(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • 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?
  • Dire conditions for Malawi's flood survivors

    For those who have lost everything in southern Malawi’s Chikwawa District, just getting the next meal is now the priority.

    “Life is unbearable here. We hardly get food, but what else can we do? We cannot go back to our homes. They are under water and probably [fallen] down by now,” said displaced Aman Maomao, who is among hundreds sheltering in the grounds of a local public building.

    In total 1.15 million Malawians have been affected by the flooding of 15 of the country’s 28 districts, which followed heavy rains a month ago. In all, some 336,000 people have been displaced and 276 are missing or dead.

    “We have been hit and we are in this situation. There is nothing we can do. We are waiting for the necessities, as we cannot go back home,” said a man who identified himself as Aswell Guta.

    When it rains at night, the displaced do their best to find some space in the few tents but they are usually used for medical consultations and are too small to be decent dormitories. They are segregated by sex, but not by age: children share the sleeping quarters with adults. In other displacement sites, men and women share tents.

    Only one of the 20 displacement sites in Chikwawa district has enough tents to meet the needs of those living there. In the others many sleep in the open, with few cooking utensils, mosquito nets and buckets.

    At some sites there are not enough toilets, while a lack of lighting and segregated facilities increase dangers of assault for women and girls.

    Around 230,000 of those displaced are living with communities, while more than 100,000 are living in makeshift camps like the one IRIN visited in Bangula. Around 181 schools are housing displaced people.

    Despite numerous risk factors, such as a dearth of clean water and adequate sanitation, there have not yet been any confirmed cases of disease outbreaks, aside from sporadic cases of malaria and diarrhoea.

    UNICEF has appealed for some US$9.3 million to cover the costs of responding to the floods over the next few months. Some $5.4 million has been re-allocated from existing resources, leaving a gap of $3.9 million as of 30 January.

    That gap “is likely to increase as we move into the recovery phase,” Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF Representative in Malawi, said in a statement. “With these new numbers we need to look at scaling up services again.”

    Almost $18 million is needed to feed those affected by the floods, according to the UN’s World Food Programme.

    Meanwhile, the Department of Meteorology and Climate Change has warned of further heavy downpours from 11 to 14 February. There are “high risks of triggering flash floods and riverine flooding in flood-prone districts including Nsanje, Chikwawa, Phalombe, Mangochi, Salima, Nkhata Bay and Karonga,” it said.

    According to a joint report by the UN and the Malawian Department of Disaster Management Affairs, “with response efforts stretched to meet current humanitarian needs, the risk of further flooding raises a critical concern. Preparedness and response efforts should, therefore, be scaled up in all sectors.”

    Agriculture in flooded areas has been badly affected, with some 42,000 ha of farmed land destroyed and 100,000 tonnes of crops lost.

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    Malawi flood survivors desperate
  • In pictures: Southern Africa floods

    The number of people affected by severe flooding in southern Africa continues to rise, and more rain is predicted.

    Malawi has reported 50 deaths and 153 missing, Mozambique 84 fatalities and Madagascar - which has been battered by Tropical Storm Chedza - 13. The overall number of people affected in these countries stands at 638,000 in Malawi (121,000 of whom have been displaced from their homes), 90,000 in Mozambique and 100,000 in Madagascar.

     Click here to view a slideshow of the flooding in southern Malawi.

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    Southern Africa floods slideshow
  • Eyewitness: Malawi’s floods

    The scale and impact of the current flooding in southern Malawi seems to
    have caught the authorities by surprise. Some areas were deluged with a
    month’s worth of rain in 24 hours, and forecasts suggest there is more
    to come. Latest figures put the number of dead at 50 with 14,000 households displaced (an estimated 70,000 people). Some villages, cut
    off by the floodwaters, have yet to be reached, so the death toll may
    yet rise.  

