Glaring data gap in the War Against Poverty and Disease

It’s surprising how little data is available on the rates of everything from disease to employment in poor countries, says Trevor Mundell, president of global health for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Governments and international organizations and researchers still aren’t collecting basic statistics on a lot of major diseases in Africa. Says Mundell, “[For example] there’s a complete absence of solid data around what the dimensions of [typhoid] in Africa.”

There’s a similar problem with dengue, a very unpleasant virus that’s spread by mosquitoes. This makes it hard to set priorities for health spending, he adds. “How do you plan for the future if you don’t even know the state of the present?”

The data gap is especially noticeable when it comes to statistics on girls and women, and ending the inequality they face is a major focus of the global goals. For instance, it’s hard to get solid, comparable numbers across all countries on everything from maternal mortality to how well girls are transitioning from school into jobs to what assets women own. In some cases — domestic violence against women is a classic example — many countries don’t consider gathering this data a top concern.

As for the huge pool of data we do have — advocates say much of it is difficult to get hold of because it’s being hoarded by everyone from U.N. agencies to researchers.

Jody Heymann is dean of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and founding director of the affiliated World Policy Analysis Center, which is trying to gather much of this data in one place and make it comparable from country to country. Her dream is to inspire app developers to find a way to get it on smartphones.


Humanitarian workers in Syria face intense danger

The heinous attack against a UN humanitarian aid convoy near Aleppo shocked the world. It is a sad manifestation of the great danger humanitarian workers are facing in Syria today.

Humanitarian workers are facing intense danger, risking their lives to save others. “In Syria today, carrying humanitarian aid puts you in greater danger than carrying a weapon,” according to one aid worker.

Humanitarian aid outside the supervision of the government has been forbidden in Syria since 2012, as all aid is channeled through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and other agencies registered with the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Thus, the work of grassroots humanitarian groups and NGOs working in opposition-controlled areas is effectively criminalized. People delivering humanitarian assistance face the danger of being put on trial before a military tribunal for “funding terrorist activities”. Any assistance to civilian populations in opposition-controlled areas, any services provided to areas outside the government control, is considered by the authorities as an act of resistance, as tacit support for the opposition.

Humanitarian assistance, which follows the principle of impartiality and neutrality, therefore has to be delivered in great confidentiality, through secret networks bound together by solidarity. Supplies are smuggled through tunnels and along dirt roads, over rivers and on the backs of donkeys through rough mountain terrain, in order to reach those communities that are cut off from all basic support.

[The Guardian]

Obama: Children not “fearful of other people because of where they’re from”

“Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria?” 6-year-old Alex wrote to U.S. President Obama. “Can you please go get him …We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”

Obama read the note earlier at the UN Leaders’ Summit on Refugees held in New York, and the White House posted it online Wednesday.

This how Alex’s letter came into the conversation: “The humanity that a young child can display, who hasn’t learned to be cynical, or suspicious, or fearful of other people because of where they’re from, or how they look, or how they pray, and who just understands the notion of treating somebody that is like him with compassion, with kindness,” Obama said Tuesday, “we can all learn from Alex.

Obama, in his speech, chided world leaders for not doing enough to help refugees. He called the global refugee crisis “one of the most urgent tests of our time.” Obama commended Germany and Canada as exemplary nations for providing these people support, and announced the U.S. would increase the number of refugees it accepts in 2017 by nearly 60 percent.

[The Atlantic]

UN resumes humanitarian aid to Syria

The United Nations said it resumed humanitarian aid deliveries to war-torn Syria on Thursday.

Jens Laerke, a spokesman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told Reuters that an inter-agency convoy would cross conflict lines into a besieged area of rural Damascus.

“We will advise on the exact locations once the convoy has actually reached those locations,” he said.

The Damascus branch of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent tweeted images of its aid vehicles on the move.

The U.N. suspended aid deliveries on Tuesday after the convoy was struck near Aleppo in northern Syria the previous day. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said one of its employees and around 20 civilians were killed.

[USA Today]

Zuckerberg Chan fund pledges $3 Billion to banish disease

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla on Wednesday pledged $3 billion over the next decade from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative established by the couple, toward helping banish or manage all disease.

