On global hunger & food security

I just wrote a two-part series on the changing landscape of international food aid for UN Dispatch – you can read part one here and part two here.

Rice fields in Bong County, Liberia

Only a few hours after I filed my posts on food aid, I found out that Owen Barder’s latest podcast for Development Drums was an hour-long interview with Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, about their new book “Enough: why the world’s poorest starve in an age of plenty“. I was a bit nervous to listen to this after having written for UN Dispatch, but I was relieved that I seemed to have covered some of the main points these experts make in their book.

If the Development Drums podcast and my recent posts aren’t enough to satisfy your hunger on this topic, here are a couple links of interest:

Ending Africa’s Hunger, September 2009, The Nation. This well-researched, in depth article is a searing critique of the Gates Foundation’s work on agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s an interesting take on the way in which agricultural development is being pursued by philanthropic and private sector actors, and the implications of current strategies. I frequently refer back to this article, which I find offers a unique perspective on hunger and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Smallholder farmers hold the key to food security, February 2010, Business Daily. Great piece on how smallholder, rural farmers have historically been overlooked by national agricultural and development policies, and how they could be leveraged to increase food security.

The podcast is here. You can also subscribe to it for free in Itunes. These hour long, in-depth discussions led by Owen Barder are highly recommend for anyone interested in development policy.

International Women’s Day 2010

Today is the 100th year of International Women’s Day, and all over the interwebs, we are celebrating advances in women’s rights and decrying the obstacles still faced by women and girls everywhere. In a world where women still get attacked with acid; where girls are stoned to death for being raped; where, in certain places, not being born male is a handicap, I feel that the strides that have been made in the past century are still dwarfed by the challenges ahead.

I don’t think of myself as a feminist per se, but I do believe in the equality of men and women in every realm of life (except maybe in sports, fine). As an educated woman from France, I’ve been given every opportunity to realize my full potential, to take advantage of everything life has to offer. Being a woman, for me, has rarely been an hindrance – on the contrary, I’m fully conscious of the advantages that come with it. Professionally, I think I’ve encountered more young-ism than sexism. I credit my parents for having brought me up with solid values, and for providing an exemplary complementary partnership at home. My mother, a faithful reader of this blog, needs to be acknowledged here: in her ability to balance family life and career, in her relentless and vocal support for equality between men and women, she has always been an inspiration and a model.

Another source of inspiration for me has been the women of Liberia. The New York Times – fittingly – just published an article entitled about Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf “A Nation Full of Strong Women“, as part of their Female Factor series. I recently read Ma Ellen’s autobiography, “This Child Will Be Great“, in which her strength of character, intelligence, thoughtfulness and determination come across vividly. In her book, she acknowledges (somewhat in passing) the role that women played in helping her win the presidential election. I wish she had emphasized the critical role of women in the 2005 election, and in bringing an end to the 14 year conflict more than she did.

I’ve had the chance to meet some really incredible Liberian women, both in Liberia and in Ghana. Contrarily to what some may think, Liberia is a rather matriarchal society, where women make signficant economic, political and social contributions. Of course, as is often the case in poor places, women are still not on par with men: rape and violence against women are very real, and large, issues, and girls remain less educated than their male counterparts.

That being said, I’d like to focus on the commendable, inspiring actions undertaken by Liberian women. In particular, I wish to honor this International Women’s Day by recommending that you take an hour of your time to watch “Pray the Devil Back to Hell“,a powerful documentary on the role of women in ending the war in Liberia. (I watched this documentary last year during the Vancouver International Film Festival, in the presence of the film maker and producer, as well as Lovetta Conto, a young lady who survived the war and is now engaged in supporting post-conflict development in her home country.) The women in this film are fearless leaders and peace-makers, the kind of people to draw inspiration and strength from. Seeing their determination in the face of adversity gives me a lot of hope: not only for the continued advancement of women’s rights, but also in the growing capacity of women to affirm themselves as leaders. For this 100th International Women’s Rights Day, my wish is that, 100 years from now, we no longer need to celebrate women, their achievements and their challenges on a specially dedicated day.

