New Oxfam report skewers the wealthy global elite just in time for the World Economic Forum in Davos

Friday, January 24, 2014

Nicely timed with this year's meeting of the World Economic Forum kicks off in posh Davos, Switzerland, Oxfam has released a new report titled "Working for the Few," which explains that not only do the wealthiest 85 people in the world own as much wealth as the poorest half, but that said wealthy elite have driven growing inequality through power grabs.
The extent to which so much global wealth has become corralled by a virtual handful of the so-called 'global elite' is exposed in a new report from Oxfam on Monday. It warned that those richest 85 people across the globe share a combined wealth of £1tn, as much as the poorest 3.5 billion of the world's population.

The wealth of the 1% richest people in the world amounts to $110tn (£60.88tn), or 65 times as much as the poorest half of the world, added the development charity, which fears this concentration of economic resources is threatening political stability and driving up social tensions.

It's a chilling reminder of the depths of wealth inequality as political leaders and top business people head to the snowy peaks of Davos for this week's World Economic Forum.


Oxfam also argues that this is no accident either, saying growing inequality has been driven by a "power grab" by wealthy elites, who have co-opted the political process to rig the rules of the economic system in their favour.

In the report, entitled Working For The Few (summary here ), Oxfam warned that the fight against poverty cannot be won until wealth inequality has been tackled.
I imagine it won't exactly be fun times at the meeting when Oxfam's executive director, who will also be at the meeting, beats the guilty elite with the guilty stick while they are rubbing elbows and doing whatever they do to be important.
Oxfam called on attendees at this week's World Economic Forum to take a personal pledge to tackle the problem by refraining from dodging taxes or using their wealth to seek political favours.

As well as being morally dubious, economic inequality can also exacerbate other social problems such as gender inequality, Oxfam warned. Davos itself is also struggling in this area, with the number of female delegates actually dropping from 17% in 2013 to 15% this year.

Map of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks by CFR

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations, here is a nifty Google Maps-style map of recent outbreaks of several vaccine-preventable diseases. You can check or uncheck boxes for specific diseases, which are marked by dots of different colors. Below is a screen grab.

H/T Mother Jones

An opinion piece puts recent anti-gay legislation in Africa in context

This editorial, published by an American doctoral student in South Africa, examines the recent anti-gay legislation in Nigeria and Uganda, and the wider anti-feminism and anti-homosexuality movements that are taking place across the African continent. She argues that a lot of responses to this trend, even the well-meaning ones, perpetuate the image of "backwards Africa" and miss a larger context:
The developments have been condemned by Western governments and have predictably sparked outrage amongst many people in South Africa. Purse-string holding countries in the north have threatened to withdraw millions of dollars in aid for the enactment of these laws, with Germany having already withdrawn aid from Uganda, citing the law as a main concern. While some may say that this is a useful strategy in protecting LGBTI rights in Africa, this is also a problematic response that draws on colonial-era assumptions of Western superiority.

These “progressive” responses, like their conservative counterparts, assert and assume the legitimacy of the West to dictate to African people and countries, furthering the idea that it is in the best interest of African people to do as the West instructs.


Disappointingly, many commentators on the airwaves and in social media have asked a question that usually goes something like – “Why is it that African countries are banning homosexuality when other parts of the (‘developed’) world are in the processes of legalising it?” This question feeds into discourses that arose during colonialism, and which still circulate today, of African “backwardness”. We should therefore be highly suspicious of this question and the responses it prompts.

And the arguments that either a) agree with the laws or b) say that Nigerian and Ugandan governments must be allowed to make their own decisions simply perpetuate ignorance on the topic. The homophobic attitudes supporting the laws are violent, dangerous, and terrifying in terms of the future of sexual politics. And, in this context, the argument that countries like Uganda and Nigeria must have the freedom to make their own decisions is correct, but misleading. In reality, Uganda and Nigeria have not passed these laws alone, or without influence from the West.
She goes on to explain that the force responsible for this trend comes from the American "Christian right" and the advocacy of such groups across the continent.
In order to understand the anti-gay and anti-feminist legislation that is developing across the continent (Burundi, Cameroon, Tanzania are on the paths taken by Uganda and Nigeria), we must also understand the ways in which the American Christian Right, and its neo-liberal supporters, are shaping and nurturing the anti-gay laws that countries like Uganda and Nigeria are making. American evangelist Scott Lively (Author of The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party, which blames the holocaust on gays) has been sued by Sexual Minorities Uganda for crimes against humanity for his influential involvement in the “kill the gays” bill.

Scott Lively is not the only one – there are many well-resourced US based organisations that are building inroads into African sexual politics. Rev. Kapya Kaoma’s Colonizing African Values: How the U.S. CR is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa is a useful introduction to how the US Christian Right is working successfully to drive the homophobic and anti-feminist “Family Values” agenda in Africa.

Top ten most neglected crises in the world: Map and Infographic

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Here is a nifty map and infographic with information on the world's top ten most neglected humanitarian crises. It was done by the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). The original report can be found here.

