How two rockers forced government support to address the AIDS crisis

Bono of U2 fame has been a successful campaigner for debt relief, trade reform, and more and better international aid.

Bono’s insistence that overcoming poverty meant tackling complex policy questions was a striking and refreshing anomaly. The Irish rock star was brave enough to educate himself and demand that his fans, if they were serious about the cause, use their brains as well. Several years ago, Bono and his countryman Bob Geldof performed a superb double act on AIDS and poverty in Africa to force the hand of Prime Minister Tony Blair, when they thought his commitment to the cause was wobbling.

In May 2003, Tony Blair invited the leaders of Britain’s aid charities to breakfast at 10 Downing Street to canvass their views on what should be his government’s priorities for Africa. Apparently unscripted, Bob Geldof interrupted the aid chiefs’ presentations to lay out with practiced frankness the moral obscenity of the collapse in life chances of African children in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic. Bono weighed in with facts and figures, speaking in a level, intense tone.

Blair wasn’t disconcerted. The British prime minister made not a single concession on substance to the aid agency chiefs’ points, and by the time Blair left the room, he had charmed and impressed Britain’s international charity constituency.

Geldof and Bono were not so easily won over. While the aid agency bosses munched pastries, the two Irishmen lurked in the corridor waiting for Blair to reappear. And when he did, they frog marched him out of the front door of Number 10 where the cameras were waiting for a quick press conference. Geldof announced his demand for a commission for Africa—he mentioned AIDS as the most pressing issue—and Blair rather weakly said he supported the idea. He had been bounced into Geldof’s agenda and was less than happy—but he knew better than to object.

Geldof had been incubating this plan for a while, and the breakfast-time prime ministerial hijacking was a crucial step in the project that culminated in Blair’s “Commission for Africa” and the Live 8 concerts which accompanied the G8 Summit in Scotland in 2005, where world leaders made their largest-ever pledges to end poverty and provide universal access for AIDS medication by 2010.

This was the zenith of celebrity activism on AIDS and poverty in Africa, cannily imposed on an impressionable government. It’s unlikely that the ambitious goals will be met—but funds for assistance and AIDS have been moving in the right direction. Without the involvement of Bono and Geldof, it’s unlikely that President George W. Bush would have created his President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and this year expanded its budget to $85 billion for the next five years, making it the largest-ever aid commitment for a single disease.

[World Affairs]

The agony of Syrians and Iraqis who can’t go home

Excerpts of a NY Times Op Ed by Angelina Jolie:

I have visited Iraq five times since 2007, and I have seen nothing like the suffering I’m witnessing now. … In almost four years of war, nearly half of Syria’s population of 23 million people has been uprooted. … For many years I have visited camps, and every time, I sit in a tent and hear stories. I try my best to give support. To say something that will show solidarity and give some kind of thoughtful guidance. On this trip I was speechless.

What do you say to a mother with tears streaming down her face who says her daughter is in the hands of the Islamic State, or ISIS?

What do you say to the 13-year-old girl who describes the warehouses where she and the others lived and would be pulled out, three at a time, to be raped by the men?

How can you speak when a woman your own age looks you in the eye and tells you that her whole family was killed in front of her, and that she now lives alone in a tent and has minimal food rations?

I met a family of eight children. No parents. Father killed. Mother missing, most likely taken. The 19-year-old boy is the sole breadwinner. When I comment that it is a lot of responsibility for his age, he just smiles and puts his arm around his young sister. He tells me he is grateful he has the opportunity to work and help them. He means it. He and his family are the hope for the future. They are resilient against impossible odds.

Syria’s neighbors have taken in nearly four million Syrian refugees, but they are reaching their limits. Syrian refugees now make up 10 percent of Jordan’s population. In Lebanon, every fourth person is now a Syrian. This means fewer resources available for local people.

Who can blame these refugees for thinking that we have given up on them? Only a fraction of the humanitarian aid they need is being provided. There has been no progress on ending the war in Syria since the Geneva process collapsed 12 months ago. Syria is in flames, and areas of Iraq are gripped by fighting. The doors of many nations are bolted against them. There is nowhere they can turn.

The plain fact is we cannot insulate ourselves against this crisis. The spread of extremism, the surge in foreign fighters, the threat of new terrorism — only an end to the war in Syria will begin to turn the tide on these problems.