“We plan to invest billions of dollars over decades,” Zuckerberg said. Late last year, they had pledged to donate 99 percent of their Facebook holdings or some $45 billion to “advance human potential and promote equality.”

“This is a big goal,” Zuckerberg said, “But we spent the last few years speaking with experts who think it is possible, so we dug in.”

The first investment being made as part of what the Zuckerbergs hoped would become a “collective” effort will be $600 million for the creation of a Biohub in San Francisco. The Biohub will bring together engineers and scientists from three prestigious California universities to help the effort.

“Mark and Priscilla are inspiring a whole new generation of philanthropists who will do amazing things,” said Microsoft billionaire turned global philanthropist Bill Gates, who has made improving health around the world a top goal at the foundation he created with his wife.


Some Israelis view $38 Billion in US aid as a failure

It was billed by President Obama as “the single largest pledge of military assistance in U.S. history,” a gift from the American taxpayer to the Israeli taxpayer, totaling $38 billion over 10 years, complete with squadrons of F-35 fighter jets.

But in Israel, the deal inked in Washington last week between the closest of allies has been met not with big love, but with mostly meh–a collective “So what?”

Leaders in the Israeli defense establishment said the deal should have ushered in a new era of cooperation, but did not. They said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his mutual antagonism with Obama, blew it. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak called the pact for the most advanced weaponry ever a failure and a sign of the withering relationship between the United States and Israel.

Several defense analysts pointed out that, after factoring in inflation and previous supplemental bumps in funding for Israel by Congress, the new assistance package represents less money than the past 10-year deal. Yair Lapid, a leader of an Israeli centrist party, warned that the White House demand in the pact that Israel buy military hardware from U.S. contractors–and not the Israeli defense industry–would backfire. Lapid said last month, “The only thing Israelis will remember from the deal is the unemployment line” in the nation’s economically hard-pressed cities.

Yet there are other views. David Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel, published a column headlined, “Ungrateful Israel owes the US a simple thank you.”

[Washington Post]

UN suspends all aid after convoy hit

The UN has suspended all aid convoys in Syria after a devastating attack on its lorries near Aleppo on Monday. The attack at Urum al-Kubra destroyed 18 of 31 lorries and killed about 20 civilians, including a senior local official of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, named as Omar Barakat.

Russia and Syria have both insisted that their forces were not involved.

The UN would not confirm what type of attack took place, saying “we are not in a position to determine whether these were in fact air strikes”.

Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said that after studying video taken at the scene they “did not find any signs of munitions hitting the convoy”. He said, “Everything shown in the video is the direct result of a fire which mysteriously began at the same time as a large scale rebel attack on Aleppo.”

The Syrian military, quoted by state media, said there was “no truth” to reports that the army had targeted the convoy.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking alongside his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, insisted the ceasefire deal was “not dead”, following talks on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly on New York on Tuesday. UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura also said there was still hope.


Politics and the Humanitarian Aid challenge in Syria

A deal brokered by the U.S. and Russia was to last for seven days and allow humanitarian aid to reach besieged neighborhoods of Aleppo held by the rebels. But even before the agreement officially expired at midnight local time Sunday, both sides appeared to have breached this shaky moratorium, each accusing the other of being at fault.

The Russian side says the lack of consensus and stability in the American political elite is the key obstacle to implement the Moscow-Washington ceasefire agreement on Syria.

Moscow said that the United States is not implementing its obligations from the agreement, especially on separating so-called moderate rebels from terrorists on the ground. Moreover, on Saturday, warplanes of a US-led coalition attacked positions of the Syrian Army near Deir ez-Zor, killing 62 personnel.

A United Nations convoy — laden with an enough supplies to feed 185,000 people for a month — is packed up and ready to go. The 20-truck fleet is still sitting on the other side of the Turkish border, unable to move into Syria.

Humanitarian aid has begun to flow to other areas in Syria, according to Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking on Monday morning.

Stephen O’Brien, the U.N.’s undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, said Monday he was “pained and disappointed” at the impasse.

[From various media outlets]

Imagine how $5,000,000,000,000 could change the world

The U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost taxpayers nearly $5 trillion and counting, according to a new report released to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the attacks.

Dr. Neta Crawford, professor of political science at Brown University, released the figures in an independent analysis of U.S. Departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security, and Veteran Affairs spending. Crawford’s estimate includes budget requests for the 2017 operations in Afghanistan–which are poised to continue despite President Barack Obama’s vow to withdraw troops from the country by then–as well as in Iraq and Syria.

