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Archive for June 8th, 2012

Main rebel groups disband

Posted by African Press International on June 8, 2012

The disbandment of two main rebel groups in the Central African Republic could improve security (file photo)

BANGUI,  – A near decade-long insurgency which stoked insecurity in the Central African Republic’s (CAR) northern regions has eased after the disbandment in May of two main rebel groups there, bringing hopes for stability.

The Popular Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD) and the Republican Forces Union (UFR) dissolved and their fighters begun to disarm under peace agreements with the government.

The 7,000-strong APRD, which formed in 2005, carried out its first attacks against the army two years later in the northern town of Pahoua in Houam Pende region; later, clashes spread to the central region of Nana Gribizi.

Fighters ruthlessly attacked civilians, religious leaders, aid workers and their property, forcing residents to flee to the bush or to neighbouring Chad. The UFR, with a smaller force of some 2,000 fighters, operated only in the northern Kabo region.

On 17 and 18 May respectively, the APRD and the UFR announced their dissolution, raising hopes of an end to years of insecurity and suffering by the local population.

“We have stopped hostilities since 2007 after signing a comprehensive peace agreement in Libreville in Gabon, allowing the free movement of people and goods in areas we control. We are disarming, but the government should ensure our security and give us all we need,” said Lakoue Maradas Nado, a regional APRD commander.

Figures, however, vary on the number of APRD rebels who have been disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated since the ex-rebel chief Jean-Jacques Demafouth signed the peace deal with the government in 2008 and committed to disarmament.

“APRD’s disbandment is a security gauge for the residents in the north. It marks the end of fear, the end of the checkpoints set up by the ex-rebels, and it will encourage a return of the displaced and refugees as well as a resumption of farming in these areas which were CAR’s breadbasket,” said Macaire Niwe, a sociologist.

The CAR government has acknowledged the rebels’ disarmament while the UN representative in the country, Margaret Vogt (also head of the disarmament plan), expressed satisfaction with the programme.

Vogt said she “acknowledges APRD’s disbandment… and that of the URF a day later by its leaders. The international community appreciates the true value of this gesture.”

Former rebel leader Demafouth said his fighters were now ready to work as part of the security forces.

“Regarding demobilized troops, they become ordinary citizens because the movement no longer has a reason to exist,” he added.

“They have an amnesty that protects them. I am the national coordinator of the UN reintegration programme for the former fighters. We will help them find work, reform their lives.


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Indonesia has one of the world’s highest rates of young smokers

Posted by African Press International on June 8, 2012

Indonesia has one of the world’s highest rates of young smokers

BANGKOK,  – The World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), aims to reduce preventable deaths from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, heart attacks and strokes, chronic respiratory diseases and cancers, by 25 percent by 2025.

WHO is coordinating negotiations on the surveillance, indicators and voluntary targets that will form an eventual global plan to fight NCDs, and is drafting recommendations to be considered by member governments in October 2012. Many NCDs are caused by alcohol, tobacco, diet and a lack of exercise.

Three main fronts were raised in recent discussions with civil society and government representatives on the best ways to rein in NCDs, and how to measure progress. IRIN examines the next steps in fighting the leading cause of death worldwide.


Globally, data can be a deal-breaker, or at least hold back deals, said Ann Keeling, CEO of the Brussels-based NGO, International Diabetes Federation, and chair of the NCD Alliance, comprising some 2,000 civil society groups which advocate that NCDs be recognized as a “global emergency”.

“Countries are unwilling to enter into new targets in any area because they already have to report to the UN against a huge number of targets in education, gender equality, health etc. It takes resources to set up new data collection and reporting systems,” Keeling told IRIN. “Low-income countries fear the cost, and high-income countries with aid programmes fear they will be expected to support low-income countries and WHO to do this.”

While additional record keeping can be a burden, it is doable said Antonio Dans, a professor at University of Philippines’ College of Medicine. “We can use what already exists rather than setting up new systems, which would be a formidable task. We should just broaden the current systems [to include NCD data].” There is not only insufficient data, but sometimes none at all, he pointed out. “More than half the people die in the Philippines without going to a doctor – we cannot know their cause of death.”