Here is the trailer of “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”. PBS allows you to watch the full-length documentary for free; part 1 is here, part 2 is here.

E-Z charity

In the last month since the earthquake struck the capital of Haiti, we’ve been bearing witness to an incredible outpouring of generosity: from individuals to corporations, from governments to celebrities, the world has been falling over itself in an attempt to lend a hand to Haiti. I’ve found some African examples interesting: for instance, Liberia – apparently – is giving $50,000 to Haiti, while the Democratic Republic of Congo has donated $2.5 million. Senegal, meanwhile, has offered to give land to Haitians wishing to resettle there.

As of February 3rd, the Chronicles of Philanthropy reported that contributions from Americans had already reached $644 million. Canadians contributed $113 million (CAD), with their federal government matching funds for every donation made until February 12th. Private contributions in France were less significant (64 million euros donated to charity in the last month), but given the fact that French people are typically reluctant to donate to charity because of the lack of tax incentive, it’s still relatively impressive (note that French people gave 95 million euros in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.) Check out this table, courtesy of @MoogieJo, for a breakdown of donations by country and a comprehensive overview of who gave to which organization and for what purpose.

The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has thus far raised $30 million, which is a really impressive number, especially given the slump that all charitable organizations went through since the financial crisis began in earnest in September 2008. A person who works very closely with the Clinton Bush Fund told me recently that these funds were being donated to 23 reputable organizations in Haiti, including Partners in Health, Save the Children or Habitat for Humanity. He noted, however, that they were hoping to save a lot of these funds for long-term investments in health, education, and economic empowerment, and not allocate all $30 million to emergency needs. Indeed, while Haiti needs a lot of help right now, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, as many, many have observed, the real challenge will be to assist Haitians in (re)building their country’s infrastructure, improving social and basic services and expanding access to jobs and economic opportunities.

Going back to the spreadsheet linked above, it is easy to see that the more long-term concerns are the most difficult to fund. If we rank categories by amount of funding available, we see that food is by far the m0st-well endowed, with $117 million. (By comparison, human rights/rule of law activities only garnered $6 million.)

Meanwhile, however, some emerging trends in giving have caught my attention, and have caused wincing among many a development blogger. Or, more accurately, trends in giving that don’t always reach the MSM or the public consciousness have been given attention as of late. First, is all of the efforts to send used things to Haiti: used shoes, used yoga mats, breast milk, infant formula, blankets, used shoes, and more used shoes. I don’t understand why so many (well-intentioned, surely) people think that shoes are what people in Haiti need… I think part of the answer lies in the fact that people are far more likely to give when they can see (or think they see) a causal relationship between their donation and the need on the ground. So, for instance, giving a pair of shoes to someone who undoubtedly lost at least a pair of shoes seems like a good idea. Given that a huge majority of people do not work for humanitarian agencies, development organizations or aren’t privy to the intricacies of appropriate, relevant aid, it’s not very surprising to see so many misguided good intentions.

Also worth noting here is the desire to help Haiti’s “orphans”. I’m using quotation marks, because our concept of what an orphan is does not necessarily match the reality of what it means when a child loses his or her parents in other countries. From experience working with Liberian abandoned children and “orphans”, I know that determining who the best care taker is for a (seemingly) parentless child is no easy task. The story of the 10 American baptists charged with accusations of child trafficking in Haiti is a seething example of good intentions gone wrong. I really believe that this group – similarly to people donating shoes, blankets or breast milk – had the best of intentions.

