(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Killing us softly

    A recent public outcry in China, sparked by a damning documentary about air pollution, was based on well-founded fear:

    Of the 100 million people who viewed the film on the first day of its online release, 172,000 are likely to die each year from air pollution-related diseases, according to regional trends.* 

    Worldwide, pollution kills twice as many people each year as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined,** but aid policy has consistently neglected it as a health risk, donors and experts say. 

    Air pollution alone killed seven million people in 2012, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures released last year, most of them in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) in the Asia Pacific region.*** 

    In a self-critical report released late last month the World Bank acknowledged that it had treated air pollution as an afterthought, resulting in a dearth of analysis of the problem and spending on solutions. 

    “We now need to step up our game and adopt a more comprehensive approach to fixing air quality,” the authors wrote in Clean Air and Healthy Lungs. “If left unaddressed, these problems are expected to grow worse over time, as the world continues to urbanise at an unprecedented and challenging speed.”

    A second report released last month by several organisations – including the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, an international consortium of UN organisations, governments, development banks, NGOs and academics – also called for more funding towards reducing pollution. 

    “Rich countries, multilateral agencies and organisations have forgotten the crippling impacts of pollution and fail to make it a priority in their foreign assistance,” the authors wrote. 

    Housebound in China 

    A dense haze obstructs visibility more often than not across China’s northern Hua Bei plain and two of its major river deltas. Less than one percent of the 500 largest cities in China meet WHO’s air quality guidelines. Anger over air pollution is a hot topic among China’s increasingly outspoken citizenry.  

    “Half of the days in 2014, I had to confine my daughter to my home like a prisoner because the air quality in Beijing was so poor,” China’s well-known journalist Chai Jing said in Under the Dome, the independent documentary she released last month, which investigated the causes of China’s air pollution.

    The film was shared on the Chinese social media portal Weibo more than 580,000 times before officials ordered websites to delete it

    Beyond the silo

    Traditionally left to environmental experts to tackle, the fight against pollution is increasingly recognised as requiring attention from health and development specialists too. 

    “Air pollution is the top environmental health risk and among the top modifiable health risks in the world,” said Professor Michael Brauer, a public health expert at the University of British Columbia in Canada and a member of the scientific advisory panel for the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a consortium of governments and the UN Environment Programme. “Air pollution has been under-funded and its health impacts under-appreciated.”

    Pollution – especially outdoor or “ambient” air pollution – is also a major drag on economic performance and limits the opportunities of the poor, according to Ilmi Granoff, an environmental policy expert at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank. It causes premature death, illness, lost earnings and medical costs – all of which take their toll on both individual and national productivity.

    “Donors need to get out of the siloed thinking of pollution as an environmental problem distinct from economic development and poverty reduction,” Granoff said. 

    Pollution cleanup is indeed underfunded, he added, but pollution prevention is even more poorly prioritised: “It’s underfunded in much of the developed world, in aid, and in developing country priorities, so this isn’t just an aid problem.”

    Mounting evidence 

    Pollution kills in a variety of ways, according to relatively recent studies; air pollution is by far the most lethal form compared to soil and water pollution. 
     

    Microscopic particulate matter (PM) suspended in polluted air is the chief culprit in these deaths: the smaller the particles’ size, the deeper they are able to penetrate into the lungs.  Particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) are small enough to reach the alveoli, the deepest part of the lungs, and to enter the blood stream.  

    From there, PM2.5 causes inflammation and changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood clotting processes - the precursors to fatal stroke and heart disease.  PM2.5 irritates and corrodes the alveoli, which impairs lung function - a major precursor to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It also acts as a carcinogen.

    Most research looks at long-term exposure to PM2.5 but even studies looking at the hours immediately following bursts of especially high ambient PM2.5 (in developed countries) show a corresponding spike in life-threatening heart attacks, heart arrhythmias and stroke.

    Asia worst affected

    The overwhelming majority - 70 percent - of global air pollution deaths occur in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions.  South Asia has eight of the top 10 and 33 of the top 50 cities with the worst PM concentrations in the world.  

     

    WHO says a city’s average annual PM levels should be 20 micrograms per cubic meter.  But cities such as Karachi, Gaborone, and Delhi have yearly PM averages above 200 micrograms per cubic meter. 

    The main source of PM2.5 in indoor air, or household air, is burning solid fuels for cooking and heating, using wood, coal, dung or crop leftovers - a common practice in rural areas of low and middle-income countries that lack electricity.  

    Almost three billion people live this way, the majority in the densely populated Asia Pacific region: India and China each hold about one quarter of all people who rely on solid fuels. For these people, the daily average dose of PM2.5 is often in the hundreds of micrograms per cubic meter. 

    Filling the gaps

    Unlike many other health risks air pollution is very cost-effective to address, Brauer said. Analysis of air quality interventions in the US suggests a return on investment of up to $30 for every dollar spent. 

    “We already know how to reduce these risks, as we have done exactly that in high income countries, so this is not a matter of searching for a cure - we know what works,” he said.

    But the World Bank report said that unless it starts gathering better data on local air quality in LMICs, the amounts and sources of air pollution and the full gamut of its health impacts, “it is not possible to appropriately target interventions in a cost-effective manner.”

    Granoff said there are also gaps in government capacity to monitor, regulate and enforce pollution policy. 

    Beijing hopes to bring PM2.5 concentrations down to safe levels by 2030, and has said it will fine big polluters. 

    The World Bank report said China is also charging all enterprises fees for the pollutants they discharge; establishing a nationwide PM2.5 monitoring network; instituting pollution control measures on motor vehicles; and controlling urban dust pollution.

    But enforcing environmental protections has been a longstanding problem in China.

    “Pollution policy will only succeed if citizens are aware of the harm, able to organise their concern [through advocacy campaigns], and have a responsive government that prioritises public welfare over the narrower interests of polluting sectors,” Granoff said. 

    While more people die from household air pollution than from ambient air pollution, the latter – through vehicles, smokestacks and open burning – still accounted for 3.7 million deaths in 2012, according to the WHO. 

    A change in the air

    Kaye Patdu, an air quality expert at Clean Air Asia, a Manila-based think tank - and the secretariat for the UN-backed Clean Air Asia Partnership, comprising more than 250 government, civil, academic, business and development organisations - said the aid community is finally starting to recognise the importance of tackling air pollution.  

    Last year’s inaugural UN Environment Assembly adopted a resolution calling for strengthened action on air pollution.  
    WHO Member States are planning to adopt a resolution on health and air quality at the upcoming World Health Assembly in May. 
    The proposed Sustainable Development Goals, which will set the post-2015 international development agenda, address city air quality and air, soil and water pollution. 

    None of the experts IRIN contacted could provide a breakdown of total aid spending on all forms of toxic pollution (air, water and soil pollution that is harmful to human health).  So IRIN asked each of the major global donors for their figures.  

    Three responded.  

    A back-of-envelope calculation of all reported spending on toxic pollution by USAID, the European Commission and the World Bank suggests that between them they committed about US$10 billion over 10 years. This does not include aid spending on the diseases that pollution causes. The World Bank’s spending figures eclipsed those of other the other donors. 