    Malawi's President, Peter Mutharika, who is visiting the area (Mangochi
    and Balaka South districts) on Friday, has declared 15 southern
    districts  - almost half the country  - a disaster zone and appealed for
    foreign aid. The Malawian military has now been deployed to lead the
    evacuation of vulnerable communities, but continued bad weather is
    hampering their efforts. IRIN has learned that some boats allocated to
    assist in the rescue of stranded survivors lacked fuel, delaying initial
    operations.

    DanChurchAid (DCA) is one of the few humanitarian organisations
    assisting the relief effort, allocating new funds to cover evacuation,
    medicine and other needs. IRIN spoke to Francis Botha, DCA’s regional
    communications officer, who has spent the past two days in the affected
    area. These are his impressions.

    “The flooding covers an extensive area and reaching some places is very
    difficult because roads have been affected. More people are still being
    evacuated to safer places by the Malawi Defense Force using boats and
    helicopters, despite facing challenges due to bad weather especially in
    Nsanje and Chikwawa [districts particularly hard hit by the flooding].
    But some people are refusing to be evacuated from their land to higher
    ground. Some children and their mothers have been sleeping in trees or
    on rooftops for a number of days waiting for rescuers or for the water
    to subside,” he said.

    “I met one 9-year-old girl called Eve who spent four days in a tree with
    her grandmother before being rescued by the military. She is now safe
    and seems physically ok, but she is so traumatised she isn't speaking. Another woman, called Marita, told me she climbed onto the roof of a nightclub with her baby clinging to her chest and waited for help.

    “Relief assistance is very inadequate. Mwananjovu is an evacuation camp
    where all those from flooded areas in Chikwawa are temporarily
    sheltered. It is a block comprising only two rooms and two pit latrines.
    It is so congested right now with 504 people evacuated by the army and
    police from across the Shire River. Only a few people received blankets
    from the police. In another camp, more than 300 people received a basin
    full of beans and a bucket of maize flour between them. In Nsanje the
    situation is complicated by the arrival of refugees from Mozambique
    fleeing floods on their side of the border.

    "The police Commissioner for the the Southern Region, Agnes Gondwe, said evacuating victims isn't enough. We need to protect victims, especially women and children. So now the Malawian Police are establishing Child Protection and Victim
    Support services within the camps. Health Services are beginning to be
    coordinated especially by Médecins Sans Frontières and the Ministry of
    Health. UNICEF has provided tents. But people are not happy about the conditions. The chairman of one camp told me he was disgusted to see so many people in one small tent, eating poorly and rarely. Fears of waterborne diseases such as cholera are the main
    concern in the camps because of the congestion. ”

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    Eyewitness: Malawi’s floods
  • 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
  • Lake Malawi’s dwindling fish stocks threaten livelihoods

    A combination of overfishing and the use of illegal fishing gear has seen fish stocks in Lake Malawi dwindle to the point that local people's livelihoods and food security are now under threat.

    Not so long ago, scores of women and girls carrying baskets full of fish flocked to commuter buses at bus stops and police checkpoints along the lakeshore roads trying to coax passengers on board to buy their fish.

    Nowadays, the women and their baskets of fish are a rare sight, as are the large bags of fish waiting at bus stops with their owners to be transported to distant towns and cities such as Mzuzu, Zomba, Blantyre and Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.

    "The catches from the lake are no longer as they used to be," said Eliness Namwira of Ngara, a popular fishing spot in Malawi's northern Karonga District.

    "These days, we go without a catch even when we are at the middle period of the year that we have, over the years, associated with the best fish catches."

    Fish stocks in Lake Malawi, the third largest lake in Africa, declined by up to 93 percent between 1990 and 2010 and, based on anecdotal reports from locals, the situation appears to have deteriorated further since then.

    Spencer Kondowe, 74, has been relying on fishing for a livelihood since the early 1970s. "In those days, we could catch loads and loads of fish just close to the shore. In fact, even primary school-going boys would catch as much fish as possible using hooks while standing on the rocks onshore," he said.

    "That is not the case these days. Even if you paddle canoes deep into the lake, there is no guarantee that you are going to come back with fish. The situation is getting worse by the day, and you can see for yourself that the racks on which the fish were being dried are very empty."