Separate reporting late last month by the U.K.-based watchdog Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) found that the Pentagon could only account for 48 percent of small arms shipped to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11–meaning more than half of the approximately 700,000 guns it sent overseas in the past 15 years are missing.

What’s more, a recent Inspector General audit report found a “jaw-dropping” $6.5 trillion could not be accounted for in Defense spending.

Crawford’s report continues: “Interest costs for overseas contingency operations spending alone are projected to add more than $1 trillion dollars to the national debt by 2023. By 2053, interest costs will be at least $7.9 trillion unless the U.S. changes the way it pays for the war.”

And, Crawford notes, that’s a conservative estimate. “No set of numbers can convey the human toll of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or how they have spilled into the neighboring states of Syria and Pakistan, and come home to the U.S. and its allies in the form of wounded veterans and contractors,” the report states. “Yet, the expenditures noted on government ledgers are necessary to apprehend, even as they are so large as to be almost incomprehensible.”

[Common Dreams]

Emerging hot spots for businesses doing good

From pioneering programs in slum housing to mobile phone banking, Santiago and Nairobi are emerging hot spots for business leaders seeking to drive social change, according to a poll of experts on the best countries for social entrepreneurs.

Stephanie Koczela, co-founder of Nairobi-based Penda Health, a for-profit medical clinic group, said in richer countries, like the United States, people often ignored or dismissed social issues and enterprises but poorer nations saw the impact.

East Africa is one of the global centers of impact investing–the fledgling market in investing for social good–according to a 2015 report by the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN). This followed a major success in innovation by Kenya’s biggest communications operator, Safaricom, which pioneered a mobile money service called M-Pesa in 2007 that allows Kenyans to pay bills or receive funds on the simplest of mobile phones, giving people a new way of accessing banking. M-Pesa swept across the country and has been mimicked across Africa.

In Chile, it is support from the government which has fuelled the recent, fast-growing trend in social enterprises in and outside Santiago, experts say. Chile’s leading social entrepreneurs say access to government funding, the role of universities, a pool of well-educated Chileans, media interest and good internet connection have all helped make Santiago a hotbed for social entrepreneurs.

They said TECHO, a Santiago-based non-profit organization that tackles poverty and housing in slums, played a key role in raising awareness about doing social good after its 1997 set-up. TECHO, with a large network of young volunteers and now one of the largest non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Latin America, has served as a platform to launch future leading social entrepreneurs and enterprises.


Two human rights groups criticize UN over refugees

Leaders from around the world will meet in New York on Monday to discuss what to do about the world’s over 21.3 million refugees — more than any time since World War II. The next day, U.S. President Barack Obama will host a “Leader’s Summit,” in hopes of raising money for refugee initiatives.

And two prominent human rights groups have said the planned outcome document for this UN summit on refugees falls short of what is needed to deal with the massive crisis. In separate statements, Human Rights Watch called the draft of the final document “a missed opportunity,” and Amnesty International accused member states of stripping away any proposals of substance.

Amnesty said the outcome document had been rendered toothless after member states removed a clause asking governments to resettle 10 percent of the world’s refugees each year, thus making sure there was no obligation to take in a specific number of people.

“Millions of lives hang in the balance,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “This is not just about more money or greater resettlement numbers, but also about shoring up the legal principles for protecting refugees, which are under threat as never before.”

Human Rights Watch said it was particularly concerned about the risk to the bedrock foundation of refugee protection: not forcibly returning refugees to places where they would face persecution. The group said, so far this year, it has documented cases of refugees pushed back at borders in Jordan and Turkey and the harassing and de-registering of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. Kenya has also declared that it will close the world’s largest refugee in camp pushing Somalis to return home.


For refugees in Lebanon, cash instead of camps

Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people, has taken in probably close to 1.5 million Syrians fleeing their civil war. At equivalent levels, the United States would have 107 million Syrian refugees by now.

Lebanon’s government and international aid groups are doing something new: Each needy Syrian refugee family gets a banking card. Family members use it to shop for food at the 450 participating stores and markets; a family of five gets about $135 per month.