    By very rough comparison, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, with half the death toll of air pollution, received $28 billion via public sector commitments to the Global Fund – the world’s largest financier of programs that tackle these diseases – over the same period, a fraction of total spending on these diseases. 

    gh/ha/bp

    *Based on WHO statistics for per capita mortality rates in the Western Pacific region in 2012. 

    **The mortality figures for air pollution come from 2012 statistics and were released by WHO in 2014, while the figures for the infectious diseases come from 2013 statistics and were released by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in 2014 (the Global Burden of Disease study).

    ***Includes deaths from both household air pollution (4.3 million) and ambient air pollution (3.7 million): the combined death toll is less than the sum of the parts because many people are exposed to both. 

    For more: 

    The relationship between household air pollution and disease

    Ambient air pollution and the risk of acute ischemic stroke 

    Cardiovascular effects of exposure to ambient air pollution 

    Particulate air pollution and lung function  

    Long-term exposure to ambient air pollution and incidence of cerebrovascular events: Results from 11 European cohorts within the ESCAPE Project  

    OECD's The Cost of Air Pollution report
     

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    Killing us softly
  • Three words of advice for WHO Africa's new chief

    The World Health Organization says the number of new Ebola cases per week rose twice this month for the first time since December.

    This rise in incidence of new cases - if proven to be a trend - will be just one of the challenges facing WHO’s new regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti, as she attempts to overcome the multitude of criticism launched against WHO in recent months for its failure to act earlier and more competently during West Africa’s ongoing Ebola outbreak.

    “This is a critical moment for the WHO,” said Michael Merson, director of Duke University’s Global Health Institute. “It’s a real crossroads as to whether or not they’ll be able to reform and become an effective and efficient organization, particularly at the regional level.”

    Moeti, who officially took office 1 February, has vowed to make fighting Ebola WHO’s “highest priority,” while supporting countries to develop strategies to build up their health care systems, and reduce maternal and child mortality, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and non-communicable diseases.

    Many international observers say they have high hopes for Moeti, a medical doctor who has more than 35 years of experience working in the national and global public health sector. But she has a tough road ahead – particularly as the number of Ebola cases continues to rise, nearly a year after the outbreak was first declared.

    Here’s some advice from a few experts as Moeti begins her five-year term:

    1. Think Local

    Having competent and qualified staff on the ground, whose skills and expertise are matched to the needs of the country, is key to effectively implementing WHO policies and recommendations.

    “Everyone tends to discuss WHO at the global level and the regional level, but I don’t think this is where the problem lies,” said Fatou Francesca Mbow, an independent health consultant in West Africa. “It really lies in what the WHO is meant to be doing at country level. It is of no use to have very technical people sitting in Washington [D.C.] or Geneva, and then, where things are actually happening, [they become] politicians.”

    Mbow said that despite a wealth of technical documents being produced at headquarters, very often the staff from the field offices are appointed based on political motives. Country and field-level office meetings are often dominated by talk that, while politically correct, says “nothing of real meaning”.

    Staff reform at the local level will require both investing in employee development, including recruiting new and existing talent to the field offices, as well as making posts in “hardship” countries more attractive to the most qualified experts.

    “What often happens is that when people in-country are seen as being quite effective, they tend to get headhunted by the headquarters of the institutions that represent them,” said Sophie Harman, a senior lecturer in international politics at Queen Mary University of London. “So we see a type of brain-drain among people working in these sectors.”

    She said that improving salaries and offering more benefits, as well as taking into account what these people have to offer, could go a long way in incentivising them to stay at their field-level posts.

    “Good documents are interesting,” Mbow said. “But unless you have people at country level who understand them, who participate in writing them, who are able to implement them, who are passionate and committed to doing so, they’re just going to be reports.”

    2. Strengthen health systems

    There were many factors that contributed to the unprecedented spread of the Ebola outbreak, but inherently weak local health systems in the three most-affected countries meant that local clinics did not have the capacity, resources or expertise to handle even the smallest of caseloads.

    WHO must now work with local governments, partners and other on-the-ground agencies in all African countries to train and employ more doctors and nurses, implement universal health care coverage, and invest in better vigilance and surveillance measures.

    “I think the real test will be… how the WHO turns this outbreak into an opportunity to use our energy and thoughts and actions to build health systems that will not only help people [day-to-day], but will be able to respond to health crises like this in the future,” said Chikwe Ihekweazu, a managing partner of the health consulting firm EpiAfric.

    Increasing the number of health workers will be particularly important post-outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where more than 400 health workers have died from Ebola, including some of the countries’ top doctors and nurses.

    “The WHO also needs to help minimise the knock-on effect that the Ebola outbreak is having on other health priorities in the region, such as HIV/AIDS and maternal health,” Harman said. “What we are seeing is that because of Ebola, people are afraid and so they are not accessing health facilities, which might actually reverse some of the many gains we’ve seen in the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals].”

    3. Rebuild credibility

    Despite WHO having, admittedly, acted much too late, both in terms of identifying the Ebola outbreak and then mobilizing resources to contain it – and losing much of its credibility in the process – experts agree that WHO remains a much-needed and relevant global health body, particularly when it comes to technical expertise.

    “We all recognize that the WHO has had a fairly good history in the past,” Ihekweazu said. “And while it was certainly criticized for its slow response at the beginning of the outbreak…the WHO is seen as the leading organisation that provides guidance for countries and I think…we are at a stage where [Africa] needs the WHO as a mutual partner who provides leadership for the continent going forward.”

    Mbow agreed: “What I would say is that when you are criticised, take the blame fairly, but don’t lose sight. And don’t lose confidence in the resources you do have to offer.”

    Restoring donor confidence in WHO will be particularly important, as the regional office for Africa has the largest budgetary needs, the most countries, and, in many ways, the most challenging health problems to deal with.

    “No one wants harm done to the WHO,” Merson said. “We will be a much better, healthier planet, if the WHO is strong and effective… But it is never going to have a huge budget and so I think its strengths should be in standard-setting, norm-setting and providing the best technical sound advice in health that countries need.”

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    3 tips for WHO's new director for Africa
  • Who celebrity advocates are really targeting. And it’s not you.

    This week was a fanfare for celebrity humanitarians: Forest Whitaker appealed for peace in South Sudan alongside UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos; Angelina Jolie opened an academic centre on sexual violence in conflict with British Member of Parliament William Hague; and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham launched an initiative for children. 

    In recent years, aid agencies have increasingly used celebrity advocates to raise awareness and money for their causes. There’s just one snag: 

    It doesn’t actually work. At least not as much or in the ways we think. 

    According to research by Dan Brockington, a professor at the University of Manchester, public responses to celebrity activism are surprisingly muted. His work is the first quantitative research on the subject. 

    “Using celebrities for broader outreach, for reaching mass publics and attracting media attention is absolutely not the silver bullet it appears to be,” he told IRIN on the sidelines of a 6-8 February conference at the University of Sussex, where he presented research recently published in the book Celebrity Advocacy and International Development.

     

     
    In a survey he conducted with 2,000 British people, 95 percent of respondents recognized five or more of 12 charities listed to them, including the British Red Cross, Save the Children UK and Oxfam UK. But two-thirds of the respondents did not know a single “high-profile” advocate of any of the NGOs (In this case, music executive Simon Cowell and singers Victoria Beckham and Elton John respectively, among many others). 

