(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Hurricane Irma highlights the great divide in disaster vulnerability

    As Hurricane Irma whipped its way through the Caribbean and headed for Florida, its catastrophic impacts further east put into stark relief the vulnerability of the region’s poor island communities to increasingly fierce and frequent weather events.

    The toll the record-breaking storm will take on Florida remains to be seen, but the resources pouring in to buffer the US state and its inhabitants dwarf those of hardest-hit island communities with nowhere else to go.

    As Floridians – and coastal Georgians – boarded up their homes with plywood and took to their cars, or the skies, to find safer parts of the country, options were few and far between for those stranded on small Caribbean islands in fragile homes, with little high ground and scarce emergency shelters.


    Pacific Disaster Center

    Residents of Anguilla, Barbuda, Saint-Martin/Sint-Maarten, and the British and US Virgin Islands surveyed the wreckage and recounted miraculous stories of survival, including tying themselves down with ropes, as a massive storm the size of France destroyed most of their houses and flooded their villages.

    Respite appeared short-lived as Hurricane Jose strengthened to a major Category 3 storm in the Atlantic with sustained winds of 125mph and a similar course as Irma.

    “The damage is already catastrophic,” Ronald Jackson, director of the Caribbean Disaster Management Agency, told IRIN. “The only good thing is that the death toll is not commensurate with the extent of the damage we’ve seen.”

    A total of 19 people had been confirmed killed (one each in Barbuda, Anguilla, and Sint-Maarten, three in Puerto Rico, four in the US Virgin Islands, and nine in Saint Martin) by mid-Friday, but it was still early days in the search-and-rescue efforts and the fatality situation was still unclear in the badly hit British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos.

     Jackson said there were fears Hurricane Jose could wreak even more damage, given the saturation, weakened buildings, and flooding left by Irma.

    Asked by IRIN whether the islands had been prepared, Jackson replied: “No one can be prepared for a hurricane of this nature. We can evacuate and board up houses, but we are talking of catastrophic wind speeds. You simply cannot prepare for the outcome of these things.” 


    The damage to tiny islands like Saint-Martin and Barbuda has been devastating, with almost all the housing destroyed or badly damaged. Although Puerto Rico avoided a direct hit, almost one million people were without power in a US territory already grappling with electricity problems and crippling debt.

    Haiti largely spared

    As Irma closed in, relief workers in Haiti tried to persuade reluctant inhabitants in the north to abandon their homes and livestock for higher ground.

    Caution was still being urged in what is the poorest country in the western hemisphere – one ravaged by deforestation and natural disasters and prone to deadly floods and landslides. Hurricane Matthew caused awful coastal flooding in southern Haiti in October 2016 that left hundreds dead, while a catastrophic earthquake in 2010 killed hundreds of thousands, many of them beneath the rubble of the flattened capital, Port-au-Prince.

    A measure of the vulnerability of Haiti and the neighbouring Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola, is that while they were largely bypassed by Hurricane Irma they still suffered widespread flooding and thousands of homes were damaged and people displaced.

    As Britain, France, Holland, and the United States dispatched warships and planes full of aid and emergency personnel to restore a measure of functionality to their territories, it was left to aid groups and the perennially disaster-stricken national government to help out Haiti.

    Yvonne Helle, the UN Development Programme’s senior country director in Haiti, said people in the north who had not borne the brunt of Hurricane Matthew last year were less sensitised to the danger. “In some areas people evacuated but in others, not. It’s very difficult to persuade people to leave.” Prisoners and orphans were among those who were evacuated early, she added.

    So far, the damage in Haiti was less than expected, despite some severe flooding from the Rivière du Massacre, bordering the Dominican Republic. There were still fears of flooding and landslides in the northwest of the country however. In the south, Helle said desperately needed aid for rebuilding infrastructure destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in October last year was only coming in now.

    The good news was the high level of coordination between the relief agencies and the relevant sectors of government, despite the fact President Jovenel Moïse’s administration was still relatively new. “Everyone is applying the lessons they learned with Hurricane Matthew and communication between all the parties is now much better,” said Helle. 

    Resilience and climate change

    Several experts and observers said they were witnessing a “new normal” with more frequent and more intense storms in a region that had to become better prepared. “For us living in the Caribbean, we see that climate change is real. We are seeing drought and rainfall patterns changing. Hurricanes are stronger and are happening later in the season,” said Helle.

    The Platform of Disaster Displacement’s Walter Kaelin said storms like Irma show that the worst hit are those who are least resilient. “It is clearly linked to poverty,” he said. “Those who have to live in unsafe settlements are exposed to flooding and landslides. These storms exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities.”


    Bahare Khodabande/IRIN
    Savener, a 41-year-old vendor, stands in front of the area where he worked and lived before Hurricane Matthew

    Kaelin said there are strong connections between these storms and climate change. “We do know that with global warming, super storms will increase in terms of strength,” he told IRIN. “There is some debate about whether this is causing more frequency, but we know there is a relationship.”

    Jackson agreed, saying that even though hurricanes were part of the identity of people in the Caribbean, “we are in an era where the climate is changing and is having a huge impact on (us).”

    “We are in a new normal where hurricanes and tropical storms are rapidly developing” and “where we’re seeing an uptick in the frequency of high-magnitude and extreme events.”

    Diplomatic efforts to get countries to reduce their carbon emissions is one thing (the Caribbean produces less than one percent of global emissions), but in the meantime, “we need to invest in environmental sustainability and emergency services,” he said. 

    Speaking from Barbados, Jackson said steps had to be taken to improve drainage on the islands, which had suffered from the removal of too many trees to make way for development.

    Building codes had to be updated, but more importantly, implemented and enforced, he said, calling for greater partnerships between public and private sectors to bolster Caribbean island states unable to bear the costs, not only of repair, but also of developing resilience for future storms.

    Kaelin pointed to climate adaptation strategies being put in place in vulnerable islands in the Pacific (including seasonal migration programs that allow islanders to work in countries like Australia and return with resources to build stronger houses at home), but said this kind of country-to-country cooperation has yet to occur in the Caribbean in any consistent way.

    “There will be people in future who will try to leave the islands,” predicted Kaelin. Countries like the United States and Canada will have to decide whether “out of an act of humanity they will let people in”. At the very least, he suggested, temporary protection status should be granted to people from affected islands living in these countries who would otherwise be deported, as occurred with the Haiti earthquake.


    Hurricane Irma highlights the great divide in disaster vulnerability
  • When the drugs don’t work

    World leaders came together this week to agree on a global response to the escalating problem of Antimicrobial Drug Resistance (AMR), but will new measures actually reach the developing world where they are most needed?


    Common and life-threatening infections like pneumonia, as well as HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria are increasingly becoming untreatable, as bacteria, viruses, and parasites develop resistance against medicines that used to be effective.


    At a meeting on AMR at the UN’s General Assembly on Wednesday, 193 member states agreed to take action. It was only the fourth time in the UN’s history that such a high-level gathering had been called to address a health-related crisis.


    If the global commitment leads to new approaches, it would be particularly important for poor countries, where a high burden of infectious diseases, lack of access to vaccines and life-saving drugs, and poor health infrastructure have contributed to spiralling levels of drug resistance.


    Waking up to a new crisis


    World Health Organization Director General Margaret Chan has warned that all antibiotics could eventually be rendered useless due to AMR, which has developed partly because of inappropriate antibiotic use in people, farm animals, and agriculture. In a post-antibiotic world, common ailments such as a strep throat or an infected wound could prove fatal. A recent report commissioned by the UK government estimates that by the year 2050, 10 million people could die annually as a result of AMR. Currently, an estimated 700,000 die each year from bacterial infections that are multi-drug-resistant. 


    The problem has already gone beyond the domain of health ministers. Economists and heads of state are now focused on the issue. Citing the UK government-commissioned report, Keiji Fukuda, the WHO’s special representative for antimicrobial resistance, said global economic losses from AMR could be as high as $100 trillion by 2050.


    The topic was front and centre at the UN this week. Besides the high-level meeting, there were a number of side events on the issue. At a press briefing, Fukuda said the pledge by heads of state to take action was indicative of the seriousness of the crisis.


    “It’s of the order of HIV or climate change,” he said. “Besides not being able to treat infected people, the whole basis of modern medicine could become shaky.” Fukuda raised the specter of life-saving operations becoming too dangerous to perform because of the risks of untreatable post-operative infections. “Around the world we’re seeing these problems. We’re seeing on a daily basis, infections that are untreatable and resistant to medications.”


    Hitting the poor hardest

    Although most of the research on AMR comes from wealthier countries, resistance to HIV and TB drugs, and now malaria, is having the biggest impact in poorer countries where these diseases are most prevalent. The UK study estimates that 90 percent of deaths resulting from AMR will be in developing countries, and that one quarter of all deaths will be related to TB.


    Contributing to the problem is the ready availability of antibiotics over the counter, and even online, in many developing countries.


    In a statement, Médecins Sans Frontiéres said it was seeing drug-resistant infections everywhere it works, “from the war-wounded in Jordan, to newborns in Pakistan and burn patients in Haiti, to people with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis in South Africa”. Some of these can only be treated with the last line of antibiotics, it said.


    Keith Klugman, pneumonia director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said AMR was also a growing concern in poor urban environments, where sewage containing resistant bacteria contaminates water and then spreads throughout an area. “We are seeing this in places in India and Africa,” he said.