Read full Op Ed 

USAid suspends contractor ‘International Relief and Development’

The United States Agency for International Development announced Monday that it had suspended one of its largest contractors, International Relief and Development, a nonprofit group based in Virginia, because of questions over oversight of its spending, a significant amount being in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The agency would not say specifically what it had found, but deemed the findings serious enough to suspend the group from receiving new contracts.

“U.S.A.I.D. has a zero-tolerance policy for mismanagement of American taxpayer funds and will take every measure at our disposal to recover these funds,” said Benjamin Edwards, a spokesman for the agency.

The suspension came after years of criticism that the agency had provided little oversight of its contractors. The group also came under fire last year after a Washington Post investigation raised questions about the millions of dollars in bonuses it had awarded to members of the family that founded the group.

International Relief and Development is one of the largest recipients of grants and contracts among nonprofit groups that work for the agency. It gets most of its funding from the aid agency, having received $2.4 billion from it since 2006. Among its other services, the group builds roads and clinics and works with farmers to increase food production in developing countries. It works in more than 40 countries.

 [New York Times]

Oxfam: Richest 1 percent sees share of global wealth jump

The richest 1 percent of the population will own more than half the world’s wealth by 2016, Oxfam International said in a report released as the World Economic Forum begins in Davos, Switzerland.

Oxfam said the world’s richest people saw their share of global wealth jump to 48 percent last year from 44 percent in 2009. Rising inequality is holding back the fight against global poverty as the world’s biggest companies lobby the U.S. and European Union for beneficial tax changes at a time when average taxpayers are still paying the bill for the financial crisis, Oxfam said.

“Do we really want to live in a world where the 1 percent own more than the rest of us combined?” Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam’s executive director, said in a statement. “The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering, and despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast.”

While world leaders such as President Barack Obama and International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde have talked about tackling extreme economic inequality “we are still waiting for many of them to walk the walk,” Byanyima said.

One in nine people don’t have enough to eat and more than a billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, Oxfam said, ticking off statistics that paint a grim picture for all but the world’s richest.

[AP]

Approaches to international aid

The future of humanitarian assistance and security policy in chaotic places such as Syria and Iraq could rest on a single question: Does aid in conflict zones promote peace or war? It seems intuitive to assume that hunger and exposure push people to violence and that aid should, therefore, lead to peace. This idea has been the bedrock of scores of “hearts and minds” campaigns dating back to the Cold War, which have invested billions of dollars on the principle that assistance can buy compliance and, eventually, peace.

Yet recent evidence indicates that sending aid into conflict-affected regions can actually worsen violence in some cases. Over the past decade, the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project (ESOC), has conducted a suite of studies in conflict zones to test this relationship.

On the broadest level, we found that the type of the aid program matters greatly. Certain kinds of assistance—targeted, low-profile, conditional transfers delivered directly to needy families—appear to decrease conflict.

By contrast, large and more high-profile projects, such as initiatives to improve infrastructure, may empower insurgents and exacerbate hostilities.

These findings can help inform an improved approach to aid that would both relieve suffering and help promote long-term stability.

[Foreign Affairs]

Pope Francis lambasts dictatorial forms of international aid

Pope Francis has obliquely but sharply criticized how financially stable nations lend aid to developing countries, saying they sometimes require concessions that strike echoes of 20th century dictatorships.

Speaking to media, Francis recounted a story of a public education minister he knew who was offered money to construct new schools for the poor. To receive the money, said Francis, the minister had to agree to use a course book with students that taught what the pontiff called “gender theory.”

“This is the ideological colonization,” said the pope. “It colonizes the people with an idea that changes, or wants to change, a mentality or a structure. It is not new, this,” he continued. “The same was done by the dictators of the last century. They came with their own doctrine — think of the Balilla [youth groups of Fascist Italy], think of the Hitler Youth.”

“Every people has its own culture,” said Francis. “But when imposed conditions come from the imperial colonizers, they seek to make [peoples] lose their own identity and make an homogeny.”

Continuing to clarify his concept of “ideological colonization,” Francis said he heard concerns about the matter from African bishops during last fall’s Synod, who told him they often face difficult choices when presented with conditions of acceptance on much needed financial aid.

[National Catholic Reporter]

Gazans freezing amid rubble

Many thousands of Gazans face a freezing winter living in tents pitched amid the rubble of their ruined homes.

More than four months after the 50-day summer war with Israel, 17,000 Gazans still remain displaced, having to live in temporary shelters. A total of 120,000 homes are estimated to have been destroyed in the Israeli air strikes that claimed 2,000 Palestinian lives.