    The realpolitik might not be that pleasant. But you'll achieve your goals. 

    Focus groups and interviews with more than 100 “celebrity liaison officers” and other media staff at NGOs further reinforced his findings. 

    What’s more, Brockington says, those who pay attention to celebrities do not necessarily know which causes they support. 

    “People who follow celebrities often do so because they are not political,” he said during the interview. “They are fun, light. You want to live their lives…[People] don’t engage with [celebrities] for the more worthy things.”  

    Celebrity stardom flat-lining 

    Despite the rise in the use of celebrity advocates (which, by the way, dates back to at least Victorian times), the mention of charities in broadsheet and tabloid articles about celebrities only increased ever so slightly between 1985 and 2010, according to a separate study by Brockington. “There has also been a decline in the proportion of newspaper articles mentioning development and humanitarian NGOs at all,” the study found. 

    The perception that celebrities engage the public in the first place may itself be overstated. 

    After a steady rise in coverage of celebrities in the British press over two decades, the percentage of articles mentioning the word celebrity (only a fraction of total articles about celebrities) stopped increasing around 2006 and is now hovering at about four percent of all articles studied, the research found, validating the findings of earlier studies on the same subject (The study looked at The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Sun). 

    The magazine industry’s own statistics show a tapering off of readership in recent years after steady growth.

    Celebrities can be successful in engaging the public – Miley Cyrus made waves last year when she sent a homeless man to pick up her MTV Video Music Awards; Bob Geldof’s charity single on Ebola quickly rose to the top of the charts; and celebrity-driven telethons like the UK’s Comic Relief are generally quite successful. Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech at the opening of the Climate Summit 2014 garnered nearly 2 million views on YouTube – far more than many of the heads of state who also spoke at the summit.

    And the effectiveness of celebrity advocacy in non-Western contexts, which is much less studied, could well be higher. UNICEF, for example, uses more national than global celebrity ambassadors because they often resonate better with local audiences. Social media campaigns can also be extremely successful in some instances, though “not a game-changer”, according to Brockington (For a cold shower on this topic, see Paul Currion’s column on why KONY 2012 may have engaged the public, but ultimately failed).

    Influence without accountability 

    But on the whole, at least in the UK, public interest in celebrity appears to be lower than most people think, Brockington says. But the belief in star power - inaccurate as it may be - lingers: In his survey, 74 percent of respondents said they thought other people paid more attention to celebrities than they did. Statistically, this cannot actually be true, but it proves an important point: If people think that other people care about celebrities, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Brockington found that while celebrities may not be as successful as we think in engaging the public, they are still successful at engaging politicians and decision-makers. 

    Why? 

    Because politicians - like most people - like being around celebrities. But also because politicians – also like most people - believe that celebrities express populist sentiment, even though, in fact, they often don’t. So they grant them access and influence. 

    Ben Affleck, for example, has briefed US Congress about the Democratic Republic of Congo and George Clooney has addressed the UN Security Council about Darfur.   

     

    For the small but growing number of academics studying the subject, the gap between celebrity advocacy and public engagement raises a major ethical question: If celebrities wield all this power and influence, yet do not represent popular sentiment, who are they accountable to?  

    “The celebrity is not beholden to his or her public in the same manner as the elected official,” writes Alexandra Cosima Budabin, of the University of Dayton, in an upcoming book: Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations. “Misguided proposals and ineffective interventions will not endanger a celebrity, whose position is assured by both financial and political elites.”  

    Celebrities’ increasingly powerful voices on issues of humanitarian aid, poverty reduction and famine has allowed them to “often decide for the suffering receivers” and eliminate public scrutiny and debate, according to Ilan Kapoor, a professor at York University in Canada and author of Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity. 

    “…Mostly unelected, private individuals and organizations have, for all intents and purposes, taken over what should primarily be state/public functions,” he writes

    A Machiavellian approach?

    Perhaps even more interestingly, Brockington found in his interviews with staff of NGOs with celebrity advocates that liaison officers know the impact on the public is limited, but use celebrities anyway because they can access and influence not the general public but decision-makers. 

    “The realpolitik might not be that pleasant,” he told the University of Sussex conference, “but you’ll achieve your goals.”

    UNICEF’s announcement of a new initiative for children by its Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham may reflect a clear understanding of this precise point. It reads: “David will use his powerful global voice, influence and connections to raise vital funds and encourage world leaders to create lasting positive change for children,” the statement said. 

    Malene Kamp Jensen, of UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador Program – one of the first and largest of its kind, acknowledges that sending a message to policy-makers is a “very, very important role” of celebrity ambassadors: “They do have certain access and platforms.” 

    But she says it is important to engage all segments of society: “You communicate to as many people as possible… I don’t think you can just say: ‘Forget the public; let’s lean on the policy makers. It’s very much a collective effort.” 

    For Jeffrey Brez, of the UN’s Messenger of Peace Programme, the target audience depends on the specific goal in that instance. 

    “Is there a treaty about to be ratified and you need a few extra votes? Is it a humanitarian crisis and you need a bump of visibility to help Congress push through appropriations for humanitarian aid? There are so many moments when they can come in and give you a little boost. It depends … what you’re trying to achieve.”

     

    Celebrity advocacy "industry" 

    Brez and Jensen both challenge the suggestion that celebrities are seen to be a silver bullet to public engagement, insisting they are just one tool in the toolbox. 

    “We’re always looking just to incrementally move the needle,” Brez says. But he complains that he and his colleagues lack real research to assess just how much impact their outreach has. 

    When Project Runway All Stars shot its Season Finale at UN Headquarters, 2 million fashion fans – not the UN’s traditional audience – were exposed to its work in a positive light. But how much did they retain? Did their perceptions of the UN change? 

    Brockington cautions not to read too much into his findings: celebrity advocacy can work, he says, but must be used strategically, for example to influence elites or fundraise among existing supporters. 

    But he says celebrity liaison officers are themselves frustrated by their NGO colleagues’ expectations that if they just throw a celebrity at something, the organisation will be instantly successful at captivating the public imagination. 

    Could the bubble eventually burst if more people become aware of the limits of celebrity advocacy? Unlikely, Brockington says, given what has now become a celebrity advocacy “industry”, in to which NGOs invest a lot of time and resources.  

    “There is a fair bit of smoke and mirrors in this… [but] a lot of people are vested in this. They want it to work. There’s all sorts of strong collective interests in sustaining it.”

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    Does celebrity advocacy actually work?
  • Nice and dirty – the importance of soil

    Be it laterite, loam, peat or clay, soil is life. It's the foundation of food security, and so the UN has declared 2015 as the year to draw attention to the stuff.

    As much as 95 percent of our food comes from the soil, but 33 percent of global soils are degraded, and experts say we may only have 60 years of nutrient-rich top soil left - it is not a renewable resource. 

    Africa is especially hard hit. Land degradation denudes the top soil, shrinking yields and the ability of the earth to absorb harmful greenhouse gases. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 65 percent of agricultural land is degraded. That costs the continent US$68 billion a year, and affects 180 million people - mainly the rural poor, already struggling to eke out a living.  But better land management practices could deliver up to $1.4 trillion globally in increased crop production. 

