28 August 2013

What does Hollywood say about International Development?

International development is just about at the bottom of the list of things that the average American thinks about each day.

Foreign bureaus are closing for major US news sources. One of the big television networks turned down more money for global health reporting after a series, entirely funded by grants, led to a dip in viewers. In other words ratings were so bad that the network turned down millions of dollars. It is that tough.

Aside from advocacy efforts like Kony 2012 and Oxfam advertisements, how are people learning about the world around them if they are not reading the news? The answer could be Hollywood.

Reporting on Africa does not get much attention in the US, but a film staring Leonardo DiCaprio about Sierra Leone does.

A film like Blood Diamond, setting aside its problems, brings a big audience to the story of  Sierra Leone's civil war. Most people have likely heard of blood diamonds before, but the film provides an easy to understand explanation for why the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme was put in place a decade ago. The film brought in $171 million despite mixed reviews.
City of God
Recognizing the influence that Hollywood has on bringing the issue of development to the American household, a group of World Bank researchers decided to analyze what these films actually tell viewers about development. It is easy for critics to dismiss popular representation of development. There are reasons to be concerned with the oversimplification of issues related to poverty and conflict. The authors say they are aware of this, but challenge that popular depictions need to be taken seriously given the audience that they reach.

David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock set aside documentaries and focus only on dramatic films from the global north that depict development like Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardner. They point out that they hope to analyze films from global south countries such as India, Nigeria and South Korea that also depict development. Popular films hold potential to bringing forward development issues, but can easily misinform viewers, they say.

"Although we argue that films can be a legitimate and potentially important medium for representation, both intrinsically and instrumentally, we also highlight issues and problems in the underlying nature of their particular representational power, as well as the inherent ambiguities associated with films as fundamentally contextualized forms of representation," say the authors.

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23 August 2013

New UNICEF Digital Tool Reunites Families

Sudden humanitarian disasters can separate families. The trauma is then compounded further by the difficulty in reuniting family members. That problem may be one of the past.

A new UNICEF tool provides a quick way to bring families back together. The digital registration tool called Rapid Family Tracing and Reunification (RapidFTR) helps stranded children reunite with their families.

UNICEF, Save the Children and the Uganda Red Cross are using RapidFTR for Congolese families displaced in Uganda.

“Before RapidFTR, we would have to use paper and fill out lots of forms to get all the details,” said Child Protection Officer of Save the Children Fatuma Arinaitwe. “This took a lot of time, and then we would go around with a list of names and ask people if they knew these children.”

The product was developed in collaboration with New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts. Student Jorge Just was inspired by a series of visits to Uganda to develop a technology that will connect separated families.

“A child might be on one side of a refugee camp, and their parents might be on the other side, but for all intents and purposes, they might as well be on different continents,” he said to the New York Times. “Even small distances in those situations can feel insurmountable.”

RapidFTR works as a data storage system that collects, sorts and shares information unaccompanied children in emergency situations. When a child arrives at a camp information is collected via a mobile phone and a picture is taken.

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20 August 2013

New Database directs resources and funds to grassroots organizations in the DRC

Men collect water from Lake Kivu in Goma, DRC.
Actor and activist Ben Affleck believes that community-based organizations are the best option for enabling lasting change in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

That is why his organization, the Eastern Congo Initiative (ECI) teamed up with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to create an easy-to-use database of Congolese community-based organizations.

“There are big NGOs that I think do very good work, but when I did research around Congo and other countries what I saw, what I found, was that the people doing the best work, with the real expertise, who understood what was needed intuitively, just like they would in my neighborhood, who knew who the guy was to talk to, were community-based organizations,” said Affleck.
Rather than seek funding for his pet project, as other celebrities might do, Affleck and ECI wanted to create a place where the organizations that are going to make the greatest difference will receive direct funding. It puts into action the much talked about idea of supporting community leaders to create change for themselves.

The information comes from a landscape analysis of community-based organizations (CBOs) carried out by ECI in 2011. Information from Congo's Maniema, North Kivu, Orientale, and South Kivu provinces provide an avenue for providing direct support in the troubled region.