Third, natural disasters are conducive to mobilizing public and private resources and generate sympathy, empathy or pity. As I mentioned above, when the need seems obvious (medicine, food, blankets, medicine, shoes (?)), people have an easier time loosening their purse strings than when they are asked to contribute to an effort which has a subjective dimension. Haiti is not a newly poor country – it’s been lagging behind every country in the Western hemisphere for decades, and the plight of its people is nothing new. However, prior to the earthquake, no one seemed to care too much about the future of Haiti. What’s interesting to me is that people across the world all of a sudden paid attention to Haitians – the same people they probably knew nothing about, or simply didn’t think about, until January 12th 2010.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, mud slides, hurricanes: these events have an objective quality about them which makes giving much easier than say, giving to an organization that works to help small holder farmers access new markets. To a certain extent, donors need to “buy in” to the notion that a) small holder farmers are a sector of the economy worth supporting, that b) assisting them in accessing new markets is the most effective way of helping them and that c) the organization they are donating to knows what they’re doing. That’s a far, far cry from the need for antibiotics and morphine for people wounded in the earthquake: there is no philosophical question here, just a very objective need for a very specific item.

The other dimension to this is that donors are much more likely to give after a natural disaster than after the end of a civil conflict, for example. In speaking with both aid and development professionals and non-industry people about this, it seems that it’s much more difficult to encourage generosity when the cause of a disaster is not natural. It’s very uncomfortable – for me, at least – to think that outside of natural disasters, there is a (seldom acknowledged but existing) belief that poor people brought poverty upon themselves, that they are guilty of their circumstances, while natural disasters are indiscriminate and are – truly – nobody’s fault. This means that contributing to emergency relief efforts in the aftermath of an earthquake is much easier, much less political of an issue than contributing to the same efforts in the aftermath of a violent conflict.

I like to think of these instances of “good intentions gone bad” as issues of “E-Z charity” – at the heart of the problem, is the well-meaning donor’s lack of understanding of people’s needs and the implicit notion that giving to a survivors of natural disasters are somehow more worthy of our resources than survivors of violence or conflict.

One of the reasons I was moved to blog about the issue of E-Z charity was after a trip to the grocery store the other day. At the check-out counter, while waiting for my transaction to process, I saw that there were two transparent plastic donation boxes, where people could drop loose change. One was for Haiti relief operations, and the other for an organization taking care of children with disabilities in Ontario. The former was full – to the brim – and the other stood with about three coins, or approximately 50 cents in change. I jokingly told the cashier: “I guess no one cares about the disabled kids anymore!”, and she told me that she put the three coins in there, because she felt badly that no one (not.a.single.person) gave to that cause. I mentioned survivors of violence and conflict above, as well as more subjective causes such as supporting small-holder farmers or other economic empowerment initiatives – however, I found it truly unsettling that a local organization working with children with disabilities (not a particularly controversial cause!)  didn’t generate as much empathy or generosity as Haiti.

It’s difficult to blame individuals, however, given that the mainstream media coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake was a 24/7 mishmash of confused, sensationalized images and stories. We rarely see 20 minute segments about disabled children on the evening news, and CNN’s Situation Room wonks usually don’t spend their time discussing the issues associated with  the world’s leading fatal illnesses for children: diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria.

People’s willingness to give and their generosity is, objectively, a good thing. It reminds me that we do care about one another, to a certain extent, that we do feel empathy for those less fortunate – if we only we could use this opportunity to create a new culture of giving. But as my two donation box example mentioned above shows, we’re a long way away from making text message donations and adding a dollar to your grocery bill mainstream, regular activities.

H1Nwhat?

Ever since I got back to France a couple of weeks ago, two hotly debated news stories have caught my attention. What I love about the French is that they take the gloves off when it comes to discussing issues, and listening to both sides has been rather fascinating. One of these issues is the “debat sur l’identite nationale” (“debate on national identity”), which is an attempt by the Minister of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Solidary Development (a real mouthful) to (re)define the tenets of French national identity. That’ll be the topic of another post. For now, suffice it to say that it’s highly contentious and has opened the door and given credence to racist and intolerant comments in the media and the political arena.

