The road less traveled

Many young women in rural Africa face difficult futures: of early marriage, young motherhood, limited education, and meager livings.

But not Modester. At 18, Modester is one of the top students in all of Zambia, headed for university and whatever big dream she may have in mind.

That’s an extraordinary accomplishment for a girl from a small, rural community. And it all started with the gift of a goat. Read more

Syrian immigrants in US represent an American success story

An analysis of Syrian immigrants in the United States published this month offers a pretty compelling snapshot of what, indeed, is going on: A lot of hard work, integration and success.

The study, put out jointly by the Center for American Progress, a center-left think tank in Washington, and the Fiscal Policy Institute, examined 2014 census data to paint a picture of roughly 90,000 Syrian immigrants in the country. It found that, “when given a chance, Syrian immigrants are fitting into and excelling in the United States, both socially and economically, on a wide variety of metrics.”

Here are some of the major findings:
– Syrian immigrants are a highly entrepreneurial group: Eleven percent of the Syrian immigrants are business owners in comparison [with] 4 percent of immigrants and 3 percent of U.S.-born people.
– Syrian immigrant businesses are thriving: The median earnings of Syrian business owners are $72,000 a year. This means they are supporting and growing the local economy and providing employment.
– They are well-educated: Syrian men, in particular, are more likely to have a college degree or an advanced degree such as a master’s, doctorate, or professional degree.
– Syrian immigrants speak English at high levels compared to all immigrants.

[And related to any new Syrian refugee immigrants] “the 90,000 Syrian immigrants who were in the United States before the recent arrival of refugees have been thriving and are therefore well-positioned to help their compatriots when they arrive,” the report says.

[Washington Post]

Humanitarian evacuation of eastern Aleppo appears to be completed

Hundreds of rebel fighters and civilians, including small children swaddled in thick blankets, were bused out of war-ravaged Aleppo in heavy snow on Wednesday as the evacuation of former rebel strongholds entered its final phase. Scenes of buses slowly driving out of Aleppo in a shroud of white offered an evocative finale to what has been one of the most brutal chapters in Syria’s civil war.

The evacuation of the Syrian city of Aleppo has now come to a close, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and multiple other officials and a rebel group said.

A group of buses scheduled to evacuate the last civilians and rebels from eastern Aleppo had been delayed, Syrian state-run media said, blaming infighting among rebel factions.

More than 4,000 fighters left rebel-held areas of Aleppo, the Red Cross said Thursday, in the last stages” of an evacuation clearing the way for Syria’s army to retake the city.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu tweeted Tuesday that 37,500 people had been evacuated from the war-torn city so far, adding that “all evacuations are intended to be finished [shortly].”

The Assad government has retaken Aleppo from rebel groups who have controlled parts of the city since 2012. The government has made significant territorial gains after its forces, backed by airstrikes, entered rebel-held areas in late November.

[CNN, AFP, Yahoo]

Children caught in the crossfire of the battle for Mosul

The desperate plight of a generation of children is in the balance as the bloody battle for the city of Mosul threatens to become a humanitarian catastrophe, Amnesty International said following a field investigation.

On a visit to the region this month, the organization met children of all ages who had suffered terrible injuries after being caught in the line of fire between the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS) and government forces who are backed by a US-led coalition.

“Children caught in the crossfire of the brutal battle for Mosul have seen things that no one, of any age, should ever see. I met children who have not only sustained horrific wounds but have also seen their relatives and neighbors decapitated in mortar strikes, torn to shreds by car bombs or mine explosions, or crushed under the rubble of their homes,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Response Adviser, who returned from a 17-day mission to northern Iraq.

With few or no functioning or accessible hospitals left in the conflict-affected areas of east Mosul, the epi-centre of the fighting, the best hope for the wounded to receive medical care is in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Even though only some of those injured in the Mosul battle have been evacuated to Erbil, hospitals there have been overwhelmed by the large number of casualties.

“The scars left by these unimaginably traumatic experiences are psychological as well as physical, but these life-altering wounds are being neglected by the Iraqi government and its allies, who have so far failed to ensure adequate medical facilities are in place,” said Donatella Rovera. “If there are resources for the war there must also be resources to deal with the consequences of war.”

[Amnesty International]

UN sets up team to prepare Syrian war crimes cases

The United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday voted to establish a special team to “collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence” as well as prepare cases on war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the conflict in Syria.

