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Archive for September 29th, 2009

In Brief: Somaliland “should heed Kenyan election lessons”

Posted by African Press International on September 29, 2009

Photo: Julius Mwelu/IRIN
A man sets a car on fire during a demonstration after the disputed 2007 elections in Kenya (file photo)

NAIROBI, – Stakeholders in Somaliland need to reach a consensus on the role the media can play before, during and after elections to avoid election violence, a report says.

The report, entitled The Role of the Media in the Upcoming Somaliland Elections: Lessons from Kenya, discusses potential scenarios and interventions in the run-up to Somaliland’s elections and compares them with the post-election violence experienced in Kenya in 2008.

It is published by the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at the University of Oxford, Center for Global Communication Studies at University of Pennsylvania and Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research, London.

Both countries have polarized electorates with significant political and economic grievances, political parties accused of manipulating the system, weak institutions and politically influential media. “The challenge… is how the media can be harnessed for nation-building rather than partisan politics and violence,” the report notes.

Somaliland’s elections were planned for 27 September, but were postponed after violence broke out. The term of the current government ends on 29 October.


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IRAQ: Remote control aid

Posted by African Press International on September 29, 2009

Photo: Sabah Arar/UNICEF
Displaced children in an abandoned government building in Baghdad

BAGHDAD, – He uses aliases, has more than one ID card, and only his parents and two sisters know what he does for a living.

Like a thief, I work in the dark,” said GS,a humanitarian aid coordinator for a foreign NGO which is assisting orphans. “I live in fear for offering help – what an irony.

Foreign and local humanitarian aid workers in strife-torn Iraq face constant danger from militant groups whose targets include Western agencies and their local staff. The latter are deemed an extension of the US-led forces by some extremists.

Foreign aid groups flocked to the country after the 2003 US-led invasion and thousands of local NGOs were established. However, the subsequent violence forced many to pull out or keep a low profile, and they have increasingly switched from direct implementation of programmes to a form of remote oversight from neighbouring countries or the relatively peaceful north.

This has led to serious inefficiencies and inadequate operational capacity on the ground, according to a report, ‘More Challenges Ahead for a Fractured Humanitarian Enterprise’, by the US-based the Feinstein International Center early this year.

We used to have eight offices scattered nationwide, with the main office in Baghdad, but since early 2005 all offices have been closed and international staff have been relocated to Jordan; international staff depend on locals on the ground who work from home, GS said.

The deteriorated security situation from 2005 to 2007 made it impossible to reach all those who needed our help; our work was limited to some parts of Baghdad and some relatively peaceful cities outside it, he added.

During this period, GS and his colleagues in Baghdad and the provinces, sometimes relied on local tribal leaders, government officials or community dignitaries to reach beneficiaries.


Local and foreign humanitarian organizations were attacked by militants – with assassinations, kidnappings, bombs and car bombs.

The first of these was in August 2003 when a suicide bomber drove a large truck packed with explosives into the UN headquarters in eastern Baghdad, killing at least 23 people, including UN senior representative Sergio Vieira de Mello.

This forced the UN mission to run all its operations from neighbouring Jordan for a few years. Later it returned to Baghdad – but to the fortified Green Zone where key Iraqi government offices and the US and UK embassies are located.

Also in 2003 a suicide car bomber attacked the main office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Baghdad killing 12 people, including two ICRC employees. ICRC withdrew its entire mission to Amman, Jordan.

A high-profile kidnapping and murder of a British aid worker took place in 2004 when militants seized Irish-born 59-year-old Margaret Hassan as she went to work in Baghdad. Hassan, who was married to an Iraqi and had lived for 30 years in Iraq, served as the country director of CARE International.

Nearly two years later, gunmen disguised in Iraqi army uniforms burst into the Iraqi Red Crescent Society offices in western Baghdad and kidnapped 25 employees and volunteers. Six were later released while the others were either killed or are still missing.

Despite a decline in violence since late 2007, NGOs have not rushed to return: It is still too early to resume our previous activities and reopen all eight offices, GS said.

No chance to gain experience

The absence of the UN and international NGOs has deprived Iraqs nascent NGO community of contacts and the chance to build up experience of aid work.

Most Iraqi NGOs lost a golden opportunity to be in touch with international aid workers to learn international standards of aid work, said Nidhal Amer Mohammed, an aid worker with the local Basra-based al-Zahraa NGO, which works on womens issues.

