Another debt crisis looming for poor countries?

Nearly two decades ago, an unprecedented international effort—the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Debt initiative—resulted in writing off the unsustainable debt of poor countries to levels that they could manage without compromising their economic and social development.

The hope was that a combination of responsible borrowing and lending practices and a more productive use of any new liabilities, all under the watchful eyes of the IMF and World Bank, would prevent a recurrence of excessive debt buildup.

Alas, as a just-released IMF paper points out, the situation has turned out to be much less favorable. Since the financial crisis and the more recent collapse in commodity prices, there has been a sharp buildup of debt by low-income countries, to the point that 40 percent of them (24 out of 60) are now either already in a debt crisis or highly vulnerable to one—twice as many as only five years ago.

Moreover, the majority, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa, have fallen into difficulties through relatively recent actions by themselves or their creditors. But they also include a large number of diversified exporters (Ethiopia, Ghana, and the Gambia among others) where the run-up in debt is a reflection of larger-than-planned fiscal deficits, often financing overruns in current spending or, in a few cases, substantial fraud and corruption (the Gambia, Moldova, and Mozambique).

How likely is it that these countries are heading for a debt crisis, and how difficult will it be to resolve one if it happens? The fact that there has been a near doubling in the past five years of the number of countries in debt distress or at high risk is itself not encouraging.

[Global Issues]

Women as Liberia’s guardians of peace and social change

Not long ago, images of child soldiers and the nation of Liberia were wedded in the minds of the international community. The country was struggling to end a horrific civil war, but military efforts were going nowhere. Then the mothers, grandmothers and sisters of Liberia stepped forward and formed the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace campaign. They pressured Liberian men to pursue peace or lose physical intimacy with their wives.

“We felt like the men in our society were really not taking a stand,” recalls Leymah Gbowee, a leader of the peace group for which she won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. “They were either fighters or they were very silent and accepting all of the violence that was being thrown at us as a nation.… So we decided, ‘We’ll do this to propel the silent men into action.’”

The women perfected the art of “corridor lobbying,” waiting for negotiators as they entered and exited meeting rooms during breaks. The women demanded a meeting with then-president Charles Taylor and got him to agree to attend peace talks with the other leaders of the warring factions. Dressed in white, the women blocked every entry and exit point, including windows, stopping negotiators from leaving the talks without a resolution, leading to the signing of the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.

Liberian women then flooded the polls during the country’s first postwar presidential election and voted to usher a woman into power for the first time on a continent that for centuries had been the world’s most patriarchal.

All in all, Liberian women have been a force against violence in the country, and their actions contributed to the ending of hostilities after a 14-year civil war, and continued advocacy.

[United Nations]

Rural vitalization throughout Asia provides blueprint for China

Despite China’s impressive progress in reducing poverty, hunger, and nutrition over the past four decades, challenges remain, especially in rural areas. More than 3 percent of rural residents live under the poverty line ($1.90 a day), while 12 percent of rural children under five are stunted.

A rural revitalization strategy has been at the top of the Chinese government’s agenda since 2017. The strategy aims to address urban-rural disparities and modernize the rural economy by improving infrastructure, supporting innovations in science and technology, advancing supply-side structural reform in agriculture, and deepening rural land ownership and subsidy system reforms.

In South Korea, the New Village Movement launched in 1970 brought dramatic changes to South Korea, to modernize the economy, strengthen infrastructure, improve living conditions, and protect farmers’ rights.

Japan, in addition to investing in rural infrastructure, has promoted inclusive rural-urban linkages to connect local farmers to urban consumers through farmers’ markets and cooperatives.

In Thailand, developing niche products and empowering rural areas has been key to poverty reduction. The government’s OTOP program, which supports the production and marketing of items from Thailand’s sub-districts, has sparked local entrepreneurship and provided alternative incomes for poor farmers. Thailand has also promoted rural-based initiatives including organic rice farming, handicraft production, and rural tourism to increase local employment and sustainable livelihoods.