The Congolese army continues to fight with the M23 rebel group that managed to seize control of the major city of Goma at one point last year. A UN peacekeeping mission meant to provide support has come under criticism for its inability to deter fighting. Sexual violence and abuses at the hand of rebels and the Congolese military have further complicated the situation.

Attention has focused on the region the past few years thanks to advocacy efforts from the likes of the Enough Project and stories telling of atrocities committed by armed groups. A report linking Rwanda and Congolese rebels late last year led the UN to appoint former Irish president Mary Robinson as the new Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa. She is now working with neighboring countries, including Rwanda, to implement the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

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16 August 2013

Doctors Without Borders Leaves Somalia Due to Security Concerns

The France-based medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) announced it was leaving Somalia after 22 years due to security concerns. The organization that provides crucial health relief in conflict settings has remained in Somalia through some of the most violent stretches. The announcement comes as a surprise and a signal that Somalia’s improvements may be more tenuous than previously reported.

Two MSF staff were killed in December of 2011 while working on Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu. Another pair of staff were released last month after being held for 21 months in south central Somalia after they were kidnapped from Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp. MSF says the two incidents highlight only a part of the challenges it has faced in Somalia since 1991. Attacks on MSF staff, ambulances and medical clinics have led to an additional 14 deaths.

Medical programs in Mogadishu, its suburbs and in other parts of Somalia will be closed. MSF says its 1,500 strong staff provided more than 624,000 medical consultations, admitted 41,100 patients to hospitals, cared for 30,090 malnourished children, vaccinated 58,620 people, and delivered 7,300 babies in 2012. The cessation of MSF’s work in Somalia will have an immediate impact on Somalis.

“Ultimately, civilians in Somalia will pay the highest cost,” said Dr. Karunakara. “Much of the Somali population has never known the country without war or famine. Already receiving far less assistance than is needed, the armed groups’ targeting of humanitarian aid and civilians leaders’ tolerance of these abuses has effectively taken away what little access to medical care is available to the Somali people.”

MSF’s work in Somalia dates back to the beginning of the ongoing civil war. The worsening humanitarian situation led to the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force and security force to ensure the delivery of essential humanitarian supplies. The force had the greenlight to engage in fighting if necessary with the peak incident being the failed attempt by US troops to capture United Somali Congress commander General Mohamed Farah Aidid. The event was dramatized by the film Black Hawk Down.

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Unintended Consequences: Irrigation Canals and Malaria

Mosquitoes and plants thrive where there is water. Farmers in arid regions who use irrigation systems to collect water also construct a mosquito breeding ground.

New research shows that irrigation systems malaria prone areas can cause an increase in local malaria risk that lasts for more than a decade. Even when health authorities mount a response to kill off mosquitoes using insecticides, the problem of malaria is still worse than before the open water.

“In these dry, fragile ecosystems, where increase in water availability from rainfall is the limiting factor for malaria transmission, irrigation infrastructure can drastically alter mosquito population abundance to levels above the threshold needed to maintain malaria transmission,” said lead author and University of Michigan graduate student Andres Baeza.

Baeza and her team studied cases of malaria in northwest India. Infrequent and inconsistent rain makes for more challenging farming and is why farmers employ various irrigation methods to ensure crop health. The study looked at the effects of a large irrigation project that will provide enough water to cover more than 47 million acres.

It is known that introducing irrigation to arid locations leads to an increase in malaria risk. The original thought was that malaria risk subsided rather quickly as families improved thanks to better farming conditions. This new research shows that is not quite the case. Irrigation does increase vegetation when it is introduced, meaning farms are doing much better. However, malaria risk persists for years after the introduction of the irrigation.

The researchers found that the areas that were transitioning to irrigation systems had higher malaria risk and also were where the most anti-malaria activity was taking place. India uses indoor residual spraying to clear mosquitoes from homes in the transition areas, but that has not been enough to eliminate the new risk.

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12 August 2013

Will education be the Achilles heel of growth economies?

By Caine Rolleston, Education Researcher on the ‘Young Lives’ study at the University of Oxford. 