The other issue that I’ve been following with a lot of curiosity is the kerfuffle around H1N1. After having spent two months in Liberia where H1n1 is not at all discussed, I came back to a country where the Minister of Health, Roselyne Bachelot, had made the decision to purchase 94 million doses of Tamiflu to innoculate the French population. First of all, given that there are only 63 million citizens, the 94 million figure seems excessive. Apparently, the French authorities were told that those who get vaccinated must get more than one shot, hence the incredibly large order of Tamiflu – except that, oops!, you actually only need one dose. France has apparently purchased 1/3 (one third!) of all Tamiflu stocks in the world, for a mere 870 million euros (1,250,000,000 USD). Now, the French are trying to cancel part of their order to four different pharmaceutical companies, hoping to save 350 million euros. The government is also selling off their overstock abroad – but given that the epidemic’s peak has apparently been reached, they are having a hard time finding customers for their second hand vaccine.

French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot, having a jolly good time receiving her dose of Tamiflu

The government has come under fire for inflating the threat posed by H1N1, and responding inappropriately. Many opposition figures are calling the government’s handling of H1N1 “scandalous” and a waste of public funds. Sarkozy’s Foreign Affairs Minister, loud-mouthed Bernard Kouchner, claims that he is “scandalized by the scandal”, and that if the government had not taken the epidemic seriously and people had died of H1N1, then the criticism would have been (legitimately) much stronger. President Nicolas Sarkozy defended the Health Minister’s decision by saying that 219 people died of this flu in 2009, and that his government couldn’t make it a banal issue. Fair enough. But let’s do some simple math. First of all, 94 million vaccines for 870 million euros is unbelievably expensive – nearly 10 euros (15 USD) per dose. Really?! What’s the production cost of this vaccine? And if it’s critical to global public health, shouldn’t the pharmas make it slightly more affordable? (I know the answer to that question – I mean it rhetorically). Alternatively, couldn’t France have negotiated these prices a little bit more? Sweet deal for the pharmas.

219 deaths from H1N1 in 2009….and between 1,500 and 2,000 deaths from the “regular” flu every year, in France. 2.5 million people suffer from the flu each year in the country. In fact, the flu is the number one infectious disease in France. Now, are we spending even a fraction of what we’re spending on H1N1 to fight the “regular” flu? No. I honestly have no idea how the government can justify spending nearly one billion euros on this new strain of flu. The flu is a perennial disease, and it’s a constantly evolving infection. Perhaps we should spend a fraction of the 870 million euros on strengthening health systems, particularly prevention activities among the vulnerable: the young, the elderly, pregnant women and (gasp!) poor people.

Each year in France, HIV-AIDS kills 1,700 people and there are more than 5,000 new infections. Why aren’t we spending hundreds of millions of euros stopping the spread of this incurable disease? Infectious disease causes only 2% of deaths in France – why not focus on the real killers?

A recent motion in the European Parliament reads:

“In order to promote their patented drugs and vaccines against flu, pharmaceutical companies have
influenced scientists and official agencies, responsible for public health standards, to alarm governments
worldwide. They have made them squander tight health care resources for inefficient vaccine strategies and
needlessly exposed millions of healthy people to the risk of unknown side-effects of insufficiently tested
vaccines.

The “birds-flu“-campaign (2005/06) combined with the “swine-flu“-campaign seem to have caused a great
deal of damage not only to some vaccinated patients and to public health budgets, but also to the credibility
and accountability of important international health agencies. The definition of an alarming pandemic must
not be under the influence of drug-sellers.

The member states of the Council of Europe should ask for immediate investigations on the consequences at national as well as European level.”

