Zero Poverty

Today saw the launch of Zero Poverty, a Europe-wide campaign seeking to raise awareness of poverty across Europe and the rest of the world. The campaign has been launched by Caritas Europe to encourage public action during the European year against Poverty and Exclusion. The campaign is based around several ‘missions’ to be achieved by everyone who signs up, including signing a petition to tackle poverty in Europe, with the hope that by reaching over one million signatures they can push the European Parliament into action.

I have to admit, at a first glance it seems dubious that the campaign will really achieve anything; after all, the final policy decisions will be made by politicians in the European Union. However, there is much to be said for the power of the public voice, and if the petition is successful, it will raise some key issues to the forefront of European policy. The campaign also encourages those who register to engage in their ‘missions’, ranging from simply buying a copy of the Big Issue, to writing a blog post about it all (yes, I have been sucked in already!).

Whether this campaign will end up relegated to the list of utopian ideals such as the MAKE POVERTY HISTORY campaign, or if it has the potential to launch a wave of public support remains to be seen. Its success may lie in the coordination and collaboration of charities and organisations across Europe, and building a foundation for future policy changes. It is unlikely that we will see poverty eliminated, but every step towards that goal – even merely raising awareness of the problems that lie on our doorstep – will make a difference.

Published in: on January 27, 2010 at 11:42 am  Comments (3)  
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Silent Emergency: Nepal

Nepal has been suffering silently from a food crisis, with poor harvests, political unrest and high food prices contributing to the problem. After a civil war that lasted over a decade ended in 2006, the devastated economy has struggles to support its citizens. People are forced to sell off possessions or borrow money just to afford to buy enough for their daily meal. Even then, access to markets is often compromised by regular strikes by Maoist rebels which block roads and prevent supplies reaching remote areas.

Over the last few decades Nepal has been unable to increase crop yields to keep up with the growing population and has become increasingly dependent on food imports, leading to a sharp rise in prices. Any fluctuation in the world food prices thus has a direct impact on the affordability of basic staple foods in Nepal. This has the greatest impact on the eight million poor who live in Nepal and spend over 80% of their income on food. The government has failed to put in place as yet contingency plans to deal with the food shortages across the country. Until recently the World Food Programme has been bringing essential supplies to remote areas, but even they have had to pull out of several projects due to lack of funding.

Enough food is produced globally to feed the planet but even so more than one billion people go to bed hungry every night. Hunger is a leading cause of death, killing more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. (Reuters Alertnet)

The silent emergency in Nepal will continue unless something is done now. The Guardian’s Ed Douglas points out that whilst there was immense support advocating for the rights of Gurkhas who served in the British army, there has been little attention drawn to the plight of millions of Nepalese who are going hungry every day. The long-term impacts of malnutrition will affect children and their health and education, threatening an even greater crisis in the years to come.

Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 11:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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Forgotten conflicts: Philippines

Much of the news at the moment is overshadowed by the humanitarian crisis in Haiti, and rightly so, as thousands of people are still desperately awaiting aid and the country is in a state of chaos. However, for today, I’d like to bring your attention to a situation that rarely makes the front page.

The Mindanao region in the southern Philippines has suffered from violence erupting from a conflict between the government and a group of Islamist rebels, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who have been fighting for an independent state for several decades. The problems first started in the 1960s when the Muslim minority launched a struggle to gain independence, laying claim to their ancestral homeland in the south. Attempts to reach a conclusion to the peace process in 2008 failed and new outbreaks of violence began. It is not just political or religious outrage that is fuelling the violence, intense poverty and years of under-investment in the region have added to the situation.

The conflict is ripping through all sectors of society, with children unable to attend school in areas directly affected by the violence, and over 300,000 people have been displaced. Areas sheltering the displaced are becoming overcrowded and typhoons bringing flooding into the area have exacerbated the problems. Aid workers have warned that the area is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, with many of the displaced living in camps, and others afraid to return home because of the presence of armed groups in the area. Many have become reliant on food aid and relief efforts in order to survive.

Hope is not lost however, as the rebel group MILF have agreed to enter into peace talks with the government once more beginning in December last year. There seems to be some positive progress, as the rebel group freed some 71 hostages, and were disarmed in the process. Nonetheless, the government cannot afford to rest easy, as presidential elections loom in May this year, and threaten a possible return to violence.

End of an Era

The takeover bid by Kraft to buy out Cadbury spells the end of 186 years of the beloved brand. It will be sad to see the end of one of the last independent British companies, the deal brings fears of job losses, and could mean the end of wholesome family values that have driven the company for well over a century.