“There is nothing that could replace cash,” said Alan Moseley, the Lebanon country director for the International Rescue Committee, a member of the Lebanon Cash Consortium. “If we provided shelter materials, clothing, food or direct rent subsidies, it would be more costly to deliver and people would be getting things they don’t necessarily need.”

Research comparing cash and in-kind aid in four countries found that cash allowed more people to be helped for the same money, as many as 23 percent more.

Providing cash is also much faster than sending food, which can take months to arrive. Cash is flexible. It reduces waste. It protects dignity–especially important for people who have lost almost all control over their lives. And there is overwhelming evidence that people do not spend cash on alcohol and cigarettes.

Another major way cash can help refugees: it builds good will with hosts.  Syrians go to nearby stores to buy food that has been grown by local farmers and transported in local trucks.

One problem that cash can’t solve is the big one: There’s not enough aid. These grants will reach only half of the very poorest refugees.

[New York Times]

US offers humanitarian aid as Iraq prepares Mosul offensive

The United States said on Wednesday it would give Iraq $181 million in humanitarian aid, anticipating a wave of displaced people when Iraqi forces launch a drive to recapture the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State. The advance on Mosul, the biggest city held by the militant group also known as ISIL, could begin as soon as next month.

On a visit to discuss planning for the offensive with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other officials, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the money would be used to pre-position emergency food and relief supplies.

The United Nations expects up to 1 million people could flee their homes in Mosul, the group’s de facto Iraqi capital. Critics say preparations for the humanitarian and political fallout have not kept pace with military gains.

The additional aid brings U.S. humanitarian assistance to more than $1 billion since 2014, when a U.S.-led coalition started bombing Islamic State in Iraq and neighboring Syria as well as providing training and advice to Iraq’s security forces.


After rains and severe flooding, North Korea makes rare public appeal for relief

North Korea usually projects itself to the world as a fully functioning worker’s paradise. Yet severe flooding in the country’s northeast has resulted in a rare admission that all is not so well.

According to a report published Sunday by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) — North Korea’s official state media — the country’s northeast has been affected by the “heaviest downpour” since 1945, with “tens of thousands” of buildings destroyed and people left homeless and “suffering from great hardship.”

Figures released by the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs confirmed the natural disaster. So far, 133 people have been killed, 395 people are missing and 140,000 people are in “urgent need of assistance.”

Chris Staines, the head of a Red Cross delegation to North Korea, said he witnessed how the floods had “destroyed everything in their path” during a government-led trip to North Hamgyong province between September 6-9. Shelter will be a major concern in the coming months, Staines said in a statement. “Thousands of homes will need to be rebuilt before winter sets in and by the end of October overnight temperatures can plummet to sub-zero,” he added.


U2’s Bono asking Justin Trudeau to consider UN foreign aid goal

U2 frontman Bono is urging Justin Trudeau to resist ruling out a foreign-aid boost to help Canada meet a United Nations development target, even though the Liberal government has deemed it too ambitious.

In an exclusive interview with The Canadian Press, the Irish rock star praises Canada for showing an openness to the world at a time when many countries have been retreating deeper into isolation. But Bono, who will meet Trudeau this weekend at an international-aid event, says while he recognizes the U-N’s recommended spending objective is a difficult goal – he hopes the prime minister doesn’t push it aside.

The U-N target challenges countries to dedicate at least 0.7 per cent of their gross national income to foreign aid. Bono is calling on Canada to use the target as a kind of beacon of hope — not only for the people whose lives depend on Canadian dollars, but for Canada to have that place in the world itself.

Bono will appear alongside Trudeau, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and actress Danai Gurira at an event Saturday in Montreal, where the prime minister will also host a conference for the replenishment of the Global Fund. It’s an international partnership focused on eradicating AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Trudeau has committed 785-million dollars from Canada over two years to the Global Fund – a 20-per-cent increase.


Syria ceasefire begins as international aid agencies prepare to deliver aid

A nationwide ceasefire in Syria brokered by the United States and Russia came into effect on Monday as aid agencies prepared to send food and medical supplies to the besieged city of Aleppo.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war from a network of sources in the country, said major conflict zones were calm after the ceasefire took effect. The Russian foreign ministry said in a statement that a delivery of aid to Aleppo would start immediately.