H/T Humanosphere and UN Dispatch

Decreased social mobility and the increasing wealth gap becoming a major problem in the US

I normally don't wade very far into economics, but I thought this opinion piece in El País (a Spanish-language newspaper) on growing income inequality in the US was very interesting. It draws attention to the decreasing social mobility (often referred to as the "American dream") in the world's wealthiest nation and discusses how the economic recovery strategies implemented by Congress after the 2008 recession tend to favor wealthy asset-holders.
The reduction of social mobility in the U.S. is becoming a serious problem. Today, a child born in a family within the top 20% of income distribution has a probability of over 60% to remain in that top 20% as an adult. However, a child born into a family in the bottom 20% of income distribution has a probability of only 5% to 20% to progress to the top of the distribution. The American view has traditionally been that it is more important to increase the amount of total wealth than that the wealth be divided more symmetrically, but, as the division becomes more unequal, the debate is shifting to improving the distribution without reducing growth wealth.


Using data from the Congressional Budget Office, Paul Krugman has recently argued that rising inequality has been more important than the warmth of recovery in explaining the fall in income of the middle class since 2007.

It is an open debate. The constellation of policies adopted to overcome the recession with fiscal adjustment and monetary expansion initially benefits the owners of financial assets, which tend to be more concentrated in the upper classes though, once recovery is established, increased employment and wages should compensate. The obsession with deficit reduction, including welfare cuts and fiscal discipline can be seen as necessary or as disregard for the poorest strata of the population. The fact that the U.S. Congress has an overrepresentation of millionaires (representing a majority of Congress, even if only 3% of the population) has been introduced as an additional factor to explain the lack of sensitivity to inequality.
Translation provided by Google translate, with my own minor corrections.

Faint for your rights: Cambodian garment workers use folk religion rituals to protest their working conditions

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

This article in the New York Times focuses on an interesting practice among female garment factory workers in Cambodia, particularly in the aftermath of the protests that were recently - and very violently - put down by government troops. While Buddhism has been the official religion of Cambodia for centuries, ancient folk spiritual practices persist in a wide portion of the population and is occasionally used by garment workers as a way to lobby for better working conditions.
These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts. These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.
As we have seen, traditional methods of striking and democratic protests have little potency in Cambodia, whose economy is almost completely dependent on exports and whose "president" has been in power for almost thirty years. By tapping into widely-held folk beliefs, however, these women (who make up an overwhelming portion of garment factory workers) have found a surprising source of leverage.
Mass faintings in garment factories increased exponentially in early 2011, just a few months after the mass strike fizzled. Production lines shut down after the workers’ bodies shut down, and spirits bargained with management on the factory floor.

Public sentiment started to shift. During the 2010 strikes, few seemed preoccupied with workers’ rights. Even the foreign media and the Asian Development Bank’s chief economist wondered aloud whether the workers’ demands would hurt the industry. But when the mass faintings began, concern for the workers grew: Were they earning enough to feed themselves? Were they being exposed to dangerous chemicals?

Since then, basic pay for garment workers has risen from $61 to $80 per month, and is set to rise again to $100 in February. Numerous conferences on occupational health and safety have been convened. Individual factories, the consortium of garment producers and mass retailers like H&M have commissioned studies of working conditions in Cambodian factories. Garment workers have started to receive monthly bonuses for health and transportation.

Too far to go still: India's struggle against gang-rape continues

Monday, January 20, 2014

This was cross-posted to the IH Blog.

In the worst news you'll read today, yet another gang-rape - of another tourist, and the second one this week - has surfaced in India.
An 18-year-old German was allegedly raped on Friday after falling asleep on a train heading to Chennai in southeastern India, where she was going to do volunteer work with a charity.

“The young lady took several days to muster courage to report to the police,” Inspector General of Police Seema Agarwal told NDTV. “Though it’s too late for medical examination, we have handled the case in a very sensitive manner.”

The attack brings the toll of publicized rapes on foreigners in the country to two in just a week, after a 51-year-old Danish woman was allegedly gang-raped in New Delhi on Tuesday.
En route to do charity work - they say no good deed goes unpunished, but damn.

Rape in general, and gang-rape in particular, has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny, and (thankfully) a whole lot of national soul-searching in India since the report of a brutal gang-rape on a bus in New Delhi made international headlines in 2012. Naturally, the stories involving tourists tend to garner more attention that those of locals, but there have been plenty of those to go around. Take the case of the German tourist raped by her yoga instructor in December. Or the British woman who jumped from her hotel window to escape a rape by the hotel manager. Or the Swiss woman who was brutalized by five tribesmen while her husband was tied to a tree. All of these news article mention, and often link to, stories of multiple other women who went through similar ordeals. You could spend all day following the links and questioning the humanity of humanity, or seriously wondering if Antoine Dodson had it right after all.

In response to the 2012 Delhi case and subsequent uproar, the Indian government worked very quickly to strengthen existing rape laws and increase punishments for perpetrators. However, while cases involving foreigners are seen through, too many cases reported by Indian women are just dropped, or completely ignored. Meanwhile, no one can really explain why this keeps happening.