There are fears that Kraft will abandon Cadbury’s commitment to Fair Trade, with so far only a token gesture made towards sustainably sourced cocoa from Rainforest Alliance plantations. Having entered into a huge amount of debt just to buy out Cadbury, cutbacks will sadly be inevitable. At the very least I hope that Kraft will keep the Fair Trade commitment, and not see it as a token gesture of corporate social responsibility.

However, to look on the bright side, the media frenzy over the takeover bid has resulted in some classic chocolate based puns: ‘Cadbury Flakes in face of Kraft bid’, ‘despite a Wispa in the ear’ from Lord Mandelson, and even an awful play on words by the Guardian ‘America’s Kraft is to gobble up Cadbury’.

I just hope that quality doesn’t deteriorate, the Bournville dark chocolate bar is still my favourite, and I would hate for that to end up tasting like cheese.

Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 2:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Forgotten Crises: Thailand

Thailand’s southern states have been plagued by violence since 2004. Militant groups have launched a campaign of violence against the central government with accusations of discrimination against Muslims. The separatists have targeted civilians thought to be siding with the government, tolling up more than 3000 deaths since the violence first erupted. Heavy handed government efforts to fight force with force in the past have resulted in disaster, and a recent drive for peace has produced few results.

The Muslim population are concentrated in the southernmost states, among the poorest regions in the country, which has led to a backlash against the government, complaining they are deliberately disadvantaged compared to the rest of the (largely Buddhist) population. Attacks on civilians such as teachers, security personnel and even Buddhist monks are common, with attacks on schools (seen as anti-Islamist) creating a culture of fear in the region.

The military coup in 2006 led to further outbreaks of violence and more coordinated attacks on police stations and military barracks. The violence still simmers under the surface, with recent attacks on schools and drive-by shootings implicating government soldiers, militant groups and even civilians in the violence. Confusion reigns as both Muslims and Buddhists have been killed in the violence, with separatist groups coming into conflict with military forces who retain immunity from prosecution.

The government has attempted to launch a development plan, worth $1.58 billion in an attempt to secure peace in the poverty-stricken region. However, the International Crisis Group warns against hopes of a quick-fix solution to the violence: ‘This struggle, nominally between a Thai Buddhist state and a Malay Muslim insurgency, targets civilians of all religions. More than 3,400 people have been killed since the violence surged in 2004. There are more dead Muslim victims than Buddhists, and many of the slain Muslims were marked as “traitors” to Islam.’ The report warns that without addressing the political grievances that have fuelled the conflict, further repression of the Muslim-Malay population in the south will attract more recruits and generate more anger and violence.

Whilst there is currently no evidence of Al-Qaeda’s influence on the separatist movement, analysts feel that if the violence continues, it could attract terrorist groups as an ideal training ground for new recruits. It is nonetheless clear that this is a crisis that cannot be ignored, yet it barely makes it onto the back pages of international newspapers. I hope it won’t be left until it is too late.

Published in: on January 19, 2010 at 6:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Why isn’t aid getting through?

There have been endless reports documenting the plight of the Haitians and their desperate need for assistance, and most have focused on the fact that aid is not arriving, or not getting there fast enough. Some are even delaying their donations to the crisis until they can be sure aid is reaching those who need it most. There is a danger that this perspective puts the blame on humanitarian agencies who are working their hardest to deal with the crisis and portrays them as incompetent.

The earthquake destroyed presidential buildings, homes and vital infrastructure, leaving thousands without food, electricity or water. This has also made it almost impossible for the aid to get through. Roads are covered with debris, communications are down, and survivors have to dig through the rubble with their bare hands. Last week air traffic control systems were non-existent, with no electricity to power essential communication systems, vital to ensure the safe arrival of aid. The airport has been running on a limited service, with only four aircraft allowed to land at any one time, and most aid has been stranded at Santa Domingo in neighbouring Dominican Republic, awaiting authorisation to reach Haiti. Some have driven across the border to Haiti, but treacherous road conditions have presented their own problems. This has understandably led to great frustration, for aid workers and for the Haitians struggling to wait patiently for essential assistance.

Further logistical problems await in the capital, Port-Au-Prince, where surviving buildings are potentially unsafe and aid workers are struggling to find adequate shelter for the thousands of people who have been displaced. Prioritising immediate needs and deploying search and rescue teams has been further complicated by the lack of telecommunications, as mobile networks are down, and aid workers are having to rely on satellite phones. For the humanitarian agencies already on the ground, help cannot come soon enough; some have lost personnel in the earthquake and with their headquarters damaged, and finding enough staff and resources to provide for the scale of the disaster has presented huge logistical difficulties. Many have run out of their initial supplies, having distributed the emergency medical and survival kits within the first few hours of the disaster, but have not had enough to provide for the thousands of desperate survivors.