Liechtenstein U.N. Ambassador Christian Wenaweser told the General Assembly ahead of the vote: “We have postponed any meaningful action on accountability too often and for too long.” He said inaction has sent “the signal that committing war crimes and crimes against humanity is a strategy that is condoned and has no consequences.”

The special team will “prepare files in order to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings in accordance with international law standards, in national, regional or international courts or tribunals that have or may in the future have jurisdiction over these crimes.”

The team will work in coordination with the U.N. Syria Commission of Inquiry. The Commission of Inquiry, which says it has a confidential list of suspects on all sides who have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, has repeatedly called for the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

The Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari, along with Syrian allies Russia and Iran, spoke out against the resolution.


Can Mobile Banking lift people out of poverty?

If you live in Kenya there’s a jingle you hear on television and radio a lot, an ad for a type of banking service called M-PESA that’s run entirely through your mobile phone.

You set up an account with the phone company. You can send and receive funds by text. Or, if you need to make a cash deposit or withdrawal, you do it through a vast network of agents — small-time vendors in kiosks and shops, for example, that the company has set up.

M-PESA was launched nine years ago. Today almost every single household in Kenya uses it. Most Kenyans didn’t have access to traditional banks before. Which already makes mobile banking a game-changer.

Now scientists say there could be an extra benefit for poor customers: Mobile banking might lift people out of poverty. That’s the subject of a study out this week in the journal Science about M-PESA.

It turns out mobile banking made a big dent in poverty. The impact was particularly strong for households led by women. Compared to households in areas without M-PESA agents, those women-led families with access to a large number of agents set aside 22 percent more in savings between 2008 and 2014. And they bought 18.5 percent more basic goods.

What’s more, among the poorest families — those who’d been living on less than a $1.25 a day — nearly 1 in 10 got enough of a boost to lift them out of extreme poverty.

That’s a better track record than a lot of aid programs.


Oxfam calls for independent monitoring of Syria evacuations

Oxfam and 53 other international and Syrian organizations which constitute the Syria INGO Regional Forum (SIRF) continue to be appalled by obstructions to humanitarian assistance, lack of protections for civilians fleeing armed conflict and apparent violations of international humanitarian law in Aleppo, in Foah, in Kafrayya and in many other parts of Syria.

Oxfam International states: “Negotiations to evacuate civilians are being subjected to political negotiations by all parties to the conflict. This politicization of aid is putting civilians at risk.”

“We welcome and support France’s proposed Resolution at the UN Security Council to ensure independent monitoring of evacuations and full humanitarian access. It is the very least the international community can do.”


Evacuation underway from eastern Aleppo

Some 350 evacuees were able to leave the rebel-held pocket in eastern Aleppo in Syria late on December 18, despite an attack on buses set to deliver wounded and sick people from government-held villages, according to monitors and aid officials.

The reports came as the UN Security Council prepared to convene on December 19 to vote on a French-drafted proposal to send UN monitors to Aleppo to observe evacuations from besieged areas.

At least five buses carrying evacuees from eastern Aleppo arrived in rebel-controlled areas outside the city on December 18 after they were held up in government-controlled southern Aleppo, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activists on the ground who were in contact with the evacuees.

It was not immediately clear if convoys would be allowed to deliver more evacuees after armed assailants on December 18 attacked and burned five buses en route to evacuate ill and injured from villages near Idlib in northwestern Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights blamed the attack on Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants.

The forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the past week have pushed to establish full control over the eastern part of Aleppo, which the opposition had held since 2012, with an offensive that has been harshly criticized by the UN and Western governments.

[Reuters, AFP, AP]

The International Development Association working to combat poverty

IDA18, the donor meetings for replenishing the resources of the International Development Association IDA (a part of the World Bank) were completed on 15 December in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

The aim of the IDA is the eradication of extreme poverty and the more balanced distribution of well-being. The IDA lends money on concessional terms as well as providing aid to the poorest developing countries.

Funding for IDA is provided by 47 states. This round of a record $75 Billion is the largest in the 56-year history of the IDA, as now with the new way of leveraging the IDA’s capital it is possible to attract significantly more funding.

The biggest funders continue to be the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Finland contributes 105 million euros to the funding. The emphasis in the funding round is on investments in the poorest countries to enable growth, opportunities and social adaptability. Spearhead themes are gender equality, environmentally sustainable development, the economic growth of developing countries and employment, the strengthening of administration and institutions and especially support for fragile and conflict states.