A few obvious things spring to mind. Feminists in the west wage a never-ending battle against rape culture and victim-blaming, but the terms take on a whole new light in Indian culture, which is dominated by men and dictated by strict social rules. In the Delhi case, the defendants' lawyer offered this gem to the press:
"Until today I have not seen a single incident or example of rape with a respected lady," Sharma said in an interview at a cafe outside the Supreme Court in India's capital. "Even an underworld don would not like to touch a girl with respect."


Sharma said the man and woman should not have been traveling back late in the evening and making their journey on public transport. He also it was the man's responsibility to protect the woman and that he had failed in his duty.

"The man has broken the faith of the woman," Sharma said. "If a man fails to protect the woman, or she has a single doubt about his failure to protect her, the woman will never go with that man."
A spiritual guru and a politician offered a different perspectives:
A spiritual guru, Asharam, sparked an outcry earlier this week when he said the New Delhi victim was equally responsible and should have "chanted God's name and fallen at the feet of the attackers" to stop the assault.

Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the pro-Hindu Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that underpins the country's main opposition political party, said rapes only occur in Indian cities, not in its villages, because women there adopt western lifestyles.
Pearls of wisdom, to be sure.

One factoid that has been indicated is the stark gender imbalance, propagated by sex-selective abortions and female infanticide. Another issue is the widespread prevalence of abject poverty; the perpetrators are bored, desensitized, and have nothing to lose. An October article in the New York Times examined the issue in depth through coverage of a case in Mumbai:
One problem is that perpetrators may not view their actions as a grave crime, but something closer to mischief. A survey of more than 10,000 men carried out in six Asian countries — India not among them — and published in The Lancet Global Health journal in September came up with startling data. It found that, when the word “rape” was not used as part of a questionnaire, more than one in 10 men in the region admitted to forcing sex on a woman who was not their partner.

Asked why, 73 percent said the reason was “entitlement.” Fifty-nine percent said their motivation was “entertainment seeking,” agreeing with the statements “I wanted to have fun” or “I was bored.” Flavia Agnes, a Mumbai women’s rights lawyer who has been working on rape cases since the 1970s, said the findings rang true to her experience.

“It’s just frivolous; they just do it casually,” she said. “There is so much abject poverty. They just want to have a little fun on the side. That’s it. See, they have nothing to lose.”

Rolezinhos: Brazil's urban poor black flashmobs

Friday, January 17, 2014

I have been paying a lot of attention to the awakening of Brazil's sociopolitical consciousness, particularly among its youth, since the protests last year against corruption and waste connected with the World Cup. (On a personal note, my mother is Brazilian, so it is at least in part a sort of homeland to me.) While most of the more formal street protests have died down, I saw this on the BBC this morning and thought it was interesting: apparently there have been a series of "flashmobs," or what they call "rolezinhos," in shopping centers in São Paulo. What has gotten the most attention is the fact that they seem to be primarily staged by the city's urban poor: young, black, and somewhat frowned upon.
But over the past five weeks in Sao Paulo - Brazil's biggest city - there have been a series of large scale gatherings, called rolezinhos, organised via Facebook. The first - and biggest so far - was on 7 December at a shopping centre near the World Cup stadium. Organisers claim as many as 6,000 people took part. Since then, there have been a further five rolezinhos in the city and many more are planned for the coming weeks. Most of those taking part are young, black and from poorer areas.


The discussion on social media has been heated and highly divisive - some have referred to those taking part as hooligans, or have expressed concern the gatherings could be a precursor to protests - as there were last year in Brazil. Others say those taking part are being treated in a heavy-handed way because they tend to be black and poor. "We can compare #rolezinho to an apartheid. The rich on one side, the poor on another," was one comment on Facebook. In a newspaper interview one anthropologist said: "When it's the poor they call it #rolezinho. When it's the rich they call it flashmob."

More on Myanmar's prisoners of conscience: political prisoner committee to continue

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Democratic Voice of Burma has great coverage on human rights issues in Myanmar (which, as you might guess from its name, it continues to refer to as Burma). I personally have been following the issue of its prisoners of conscience very closely, since Aung San Suu Kyi (the country's opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate, back when the Nobel Peace prize actually meant something) has made it one of her primary concerns regarding the country's reform and return to civilian rule.

President Thein Sein declared amnesty for all political prisoners at the end of last year, and claims to have released them all, but rights groups are claiming there are still a handful behind bars, many held on other (read: fraudulent) charges. Now, in the latest from the government, its Committee for Scrutinizing Remaining Political Prisoners (CSRPP) will continue its work (despite the government's claim that all prisoners of conscience have been freed), "just in case."
President’s Office Minister and Committee Chairman Soe Thane, in keeping with official statements that all prisoners of conscience had been freed by the end of 2013, said that the CSRPP will continue so that, “if something happens, the committee will be ready,” according to Bo Kyi, who added that the government has not conceded that any other activists are still in detention.

The AAPP-B [Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma], which has maintained a roster of current political prisoners since 2000, says that upwards of 33 prisoners of conscience are still behind bars, despite the government’s insistence that they have all been freed.