To be in touch with international NGOs on a daily basis is vital, Nidhal said. Emails or phone calls or training courses once or twice a year outside Iraq cant help develop the fledgling Iraqi NGO community I think this has led some local NGOs to lose direction or fall under the influence of particular political parties.

Remote programming

Greg Hanson, the author of the Feinstein International Center report, predicted an upsurge in violence and said NGOs needed to find ways other than remote programming to carry out their work.

He noted that remote programming, keeping a low profile and bunkerization where aid workers protect themselves with highly visible security – were leading to a loss of proximity to affected Iraqis, and a fragmented delivery of humanitarian services.

Whilst remote programming options have kept the aid pipeline into Iraq open, it has been an increasingly imperfect and inefficient way to work, Hanson said.

He said one of the effects of remote programming had been the inadvertent institutionalization, over time, of the geographic and psychological gaps between those in remote management roles and their counterparts on the ground inside Iraq… The emergency mindset that comes from living and working among people in need is more difficult to maintain at a distance.


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BOTSWANA: San controversy rekindled

Posted by African Press International on September 29, 2009

Photo: Survival International
Government accused of not being ethical towards the San

GABORONE, – A report on the marginalization of Botswana’s San people by a faith-based organization that monitors corporate responsibility has ignited a war of words with the government and diamond companies operating in the country.

A foreword to the report – Corporate Social Responsibility in the Diamond Mining Industry in Botswana: De Beers, Botswana and the Control of a Country – published on 23 September by the Bench Marks Foundation (BMF), challenged corporations to “address some of the negative impacts mining brings”, and find innovative methods “to promote development”.

The plight of the San, also known as Bushmen, has become an international public relations nightmare for Botswana. Although the country is generally applauded by donor nations for its commitment to democracy, and health and social programmes, the San issue has continued to tarnish the government’s reputation.

A key finding noted that mineral prospecting and mining, “including diamonds in national parks and conservation areas, is simply unethical. Strict legislation must be in place in this regard and enforced by government. The threat posed to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) by prospecting, and the potential threats to the Okavango Delta, are matters of serious international concern.”

Controversy has raged for more than a decade about diamond mining in the CKGR, the Bushmen’s ancestral lands, an arid area the size of Belgium. In 2006 the Botswana High Court ruled that hundreds of San had been wrongly evicted and should be allowed to return there. However, after the judgement the attorney-general said the government was not obliged to provide essential services to the Bushmen in CKGR.

BMF said mining operations in the CKGR were making it difficult for the community to access water, and proposed that mining companies pay royalties to indigenous communities.

The report also claimed that operations by the Debswana Mining Company, a partnership between the government and diamond conglomerate De Beers, did not benefit communities living in and around such areas, and had been excluded from environmental impact assessments, even though most mining operations were on ancestral lands.

In a joint statement the government and De Beers dismissed the report as inaccurate, and said it had failed to provide “any significant insights from it in terms of our performance as corporate citizens or in terms of defining our role as a development partner in Botswana”.

''Debswana’s contribution to social development in Botswana vastly exceeds the global benchmark for Corporate Social Investment of 1 percent of pre-tax profits''

“The key criticism made by the BMF is that Debswana’s operations have not generated benefits at a community level in Botswana. This is not the case,” the joint statement said.

“Debswana is widely recognized as one of the most successful public-private partnerships in the world in terms of its contribution to national and community development – within the region of 80 percent of all gross profits realized by Debswana goes into government revenues,” the partnership maintained.

“Debswana’s contribution to social development in Botswana vastly exceeds the global benchmark for Corporate Social Investment of 1 percent of pre-tax profits.”

The government and mining companies argue that the communities “all formed following the initial discovery of diamonds … Before the mines were established, the Jwaneng [in southern Botswana] and Orapa [in the northeast] areas were utilised as cattle-posts and seasonal grazing.”

Any talk of communities benefiting from royalties was dismissed out of hand by the government. “This policy [that the state owns all mineral resources], dovetails with a common understanding, found among virtually all of our country’s indigenous communities, that nature can never be owned, is now firmly embedded in legislation.”

''A mining project like that will bring some economic empowerment to the people. The fact that there will be economic activity in their area means that Basarwa will be able to benefit more''

Mining empowers Bushmen

Haile Mphusu, managing director of diamond mining company Gope Exploration, told IRIN: “People have been accusing us of denying drinking water to Basarwa [a local term for Bushmen]. There was never water at Gope – the government borehole is at least 120km by any road from Gope. The people of Gope never really use that water; they depend on water from the neighbouring farms.”

