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How much is $700 billion really? A humanitarian perspective

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Kids in Caia (Mozambique)

The arguments for a bailout to avoid systemic collapse are of course genuine and persuasive, but so are the arguments for aid and against standing by and allowing a child to die every 3 seconds, or a woman to die in childbirth every minute.

To put the proposed Wall Street bailout into perspective. $700bn:

· Would clear the accumulated debt of the 49 poorest countries in the world ($375bn) twice over
· Is almost 5 times the annual amount of extra aid needed to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals on poverty, health, education etc ($150bn a year)
· Is about 7 years of current global aid levels ($104bn in 2007)
· Is enough to eradicate all world poverty for over two years (UNDP calculates it would take $300bn to get the entire world population over the $1 a day poverty line).

On the other hand it’s
· only a quarter of the cost of the Iraq war ($3 trillion on Joseph Stiglitz’ calculation )
· a half of annual global military spending ($1339 bn)

All about perspectives…

More posts on The Road about poverty

Source: Oxfam blogs. Picture courtesy Joakim Kembro (WFP)

Written by Peter

October 2nd, 2008 at 9:17 am

Posted in Soapbox

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Blackwater or How War Profiteering Works – Part III

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Blackwater Worldwide has played a substantial role during the Iraq War as a contractor for the United States government. In 2003, Blackwater attained its first high-profile contract when it received a $21 million no-bid contract for guarding the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, L. Paul Bremer. Since June 2004, Blackwater has been paid more than $320 million out of a $1 billion, five-year State Department budget for the Worldwide Personal Protective Service, which protects U.S. officials and some foreign officials in conflict zones. In 2006, Blackwater won the renumerative contract to protect the U.S. embassy in Iraq, the largest American embassy in the world.

Blackwater is a privately held company and does not publish much information about internal affairs. Who are the key people?

Blackwater’s owner and founder Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, attended the Naval Academy, graduated from Hillsdale College, and was an intern in George H.W. Bush’s White House. Prince is a major financial supporter of Republican Party causes and candidates.
Cofer Black, the company’s current vice chairman, was director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center (CTC) at the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks. He was the United States Department of State coordinator for counterterrorism with the rank of ambassador at large from December 2002 to November 2004. After leaving public service, Black became chairman of the privately owned intelligence gathering company Total Intelligence Solutions, Inc., as well as vice chairman for Blackwater.
Joseph E. Schmitz holds an executive position in Blackwater’s holding company, Prince Group. He was previously inspector general of the Department of Defense, an appointment of George W. Bush.
Robert Richer was vice president of intelligence until January 2007, when he formed Total Intelligence Solutions. He was formerly the head of the CIA’s Near East Division.

Are you surprised Blackwater opened the door to lucrative government contracts through a no-bid contract? Are you surprised they received immunity from prosecution after killing 17 Iraqi civilians a year ago?

More interesting reading on Blackwater: The Whores of War

Source: Wikipedia and others
Cartoon courtesy News Sophisticate

Written by Peter

August 30th, 2008 at 3:45 am

Posted in Articles

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Georgia – a tit-for-tat game between Russia and the US.

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middle finger

The front page of the Russian Tvoi Den (“Your Day”) newspaper today makes no secret of what it thinks of the West. “TAK YOU” means “F**K YOU”
The text below the picture reads: “For the first time in many years Russia has clearly shown to the West we are not going to live by its order.”

Tensions between Russia and the US has been raising since a while. I wrote about this on The Road a year ago.
It seems after their battle of words on Iraq, Iran, the US missile shield, blabla, the two superpowers are now ready to rattle swords and have picked Georgia as their playing ground.

After the skirmishes between Georgia and its break-away or autonomous (depending who you ask) republics, Russia went in with full military force, knowing the US would take sides.
The US poked Russia by putting the US military in charge of “the humanitarian relief mission in Georgia” (more), and moved US warships with “humanitarian supplies” into the Black Sea.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev deepened the Georgia crisis yesterday by insisting that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be independent nations, adding: “We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new Cold War.”
Russia’s NATO envoy then declared that military aid to Georgia for use against South Ossetia and Abkhazia would be seen as a “declaration of war”. (Full)


And you know what bugs me? Who will be the victim of this rattle of words or swords? The ordinary people. Some things never change.

Georgian refugee

Source: International Aid Workers Today
Pictures courtesy This Is London and San Francisco Sentinel

Written by Peter

August 28th, 2008 at 6:50 am

Posted in Ranting

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UN and US, more than one letter of difference?

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Warning. This piece is highly opinionated and reflects my personal views.