[China Development Forum]

Climate change could raise food insecurity risk

A study, led by the University of Exeter, examined how climate change could affect the vulnerability of different countries to food insecurity – when people lack access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

The study looked at 122 developing and least-developed countries, mostly in Asia, Africa and South America. “Climate change is expected to lead to more extremes of both heavy rainfall and drought, with different effects in different parts of the world,” said Professor Richard Betts, Chair in Climate Impacts at the University of Exeter.

Scientists looked at the difference between global warming of 1.5°C and C (compared to pre-industrial levels): “Some change is already unavoidable, but if global warming is limited to 1.5°C, this vulnerability is projected to remain smaller than at 2°C in approximately 76% of developing countries.”

Wetter conditions are expected to have the biggest impact in South and East Asia, with the most extreme projections suggesting the flow of the River Ganges could more than double at C global warming.

Warming is expected to lead to wetter conditions on average – with floods putting food production at risk – but agriculture could also be harmed by more frequent and prolonged droughts in some areas. The areas worst affected by droughts are expected to be southern Africa and South America – where flows in the Amazon are projected to decline by up to 25%.

[University of Exeter]

#MeToo impacting the humanitarian aid sector

With recent allegations against staff at Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontier (MSF), the international aid sector is currently experiencing a #MeToo movement of its own.

A new report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “Voices from Syria 2018,” documents evidence of men demanding sex for aid from numerous women who have sought humanitarian assistance in southern Syria. The Syrian women involved allege they were coerced into marrying local officials for brief periods, providing “sexual services” in exchange for necessities like food.

The Voices of Syria report surveyed victims of sexual abuse without identifying particular perpetrators, so the data collected could only identify the broad problem rather than pinpoint specific individuals who are committing these acts. This, combined with the fact that these abuses are taking place in a war zone, makes it particularly difficult to isolate and address the offending individuals.

Humanitarian aid organizations have taken differing approaches towards preventing these abuses. Care, an aid agency that operates in southern Syria, has discontinued using local contractors to distribute aid in the region, following reports of abuse. Oxfam and MSF have also begun to take steps to clean up their own institutions. The UN has a strict code of conduct, which includes a zero tolerance policy on sexual abuse and exploitation.

Even with these codes of conduct in place, UNHCR spokesman Andrea Mahecic claimed that the UN can do little do prevent abuses, noting that “the mere suggestion that the UN can somehow control the situation in a war zone and the implied conclusion that we can somehow turn this on and off is rather simplistic,” continuing on to say that “it is disconnected from the reality of what an aid operation looks like in an open and fierce conflict.”

[Excerpts from a Council on Foreign Relations blog]

UN: Nature’s alarming decline threatens food, water, energy

Climate change will become a steadily bigger threat to biodiversity by 2050, adding to damage from pollution and forest clearance to make way for agriculture, according to more than 550 experts in a set of reports approved by 129 governments.

Four regional reports covered the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, Africa, Europe and Central Asia:
– For the Americas, the report estimated that the value of nature to people – such as crops, wood, water purification or tourism – was at least $24.3 trillion a year, equivalent to the region’s gross domestic product from Alaska to Argentina. Almost two-thirds of those natural contributions were in decline in the Americas, it said.
– The Africa report said … unless governments take strong action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, “climate change may be the biggest threat to biodiversity” by mid-century.
– Concerning pollution, eight of 10 rivers around the world with most plastic waste were in Asia. On current trends, overfishing meant there could be no exploitable fish stocks in the Asia-Pacific region by mid-century.
– In Europe and Central Asia, wetlands have declined by half since 1970, threatening many species.

[Reuters]

By 2050 water shortage could affect 5 billion people

More than 5 billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 due to climate change, increased demand and polluted supplies, according to a UN report on the state of the world’s water. The comprehensive annual study, World Water Development Report, warns of conflict and civilizational threats unless actions are taken to reduce the stress on rivers, lakes, aquifers, wetlands and reservoirs.

Humans use about 4,600 cubic km of water every year, of which 70% goes to agriculture, 20% to industry and 10% to households, says the report, which was launched at the start of the triennial World Water Forum. Global demand has increased sixfold over the past 100 years and continues to grow at the rate of 1% each year.

This is already creating strains that will grow by 2050, when the world population is forecast to reach between 9.4 billion and 10.2 billion (up from 7.7 billion today), with two in every three people living in cities.