He said mining at Gope had not displaced any Bushmen. “The problem with most of the people pointing fingers at us is that they have never been to the CKGR, let alone Gope.” He insisted that a few families arrived in Gope during the rainy season, when the berries were in fruit, and then left.

“Bushmen were very happy to co-exist with us. We consulted four communities in the CKGR and five communities in villages outside the CKGR, three of which comprise people who were resettled from the reserve,” Mphusu said.

“A mining project like that will bring some economic empowerment to the people. The fact that there will be economic activity in their area means that Basarwa will be able to benefit more than any other community in Botswana from the project.”

He said a social impact survey was conducted after human rights organizations had raised objections to mining in the CKGR. “If I believe that starting a mine in Gope would not benefit … [the people] in the CKGR, I would not get involved.”


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SOMALIA: Drought conditions persist in Somaliland

Posted by African Press International on September 29, 2009

Photo: Mohamed Amin Jibril/IRIN
A dead cow (file photo): Severe drought has made food increasingly scarce for the poor because of reduced livestock products and the lack of saleable animals

HARGEISA, – Recent rains in eastern parts of secessionist Somaliland have done little to improve drought-affected pastoral and agro-pastoral livelihoods in the region, says a local official.

“[By] Allahs mercy, rains were received in most of the region’s districts, but the problem is that the people and the animals are still [affected]. I [still have] to send my relatives in the remote areas animal [feed] and food,” Ahmed Aw Dahir, the mayor of Lasanod, in Sool region, told IRIN.

Aw Dahir estimated that about 400,000 people would still need assistance in the coming months due to the effect of the prolonged drought.

“The people in the region will need food assistance in the forthcoming months not only in the countryside, but even in the capital of Lasanod [where] about 20 percent of the population is suffering [a] lack of food,” he said, adding that appeals for food have been made at mosques.

“The pastoralists used to sell milk to the urban centres; unfortunately the drought led to the deaths of most livestock,” he added.

The low value of the remaining livestock, most of which are in poor physical condition, also meant residents could not afford to buy food.

According to an 8 September report by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit – Somalia (FSNAU), food has become increasingly scarce for the poor because of reduced livestock products (milk) and cereals, the lack of saleable animals and limited job opportunities.

“The pastoralists have no ability to buy foodstuffs in the interim period as we move from drought to the wet season. We are afraid of starvation,” Bashir Ahmed Hayir, a resident of Hudun village in Sool, told IRIN.

Poor roads have aggravated the situation, said a local journalist. “People in the remote areas cannot receive food even if they can [afford to] buy it because the rains have closed [off] the roads,” he told IRIN.

Almost all pastoral and agro-pastoralists in the northwest have less food, according to FSNAU. In Togdheer Agro-pastoral and Sool Plateau, the pastoralists are facing an acute food and livelihood crisis, with a high risk it could deteriorate into a humanitarian emergency before December.

The situation is similar in Hawd and Nugal Valley, while all agro-pastoral areas of Awdal and Galbeed regions, as well as Golis/Guban, are facing an acute crisis.

The situation is attributed to three consecutive rain failures, low to no calving and kidding and high livestock off-take. Agro-pastoral areas have also suffered crop failure.

According to FSNAU, very poor pastoralists in regions such as Sool, Togdheer, and Sanaag are moving to camps and other villages in search of help. Other coping mechanisms include household splitting, switching to cheaper cereals and skipping meals.


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GLOBAL: First positive results from an HIV vaccine

Posted by African Press International on September 29, 2009

Photo: Ciao-Chow/Flickr
The results are a shot in the arm for AIDS vaccine research

JOHANNESBURG, – A six-year clinical trial in Thailand has yielded the first ever evidence that an AIDS vaccine can provide some protection against HIV infection.

The trial team in Bangkok, Thailand’s capital announced on 24 September that rates of HIV infection were 31 percent lower in trial participants who got the vaccine than in those who received a placebo.

“These new findings represent an important step forward in HIV vaccine research,” said Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the main funder of the trial.

The study, known as RV144, began enrolling 16,000 HIV-negative men and women between the ages of 18 and 30 in October 2003. Half the volunteers received a placebo; the other half were given shots containing two different vaccines. The first, called ALVAC-HIV, used a disabled form of a bird virus known as canary pox to deliver synthetic versions of three HIV genes into the body. The second, called AIDSVAX, was composed of a genetically engineered version of an HIV protein.