Blog Action Day 09: Climate Change: Paradise Lost

Boy am I late in the game here…It’s not even *really* October 15th anymore, but hey. In any case, I’m really happy to contribute to Blog Action Day 09 (BAD09). If you haven’t heard of it, BAD09 is a great, simple initiative from our friends over at change.org. Basically, it’s “an annual event that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day. Our aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion.” BAD organizers emphasize that the first and last purpose of BAD is to create a discussion – clearly, a blog post (or 10,000) can’t be the tipping point on an issue like climate change, which is not only broad and complex, but also divisive and polarizing. It’s an honor to be a part of it, and I hope that this post will, at the very least, be thought provoking.

Few places in the world inspire awe like the beautiful atolls of the Indian and Pacific Ocean. Their startling blue waters and white sandy beaches have inspired artists and attracted tourists since modern transportation has made these little pieces of paradise accessible. However, climate change has made these typically low-lying, coral protected islands atolls — such as the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu or the Maldives — particularly vulnerable. Rising sea levels, storm surges and the increased acidification of ocean waters, which contributes to the loss of coral reefs, are already threatening the livelihoods of these islands’ inhabitants. According to the Intergovernemental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC):

  • Sea-level rise is expected to exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards, thus threatening vital infrastructure, settlements and facilities that support the livelihood of island communities
  • There is strong evidence that under most climate change scenarios, water resources in small islands are likely to be seriously compromised.

Studies from the University of Copenhagen (here and here) argue that island cultures have developed and refined coping mechanisms to handle variations in climate and habitat: storm surges, erosion and shifting sea levels are fundamental features of island life, and cultures have adapted to these realities. However, the current challenges posed by climate change patterns are so stark, that traditional coping strategies will likely not suffice:

Polynesian cultures on small islands in the Pacific have a long tradition for adapting to climate change and variability, as well as to changes in other factors, in order to maintain their culture and way of life. Current and future climate change constitutes, however, a qualitatively and quantitatively different set of challenges.

While there is still some degree of uncertainty as to exactly what the impact of current climate patterns will be on island atolls, there is a broad consensus that (i) these effects are caused by increased CO2 in the atmosphere, a lot of it attributable to human activity and, (ii) that there is a strong chance that these islands will become unsuitable for people to live on. In fact, it is the very existence of island atolls that is at stake.

(Watch: Impact of Climate Change in the Pacific from Oxfam Australia on Vimeo.)

To draw attention to the threat faced by low-lying islands, the Maldives government will be holding an underwater cabinet meeting on October 17:

The president of the Maldives is desperate for the world to know how seriously his government takes the threat of climate change and rising sea levels to the survival of his country. He wants his ministers to know as well.

To this end, Mohamed Nasheed has organised an underwater cabinet meeting and told all his ministers to get in training for the sub-aqua session. Six metres beneath the surface, the ministers will ratify a treaty calling on other countries to cut greenhouse emissions.

pg-24-maldives-afp-_248191s
AFP/Getty

The Maldives, like other island atolls, may very well become uninhabitable by the end of the century. This raises a number of critical questions regarding the legal obligation of states to provide a territory to live on for its citizens. If entire island nations disappear, what then happens to its people, its culture? The Maldives government has been wrestling with this question, and is establising a sovereign wealth fund with revenues generated from tourism for the purchase of territory. President Nasheed said

Sri Lanka and India were targets because they had similar cultures, cuisines and climates. Australia was also being considered because of the amount of unoccupied land available.”We do not want to leave the Maldives, but we also do not want to be climate refugees living in tents for decades.”

The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.
The Maldives highest point is 2.4 meters above sea level.

In the Pacific, the Carteret Islands have become the poster child for the issue of climate related migration flows. The Carteret Islanders, a matrilineal community living on an island chain 50 miles off the coast of Papua New Guinea, have become the world’s first “climate refugees”. The government of Papua New Guinea has begun the evacuation, scheduled until 2020, of some 3,000 islanders.