    So how to implement sustainable policies that protect the food security of future generations? The uptake of sound soil management approaches is currently low. Farmers are under pressure to abandon effective traditional methods in favour of practices that deliver quicker, short-term, returns. 

    Further reading on the issue
     2015 – International Year of Soils
     FAO Soils Portal
     Agriculture for Impact
     The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme
     AGRA
     United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
     Africa Soil Information Service

    But a report - No Ordinary Matter: Conserving, Restoring, and Enhancing Africa’s Soils - released in December 2014, points to potential pathways. These include combining targeted and selected use of fertilisers alongside traditional methods such as application of livestock manure, intercropping with nitrogen-fixing legumes or covering farmland with crop residues. The goal is an ambitious - if contradictory sounding - “Sustainable Intensification” of agriculture.

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    Nice and dirty – the importance of soil
  • An ambitious plan to end statelessness

    It is now 60 years since stateless people received recognition in international law, and the UN has two conventions (1954 and 1961) dedicated to their protection and the regularization of their situation. Yet an estimated 10 million people worldwide still suffer the problems and indignities of having no nationality.

    “It may be a bit of understatement to say that these are the two least loved multilateral human rights treaties,” said Mark Manly, head of the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) statelessness unit. “For many years they were pretty much forgotten and that was in large part because they had no UN agency promoting them.” 

    Manly has responsibility for the issue of statelessness, even though most stateless people neither are, nor have ever been, refugees, and this week UNHCR launched an ambitious plan to try to end statelessness over the next 10 years. 

    The plan breaks down the issue into 10 action points, addressing the main reasons why people end up stateless. Sometimes it's because children were not registered at birth, or because discriminatory laws prevent their mothers from passing on their own nationality. Some are the victims of ethnic discrimination by countries which refuse to recognize members of their community as citizens; others, especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, have fallen down the cracks between countries, as it were, after boundaries were redrawn and states divided. 

    In some of the world's major situations of statelessness UNHCR is already involved. In 1989 tens of thousands of Black African Mauritanians fled to Senegal to get away from murderous ethnic persecution. A large number of the refugees who came scrambling across the river border had no papers. Their Mauritanian identity cards had been confiscated or torn up by members of the security forces or by their fellow citizens, who told them, “Tu n'est pas Maure; alors tu n'est pas Mauritanian” (You are not a Moor, an Arab, so you are not a Mauritanian).

    Senegalese nationality law is generous, and allows them to apply for citizenship after five years' residence, but many have preferred to go home to Mauritania, assisted by UNHCR which supplied them with travel documents under an agreement governing their return. But large numbers are now finding themselves effectively stateless. Manly told IRIN: “What that agreement says, if I remember correctly, is that the nationality of the refugees is 'presumed' - they are presumed to be Mauritanian. However, many people have faced real problems in getting the documentation to prove that they really are Mauritanian, so there is clearly an issue.” 

    “Some 24,000 have returned,” adds Bronwen Manby, a consultant who has worked on this issue. “But the Mauritanian organizations are telling us that only about a third have got their documents. It's the standard sort of situation,” she told IRIN, “where in principle, of course - but then documents were destroyed, and then they find that the name is Mohamed with one 'm' instead of Mohammed with two 'm's, and then it's in French and not in Arabic - there needs to be more pressure on the Mauritanian government to sort out the situation.”

    Laws discriminating against women

    In the Middle East a lot of statelessness is the result of laws discriminating against women, which only allow nationality to be passed through the father - a problem if the father is not there to register his child or is himself stateless. Laura van Waas, who runs the Statelessness Programme at Tilburg University, says it can have a devastating effect on all members of a family. 

    “It's not just the stateless child who is affected by this. It's the mother, who has nationality, who feels guilty for whom she has chosen to marry. Her children are suffering and she sees that as the result of her life choices. And it's the young men who are perhaps the worst affected. This is seen as a women's rights issue, but if you are a young women who couldn't get nationality through your mother, in most of the countries we are looking at you can acquire nationality through your husband, and your children will take his nationality. But if you are a young stateless man, you can't acquire nationality through marriage, and because your children have to acquire their nationality through you, they will also be stateless.”

    In countries like Lebanon, where ID cards were first introduced in the 1920s, but not everyone bothered to register, this kind of statelessness has persisted through several generations, resulting in whole families which, although Lebanese, are non-citizens, unable to travel, and with no access to state schooling or health care. It could be sorted out with a bit of goodwill, but as in many countries, political considerations - in this case questions of religious and ethnic balance - mean goodwill may be in short supply.

    Egypt and Kuwait provide further examples.

    In situations like that of Myanmar, where the government is so reluctant to accept the Muslim community in Rakhine State as Burmese citizens, goodwill seems totally lacking. But elsewhere a lot can be done to reduce statelessness, with improvements to nationality laws, better coordination when states and boundaries change, simpler bureaucratic procedures, and a greater effort to make sure all children get registered.

    Attitudes changing?

    Manly says he is seeing a real change of attitudes, with governments increasingly willing to ratify the conventions, enter into discussions on the issue and make the necessary changes. 

    “The taboo has now been broken,” he says. “Governments now increasingly accept that this is not purely an issue of their sovereign discretion, but that issues of statelessness are of legitimate concern for the international community... Governments have also perceived that it is not in their interests to have a very large disenfranchized and frequently undocumented population in their territories... Ministries of the interior round the world don't want to have tens or hundreds of thousands of people who are undocumented. They want to know who is in their territory, and to be able to control them.”

    “In the past four years, more countries have acceded to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness than in the four decades following its adoption,” says the new UNHCR report. 

    So the UNHCR is hopeful that their campaign can bring down the numbers of stateless people in areas like the Middle East and the Former Soviet Union. 

    But Bronwen Manby warns that in parts of Africa where she has worked, a push to regularize citizenship could actually increase numbers elsewhere. “Nigeria, for instance, has a large number of people who are absolutely undocumented, but everybody somehow gets by, because that's Nigeria. But it's of concern in the context of increasing efforts to reduce the number of undocumented people for security reasons. Once you really start being strict about ID documents, all the people who have managed to get by with a bit of cash, or a bit of magouille, as they say in French, are going to find it much more difficult to get an ID from somewhere, and I think a problem of statelessness is going to be revealed which is already there but has never been identified.”

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    An ambitious plan to end statelessness
  • How to boost food production in Africa

    Smallholder farmers, who hold over 80 percent of all farms in sub-Saharan Africa, are struggling to adapt to rapidly rising temperature and erratic rains, according to the 2014 Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR), released on 3 September in Addis Ababa.

    It says these farmers are now facing the risk of being overwhelmed by the pace and severity of climate change.

    Farmers are already contending with an increase in average temperatures, with further increases of between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees centigrade expected by 2050.

    Despite a decade of pro-growth and food security policies and programmes such as the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), 200 million Africans are chronically malnourished and 5 million die of hunger annually, says report by AGRA.

    “As climate change turns up the heat, the continent’s food security and its ability to generate economic growth that benefits poor Africans - most of whom are farmers - depends on our ability to adapt to more stressful conditions,” said Jane Karuku, president of AGRA.

