(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • 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.


    Remittance rip-offs
  • Trading away West Africa’s hunger

    Severe food shortages in the Sahel and West Africa are often the result of droughts and poor harvests. But inefficient intra-regional trade also places significant strain on food availability, exacerbating hunger.

    Poor roads and railways, high transaction costs, lack of sufficient market information, incoherent trade policies by governments and bureaucratic hurdles are among limitations to free trade in West Africa. Import and export procedures are more costly and more time consuming in West Africa than any region of the world, experts say.

    For instance, according to a 2010 study by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), there were 47 checkpoints on the 500km road between Douala and Bertua in Cameroon, 19 on the 910km road between Ouagadougou and Bamako, and 34 on the 1,036km-long Cotonou-Niamey highway, resulting in losses of time and money - in bribes - as well as revenue.

    In addition, lack of reliable bank-based transactions means that trade within West Africa mostly depends on personal relationships that have been built over time. “Such informal networks of traders lack the flexibility to diversify traded commodities [and] do [not] have the flexibility to move larger amounts of commodities to meet changing and evolving market demand and conditions,” said Aziz Elbehri, a senior economist with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

    “Consequently, the prevailing informal, relationship-based transactions are inefficient, rigid and ensure that much smaller trade actually takes place than is possible given the trade potential, as reflected indirectly by the often huge price gap between centres of production and large urban centres of consumption,” he told IRIN.

    Elbehri pointed out that the demand for maize in deficit areas, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, is poorly met due to these trade constrains. Sorghum and millet, mainly grown in the Sahel belt countries, are also not efficiently supplied to food processors within the region. Therefore, prices and productivity remain low.

    “Expanding intra-regional trade can have a substantial positive impact on food security for the region given the similarity in the types of food consumed by the population.”

    Hunger and harvest

    This year, some 20 million people in the Sahel face food shortages, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates.

    The region is only emerging from the 2011-2012 food crisis that affected around 18 million people. That drought caused a 26 percent slump in cereal production compared to the preceding season.

    Yields were better in the 2012-2013 season. Maize production in the Sahel and West Africa was 30 percent higher than the average output over the previous five years, and 16 percent above the preceding season. Nonetheless, millions still face food shortages, having depleted their seed stocks. Widespread poverty and the 2012 Mali conflict, which forced millions from their homes, worsened the food crisis. In any case, it will take more than one good harvest to turn around food deficits and cut malnutrition.

    Between 2005 and 2009, only 3 percent of the maize produced in West Africa was traded within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), according to a book by Elbehri and others that assesses West Africa’s staple food systems.

    “Even within a country, despite availability of food, food security remains a problem. Transportation is already difficult from a surplus area to an area of deficit within a country, and much worse on a regional level,” said Al Hassan Cissé of Oxfam’s West African bureau.

    Not only does ample production in one area fail to compensate for underproduction elsewhere, it can also cause problems at home. In 2012, Niger experienced an overproduction of onions, its second highest export earner after uranium, causing prices to slump by 60 to 80 percent. “If intra-regional trade was working well, this surplus could have been sold on other West Africa markets and contributed to food security by raising the revenues of the producers,” Cissé said.

    Trade flows and policy

    ECOWAS exports 68.6 percent of produce outside the economic zone and just 9.2 percent to member states. Imports are equally in favour of external markets.

    “For a customs union that is almost becoming a common market, this volume is still very low to allow member states to withstand external shocks,” said UNECA’s West Africa bureau in an email response to IRIN.

    The ECOWAS free trade policy works on two levels. It enables the free movement of raw and artisanal products and the progressive dismantling of custom duties and taxes for industrial products from within the community.

    The elimination of custom duties for industrial products should go hand-in-hand with the total removal of non-tariff barriers and other administrative hurdles to the free exchange of products manufactured within the economic community, experts say.

    “In reality, however, administrative hurdles to the entry of the agreed products seem to persist. Moreover, lack of clear directives at the national level, in certain member countries, for their customs department to implement free trade remains an obstacle to intra-regional trade,” UNECA said.

    In 2005, ECOWAS members agreed to an agricultural policy to boost investment in agriculture at the national and regional level. But Oxfam’s Cissé said that little progress has been achieved.

    “Agricultural policies are strategic guidelines. They lack legal backing. What needs to be done is that a legal framework that countries must respect should be set up, which they must follow while crafting common agricultural policies,” he told IRIN.

    “We are seeing more and more crises of accessibility than availability because many poor people are depending more and more on markets for food than their own production. This is where trade becomes more important in food security”

    Cissé noted, for instance, that because many West Africa and Sahel countries have between 10,000 and 100,000 tons of food in reserve, they do not have proper policies for the regulation and redistribution of surplus harvests.

    Beyond free trade

    Breaking down trade barriers alone will not open the way for robust economic growth. Countries must also make efforts to diversify and add value to their produce.

    Improving infrastructure and the skills of workers, encouraging entrepreneurship, and boosting industrial output for a larger market are some of the strategies that complement open commerce, the UN Conference on Trade and Development said in a 2013 report.

    But barriers along the value chain widen the gap between producer and consumer prices. In landlocked African countries, transport costs average about 14 percent of the value of exports, compared to 8.6 percent for all developing countries, according to UNECA.

    “We are seeing more and more crises of accessibility than availability because many poor people are depending more and more on markets for food than their own production. This is where trade becomes more important in food security,” said Oxfam’s Cissé.

    “Expanding trade between production-surplus zones and consumer-deficit zones should be a top priority for food policy in the region, as it allows smoothing out of supply-demand balances, evening out prices across regions [therefore lowering price volatility]… [This will] create a much larger demand-pull for stimulating supply, develop agro-processing, and improve the food quality overall,” Elbehri explained.


    Trading away West Africa’s hunger
  • West Africa scores high in disaster risk

    Researchers at the Madrid-based humanitarian research non-profit DARA have developed a new methodology, the risk reduction index, that they say could help more countries assess and reduce the risk of natural hazards and disasters. But an assessment using the index, carried out in six West African countries, found pervasive risks and limited capacity to reduce vulnerability.

    The index assesses the capacities and conditions - such as human resources, laws and social norms - available for disaster risk reduction (DRR), according to DARA. “Basically, the risk reduction index looks at local community perceptions related to underlying risk,” said Belen Paley, advocacy manager at DARA. “It takes into account natural hazards that the area is vulnerable or exposed to, as well other aspects of that community’s infrastructure, socioeconomic development, governance and other factors.”

    The index was used to create a risk map for different parts of West Africa. Guinea, Mauritania, Nigeria and Sierra Leone all scored below 4.0, indicating they are unprepared to handle natural hazard risks. Cape Verde, Ghana and Senegal scored between 5 and 5.9, meaning they have made some progress on DRR. Senegal, for instance, has set up a civil protection department to work on DRR and a DRR national platform, but coordination between these groups is poor, particularly at the local level, and funding remains inadequate, says DARA.

    No countries in the region scored above 6.0, which would indicate that governments are not sufficiently prioritizing DRR activities.