The CSRPP was established in early 2013, just prior to President Thein Sein’s June 2013 promise to free all dissidents by the end of the year.

Complete amnesty for political prisoners was a common condition among Western governments for lifting decades-long sanctions imposed on the former military-ruled country.

While a series of presidential pardons have been welcomed by the international community and Burmese activists alike – nearly 1,200 political prisoners have been released since May 2011, 57 in December alone – political and human rights groups have shown reluctance to reward the government.

Child marriage (finally) seen as a health issue (in addition to one of human rights)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

This was cross-posted to the IH Blog.

As someone who takes particular interest in the intersection of health and human rights, I am glad to see this issue gaining the attention at the crossroads it deserves. Child marriage, which has been covered in recent years by such high-profile publications as National Geographic, has long been decried a human rights violation of young girls around the world. It garnered special attention with the story of Nujood Ali, an extraordinary young Yemeni girl who, after being married off at age ten to a man three times her age, escaped to a courthouse and demanded a divorce. She published her memoirs in 2009, which put the Middle East in the spotlight for the problem, but child marriage happens all around the world - and, in the case of Haiti, much closer to home than we Americans usually tend to think. Now, as my colleague Tom Murphy has pointed out on Humanosphere, child marriage is beginning to receive the attention it needs from the global health side as well.
Long considered an issue of human rights, the conversation about child marriage is shifting to that of health and education. Girls married too young are denied the educational opportunities of their peers and are put at greater health risks, such as HIV and teen pregnancy. What may seem like a distant problem, child marriage is found in every part of the world. Ending the global practice will unleash opportunity for millions of women and girls.
(Side note: I promise that Humanosphere is not the only global health blog I follow, but I find it to be one of the most informative and well-rounded, so I link back to it a lot. Perhaps I need to lengthen my blogroll.)

At a glance, it's easy enough to see both the health and the human rights problems with child marriages. First and foremost, the girls are married against their will, or without full knowledge of what it happening to them. Many of the girls are raped and abused; a few high-profile cases have featured girls who died of internal bleeding or fistula after their "husbands" finished with them. Teenage pregnancy, being cut off from education, perpetuating poverty cycles. The list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, it is just as easy to see that the solutions are not so simple; as the National Geographic feature points out, we cannot just "rescue" the girls by carrying them off into the sunset, as Nick Kristoff occasionally does. The reasons for these traditions are culturally ingrained and have to be addressed at the community level.
Efforts to reduce this number are mindful of the varied forces pushing a teenager to marry and begin childbearing, thus killing her chances at more education and decent wages. Coercion doesn't always come in the form of domineering parents. Sometimes girls bail out on their childhoods because it's expected of them or because their communities have nothing else to offer. What seems to work best, when marriage-delaying programs do take hold, is local incentive rather than castigation: direct inducements to keep girls in school, along with schools they can realistically attend. India trains village health workers called sathins, who monitor the well-being of area families; their duties include reminding villagers that child marriage is not only a crime but also a profound harm to their daughters.

New CGD Report: Results-Based Payments Reduce the Real Costs of Corruption in Foreign Aid

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A new report from the Center for Global Development presents an idea for reducing funds lost to corruption in aid: pay for results. A summary of the report explains the idea:
Why don’t foreign aid programs simply pay recipients for attaining agreed upon results? The idea has been around for decades, but it continues to meet resistance. Some donors worry that programs that pay for outputs or outcomes would not be able to control how funds are used and would thus be vulnerable to corruption. This brief explains why results-based payment systems are actually likely to be less vulnerable to corruption than traditional input-tracking approaches by making the effects of corruption—the failure of programs to deliver results—more visible.
The relatively short report is available as a PDF download, or you can read the full text online. It makes a decent argument for reducing graft; in fact, similar suggestions have been made to try to trim the US defense budget by only paying contractors for finished products. The downside to this approach is that it would probably deter countries and donors from less proven or more experimental aid projects; though some would not necessarily think this is a bad thing, others who see value in embracing and learning from failure will point out that it might stifle innovation. I also think that this runs against the recent push for greater country ownership of health and development programs.

"Two handcuffs" and no respite for garment workers

Monday, January 13, 2014

This was cross-posted to the IH Blog.

International outrage was sparked last with news of a massive factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and the aid blogosphere spent months breaking down the disaster and examining the fallout from it. Now, it
Photo credit: AP
seems that (though perhaps less of) our attention has been drawn again to the plight of garment workers - this time in Cambodia, where a large-scale protest was recently put down by force by the prime minister's "private military."

Why exactly the prime minister has a "private military" is a whole other issue that should be raising alarm, but perhaps beyond the scope of this particular discussion.

On Christmas Eve, a group of garment workers took to the streets of Phnom Penh to protest the Labour Ministry's raise of the country's minimum wage by a paltry fifteen cents.
In the days leading up to the protest, the Labour Ministry had approved an increase in the minimum wage for garment workers, from 80 to 95 dollars a month. But trade unions and workers protested, saying it was not enough to live on, and demanded a monthly minimum wage of 160 dollars.