The synthetic HIV components in both vaccines were based on subtypes B and E of the virus, which are most common in Thailand, the US and Europe. Scientists do not yet know whether the vaccine would be effective against other strains, such as subtype C, which is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa.

The trial was designed to evaluate whether the combined vaccines lowered HIV infection risk, and whether they had any impact on viral load [the amount of HIV circulating in the bloodstream] in the volunteers who became infected.

Of 8,197 people given the vaccine regimen, 51 became infected, compared to 74 of the 8,198 volunteers who received the placebo. This result is considered “statistically significant”, meaning that the difference is unlikely to be a coincidence. The vaccine did not have any effect on viral load.

“Today’s result is not the beginning of the end of the epidemic, it’s the end of the beginning of finding an AIDS vaccine. It’s a thrilling moment,” Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition (AVAC), told IRIN/PlusNews on the phone from New York. However, he emphasized that additional studies and analysis were needed to confirm and understand the findings.

''Today’s result is not the beginning of the end of the epidemic, it’s the end of the beginning of finding an AIDS vaccine''

The vaccine’s modest effectiveness means it is unlikely to be licensed or produced in large quantities in Thailand, where the rate of HIV infection is relatively low. However, Prof Gavin Churchyard, CEO of the Aurum Institute, a non-profit medical research organization based in South Africa, said even an AIDS vaccine that was only 30 percent effective could have an impact in southern Africa, where HIV infection rates are much higher, “but we would need to know if it would work in this population”.

Churchyard said the results had come as a surprise to many in the vaccine field. “We weren’t actually expecting a positive result,” he commented. Previous efficacy trials of AIDSVAX, the second vaccine in the regimen, had found no benefit and the decision to go ahead with the large-scale trial in Thailand had generated controversy.

Warren noted that vaccine science had evolved considerably since the trial was launched in 2003. “There are new ideas and approaches that no one imagined six years ago. Anytime you start a trial, it’s like buying a new computer – it’s outdated before you even get it out of the box.” He added that whether or not the approach used in the trial was determined to be the most effective, the findings would still influence future strategies.

Good news at last

The positive results from the Thai trial are expected to give a crucial boost to a field in desperate need of good news after a series of setbacks in recent years. A four-continent trial of a vaccine developed by pharmaceutical company Merck was halted in 2007 after preliminary results suggested that it not only did not provide protection against HIV, but might actually increase the risk of infection.

Dr Glenda Gray of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, chief investigator in the South African arm of the Merck vaccine trial, told IRIN/PlusNews the outcome in Thailand was “a huge step forward – it opens up the field again and gives us an indication that this [a vaccine] is possible.”

The results are also significant for the future of two HIV vaccines that began small-scale human trials in South Africa in July. One of the vaccines uses components from the family of pox viruses similar to those used in one of the Thai vaccines. “It means, hopefully, there’ll be more interest in our vaccine,” said Gray, the lead investigator of the trials being conducted by the South AfricanAIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) and NIAID.

“We are planning a larger trial next year and having these results makes it much easier for us to convince funders to go ahead with the next phase,” Gray said.

More information on the Thai trial results will be presented at an AIDS vaccine meeting in Paris in October.


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In Brief: Crucial climate negotiations to be held in Thailand

Posted by African Press International on September 29, 2009

Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
Bangladesh is experiencing rising sea levels and more flooding as a result of climate change

BANGKOK, – Some 2,500 participants will gather in the Thai capital next week for a crucial round of talks to seek a new deal to combat global warming.

The Bangkok Climate Change Talks, from 28 September to 9 October, are the penultimate round of negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change treaty (UNFCCC), and aim to advance a negotiating text for the deal. The talks come ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, when 192 nations will try to sign off on the deal before the 2012 expiry of the Kyoto Protocol.

Negotiations have lagged, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week urged nations to overcome their differences on the burden of emissions cuts and other issues to agree a new deal. Let us make this a year that we, united nations, rise to the greatest challenge we face as a human family: the threat of catastrophic climate change, Ban told a meeting of the UN General Assembly on 23 September.

Our road to Copenhagen requires us to bridge our differences. I firmly believe we can, he said, a day after convening a one-day summit of world leaders to discuss the issue.


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LESOTHO: A little money goes a long way

Posted by African Press International on September 29, 2009

Photo: Tomas de Mul/IRIN
91 year old Maphoka Tsolo now takes care of her two orphaned grandchildren

MATHEBE,- Despite her twisted spine and cataracts, Maphoka Tsolo, 91, still managed to lead the way down the steep narrow path behind her stone house in Mathebe, a small village in Mafeteng district, eastern Lesotho, determined to show why her orphaned great-grandchildren deserved the money from the government’s cash grants scheme.