Picture by Robert Kasca, taken on the rubble after the bombing of the UN HQ in Baghdad

Letter to the Editor of the New York Times (Source)

Re “For Terrorists, a War on Aid Groups” by Samantha Power (Op-Ed, Aug. 19):

As an aid worker who has worked in the Middle East for more than 10 years, I applaud Ms. Power’s call for more protection for nongovernmental organization workers in conflict zones, but she doesn’t mention an important element.

In recent years, the United States government has both contracted out for more aspects of development and humanitarian assistance in conflict zones and connected this foreign aid more closely than ever with strategic and military goals.

By publicly linking these objectives, the United States government has placed aid workers in the position where they may not be seen as neutral development professionals working solely for the benefit of the people in host countries, and has caused some people, especially in places where the United States military is involved, to see aid workers as representatives of an unpopular foreign policy or as part of an occupation administration, making them more vulnerable to attack.

Garrett Dorer, Cairo Aug. 20 2008

This letter represents the view many humanitarian workers have, since 9/11. The US unilaterally invaded two sovereign countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. The humanitarian workers were given all the financial resources needed to provide relief aid during and after these military actions.

And we, the aid workers, were effective: no-one saw children starving on the television. There were no reports of massive deaths due to the outbreak of diseases. Food, medical aid and shelter were flown in and distributed as almost a school example of how humanitarian assistance should be run. Did that directly or indirectly soften the public’s opinion about the military actions?

As the humanitarians proved to be effective in their Afghanistan and Iraq aid efforts, how far have they brought down the threshold for any country to take unilateral military action against the other? And even worse: how far have they aligned themselves with military actions? Part of the planning for military actions? How far are aid workers seen as accomplices.
Consequently, up to what level are we, aid workers, now seen as “representatives” of an unpopular foreign policy of one country? And consequently, up to what level are we, aid workers, now targeted by terrorism and other hostilities as much as the US is?

For us, UN aid workers, we always half-jokingly say: “Between the US and the UN, there is more than a one letter difference”, but that is not how it looks like to the outside world.

Picture courtesy Robert Kasca

Written by Peter

August 26th, 2008 at 1:05 am

Posted in Soapbox

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Cutting agricultural aid research or how to dig your own grave…

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food handout bangladesh

Giving people fish or teaching them to fish?

A few years back, I had a meeting with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Ruler of Dubai, Prime Minister and Vice President of the UAE.
I told him of the humanitarian work we did. He listened attentively, and kept a silence after my explanation. Then he said candidly: “You know, you are giving people fish, instead of teaching them how to fish. Give a person a fish and he will eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he will have food for the rest of his life!”

food aidI was quick to respond: “Your Highness, when people are starving, they are not interested in being taught how to fish. If we give them fishlings for their pond, they will eat it, rather using them for breeding. Our organisation gives people the fish, so they are not starving anymore, and have the energy to be taught how to fish, and to fish themselves. Other organisations we work closely with, teach them how to fish, how to breed fishlings. After that, others come in and teach them not to overfish their pond, or even to market their excess harvest, set up funding mechanisms to sell their harvest beyond their own village. We all work hand in hand, each of us has its own role.”

How true are we to our aid commitments?

This was then. But at this moment, there is a growing concern and dissatisfaction in the aid world. How well have we done in the past decades. Have we really followed our own reasonings and explanations..? Or were they mere justifications for our own existence?

The global food crisis hitting the poorest people first, is an objective proof we – the international aid community – have not done well enough. Have we – all of us – not concentrated too much on giving people fish, rather than teaching them how to be independent from foreign aid? How much of it could have been avoided? How can we learn from our lessons?

While the international focus is on the global food crisis, it is the right time to highlight the importance of not only concentrating on short term solutions. Short term solutions for hunger are like drops of water on a hot plate. Let’s give people fish, but also concentrate on “teaching them how to fish”.

In the context of the global food crisis, this means concentrating not only on emergency food aid, but also on achieving sustainable food security and reducing poverty in developing countries through non-for-profit and transparent scientific research in the fields of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, policy, and environment.
I explicitly exclude the agricultural research done by the likes of Monsanto and Cargill, international commercial giants who only aim at increasing their profit margin, often to the detriment of the farmers in poorer countries.

Let’s rather have a look at the benevolent work of organisations like the CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Agricultural aid research, a proven success.