    These scores are backed by statistics. The number of people affected by flooding in West and Central Africa has steadily increased between 2007 and 2012, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In 2012, more than 3 million people in the region were affected by flooding, almost half of them in Nigeria. At the same time, droughts in the Sahel have become chronic, and this year 18 million people are estimated to be at risk of hunger across the region, says OCHA.

    Climatological hazards, such as drought and flooding, affected more than 34 million Africans in 2012, and caused more than US$1.3 billion in economic losses, between 2011 and 2012, according to the latest data from UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). These are numbers are likely to increase as climate change causes more extreme weather events.

    “If people are ready and they are prepared, there is evidence that lives can be saved,” said Sarah Lumsdon, a humanitarian specialist at the NGO Oxfam. “So not only do you use weather systems to warn people, but you build certain structures and places where people can go to for safety.”

    But the ability to manage and reduce risk remains low, particularly in developing countries, say DARA and UNISDR. Many African countries have few or no resources available to dedicate to risk management, and in countries where risk interventions are attempted, efforts often remain uncoordinated or misguided.

    Plans not implemented

    In 2005, 168 countries signed on to the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), agreeing to establish action plans to reduce the risk of natural disasters by 2015. While more than half of African countries have established frameworks, very few of them have implemented risk reduction policies and plans, says UNISDR.

    “In general, DRR requires a certain level of development on the part of the national government, especially in terms of governance,” said Paley.

    Many factors, such as environmental conditions, economic resources and organizational structures, can also affect a country’s ability to carry out effective risk management, she said.

    To reduce the risk of natural hazards, experts say countries need to first address underlying risk factors, such as land management and health threats, and then develop more comprehensive risk-reduction strategies. But identifying and effectively addressing these underlying risk factors can be a complicated task for national governments.

    The risk reduction index was first introduced in Central America in 2009, during a year-long pilot study. In 2011, DARA launched the risk reduction index in West Africa, partnering with Economic Community of West African States, local governments, donors, NGOs, civil society organizations and UN agencies.

    Researchers assessed community perceptions of risk in Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Niger and Senegal, and presented their findings at national workshops, proposing ways to promote and improve DRR strategies and interventions. Some 60 risk factors were discussed, including air pollution, deforestation, water scarcity, disease prevalence, access to health services, poverty, food insecurity, gender inequality, housing quality, media censorship, conflict and corruption.

    Looking at Governance

    In assessing countries’ readiness to manage risk, researchers found that governance risk drivers - such as perceived levels of democracy, government effectiveness and rule of law - were important factors.

    “It’s not an accident that the governance systems and levels of socioeconomic development [in high-scoring countries] have also been making a lot of progress in transparency and accountability in recent years,” said Paley.

    Guinea scored low on the governance scale. People perceived high levels of corruption, inefficient bureaucracy, high poverty and unemployment, and low literacy levels in the country. This combination decreases citizens’ ability to cope with natural hazards and can exclude them from decision-making processes, as well as reduce the ability of their government to respond to crises.

    More than 25,000 people were affected by a cholera outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone in 2012. The number of cases was highest in the capitals’ slum areas.

    Countries in the Sahel band - Mali, Mauritania, Niger and northern Senegal - scored low on ability to handle risks relating to the environment and natural resources, mainly because water scarcity and desertification are rife.

    Rains have changed in the Sahel zone, said Malo Niang, a 55-year-old farmer from Thiedy, in northern Senegal. “The rains are bizarre now,” he said. “They start late. They end early. They aren’t consistent like in the past, and so our crops just cannot grow.”

    In coastal countries, such as Guinea and Sierra Leone, soil erosion and land degradation were the priority perceived threats.

    Urban-rural divide

    Another key finding in West Africa was the stark contrast in perceptions of risk between people living in urban areas and those living in rural areas, said Paley.

    “For example, in urban areas, land use and the built environment were pressing concerns, because people living in urban areas viewed those issues [as] much more directly related to increasing their vulnerability to natural hazards.”

    This includes infrastructure issues (such as sewage systems), where housing is being built and road conditions.

    By contrast, people living in rural areas were much more concerned about matters such as changes in rainfall patterns, soil degradation and deforestation.

    Risks relating to urbanization must drive policy decisions in the future, say aid workers with expertise in urban areas.

    “West African cities, both the large and the small, are expanding rapidly and face specific challenges related to infrastructure, zoning and spatial planning, which directly contributes to an increased risk from flooding,” said Paley.

    With the West Africa population expected to reach more 400 million by 2020 (from 305 million in 2010), such risks will only increase. More than half of Africa’s population is expected to be living in urban environments by 2050, according to a UN-Habitat report [link?].

    Nearly 70 percent of people who migrate from rural to urban areas end up living in slums, where building codes and standards are rarely enforced.

    Room for hope

    But instead of accepting disasters as inevitable, governments and communities can use these findings to prioritize and take action, said Paley.

    By making DRR a national and local priority, countries can improve early warning systems, build resilience and strengthen disaster preparedness, reducing economic losses and loss of life.

    Countries must also have accountability and transparency systems in place to bring the policies to life, said Paley.

    At this stage, the risk reduction index is as much a tool for advocacy as for practice.

    “We really just hope that they [the international community and donors] will consider where a country is in terms of its engagement in DRR and how high up DRR is on the development agenda, as well as encourage them to promote and to integrate it more… in its development planning [and poverty reduction strategies],” Paley said.


    West Africa scores high in disaster risk
  • Breaking the cycle of youth unemployment, poverty

    Youth unemployment and underemployment are among the main barriers to development in West Africa, say experts. Not only does the exclusion of young people from the labour force perpetuate generational cycles of poverty, it also breaks down social cohesion and can be associated with higher levels of crime and violence among idle youth.

    "A decent and productive job [not only] contributes to attaining fundamental individual and family well-being, but also spills over, contributing to society's broader objectives, such as poverty reduction, economy-wide productivity growth and social cohesion," said Diego Rei, the International Labour Organization's (ILO) senior regional adviser on youth employment in Africa.

    Worldwide, an estimated 73 million youths - defined as those between the ages of 15 and 24 - were unable to secure work in 2013, according to the ILO. The rate of underemployment is difficult to measure, but experts say that it is likely that millions more were either working jobs for which they are overqualified or else receiving below-average wages.

    In sub-Saharan Africa, the youth unemployment rate hovers around 12 percent. While this is slightly lower than the global youth unemployment rate of 12.4 percent, the African region has the world's highest rate of working poverty - people who are employed but earning less than US$2 a day. Despite being Africa's most educated generation to emerge from schools and universities, a youth in Africa is twice as likely to be unemployed when he or she becomes an adult, according to the ILO.

    "Here in Africa, we have this idea that if I'm learning, I'm supposed to work in the future," said 22-year-old Mamadou Diene, an English major at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar who wants to become a translator. "But instead. we only have a very small number of them who are employed. It's a real problem."

    A form of social exclusion

    In a late 2013 report on social inclusion, the World Bank considers youth unemployment to be a form of social exclusion, particularly in developing countries: it hinders and degrades the role of young people in society and the development of their countries, and it reduces their personal well-being and future opportunities.