Lack of skills is one of the biggest problems faced by the swelling youth populations of emerging economies. Yet education is going to be crucial for growth to be more inclusive in countries like India - where nearly half the population is under 25 - and arguably even more so for fast-growing African countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia and Angola where under-25s make up four-fifths of the population.

Today, August 12, is International Youth Day and communities across the globe are joining together to celebrate the energy and potential of the under-25s. But according to UN figures, more that 120 million of the world’s 15 to 24 year-olds still the lack the basic literacy skills needed to achieve their growing aspirations.

Despite huge strides in school enrolment across the developing world, educational attainment is not keeping pace with economic growth and few young people are attaining even a fraction of the skills considered fundamental in advanced economies.

India’s large pool of English-speaking graduates is undoubtedly part of its engine of growth, but the majority of Indian pupils are still failing to learn even the most basic concepts in maths by the end of elementary school. For many, progress stalls after only one or two years in the classroom and many more drop out of school with little to show for it. 

The numbers are staggering, given that a third of India’s 1.2 billion people are under 15, but the problem is by no means insurmountable. India and Vietnam are neck-and-neck in per capita income, ranking 126th and 128th respectively, yet few pupils in Vietnam leave school without basic skills.

A new large-scale survey by Oxford University’s Young Lives research team found 94% of 10-year-olds in Vietnam could add four digit numbers, 85% could subtract fractions and 81% could find x in a simple equation. This contrasts with India, where a nationwide survey by India’s ASER research centre reports 47% of ten year olds unable to add two-digit numbers, and as many as 68% of grade three children in government schools unable to read a test designed for first-year pupils.

Vietnam has reaped the benefits of focusing squarely on the basics. In the period of around eight months covered by a survey of 3,500 grade five pupils, both children and teachers were absent on average for less than two days of school. Similar studies in India put rates of teacher absence among the highest in the world at around 20–25% and pupil absence often higher. Pupils’ poor attendance is surely not unrelated to the absenteeism of their teachers. And pupils’ low skills are also reflected in those of their teachers, one study in India finding only a quarter of teachers being able solve a fifth grade-level percentage problem.

More than 96% of pupils in Vietnam had core textbooks for their personal use, 85% spent more than an hour a day on homework and 87% reported reading books outside of school. Teachers reported being evaluated six or more times a year and they assessed their pupils regularly. Few teachers, including those working in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, performed poorly in assessments of their knowledge for teaching grade five.

While disadvantaged pupils in Vietnam score lower in curriculum tests, they make good progress during the school year, catching up on curricular competencies. In India, however, there is little progress among poor performers.

Inclusive growth means growth linked to employment and skills. And skills for future labour markets depend on the foundations of literacy and numeracy being laid down in elementary school. Failure to deliver quality learning will turn out to be a massive lost opportunity, both for future generations and for further economic growth. And investment in universal school enrolment will have been a huge waste of time and money if kids do not learn.

Growth through Quality Jobs and Investment is one of the three key themes of September’s G20 Summit indicating recognition of the important role that human capital will play in future years. G20 leaders must acknowledge that the route to developing human capital needs to include investment in across-the-board improvements to school teaching standards. A skilled and educated workforce should be central to every country’s economic strategy and is essential for the reduction of poverty and inequality.

Young Lives new Vietnam School Survey results, available from 12 August, can be downloaded at www.younglives.org.uk/publications

Barclays delivers blow to cash transfers in Somalia

Somalis brace for the impact of the British bank Barclay’s decision to sever ties with most money transfer companies in Somalia. About 250 remittance agencies will lose their partnership with Barclays on Monday.

The banking giant says it is concerned that it does not where money transfers are going and who is sending the money. With little ability to track cash flows it is much easier for money launderers and the financing of terrorist activities.

“It is recognized that some money service businesses don’t have the proper checks in place to spot criminal activity and could unwittingly be facilitating money laundering and terrorist financing,” said Barclays spokesperson Daniel Hunger to IRIN.

Somalis living in and out of Somalia say that the plan will cut vital flows of money.