UNICEF to test first humanitarian drone in Africa

In cooperation with the Government of Malawi, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) will establish an air corridor and use unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), known as drones, for humanitarian purposes, the agency announced.

“Malawi has over the past years faced serious droughts and flooding,” stated Malawi’s Minister of Transport and Public Works, Jappie Mhango. “The launch of the UAS testing corridor is particularly important to support transportation and data collection where land transport infrastructure is either not feasible or difficult during emergencies.”

The corridor will be the first one in Africa, and the first one to be used globally for humanitarian and development purposes, the agency reports. It will become fully operational by April 2017, while its distance is expected to be no longer than 40 kilometres.

The Humanitarian UAS Testing Corridor will undergo testing in three areas: imagery – generating and analyzing aerial images for development and during humanitarian crises, including for situation monitoring in floods and earthquakes, connectivity – exploring the possibility for UAS to extend Wi-Fi or cellphone signals across difficult terrain, particularly in emergency settings, and transport – delivery of small low weight supplies such as emergency medical supplies, vaccines and samples for laboratory diagnosis, including for HIV testing.

[UN News Centre]

New UN leader must factor Trump into his plans

António Guterres took the oath of office this week to become the next secretary general of the United Nations amid a rise in nationalist movements around the world and what he called a loss of confidence in institutions, including the one he will take over in January.

The next United Nations leader would already have faced tough challenges: war, climate change, widening income inequality, record levels of global displacement. But the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States has changed the incoming secretary general’s approach to virtually every major crisis.

1.Even as he needs commitment from the United States, the single largest funder of the United Nations, Mr. Guterres will be under pressure to call out American leaders if they flout the basic values of the United Nations Charter.
2.Guterres has to ensure that Mr. Trump does not severely cut United States funding for the United Nations or dismiss the institution altogether as a platform for solving global problems.
3.A third conundrum is Syria, which Mr. Guterres staked out as his top priority when he campaigned for the job. Mr. Trump has suggested he wants to join Russia in routing the Islamic State from Syria, even if that approach means keeping the country’s strongman, Bashar al-Assad, in power. If he goes along, Mr. Guterres, a canny, well-connected politician who has cast himself as a champion of human rights, will face the prospect of endorsing a leader accused of committing war crimes.

In his speech on Monday, he laid out his priorities while reassuring world powers he has their interests at heart. In a pitch to the incoming Republican administration, Mr. Guterres said he would make the United Nations more “nimble” and “efficient” and promised “management reform,” shorthand for cost cutting. There is widespread concern among United Nations diplomats that Mr. Trump, who has dismissed the value of global cooperation, at least on the campaign trail, could kneecap the organization.

Mr. Guterres, a former Socialist prime minister of Portugal and for 10 years the head of the United Nations refugee agency, spent much of his speech discussing the importance of preventing conflict; diplomats have said in recent days that he is considering making that a top priority. He warned against using human rights “as a means to a political end” and spoke about the paradox of globalization.

 [New York Times]

Pope urges Syrian President to respect humanitarian law

Pope Francis urged Syrian President Bashar Assad to do everything possible to end the war in his country, to protect civilians and to ensure humanitarian agencies can deliver emergency aid to the people. The pope also asked Assad “to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully respected with regard to the protection of the civilians and access to humanitarian aid.”

Syria’s SANA news agency reported Assad met on Dec. 12 with new Cardinal Mario Zenari, the papal nuncio to Syria, and that the cardinal delivered a letter from the pope.

Maronite Archbishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo told Catholic News Service by phone on Dec. 13 that the Syrian army had liberated most of the city from ISIS the previous day. He said the Syrian army called for the terrorists to surrender and come forward without their weapons. “Unfortunately, there was no surrendering,” Archbishop Tobji said, adding that Aleppo is still 1 percent or 2 percent under control of the Islamic State.

Yet, because the city is nearly completely under Syrian army control, “the people are celebrating,” the archbishop said. Like a parade, “there were car convoys, people marching everywhere, expressing their joy,” he said.

Archbishop Tobji noted that “there is a lot to rebuild” and it will be a “huge challenge” to put the economy on the right track “after all this destruction.”

He commended Pope Francis’ Dec. 12 letter to Assad: “It gives the people hope,” the archbishop said. “It’s always a plus for the people to hear from the church’s highest authority such words of encouragement and support.”