    The report’s authors also predict severe drying across southern Africa, while other parts of sub-Saharan Africa are likely to become wetter, but with farmers facing more violent storms and frequent flooding

    During the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Addis Ababa last week, participants said countries need to adopt technologies and “climate-smart agriculture” that will help make crops more resilient to future extreme weather events.

    Here is a roundup of some key issues aired at the forum:

    Forget “blanket” advice about soil health

    Erratic farming practices (such as the failure to apply mineral or organic fertilizers), and soil erosion, are depriving croplands across sub-Saharan Africa of 30-80kg per hectare of essential plant nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen.

    Soil Scientist James Mutegi of the International Plant Nutrition Institute said African countries should not only engage to reverse the current trend of low crop productivity and land degradation, but also forget blanket recommendations regarding fertilizer applications to their soils.

    Fertilizer promotion programmes in Africa are often unsuccessful because they are designed with a “one-size-fits-all” philosophy - failing to recognize the diversity of production systems and the range of farmers’ needs, according to the World Bank.

    To keep African soil healthy, Mutegi said farmers “should apply the right fertilizer at the right time, and in the right way at the right time” as the soil types on the continent, or even within a given country, are not the same. “We need to lose the usual blanket recommendations,” he said.

    Africans, he said, need to map their soil and, in the case of some countries, should update their maps. Mapping would be “crucial” to know exactly where fertilizers should be applied or not. “In cases where there is no deficiency of some nutrients, farmers should not end up losing investments in fertilizers,” he said.

    Ethiopia’s recent move to map out its soil and build in-country blended fertilizer production facilities near farmers is seen as a good approach for other Africa countries. Ethiopia’s fertilizer initiative to introduce customized fertilizers would greatly increase crop yields, said Mutegi.

    Ease fertilizer access

    Fertilizer use in Africa remains low compared to other regions, with average use at around 10kg per hectare, while the global average is over 100kg per hectare. According to Namanga Ngongi, chairman of NGO African Fertilizer Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP), African countries need to work on two areas to improve the current situation.

    “First [is] to improve the logistics around fertilizer distribution,” said Namanga, adding that about 40 percent of the cost of fertilizer in Africa is due to transport from ports of entry to the farmer.

    “Secondly, we need to have the farmers improve their financial access to fertilizer,” said the Cameroonian agronomist. Namanga said the private sector’s increasing participation in fertilizer programmes in Malawi, from procurement to transportation of fertilizers to various outlets, was a “courageous effort” to change smallholder farming.

    A decade ago Malawi introduced a large-scale national programme to subsidize agricultural inputs (mainly fertilizers for maize production), targeting more than 1.5 million farming families. The result was increased maize production and real incomes.

    Introduce new crop varieties

    The stagnant state of commercial seed production is often cited as a key reason why yields per hectare in Africa for staple crops like maize are up to 80 percent below what farmers outside Africa achieve.

    According to Associate Director of the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) of AGRA, George Bigirwa, more work is needed to improve seed systems in Africa, through encouraging local research institutes and locally-owned African seed companies, and installing mechanisms to reach farmers with the “improved” seeds.

    After attempting to tweak their seed system, nine African countries have seen positive results in identifying and breeding seeds that are suitable for planting in a particular environment. Conducted by AGRA in 2013, a survey, planting the Seeds of a Green Revolution in Africa, found that most farmers who invested in improved crop varieties achieved yields 50 to 100 percent above local varieties.

    The same survey indicates that 69 percent of farmers in Kenya, 74 percent in Nigeria, and 79 percent in Mozambique said improved maize varieties had doubled harvests per hectare.

    Get the youth involved

    The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) says agriculture contributes one-quarter to one-third of African GDP but employs 65 to 75 percent of the labour force, according to IFPRI.

    The worrying factor is, according to a new report released last week in Addis Ababa by the Montpellier Panel entitled Small and Growing - Entrepreneurship in African agriculture, African youth see agriculture as an “outdated, unprofitable” profession.

    The report said more investment is needed in rural and food sector entrepreneurship, particularly among Africa’s growing youth population, for the continent to achieve food security.

    The sector may seem more appealing, when one considers the amount of money African countries invest in food imports. “When I hear US$35 billion food [imports to Africa annually], as an entrepreneur I say ‘what an opportunity’,” said Strive Masiyiwa, an African telecoms mogul.

    In the report, the Montpellier Panel, comprising African and European experts, said youth should be informed more about the benefits of this opportunity.

    They said this can be achieved through vocational and business management training for the youth, adequate and affordable financing for starting and growing enterprises, and by creating enabling environments for entrepreneurship on an individual and collective basis.

    Make use of the “brilliance of women”

    Female small scale farmers dominate the agricultural landscape in most production environments in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet they constitute the majority of rural actors locked in socio-cultural structures that limit their agricultural productivity, efficiency and effectiveness at all points across the value chain.

    According to the director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, the issues of equity should be embedded in all aspects of agricultural production.

    She said women are too often left out of decision-making processes and that the Green Revolution will not be successful if “we continue to deny ourselves the talent and brilliance of the women who comprise 50 percent of our population.”

    Only 45 percent of women in Africa are literate, compared to 70 percent of men; about 1.5 percent of women achieve higher education.

    “By focusing on building the capacity of young people and women in particular, African governments will be able to increase the productivity of a large proportion of their labour forces,” says the Montpellier Panel report.

    It argues that Africa should encourage initiatives such as AWARD, a career-development programme that equips top women agricultural scientists across sub-Saharan Africa to accelerate agricultural gains by strengthening their research and leadership skills through tailored fellowships. To date, 325 scientists from 11 countries have benefited from the programme.

    Manage more water, irrigate more land

    Only 4 percent of African cropland is irrigated, according to AGRA. The rest depends on increasingly erratic rainfall. But water management can mean much more than irrigation.

    According to AASR 2014, water productivity in African agriculture will be affected by climate change as more active storm systems emerge, especially in the tropics.

    Greater variability in rainfall is expected, which will increase the risks of dry-land farming.

    “The demand for irrigation will grow [in terms of area] and irrigation water use on existing crop areas will increase due to greater evaporative demand. The water resources available for irrigation will become more variable, and could decline in areas with low rainfall,” the report says.

    Total agriculture land increased by some 8 percent in the last decade, while the irrigated areas remained stable, after a steady increase from 2 to 5 million hectares from 1960 to 2000.

    The authors of AASR said agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa can be greatly increased through integrated watershed management that takes into account the full water budget for an area, as well as its use, output, and cost/benefit ratio.

    According to AASR, collecting rain in ponds or barrels, and other “rain harvesting” techniques, offers a simple but underused low-technology approach to climate change. The report also said harvesting only 15 percent of the region’s rain would more than meet the water needs of the continent.

    Rainwater harvesting for underground storage in Ethiopia, for instance, the report says, could be “used for supplemental irrigation of high value crops”.

    Follow climate-smart mechanization

    Motorized equipment in Africa contributes only 10 percent of farm energy, said AASR, compared to 50 percent in other regions.

    Mechanization can improve productivity and nutrient use efficiency, reduce waste and add value to food products.