“With nothing growing here it is very difficult to take care of myself and the children,” she said, pointing to her tiny plot of fallow land with a home made walking stick cut from a tree branch. She lost her husband and her three children “a very long time ago”, and old age had brought nothing but hunger, physical pain and financial misery.

Her grandson disappeared eight years ago, so there was no one to work the rain-starved land. “He said he was going to look for work but he never came back.” She had to stretch her 300 Maloti (US$39) monthly pension to support herself and the two children her grandson left behind.

Her situation is not uncommon: according to the Department of Social Welfare (DSW) Lesotho has more than 180,000 orphaned children, of which 55 percent have lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS-related illnesses. About 23.2 percent of the nearly two million population of this tiny landlocked country are HIV positive – one of the highest HIV prevalence rates worldwide.

Rescue in cash

At the beginning of 2009, Tsolo and her great-grandchildren were thrown a lifeline when the local Village Verification Committee (VVC) – consisting of the chief, a community councillor, two volunteers from caregiver groups, and a DSW representative – identified her household as one of the poorest and most vulnerable with children.

Being in the bottom 10 percent meant she would be eligible for a quarterly amount of $47 from the Lesotho Child Grants Programme (LCGP), which would ease the poverty that prevented the children from having enough to eat, staying healthy and going to school.

Mantoa Sejake, a Senior Child Welfare Officer at the DSW, commented: “That might seem like a small amount, but for those that are targeted this is very meaningful.” The money would help cover the cost of school fees, uniforms, health care and other needs.

The LCGP has targeted some 5,000 orphaned and vulnerable children living in 1,250 child-headed households, low-income households caring for AIDS orphans, and other vulnerable children in three communities – Matelile in Mafeteng District, Semonkong in Maseru District, and Lebakeng in Qacha’s Nek district – in the pilot phase of the programme.

The European Commission donated $7,3 million to the project, and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) provided technical assistance. The government eventually hopes to extend the programme throughout the country.

How poor is poor enough?

Mohemmad Farooq, a UNICEF child protection specialist who helped design the programme, said around 60 percent of the population were living below the poverty line and the country’s resources were limited, so prioritization of the most destitute households was crucial, yet extremely challenging.

“Giving people money is very sensitive. Who is the most deserving? If we look at the indicators, we have divided the ‘poor’ category into three – poor, very poor and destitute – and we were focusing on destitute only.” He recognized the danger of creating a dependency on cash handouts, but also noted that the programme came at a time of rising desperation.

''Who is the most deserving? If we look at the indicators, we have divided the ‘poor’ category into three – poor, very poor and destitute – and we were focusing on destitute only''

Years of chronic food insecurity due to erratic weather and soil erosion, the impact of HIV/AIDS, persistently high rates of unemployment – aggravated by retrenchments in Lesotho’s textile industry and the mines in neighbouring South Africa, on which many people depended for survival – meant deepening poverty across the country.

“And with the financial crisis the cost of living has gone up; this hits the poorest of the poor the hardest,” Farooq said. “Many people live just above the poverty line – it only takes a small shock to bring them down into poverty.” Lesotho now imports 70 percent of its food, mostly from South Africa, making it particularly vulnerable to food and fuel price hikes in that country.

“At this stage social protection is not a choice. If you don’t provide this type of coping mechanism people will go into negative coping mechanisms, like taking children out of school so that they can work, selling off assets – if they have any – or taking loans with high interest rates, for which they could end up in bonded labour, so the situation will get worse,” Farooq said.

The grants are to be spent mainly at the discretion of the household, but the programme includes a social mobilization and sensitization campaign. “We have a community-based targeting mechanism [through the VVCs]; people are sensitized to learn that the money should benefit the children.”

Attaching conditions like mandatory school attendance were not always feasible. “There is a problem with the supply side here – you can’t say you will only give the grant if the child goes to school, when often there are no schools to go to in the first place,” Farooq commented.

Primary education is free in Lesotho, but poverty keeps thousands of children out of school “because of the indirect costs like books, uniforms and transportation”, he said.

Tsolo picked up her first payment in April and a second in July, and said she looked forward to the next one in October. The money had gone on food, a school uniform for the 12-year-old girl, shoes for the eight-year-old boy, and school fees; and, she shyly admitted, “I also bought shoes for myself.”


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