Only about two-thirds of the world’s countries have “vital” registration systems that record births and deaths sufficiently to estimate death rates from various causes, according to WHO, which noted in March 2012 that 74 countries lacked any data on cause of death, while another 81 countries had only lower-quality data.

“Diabetes deaths, in particular, are under-reported even in rich countries, because the immediate cause of death – renal failure, CVD [cardiovascular disease], etc. – may be listed, when the root cause of those conditions, diabetes, is unrecorded,” said Keeling.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Death by diabetes goes under recorded

If countries have even a rudimentary vital registration system, it would only cost a few additional US cents per resident each year to adapt the system to monitor NCDs, said Timothy Armstrong, coordinator of the surveillance and population-based prevention unit in WHO’s NCD and mental health division. “Different countries will face different costs. If a country has no [health information] system, it will need to develop a vital registration system… The challenge is not so much creating the system, but rather its implementation [data collection].”

Conflict of interest

As WHO meets with countries to decide on targets and indicators in the coming months, multimillion-dollar industries like tobacco and alcohol will fight efforts to cut back consumption. “They will be lobbying governments, particularly at national level. Governments will be thinking of their national business interests,” Keeling said. Almost all UN member states are already signatories of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires reduction in the demand for tobacco.

When tobacco farmers in Indonesia, which has one of the world’s highest rates of young smokers, challenged a 2009 law listing tobacco as an addictive substance, courts upheld the law, but efforts to pass national regulations to enforce the anti-tobacco legislation have stalled.

Indonesia’s most recent national health survey, conducted in 2007, found the rate of death from NCDs had risen from 41.7 percent in 1995 to 59.5 percent in 2007 – an increase of 42 percent.

“It is impossible to close down cigarette factories, but we seek to inform the public that smoking is dangerous to their health,” said Lily Sulistyowati, director for health promotion in the Indonesian Health Ministry, in January 2011.

The Conflicts of Interest Coalition a group of international NGOs that counters industry meddling in public health policy, is working for more transparency in public health policymaking, and a code of conduct for industries that may endanger public health.


Several governments have expressed concerns that a global target more ambitious than their national goals may be unachievable, but others have lauded efforts to set a global objective.

Issoufou Aboubacar, director of disease control in the Health Ministry of Niger, which lies south of the Sahara desert in West Africa, told IRIN the challenges in reaching already existing national targets are multifold. The government recently adopted the National Strategic Plan for Prevention and Control of NCDs, 2012-2016, which calls for US$8.8 million to prevent and control these diseases.

Niger ranked next to last in a recent UN well-being index and in the bottom 10 countries of an international survey of health workers’ ability to reach and treat the population. 

The Health Ministry’s goals for controlling NCDs include reducing deaths from heart disease by 10 percent by 2016; increasing testing for asthma, epilepsy, five types of cancers and sickle-cell disease by 50 percent, and expanding diagnostics of the flesh-eating disease, noma.

“Once 2017 arrives, we will need to adjust our goals to meet the global target… A global target will not change our national strategy so much as improve it,” said Aboubacar.

WHO is expected to present its next discussion paper in July 2012. Regional consultations will then be held from August to October, with a meeting scheduled for October in Geneva to decide on the final global framework to fight NCDs.


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Drawdown: Aid agencies are seeing the writing on the wall

Posted by African Press International on June 8, 2012

Aid agencies are seeing the writing on the wall

KABUL,  – With the clock ticking down to Afghanistan’s transition in 2014, including the withdrawal of most foreign military forces, humanitarians have said it is time to consider post-transition scenarios and how that will impact aid delivery and operations.

“We are reviewing our activities and going through a lot of assessments right now, both from a reduction in funds perspective but also in a potential deterioration of security,” said an aid worker who preferred anonymity.

The transition will see the Afghan military take control of the country’s security from the International Security Assistance Force. But according to a statement by a group of NGOs, it is taking place in a context of rising violence against civilians, growing internal displacement, and increasing protection concerns.