The agreement initially aims to stop fighting between western-backed rebels and forces loyal to the Syrian government, and allow aid to enter areas where it is most desperately needed.

Turkey on Monday said more than 30 aid trucks, under UN supervision, were ready to deliver humanitarian supplies to the city, amid hopes that the truce will hold and secure a rare lull in a war that has killed almost 300,000 people and displaced millions from their homes.

Britain’s former foreign secretary, David Miliband, now chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, said the deal offered the best chance of a ceasefire since the five-year civil war began. He said aid agencies had been given assurances at the highest level that they would be able to deliver aid over the next week if all sides complied with the agreement.

[The Guardian]

Aid agencies call for investigation into UN operations in Syria

More than 70 humanitarian groups have suspended information-sharing cooperation with the UN in Syria, accusing the world body of being influenced in its operations, including in the distribution of aid, by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Besides suspending participation in a program in which groups share information to help in the delivery of aid across Syria, the letter’s signatories also called for a transparent investigation into the “political impact that the Syrian government has on humanitarian actors”.

The UN is accused of complacency amid Syrian government interference in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, including blocking aid to besieged rebel-held areas, removing medical aid from convoys, and marginalizing humanitarian workers for political reasons, according to a copy of the letter sent to Al Jazeera.

UN officials in Syria are aware of the situation and remain silent, the letter states. “This deliberate manipulation by the Syrian government and the complacency of the UN have played hand-in-hand. The people of Syria have suffered ever more as a result.”

[Al Jazeera]

New Syrian ceasefire offers humanitarian hope and more

The United States and Russia hailed a breakthrough deal on Saturday to put Syria’s peace process back on track, including a nationwide ceasefire effective from sundown on Monday.

“Today, Sergei Lavrov and I, on behalf of our president and our countries call on every Syrian stakeholder to support the plan that the United States and Russia have reached, to … bring this catastrophic conflict to the quickest possible end through a political process,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that despite continuing mistrust, the two sides had developed five documents that would enable coordination of the fight against armed groups and a revival of Syria’s failed truce in an enhanced form.

The Syrian government accepts the agreement and will cease hostilities in the besieged city of Aleppo for “humanitarian reasons,” according to the state news agency SANA.

The UN’s Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura described the deal as a “window of opportunity”, and said he would discuss with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon when stalled political negotiations can restart.

[Al Jazeera / CNN / Bloomberg]

Nearly half of all refugees are children

Children now make up more than half of the world’s refugees, according to a UNICEF report, despite the fact they account for less than a third of the global population.

New and on-going global conflicts over the last five years have forced the number of child refugees to jump by 75%, the report warns, putting these children at high risk of human smuggling, trafficking and other forms of abuse.

The UNICEF report–which pulls together the latest global data regarding migration and analyses the effect it has on children–shows that globally some 50 million children have either migrated to another country or been forcibly displaced internally.

“Though many communities and people around the world have welcomed refugee and migrant children, xenophobia, discrimination, and exclusion pose serious threats to their lives and futures,” said UNICEF’s executive director, Anthony Lake. “But if young refugees are accepted and protected today, if they have the chance to learn and grow, and to develop their potential, they can be a source of stability and economic progress.”

[The Guardian]

50 million children are refugees or migrants

Nearly 50 million children worldwide have been uprooted from their homes due to violence, poverty and other factors out of their control, according to a new report released by the U.N. children’s agency, “Uprooted: The growing crisis for refugee and migrant children.”

Of that total, 28 million are child refugees who fled conflict. An additional 20 million are child migrants who left their homes in search of better lives.

Children account for more than half of all refugees fleeing conflict, the report states. Nearly half of those children come from just two countries — Syria and Afghanistan.

What’s more, the number of children fleeing alone is on the rise. In 2015, an estimated 100,000 unaccompanied children filed for asylum in 78 countries, the reports says. That’s a threefold increase over 2014.

The number of child refugees has jumped by 75% in the past five years, the report states, spurred by new and ongoing conflicts. Today, 1 of every 200 children is a refugee.

“Children on the move are at risk of the worst forms of abuse and harm and can easily fall victim to traffickers and other criminals.” said Lily Caprani, UK deputy executive director of UNICEF. Boys are more at risk of recruitment by armed groups, while girls are more vulnerable to sexual violence, the report states.