    But Klugman told IRIN that deaths resulting from lack of antibiotics are still more common in Africa than those caused by antibiotics: “What is desperately needed is more drugs in rural areas as well as more vaccines to protect children and adults from diseases, which limits the need for antibiotics in the first place.


    New drugs needed


    The core objectives of a Global Action Plan on AMR launched by the WHO in 2015 are to: cut down antibiotic use in humans and animals; reduce infections with prevention measures like vaccines and better sanitation and hygiene; improve research and surveillance of the problem; educate the public, medical staff, and farmers on the proper use of antibiotics; and invest in new medicines and diagnostic tools.  


    The final objective addresses the fact that pharmaceutical companies have not brought a new antibiotic to the market for the past 30 years, largely because they have not proved profitable. The UK study shows that venture capitalists invested less than five percent in antimicrobial development from 2003 to 2013. When new second- and third-line antibiotic drugs do come on the market, they tend to be unaffordable in many countries. This week’s global declaration aims to create an enabling environment for the pharmaceutical sector to develop new drugs, with a call for governments to provide public funding for research and development.


    “We need a system of access to medicine where, when new antibiotics are developed, they must be sold at the cheapest price so everyone can afford them,” commented Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre, an intergovernmental organisation that supports cooperation between developing countries.


    Khor added that a number of preconditions would be needed to make the public funding model a success. For example, the public sector would need to have ownership of patents for drugs developed with public money, and those rights would then need to be passed on to generic companies to make affordable versions.


    Prevent the infection first?


    Judit Rius Sanjuan, manager of MSF’s Access Campaign, said the declaration that emerged from Wednesday’s meeting commits governments to “groundbreaking public health safeguards” and the need for new research on AMR to be patient-driven rather than profit-driven. “If the declaration’s commitment on de-linkage [of drug research from profits] is implemented, it could be a game-changer,” she told IRIN.


    She added that while talk of better “stewardship” and changing behaviours to restrict unnecessary antibiotic use was important, it was “a very Northern-driven [developed world] response”.


    “There is a lack of recognition that many health systems in the [Global] South need support. They lack the diagnostic and other tools and interventions to respond to the challenge,” she said, noting that many poor countries lack the capacity even to monitor the scale of the problem.


    At a presentation on AMR at the Ford Foundation in New York this week, South African Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi criticised the high cost of new drugs to treat multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.  


    Motsoaledi said fighting TB was not being sufficiently prioritised by organisations like the UN or the World Bank, despite being the world’s leading cause of death from infectious disease alongside HIV. Unless there is more focus on combatting TB, the battle against AMR will be lost, he said.


    Marc Mendelson, head of infectious diseases and HIV at the University of Cape Town, argued the merits of an infection prevention approach to AMR rather than prioritising the development of new drugs. “If we had clean water, we could drop antibiotic use by half. If we had vaccinations, we wouldn’t need the antibiotics in the first place.”


    (TOP PHOTO: Tun Aung Kyaw, a MDR-TB patient, has his blood pressure checked while being treated at the Wangpha TB clinic in Thailand. Sean Kimmons/IRIN)



    When the drugs don’t work
    Global push to address resistance gathers pace
  • Time to get tough on human trafficking and sex slavery

    After Amira’s husband was killed in the Syrian war, she found herself adrift in Lebanon. Barred from working and with two young children to feed, she resorted to marrying off her nine-year-old daughter and putting her 12-year-old son to work.


    Amira is not a real person but her story is increasingly commonplace. No one knows how many of the 60 million forcibly displaced people around the world have fallen victim to trafficking, slavery, and forced labour, but their number appears to be on the increase. As many as 7,000 women and girls have been taken as sexual slaves by Boko Haram; in Libya, armed groups regularly exploit migrants and refugees for forced labour or hold them for ransom; and in Iraq, more than 5,000 Yazidis have been enslaved by so-called Islamic State.


    Recent research on Syrian refugees in Lebanon by the Freedom Fund, an anti-trafficking and slavery NGO, found that forced and child labour, child marriage, sexual exploitation, and survival sex were becoming more widespread – in a country hosting more than one million refugees. “The economic desperation, combined with lack of legal protections and other factors, makes these individuals more susceptible to various forms of trafficking,” said Kate Kennedy of the Freedom Fund.


    Most agree that humanitarian interventions to detect – let alone stop – trafficking of refugees are woefully lacking, as are efforts to find and punish the perpetrators. But momentum to address the problem is gathering pace at the UN, prompted in part by the realisation that not only are these crimes on the rise, but they are taking on darker and more brazen forms.


    Perfect storm


    Armed groups like IS and Boko Haram openly advocate for the enslavement of women and children, both as a means of generating revenue and punishing particular populations. At the same time, protracted conflicts in Syria and elsewhere have swollen the numbers of desperate people searching for a way to survive their displacement, creating a perfect storm for these crimes to escalate.


    The United Nations University has just released a report, “Fighting Human Trafficking in Conflict”, that documents the connections between conflict and trafficking that takes place within conflict zones and within displaced populations that have fled such areas.


    According to the report: “Refugees fleeing conflict are often subjected to trafficking-related exploitation, including child labour, forced prostitution, forced and early marriage and forced begging.”


    UNU’s James Cockayne, lead author of the report, stated that there is disturbing evidence that human trafficking in conflict is a growing problem and that armed groups like IS and Boko Haram are “encouraging – and organising – slavery on a scale not seen since World War II.”


    Cockayne said these non-state armed groups were “openly reviving slavery and organising slave markets, using more sophisticated and institutionalised techniques, including social media platforms to both groom victims and to auction them off”.


    A human face


    Thanks to the brave stance of Nadia Murad, a Yazidi woman whose family was murdered and who was then gang-raped by ISIS soldiers and sold as a sex slave, the frightening resurgence of sexual slavery as a weapon of war now has a human face.


    Murad has become a spokeswoman for the Yazidi women still being held in sexual slavery by IS. Her harrowing testimony at last year’s first ever debate on human trafficking at the UN Security Council reduced council members to tears. This Friday she will be appointed a goodwill ambassador to advocate for trafficking survivors, especially refugees, women and girls.


    Targets in three of the Sustainable Development Goals – 5, 8 and 16 – relate to stopping human trafficking and give the UN further impetus to tackle the problem. Agencies focused on the issue include the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Labor Organization and the International Organization for Migration. 


    Meanwhile, the UNU report, which offers 10 ideas for the Security Council to tackle human trafficking in conflict, will feed into another report that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is due to release on the topic in a couple of months, to be debated by the Security Council in December.


    What can be done?


    But there are no easy solutions to a complex problem in which organised crime, terrorism, and legitimate-seeming business practices are intertwined, and the victims usually hidden.


    While there are many anti-trafficking laws and tools in place, applying them is hard. Laws that bar money laundering and terrorism financing can’t prevent money moving through informal routes that bypass the formal banking system, such as the “hawala” system popular in the Middle East. Neither can they stop the kind of trade taking place in IS-held territories whereby kidnap victims are reportedly sold to fighters for a mere few dollars, or bartered for guns or cigarettes.


    The UNU report suggests a multi-pronged approach that includes targeting the financial flows where possible, using social media to spread awareness, harnessing existing sanctions regimes, developing better tools to monitor and report on the problem, and bringing trafficking and slavery cases before international war tribunals.


    The Security Council is also urged to help states take action against perpetrators. But in the conflict countries where trafficking is rife, the rule of law is weak and armed groups act with impunity. States are also reluctant to give up their sovereignty on the matter. 


    But cracking down on perpetrators is unlikely to be effective unless alternative livelihoods are found for the growing number of displaced people. A study on the impact of the Syrian war on trafficking by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development found that much of the exploitation taking place involves “family members, acquaintances and neighbours” rather than transnational organised crime groups. “Families and communities displaced by the war are often left with no viable alternatives for survival other than situations that can be characterised as exploitation,” reads the study. Interventions such as lifting restrictions on work for asylum seekers and refugees, cash transfer programmes, and better access to school for refugee children may have more impact on reducing trafficking and exploitation than going after perpetrators.


    Spreading the word


    Meanwhile, humanitarians are searching for ways they can alleviate the problem. Kennedy told IRIN that ways have to be found to “systematically document slavery and human trafficking of refugees” and for anti-trafficking efforts to be incorporated into strategies to address refugee and displacement crises.


    At a workshop that formed the basis of the UNU report, many participants argued that because human trafficking is not specifically tackled in the UN’s cluster approach to humanitarian coordination, it gets little attention in UN field approaches.


    One suggestion is to run information campaigns at places where people-at-risk gather, such as border crossings, refugee processing centres, food distribution centres, and on social media. In co-operation with each other and the UN, countries could start sending investigative units to high-risk areas.


    Part of the problem is that agencies are often ill-equipped to deal with human trafficking that occurs in the midst of a conflict or crisis. According to the authors of a 2015 article published by the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Practice Network: “Humanitarian actors often lack tailored, specific and systematic anti-trafficking tools or knowledge. Human trafficking risks are often not fully understood or recognised by first responders at the onset of crises.”


    The authors suggest that “dedicated experts” be deployed with other first responders and that mobile anti-trafficking teams made up of government and civil society groups could be used.


    The Migrants in Countries in Crisis Initiative also urges humanitarian workers to increase their capacity to identify and help trafficking victims. All too often humanitarian workers see trafficking as the domain of development actors. What’s clear is that it has become an urgent humanitarian priority.


