in Kenya and Ethiopia as a prime reason for the ongoing instability of the border regions. Sachs also discusses “the overlap of dryland climates and conflict zones” and argues “the region urgently requires a development strategy, not a military approach.” Moreover, he says the “US and Europe are not only failing to respond to the African drought; they have probably contributed to it through their greenhouse-gas emissions.”

Former NATO secretary general Javier Solana and the University of the Basque Country’s Daniel Innerarity declare an end to foreign affairs, saying that globalized threats and opportunities give today’s world an “epidemic character” that renders national policies inadequate: “Truly effective global governance is the strategic horizon that humanity must pursue today with all its energy.” Failure, they claim will mean “the “end of history” – not as the placid apotheosis of liberal democracy’s global victory, but as the worst collective failure we can imagine.”

A Bloomberg editorial argues Brazil, India and South Africa “don’t seem to demonstrate the awareness that international leadership comes with responsibilities as well as privileges.” Exhibit A, according to the authors, is the three countries’ disappointing troop contribution to UN peacekeeping: only India is a “major contributor,” they say, and even it ranks behind its much smaller neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh. But according to June statistics on military and police contributions to UN peacekeeping, India  ranks third overall, behind only Pakistan and Bangladesh. Brazil and South Africa rank 13th and 14th, respectively. The UK is 46th and the US is 64th, with approximately a twentieth of Brazil’s or South Africa’s contributions. As for the editorialists’ notion that a greater contribution from India, Brazil and South Africa could “possibly free European troops for more difficult missions, such as Afghanistan,” there are currently only three European countries (Italy, France and Spain) ranked among the top 35 contributors with over 500 troops or police serving as blue helmets.

A Voice of America editorial celebrates the UN refugee convention’s 60th anniversary, saying the agreement remains essential today given the millions “who have been uprooted from their homes and forced to live in difficult and in many cases unacceptable conditions.” The US leads the way both in terms of permanently resettling refugees (71,400 in 2010) and creating them in the first place (4.7 million from Afghanistan and Iraq).

Reuters’s Rachelle Younglai and Ana da Costa point out the “overwhelming irony” that credit agencies, such as Standard & Poors and Moody’s, “are the same firms that many blame as prime instigators of the 2007-2008 credit crisis for freely giving out top ratings to ultimately worthless structured mortgage products” and yet, they now “sit in judgment of the countries that had to ruin their public balance sheets to prevent financial collapse by saving the banks shattered by those bad instruments once blessed by the agencies.”

Latest Developments, July 4

It has been a long weekend on both sides of the world’s longest shared border. To mark the occasion, here is a list of international human rights issues for Canada to address and a July 4th reminder of what unfettered economic interests can do.

Now, some news and analysis from the last few days…

The UK’s new anti-corruption legislation came into effect, aimed at cracking down on bribes paid to foreign officials by companies with a substantial British link. Global Witness warns the new act, which may only produce 1.3 additional prosecutions per year, will be of little use without sufficient enforcement.

The Isle of Man and Guernsey have agreed to the automatic exchange of tax information with the European Union. The EU appears less interested in its own political transparency, however, as 20 of its member states are challenging a court ruling that would require the disclosure of positions taken in the all-important working-group stage of policy making.

On the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog, Lawrence Haddad and Calestous Juma highlight five priorities for the new head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, while Gary Younge points to Portugal, Greece, and Haiti as evidence of the increasing irrelevance of national governments.

A dispute over Pakistan’s Shamsi airbase raises questions about national sovereignty, and trouble at the world’s largest refugee camp highlights the plight of those who have fled their country.

The Overseas Development Institute makes recommendations for increased effectiveness of European development cooperation,  while Counter Balance slams the European Investment Bank for funding controversial mining operations in Africa.

Drawing on the examples of Tunisia, Senegal and Mauritius, Sheila Bunwaree argues against putting too much stock in global index rankings. And speaking of Mauritius, the tiny island nation accounted for 42 percent of foreign direct investment into India last year, suggesting much of the FDI is rather indirect. Not to mention exempt from capital gains tax. Rumours that India wants to renegotiate its tax agreement with Mauritius sent stock tumbling in Mumbai last month.


Latest Developments, June 28

In today’s news…

As expected, Christine Lagarde has become the new head of the International Monetary Fund. The position came up for grabs when her predecessor resigned after being charged with sexual assault. But Lagarde may not be above reproach either, as she is currently under investigation for her her involvement in a questionable legal settlement involving 403 million euros in public money.

In the US, the trial of businessmen caught in a sting trying to defraud the people of Gabon is a sign of an increased willingness to crack down on Americans who try to bribe foreign officials. At the same time, an unassuming house in Cheyenne, Wyoming suggests tax havens are not just islands in the Caribbean.

British Prime Minister David Cameron reminds us his government is taking the lead on aid transparency. So far, only 12 governments are signatories to the International Aid Transparency Initiative. Germany is the only other G8 country among them.

Britain also found itself in a minority position when its delegates recently opted not to support a proposed International Labour Organization convention aimed at protecting the rights of domestic workers. Although the motion passed, the US, Canada and the Netherlands made it clear that in spite of their votes of support, they were unlikely to ratify the convention.

Argentina is not the only G20 country struggling to tackle money laundering. Up to $15 billion is laundered annually in Canada. And new statistics show its police only manage to identify a suspect in 18 percent of money laundering cases and prosecutors secure a conviction in just a third of trials in which money laundering is the most serious charge.

A number of civil society organizations have signed an open letter calling for the UN to establish an international tax cooperation body, while Christian Aid’s Julian Boys blasts the International Accounting Standards Board for secrecy he argues harms both the world’s poor and the IASB’s own interests.

Libya says the International Criminal Court arrest warrants issued against Gadhafi and his sons end any possibility of a negotiated settlement to the current conflict, thereby providing additional ammunition for those who argue international justice in its current form may actually harm the cause of peace in Africa.

Despite much fretting in wealthy countries about perceived mass influxes of refugees, a new UN report shows 80 percent of the world’s refugees are in poor countries, with Pakistan, Iran and Syria leading the way. The findings prompted UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres to speak of a “worrying unfairness in the international protection paradigm.”

The Overseas Development Institute’s Jonathan Glennie, a vocal proponent of “beyond aid” thinking, writes about reducing aid dependence rather than reducing aid. The former requires replacing aid money with other sources of revenue. The article draws extensively from a recent talk by a Uganda Revenue Authority official who asks: “Is foreign aid to Africa promoting the strengthening of tax administration or simply having a substitution effect?”