    The same situation is playing out in other areas which fishermen used to rely on for good catches, including Ngara in Karonga, Usisya in Nkhata Bay and Chitimba in Rumphi.

    Wales Singini, Dean of Environmental Sciences at Mzuzu University in northern Malawi - said most of the fish species in the lake have been depleted due to pressure from ever increasing numbers of people relying on fishing the lake as a source of food and livelihood.

    Prohibited fishing gear

    "Unfortunately, some of these fishermen have been using fishing gear that is not recommended because it catches even the tiniest fish,” Singini told IRIN. “They use such gear because they always want to go back to the shore with something. This paints a hopeless situation because there is no chance for the replacement of the harvested fish stocks."

    A 2011 report published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research highlighted the proliferation of prohibited fishing gear on Lake Malawi.

    The report specifically identifies nkacha, an open water fishing net widely used on the lake despite being banned.

    The dwindling fish stocks threaten the livelihoods of about 60,000 Malawians directly employed as fishermen and a further 350,000 who are involved in fish processing, fish marketing, net making, boat building and engine repair, according to the Department of Fisheries.

    Eva Mwalupafya, a Karonga woman who used to earn a living from bringing fish from Lake Malawi to sell in Zambia, said the lack of fish for resale has left her with few options.

    "I tried to diversify and started selling tomatoes but I never got the profits like those I got from selling fish. I could easily take care of my two children and support their education," said Mwalupafya, who is a widow.

    "I don't know how I will support them now. The tomatoes easily go bad and you cannot transport them over long distances as I used to do with the smoked fish."

    Smith Nyasulu, a fisherman from Usisya in Nkhata Bay, also said he educated his children from sales of the fish he caught on the lake. Now he worries about his future and that of his community. "Most of the lakeshore areas do not have alternative means of generating money," he said.

    The shrinking supply of fish from the lake also has significant implications for food security in Malawi, where most of the population can rarely afford to buy meat, and rely on fish from the lake as a crucial source of protein, minerals and micro-nutrients. In its fisheries and aquaculture country profile for Malawi, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes that “the [fishing] sector has a significant impact on food and nutrition security, especially in the lake districts.”

    It adds that fishing communities tend to be better off than other communities in terms of the amount and variety of food they eat.

    Small-scale fish farming

    In a move aimed at protecting the livelihoods and food security of lakeshore communities, Mzuzu University is promoting small-scale fish farming as an alternative to relying on fish from the lake.

    "Most fishermen today come back from fishing errands with a zero catch. Fish farming can fill the gaps in the need for fish"

    Singini explained that with minimal training and cost, individuals could dig ponds and rear fish for food and sale. "Most fishermen today come back from fishing errands with a zero catch. Fish farming can fill the gaps in the need for fish. The good thing is that there are fish species that are early maturing and easy to care for."

    The University has already proven the approach is feasible through a UN Development Programme project funded by the Global Environmental Facility, which has trained 500 individuals, mostly vulnerable women, in fish farming in Nkhata Bay, east of Mzuzu, on the shores of Lake Malawi. The project will eventually scale up to reach other lakeshore communities.

    Through the project, the women were given Tilapia Rendalli with which to stock their fish ponds. Singini explained that the species is easy to manage because it is herbivorous. “It eats whatever grows in the pond and will survive even when the farmers stop feeding it.”

    One of the beneficiaries, Melina Phiri, told IRIN fish farming is providing a steady income and source of food for her family.

    “I have bought iron sheets for my house, have deposited money towards procurement of a dairy cow and have been keeping a steady supply of fish for food without relying on that from the lake. I have also used money from sales of the fish to buy basic needs including salt and soap,” she said.

    Singini said apart from scaling up fish farming, there was a need to better monitor fishing activities in the lake. “There is lack of enforcement of bans on illegal fishing and equipment,” he said.