    (TOP PHOTO: A boy, who is by himself, tries to sleep on a piece of cardboard next to the fence outside a reception centre on the Greek island of Lesvos in October 2015. Jodi Hilton/IRIN)



    Time to get tough on human trafficking and sex slavery
  • Leaving no one (apart from migrants and refugees) behind

    Ten months ago, the UN’s 2030 Agenda laid out an ambitious set of Sustainable Development Goals to be met over the next 15 years as 193 countries committed themselves to “leaving no one behind” in the endeavour to end poverty and promote development.

    Was this merely a lofty-sounding phrase or is it actually compelling countries to extend their commitments to the 65 million refugees and displaced people living within their borders?

    First, the bad news: the xenophobia and nationalism dominating political discourse around the world threaten to undermine the inclusive spirit of the agenda, and perhaps even the relevance of the UN itself.  

    Brexit, the EU-Turkey deal, Kenya’s plans to close its largest refugee camp, Dadaab, extremist attacks inspired or directed by so-called Islamic State, the inward-looking, alienating nature of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, have all contributed to a climate where governments are focused on acting individually to keep refugees and migrants out rather than on addressing their needs.

    This doesn’t bode well for those hoping that concrete commitments towards a shared responsibility for the refugee crisis will emerge from the upcoming UN summit on large movements of refugees and migrants, or from US President Barack Obama’s separate Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, nor for hopes that countries will use their development agendas to prioritise the most vulnerable.

    The promise

    The latest draft declaration on the UN summit, to be signed by leaders in New York in September, is peppered with references to the 2030 Agenda.

    "Words, of course, are cheap" – Peter Sutherland, UN special representative for international migration 

    The agenda, says the declaration, recognises migrants as “agents of change and as enablers for development in countries of origin, transit and destination”; endeavours to “reach the furthest behind first”; calls for facilitating safe migration and mobility; and “explicitly recognises the “needs of refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants”.

    Its targets deal with issues specific to refugees and migrants, like “education, labour standards, human trafficking, exploitation of children, access to justice and the building of self-reliance and resilience”.

    “Meeting a year after 2030”, the draft optimistically notes, “we pledge to realise the full potential of the agenda for refugees and migrants”.

    The reality

    But during a recent briefing at the International Peace Institute in New York, where panellists attempted to join the dots between the 2030 Agenda and the UN refugee summit, their repeated calls to counter xenophobic rhetoric towards refugees and migrants sounded a desperate note.

    Peter Sutherland, the UN special representative of the secretary-general for international migration, warned that pervasive and increasingly dominant political rhetoric was giving rise to xenophobia and racism and “breeding the type of extreme nationalism that many of us hoped was left behind us 40 or 50 years ago”. The optimism many felt when migration made it into the SDGs has dissipated, he said.

    Related: What does Brexit mean for refugees?

    Besides the “leaving no one behind” spirit of the agenda that calls for addressing the needs of the most vulnerable first, Goal 10 (reduce inequality within and among countries) specifically calls for the “orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people”, through “the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies” (target 7).

    But as Sutherland said: “Words, of course, are cheap.” Rather than embracing the spirit of the global development agenda, political leaders are nurturing “a misguided belief that safeguarding sovereignty means acting unilaterally.

    "They’ve resisted calls for collective action regionally and internationally," he said.

    What about IDPs?

    Another negative, which emerged as a source of tension at the panel discussion, is that internally displaced people will be left off the refugee summit agenda. Member states demanded that IDPs be left out because “they are an issue of national sovereignty”, said Karen AbuZayd, the UN special adviser on the summit. A perfect opportunity for countries to commit to taking responsibility for both their own and other states’ displaced people appears to have been lost.

    Of the world's 65 million displaced people, more than 45 million are IDPs, pointed out Josephine Liebl, policy adviser at Oxfam. “For the summit to only focus on refugees and not look at IDPs is a huge omission for us,” she told IRIN. “In our programmes we’ve seen that IDPs receive very little protection and assistance.” This is, in part, she explained, because their movement may be less visible, because they are not crossing borders. Another reason, of course, is that IDPs are often caught up in the political conflict perpetrated by the member states themselves.

    The good news

    On the positive side, the 2030 Agenda does attempt to address many of the root causes that drive people to flee their homes, including poverty, climate change-induced disasters, and conflict. The wide-ranging and ambitious agenda has a better chance than the Millennium Development Goals, its predecessor, of tackling what drives migration in the first place, said Paul O’Brien, Oxfam America’s vice president for policy and campaigns.

    O’Brien said the fact that three interest groups prevailed in developing the agenda – those wanting to finish the goals of the MDGs, nation states calling for more economic growth to sustain development, and those pushing for solutions to global challenges like climate change and structural inequality – has led to an agenda that is far better positioned to address the underlying causes of mass displacement of people.

    Also, the 2030 Agenda is about universality. “It places obligations on countries accepting refugees and migrants to fulfill commitments regarding education, healthcare, job opportunities and everything else that the 169 targets cover,” said O’Brien. This, he told IRIN, “creates an avenue for accountability”. “There is nothing in the SDGs that says these commitments apply to countries’ own citizens only.”

    Young boys swim in a river in Kachia, in Kaduna State Nigeria. 18th September, 2009

    Young boys swim in a river in Kachia, in Kaduna State Nigeria. 18th September,  2009
    Kate Holt/IRIN
    Young boys swim in a river in Kaduna State, Nigeria. Will sub-Saharan Africa ever be able to meet UN sanitation targets?

    Christine Matthews, deputy director of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) office in New York, told the panel that the 2030 Agenda’s call to “leave no one behind” was a landmark opportunity to strengthen the bridge between the humanitarian and development arenas, and for countries to incorporate building resilience and self-reliance of displaced people into their national and local development frameworks. Implementation of Goals 1 (no poverty), 10 (reduced inequalities), and 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions), in particular, will stop people from leaving their homes in the first place, she said.

    There is at least some evidence of progress in this regard. Jessica Espey, associate director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, cited Nigeria as an example of a country looking at “leaving no one behind” as a way to address conflict. And the needs of Syrian refugees comprise a central component of Jordan’s new development plan, for example.

    The World Bank and other donors are also supporting a scheme where Jordan gives employment, entrepreneurial support, and education to Syrian refugees in return for trade benefits. While the primary intention may be to stop Syrians from moving to Europe, it is also a sign that the focus – both within and outside the UN – is shifting to more development-oriented approaches to tackling the refugee crisis.

    Some political accountability

    Many see the inclusion of Goal 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions) as a big positive in addressing a major driver of mass displacement – conflict. “During the SDG negotiations, many member states didn’t want to take on humanitarian and peace and conflict issues,” said Espey. “They saw this as the responsibility of the Security Council.

    Related: The EU-Turkey migration deal is dying. What's Plan B?

    “The problem then is that the SDGs don’t tackle a number of pressing issues to do with instability and conflict,” such as refugees and displaced people. “Goal 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) ended up being the closest thing to a compromise.” Besides the political sensitivities, Espey pointed out that conflict and migration present an intractable and daunting challenge to an already overloaded and ambitious development agenda. “Adding governance to the agenda was just too big an issue to bite off,” she said.

    Nevertheless, Goal 16 is being seen as an important “political placeholder for these crises”, as she put it, and, she agreed, for strengthening the humanitarian/development nexus. “The goal ensures that these issues of conflict and migration are being discussed as part of national priorities. And ‘leave no one behind’ gives leverage to tackle this goal.”

    A final positive is the inclusion of “disaggregated” indicators: applying the different categories such as sex, race, and age to the population so that vulnerable people do not slip under the radar, as was the case with the MDGs. ‘Migratory status’ is at least one of these categories in the SDG indicators, stressed Casey Dunning, a senior policy analyst at the Centre for Global Development. Unless refugees and other displaced people are identified and counted they won’t be able to access services.

    But in Dunning’s view, the interest for collecting this detailed disaggregated information is “just not there at the moment”. Not only, she said, are countries intent on looking inward and putting up fences, they are more focused on their own economic growth than on ensuring that no one is left behind.

    (TOP PHOTO: Burundian refugees wait on the beach in Kagunga, Tanzania. Bill Marwa/OXFAM)


    Leaving no one (apart from migrants and refugees) behind
    Are the Sustainable Development Goals fit for purpose?
  • A humanitarian's guide to choosing the next UN chief

    Of the nine candidates currently in the running to become the next UN secretary-general, who will bring the most expertise, creativity and focus to the humanitarian agenda?

    The selection of the world’s top civil servant has traditionally happened behind closed doors, but last week, for the first time ever, candidates presented their visions for the UN to the General Assembly in New York and took questions from governments, civil society and journalists in public events.

    In typical UN speak, they waxed lyrical on a long list of topics: peace and security, sustainable development, human rights, humanitarian response, “leaving no one behind”, preventing disasters before they happen, securing the survival and long-term future of refugees, acting on climate change, bringing gender equity and other reforms to the UN, strengthening regional relationships, cracking down on sexual abuse by peacekeepers, and focusing on youth. 

    Most were not very specific in their standpoints on key humanitarian issues. But here’s what we could draw out of their vision statements, the “informal dialogues” held at the UN, the press conferences and an open debate held among some of the candidates in New York. Scroll down for our reading of the candidates’ odds – and how they compare with those of the bookmakers!