    Not being able to find good, quality work early on is stressful and discouraging for youths, say the World Bank and ILO. When youths do not find work, their risk of unemployment as an adult increases, as does their chance of receiving low wages later in life, according to a 2014 World Bank report on youth employment.

    There is no specific link between unemployment and violence or crime, note World Bank researchers, but unemployed youth are disproportionately more likely to commit crimes when a number of other factors, such as weak support networks, are also present.

    Young women in sub-Saharan Africa are at a particular disadvantage in finding jobs, as they usually have less access to quality education and healthcare compared to their male peers.

    Millions of productive jobs will need to be created to include the estimated 11 million African youths who are expected to join the labour market each year over the next 10 years, says the World Bank in its report.

    Growth versus jobs

    Many African countries have registered high rates of economic growth in recent years, but this has not translated into new jobs.

    This is partly because much of the growth in sub-Saharan African countries over the past decade has been driven by the extractive industries - oil, gas and minerals - says Deon Filmer, a lead economist in the Research Group of the World Bank and co-author of the organization's report. "While these industries generate output and revenues that are reflected in GDP growth, they're not particularly big job creators."

    The number of jobs created in these sectors, relative to outputs and revenues, is much lower than in export-oriented manufacturing, he added.

    Further, the pace of growth for wage-employment cannot keep up with the growing population: Africa has the largest "youth bulge" in the world, and the number of youths is expected to grow by 42.5 million between 2010 and 2020, says the World Bank. Even in countries such as Ghana and Tanzania, where the number of wage jobs has grown by around 10 percent, the increase is not enough to absorb all the new entrants to the workforce.

    And with nearly half of the current African population under the age of 14, the problem is only expected to get worse.

    Agriculture not international relations

    The director of the Economic Policy Analysis Unit for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission, Felix Fofana N'Zue, told IRIN one of the reasons so many young people are being excluded from the labour market is a mismatch between their skills and the market's demands.

    "Africa has failed to train people for its needs," he said. "Instead, it has been training young Africans to satisfy or meet the needs of other people."

    In Senegal, for example, he explained that the agricultural sector employs nearly 80 percent of the workforce, but that the majority of university graduates study subjects such as economics, the humanities and international relations.

    N'Zue said that, while these fields are important, such degrees leave young people either living in Africa unemployed or underemployed or migrating to places like the US or Europe.

    "Once we start training people with the skills they need for jobs we need to create and fill, that's when young people will become a valuable asset to the workforce," he said.

    Flaubert Mbiekop, the programme officer for social and economic policy at the International Development and Research Centre (IDRC), agreed.

    "With regards to youth unemployment, one of the issues we have been looking at is the apparent mismatch between the qualifications the youth have and the expectations of the employers in the labour market," he said.

    But it will be difficult to convince the small minority of youth who attend university to forgo study in fields thought to lead to more lucrative professions - such as finance, management, law and medicine - in favour of studying farming and agriculture.

    "We see many young people coming from rural areas, hoping they will enjoy a better life, better work in the city, but that is not necessarily the case," Mbiekop said. "So the question is: how can we make the agricultural sector attractive to the youth? How can we get them interested in a sector that is not yet well developed in many African countries, but has so many opportunities?" he asked.

    Students need credit

    "Youth unemployment isn't a one-dimensional problem.We have to look at both the human capital dimension - what young people bring to their work, their abilities, and so on, as well the business environment that's conducive to productive work or not, conducive to competitive firms starting up or not," said Filmer.

    But it is not enough for governments and the private sector to create more jobs geared towards young people - whether in agriculture, manufacturing or the natural resource industries. Access to quality education also needs to improve, alongside a focus on skills-building with apprenticeships and internship opportunities.

    Youth also need more access to credit, he said.

    "If we look at the issue of financial inclusion, there are many [young] workers operating their own business, but access to credit, to be able to purchase inputs, is lacking," Filmer said. "So we need reforms to enable youth to access financial markets."

    Support could come in many forms, from setting up savings groups at the village level to using new financial technologies, like mobile money. Both approaches have engaged young people, pulling them into financial markets and allowing them to start their own businesses.

    Access to work space and land is also important, especially for women, who are often denied land rights.

    "We see that access to land for youth in rural areas, for example, and space to operate a business in urban areas are real constraints, and youth are really shut out of those markets," Filmer said.

    The ILO's Rei said labour market interventions, such as creating incentives for the private sectors to hire young people, providing youth with information about job vacancies and career prospects, and ensuring that recruitment processes are transparent and non-discriminatory, will also go a long way in helping ensure more young people are included in the labour force.


    Breaking the youth unemployment cycle
  • Helping Africa’s urban poor gain from modernization

    Plans to reshape and modernize African cities, in part driven by investment, architecture and construction companies seeking new markets, could deepen existing social inequalities, according to recent research. But these development plans could also benefit the poor if governments are responsive to the needs of their citizens, argue analysts.

    The implementation of these development plans within existing cities is having major exclusionary effects on vulnerable low-income groups through evictions and relocations, states the journal article "African urban fantasies: dreams or nightmares?". This is because some of the informal settlements - where most of Africa’s urban poor live - are on lands attractive to property developers.

    “In the competition for well-located urban land, the poor will inevitably lose out and be pushed to the edge of the cities, far away from jobs and public facilities. Governments will focus public investment on infrastructure for the new projects, and this will drain resources away from providing services to low-income areas,” Vanessa Watson, the author of article, told IRIN.

    “With the majority of urban populations living in deep poverty and with minimal urban services, the most likely outcome of these fantasy plans is a steady worsening of the marginalization and inequalities that already beset these cities,” added Watson, who works with the African Centre for Cities (ACC) programme at the University of Cape Town.

    Indeed, the Humanitarian Policy Group in a recent report cited “development policies and projects and land grabbing as some of the drivers of urban displacement”.

    Pro-poor benefits

    Countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania have partnered with the private sector to develop master plans for their cities.

    In Kenya, there are plans to build Konza and Tatu cities, which will house some 100,000 residents and include business parks and shopping malls. The government is priming the proposed Konza City to be Africa’s Silicon Valley, part of its wider efforts to make Nairobi a regional information technology hub.

    Advocates of Tanzania’s proposed Kigamboni City, near the commercial capital Dar es Salaam, say it will be an ultra-modern urban centre whose facilities will compete with those in Dubai, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.

    Instead of heightening social inequality, the establishment of alternative cities may offer some pro-poor benefits, argues Albert Nyange, an urban planning lecturer at the University of Nairobi. He noted that in Kenya, such developments have spurred government action in transport infrastructure development.

    “Cities that are planned for the majority of the population directly contribute to improved quality of life of the poor.”

    “Investment in an efficient transport system is in itself pro-poor because it means transport becomes affordable. An efficient railway system will ensure the cost of commodities reduces, and [there are] many other benefits that come in housing development, such as jobs,” said Nyange.

    “What is needed is not bashing of these plans but engagement with city authorities to provide incentives to those who can provide products, such as cheap but decent housing targeting the low-income groups.”