    The Department of Fisheries in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development is responsible for monitoring fishing in the lake and enforcing bans. Spokesperson for the Ministry Sarah Chowa told IRIN that monitoring systems “are working and effective but the major challenge is that the number of fishermen going into the lake every day is overwhelming, resulting in over-fishing.”

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    Dwindling fish stocks in Lake Malawi
  • 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
  • Breaking the poverty trap – the power of cash grants

    A cash injection of as little as US$12 per month for an impoverished family could determine whether a child eats properly or goes to school or not. With cash transfer programmes around the world now having a profound impact on the lives of poor people, the debate is less about whether to implement them than how to do so. 

    Handing out cash rather than food or other basic survival supplies to the needy is a fairly recent phenomenon that began in several Latin American countries, including Brazil and Mexico, in the 1990s. In 1998 South Africa also introduced its own version - the child support grant. The widespread success of these programmes is now inspiring many other countries in Africa and Asia to follow suite.

    Transferring cash to those who desperately need it is proving to have more dramatic and long-lasting effects than simply keeping the wolf from the door for the poorest of the poor. Michelle Adato, who has researched the impact of cash transfers for many years, says the notion of cash handouts as unsustainable and wasteful has “increasingly been discredited. Cash grants are now being seen as part of a comprehensive development strategy as opposed to just a safety net.” Because of the impact these grants are having on human capital, they are contributing to sustainable development. 

    “When children miss that window of opportunity from zero to two years old regarding their nutritional status, or experience late school starts or early drop-out rates, the accumulative effects have long-term consequences on their economic wellbeing into adulthood,” said Adato, adding that research has shown a direct correlation between a lack of early capital investment in children and ongoing cycles of inter-generational poverty. “This is the strongest justification for cash transfer programmes - beyond the basic human rights perspective.”  

    Adds Carolyn Heinrich, professor of public affairs and economics at Texas University: “I can’t say we’ve heard counter-arguments. We’ve been doing `trickle down’ for a long time before starting cash transfers and we’ve never seen the kind of impact that we have with cash transfers.” These impacts include better nutrition and health, improved school attendance and less risky sexual behaviour. 

    A total of 20 African countries have social protection programmes like these and both the numbers of countries and size of the programmes are growing, with Kenya, Zambia, Lesotho, Mauritania, Malawi, Mali, Niger and Zimbabwe, Senegal all expanding their programmes. The child support grant in South Africa, now expanded to include 17-year-olds, reaches 11 million children. 

    The Transfer Project, a study on the impact of the grants in many of these African countries led by UNICEF, showed that the quality of life of people receiving cash transfers improved significantly. Respondents in Zambia, Ghana and Malawi all reported being happier with their lives, for example, and research showed that recipients in these countries were eating better too. 

    Benefits beyond health and education

    Significantly, cash grants have also been shown to have clear benefits beyond health and education. They also have a marked effect on adolescent behaviour, curbing high-risk sexual practices. A wide-ranging evaluation of the South African child support grant showed that adolescents who received the grant were 63 percent less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour such as having transactional sex with older men, thereby reducing their chances of teenage pregnancy, dropping out of school and contracting HIV. The study also showed a drop in alcohol and drug consumption among both male and female adolescents. Heinrich describes these results as “pretty dramatic” and a strong argument for extending grants to cover adolescents in other countries, wherever possible. 

    Two main criticisms of cash transfer programmes are that they do not create jobs and that they can be misused by those who benefit from them. John Hoddinott, a deputy director at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Unit, says while the cash transfers are certainly not a magic bullet they are indeed a vital component of any poverty alleviation strategy. “We’re not saying that by themselves they will solve all the problems in the world but they are a valuable part of a portfolio of activities designed to reduce poverty”. Not only do they provide people with the means to buy food and clothes but they “give beneficiaries a base from which to make longer term investments,” he says. 