    Prevention of conflict

    This was one of the most common themes running through candidates’ visions; many referred to the joint imperatives of finding political solutions to conflict and addressing its root causes. Bulgarian Irina Bokova, currently head of UNESCO, the UN agency for science, education and culture, framed it as “the core task” of the organisation, requiring a new investment and focus in mediation and prevention, as well as enhanced monitoring. In her statement, she called for the prevention of conflict and violence through political solutions and diplomacy and by strengthening “societies today to make them resilient to all threats to peace – from violent extremism to intolerance, discrimination and conflict”. Like another Eastern European candidate, former Moldovan foreign minister Natalia Gherman, she stressed the importance of early warning mechanisms.


    Irina Bokova
    UN Photo/Manuel Elias
    Irina Bokova, head of UNESCO

    Portugal’s António Guterres, former head of the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, referred to a “strategic commitment to a culture of prevention” and stressed the importance of finding political solutions to humanitarian crises. He and Croatian politician Vesna Pusić also pointed to addressing extreme inequality and competition over scarce resources as drivers of conflict. “For all the progress that has been made, too many people have been left behind,” Pusić, formerly Croatia’s foreign minister, said. “This is morally wrong but it is also a threat to peace and security.”

    Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and now head of the UN Development Programme, called for a UN better equipped to anticipate world events and share reliable information with those who need it. Danilo Türk, a professor of international law and former president of Slovenia, saw a priority in preventive diplomacy and more meaningful accountability for war crimes. Montenegro’s former prime minister Igor Lukšić called for a “holistic and integrated approach to preventing, mitigating and resolving conflicts”, and Serbian politician and diplomat Vuk Jeremić suggested the creation of an Interagency Task Force on the Prevention of Genocide and Other Mass Atrocities for more coordinated and effective prevention across the UN system.   


    Helen Clark
    UN Photo/Cia Pak
    Helen Clark, head of the UN Development Programme

    Less tunnel vision

    Another common theme was the importance of a cohesive UN approach that recognises the linkages between sustainable development, peace and security, human rights and humanitarian relief. Most candidates spoke of the need to move away from compartmentalised responses. “Working in silos cannot go on,” Bokova said. At the UN informal dialogue, she called for deeper awareness of “why peace and security and development are so closely linked”. Gherman called for enhanced coordination between the humanitarian and development communities. Clark pointed to a need for “seamless links” and “strong partnerships”. In her vision statement, she said the UN system delivers best when “it recognises and responds to the fundamental connection between sustainable development, peace and security, and human rights”. Guterres called for humanitarian and development actors not only to bridge the gap between them, but to “work together from the very beginning of the crisis, ideally contributing to preventing it”. He spoke of the need to “connect the dots” and “strengthen the nexus between peace and security, sustainable development and human rights policies”.

    Displacement crisis

    While the unprecedented number of people displaced in the world featured highly in most of the candidates’ priorities, Guterres clearly had an upper hand on this subject. “Migration”, he said, “should be an option, not a necessity; out of hope, not despair.” He called for more legal opportunities for migration and combatting smugglers and traffickers. He also said middle-income, refugee-hosting states should be a priority for development cooperation and UN agency support. Lukšić criticised the controversial deal between Turkey and the European Union to tackle refugee flows as an example of weak UN leadership. Bokova called on the UN to play a greater role in addressing the crisis through improved access to education, health and security. Gherman suggested better protection mechanisms and durable solutions for internally displaced people, noting the need for “a medium- and long-term resilience and development perspective”. She said migration had to become a “win-win” situation for both host countries and migrants, and that recipient countries had to become more resilient to better handle influxes. Macedonian economist Srgjan Kerim said migration would be a top priority not because of the current crisis but because “the whole history of mankind is about migration.”


    António Guterres
    UN Photo/Manuel Elias
    António Guterres, former head of the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR

    Impact of climate change

    Clark called for urgent support for adaptation and building resilience to climate change. Bokova said the “unfinished business” of the Millennium Development Goals (has anyone told her they’ve already been replaced?) should have a special focus on the world’s Least Developed Countries and those most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Kerim said the UN must be the driving force in bringing global warming under control and that the special needs of those threatened most by climate change – Least Developed Countries, landlocked developing countries, and small island states – must be high on the secretary-general’s agenda.

    Protection of civilians

    Jeremić was perhaps the strongest on this file, calling for more robust rules of UN engagement for peacekeeping and stabilisation missions. Most candidates also referred to the sexual abuse of civilians by peacekeepers and called for a “no tolerance” approach.

    Humanitarian principles

    Pusić and Guterres were the only candidates to refer specifically to a need for more respect for humanitarian principles and the “autonomy of humanitarian space” in their vision statements. Pusić highlighted the fact that many terrorist groups like the so-called Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Taliban “treat the humanitarian agencies as if they were the enemy. Indeed, part of their strategy is to ensure that no help gets to civilians in areas where they operate”. She flagged in particular the fact that humanitarian agencies may not want to be associated with the UN, which “is itself not neutral in these conflicts”.


    The importance of localising humanitarian response has been a focus of the discussions in the lead-up to the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit. Many candidates referred to the need to work more closely with regional organisations, particularly the African Union. Guterres called for strengthening the ability of governments to address the needs of their people through capacity and institution building; while Türk said one of his priorities would be developing a greater understanding and acceptance of different cultures and their diversity. Gherman said the new secretary-general must “ensure connectivity between the global and regional levels, facilitating the efforts of all relevant actors”. Lukšić proposed that the seat of the UN deputy secretary-general be based in Nairobi.


    Vuk Jeremić
    UN Photo/Mark Garten
    Vuk Jeremić, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia

    Humanitarian financing

    Many candidates cited the problem of funding shortfalls for humanitarian assistance but few offered concrete solutions. Jeremić was perhaps most creative in this regard, calling for a special envoy tasked with mobilising resources to address the shortfalls, with an emphasis on the Middle Eastern and African refugee crises as well as disaster relief (this already exists to some extent in the appointment of Russian diplomat and UN official Rashid Khalikov as UN assistant secretary-general for “humanitarian partnerships”). This would help to improve coordination of humanitarian relief, support, and assistance to refugees, Jeremić said. Guterres called for strengthening partnerships with international financial institutions, while Bokova and Gherman called for “innovative approaches” and more “adequate and predictable” financing, respectively, without specifying how. While Türk welcomed increasing funds for humanitarian purposes, he said this mustn't take place at the expense of “economic and social development”. Pusić called for middle-income countries to give more to humanitarian efforts, saying their pooled resources would add up.

    UN effectiveness

    This was a big topic across all the candidates’ visions. Clark and Guterres, who have both led large UN agencies, said the UN needed to undergo substantial reform to be more “fit for purpose”: more results-driven, less process-focused, more flexible and innovative. Clark said she wanted to see a more transparent UN that is frank about what it cannot do; with a better reputation in the field. Bokova called for more people-centred approaches. Türk went further, saying the UN needed “a strong moral commitment to its original purposes and objectives”. Gherman and Türk spoke of zero-tolerance policies towards fraud and corruption. Jeremić called for a strengthened Office of Internal Oversight Services, protection for internal whistleblowers, mandatory financial disclosures, and a transparent UN budget overview. Many candidates called for more effective and flexible employment procedures that would allow the UN to more quickly recruit talented staff or remove underperforming officials. Lukšić called for consolidating a fragmented administrative structure, and a deep budget review.

    Who will be the next secretary-general?

    The field is still wide open, with plenty of new names swirling around and many more candidates likely to enter the race. Thanks in part to the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, campaigning for the top diplomatic job is – for the first time in UN history – mostly public, even if the final decision is ultimately made by General Assembly, upon the recommendation of the Security Council.

    Of the nine candidates currently in the running, UN insiders and others close to the process see UNESCO head Irina Bokova, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, former High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and former Slovenian President Danilo Türk as the frontrunners (if the bookmakers are anything to go by, some of the top contenders have yet to formally present themselves, including Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė). Some see Croatian Vesna Pusić– a strong supporter of LGBT rights – as an emerging favourite, with a strong showing as an independent yet pragmatic leader at the UN informal dialogues and “meet the candidates” public event in New York last week.

    Russia, which holds a veto at the Security Council, insists that Eastern Europe finally has its turn at the top diplomatic job. With a group of 56 states, supported by the US, pushing for the first woman secretary-general, a woman from Eastern Europe would tick both boxes. But observers have expressed doubt over the strength of the current contenders and the Security Council will have a hard time ignoring a candidate with the right blend of charisma, diplomacy, and leadership, not to mention strong public support. That said, blandness is a surprisingly important trait in a UN secretary-general. As Jean-Marie Ghéhenno, president of the International Crisis Group, put it: The hearings “may reveal incompetence but candidates will show strength of character at their own risk”.

    Among the two Eastern European women, controversy is already swirling around Bokova, the frontrunner: reports accuse her of cronyism and falsifying an aspect of her CV, and question the source of her personal wealth. Her reported close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and membership of Bulgaria’s Communist Party have also raised eyebrows.

    Others are hopeful that another Bulgarian, Kristalina Georgieva, a vice-president of the European Commission, will enter the race. Bokova edged her out for her country’s nomination, but other countries are entitled to put her name forward. An economist, she comes with significant credentials: as European commissioner for humanitarian aid, she was in charge of the EU’s aid arm ECHO, the world’s largest humanitarian donor; is currently in charge of the European Commission’s budget department; and recently chaired a high-level panel on humanitarian finance for the current secretary-general.