While predictions vary as to the precise number of people around the world who will be forcibly displaced by climate related events, a commonly accepted figure is that an estimated 200-250 million people will have to migrate by 2050 as a result of climate change. According to Oxfam, 75 million of these people are living in poor islands and low-lying areas of the Pacific. And, as the evacuation of the Carteret Islands is a clear demonstration of, there is an urgent need to create legal safeguards for “climate refugees”.

The UNHCR estimates that there are 42 million displaced people in the world, 25 million of which are receiving assistance or protection from the agency. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), which constitute a majority of the displaced (26 of 42 million) do not, in fact, fall under the mandate of the UNHCR de facto – the agency regroups certain IDPs, stateless persons and other special cases that do not fall under its strict, narrow mandate under the umbrella of “persons of concern.”

Migration and asylum-seeking due to climate change will likely be on the increase in the coming years, however, the UNHCR (or any other international organization, for that matter) does not have a mandate to protect or assist “climate refugees”. Legal and funding constraints mean that dealing with “climate refugees” will most likely not be a core UNHCR task.  Not only that, but there is currently a dearth of legislation (both international and national) that would guarantee the rights of people displaced by climate change. Rajesh Chhabara, writing for Climate Change Corp, explains:

Sources at UNHCR, who want to remain anonymous, add that UNHCR is not equipped or designed to handle hundreds of millions of refugees from climate change. It already finds its resources stressed in handling the 14.3 million political refugees in the world.

Clarifying UNHCR’s position, Yoichiro Tsuchida, UNHCR Senior Advisor on Climate Change, explains that the case for environment refugees is too complicated and disparate to fit within the current refugee framework. Justifying international migration due to natural disasters is difficult, as is the task of attributing environmental phenomena directly to climate change. “While environmental factors can contribute to prompting cross-border movements, they are not grounds, in and of themselves, for the grant of refugee status under international refugee law,” she says.

Tsuchida claims that “the broader international human rights regime” should serve as the basis for guiding the responsibility of states towards people who are in need of international protection but who do not qualify for refugee status.

Elements of a response are being developed – Australia and New Zealand, whose small neighbors are sinking, are beginning to shape policy responses. New Zealand, for example, has a Pacific Access Category for migrants hailing from Pacific islands, a fast track, simplified immigration option. The Australian Labour Party published a policy paper in 2006, “Our Drowning Neighbours“, which outlines steps for Australia to take to assist Pacific islands. The paper includes recommendations regarding what sort of assistance Australia should provide Pacific islands to mitigate the effects of climate change, as well as its responsibility as a leading voice for the advocacy of strong action internationally and locally to address climate change.

However, while these initiatives are necessary, they only begin to scratch the surface of the problem. Some experts suggest that policy makers need to construe the inevitable migration flows resulting from climate change as an opportunity rather than a burden. Indeed, while displaced people and migrants already suffer disproportionately from discrimination and difficulties in integration, it is critical for policy makers and governments to prepare us for increased and more complex migration flows. A paper prepared for the Expert Group Meeting on Population Dynamics and Climate Change in June 2009 argues:

There is growing evidence suggesting that mobility, in conjunction with income diversification, is an important strategy to reduce vulnerability to environmental and non-environmental risks – including economic shocks and social marginalisation. In many cases, mobility not only increases resilience but also enables individuals and households to accumulate assets. As such, it will probably play an increasingly crucial role in adaptation to climate change. Policies that support and accommodate mobility and migration are important for both adaptation and the achievement of broader development goals.

In addition to questions related to the development of an appropriate framework for managing migration due to climate change, the consequences of the impending disaster facing islanders is well summarized by Tarita Holm, an analyst with the Palauan Ministry of Resources and Development. Of the displacement and relocation of islanders, she says: “It is about much more than just finding food and shelter,” said  “It is about your identity.”

Addressing climate change is more than just figuring out how and when a carbon tax is appropriate, or whether coal is clean or not. It will force us to grapple with very difficult and fundamental questions about the preservation of culture and civilizations.