By 2050, the report predicts, between 4.8 billion and 5.7 billion people will live in areas that are water-scarce for at least one month each year, up from 3.6 billion today, while the number of people at risk of floods will increase to 1.6 billion, from 1.2 billion.

Demand for water is projected to rise fastest in developing countries. Meanwhile, climate change will put an added stress on supplies because it will make wet regions wetter and dry regions drier. The report says positive change is possible, particularly in the key agricultural sector, but only if there is a move towards nature-based solutions that rely more on soil and trees than steel and concrete.

 [The Guardian]

Drought-driven wildfires on rise in Amazon basin

Intensifying droughts in the Amazon basin are now a primary determinant of increases in forest fires, a reality that will hinder Brazil’s efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions solely by limiting deforestation, according to a new study. Highlights:

  • Despite a 76 percent decline in deforestation rates between 2003 and 2015, the incidence of forest fires is increasing in Brazil, with new research linking the rise in fires not only to deforestation, but also to severe droughts.
  • El Niño, combined with other oceanic and atmospheric cycles, produced an unusually severe drought in 2015, a year that saw a 36 percent increase in Amazon basin forest fires, which also raised carbon emissions.
  • Severe droughts are expected to become more common in the Brazilian Amazon as natural oceanic cycles are made more extreme by human-induced climate change.
  • In this new climate paradigm, limiting deforestation alone will not be sufficient to reduce fires and curb carbon emissions, scientists say. The maintenance of healthy, intact, unfragmented forests is vital to providing resilience against further increases in Amazon fires.

[Nature Communications]

Violence leaves at least 200 dead in Syria

It’s hard to believe that in a brutal civil war that’s lasted seven years, some of the worst acts of violence in Syria have come in the last 48 hours. At least 200 civilians have been killed in government shelling and airstrikes.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, is trying to bury the opposition on the outskirts of Damascus. After one airstrike, residents scrambled to find survivors and protect themselves from the next one. Even by the standards of the Syrian war, activists describe what’s happened in the past 48 hours in the rebel-held enclave of Ghouta near the capital as a bloodbath.

White-shrouded bodies lined the hospital floors, many of them children. Ghouta has been under siege for more than five years. Pro-government forces are reportedly preparing a new ground assault that will crush the rebels once and for all. All residents can do is brace for the onslaught.

[CBS]

The impact of climate change

Of the top ten costliest hurricanes of all time in the U.S., nine have been since 2004. And half have been in the past five years.

In the past three years, the city of Houston alone has endured three so-called 500-year floods.

While there’s much we don’t know about climate change, here are three things we know for certain:

  1. Climate change increased the intensity and likelihood of storms – 2017 was a devastating year of natural disasters, by any measure, from wildfires in several western states to intense heatwaves in the Southwest to Harvey, followed closely by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

A recent study by hurricane experts in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences found that Harvey’s unprecedented 51 inches of rainfall in the Houston area, as well as wind speeds in other parts of the state, were three times more likely and 15 percent more intense than without climate change. The study even called the rainfall “biblical” – as in, it has likely occurred only once since the time the Old Testament was written.

In Texas now, the odds of another Harvey-like rainfall could be nearly 1 in 5 per year by 2100 – put another way, rain of this magnitude could hit the state 18 times more often by the end of the century. Storms that have more than 20 inches of rain in Texas are about six times more likely now than they were at the end of the 20th century, just 18 years ago.

Climate change did not cause Hurricane Harvey, but it certainly made its impact much worse. Like an athlete on steroids, climate change enhances the performance of an already powerful force.

  1. The costs are and will continue to be enormous – If we do not act to mitigate further damage, while adapting our infrastructure and our systems to the reality of climate change, we will face dire financial consequences that may prove impossible to work around.
  1. The impact on people is much deeper than numbers and dollars – Climate change isn’t just about studies and storm patterns, it means people are devastated.

After Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, “Three 500-year floods in three years means either we’re free and clear for the next 1,500 years or something has seriously changed.”

Unfortunately, the reality is the latter.

[Environmental Defense Fund]