    Optimizing population density

    Nyange added that these new cities could provide a “solution to ease the pressure off the old cities” and could, if done right, “provide a sustainable solution to rapid urbanization”.

    Blaming the chaotic nature of African cities such as Nairobi on rapid urbanization and poor planning, he said, “The new development initiatives provide an opportunity to re-plan and reshape African cities to cope with urbanization in some way and create order that is currently lacking.”

    Most of Nairobi’s population lives in the slums. The Kibera slum, which is located just a few kilometres from the city centre, is home to some 500,000 to 700,000 people living at densities of over 2,000 per hectare, according to UN-HABITAT.

    While reshaping cities will enhance the provision of services such as piped water and electricity, vulnerable slum residents and those with disabilities must be taken into consideration, added Tom Odongo, the head of lands, housing and physical planning at the Nairobi County Government.

    Indeed, if care is taken to avoid exacerbating inequalities, “sustainable forms of urban development can deliver economic growth, environmental protection and social inclusion,” stated Rafael Tuts, the coordinator of the urban planning and design section at UN-HABITAT.

    “Cities that are planned for the majority of the population directly contribute to improved quality of life of the poor.”

    According to Tuts, what is key in planning these cities is “optimizing density - not necessarily maximizing it” to ensure that rapidly urbanizing countries are able to meet the needs of their growing urban populations. “But density alone is not the answer. We also need to minimize zoning, take advantage of mixed-land use and invest in our public space.”

    New planning approaches

    To benefit the majority poor in African cities, ACC’s Watson recommended different approaches in planning.

    “The poor will require a different approach to service provision which does not impose major costs. These may include decentralized and community-based service approaches, different levels of service and some subsidization,” she said.

    But Watson argues that while Africa’s large cities have been labelled as the last frontier for property development and are currently being “revisioned in the image of cities such as Dubai, Shanghai and Singapore, the reality in all of these cities stands in stark contrast to the glass-box towers, manicured lawns and water features on developers’ and architects’ websites”.

    David Satterthwaite, a senior fellow with the human settlements group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), notes, “The plans [Watson talks about] focus government attention and budgets on very expensive high-tech initiatives that, if built, will primarily serve an elite minority”.

    However, some cities have used local political processes to expand the reach of basic services for low-income groups. “These include many city governments that have learnt to work with their local organizations and federations of slum/shack dwellers in Jinja (Uganda), Harare (Zimbabwe) and many urban centres in Namibia and South Africa.”

    What African cities need, said Satterthwaite, are "competent and accountable local governments that respond to the needs and priorities of their citizens.”


    Modernization versus Africa’s urban poor
  • West African livelihoods weakened by graft

    Poor public services in many West African countries, with already dire human development indicators, are under constant pressure from pervasive corruption. Observers say graft is corroding proper governance and causing growing numbers of people to sink into poverty.

    “If you want to put a human face to corruption… then see how we have kids who walk miles to school because there are no public transport systems,” said Harold Aidoo, the executive director of the Institute for Research and Democratic Development in Monrovia, the Liberian capital.

    “You see women and mothers who give birth and die because there are no basic drugs or equipment at the hospitals, and no qualified or trained health professionals. You realize that many of our impoverished populations do not have access to clean drinking water,” he said.

    More West African countries were perceived to be highly corrupt in 2013 than the previous year due to the effects of political instability in countries such as Mali, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau, according to the corruption index compiled by the global watchdog, Transparency International

    Bribery, rigged elections, shady contract deals with multinational businesses operating in the natural resources sector, and illicit cash transfers out of countries are some of the more common forms of graft. In sub-Saharan Africa, 90 percent of countries are seen to be corrupt, the watchdog said.

    "There is no doubt that corruption affects pure and sustainable development in West Africa, and there is no doubt that it most often affects the poorest and weakest portions of society"

    The region accounts for 11 percent of the world’s population, but carries 24 percent of the global disease burden. It also bears a heavy burden of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria but lacks the resources to provide even basic health services, according to the International Finance Corporation.

    Almost half of the world’s deaths of children under five years old occur in Africa, which also has the highest maternal mortality rate, the organization says.
    Parents sometimes have to pay bribes to get their children admitted to good schools, said Pierre Lapaque, the UN Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) representative for West and Central Africa.

     “There is no doubt that corruption affects pure and sustainable development in West Africa, and there is no doubt that it most often affects the poorest and weakest portions of society.”

    Illicit cash flight

    As much as US$1.3 trillion has been illegally transferred out of Africa in the past three decades, said a report by Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a Washington-based advocacy group monitoring illicit financial flows.

    Nigeria’s oil industry has been plagued by graft allegations that gave rise to complaints of neglect and a rebellion by people in the oil-producing southern regions. A draft report released in May 2013 by Liberia’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative noted that nearly all resource contracts signed since 2009 had violated regulations.

    “Economically speaking, when millions of dollars are filtered out every year by corruption, this is very corrosive in terms of its impact on society,” Aidoo said. “It is very corrosive in how it undermines growth and development and the well-being of our population.”

    Corrupt politics

    Many political campaigns in Africa are fraught with allegations of irregularities and malpractice. “Not only are elections prone to corruption in the form of vote-rigging and fraud-monitoring, but by the way in which our political elites become entrenched in power,” said Tendai Murisa, director of TrustAfrica’s Agriculture Advocacy and Financial Flows programme.

    “Corruption creates a way to perpetuate the regime, and one of the ways they perpetuate the regime is to buy votes, so that really affects the quality of democracy,” said Murisa, noting that a government deemed corrupt inspires little trust in the people, whose voices are often silenced or ignored when they speak out against graft.

    Because the poor rely more on public services, they spend the largest percentage of their income on bribes to officials and even school administrators, so corruption pushes the most vulnerable further into poverty. In Sierra Leone, 69 percent of people think the police are corrupt, and in Nigeria the figure rises to 78 percent, said UNODC’s Lapaque.

    Floundering anti-graft war

    Despite efforts to increase transparency and accountability throughout the continent, the war against graft in sub-Saharan Africa has been on the decline over the last decade, according to the World Bank's 2013 World Governance Indicators. With the exception of South Africa and Botswana, sub-Saharan Africa scored in the lowest percentile for the control of corruption worldwide.

    “If a country’s [public] service is staffed by civil servants based in nepotism or bribery, rather than merit and competence, it creates significant problems,” Lapaque said. “Not only are fewer job opportunities made available to those who deserve them, but the rule of law is undermined and economic growth is stifled.”

    Weak governance often undermines security services, which can lead to an increase in local and transnational organized crime, including arms and drug trafficking. It can also undermine human rights. “It’s really very often a failure of our government to be efficient gatekeepers of our resources, and of them allowing leakages within and out of our economies,” Murisa said.


    To fight corruption, governments first need to recognize that it is a real problem. “They need to ensure that national structures in charge of fighting corruption are well resourced, and staff have the capacity to do their work in an independent way, without political interference,” said Marie-Ange Kalenga, Transparency International’s West Africa regional coordinator.