[National Catholic Review]

Russia: Syria regains control of east Aleppo so humanitarian aid to proceed

The Syrian government has established control over eastern Aleppo, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations, told the UN Security Council on Tuesday.

“Over the last hour we’ve received information that the military activities in east Aleppo have stopped,” Churkin said, according to a simultaneous translation provided by the UN.

“So there’s no question about cessation of hostilities, or humanitarian operations. The Syrian government has established control over east Aleppo so now the stage has come for practical humanitarian initiatives.”

Sources inside Aleppo tell CNN a ceasefire and evacuation agreement has been reached in the beleaguered eastern part of the city. The Aleppo ceasefire and evacuation agreement was reached with “Turkish mediation,” a commander in the Islamist rebel group Ahrar al-Sham told CNN.  The Turkish Foreign Affairs ministry confirmed its involvement in the deal to CNN and said civilians will be evacuated to the city of Idlib.

The development is a hopeful one for the international community, which has failed to find a political solution to the crisis in Aleppo, which has become the epicenter of Syria’s brutal five-year war. Rebel groups held eastern Aleppo for more than four years after the Arab Spring uprising and a Syrian government siege on the area had essentially cut it off from the outside world, sparking a humanitarian crisis there.


Indonesian Red Cross scale-up Aceh earthquake relief efforts

Four days after a 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck Pidie Jaya District in Aceh, Indonesia, the humanitarian impact of the disaster is becoming clearer. According to the National Disaster Management Agency, at least 100 people have been killed, while over 600 suffered injuries. The earthquake damaged some 11,300 houses, over 100 offices, 88 shop-houses, nearly 60 mosques and over 30 schools. Over 65,000 people were displaced from their homes and many of the affected residents are fearful of aftershocks and are reluctant to return to their homes.

The earthquake also damaged water sources in many of the villages. Wells owned by residents have turned black and murky, forcing the villagers to rely on rainwater and rivers for their drinking water.

Since the earthquake, the Indonesian Red Cross (Palang Merah Indonesia) has been providing emergency aid and assisting in search and rescue activities. Early assessments indicate that water, sanitation and healthcare remain top priorities as relief efforts gather pace.


Solomon Islands scrambles to reach areas hit by two major quakes

The Solomon Islands plans to dispatch emergency supplies to areas affected by a 6.9 magnitude aftershock on Saturday, a day after a much larger tremor triggered a tsunami warning that send hundreds of coastal people fleeing into the hills. Both quakes triggered tsunami warnings which were lifted a short time later.

“We are working with the National Disaster Office of the Government and we’ve mobilized our emergency response teams to accompany the government officers and other international non-governmental organizations that are going on this boat,” General Secretary of the Solomon Islands Red Cross Joanne Zoleveke said.

Friday’s quake caused significant damage and forced people from homes in the town of Kirakira on Makira Island, about 200 km from the Pacific Island nation’s capital of Honiara.

Australia has provided $37,235 worth of supplies and a helicopter to undertake an initial assessment of affected areas to help target relief efforts.

Suzy Sainovski of World Vision in Honiara said staff from the humanitarian organization in Kirakira saw people fleeing to higher ground. “One of the reasons we need to get them shelter assistance (is) because it’s the start of the wet season here.”

[Yahoo News]

Turn refugee settlements into enterprising business incubators

Refugee camps should be turned into enterprise zones so inhabitants can set up businesses and build their own infrastructure, according to a new report.

Called Refugee Cities, the report argues that existing aid strategies have failed, with refugees preferring to avoid the camps due to the lack of opportunities they offer. Instead, by modelling them on special enterprise zones (SEZs) elsewhere in the world, they could benefit both the refugee and the host populations, as well as giving inhabitants useful skills for their eventual return to their homelands.

“Modelled after the most successful special economic zones in the world, refugee cities work within political realities to create jobs for refugees and their neighbors, while achieving a return for investors,” says the report. “Surrounding communities would enjoy new investment and infrastructure, and governments would welcome refugees as a benefit rather than a burden.”

US-based NGO Refugee Cities was founded by Michael Castle Miller, who said the idea would benefit both refugees and the host country. “The aims of the project are to expand opportunities for migrants and to thereby allow them to find dignity, meaning, and a social and economic future,” Miller told Dezeen. He added that Refugee Cities aimed “to provide a model under which host countries can benefit from refugees’ presence; to deliver a financial return for investors; to make international assistance more effective and self sustaining; and to provide refugees with the material, knowledge, and psychological resources to rebuild their home countries when they are able to return.”