“The whole area is in ruins and it’s practically impossible to live here,” Gazan resident Mahmud Hammash tells RT. “Even the undamaged houses are not fit for living. And the freezing cold has only made matters worse. A week ago the situation for all of us was unbearable.”

Hammash refers to last week’s winter storm, which killed three infants who froze to death. Gale force winds then brought with them freezing temperatures and torrential rains which led to large areas being flooded.

The situation is catastrophic, according to Amjad Al Shawa, a human rights activist and head of the Palestinian NGOs network in the Gaza Strip. He says shortly after the war the international community vowed to help Gaza. It’s still only a promise, though.

“Last October, we had the donors’ conference for Gaza construction, which was held in Cairo,” Al Shawa told RT. “There was about $2.7 billion that the international community was ready to pay… Only 2 percent of that money arrived.”

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said it has only received $135 million from the international community, and was facing “a funding gap of $585 million for shelter assistance.” UNRWA says it will run out of money for the Gazans in February.

The money it has so far received was distributed among 40,000 families who desperately need to repair their homes.

Among major factors hampering the reconstruction effort is Israel’s blockade of the territory.

[Read full RT article]

UAE aims to be the world hub for humanitarian aid

The United Arab Emirates aims by 2021 to be the first global logistics hub for distributing humanitarian aid in response to regional disasters and crises.

The goal is “to ensure the readiness of relief work locally and internationally in anticipation of any disaster in an area inhabited by two billion people around us,” Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, said on Monday.

The strategy was launched at International Humanitarian City, the aid logistics center in Dubai. IHC already hosts nine United Nations agencies and more than 40 NGOs and companies that deliver urgent crisis aid and also support long-term economic development.

[Read more]

More than one million have fled homes in Ukraine

More than one million people have been driven from their homes by the conflict in Ukraine, hampering aid efforts and leaving the country on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe, aid agencies said on Thursday.

The number of people uprooted within Ukraine, 610,000, and of refugees who have fled to neighboring countries, 594,000, has more than tripled since August, figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) show.

The U.N. said an estimated 5.2 million people in Ukraine were living in conflict zones, of whom 1.4 million were highly vulnerable and in need of assistance as they face financial problems, a lack of services and aid, and harsh winter conditions.

The conflict between Ukraine and pro-Russia separatists, killed more than 4,700 people last year and provoked the worst crisis in relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Denis Krivosheev, deputy director of Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International, said residents in separatist-controlled Luhansk and Donetsk could barely afford food and medicines, especially vulnerable people such as pensioners. “While it may be too early to call this a humanitarian catastrophe, it’s clearly progressing in that direction,” Krivosheev told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

The provision of humanitarian aid was being hampered by pro-Kiev volunteer battalions that were increasingly preventing food and medicine from reaching those in need in eastern Ukraine, he said. “Attempting to create unbearable conditions of life is a whole new ballgame… using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is a war crime.”

[Reuters]

Médecins Sans Frontières origins

Bernard Kouchner was a Red Cross doctor who founded Médecins Sans Frontières (or Doctors Without Borders as it’s known in the US and Canada).

Kouchner was moved to righteous rage during Nigeria’s civil war of 1967–70, when Biafran secessionists tried to break away from the federation. The International Committee of the Red Cross, hewing to a strict interpretation of humanitarian law, did not speak out on behalf of the Biafran cause and later shuttered its Biafran operation.

Kouchner, convinced that the Nigerians were set to commit genocide against the Biafran populace, was furious. He quit the ICRC and founded Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), aiming for a dynamic, courageous agency ready to rush in where the humanitarian establishment feared to tread.

Alex de Waal, writing in World Affairs, goes on to say, “Kouchner sees himself as a master of using the media to further humanitarian causes, employing his formidable network of contacts among journalists and opinion makers, as well as an instinctive sense of drama, to accomplish his aims.”

Since 1971, Médecins Sans Frontières has grown into an international humanitarian-aid non-governmental organization known for its projects in war-torn regions and developing countries facing endemic diseases, its doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, logistical experts, water and sanitation engineers and administrators providing medical aid worldwide. These doctors and nurses volunteer their time to help solve issues of world health. Private donors provide about 80% of the organization’s funding, while governmental and corporate donations provide the rest.

In 1999, Médecins Sans Frontières received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its members’ continued efforts to provide medical care in acute crises, as well as raising international awareness of potential humanitarian disasters.