    But progress in this area, scientists note, should be based on energy efficient innovations, including the use of alternative energy like solar-powered irrigation pumps, and supported by better training and repair services and by strong farmers’ organizations.

    Gordon Conway, director of Agriculture for Impact and chair of the Montpellier Panel, said mechanization “isn’t all about great big machines, but small machines that smallholders can use”.

    He highlighted a small company in Kampala, Uganda, that makes maize hulling machines which are sold or rented to farmers’ associations.

    “But the point is that they need to be made, and that often requires young workers; they need to be repaired and that creates jobs; and in this case the machines go from farm to farm, which involves yet another service,” he said.

    Reduce post-harvest losses

    Anne Mbaabu, director of AGRA’s Market Access Program, says post-harvest loss is “the most unanswered and ignored challenge” to food insecurity in Africa, with losses exceeding 30 percent of total crop production and representing more than US$4 billion every year. “That does not include fruits and vegetables, the loss of which is very difficult to track,” said the director.

    According to Mbaabu, simple solutions such as training farmers on post-harvest handling, food management training on appropriate pre-and post-harvest handling operations and improving market access and knowledge of market requirements would significantly reduce losses.

    She said famers need to have “better access to storage facilities” and access to new technologies to reduce losses, which exceed the total amount of international food aid provided to sub-Saharan countries annually.

    AGRA’s initiative and training for 5,610 farmers in post-harvest handling through farmer cooperatives has had “positive results” in reducing losses, says an AGRA official.

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    Boosting Africa’s food production
  • New thinking needed on food aid for refugees in Africa

    The World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have launched an urgent appeal to address a funding shortfall that has already resulted in food ration cuts for a third of all African refugees. As of mid-June, nearly 800,000 refugees in 22 African countries have seen their monthly food allocations reduced, most of them by more than half. 

    WFP is appealing for US$186 million to maintain its food assistance to refugees in Africa through the end of the year, while UNHCR is asking for $39 million to fund nutritional support and food security activities to refugees in the affected countries. A joint report by WFP and UNHCR released last week warns that failure to prevent continued ration cuts will lead to high levels of malnutrition, particularly among children and the most vulnerable. 

    Worst hit have been refugees in Chad, Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan where a total of nearly half a million refugees are experiencing ration cuts of 50 to 60 percent.

    The funding shortfall is not the result of shrinking budgets for either WFP or UNHCR, but a substantial increase in the need for food assistance generated by an unprecedented number of refugee emergencies in 2014. “The amount of large-scale, simultaneous emergencies has never been so high to the best of my memory,” said Paul Spiegel, UNHCR’s deputy director of programme support and management, speaking to IRIN from Geneva. 

    Out of a global figure of 11.7 million refugees under UNHCR’s protection at the end of 2013, the highest number since 2001, 3.3 million live in Africa. 

    “There has also been a lot of earmarking [by donors] for certain situations, particularly the Syrian situation,” he added. “Some situations, particularly CAR, have been severely under-funded so there is an equity issue here that needs to be dealt with. Protracted refugee situations have also not had the same level of funding.”

    Only about a quarter of those affected by the ration cuts are new arrivals, according to Spiegel. The rest are long-term refugees who have been unable to wean themselves off food aid, usually because they are confined to remote camps where there are little or no possibilities for them to generate an income. 

    Camps or communities?

    As donors increasingly prioritize funding for the emergency phase of refugee crises over protracted situations, UNHCR has had to shift its approach in the last two years. “The big shift has been that we’re looking at saying `if we can avoid camps, let’s do so’,” explained Spiegel. “Having refugees be amongst local communities is better for so many different reasons: it allows them to be more self-reliant, reduces long-term dependence and UNHCR can use its funding to improve existing communities.”

    But while UNHCR is advocating that refugees be allowed to settle in communities rather than in camps, governments have the final say when it comes to the refugees they host. For now, few are willing to grant refugees even basic economic freedoms such as the right to work and live outside of camps. Overcoming this reluctance will mean convincing host nations that, given the chance, refugees have the capacity to boost rather than burden local economies. 

    "We're now gathering more and more information...to show that improving refugee livelihoods, if it's done in a smart way, can have a positive effect on host communities"

    “We’re now gathering more and more information in Africa and the Middle East to show that improving refugee livelihoods, if it’s done in a smart way, can have a positive effect on host communities,” Spiegel told IRIN. 

    He admitted that much of the evidence is still anecdotal and that there is a need for more studies demonstrating the potentially positive impacts of integrating refugees into local communities. 

    Where host governments insist on an encampment policy, said Spiegel, “we’re looking more at sustainability from day one, so if we have to have camps, we would look at a development plan in that area.”

    This could include the placement of camps near existing communities, reducing the need for aid agencies to develop parallel services and increasing the likelihood of markets being available should refugees be allowed to trade.

    New livelihoods strategy

    UNHCR is also attempting to reshape its livelihoods strategy to be more responsive to socio-economic realities and more inclusive of host communities. “In the past, livelihoods [interventions have] been a lot of just keeping refugees occupied without a sufficiently market-oriented approach,” Spiegel said.

    Alexander Betts of Oxford University’s Refugee and Forced Migration Studies programme agreed that “too often in the past, [UNHCR’s] livelihoods interventions have been abstracted from the market into which they’re intervening; they haven’t been based on an understanding of what already exists and how you build upon it.”

    Betts is director of the Humanitarian Innovation Project (HIP) which seeks, in part, to expand the evidence base for giving refugees greater economic freedom. Last month, Betts and his team released research from Uganda, a country that allows the 387,000 refugees it hosts to live and work outside designated refugee settlements. The study found that 78 percent of the urban refugees surveyed in Kampala did not receive any international aid while 17 percent of those living in refugee settlements received no assistance. They instead relied on farming land allocated to them in the refugee settlements or trading with fellow refugees and their Ugandan neighbours.

    “What we’ve tried to do with the research is offer data that can demonstrate that governments prepared to offer basic economic freedoms [to refugees] can in turn reap benefits,” said Betts, who admitted that far more research into the economic lives of displaced populations was needed if a major shift in host nations’ attitudes towards refugees was to occur.

    Difficult choices

    In the meantime, WFP and UNHCR are having to make hard choices about which groups of refugees are more able to withstand ration cuts. Spiegel cited the example of Chad where mainly Sudanese refugees living in the desert-like east of the country have very few possibilities to sustain themselves compared to refugees from CAR living in the south where the availability of arable land for them to farm has made them more resilient. 

    “Also in Chad, we’re doing surveys where we’re trying to look at - even within a camp - who are the most and least vulnerable,” said Spiegel. “We may even consider, based on consultations with communities and leaders, giving full rations to some and smaller rations to others.”

    According to WFP spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs, “in situations of funding constraints, WFP conducts vulnerability assessments to prioritize its assistance to the most vulnerable.”

    Prolonged ration cuts, however, inevitably lead to refugees adopting increasingly drastic coping strategies. “Refugees initially try to make do by skipping meals, taking out loans and pulling their children out of school,” said Byrs. “In the longer-term, ration cuts can lead to more risky behaviour such as crime, sexual exploitation and conflict with host communities.

    “We are urging donors to try to find innovative ways to supply badly needed funding.”