More money is sent to people in Somalia through remittances ($1.2 billion) that is provided in international aid (~$800 million). The sum of remittances accounts for roughly half of Somalia’s gross national income (GNI). Money set by family members living abroad helps to support the education of siblings and a parent’s business. Various vendors proliferated across Somalia as a result of the amount of money flowing both in and out of the country through person to person transfers.

It is not only people who benefit. NGOs and civil society organizations use cash transfer services to process cash disbursements and budgetary funds. British-Somali Olympic gold medal winner Mo Farah issued a call for Barclays to reverse its decision citing the impact it will have on Somalis and charities like his charity.

“The Mo Farah Foundation, along with some of the world’s biggest charities and organisations, including the UN, relies on these businesses to channel funds and pay local staff,” he said in late July. “This decision could mean life or death to millions of Somalis.”

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08 August 2013

Charity storytelling done right: Water is Life in Kenya

Amanda Taub of Wronging Rights fame shared the above video from Water is Life. It shows four year-old Nkaitole, a member of Kenya's Maasai tribe, as he completes his bucket list. That is because one in five children in Kenya don't see their fifth birthday. The short shows all that Kenya has to offer, his wide list of desires and the reality that children like Nkaitole die from preventable causes.

Watch the video and then go read Amanda's explanation as to why the video is so great.

UK politician concerned by money spent in Bongo Bongo Land

UK Member of the European Parliament Godfrey Bloom has a clear stance on foreign aid.

Godfrey Bloom
Godfrey Bloom
"And how we can possibly be giving a billion pounds a month, when we are in this sort of debt, to Bongo Bongo Land is completely beyond me."

He said that during a private event recently. I checked the maps and can't seem to find where Bongo Bongo Land is located. Given that the UK has managed to invade just about every country I can only assume that Bloom knows of a small island country that cannot be found. He couldn't have been making a thinly veiled racist remark about a country he does not care about in Africa. It must be somewhere.

Word is that it is between Liberia and the Ivory Coast and was a British colony until 1959.

He also lists off things bought with foreign aid: Ray Ban sunglasses, apartments in Paris, Ferraris and F-18s for Pakistan.

Not to worry, he does talk about human rights too. Bloom expresses his delight to participate in public executions as a way of showing how international rules on human rights are preventing the UK from 'controlling out own destiny."

The Guardian reports that Bloom responded to his critics after the video of his remarks became public.
Bloom said that suggestions that his comments carried any racist implications were "absurd" and "laughable", adding that he has two Kashmiri staff and a Polish wife. He stood by his remarks, saying: "What's wrong with that? I'm not a wishy-washy Tory. I don't do political correctness … The fact that the Guardian is reporting this will probably double my vote in the north of England."
He defended himself further today saying that he was speaking to "ordinary people in the rugby and cricket club." He may not get the electoral boost he hopes from the incident as his UK Independent Party leadership distanced themselves from Bloom's remarks.
Steve Crowther, the Ukip chairman, said: "We are asking Godfrey not to use this phrase again, as it might be considered disparaging by members from other countries. However, foreign aid is an extremely important debate that needs wider discussion."
Turns out that Bongo Bongo Land is not the invention of Bloom. It dates back to 1985 when conservative politician Alan Clark used it to describe where ethnic minorities are from. From the Guardian:
Clark, who was commenting on black groups feeling uneasy about the collection of data on ethnic minorities, reportedly said, "They are afraid we'll be going to hand them over to the immigration services so that they can send them all back to Bongo Bongo land."
The Daily Mash (satire alert) spoke with the leader of Bongo Bongo Land, Brian Inkatwe to ask about all the UK aid money going to the country.
President Brian Inkatwe said: “We get by on our own. I think it’s because no-one actually believes we exist.

“I have written to the UN on several occasions asking them if they could give us advice on starting a rural banking scheme, but every time they write back and tell me that the phrase ‘Bongobongoland’ is horribly racist and that I should stop wasting their time.

“Some aid would be nice as our economy has suffered since Chinese factories started pumping out cut price bongos.”

07 August 2013

Climate Change and Conflict Linked? It's Complicated

Researchers have long connected climate change and conflict. They warn that the effects of climate change will lead to instability that will lead to fighting. Problem is that the evidence was quite thin.