    “They also need to ensure there is an appropriate legal framework, in line with the regional and the international instruments on anti-corruption, and to educate ordinary citizens and promote integrity at the individual level,” she said.

    Lapaque said this could mean creating an independent anti-corruption entity, or giving political independence to judges and prosecutors. Civil society groups and NGOs can help in developing codes of conduct, promoting integrity, and advocating the adoption of appropriate legislation, as well as the training of anti-corruption agencies, added Kalenga.

    Empowering citizens to denounce corruption and to seek redress if they are victims of corruption could also help, as could making budgets more transparent and including people in the participation of public spending, Lapaque suggested.

    “Transparency is an important factor in building democratic governments that are accountable to their people,” said Tom Cardamone, GFI’s managing director. “I think that’s what we need to do to stem the flow of illicit money and stop this corruption.”

    Murisa said, “If we just got back 50 percent of what we are currently losing to corruption, it could mean things like advancements in education or better road systems. We could make sure our children are back at school, we could make sure we are maintaining social welfare systems, and we could make sure our healthcare delivery systems are working properly.”


    Graft worsens West African livelihoods
  • Life-saving hepatitis C drug approved, but cost is high

    Following approvals in the US and Europe this month of a new drug to treat hepatitis C, activists are pushing for the medication to be made available in poor countries, a development reminiscent of the activism that forced down HIV/AIDS drug prices a decade ago in Brazil, South Africa and Thailand.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that as many as 185 million people are infected with hepatitis C, which is often called a “viral time bomb” because it can exist, undiagnosed, in a person’s body for many years without causing symptoms. 

    According to the Open Society Foundations (OSF), more than 350,000 people die every year from liver disease related to the virus, and every year an estimated three to four million more people are infected.

    Many of these people are co-infected with HIV; the illnesses are both blood-borne and have shared routes of transmission, particularly injecting drug use.

    Unlike HIV, hepatitis C can be cured. But current treatment options have serious side effects, do not always work and are unaffordable for most people. The existing treatment, pegylated interferon, which is manufactured by Roche and Merck, can cost as much as US$18,000 for a 48-week course.

    Interferon, which must be injected, can, in combination with the drug ribavirin, cure 40-70 percent of patients who use it. But its high cost has kept it out of reach for most patients, except in Egypt and Thailand, where the governments were able to negotiate significant price reductions with drug manufacturers.

    “How have we got to a global system where new drugs being developed are out of reach of most of the population?”

    The new drug, sofosbuvir, released by pharmaceutical giant Gilead, promises a leap forward in the hepatitis C treatment. It is orally administered, reduces treatment time to 12 weeks, has fewer side effects, and, if used in combination with other drugs, can achieve a 90 percent cure rate. The hitch? The price tag.

    In the US, which has some of the highest drug prices in the world, Gilead is expected to charge $80,000 for one course of treatment - more than four times the cost of interferon. While the cost of the drug is likely to be lower elsewhere, healthcare advocates fear the price will remain beyond the reach of poor people.


    Médicins Sans Frontières’ director of policy and analysis, Rohit Malpani, says the drug has been priced so high because it cost the company $11 billion to acquire Pharmasset, the original maker of the drug.

    According to one analyst, Gilead has to make $4 billion on the drug annually, to justify the high cost of the buyout. 

    This is not a reflection of the research and development costs; it is an assessment of how much the company can get for it, Malpani adds. “Companies will engage in extensive studies to determine what the market will bear, but that is not the way that life-saving commodities should be priced.”

    Access strategy

    MSF’s Access Campaign, which lobbies for affordable medicines for resource-strapped communities, is waiting for Gilead to finalize its “access strategy” for poor countries after having received input from a range of organizations.

    A Gilead spokesperson told IRIN that it would announce the details of its access programme early next year. The company says it is “committed to making its medicines available to patients, regardless of where they live or their ability to pay”, and that it is “working very closely with advocates in communities that are affected by hepatitis C to develop an appropriate access and pricing strategy”.

    The spokesperson said Gilead wanted to “help ensure access to Sovaldi [the brand name for sofosbuvir] in resource-limited countries, especially countries that have a high hepatitis C burden”.

    However, Malpani is not optimistic that the reduced price will be low enough to make the drug widely accessible. Furthermore, MSF believes Gilead is likely to offer “middle-income” countries - like China, Iran and Ukraine - a higher pricing strategy than that given to poor countries.

    Ironically, 75 percent of the world’s poor reside in middle-income countries, Malpani said. “Our concern with Gilead’s access strategy is that it is likely to be unaffordable and punitive to the countries in that category,” he said.

    MSF would like to set a target price for the drug of less than $500. However, according to an OSF report, "Unfortunately, past experience with HIV suggests that drug companies are unlikely to voluntarily extend significant discounts to middle-income countries, even if they may be open to reducing the price for the world's poorest."

    According to one study, a 12-week course of sofosbovir could cost as little as $62-$134 to produce.

    Asked why the drug was so expensive in the US, the Gilead spokesperson said: “We believe that the price of Sovaldi in the United States is fair, based on the value it represents to a larger number of patients.” A special programme for those unable to afford it would be available, he added.

    “But the starting point is so outrageous, not even halving it would make it accessible,” says Els Torreele, director of OSF’s Access to Essential Medicines Initiative.

    “How have we got to a global system where new drugs being developed are out of reach of most of the population? It’s totally normal today to price drugs at $100,000. Something is wrong with a system where drugs that so many people need are costing so much. This is not sustainable for anyone,” she said.

    Daniel Wolfe, director of the International Harm Reduction Development Program at OSF, said that because of its association with HIV and drug use, hepatitis C is still highly stigmatized. “The experience of HIV has shown us that the combination of expensive medication and social stigma is deadly,” he said.

    He added that companies are pricing their drugs for profit rather than public health concerns. “When governments are confronted by high prices for a stigmatized population affected, they tend to look the other way,” Wolfe said.

    Patent worries

    In India a “patent opposition” has been filed by the Initiative for Medicines Access and Knowledge (I-MAK) to stop Gilead from obtaining a patent on the drug there, which would clear the way for low-cost generics to be manufactured.

    India has long been at the forefront of manufacturing generic life-saving drugs. Under its Patent Act, medications that are not new do not qualify for patent protection; I-Mak argues that sofosbuvir is “old science” stemming from a long line of antiretroviral drugs.

    The World Trade Organization’s 1995 Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement laid down minimum standards for patent laws. There is, however, “some flexibility for countries to determine what is meant under the criteria of patentability”, says Torreele, citing I-MAK’s case against Gilead’s sofosbuvir patent.

    Since social activism helped force down the cost of AIDS drugs with generic alternatives over a decade ago, “the world has changed,” says Torreele. “The solutions to making HIV drugs affordable are not there anymore.”

    While TRIPS makes allowances for governments to override patent laws to protect public health, “there is lots of pressure by the pharmaceutical industry on them to avoid these measures”.

    And negotiations, spearheaded by the US, are currently taking place with 11 other countries to finalize the Transpacific Partnership Agreement, a trade deal that some worry could undermine the flexibility allowed by TRIPS.