The humanitarian agencies and military forces are doing all they can to reach the Haitians and provide the vital assistance they need. Yet the chaos that ensues after a natural disaster on this scale is not easily resolved and it will take time for the aid to reach those who need it most. It is difficult to watch the situation unfold, and ask the Haitians to be patient when they so desperately need aid. Yet help is on its way, battling through rubble strewn across roads, tackling broken water pipes and struggling through airports with limited capacity. I don’t envy their task.

More: Why is it taking so long?

Published in: on January 18, 2010 at 1:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What will be front page news this year?

It’s always interesting to find stories that aren’t in the main headline news, and I was reading yesterday about some of the forgotten crises set to escalate in the coming year. Violence in Thailand and the Philippines are leading to displacement, food shortages in Nepal threaten starvation and counter insurgency efforts against Maoist rebels in India is likely to incite more violence.

These are just some of the underlying ‘silent emergencies’ that are threatening millions of people around the world. I will be researching a few of these and learning more about what is going on in each situation, but if you’d like a brief summary, or to read more now, here is a useful and concise report.

Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Guilty of ignoring disasters

Just before I fell asleep last night, several alerts came in about the horrific earthquake that had just hit Haiti. For some reason I didn’t stop to think about it, but instead fell asleep lamenting the fact that the MET office had predicted more snow for today.

I’m sure the sense of detachment from natural disasters is common for many people; after all, if it doesn’t happen to you, it’s easier to ignore. But when I read more of the news today I just ended up feeling incredibly guilty. Of course I should care, hundreds of people have lost their lives and thousands more are missing, their bodies presumed to be buried under the rubble. I looked up some of the reporters photographs, and suddenly it became all too real, as images of bodies lying in the streets were posted up.

I think sometimes it’s harder to make yourself feel something when things like this happen; it’s so far removed from our own experiences. The last time an earthquake hit Britain, I thought it was just someone taking the bins out at some ridiculously early hour in the morning, and went back to sleep. But Haiti’s earthquake has reduced palaces to rubble, destroyed essential infrastructure, and killed thousands of people. I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of what has happened.

I do not envy the task of relief and aid agencies as they confront the chaos, struggling to make sense of the situation and trying to reach those who urgently need help. Haiti is already poverty-stricken, and the challenge of rebuilding and reconstructing its towns and cities will require all its strength and resources, not to mention the support of the international community.

I hope endless reports about the snow here will not obscure the significance of the disaster that has hit Haiti.

Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 1:21 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Now it makes Front Page News

Back in September I wrote about the situation in Yemen, focusing on the plight of the hundreds and thousands of civilians who were being forced to flee their homes, families and livelihoods due to the escalating conflict. The story was almost uncovered, relegated to the back pages of the newspaper or an offhand mention on news websites. Then the overspill of violence became a direct threat to western society.

Then it made headline news. For years the situation in Yemen has been descending into lawlessness and violence, and escalating poverty has made it an attractive haven for Al Qaeda in recent months.  Suddenly Yemen has become the centre of attention in the ‘war against terrorism’. Suddenly money and resources are flooding into Yemen, but for counterterrorism operations, not to address the depth of poverty in the region.

Yemen is struggling with Al Qaeda cells, fighting Shi’ite rebels in the north and separatist violence in the south. Moreover, they are running out of oil. It is the civilians who are suffering, with camps full of displaced people facing freezing conditions, with the most vulnerable (the elderly and children) at risk of the falling temperatures. Aid agencies are struggling to meet the needs of the people, with more expected to need aid and attention as the temperatures plummet.

The situation in Yemen is dire and getting worse. Yet the help that arrives is directed not to the people that are dying, but to the security services.

Published in: on January 7, 2010 at 5:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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New Year Resolutions

I decided not to make New Year Resolutions this year. Instead I made a list of achievements that I would like to complete before the year is out. Some are realistic, others are downright fanciful, and some will require a lot of hard work and dedication.

I have been inspired by the tasks set by others. A year in photos is underway, posting 365 beautiful yet different shots for every day of the year. A fundraising campaign offers a chance to raise money for good causes whilst achieving some individual challenges. Some are just for fun, such as ‘the love of it‘ setting 52 different challenges for the year ahead, with others taking on a more serious note.

A New Year always heralds a new start, poses new challenges and will bring its fair share of difficult moments and outstanding highlights. The feeling of anticipation is contagious.

Published in: on January 6, 2010 at 8:10 pm  Comments (2)  
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