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    New thinking needed on aid for refugees
  • Genome breakthrough could help fight against sleeping sickness

    Scientists have welcomed the development of genome sequence data on the tsetse fly, the vector responsible for the transmission of human African trypanosomiasis (HAT), commonly known as sleeping sickness. They say it could be instrumental in devising strategies to eradicate the fly and reduce deaths and the spread of other diseases associated with it.

    “The genome data could ultimately advance knowledge on the biology of the tsetse fly and the trypanosome parasite it carries. Aspects of its biology may offer some vulnerabilities, such as the rearing of live young inside pregnant females, the dependence of the fly on bacteria that live inside its cells and its unusual prey-finding behavior,” Mathew Berriman, group leader, Parasite Genomics with Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, told IRIN by email.

    “The protein involved in sensing light, smell and taste have been found opening the door for refinement of traps. Also in the genome we find evidence of viruses that are associated with parasitic wasps - this highlights the possibility that a natural predator of tsetse exists in the wild; if it could be found, it could be utilized for biological control.”

    Serap Aksoy from the University of Yale who co-authored the study, told IRIN: “The African trypanosomiasis affects thousands of people in sub-Saharan Africa. The absence of a genome-wide map of tsetse biology was a major hindrance for identifying vulnerabilities.”

    She added: “This community of researchers across Africa, Europe, North America and Asia has created a valuable research tool for tackling the devastating spread of sleeping sickness.”

    The researchers also found a set of visual and odour proteins that seem to drive the fly’s key behavioural responses, such as in searching for hosts or for mates.

    The analysis of the genome will help in understand the basic biology of the fly.

    ‘‘By identifying the genes that make proteins associated with vision or smell, it allows us to use this information to better understand what sights or smells might attract or repel tsetse flies from traps. We can then use this information to make more efficient ways to control tsetse fly populations,’’ Geoffrey Attardo, the lead researcher with Yale School of Public Health, told IRIN by email.

    Tsetse flies have a highly unusual biology. Unlike other flies which lay eggs, they give birth to a single live larva which is then nursed into a full grown fly by feeding on the mother’s milk glands.

    Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute said in a statement: “This disease-spreading fly has developed unique and unusual biological methods to source and infect its prey. Its advanced sensory system allows different tsetse fly species to track down potential hosts either through smell or by sight…

    “This study lays out a list of parts responsible for the key processes and opens new doors to design prevention strategies to reduce the number of deaths and illnesses associated with human African trypanosomiasis and other diseases spread by the tsetse fly.”

    “The genome data could ultimately advance knowledge on the biology of the tsetse fly and the trypanosome parasite it carries.”

    According to the researchers, the genome sequencing has helped to reveal “the fly's special repertoire of proteins for procuring, filtering, and packaging the blood and for viviparity [retention and growth of the fertilized egg within the maternal body until the young animal, as a larva or newborn, is capable of independent existence] and the expression of analogs of mammalian milk proteins.”

    Critical proteins identified

    “Proteins have been identified that are critical for feeding unborn larvae - interfering with this process would break the life cycle,” Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute’s Berriman told IRIN.

    The study was conducted by a team of 146 scientists from 78 research institutes across 18 countries. They analysed the genome of the tsetse fly and its 12,000 genes.

    Beyond disease control, the genome is an important resource for evolutionary biology.

    ‘‘The evolution of these amazing adaptations can now be examined on a genomic level relative to other related insects (such as the fruit fly Drosophila) for which genomic information is also available. Insights gained from such comparisons allow us to understand how such dramatic changes develop at the genetic level in related organisms,’’ said Attardo. 

    Other than sleeping sickness, the tsetse fly is also responsible for nagana disease (also known as nagana pest or animal African trypanosomiasis) in livestock.

    The UN World Health Organization (WHO) says “sleeping sickness threatens millions of people in 36 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.”

    Many of the affected populations “live in remote areas with limited access to adequate health services, which complicates the surveillance and therefore the diagnosis and treatment of cases. In addition, displacement of populations, war and poverty are important factors that facilitate transmission.”

    The disease attacks the central nervous system, hence causing severe neurological disorders or even death if left untreated.

    The researchers hope the new revelations on the fly’s genome will lead to the development of repellants or insecticides.

    In many parts of Africa including Ethiopia, different strategies are currently being employed to control sleeping sickness.

    ‘‘These include, control of the fly through insecticide-treated blue traps and release of very dominant and competent laboratory-reared sterile males to the tsetse fly habitat,’’ Aysheshm Kassahun, a researcher at Addis Ababa University, told IRIN by email.

    In 2009, WHO set up a specimen bank to help researchers to facilitate the development of new and affordable diagnostic tools. It contains samples of blood, serum, cerebrospinal fluid, saliva and urine from patients infected with both forms of the disease as well as samples from uninfected people from areas where the disease is endemic.

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    Tsetse fly science could save lives
  • Melding science and tradition to tackle climate change

    In the latest of several partnerships between tradition and modern science aimed at improving resilience to climate change, pastoralists and meteorologists in Tanzania are working together to produce weather forecasts better suited to farmers.

    The hope is that by drawing from both indigenous knowledge and contemporary weather forecasting techniques, crop yields could be increased.

    “We wanted to see if the two can complement or supplement each other,” Isaac Yonah, a senior officer coordinating community meetings employed by the Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA), told IRIN by phone.

    Using traditional indicators such as the movement of red ants, the flowering of mango and other trees, the migration of termites and patterns and colours in the sky, farmers in Sakala village of Ngorongoro District compare their two-weekly forecasts with those released by the TMA.

    “This is done… to validate how accurate their forecast is and to come up with a consensus [forecast]. In the last three seasons, more than 80 percent accuracy in the findings has been witnessed,” said Yonah.

    The project is a partnership between TMA, Hakikazi Catalyst (a non-profit organization), and the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

    “Strengthening such practices could enhance the resilience of communities which are most vulnerable to climate change. Upscaling the projects will see the knowledge gap between traditional and scientific bridged,” said Yonah.

    Research published in Uganda in 2013 detailed 23 different indicators used by traditional forecasters to predict weather.

    “Farmers would profit from weather forecasts provided by governmental institutions. This [marriage of the old and new] will enable farmers to make sound decisions on how to fully exploit the seasonal distribution of rainfall to improve and stabilize crop yields,” said Joshua Okonyo, author of the study Indigenous Knowledge of Seasonal Weather Forecasting.

    The indicators cited included wind direction, cuckoo calls, and the timing of winged termites’ departure from their nests.

    Working with the Nganyi community in Kenya

    For the past five years in Kenya, government meteorologists have worked with the Nganyi community in the west of the country in a project carried out in collaboration with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC).

    The Nganyi observe bird migrations and other animal behaviour in their forecasts.

    “After thorough research, we have noticed that these traditional indicators have a high scientific value that could be integrated with the local climate information,” said Laban Ogallo, the project’s coordinator.

    “Since predicting weather within the tropics is a challenge to scientists, we wanted to learn how the [Nganyi] community has been doing it over the years. Their knowledge will be helpful,” Abraham Changara, chief meteorologist at the Kenya Meteorological Department, told IRIN.