    Cost fears over new hepatitis drug
  • Ivoirian refugees in Ghana and Togo fear reprisal

    Fear of reprisal is preventing thousands of Ivoirians from returning to Cote d’Ivoire from Ghana and Togo, where they sought refuge following the violently disputed 2010-2011 presidential elections.

    Of the 12,500 Ivoirians who fled to the two countries, only 710 have returned home, according to the state-run Service for the Assistance of Refugees and Stateless People (SAARA).

    By contrast, increasing numbers of Ivoirians who fled to Liberia during the violence have been returning in recent months.

    Many of those who fled to Ghana are from Côte d’Ivoire’s commercial capital, Abidjan, and other urban areas. Among them are high-ranking stalwarts of ousted president Laurent Gbagbo’s ruling party, as well as members of the once-powerful party youth wing and the university students’ union. Those who fled to Liberia, on the other hand, were mainly from rural western Côte d’Ivoire and border villages.

    “The [repatriation] process is more active in Liberia than in Ghana mainly because of the refugee profile in these two countries,” Ann Encontre, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative in Côte d’Ivoire, told IRIN.

    “In Ghana, we unfortunately don’t have the same involvement by the authorities and the community leaders of the host country and the country of origin, and former top officials [of Gbagbo’s party] at times have a dissuasive influence over the refugees,” Encontre explained.

    SAARA coordinator Timothée Ezouan said: “The refugees have no motivation to return. We need to resolve the issues that complicate repatriation and clear the obstacles to their secure and dignified return.”

    Fear of abduction

    Some refugees told IRIN that the main reason they have not returned home is fear of the Ivoirian army. The majority of its soldiers are former rebels who backed Gbagbo’s opponent, Alassane Ouattara, who is now the president. The army, Republican Forces of Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI), has been accused of committing abuses including arbitrary arrests and torture.

    “When you return home, it’s as though some people have been waiting to kill you. They wait for a while before they come for you. Some people will never return,” said Bernard Kablan, a former student and resident of Youpougon, a pro-Gbagbo neighbourhood of Abidjan. He spoke to IRIN from Ghana.

    “In September, three of us returned to Abidjan. On two nights, FRCI soldiers came to our house. The threat was real, and we decided to flee once more to Ghana. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to think of returning, although we know they can trace us to where we are now,” Kablan said.

    Adrien Koné, who said he was a staunch member of the youth movement, also said that he had to flee back to Ghana because of fears of reprisal from FRCI troops.

    “In Abidjan, I had the feeling that I was constantly being followed. In the neighbourhood, people claiming to be FRCI had been informed of my return. I eventually stayed for only two nights before returning to Accra,” Koné recounted.


    In a UN expert panel report  earlier this month, Ghanaian officials said that Côte d'Ivoire had sent hit squads to abduct or kill pro-Gbagbo exiles and that the authorities had thwarted two such attempts.

    The report also added that exiles in Ghana had allegedly hired Liberian mercenaries to carry out attacks in Côte d'Ivoire, and that Ivorian officials allegedly paid millions of francs to the mercenaries to call off the attacks.

    But Ivoirian authorities denied the claims. “We don’t give credit to what was reported. We don’t operate that way, and we are waiting for more information on the report,” government spokesman Bruno Nabagné Koné told reporters.

    UNHCR’s Encontre pointed out that such “reports and information, if not verified, can discourage some refugees from returning home. It is important that all the parties involved act in good faith and show commitment to the repatriation process as well as the true picture of what is happening on the ground.”

    In late November, UNHCR, Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire authorities held a meeting in Abidjan to encourage returns.

    “We decided to intensify our ‘come-and-tell visits’ campaigns in Ghana to better inform the refugees about the situation in their home country, with the focus being on security, traditional justice, land disputes, among others, as well as the reintegration and disarmament progress,” said Encontre, noting that only comprehensive security sector reform and a disarmament and reintegration process would improve security.

    Disarmament and reconciliation

    Côte d'Ivoire is slowly recovering from the devastation of the disputed 2010 polls. Recently, for the first time since the conflict, Ouattara’s and Gbagbo’s party members met for talks. Still, the two sides remain at odds over reconciliation.

    Gbagbo’s party wants a national dialogue to discuss the issue of nationality, the 2010 polls, security and land disputes, among other concerns, but the government says that a national dialogue is not necessary, pointing out that it has invited its adversaries to be part of the government, but that Gbagbo’s party rejected the overture.

    Ouattara’s call for ex-soldiers exiled in Ghana and other neighbouring countries to return home by 30 November or be dismissed was largely unheeded, with only one officer and two junior officers returning from Togo. Some exiled soldiers say they want a general pardon and the lifting of an asset freeze before they will return.

    According to the UN mission in Côte d’Ivoire, which supports the disarmament process, 1,437 ex-fighters were disarmed in November in Abidjan, and hundreds of weapons and munitions were surrendered.


    Ivoirian refugees in Ghana fear reprisal
  • Is Africa ready for GM?

    Even as food insecurity continues to afflict impoverished and disaster-affected populations around the continent, African policymakers and consumers remain deeply divided over the potential harms and benefits of genetically modified (GM) foods, which advocates say could greatly improve yields and nutrition.

    A recent study published in the journal Food Policy, titled Status of development, regulation and adoption of GM agriculture in Africa, shows that heated debates over safety concerns continue to plague efforts to use GM crop technology to tackle food security problems and poverty.

    Yet results from the four African countries that have implemented commercial GM agriculture - Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa and Sudan - suggest an improvement in productivity. In South Africa, a 2008 study showed an 11 percent grain yield advantage when using GM maize, and in Burkina Faso, the technology has led to a 15 percent increase in cotton.

    “Compared to conventional plant breeding methods, GM technology is less time-consuming and more accurate in acquiring the desired objectives,” said Carl M.F. Mbofung, a professor at the University of Ngaoundere, Cameroon, said at a 2010 conference on agriculture in Africa.

    A 2011 report by the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation, which strongly supports the use of GM technologies, noted that the average yield of cereal per acre was seven times greater in the US, where GM crops are widely used, than it was in sub-Saharan Africa. While better infrastructure can account for some of this difference, the report argues that a failure to invest in GM crops is partly responsible.

    Still, there remain significant challenges across the continent regarding the need to build robust regulatory frameworks and to bridge the knowledge gap between scientists, policymakers and the public to allow for informed decisions.

    Regulating GM

    The Food Policy report suggests that when effective biosafety regulatory frameworks are in place, GM is more likely to be widely adopted and accepted.

    The authors interviewed 305 respondents from Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tunisia - countries that are already cultivating GM crops or have large research and development programs devoted to it.

    Only South Africa had European-style risk assessment frameworks, according to the report, and of the six countries, stakeholders there expressed the most support for GM technologies and said that GM crops had a high level of adoption.

    By contrast, a US Department of Agriculture 2012 Agricultural Biotechnology report noted that, “Tunisia still has no legal framework dealing with the introduction, use and marketing of agricultural biotechnology.”

    “In view of the challenges identified in developing and regulating GMOs [genetically modified organisms] in Africa, there is an urgent need for all countries to establish a regulatory framework that will lead to a comprehensive and balanced evaluation of GM products,” said the Food Policy report.