    Natalia Gherman
    UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
    Natalia Gherman, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration of Moldova

    But whether Russia would back Eastern European candidates who are pro-NATO and pro-EU, including the two other women candidates, Pusić and the soft-spoken Moldovan, Natalia Gherman, remains to be seen. Some observers said Russia would rather elect someone from another region than a pro-democracy, pro-Western Eastern European, while others said any Eastern European would be more acceptable than none at all.

    The entry of Clark, the highly experienced former prime minister of New Zealand, will be a signal for some that women from regions other than Eastern Europe may have a chance. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s name has been bandied about; and speculation about German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a potential candidate has also persisted since she has yet to rule out running for the job.   

    Clark is a strong contender, credited with standing up to big powers and having good relations with China. In the event of a deadlock she could well be a compromise candidate, and would most likely get support from the UK and the US. As UNDP administrator, she is considered the third most powerful person in the UN after the secretary-general and his deputy, but her leadership of the UNDP has not been faultless. Its budget has been whittled down by one third under her watch. Some point to the landmark Petrie Report, an internal review of the UN’s failure to protect civilians in the bloody civil war in Sri Lanka, which reflected badly on the most senior UN official in Sri Lanka, who reported directly to Clark.

    Many insiders see Guterres, with his strong personality, passion and experience at the frontlines of so many crises around the world, as the perfect contender for the top job – were he not a man, and from Portugal. He is also used to giving orders, not taking them, and as such seen by some to be too independent, politically left-leaning and strong-willed to do the bidding of the Security Council. But he too stands a chance of landing the job as a compromise candidate in the event of a deadlock.


    Danilo Türk
    UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
    Danilo Türk, professor of international law and former president of Slovenia

    Of the four Eastern European men in the race – Türk, 64, Igor Lukšić, 39, Srgjan Kerim, 67, and Vuk Jeremić, 40 – the statuesque Türk is seen as the most likely contender, with much experience and a solid track record in the UN and the Security Council. But he is perceived to be too bureaucratic and cautious, and not popular enough with either Russia or the US to actually get the nod. Lukšić, the youngest candidate so far, showed dynamism and force of personality at both the UN informal dialogue and the “meet the candidate” event, but few see him as a “first tier” candidate.  

    Jeremić, the forceful Serbian foreign minister who spoke with tremendous confidence at the UN hearings, is not a favorite of the West and is unlikely to get far in his pursuit, pundits say. An ardent Serbian nationalist who lobbied hard against the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, Jeremić was reportedly “extremely divisive” in his role as president of the General Assembly and made a few enemies when he reportedly sang a nationalist Serbian song at a UN function, according to one insider.


    A humanitarian's guide to choosing the next UN chief
  • ‘Addicted to punishment’

    Latin American leaders may be patting themselves on the back for engineering next week’s Special Session of the UN General Assembly in New York to review global drug enforcement policy. But the thousands of drug users suffering in prison or punitive drug centres back home won’t have much to celebrate.


    In recent years, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, the Organization of American States, and others have pushed hard for new approaches to the drug problem.


    Back in 2009, the LACDD called for drug use to be seen through the prism of health rather than crime. And, in 2012, Colombian, Mexican and Guatemalan presidents lobbied for an international UN conference to bring about drug policy reform, which led to next week’s gathering.


    Despite the rhetoric, and a move towards more constitutional freedoms on personal drug use in many Latin American countries, research shows that drug users continue to be treated as criminals, lumped together in the same category as drug dealers and violent offenders, clogging up courts and prisons.


    Why this mismatch between the reformist language of the leaders and punitive practices on the ground?


    Not so popular


    Talking the talk is of course much easier than bringing about real change. But Latin American leaders are also caught in a double bind: while they realise the need for drug policy reform at home (and not just an end to US leadership of the discredited War on Drugs), they face conservative voters who demand a “tough on crime” approach.


    The UN system, says John Collins of the London School of Economics IDEAS International Drug Policy Project, “represents a safe place for (Latin American leaders) to displace their frustration and talk tough in reform terms, without having to absorb the domestic political costs that unilateral reform would bring.”


    Drug users certainly have greater constitutional freedoms in many Latin American countries today, thanks, for the most part, to a bottom-up push for legislative reform. But because of contradictory laws that legalise drug use but continue to criminalise drug possession, scores of drug users continue to be incarcerated.


    Read more


    Outflanking the war on drugs?


    Drug policy shift no relief for victims of the war


    Balloons and sausages – understanding the global drugs trade


    The right to personal drug use may exist in theory but not in practice, says Denise Tomasini, deputy director of Open Society Foundation’s International Harm Reduction Development Program.


    As Catalina Pérez Correa, from the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (CEDD) argues, the legal reforms are not helping the plight of drug users, who continue to be subjected to massive human rights abuses. CEDD research shows that Latin American prisons, courts, and police stations are filled with those arrested and detained for small time possession offences.


    In all of the nine countries surveyed by the CEDD (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay), while drug use is legal, the extremely low possession thresholds make it effectively a crime (with the exception of Costa Rica).


    Addicted to punishment


    In Mexico, anyone with more than five grams of marijuana or 1/2 gram of cocaine could be charged as a “micro trafficker” and possibly imprisoned, says Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, a researcher with the Centre for Economic Investigation and Teaching (CIDE). “But no consumer buys this little.”


    Despite the legal reforms, the criminal justice system continues to be “addicted to punishment”, say experts. They criticise law enforcement for being both weak and brutal, with officials lacking time, money and the will to investigate the kingpins of the drug trade, relying instead on the easy pickings – poor and vulnerable drug users and “micro traffickers” – to boost arrest and seizure numbers.


    But even under current domestic and international laws there is plenty that Latin American governments could do to empty their prisons of the disadvantaged that languish in them, says Julián Wilches, Colombia’s former drug policy director.


    Wilches says that of the 25,000 people in Colombian prisons for drug offences (one fifth of the prison population), half are inside for marijuana-related crimes, and 99 percent of these were carrying less than 500 grams.


    “These are not big drug dealers. They are small-time dealers and consumers. Our judicial system is prejudiced against the weak and the poor,” he says. If police tried harder to hit the “narco train” and measured their successes by a reduction in killings and kidnappings rather than arrests and seizures, he believes progress would be made.


    A third way?


    Observers also worry that the increasing embrace of drug courts by Latin American countries – punted as a new “third way” to deal with drug users – will keep vulnerable drug users firmly locked into the criminal justice system.


    Drug courts exist in many forms around the world. Today, there are around 3,000 in the US, which began setting them up in 1989 in response to the crack epidemic and resulting overcrowding of prisons.


    According to the US model, drug courts give those charged with drug possession or minor user-related crimes the choice to undergo a period of addiction treatment instead of a prison sentence.


    Treatment is not voluntary and is determined by a judge. Usually abstinence, rather than the use of substitute medications like methadone or suboxone, is promoted. If a user relapses, he or she may end up doing prison time.


    While some champion what they see as the successes of the US drug courts, others are highly critical of them for locking drug users into the criminal justice system and for relying on judges and not clinicians to determine their treatment.


    The US and the OAS are promoting these courts in Latin America as an alternative to incarceration, says Tomasini of the Open Society Foundation, who echoes a widely-held belief that the US drug court model could be “dangerous” in the Latin American context, where both legal oversight and adequate treatment facilities are lacking.


    Currently, there are very few public treatment programmes and there is very little government control over private ones.


    According to the OAS, besides the US and Canada, the “drug treatment court model” has so far been implemented in Argentina, Barbados, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago.


    There are five drug courts in Mexico, which is mandated to have one in each of its 31 states. According to the US embassy in Mexico, of the $2.3 billion given by Congress to counter drug trafficking in the country under the Merida Initiative, a small fraction – $2.5-million – has been channelled via the OAS to implement new drug courts in the country.


    ‘Militarising’ the health service


    The OAS is certainly exploring alternatives to incarceration – both for low-level drug dealers and for users – that move beyond “approaches solely based on repression”, and is looking at a range of drug court models.


    The organisation says it supports a drug courts model that deals with offenders not for “drug possession alone but for addiction-motivated crimes”. However, it notes that expanding the model “to higher risk profiles takes time and needs to be balanced with the state’s capacities to respond to the requirements of these profiles”.


    Many fear that in the absence of these “state capacities”, drug courts will simply channel vulnerable users – not those who have committed drug-related crimes – through the courts rather than through the health system, and into private unregulated rehabilitation centres where abusive practices are known to occur.


    According to a recent report by the Open Society Foundation, some of the “treatments” commonplace in rehabilitation centres across Latin America and the Caribbean include: being chained, beaten, and the use of shock therapy; being made to kneel on bottle caps for hours; being fed rotten food; routine humiliation; and being forced to go through drug withdrawal without medication.


    The drug court system “pretends to be progressive and health-oriented but it judicialises and militarises the health services. You have to ‘confess’ and throw yourself at the mercy of the courts,” says CIDE’s Lajous.


    Tomasini adds: “We are arguing that it’s not working that well in the US and it’s getting exported and sold as the be-all and the end-all for Latin America. It’s recriminalising what legislation and constitutional courts are decriminalising.