Mauritania village struck by drought in 2011.
Mauritania village struck by drought in 2011. UN
A new study, published last week in Science, by Princeton’s Solomon Hsiang and University of California, Berkeley’s Marshall Burke again found that conflict and climate change are connected. They say that the evidence is overwhelming, but other researchers disagree.

"We think that by collecting all the research together now, we're pretty clearly establishing that there is a causal relationship between the climate and human conflict," said Hsiang in a press release. "People have been skeptical up to now of an individual study here or there. But considering the body of work together, we can now show that these patterns are extremely general. It's more of the rule than the exception."

The findings come from an analysis of 60 previous studies on climate change and conflict. The data shows that for every standard deviation increase in temperature and extreme rainfall person-to-person violence increases by 4% and group-based conflict rises by 14%. In other words, climate change leads to more fighting. They raise the alarm by saying that parts of the world are expected to warm up by 2 to 4 standard deviations by 2050. Fighting is on its way!

So news outlets perked up. The math seems easy and it makes for quite the headline. Slate's headline was ominous reading:
Increased murder and war linked to climate change
Some researchers say it is not quite so simple.

"I fundamentally question the contribution of this paper. In a nutshell, there is almost nothing new here," blogged University of South Carolina geographer Ed Carr after the paper's release.

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05 August 2013

MDR TB is a hidden problem in North Korea

Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) is a global problem, but one that is particularly worrisome in Asia. An estimated 60% of the 500,00 MDR-TB cases in 2011 occurred in Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa. The problem is made worse by the low number of people with MDR-TB enrolled in treatment in countries like China, Myanmar and India.

Information on MDR-TB in the reclusive North Korea has been hard to come by, until now. Dr. KJ Seung has been working in North Korea on TB for years and heard from his colleagues that first-line TB drugs were not working for patients.

Dr. KJ Seung in North Korea.
Dr KJ Seung
"I've treated MDR-TB in a lot of different countries, but the situation in North Korea is the worst I've ever seen," he said in a recent interview with PIH. "There are simply too many patients. At every sanatorium we visit, there are lines of patients who have failed multiple courses of treatment with regular TB drugs and are hoping to get into our treatment program."

Dr Seung decided to analyzed sputum samples from 245 of TB patients to get to the bottom of it. His results were stunning. Eighty-seven percent of the patients analyzed have MDR-TB. The results of the study were published this week in the open-access medical journal PLOS Medicine.

He collected information as a part of his work with EugeneBell, an NGO formed by US-based Eugene Bell Foundation and South Korea's EugeneBell Korea. For more than a decade, the NGOs have supported a half dozen TB sanatoria throughout North Korea. Some of the tested strains of TB were resistant to second-line drugs and there was evidence of extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB.

"A lot of the credit has to go to Dr. Linton (director of the Eugene Bell Foundation). He's not a medical doctor, but just by listening to the North Korean doctors, he discovered a major epidemic. Sometimes the evidence is staring you in the face. You just have to listen to what people are telling you," said Dr Seung.

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01 August 2013

USAID Makes Progress Towards Budget Transparency

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Raj Shah announced that the US Foreign Assistance Dashboard was not only updated, but it included 53,000 financial transactions from the first three quarters of fiscal year 2013. It builds off an executive order signed by President Obama to make government information open and machine readable.

“Transparency promotes accountability and provides information for citizens about what their Government is doing,” said President Obama in a memorandum.

The announcement is a significant forward step for transparency at USAID. The dashboard was created early in the Obama administration to much fanfare, but there were complaints that it was hard to access, data was sparse and it was not published in accordance with International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) standards. Changes come ahead of the deadline Publish What You Fund’s 2013 Aid Transparency Index and they should lead to improved marks over 2012.

“Never before has our Agency published spending data so comprehensively and so soon after the close of the quarter,” said Shah in a blog post about the release.

“Our commitment to transparency has not only helped strengthen accountability and improve communication; it has also had a direct impact on the way we work every day.”

US transparency efforts are already showing positive impacts around the world. Shah cites the use of data from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network by small farmers in rural Kenya to negotiate prices for crops.

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