Chrek Sophea, interim coordinator of the Workers’ Information Centre (WIC), which helps factory workers organise, told IPS workers cannot survive on the government’s proposed wage, and that it is in violation of Cambodia’s labour laws.

According to a 1997 law, “The minimum wage must ensure every worker of a decent standard of living compatible with human dignity.”


The military stepped in the night of Jan. 2, brutally beating and arresting labour leaders and protesting monks. Pictures of the bloodied trade unionists were widely shared on social media, which seems to be the point when the protests veered out of control.

By the early hours of Friday Jan. 3, young men allegedly armed with Molotov cocktails and machetes had replaced the women protesters. Hun Sen’s private military stormed the scene with live ammunition, shooting over 30 people, killing five and seriously injuring the rest.
Activists interviewed for the above-quoted article argue that the country's current minimum way isn't enough to scrape by an even sub-standard living without going into debt. "'The minimum is for eight hours, so most work 10 hours to get a higher income to have just enough to sleep in a shared room. Most workers are in debt, borrowing about 50 dollars each month, and can only pay 10 dollars interest on the loan each month.' Workers struggle to send money home to their families in the countryside." Adding insult to injury is the fact that most laborers have to sign short-term contracts, which allows their employers to replace them easily if they get sick or have to take time off for the birth of a child. The result is "two handcuffs" - a low wage and no job security.

International media coverage is peppered with stories and commentary about the protest and its violent suppression, but the ongoing problems in Bangladesh's garment industry are a handy reminder of how quickly we forget (no pun intended) our outrage. Even after Walmart cut off its business dealings with the guilty company and Congress tried (and failed) to do something about it, practically no is paying attention to the fact that garment factories catch fire every week. South Korea's subtle encouragement of the crackdown in Cambodia is also a painful reminder that too often corporate interests - rather than a decent wage and safe working conditions - too often dictate our approach to the workers who stitch the clothes on our backs.

Infographic from UNAIDS shows levels of discrimination against gays around the world

Friday, January 10, 2014

This infographic from UNAIDS shows the legal status of protection or discrimination against homosexuality in different countries around the world. Obviously, the criminalization of homosexuality presents major barriers to accessing treatment and healthcare services for HIV/AIDS and other STIs, which is the focus of the organization. While more than half the world's countries either protect or do not punish people for being gay, there are more countries with laws punishing homosexuality than there are that protect them from discrimination.

H/t Tom Paulson on Humanosphere

Latin America improving extreme poverty but still struggling with income inequality

In a post on Humanosphere, my DAWNS colleague Tom Murphy explores how extreme poverty has been reduced in Latin America through the economic growth of the last fifteen years, though some countries have progressed farther than others. I particularly like his use of graphs from The Economist.
Economic growth took off across Latin America in the early 2000s. Benefits were felt across the entire economic spectrum, said said World Bank report, ‘Shifting Gears to Accelerate Shared Prosperity in Latin America and the Caribbean’. As a result, extreme poverty fell from 25% of the population to 13% in the matter of a decade.

Income inequality remains a major issue for countries in Latin America, despite the fact that some measures show the incomes of the poorest 40% were growing faster than the overall average. The current rate of economic growth and levels of inequality point to protracted progress towards economic prosperity.

“The researchers reckon that on current trends it won’t be until 2052 that the average Latin American has the standard of living that rich-world inhabitants were enjoying back in 2000″ explained the Economist.

To speed up progress and reach the level of top global performers, the World Bank says Latin America needs to more than double its rate of economic growth.

The current extreme poverty rates reflect the uneven progress across Latin America. Southern Cone countries, such as Argentina, Brazil and Chile, witnessed speedy reductions in extreme poverty over the past fifteen years while countries in Central America and Mexico were much slower. Half of the 80 million people living extreme poverty live in the populous nations of Brazil and Mexico.
One point in particular is that cash transfer programs, which were the focus of a lot of commentary in the global health blogosphere last year, can do a lot to make a dent in reducing income inequality. Brazil's cash-transfer program, Bolsa Família, in particular received a lot of attention when it celebrated its ten-year anniversary (see articles from BBC and the Guardian).

Faster internet in Tonga could lead to better healthcare (at least, according to the World Bank)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

I came across this video from the World Bank in my Twitter feed. The World Bank is promoting a its project to bring high-speed internet to Tonga through the installation of an underwater fiber-optic cable and saying that the improved connection will improve the quality of healthcare. The description reads:
In August 2013, an 827 km underwater fiber optic cable arrived in Tonga, linking the country with Fiji via the Southern Cross Cable link between Australia and the United States. Arrival of the cable brings broadband internet to Tonga which will provide better and cheaper ICT services. The country's health sector is making plans on how to improve services with better internet connection to the outer islands and with other countries.

While this video is obviously promotional in nature, I can definitely appreciate the importance of technology in improving the quality of care in rural and remote areas. Texas A&M has the only school of rural public health in the US, and so I saw a lot of discussion on the ways that technology can improve health outcomes and provide access to medical consultations for patients, especially through video chatting. It also has great potential to improve the quality and timeliness of medical education for professionals who do not have the same access to resources as their colleagues in urban areas.