[de zeen]

The world’s largest solar plant … and it’s in India

Nearly 300 million of India’s 1.2 billion people live without power. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to shrink that number by expanding solar generation twenty-fold by 2022.

At full capacity, the new 2,500-acre plant in Kamuthi could power up to 150,000 homes and add 648 MW to the country’s electricity generating capacity. That’s nearly 100 times greater than the world’s previous largest solar plant, California’s Topaz Solar Farm.

Even more impressive: The Kamuthi plant was built in just eight months, compared to the two-plus years it took to construct Topaz, and at a fraction of the cost — $679 million compared to Topaz’s $2.5 billion.

India, along with the U.S. and China, is currently one of the world’s largest producers of carbon emissions. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s power now comes from coal, and if India added all of its new power in coal, too, then the world would be in serious trouble.

At the Paris climate talks last December, Modi pledged that 40 percent of India’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2030. This plant will help them get there.

Indonesia earthquake in Aceh

A 6.5-magnitude earthquake struck Indonesia’s Aceh province on Wednesday Dec. 7.

The earthquake flattened more than 200 houses and buildings, including shops and mosques, in the worst-affected districts of Bireuen and Pidie Jaya. At least 97 people have been killed and more than 200 injured. Aceh province has declared a state of emergency.

Rescuers are combing through the rubble for survivors.Speaking in Jakarta, National Board for Disaster Management spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said the death toll could still rise.

“Now our priority is the search and rescue operation. We have to move so fast to save them,” Sutopo said.

UN makes its largest funding request ever for humanitarian aid

A new United Nations report detailing its humanitarian aid efforts around the world offers a snapshot of a world in chaos, and a price estimate for what it would cost to prevent the situation from getting worse: a record-breaking $22.2 billion.

“For 2017, humanitarian partners will require $22.2 billion to meet the needs of 92.8 million people in 33 countries,” the report says. “Humanitarian access is severely constrained and has grown in complexity in countries including Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, preventing humanitarians from carrying out their work and leaving affected people without basic services and protection.”

Take Syria, which is slated to receive more than a third of the UN’s total requested funding, or about $8 billion. Over the past five years, fighting there has killed more than 400,000 people, left millions on the brink of starvation, and sent more than half of the country’s prewar population fleeing to safer places inside and outside Syrian borders.

In Yemen, the UN estimates it needs $2.7 billion to help the more than 3 million children and pregnant women who are acutely malnourished there, as well as the millions of others currently at risk of starvation.

South Sudan is also a huge priority for the UN humanitarian effort, which wants to spend $3.4 billion in the country. The conflict there has already killed more than 50,000 people and displaced 1 million refugees. Nearly 4 million people are at risk of starvation.

The money the UN actually receives from the global community often doesn’t come close to fulfilling its needs; the UN basically got about half of what it requested from international donors for this year.

Most of the major conflicts that are driving the UN’s need for funding are showing no sign of letting up. If the world continues on its current course, the UN very well may set another record with its appeal next year.


US and Russia nearing humanitarian agreement solution for east Aleppo?

Syrian troops continues to blitz east Aleppo, as part of an operation to seize control of the area held by rebels for more than four years. The Syrian al-Assad government now holds some 60% of eastern Aleppo, making swift gains since breaking through rebel defense lines.

Food stocks, clean water supplies and medicine are running dry in eastern Aleppo. Russia has begun sending in aid and setting up mobile clinics, after all the hospitals in eastern Aleppo were bombed beyond use. Rebels hit a Russian mobile hospital in Aleppo, killing one medic and injuring two doctors, Russia’s state-run Sputnik news agency reported.

The United States and Russia announced Saturday they were working together on an agreement to have all rebel groups expelled from eastern Aleppo and to ensure safe delivery of aid there by humanitarian staff.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow and Washington planned talks on the routes and timing of the withdrawal of rebels.

“Once they’re set, a ceasefire regime will come into force to start the evacuation of these armed groups. If US-Russian cooperation on this will bring results — and we have all reasons to believe it will do so — then the problem of eastern Aleppo will be effectively solved,” he said, adding it would allow “smooth humanitarian aid delivery” and normalize life there.