27 February 2014

Harsher anti-gay law draws concerns for Ugandans and international leaders

Boston, MA – Returning home to Uganda after two years makes James* feel uneasy. As a gay man from a country that penalizes homosexuality, James cannot even use his real name for fear of outing himself to the wrong people.

“I choose not to think about it,” he said to Humanosphere.

Only some friends and family know that that he James is gay. Being out has not necessarily changed the minds of the people close to him. The Boston-area student said that friends that do not know about his sexuality will freely share anti-homosexual sentiments on social media.

“The ones that know; I will post something on Facebook and they won’t say anything,” he said. “They choose not to engage in that, but they will comment on other things.”

That was before the east African nation’s President Yoweri Museveni signed into law legislation that now imposes harsher penalties on homosexuality. People can now go to jail for life if convicted of “aggravated homosexuality.” Such a punishment would be dealt to those having gay sex with a minor, having sex if infected with HIV and with a vulnerable victim. It adds onto existing laws that carried punishments from 14 years to life in prison.

The law makes for a more tense situation in a country that has witnessed hostility towards gay Ugandans. Activist David Kato was among some 100 Ugandans outed by the tabloid magazineRolling Stone in 2010. A year later he was brutally attacked in his home. He died on the way to the hospital. A public outcry galvanized the issue of gay rights in Uganda to slow down anti-gay legislation, but the law finally passed.

Such tactics were undertaken only a day after the bill was signed.The headline on today’s Ugandan tabloid magazine Red Pepper, touted exposing “Uganda’s 200 Top Homos.” International leaders reacted strongly to the signing.

“We will continue to urge the Ugandan government to repeal this abhorrent law and to advocate for the protection of the universal human rights of LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Though the bill that passed is far less severe that the version which included the death penalty, it garnered strong opposition after the Ugandan legislature sent the bill to the president’s desk, in December. South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu pleaded on Sudan for Museveni to reject the bill. He expressed his dismay that Ugandan president was considering signing the bill, after promising to Tutu that he would not do so only a moth ago.

“We must be entirely clear about this: the history of people is littered with attempts to legislate against love or marriage across class, caste, and race. But there is no scientific basis or genetic rationale for love. There is only the grace of God. There is no scientific justification for prejudice and discrimination, ever,” said Tutu.

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20 February 2014

Is the global community failing the Central African Republic?

Extreme violence persists on a daily basis across the Central African Republic.

The inability to protect civilians affected by targeted violence is evidence that the international community is failing the Central African Republic, said humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) today.

MSF says it has treated more than 3,600 people for injuries caused by gunshot, grenade, machete and more, since December 5.What little that is being done falls well below acceptable humanitarian standards.

When regular violence returned the country that has been in crisis for nearly a year, in December, people had few options for humanitarian assistance. Medical aid was the only form of assistance many people received for roughly four weeks, claimed Hurum. She described the situation in the Central African Republic as the “roughest mission” in her eight years with MSF.

“There is an exceptional situation going on. I’ve never seen such a high level of violence, in the last few years,” agreed Dr Joanne Liu, President for MSF International.

The organization called on members of the international community, including donors and UN Security Council countries, to take immediate action in order to stop fighting before it escalates further. Other aid groups expressed the same concerns recently.

“Our concern is that CAR may once again fall off the radar and slide into obscurity until the next cycle of violence jolts the country back into the news,” said International Rescue Committee (IRC) country director for the Central African Republic, Sarah Terlouw in the Guardian.

The IRC has managed to provide food support to 10,000 people, but is also struggling to meet growing needs with so few financial resources. The lack of support leaves people with very few options. In addition to the vital supplies that international actors can provide to people in the Central African Republic, they can offer protection. MSF staff have literally put themselves in front of the people they are treating to keep combatants away.

“People need to be given real choices. In view of the levels of violence in Bangui, they need to be able to choose whether to go home or stay where they feel safe. Assistance should be provided wherever they feel safest,” said Dr Liu.

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13 February 2014

Daily Mail and UKIP attack UK foreign aid

Movement is afoot in the UK to divert foreign aid towards relief for people affected by recent flooding. The tabloid the Daily Mail joined the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP) in calling for a portion of the UK’s £11 billion foreign aid budget to help victims of flooding along the Thames Valley.

Heavy rains in the UK have flooded more than 5,000 properties in the past two months. It has been so severe in some cases that thousands of homes have been evacuated and hundreds have been rescued. Prime Minister David has come under criticism for his handling of the crisis. Among the most vocal complaints have been about the foreign aid budget.

“Charity begins at home. There’s a real emergency,” argued Philip Hollobone, a Minister of Parliament for Kettering. ”The overwhelming majority of my constituents would like to see this money spent on alleviating the misery of the people in the West Country.”

Hollobone fell in line with UKIP leader Nigel Farage who attacked the foreign aid budget on Sunday. He criticized the government for acting to help people out when disasters strike elsewhere, but failing to do so when it happens at home.

“The aid budget is about us giving money abroad but what are we doing giving money to India, who have their own space projects?” asked Farage. “Wouldn’t it be brilliant to see the British Government say ‘yes, we’re going to put our own struggling country first?’”

12 February 2014

How Catholics Influenced Paul Farmer

A recent article from a global health leader provides insights into what influenced his successful work in Haiti.

Dr Paul Farmer, co-founder of the Boston-based Partners in Health, declares in an article for the Christian magazine Sojournersthat two Latin American priests were among his greatest teachers: Archbishop Oscar Romero and Gustavo Gutiérrez.