    “We’re saying: ‘you’re not supposed to be arresting people when there’s no crime committed. It’s a waste of time sending them through the courts. Why not just give them treatment?’”



    ‘Addicted to punishment’
    Despite reform, Latin America still criminalises drug use
  • Outflanking the war on drugs?

    It’s widely acknowledged that the “war on drugs” has failed. A militarised approach based on prohibition and incarceration has stoked staggering levels of violence and misery, cost billions of dollars, and failed to reduce either supply or demand.


    In April, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) will adopt a consensus position on drug control, but few are expecting a shake-up to the current, conservative, global framework.


    That’s why some reformers are turning to the Sustainable Development Goals as a blueprint for the future.


    Critics of the “war on drugs” campaign have long evoked the term “harm reduction” to lobby for a more humane approach that treats addiction as a health problem rather than a crime.


    They point to glaring contradictions between the current drug policy framework and the new – universally endorsed – global development agenda.


    See In-Depth: War on Drugs - Collateral damage


    Not only has the war on drugs failed, but it has also piled on more of the ills the SDGs seek to address – rights violations, mass incarceration, livelihood destruction, violence, gang warfare, weakened states, poverty, the spread of HIV, gender discrimination… the list goes on.




    The SDGs were viewed as a starting point for solving these problems in a bottom-up rather than a top-down way. Experts argue that if some of the 17 development goals were even halfway met, then individuals, communities and states would be more resilient to the destruction wrought by drug abuse and trafficking; and that if the $100 billion spent annually on drug enforcement went towards policies promoting development instead, then some SDGs may also be easier to attain.


    The “drug-free” world the current policy envisages may be a pipedream, whereas a world in which illicit drugs are managed and controlled in less harmful ways may not be.


    “The SDGs don’t address or solve drug policies, but they give us a framework to more appropriately tackle these issues in ways that do not simply create new harms,” says John Collins, editor of the London School of Economics’ After the Drug Wars report.




    Other recent research papers also put development at the core of discussions on new drug policy. In its report, What Comes After the War on Drugs, United Nations University (UNU) recommends setting up a working group to come up with new “Global Drug Control Goals”, in much the same way as the one that paved the way for the SDGs.


    And in a much-lauded paper, Addressing the Development Dimensions of Drug Policy, the UN Development Programme outlines the litany of casualties of the war on drugs. It diplomatically quotes UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) boss Yury Fedotov’s own acknowledgements of some of the negative outcomes of the strategy he has led, and offers some pointers for how drug policy and control could be more “development sensitive”.  


    The authors argue for a greater role for UNDP in helping to create a more “evidence-informed, people-centred and development-centred approach to drug control policy”.


    In the LSE paper, Mark Shaw, director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, argues that a development-oriented, harm-reduction approach should be applied all the way along the drugs chain, to the traffickers in particular and to organised crime in general. 


    “With the arrival of the SDGs, we have the biggest opportunity in a generation to view and respond differently to the back-end of the drug chain too – the supply side,” he told IRIN.




    Currently the only mention of drug policy in the SDGs is in SDG 3.5, preventing and treating drug abuse, under the health and wellbeing goal.


    And in the current drug policy framework, development is narrowly defined as “alternative development”; referring for example to finding livelihoods for growers of poppies and cocoa leaves who have become impoverished in crop destruction campaigns. For various reasons, these programmes, which have been criticised as token window-dressing exercises, have largely failed to work.


    But any excitement about what a more coherent “development first” approach could deliver is tempered by the lumbering elephant in the room: the long list of countries that have no intention of budging from the existing law enforcement-oriented regime.


    These include Iran, Russia, China, India, Japan and a host of other Middle Eastern, Asian and African states.


    This is why there is not much optimism that the three-day jamboree in April – that will see government officials, policy geeks and civil society activists from around the world descend on New York – will yield concrete changes.


    Neither is there any real prospect of an overhaul of the three drug treaties of 1961, 1971 and 1988 that govern the current framework when it comes up for official review in 2019, or, for that matter, the key structures that govern policy: the Commission on Narcotics Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board.




    UNGASS is widely expected to result in a consensus document that upholds the existing drug control framework but allows member states the flexibility to pursue their own policies and experiment with new ones.


    This is already happening, with some countries decriminalising and even legalising cannabis possession and/or cultivation.


    2.27 tons of seized marijuana and cocaine are analysed and inventoried before being transferred by armed convoy to Ganthier for destruction. There, the Haitian National Police will destroy the illegal drugs with the support of the United Nations Stabiliza
    UN Photo/Victoria Hazou
    Marijuana and cocaine seized by Haitian police

    And while many European countries (Switzerland, Portugal, Holland for example) have for years been quietly pursuing their own “harm reduction” experiments – like needle exchange programmes that tackle drug abuse more as a health problem rather than a crime – Latin American countries have been outspoken about the need to abandon the US-led war on drugs.


    They bear the brunt of the gang violence and mass displacement this strategy has inadvertently spawned. It was Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia that in 2012 called for UNGASS in the hope of changing the status quo well before the 2019 policy review.


    This change in tone has yet to filter down to more relaxed law enforcement practices in Latin American countries, however, as Catalina Perez and others argue in a paper in the LSE report. 


    But the real push for flexibility came when the US chose to pursue this path itself, with moves to stop incarcerating people for minor drug offences and with some of its own states opting to decriminalise and even legalise marijuana.


    Summer Walker, who heads UNU’s drug policy project, predicts that UNGASS will produce a “consensus document between a number of actors who want different things”. But the session is unlikely, she says, to “push any states into new policy directions”.


    Unity on human rights


    The UNU report points out, however, that the UNGASS document will achieve consensus around concepts like respect for human rights and the rule of law, precisely because of the ambiguous nature of these terms.


    Different member states have very different positions on how to deal with drug addicts and dealers, for example.


    In 2011, Iran executed 540 people for drug-related offences (80 percent of all those it executed in that year). Amnesty International reported that it executed almost 700 people in the first half of 2015, most of them for drug offences. According to UNODC, although trafficking convictions have been stable around the world, drug possession offences have increased by 13 percent since 2003.


    While there is still “no appetite” among many other countries to alter their harsh drug policies, the hope is that these will become less defensible when “harm reduction” policies are shown to work, says Collins. “We can’t get consensus at the international level, but there is now breathing-room for other countries to push ahead with more liberal policies.”


    Shaw cautions, however, that increasing acceptance of harm-reduction strategies on the supply side could result in a “subtle concession to the hardliners: more talk of health approaches balanced by harder law enforcement responses.”


    He agues that it will be a missed opportunity if a “multi-dimensional harm framework” is not also applied to the drug supply chain and to organised crime in general.


    This could mean focusing less on how many people are arrested and how many drugs are confiscated, for example, and more on reducing murder rates and nurturing institutions like a free media that help states resist the corruptions of drug money.


    The future?


    James Cockayne*, head of the UNU's office in New York, warns that an era of flexibility could result in policy fragmentation.


    It could see positions becoming even more polarised over time and provide cover for states that don’t want to abide by human rights to ignore them in their ongoing crackdown on drugs.


    He also points out that it is hard to run a global health regime when national policies on how to treat intravenous drug users, for example, differ so much. He and others cite the possible entry of California, the world’s fifth biggest economy, into a legalised cannabis industry as a potential game-changer, but in ways that are impossible to predict.


    The UNU report recommends that a new drug policy debate take place outside the Commission on Narcotics Drugs, “which too many states see as unrepresentative and beholden to a drug control discourse that fails to generate coherence with the UN’s other public policy objects, such as the promotion of peace and security, development and human rights.”


    The paper argues that a new temporary forum should be set up to work towards “more coherent global drug policy” between 2016 and 2019.


    The good news is that many noticeable shifts are already under way. Even if the term “harm reduction” is still not palatable to many states and won’t make it into the UNGASS document, its principles are becoming more widely accepted, say the experts.


    And just as the cross-cutting goals of the SDGs bring in every member state and every level of society, so too is drug policy attracting a wider range of voices – from the civil society groups that are becoming increasingly influential in the global debate to the many other UN agencies now coming on board, including UNDP, UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and UN-Women.

    * An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to James Cockayne as UNU head


    Outflanking the war on drugs?
    Reform is unlikely at the UNGASS summit, but there's still hope for change
  • When shit happens

    Everyone defecates, but ‘how’ and ‘where’ are questions that highlight class, gender and cultural differences between us. 

    While Westernised habits of wiping with toilet paper provoke disgust in some, the idea of using a hand and water appalls others. Among the Masai in Kenya, tradition has it that men don’t defecate; for some communities in South India, crapping outdoors is an age-old social event; while for many women and girls, “going” outside can be downright dangerous.

    Sanitation remains an issue before, during and after humanitarian emergencies. For those working to end open defecation, practiced by over two billion people, there is a taboo-laden bog of issues to wade through. IRIN explores some of them. 

    The benefits

    The “sanitation revolution” in Europe in the 1840s recognised the need to separate waste and water – and has been pursued ever since with evangelical zeal. The health benefits of reform are clear. According to the World Health Organization, 842,000 people die from inadequate water and sanitation access every year, with 280,000 deaths from diarrhoea directly linked to poor sanitation. 

    Diseases like cholera and typhoid, intestinal worms, malnutrition and stunting are other consequences. Work and school days missed due to ill health are just some of the hidden costs of having no place to “go”. For every $1 invested in sanitation, around $5.50 will be saved in health and productivity costs, estimates the WHO

    How far do we have to go? 