    As to the charge that the transfers may be wasted on alcohol, drugs and cigarettes or that recipients may stop working, the evidence points to the contrary. “The research shows that in the vast majority of cases, poor people use their money well – the evidence is unambiguous,” says Hoddinott. Mostly they use the money to buy food, clothes, get their children to school, and sometimes even save some. “You will always find anecdotal stories of some people using their resources poorly but anecdotes are not data,” says Hoddinott. The other experts interviewed share the same view.

    "The data shows that the poor make the right choices. We need to stop trying to nanny them"

    Whereas clumps of ragged street children eking out a living on the streets of Johannesburg were a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape in the 1980s and 90s, the sight is far less common nowadays, thanks to the impact of the child support grant, said Dugan Fraser, who worked with the Economic Policy Research Institute on the South African child support grant’s evaluation. The extra cash is helping families feed their children and keep them at school and off the streets. Critics may assume that spending money on items such as a cell phone or the hair salon seems wasteful, he said, but “often there is a rational logic underlying these decisions”. These may be important purchases to make when trying to find work and make oneself more presentable for the job market, for example. “The data shows that the poor make the right choices. We need to stop trying to nanny them.” 

    Grants with or without conditions?

    Up for debate, however, is how to hand out the cash and whether conditions should be imposed on the grants or not. The Latin American model tends to follow the “conditional” approach while countries with less state capacity and ability to monitor whether people are complying with conditions tend to opt for non-conditional grants or those with “soft” conditions that try to nudge the recipients to use them wisely. In Mexico and Brazil, for example, grants will be dependent on a minimum number of days of school attendance, or on a parent taking his or her child for “well baby” checkups. “The problem arises if you impose conditions but the ability to check on them is not there”, said Heinrich.  

    Adato said the jury is still out on whether countries should impose conditions on cash grants. Politically, it is sometimes important to attach conditions. “You can often get more support for these programmes if voters don’t think that the poor are getting something for nothing,” she said. However, the question has to be asked: which one gets the better results? Latin American examples have shown that conditionality adds value to many programmes. For example, a grant conditional on a child attending school could strengthen the position of a woman in the household whose father would prefer the child to stay at home.

    The trend in Africa, where state capacity is usually weak, is towards non-conditional programmes. One study in Malawi showed some negative spin-offs of conditionality. While a grant conditional on attending school led to better school attendance among young girls, those who dropped out and therefore no longer received the grant were more likely to get pregnant early than the school drop-outs who continued to receive an unconditional cash grant. 

    There is no blueprint and each program must be designed according to the local socio-economic conditions, say the experts. The debate over conditionality is becoming more nuanced, adds Hoddinott, with policymakers viewing conditionality more from the perspective of whether it will help achieve their objectives or not rather than whether it is “right” or “wrong”’. 

    Corruption

    Because of an initial skepticism about the efficacy and value of cash transfer programmes they have been subjected to much heavier scrutiny than many other development programmes, said Hoddinott. This has proved invaluable in strengthening and improving them. “Now there is a good evidence base on where they work and where they are of more limited success.” 

    They are often cited as less vulnerable to corruption than schemes that hand over goods. “My general impression is that there is relatively little corruption in these types of programmes. In countries where corruption is endemic, you will find corruption in the social transfer as well, of course,” he says. Examples include ghost beneficiaries and bribing of officials where conditional grants are given. Sometimes corruption takes place at the interface where the money changes hands. In some Latin American examples, loan sharks and extortionists began to pop up at the depots where people claimed their cash. Now recipients of the Bolsa Familia scheme in Brazil, the largest cash transfer programme in the world that supports 12 million families (a quarter of the population) on condition their children attend school and are vaccinated, can now withdraw their cash from ATMs around the country, a move that has reduced corruption. 

    In South Africa, there has been an ongoing court case involving Net1, the US holding company managing the electronic disbursements of the child support grant. Some recipients were hapless victims of companies falsely representing themselves as legitimate operators of the South African Social Security Agency and had money deducted from their transfers. Net1 is also being subject to a class action lawsuit in the US for providing misleading information on its financial practices in South Africa.

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    Breaking the poverty trap

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