A laser-powered RDT for malaria?

Researchers at Rice University in Houston (my hometown!) have developed a laser-powered device that can detect malaria without drawing blood. Supposedly the device is easy to power and "rugged" enough for "dusty villages":
The results were described in a study published online last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In theory, said the inventor, Dmitri O. Lapotko, a physicist who studied laser weapons in his native Belarus, the technology can be used in a device powered by a car battery and is rugged enough to work in dusty villages. With a fiber-optic probe attached to a finger or ear lobe, the device could screen one person every 20 seconds for less than 50 cents each. If that happened, it could revolutionize malaria diagnosis. Current rapid tests require a finger prick, take 15 minutes and cost about $1. They can also spoil in hot climates. Malaria parasites feeding inside blood cells contain minute amounts of hemozoin, iron crystals left over from the digestion of hemoglobin . A laser burst of a fraction of a second heats the crystals until they create a bubble, which pops.
This is very interesting news, particularly in light of the rapid HIV tests that came out last year. These kinds of sturdy, portable RDTs are desperately needed in resource-poor areas.

Sustainable transport growing in three major Latin American cities

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

This is very encouraging to see, particularly as someone whose initial public health training was in
Photo credit: Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz/Leticia Ferreira, Wikimedia Commons
environmental health. So much of the energy in global health and development is focused on communicable diseases like STIs and vaccine-preventable diseases that issues related to the built environment are often overlooked. Now that chronic diseases are emerging as a major burden in developing countries, environmental health is getting a little bit more attention, particularly when it comes to things like air pollution and its relationship to cancer and respiratory conditions, but traffic is becoming a serious problem. It is nice to see megacities like Mexico City and Buenos Aires increasing bicycle lanes and efficient bus routes.
Sustainable transport grew in the Latin American cities of Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro in 2013.

The left-wing government of the Mexican capital inaugurated the fifth Metrobús bus rapid transit (BRT) system route and extended the Ecobici Individual Transport System.

It also expanded the Ecoparq parking meter system – a new parking management scheme – into new areas on the west side of the city and opened up a new pedestrian-only street in the old city.

In the Argentine capital, meanwhile, the third Metrobús line began to operate with great success on Avenida 9 de Julio, and the government expanded its “Buenos Aires, mejor en bici” (Buenos Aires, Better by Bike) programme.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the centre-right city government forged ahead with the construction of the Transcarioca and Transbrasil BRT corridors, while the second stage of the Transoeste BRT project got underway.

The network of bicycle paths was also enlarged, as part of the infrastructure planned for the FIFA World Cup, to be held in Brazil from Jun. 12 to Jul. 13, and the 2016 Olympic summer games in Rio de Janeiro.

In Mexico City, “there have been interesting projects, but they haven’t been carried out at the desired speed,” Bernardo Baranda, Latin America director for the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP), told IPS.

He called for more initiatives and said they should be more rapidly implemented, aimed at “a further reduction of the use of automobiles” in greater Mexico City, home to more than 20 million people.

As part of that objective, he said it was important to expand Ecobici, which includes exclusive and non-exclusive bike lanes as well as a bike-share system.

What is happening in greater Rio de Janeiro, population 11.7 million, “is very exciting,” he said. “A great deal has been invested in infrastructure. Bicycle use has expanded. The centre has great potential for better transport conditions.”
As a side note, I particularly like Inter Press Service's coverage and reporting style. I find that they tend to explore their stories in a more in-depth way, and they cover stories and countries that don't normally see a lot of press (e.g., the Solomon Islands). In fact, I also saw a story by them this morning on the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women (ANAMURI) in Chile, which is launching an institute for female small farmers to teach agroecology.

Bill Gates: Global health dictator or just raging hypocrite?

This was cross-posted on the IH Blog.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about Bill Gates for the IH Blog, the blog of APHA's International Health section. (Disclaimer: I am the Communications Committee chair for the section and have managed the blog for about four years now.) The post was in response to an article in Alliance magazine, by global health pundits Laura Freschi and Alanna Shaikh, which argued that Bill Gates had become a "global health dictator" because of the amount of power and influence that his vast wealth gave him in setting global health and development priorities. I took the opposite opinion - that a man is free to do with his wealth as he pleases, and we shouldn't shoulder him with the responsibility of setting the entire global health agenda just because he has the wealth to fund most of it.

I stand by what I said, but it now appears that potentially more sinister side of Bill Gates and Microsoft is in the spotlight for commentary: dodging taxes. In an editorial in the Guardian, Ian Birrell juxtaposes Gates's "aid gospel" with the fact that Microsoft, on whose board he still sits, goes to great lengths to avoid paying billions of dollars of taxes.
He made his name as a sharp-elbowed businessman who rode the technology revolution with such style. But these days he is far more famous for his philanthropy, as a saviour of the poor who has made it his life's mission to change the world for the better. So it was something of a shock to see he is still the richest person on the planet, boosting his fortune by another £9.6bn last year to an astonishing £48bn after a big rise in the Microsoft share price.

Public health dictator and tax dodger.
Photo credit: World Economic Forum. 