    Although steady progress has been made in recent years, around 2.4 billion people still lack access to basic sanitation and handwashing facilities. For far too long, sanitation has been a “silent taboo” says water and sanitation expert Lyla Mehta of the UK's Institute of Development Studies. Sanitation only made it onto the global health agenda when it was incorporated into the Millennium Development Goals in 2002. (It’s now Sustainable Development Goal 6 – clean water and sanitation for all).

    The biggest challenges lie in sub-Saharan Africa, where less than half the people in 47 countries have toilets or latrines, and in India, where 600 million people still defecate in the open. What complicates delivery is the steady stream of people into cities and urban settlements. 

    How do we measure success? 

    Not by counting the number of toilets rolled out by government, NGO or community-led programmes, says Mehta, co-editor of the study Shit Matters. “The global attention for sanitation is great, but it’s still very target driven, focusing on stopping open defecation and delivering toilets. Really it should be about equity and inclusion [the extent to which the most marginalised in a community are reached] rather than counting toilets.”  

    The danger in focusing on toilet delivery is you can lose sight of the ultimate goal – improved health. Providing a community with toilets does not necessarily mean that community will use or maintain them. Toilets and latrines are all too often abandoned, ignored or improperly managed. Half-baked solutions resulting in overflowing latrines, coverless fly magnets or contaminated water tables, or portable toilets housed inside shacks, often pose greater health hazards than no intervention at all.  

    The ‘toilet wars’ in the Cape Town township of Kayelitsha, South Africa, in 2013 were testament to this. Communities revolted against inadequate sanitation, including portable toilets that were an insanitary excuse for the real thing, and faeces was thrown in protest at government officials.  

    What is the most effective strategy – top-down or bottom-up? 

    There is no one-size-fits-all strategy – or toilet type, for that matter – say the experts. Most point to the need for a mix of state, NGO-led and community approaches that line up with cultural norms. Certainly top-down strategies that dump toilets on communities in the hope that they will then use, maintain and pay for them has often failed, says Preetha Prabhakaran, programme manager for Africa and Asia for the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) Foundation.

    Patronising approaches that rely on “experts” who impose the need for sanitation on a community won’t work if the community does not feel that need, she says. This realisation has led to the hugely popular CLTS approach, pioneered by foundation chairman Kamel Kar

    What is CLTS?

    The premise of CLTS is that unless the community itself drives and owns the process – which is first and foremost about changing behavior – it won’t be sustainable. CLTS advocates try to motivate collective behaviour change by making people aware of the link between their faeces and disease and then triggering shame and disgust towards the health risks of open defecation, so that the community gets inspired to come up with its own solutions. 

    In realising that everyone needs sanitation for the health of all, the whole community then comes on board, says Prabhakaran. “The focus in a collective approach is not on acquiring a toilet but on adopting sanitation and hygiene behaviours, one of the outputs of which is a toilet,” she adds. 

    Can this lead to stigma and discrimination?

    While CLTS, now used in many countries, has proved very effective and sustainable, particularly in rural areas, and is being lauded for being driven by the communities themselves, some observers are ringing alarm bells. They argue that it can be dangerous if the common good tramples on the rights of some individuals – the poorest people in a community unable to keep up with new sanitation and hygiene norms, or women who are often expected to be more hygienic than men, for example. 

    Mehta agrees that CLTS works best in homogenous communities, not those riven by caste or ethnic divisions, where some less powerful groups may end up being the losers in a programme that the community drives itself.  

    Prabhakaran says shaming people is not a part of CLTS. However, she adds: “When people realise that due to open defecation they are eating each other’s shit, they themselves feel shame, disgust and other emotions. It is this trigger – that they feel themselves – that gets them to stop.” 

    Strategies to induce behavioural change, that often involve children, can include blowing a whistle when someone goes outdoors, putting flags on faeces with people’s names on them, even presenting ‘culprits’ with their own faeces, according to a paper on the subject.  

    The authors site instances in Bangladesh where individuals have been stoned for defecating outside, coerced into signing contracts to build latrines and locked out of their homes for not doing so, among other punishments. They argue for more scrutiny of how CLTS programs are playing out. 

    “Social inequality is very resilient and crops up in different ways,” says anthropologist Amber Wutich, director of the Centre for Global Health at Arizona State University. Sanitation is “a very complex problem because it deals with issues that are connected to strong felt human emotions of disgust. We need a diversity of solutions to be tested. There isn’t a one-size solution that fits all.” 


    When shit happens
  • Unsustainable Development Goals: Are 222 indicators too many?

    Are the Sustainable Development Goals in danger of collapsing under the weight of their own lofty ambitions?

    As statisticians race to compile a very long list of indicators for the 17 goals and 159 targets by March next year, critics argue that the rush to get it all in place could be a costly mistake. They also worry that countries daunted by the logistical challenge of implementing and measuring the wide-ranging agenda will “cherry pick” goals or even sideline the whole agenda. 

    Some warn that the immense task of finding the funds, data and tools to measure the many qualitative improvements to people’s lives may overshadow urgent development imperatives. In today’s turbulent world of refugee crises, civil wars and global terrorism, they also discern a waning interest from the media.  

    Whereas the Millennium Development Goals focused on quantity, the SDGs are all about quality. The number of school graduates, for example, will be less important than whether their education has translated into better job opportunities. But how does a country go about measuring these qualitative changes? The statisticians argue that countries must address this challenge if they want to truly measure real improvements in the lives of their people. 

    Breakdowns by age, gender and race

    In Bangkok last month, the UN-mandated Inter-Agency and Experts Group agreed to a set of 159 “green indicators” attached to the 17 goals and 159 targets. An additional 63 indicators are still in a “grey” zone, meaning there is more work to be done in the months ahead before they get the green light.

    Shaida Badiee, manager of Open Data Watch, told IRIN that the Bangkok process (in which she participated) was “as good as it could get,” although she said that due to time constraints only a few minutes were spent on indicators for the last few goals on the list. 

    Many of the grey indicators will require “disaggregated data”, meaning breakdown categories such as age, gender and race. This is a prerequisite for the central idea that underpins the SDGs of  “leaving no one behind”.  But Badiee said most statistical tools used to measure development “were devised many years ago and don’t capture this level of disaggregation.”

    She argued that it was important for countries to build up their statistical systems, no matter how difficult, if they are to measure progress properly. There is plenty of evidence that better data leads to better decisions and ultimately better delivery, Badiee said, while admitting that the new development framework would put countries under enormous pressure. 

    It will take even the most advanced countries at least two years to measure their SDG indicators. For those countries that don’t even have statistics available on their websites, getting this information will be a far harder and more time-consuming process. 

    It will also be very expensive. A study by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a UN global initiative led by Jeffrey Sachs, estimates that it will cost $1 billion per year for the next 15 years for 77 low-income countries to bring their statistical systems up to scratch to support and measure the SDGs. 

    “Mad dash”

    Casey Dunning, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Centre for Global Development believes the rush to come up with the indicators by March is misguided. “The indicators are what will give the whole new development agenda heft and credibility,” she told IRIN. “It’s a shame to spend three and a half years on goals and targets and let the indicators be decided in a matter of months.”

    Dunning said it had taken two years to finalise the MDG indicators and new ones were still being added up to eight years later. Yet the far more complex SDG indicators are being developed in a hurry against “an arbitrary time line”. 

    Some of the later – and newer – goals, for which indicators were rushed through, such as peace, economic growth and good governance, deserve more time and analysis, she said. “I would have hoped to see a more inclusive and thoughtful process rather than this mad dash to have these indicators out as soon as possible.” 

    She was also critical of the dizzying number of indicators. Once the grey ones become green, she pointed out, there could be a list of more than 220 indicators. “I can’t imagine going to a finance minister or minister of development planning with a list of (over 200) indicators that they must keep track of annually or quarterly, and not being laughed out of the room.” 

    Badiee argued that delivery and measurement go hand in hand and that countries will need plenty of support from international agencies, the private sector and NGOs. A “data revolution” is being called for to support the SDGs, 

    She explained that some indicators measure outcome rather than input and are also about watching over the process. For example, an indicator of Goal 17 says resources must be made available to improve statistical capacity in developing nations. 

    She also counters criticism from some quarters that there are no measurements to underpin Goal 16 of reducing conflict. Robert Muggah of the Igarape Institute has argued in a study that the Bangkok meeting failed “to agree on even a basic metric or methodology to count conflict deaths. This suits some countries that see the issue as too political. It is also unacceptable,” he said in a newsletter.  

    “We have 13 green indicators for this goal which try really hard to measure conflict,” said Baidee. “I wouldn’t say this goal is not going to have enough indicators.” However, she added that “more work needs to be done to turn grey areas into green.” For example, finding ways to measure victims of violence – still a grey indicator – will entail disaggregation by age, sex and gender. 

    Fewer indicators?

    Dunning believes there are far too many indicators for countries to take on board and suggested a whittled down list of about 50 minimum priorities. Otherwise, she said, nations will make damaging trade-offs about what they choose to focus on and will end up putting measurement before delivery. “This data can’t be plucked out of thin air – it requires systems and processes and infrastructure. It will mean asking some countries to work on these priorities as opposed to others.”

    She said data coverage in many fragile and conflict-ridden states is almost non-existent. “Many of these countries lack data on basics like birth registration and infant mortality. How will they satisfy the new indicators that are asking for so much more?” 