    The Food Policy also study suggested that following the European Union’s (EU) European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) risk assessment model is one possible way to reduce the perceived risks associated with GM crop cultivation. Having a centralized continent-wide agency would reduce the individual cost of each country creating a separate regulatory risk assessment board.

    “Aside from this, I do not see the advantage of copying or adopting the EU model of the EFSA as it has not enhanced the adoption of the GE [genetically engineered] crops in the EU. We are more concerned [with] meeting our food and nutrition insecurity needs in Africa, which are non-issue[s] with the Europeans,” Diran Makinde, director of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, part of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), told IRIN.

    Issues of political will could also threaten to undermine a continent-wide regulatory project, according to the report.

    Bridging the knowledge gap

    In recent months Kenya has stepped up campaigns on biotechnology education and awareness.

    At a seminar organized by the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa, Governor Benjamin Cheboi of Kenya’s Baringo County released a statement saying the technology holds great promise for the holistic economic development of a nation.

    “It has become crucial for sustainable development in every biological sector including agriculture, forestry, medicine and environment, yet lack of information undermines its adoption in the country,” his remarks stated.

    Makinde agreed that there are not enough avenues for farmers to get information about GM crops and biotechnology. “Africa needs to put regulations on information resources, training and education that will involve short- and long-term trainings in biosafety, tailor-made workshops, internships and study tours - as seeing is believing - linkages and networking,” he said.

    Gradual adoption

    The Food Policy report notes that some countries, such as Ghana and Kenya, are likely to use a three-step approach - known as Fiber-Feed-Food, or F3 - to adopt GM crops.

    Through this method, Bt cotton will be adopted first, followed by livestock feed, before producing GM foods for human consumption. This allows time for the necessary risk assessments to be carried out.

    “Farmers and consumers need to experience the benefits of the technology in terms of the economic benefits to farmers, and quality of food for human/animals, and environmental benefits with the decrease use of pesticides,” said Makinde.

    He added that so far benefits have been realized from insect-resistant cotton, insect-resistant and herbicide-tolerant maize/soybean for livestock, insect-resistant maize, and nutrient-enriched food commodities like cassava, cowpea, banana, rice and sweet potato for humans.

    “The approach is essentially designed to familiarize farmers and [the] public with the new technology and to allay concerns about potential risks of GMOs,” said the report.

    U-turns on policy

    But it is clear that the adoption of GM crops is still highly contentious. Kenya, under former president Mwai Kibaki, in November 2012, ordered a ban on GM food until the government is able to certify that there have been no negative health effects.

    “The ban will remain in effect until there is sufficient information, data and knowledge demonstrating that GMO foods are not a danger to public health,” said a statement by Kibaki’s cabinet.

    “ In view of the challenges identified in developing and
    regulating GMOs [genetically modified organisms] in Africa, there is an urgent
    need for all countries to establish a regulatory framework that will lead to a
    comprehensive and balanced evaluation of GM products ”

    The ban followed a controversial study linking cancer in rats to GM food consumption; the study’s methodology was criticized as flawed by independent scientists.

    According to the lead agency dealing with the regulation of GMOs in Kenya, the National Biosafety Authority, the ban is only for food and does not include experiments within laboratories or in confined field trials.

    The ban carries fines of up to 20 million Kenya shillings (about US$230,000) and a 10-year jail term for traders failing to comply, and also requires that all GM-derived products be labelled from production to marketing.

    The African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF) maintains that the Kenyan government has put in place structures to ensure GMOs are used safely.

    “The Kenyan government has taken a forward-looking stance in providing an enabling environment for the safe and responsible application of modern biotechnology,” the ABSF report said.

    Mixed perceptions

    In Uganda, too, legislators have been hesitant to pass laws supporting the development of GM technologies. The 2012 National Biotechnology and Biosafety bill, which aims to provide a regulatory framework for the safe development, research and general release of GMOs, was deferred by legislators in February 2013.

    “The whole concept of GMOs has been riddled with fears and misconceptions,” Michael Lulume Bayigga, Uganda’s shadow health minister, told IRIN. “The owners of these GMOs are whites in the US, Europe and China who are looking for market[s] in Africa. They are creating markets and empowering themselves. These GMOs are tools of imperialism.”

    He added: “I will cautiously support GMOs as long as they have been developed, modified and tested by our own [African] scientists. But this engineering is worrisome.”

    “We are going to look at their concerns and have further discussions on it so that [the] bill is re-tabled for debate,” Connie Acayo, the public relations officer at the Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industry and Fisheries, told IRIN. “We want the bill in order to enable us to regulate the development and application of GMOs. At the moment, we don’t have control over GMOs that enter into the country.”

    The bill, which would set the legal stage for farmers to buy GM seeds and plants and to export GM produce, has been in approval limbo since 2003.

    Uganda is currently carrying out a series of GMO trials at the country’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) centers. These plants are engineered to be resistant to wilt disease, cassava brown streak virus disease and other common bugs.

    Ongoing trials include a vitamin A-enriched banana, disease-resistant cotton, GM cassava plants and drought-resistant maize meant for semi-arid northeastern Uganda, commonly known as Karamoja. These crops take into consideration increasing climate change and global warming.

    “GMOs are not contradictory to food safety. All the commodities being worked on by NARO go through all tests for stability, cost effectiveness and safety,” Emily K. Twinamasiko, director general of NARO, told IRIN. “No doubt people naturally worry about the new and the unknown, but the regulatory framework provided for in the [Biotechnology and Biosafety] bill will take care of all this.”

    Sustainable development

    But the Food Policy report also noted that in South Africa, GM crops had not benefited subsistence farmers, who were not using them because of the cost of the seeds and because of delays in obtaining regulatory approval. “This constraint still represents a significant challenge in developing local GM traits for subsistence farmers,” the report said.

    Some NGOs argue that there are methods to improve agricultural outputs without relying on GM technology.

    The Food Policy report’s authors spoke to a Greenpeace campaign director in Africa, who said the risks of GM were too high for uneducated farmers, and that “ecological farming and traditional knowledge methods should form the basis of promoting sustainable development.”

    She said improving infrastructure and increasing access to regional markets will likely result in greatly increased productivity and enhanced food security on the continent. She further said that empowering women with more efficient methods of farming - provided it is done in a targeted way that accounts for socio-economic context - can also be transformative.


    Is Africa ready for GM?
  • Senegal on the frontline of the battle with Big Tobacco

    Djité Sekou, 32, smokes as he passes his nights guarding one of the many high-rise apartment buildings in Dakar, Senegal. It has been eight years since his first cigarette - a Monte Carlo from Morocco - and when money is available he goes through 20 to 30 per day. It is an addiction that can cost him up to a quarter of his monthly income.

    Like most smokers in Senegal, he rarely buys a full packet, preferring to purchase cigarettes individually - a sales strategy tobacco companies employ to ensure that even those with limited means are able to afford their daily nicotine.