Farmer was made famous through the book Mountains Beyond Mountains a profile of his work by acclaimed author Tracy Kidder. The community-based health network model that found success in Haiti can be traced back to the theological teachings of the two Catholic priests.

The lessons, Farmer says, came from all types of Catholics, from the priests to those living in poverty. Farmer credits the activists that he met as a young man in the “tough neighborhoods in Boston, the farms of North Carolina, and the slums of Lima” as living the teachings of Liberation theology. He outlines the three lessons that stood out most in his mind: 1) Preferential option for the poor; 2) The existence of structural violence; 3) The power of accompaniment.
Their activism taught me a lot about a space in the Catholic Church I’d not seen clearly before, and about the promise of long-term engagement in the monumental struggle against poverty and discrimination in all its forms. That includes gender inequality, no stranger to the institution. Most of the most inspiring activists were women.
Romero and Gutiérrez are crucial figures in the liberation theology movement within the Catholic Church. Their teachings championed social justice and human rights as central parts of Catholicism. Though it met resistance within the Church and in local politics, ideas such as the preferential option for the poor, a term coined by Gutiérrez, gained wider acceptance.

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11 February 2014

What do we want? More evidence!

I wrote this originally for the Brookings blog.

A results-oriented aid agenda for Africa has picked up steam in the past few years.

Last year closed with excitement about cash transfers. Researchers in Western Kenya found that just giving people money was an effective form of assistance. As the MIT report notes, GiveDirectly recipients increased household asset holdings by 58 percent compared to the mean control group, and did not increase spending on tobacco or alcohol.

Thus, the once cast-aside form of aid is making a comeback on the strength of evidence and research. GiveDirectly is only the tipping point for a new way of thinking about aid in Africa and elsewhere. 

An era of evidence-based aid is here. GiveDirectly is a new standard because it has proof that evidence-based aid works and what it can actually accomplish. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have often talked about the potential of a given intervention and tell the stories of the people who benefited. Now they will have to talk about evidence. Donors want to know whether a project works and what is actually achieved.

The charity evaluator, GiveWell, gives charity recommendations based on cost-effectiveness and whether there is proof that what is being done has an impact. It has analyzed 136 charities and has recommended only four: GiveDirectly, Deworm the World, the Against Malaria Foundation and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.

GiveWell is not alone. AidGrade is employing meta-analyses of existing research to learn what different programs actually accomplish. Users can see how effective interventions are at achieving a given target (i.e., increasing school attendance, eliminating stunting, or creating business profit) and donate to an organization that is effective at creating such impacts. GiveWell's recommended charities are listed there, as well as the microfinance organization Kiva and the clean energy organization the Global Village Energy Partnership.

The organization Giving What We Can encourages young people to give 10 percent of their annual income to effective charities. Its list of recommended charities is nearly identical to that of GiveWell.

Giving What We Can was founded by Toby Ord who was influenced by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. Known best for his case for the moral obligation to help a person no matter where he or she may be in the world, Singer champions what he calls “effective altruism.”

“[Effective altruism] is important because it combines both the heart and the head. The heart, of course, you felt. You felt the empathy for that child. But it's really important to use the head as well to make sure that what you do is effective and well-directed,” explained Singer in a TED talk about effective altruism.

Effective aid is growing in importance because, aside from the U.K., major donors are decreasing their foreign assistance. At the same time, just about every advocate for a social issue—whether it be AIDS, education or child marriage—says that more money is needed. Given the financial constraints, effectiveness is paramount. The aid buzz word “sustainable” has been casually tossed about for years with little actual meaning. That is changing thanks to a budding movement to figure out whether or not an intervention works.

Building a well in the middle of a village and claiming that thousands of people were helped is not enough. How does that well improve the health of the community? Are children going to school more often because they are healthier? Is digging a well the best solution to the problem? Research in Kenya for example, has shown that installing a chlorine dispenser near a water point helped reduce the incidence of diarrhea by 40 percent. Costing only $0.50 per person per year, it is a cheap and effective way to ensure people in rural areas get clean water.

New research methods, and monitoring technologies are answering some of these questions. The rise of the randomized control trial (RCT) to analyze development, advanced monitoring tools utilizing the proliferation of mobile technologies, and an increased scrutiny on impacts are converging for the international donor community.

Yet, the RCT is not the be-all-end-all form of evaluation. Organizations concerned with cost or ethics can employ a multitude of tools to measure effectiveness. What is no longer acceptable, however, is relying on creative metrics and slick campaigns.

In the water sector, NGOs like Splash, Water for People and charity: water are using new technologies to track water sources. When a pump breaks down in Ethiopia, the Splash team in Seattle knows immediately, as do its donors. Elsewhere, pilots are underway to test “Cash on Delivery Aid.” This mechanism proposed by the Center for Global Development is designed to reward countries for achieving specific outcomes, rather than simply accounting for how money is spent and the number of beneficiaries.

Above all else, accountability, rightly, is in greater demand. Even if it is hard to precisely prove impact, organizations must be more transparent with what they are doing and accomplishing. An impact-minded approach disrupts long-held ideas about aid. NGOs have to show that what they are doing is better than the private and public sectors. Ultimately, it will help them target the areas where gaps exist and where they can have the greatest impact.

05 February 2014

Neglecting this blog

I have not been keeping up with things here. I can only blame the fact that now I am on the Humanosphere staff which requires regular reporting. My hope is to figure out a way to keep the blog going while also focusing on my reporting efforts.

I apologize for not formally explaining my move.

For the time being, keep up with me at Humanosphere and on Twitter.