    Others agreed that the sheer volume of goals, targets and indicators will lead some countries to “cherry pick” their development priorities. This could be an important escape hatch for those countries not keen to tackle more politically contentious and loaded priorities such as gender equity, for example. 

    Philipp Schönrock, director of the Latin American research group CEPEI, told IRIN that the task of measuring the SDGs was complex. Given that quality is at the heart of the development agenda, he said that “measuring on a multi-dimensional scale” would be required. He described the challenge as “not insurmountable,” but nevertheless saw the lack of human and technological resources to measure the goals as a serious challenge.

    For Schönrock, the danger is that the SDGs don’t resonate politically and end up losing momentum and strength. The risk of “cherry-picking on the part of countries is the elephant in the room.”

    Millennium Institute president Hans Herren was also critical about the rush to get to the finish line, saying the focus on measurement would obscure the more central question of how to get there. “This time round lets do it right, even if it takes a bit longer,” Herren said. Acknowledging the difficulty of getting 193 countries on board, he said that better guidelines, flexibility and tools could enhance the process. 

    Herren backed the idea of the global framework setting a minimum of requirements but said countries needed to decide for themselves how to get there, in a bottom-up rather than top-down approach. “The framework must be flexible enough to adjust for the specificity of each country. But I’m just not sure they’re addressing this right now.” 

    Huge savings could be made if countries examined the “roadblocks” in their own delivery systems and stopped duplication and waste, he said. For example, his organisation’s research showed that Ghana would have saved 15 percent of its expenditure on the MDGs if it had better linked its development priorities. Instead, departments tend to work in silos. Countries lacking capacity will find it difficult to harmonise their goals. 

    “We need much more talk about the process,” said Herren. “We need tools to project different scenarios on how to reach certain goals, which will be different in every country. This is more important before we start taking lots of measurements.” 


    The ‘mad dash’ on new development goals
  • Will climate change = more disease?

    Climate change is having a profound impact on animal habitats, but what disease risk does this pose for humans?

    Scientists estimate that almost 75 percent of new (and re-emerging) diseases affecting humans at the beginning of the 21st Century were transmitted through animals. Among these so-called “zoonotic” diseases are AIDS, SARS, H5N2 avian flu and H1N1, or swine flu. 

    Barbara Han, from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, describes bats, pigs, and birds as “mixing vats” for viruses like Ebola, Hendra, Nipah, avian and swine flus that can spread to humans. As wild animals lose their habitats through deforestation, they come into closer contact with domestic animals and people. Extreme weather events and a warmer climate are also disrupting animal habitats, breeding cycles, and migration patterns. 

    With so many variables in the equation, drawing correlations between climate change and disease poses enormous challenges for scientists.

    Vector-borne diseases like malaria, Lyme, dengue fever, West Nile and chikungunya offer the clearest examples of how a warming earth is impacting on disease spread, scientists say. As the earth heats up, pathogen-carrying mosquitoes and ticks are moving further north, spreading these disease into countries and regions not previously affected, like the northern states of the United States, Canada, Sweden and parts of Europe. Dengue fever, which currently infects around 400 million people every year, could spread to as many as five or six billion by 2080 as temperatures continue to rise, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    Besides these vectors moving into areas of higher latitude and altitude, there is also evidence to show that more extreme and uneven weather patterns and catastrophic weather events such as floods can contribute to the spread of these diseases, says Han.

    More or less malaria?

    The World Health Organization, while acknowledging that “measuring the health effects from climate change can only be very approximate”, nevertheless predicts that in 15 years time a quarter of the 250,000 potential annual deaths from climate change could come from malaria spreading into new areas. 

    However, whether more people will get sick as a result of these shifting disease patterns is not so easy to determine, says Richard Ostfeld, also from the Cary Institute. “There is some evidence to show that as vector-borne diseases spread northwards, they’re also disappearing from really warm places that are getting too warm. There is also some evidence that malaria will start to decline or disappear from areas that are getting too hot or too dry,” which could mean, says Ostfeld, that “there is no net change in the number of people at risk.” 

    With so many variables in the equation, drawing correlations between climate change and disease poses enormous challenges for scientists. There is no earth-mimicking laboratory for control experiments to be conducted, for one thing. For another, teasing out climate change from human-driven loss of animal habitats is difficult, when the two are closely linked and often impact on each other. Not only are the clearing of forests and planting of exotic species having a profound impact on animal habitats, but increased urbanisation and development is also contributing to a warmer planet.  

    “It’s much more complicated than people seem to think,” says Han. “Part of the problem with communicating climate change is that when you communicate the complexity you risk losing the attention span of the public. Simplifying it creates polarising debates that plays into different agendas,” she says. 


    For these reasons, some researchers were wary of being interviewed. A couple were blunt about the fact that – despite media reports to the contrary – the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa could not directly be attributed to climate change.

    Many scientists are unequivocal that a link between climate change and disease spread to humans can be made.

    Some scientists have speculated that extreme weather patterns may have played a role in the outbreak: dry seasons followed by heavy rainfall have caused fruit to proliferate, possibly bringing bats and apes together and allowing the disease to transmit between the species. Deforestation has also steered bats ever closer to humans to find food. Another hypothesis is that climate change, by diminishing traditional food sources and causing more people to eat bush meat (one way of transmitting the disease), has helped to spread Ebola. 

    But biological anthropologist Peter Walsh, from Cambridge University, says there is very little data to support claims of climate change and urbanisation contributing to Ebola emergence, “and there is a lot of data that doesn’t.”  

    “The vast majority of outbreaks have occurred in really remote areas and not heavily settled areas,” he says, adding that while there is some evidence of “seasonal variation of outbreak probability,” there is no credible evidence that “outbreak probability has increased with a warming climate”. 

    ‘Not whether, but how’

    Nevertheless, many scientists are unequivocal that a link between climate change and disease spread to humans can be made. The difficulty is proving causality. Han believes the case “can absolutely be made.” The issue, she says, is “not whether, but how”. 

    Certainly fruit bats are garnering plenty of attention in Australia, where their changing feeding patterns, possibly related to climate change, have been linked to the spread of the Hendra virus, which has proved fatal to horses and humans. The Nipah virus, also transmitted by fruit bats, has been passed on to pigs and humans in Malaysia, also with fatal consequences. 

    “We have strong evidence that land use change and habitat clearing has dramatically changed feeding patterns of fruit bats – flying foxes – in Australia,” says Raina Plowright, an infectious disease ecologist at Montana State University. Fruit bats that normally feed off the nectar of Eucalyptus trees are now feeding off less nutritious fruit from trees planted in horse paddocks and peri-urban and urban areas, she explains. “Climate change is having an impact on whether the Eucalyptus trees flower, but we don’t have an algorithm to make a direct link between climate change and flowering patterns.” 
    Plowright adds that the interaction between habitat loss and climate change complicates the picture. “These two major processes influence animal behaviors and the spread of pathogens from animals to people, but we don’t understand the links very well,” she says.

    In a paper, she writes that determining the role played by climate change, pollution and ecosystem destruction in emerging infectious diseases can only come about through “systematic interdisciplinary cooperation. By analogy, in a jury trial, multiple lines of evidence that connect the suspect to the crime scene, the weapon, and the motive are often required before a verdict can be reached.”

    The established links

    The way climate change is affecting disease patterns in animals is easier to demonstrate in some cases, say scientists. Research on monarch butterflies in the United States, for example, has shown how a combination of climate change and the introduction of an alien milkweed species, has affected their migration patterns and increased disease levels.

    Ecologists Dara Satterfield and Sonia Altizer from the University of Georgia explain how exotic milkweed often grows year-round in the southern US when winters are warm, without many hard freezes. Climate change could worsen the problem. The pathogens on the milkweed, which normally die off on native milkweeds during cold winters, can now accumulate on the plants all year, sickening the butterflies. 

    Ostfeld, from the Cary Institute, adds that other, better-studied diseases – such as blue tongue virus, which attacks sheep and goats and is transmitted by biting midges – are on the increase because of warming climates in Europe.

    Another excellent example, he adds, is avian malaria in the Hawaiian islands. The parasite is transmitted by mosquitoes that – as the climate warms up – are moving up in elevation and attacking naive, vulnerable populations of birds. “The climate link is pretty well established there,” Ostfeld says.

    Increased threat

    Avian flu or H5N1 that emerged in China in 1997 raised widespread panic about the potential of a pandemic. Researcher Kurt Vandegrift, who co-authored a paper entitled, “Ecology of avian influenza viruses in a changing world,” says he sees climate change as one of many “threat multipliers”, that could impact on migratory behaviour and potentially trigger new bird flu outbreaks. 

    “Land use change that leads to higher waterfowl densities, stress, or proximity to domestic birds, will likely lead to increased influenza transmission within flocks and increased cross-species transmission,” he writes. 

    California’s wetlands have diminished by 90 percent, which has reduced their stopover locations. “This decline in stopover locations for migrating waterfowl must lead to more crowding and increased contact rates which, if transmission is density dependent, will lead to increased prevalence and increased potential for recombination events of viruses like avian influenza,” Vandegrift told IRIN. 

    However, while he says climate change could have an impact on “avian influenza epidemiology,” exactly how remains an unknown. “We can’t put fly-way paths in environmental chambers so it’s really difficult to make predictions.”


    Will climate change = more disease?

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