The CGIAR has a proven success track record (Source):

food aid- Successful biological control of the cassava mealybug and green mite, both devastating pests of a root crop that is vital for food security in sub-Saharan Africa. The economic benefits of this work are estimated at more than $4 billion.
- Increasing smallholder dairy production in Kenya improving childhood nutrition while generating jobs. This award-winning project with smallholder dairies has contributed up to 80 percent of the milk products sold in the country.
food aid- New rice varieties for Africa, which combine the high yields of Asian rice with African rice’s resistance to local pests and diseases. Currently sown on 200,000 hectares in upland areas, they are helping reduce national rice import bills and generating higher incomes in rural communities.
- An agroforestry system called “fertilizer tree fallows,” which renews soil fertility in Southern Africa, adopted by than 66,000 farmers in Zambia.
- Widespread adoption of resource-conserving “zero-till” technology in the vital rice-wheat systems of South Asia. Employed by close to a half million farmers on more than 3.2 million hectares, this technology has generated benefits estimated at US$147 million through higher crop yields, lower production costs and savings in water and energy.
food aid- A flood-tolerant version of a rice variety grown on six million hectares in Bangladesh. The new variety enables farmers to obtain yields two to three times those of the non-tolerant version under prolonged submergence of rice crops, a situation that will become more common as a result of climate change.
- A new method for detecting and reducing by 100% aflatoxin, a deadly poison that infects crops, making them unfit for local consumption or export benefiting farmers throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
- More than 50 varieties of recently developed drought-tolerant maize varieties being grown on a total of about one million hectares across eastern and southern Africa
- A simple methodology for integrating agriculture with aquaculture to bolster income and food supplies in areas of southern Africa where the agricultural labor force has been devastated by HIV/AIDS, doubling the income of 1,200 households in Malawi.
- Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera….

Digging our own grave.

All good news. Except that the focus on emergency food aid seems to have drawn worldwide attention – and funding – away from long term agricultural research. Proof of the matter is that while U.S. President George W. Bush recently ordered up $200 million in emergency food aid, with a follow-up of another $755 million, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is cutting as much as 75% of their funding to the CGIAR (See Science Magazine). USAID’s support to the CGIAR in 2006 was $56 million or about 12% of the CGIAR’s core budget.

And USAID is not the only one to blame. Look at this graph illustrating the worldwide trend of foreign aid (which excludes relief aid – as the graph would then look even worse!) going up, versus the downward trend of in agricultural aid.

foreign aid versus agricultural aid

Here is another interesting graph, comparing the annual budget of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), one of the CGIAR’s research centers, and the global rice stock pile volume, using the latter as a measure for consumption versus demand on rice. Now is there not a strange correlation to be noticed? This can not be coincidence.

rice research versus stockpiling

How a small bug illustrates a worldwide problem

Talking about the IRRI, here is an example of how, by cutting back transparent and not-for-profit agricultural research is as bad as digging one’s own grave:

food aidThe brown plant hopper, an insect no bigger than a gnat, is multiplying by the billions and chewing through rice paddies in East Asia, threatening the diets of many poor people. China, the world’s biggest rice producer, announced on May 7 that it was struggling to control the rapid spread of the insects there. A plant hopper outbreak can destroy 20 percent of a harvest.

The damage to rice crops, occurring at a time of scarcity and high prices, could have been prevented. Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute say that they know how to create rice varieties resistant to the insects but that budget cuts have prevented them from doing so. (Full)

Learning from the past

In the 1960s, population growth was far outrunning food production, threatening famine in many poor countries. Wealthier nations joined forces with the poor countries to improve crop yields. Yields soared, and by the 1980s, the threat of starvation had receded in most of the world. With Europe and the United States offering their farmers heavy subsidies that encouraged production, grain became abundant worldwide, and prices fell.

Many poor countries, instead of developing their own agriculture, turned to the world market to buy cheap rice and wheat. In 1986, Agriculture Secretary John Block called the idea of developing countries feeding themselves “an anachronism from a bygone era,” saying they should “just buy American”. (Full)

And this attitude got the world into the mess it is in today: a demand (the world population) outgrowing the supply (food production)… The below graph clearly illustrates this trend (the food production – in purple- is represented by the total production of grain in the world).


Bottomline. And how you can help.

We need to push the international community for long-term agricultural research aiming solely at making developing countries food self-sufficient, without any commercial interests at heart, if we want to resolve this food crisis and avoid it from ever happening again.

Here is one way how you can help: sign the petition urging USAID to maintain its support for the CGIAR’s food research centers.

Maybe, just maybe, we will be in time to turn this food crisis, into an opportunity, and really teach people how to fish, rather than just giving them fish to eat. Maybe, just maybe queues for food hand-outs in developing countries could be a thing of a past.

rice queues philippines

More articles on The Road about the global food crisis

With thanks to “the other E” for the inspiration!
Graphs courtesy New York Times and
Pictures courtesy Luis Liwanag (The New York Times), EPA (Al Jazeera), Crispin Hughes (WFP), CGIAR and Pavel Rahman (AP Photo)

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Written by Peter

May 18th, 2008 at 10:23 am