    As meteorologists are waking up to the value of traditional forecasting methods in adapting to climate change, it seems climate change itself poses a threat to the sustainability of these methods.

    ''There is rapid disappearance of plants and animals due to climate variability and human activities,” according to Weather Forecasting and Indigenous Knowledge Systems, published by Great Zimbabwe University.

    “There are few elders aware of traditional methods of weather forecasting. This makes traditional weather forecast less reliable,'' the study added.

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    Climate change, science and tradition
  • Remittance rip-offs

    All over the world migrant workers are sending money home to their families. The money pays hospital bills and school fees, buys land, builds houses and sets up small businesses. The cash goes from the US back to Mexico, from the Gulf back to India, from the UK back to Somalia, and from South Africa back to Malawi, Zimbabwe and the rest of southern Africa. 

    But what these workers probably do not realize, since they usually only ever send to one country, is that the cost of sending money varies greatly. Now a study of the cost of remittances, carried out by London's Overseas Development Institute with support from the fund-raising charity Comic Relief, has revealed that transfers to African countries cost around half as much again as the global average, and twice as much as transfers to Latin America. 

    The ODI estimates that if remittance charges were brought down to the world average, the money saved could educate an extra 14 million primary school children, half of all those currently out of school on the continent.

    The bulk of this money goes through money transfer companies rather than banks, since the recipients are unlikely to have bank accounts, and transfer companies are quick, efficient and have a wide network of agents. But just two big international players dominate the business in Africa, Moneygram and Western Union, and participants in a meeting to launch the research were highly critical of the way they seemed to be abusing their market dominance.

    Rwanda's High Commissioner in London, Williams Nkurunziza, said he was shocked at what the report revealed. “If you look at the remittances, 30 or 40 percent of the money that goes to Africa goes to rural areas,” he said. “This money goes to the people who are most needy, and you are allowing a multinational corporation to take bread out of the mouth of hungry children. This is not what I would call responsible capitalism!”

    Glenys Kinnock, opposition spokesman on International Development in the upper house of the UK parliament, who chaired the meeting, called on the country's financial regulatory authority to intervene over the issue of excessive charges. “It is not a technocratic issue,” she said, “although it may sound like one. It is also about people's lives and the future of their children... These things have to change. We can't put up any longer with the prospect of its making things so difficult, very often impossible, for people who have such needs.”

    At the end of last year, when the ODI did its research, the fees and charges to send money to most of Africa were around 12 percent - a bit less to Zambia or Tanzania, a bit more to Uganda, Malawi and the Gambia - against a world average of just over 8 percent. Even that is quite expensive; the governments of the G8 and G20 countries have pledged themselves to working towards reducing this to 5 percent.

    It found that in more than 30 countries the two big players had more than 50 percent of the market; and in 10 countries they had more than 90 percent. Sometimes either Moneygram or Western Union had an effective monopoly, but even where both companies were present it did not necessarily mean that customers had much choice; one company could still have a monopoly of outlets in a particular area, and the companies habitually make their paying-out agents sign contracts promising not to also act as agents for their rivals. 

    Somalia different

    Significantly, the one country where the big two are absent - Somalia - has far lower remittance charges; transfers go through a number of smaller, competing companies.

    Competition has been limited by the fallout from the US “war on terror”, with the banks who do bulk international transfers citing money-laundering and anti-terrorism regulations as the reason they are reluctant to extend facilities to smaller companies. Now only the biggest of the Somali companies, Dahabshiil, still has an account with a major British bank (Barclays) and even that concession was forced by a court case and is only until other arrangements can be put in place.

    Inter-Africa transfers cost most

    But if charges to send money to Africa from outside are steep, the cost of sending money from one African country to another can be eye-watering. 

    Dilip Ratha, who works on these issues for the World Bank says exchange controls are one of the reasons the rates are so high; in some places sending money out of the country is illegal. “So if you are sending money,” he says, “let's say from Benin to Ghana, it is actually allowed (in some countries it's not even allowed) but first the CFA has to be passed through into euros or sterling or dollars, and then it has to be transferred back into the local cedi, and in both cases you pay commission. Some sort of regional currency market really needs to be created.” 

    "So if you are sending money, let's say from Benin to Ghana, it is actually allowed (in some countries it's not even allowed) but first the CFA has to be passed through into euros or sterling or dollars, and then it has to be transferred back into the local cedi, and in both cases you pay commission. Some sort of regional currency market really needs to be created"  

    The report found 10 routes with bank transfer charges over 20 percent. Charges from Nigeria to Ghana were 22 percent. To send from Tanzania to the rest of East Africa, or from South Africa to its near neighbours is particularly expensive, peaking at 25 percent for bank transfers between South African and Malawi. Some of the fees charged by money transfer companies are even higher; if you send money that way from Ghana to Nigeria you may have to pay a staggering 39 percent.

    In some places mobile phone based systems like M-Pesa have made in-country transfers much easier and cheaper, but they haven't really taken off internationally, largely because conservative, inflexible regulatory systems insist that all international transfers must go through conventional banks. And African banks tend to have very high charges, often because they are forced by governments to finance government projects or make uncommercial loans. 

    Chukwuemeka Chikezie of the Up Africa consultancy told IRIN a lot of the responsibility lay with African governments. “One of the reasons M-Pesa took off in Kenya was because the authorities nurtured and enabled innovation. If you look at other countries the regulators have tended to stifle innovation. They are very risk-averse and they don't enable even limited experiments to prove that the markets can absorb technical innovation.”

    In addition, money-laundering regulations are putting impossible demands on systems designed to serve the poor, requiring, for instance, “know your customer” procedures like taking copies of ID documents for anyone receiving an international payout. Selma Ribica of M-Pesa points out this is an impossibility for agents in rural areas with no power supply. She told IRIN she would like to see a more realistic, tiered approach with much lighter regulation for small international transfers (under, say, US$200-300) which are most unlikely to have anything to do with money laundering.

    Beware Facebook, Walmart

    M-Pesa depends on moving money between different customers' mobile phone accounts. Now people are beginning to think of other kinds of electronic “purses” which might be linked in the same way. 

    Facebook has just proposed allowing transfers between customers who have accounts with the company which they normally use to make payments for online games. So far this is only proposed for payments within the European Union, but Facebook has a huge geographical spread and has said it is keen to extend its reach in Africa. 

    And the big profits made by the transfer companies are tempting other players into the market. The latest to announce it is starting money transfers is the US supermarket chain Walmart, with recipients being able to pick up their cash from any shop in the chain. To start with this will only work within the United States and Puerto Rico, but Walmart is an international group with nearly 350 stores in South Africa, and it also has a presence in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique, opening up the tempting prospect of a new, and cheaper way for workers to send money home.

    All these new ways of sending money aim to undercut Moneygram and Western Union. Now Western Union has responded by offering so-called “zero-fee” transfers to Africa if the money is sent from a bank account rather by credit card or cash. This would mean a saving of just under £5 ($8.40) for someone sending $100 from the UK to Liberia. The company would still make money (nearly $4) by using a favourable exchange rate, but it would bring the cost down to just below the G8/G20 target. 

    For African's hard-pressed and hard-working migrants and their families back home, change may - finally - be on the way.

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    Remittance rip-offs

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