Clearly, he relishes his latest role, becoming increasingly influential and outspoken. He loves to lecture nations on how they should give away more of their taxpayers' money, urging them to hit the arbitrary and anachronistic target of handing over 0.7% of gross national income in foreign aid. He has applauded David Cameron for Britain's embrace of the target, even condemning a Lords' committee that criticised this cash cascade, while constantly telling other countries to do the same.

But like those other aid apostles Bono and Bob Geldof, he risks being perceived as a rank hypocrite. For he sees nothing wrong in complex tax avoidance schemes while telling nations how to spend their revenues, notwithstanding the growing body of opinion that aid undermines development and democracy by propping up poorly run regimes. The latest expert to highlight this "aid illusion" is Professor Angus Deaton, the leading expert on measuring global poverty and a former true believer, in his fine book The Great Escape.
It seems a given that Gates will be a controversial figure - obscenely wealthy people almost always are - but he has made a name for himself in the last decade as a tireless advocate for combating disease, developing sustainable agriculture, and advancing technological solutions to problems of poverty. He spent most of 2011 pushing his Giving Pledge with Warren Buffett, an attempt to persuade the wealthy of the world to donate half of their fortune to charitable causes. He is an almost guaranteed presence at big-name aid conferences and confabs, and now he and his wife are almost considered experts in their pet project areas - vaccination campaigns and green agriculture for Bill, and family planning for Melinda.

With such high visibility, it is highly discouraging to learn just how extensive Microsoft's tax-dodging practices are:
Moving earnings through low corporation tax countries such as Ireland, Luxembourg and Singapore means the company saved itself, according to one estimate, almost £3bn annually in tax. A Harvard law professor pointed out that Microsoft's divisions in three low-tax nations employed fewer than 2,000 people, but supposedly recorded about £9.4bn of pre-tax profit in 2011 – more than the 88,000 employees working in all its other global divisions.

In Britain, Microsoft reported revenues of £1.7bn in a single year for online sales on which it paid no corporation tax. This is why if you look at the small print when buying software through its British website, you find you are dealing with a Luxembourg offshoot. A newspaper investigation found a small office there with just six staff handling online sales from around Europe.
It is well-documented that the shuffle of corporate profits through tax havens hurts those in poverty by sheltering tax revenue that would go toward food aid, education, and medicine. What kind of aid champion does that make Bill Gates, if his own company circumvents tax responsibility totaling 3% of the global aid budget?

I still maintain that "global health dictator" is not the right label for Mr. Gates, but perhaps Ian Birrell is right - maybe "hypocrite" fits better.

Nifty interactive map of Europe's aid agencies

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I love maps and infographics, and the Guardian makes really useful and interesting ones related to global health, development, conflict, and international relations. This particular map shows how the development agencies of various European nations "fare in aid spending, transparency and commitment to development." Below is a screen grab.

H/t DAWNS Digest

After a year of setbacks, the fight against polio continues to struggle

And now for a post on a health topic, since I am, after all, a public health professional.

We were doing so well in the fight against polio. So well. We battled it back to only four countries where it was endemic, and then three, and vaccination coverage was getting more and more extensive. That is, until the unfortunate half-baked CIA plot to use polio vaccination campaigns as a cover to find Osama bin Laden. While that certainly is not the only reason for the virus's comeback - chaos and destruction from the Syrian civil war has brought it back into the country - it has done grievous damage to the eradication effort in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Khyber Agency Paramedics Association Senior Vice President Khan Mir Mullagori told The Express Tribune workers are not ready to carry out the vaccination campaign at any cost. He said Khyber Agency Political Agent Azam Wazir had called the workers’ strike ‘unjust’ even though Wazir is yet to fulfil their demands of providing “fool-proof” security and compensating families of slain polio workers.

The officials of the political administration did not comment on the meeting.

After Jamrud, the agency’s anti-polio drive suffered another setback when workers refused to conduct a vaccination drive in Landikotal on January 2.

The political administration and health department had decided to launch a campaign in Landikotal on January 6 but postponed it when polio teams in the tehsil cited security concerns.

The spike in such refusals led health authorities to provide basic immunisation training to 200 khasadar officials recently, but they too are reluctant to take part in the campaign because of the associated risks. Khasadars shared this new task was rather perplexing as their actual job is to combat militancy; not vaccinate children.
Unfortunately, too little attention is being paid to the resurgence of the disease. Tom Paulson on Humanosphere listed polio's comeback as one of the top five neglected global health stories of the year:
With the new conflict and unraveling government, expect to read soon that polio has returned to South Sudan like it did this year in Syria. The international community, led for decades by Rotary International and more recently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has helped many poor countries (India most notably) eliminate polio as a health threat. But conflict, chaos and poverty continue to promote the virus’ spread. Oh, and the CIA’s ill-conceived fake vaccination scheme should also be mentioned as a big help to the virus, and a great disservice to aid and health workers everywhere. The whack-a-mole nature of polio and this year’s setbacks will almost certainly renew debate as to whether this one-billion-dollar per year program targeting this single disease is the best use of limited resources.