“Potentially we see a civil war, a lot of political trouble, with riots, demonstrations and attacks,” said a Western analyst who preferred anonymity. Observers agree some places, like Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, will maintain some continuity, but what could unfold in other areas across the country is “anybody’s guess”.

Some organizations say they are already experiencing large cuts in foreign aid – and are anticipating and planning for more – and are relying more heavily on strategies such as community based approaches and subsistence planning. The former aims to ensure continued work in insecure areas in case international staff leave and the latter to make sure communities are focusing on basic foods for subsistence and not dependent on imported goods.

“It’s quite hard to know where that might happen, because that internal conflict can break out in many places, so doing contingency planning on that basis is quite difficult,” UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said during a recent visit to Kabul.

''Afghan staff are also increasingly concerned about the growing insecurity and the risks involved in working for the UN – not only to them but also their families''

“As for the longer term political process in terms of the drawdown of forces, everyone right now is focusing on how we can make sure that happens as efficiently and effectively as possible,” she added. “There is a process with ongoing conferences, and countries in the region are talking about how to offer support. The more you are able to have stability and security, the more the other elements of human development and livelihood support [the transition].”


Observers say a number of scenarios could play out ahead of the transition. The most desired, yet least expected, is to have all political parties sitting together at the negotiating table. However, increasing political and ethnic fragmentation in cities across the country, declining property markets, an imposed cash cap on money leaving Kabul airport, and re-armament in the north, are indicators of a possible breakdown in security and continued fighting.

“Usually plan A does not work here, so we plan B, C, D, all the way down to Z,” said one Western observer, who was commenting on ongoing contingency planning. The challenge, from an operational perspective, was how to keep up with the changes and continue operations on the ground when the situation is constantly shifting.

Challenges highlighted by aid workers include the negative effect on aid operations caused by the decline in aid money, the departure from the country of qualified Afghans, and a growing number of internally displaced people, especially those returning from Iran and Pakistan.

“It is about the reality of transition, that you have international forces that have brought with them development resources and aid into different parts of the country,” Amos said. “So if you have a wind-down of that development, the potential exists for greater humanitarian needs because people are dropping over the edge into greater vulnerability.”

Many observers are not convinced that less military presence will change anything in Afghans’ lives, though one of the main challenges for the international community is how to pay the civil service and maintain the level of effort put in by police, army and civil servants, especially if security continues to deteriorate.

“For the people in need and all the people on the cusp that are getting by, their situation can only get worse,” said a Western analyst. “These organizations can’t deal with the load they have now because they constantly have to re-look at strategies with constant emergencies coming along.”

Low morale

International humanitarian workers say working atmospheres are tense and staff morale is down due to staff cuts. One of their biggest concerns, as part of a larger humanitarian crisis, is their Afghan counterparts desire to leave the country.

Afghan staff are also increasingly concerned about the growing insecurity and the risks involved in working for the UN – not only to them but also their families. Should international staff be forced to leave the country or relocate, many fear there will be fewer national aid workers on the ground, which means less access to local communities and people in need, making it harder to ensure key services and basic needs continue to be met.

Amos, who visited an informal settlement and met some 80 families in Parwan e Se, just outside central Kabul, said that while figures demonstrate that the overall security situation in the country has improved, over the past year there were some places where internal displacement had increased because of ongoing conflict.

The UN estimates there are half a million internally displaced people across the country. Amnesty International says displacement is on the rise: In the first half of 2011, 91,000 people fled their homes due to internal conflict – up by 46 percent on the first half of 2010.

Political tensions with Iran and Pakistan over Kabul’s strategic partnership with Washington have also resulted in threats to expel Afghan refugees residing in the two countries.

“The proposed plan to rapidly increase the [Afghan national forces] to 350,000 by the end of 2014 only to cut it to 250,000 within two or three years is greatly concerning,” the NGO consortium statement said.

“Such a push is not only a waste of resources that otherwise could have been focused on training and equipping a smaller [Afghan force], but also may contribute to the proliferation of arms and armed groups, thus increasing the risks to civilians.”


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