    “If my pocket is heavy, I buy the full packet,” explained Sekou. “If my pocket is empty, I buy four Excellence [cigarettes] at 100 [CFA] francs [US$0.20].”

    Sekou is one of a growing number of smokers across Africa. While reliable, up-to-date figures are unavailable, the 2007 Global Youth Tobacco Survey estimated that up to 20 percent of Senegalese boys and 10 percent of girls aged 13 to 15 used tobacco products - a number believed to be much higher today.

    Oumar Ndao, Senegal’s focal point for tobacco control at the Ministry of Health, says, “This is due to extremely weak legislation that, apart from prohibiting television advertising, demands no restrictions.”

    Tih Ntiabang, Africa coordinator of the civil society Framework Convention Alliance, based in Yaounde, Cameroon, says advertising focuses “on two groups of people - the youth and women. For the youth, they portray smoking as cool. For women, if you smoke you are emancipated.”

    In Senegal, there are almost no restrictions on smoking in public places, and warning labels on packets are small.

    The exception is the holy city of Touba, where smoking has been banned for religious reasons since 1980 (15 years before the US State of California enacted its ban on smoking in enclosed workplaces).

    Yet with Senegal’s parliament due to vote on new anti-smoking legislation, the rest of the country may soon follow suit.

    If passed, the law would ban all tobacco advertising, restrict smoking in public places, and demand health warnings that cover 30 percent of all cigarette packaging.

    Ndao believes that, even if the law could be strengthened further, this would be a “major step forward” and “endow Senegal with one of the strongest [such] laws in the region.”

    Weak tobacco control continent-wide

    With the largest proportion of young non-smokers and the weakest tobacco controls of any other continent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Africa is a lucrative market for cigarette marketers.

    Just five African countries have comprehensively banned smoking in public places, according to WHO, while nine - Chad, Eritrea, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Niger and Togo - ban all tobacco advertising. Only four African countries - Madagascar, Mauritius, Niger and the Seychelles - meet WHO recommendations for health warnings on packaging.

    “In a number of places, there is no legislation at all,” said Ntiabang. “What is really driving this is the tobacco industry strategy to recruit new smokers.”

    Yet even where laws do exist, enforcement is a major problem. Senegal’s Ministry of Health has banned smoking in all health centres, but according to the government’s own report to WHO, this has had “no practical impact in reality.”

    WHO estimates that, globally, tobacco kills six million people per year, a figure that, without action, could rise to eight million by 2030, with 80 percent of deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

    Taking on the tobacco industry

    Many health advocates believe the tide is turning, however, with Kenya, Mauritius, Seychelles and South Africa all having introduced tighter tobacco control laws in recent years. Ntiabang believes these are symptoms of “a changing trend” - but one under threat by the tobacco industry.

    The 2013 WHO global report on tobacco use accuses the industry of trying to influence public health policy, exaggerating its economic importance, manipulating public opinion, fabricating support from “front groups”, undermining proven science and intimidating governments with litigation.

    “Tobacco industry interference is the number one problem we have in Africa, especially in countries that are in the process of elaborating legislation,” Ntiabang adds. “The tobacco industry interferes in every single stage of this process.”

    A WHO official IRIN interviewed agreed: “Every single country in Africa where there is proposed legislation, you find them there.”

    According to Article 5.3 of the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, tobacco companies are not supposed to be involved in shaping health policy. But the official said many countries have been swayed by “information given by the industry claiming that they are critical to the economy, and yet the reality is they are just profiteers and are not contributing that much to the economy.”

    Senegal has been no exception, says Ndao: “The industry managed to infiltrate the process with strong lobbying of decision-makers.”

    In Senegal, industry officials lobbied to soften the total ban on advertising to allow communications at the point of sale, but the government has not ceded. They also pressed to ensure health warnings need not be in picture form, said Ndao, which has been more successful. But the [Senegalese] authorities are trying to resist industry pressure and are “aligned strongly with the WHO Convention” he told IRIN.

    A spokesperson for Philip Morris, which controls over 40 percent of the tobacco market in Senegal and owns a cigarette factory in Dakar, confirmed that the company has “proactively and transparently” been communicating its opinions to government, “like any other industry”.

    "The [tobacco] industry is losing major markets in Europe and North America, and is seeking refuge in Africa"

    While the company “welcomes the proposal for the implementation of a tobacco-control law in Senegal”, it continues to seek amendments to “a few elements” including “the lack of a transition period, the ban on trade incentives for wholesalers and retailers, and the total ban on advertising.”

    To Ndao, the incentive is clear: “The industry is losing major markets in Europe and North America, and is seeking refuge in Africa, which explains their strong presence in Senegal.”

    Health impact

    Ahmadou Dem, surgical oncologist at Joliot Curie Cancer Institute at the Dantec hospital in Dakar, is already seeing the consequences of smoking. He has noted an increase in cancers of the lung, larynx, pharynx, bladder and pancreas.

    If nothing is done, the future could be more worrying still, he said. “It will be a catastrophe for our country’s health and economy, because our human and financial resources are limited and cancer care is costly.”

    Dem adds that while facilities to treat cancer do exist - offering surgery, radiation therapy and chemo therapy - they remain “largely inaccessible for the majority of patients, who are poor”.

    Any efforts to reduce smoking rates in Senegal must include an “ongoing anti-smoking campaign at schools, in businesses, and in the media,” he told IRIN.

    Weakening the law

    Ndao recognizes that, despite the huge public health improvements the law will bring, there is a lot more work to do.

    Unless amended by members of the National Assembly, smoking areas will still be permitted in restaurants, bars and hotels, and pictures warnings - considered essential in a country where half of the adult population is illiterate - will be voluntary. Ndao believes parliamentarians will strengthen these areas of the law before it passes.

    And the law will not undertake what is commonly regarded as the most effective way of reducing smoking - raising the price of cigarettes. Such a measure has to be dealt with separately through the tax system.

    At just $0.80 a packet for an economy brand, and $1.20 for a premium brand, cigarette prices in Senegal are almost 10 times cheaper than in the UK and among the cheapest in the world.

    Senegal has chosen not to follow the Economic Community Of West African States guidelines allowing countries to tax cigarettes up to 150 percent, instead abiding by the West Africa Economic and Monetary Union rules limiting taxes to just 45 percent.

    According to WHO, a 10 percent price increase for tobacco products reduces consumption by 8 percent in low- and middle-income countries.

    Two years ago, Phillip Morris created a national scandal in Senegal by reducing the price of its Marlboros by one-third. Black market cigarettes from neighbouring countries such as Gambia and Guinea-Bissau also push prices down.

    Sekou believes that both a stronger law and higher taxes are “necessary,” especially for smokers like himself. “Senegal has the right to do it. Everyone wants to quit. The more they smoke, the less they eat,” he said.

    “For me, someone who struggles to get 1,000 CFA [$2.00] per day, if the price went up - and my wife is next to me, my son is next to me - I wouldn’t do it,” he continued. “Even today paying $1.20 [for a packet] is a problem.

    “As of today, I have decided to quit. I got myself into it, and I’ll get myself out of it too.”


    Senegal takes on Big Tobacco

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