Political prisoner amnesty in Myanmar: perhaps I spoke too soon

Monday, January 6, 2014

Perhaps it is too soon to declare a new era in respect for human rights in Myanmar. While Japan recently announced a $96 million aid package for ethnic minorities, seemingly in response to the government turning over a new leaf, only a handful of the more than 13,000 prisoners who have walked free since the new year are political detainees. It remains unclear how many prisoners of conscience still remain behind bars.
More than 13,000 inmates have walked free from various prisons across Burma since the president declared an amnesty on 31 December in honour of the 66th anniversary of Burma’s independence.

However, only a handful of those released have been political prisoners.

“I was in for prostitution and I’m very happy to be released”, said a young female prisoner released from Insein prison in Rangoon who served one year.

“I am very grateful for the amnesty allowing us to reunite with our families on humanitarian grounds”, said a male prisoner from Hlegu township who was sentenced to one year but only served eight months.

On 1 January the government announced that there were no more political prisoners in Burma.

And on Monday state media claimed that 13,274 prisoners had been set free. However, it remains unclear how many political activists are being further detained under criminal charges.

The presidential pardon meant that death sentences was reduced to life imprisonment; life sentences were reduced to 40 years; and inmates serving sentences of less than 40 years had their sentences shortened by one-quarter. Many of those who had already served two-thirds of their time were released.

The Burmese government claims that their jail-cells are now devoid of political detainees. The question now remains whether the international community is buying it.

Human rights situation in Myanmar looks to be improving, but there is a long way to go

The human rights situation in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is looking increasingly hopeful as more and more prisoners are set free. After the military "officially" relinquished power and elections were held for the country's new parliament, political prisoners have been released in spurts, now with only about 100 still awaiting trial (down from 2,600 right before the military released control in 2011). The reformist president, Thein Sein, even declared a year-end amnesty for all remaining political detainees.
Burma released a handful of political prisoners on Tuesday (December 31) after the government announced a year-end amnesty for those held for political reasons.


State-run MRTV announced the presidential amnesty in a bulletin late on Monday but did not reveal the number due for release; however an organisation that tracks political detainees said it expected 230 to be freed with the remainder released in mid-January.

The EU, United States and other Western countries have increased aid and investment, and suspended most sanctions, partly in response to Burma freeing hundreds of political prisoners and other liberal reforms unimaginable under the junta that ruled for 49 unbroken years.

This amnesty is one of at least a dozen the quasi-civilian government has granted since taking office in March 2011.

During the military’s final years in power, as many as 2,500 people, including activists, journalists, politicians and even comedians and artists, were behind bars. Many were subjected to torture and other inhumane treatment.
Obviously, much more still needs to be done. We have yet to see if the remaining prisoners will go free. Also, while the president has expressed support for a constitutional amendment that would allow opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (and any woman who aspires to high political office), the details are still fuzzy. As it currently stands, the constitution requires anyone running for high-level political positions to have military experience, and women were excluded from military service until recently.

The following video, by the Democratic Voice of Burma, shows interviews with political prisoners who have been released.

Internet privacy, now along with internet access, is a human right according to the UN

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Happy New Year! I am kicking off this blog with a post about internet privacy and human rights.

Motivated by their outrage over revelations of U.S. internet spying, as revealed by leaked information about the NSA's dragnet-style internet surveillance programs, Brazil and Germany co-sponsored a resolution in the UN General Assembly's Human Rights Committee. The resolution, titled‘The Right To Privacy in the Digital Age,' was passed last month with overwhelming support.
The resolution recognises that rapid technological development has created new opportunities for governments and organisations to undertake surveillance and interception in violation of an individual’s right to privacy under article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The resolution expresses a deep concern about the negative impact that surveillance on a mass scale may have on the exercise of an individual’s human rights. The resolution therefore reaffirms the right to privacy, especially an individual’s right to be free from arbitrary or unlawful interference online. Brazil’s Ambassador Antonio de Aguiar Patriota commented, “the resolution establishes for the first time that human rights should prevail irrespective of the medium and therefore needs to be protected online as well as offline.”

In a UN press release, independent expert the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression Frank La Rue commented, “If States are truly committed to ensuring that all the rights which apply offline continue to be valid online, they urgently need to take concrete steps to secure respect for the privacy of communications as a universal right.” Mr La Rue added, “Blanket indiscriminate surveillance should never be legal…privacy is a recognised human right and for decades there has been a solid understanding of this concept.”
Image Credit: Dave Hoffman at Syracuse University
This, in addition to the UN's recommendation that internet access itself be considered a human right, means that everyone is entitled have internet access to blog, organize demonstrations, and watch weird YouTube videos without anyone looking over their shoulder. In theory, at least - the resolution is not legally-binding.

Unfortunately, many of the nations who so enthusiastically supported the resolution out of resentment for the U.S. spying programs will most likely not be inclined to grant their citizens the same freedoms. The resolution makes an important point, however, in that exercising freedoms of speech and protest, which are increasingly done through digital means - particularly for people in remote areas - also require privacy so that they can be done without fear of repercussions.

H/T EIN Human Rights