Major challenges to a complete bridging of the Digital Divide

If we visit a typical rural village in a developing country, we encounter these challenges to a bridging of the so-called Digital Divide:

  1. In most rural villages there is inadequate infrastructure to support tech. In many villages, there is limited or no electricity, which makes powering phones or towers difficult. Many villages have no signal to support mobile telephony. In places that do have a signal, it is typically 2G and thus does not support most fintech services, which require 3G or above to function properly.
  2. Among poor households, there are few smartphones, and even the feature phones are owned by the men. This leaves women with limited or no access. In addition, they also typically have hopelessly short battery life, screens that shatter easily, and a persistent problem with ‘fat finger error’ that makes them almost unusable. Furthermore, the cost of data needed to make fintech transactions is usually prohibitively expensive.
  3. Most villagers are “oral”. They – along with another 1 billion-plus people across the planet – cannot read, write, or understand the long number strings necessary to transact on mobile phones.
  4. Providers have made little effort to tailor interfaces or use-cases for the low-income market. The vast majority of fintech providers develop solutions for the affluent and middle classes. This makes logical sense – these segments have the money (and connectivity) to use the solutions.
  5. Furthermore, villagers value personal relationships – particularly when it comes to money. The idea of trusting technology that they do not understand for anything except very basic payments is out of the question.
  6. The regulatory environment and consumer protection provisions remain too weak to secure the poor. Many have already lost money in basic money transfer transactions. Millions are negatively listed on credit bureaus and in the databases of large banks because of digital credit.

Until we address these six fundamental barriers to the deployment and use of fintech by the poor, it will indeed remain irrelevant to them.  In fact, we risk exacerbating the digital divide and leaving the poor and vulnerable behind.

[MicroSave]

On slave auctions in Libya

In the wake of the CNN report on human auctions in Libya, there has rightly been a surge in concern for the thousands of Africans languishing in inhumane conditions in detention camps. Political leaders in Europe and Africa, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres and African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki, have condemned the situation. After years of flailing diplomacy and lonely advocacy, it seems the world is finally ready to talk about the humanitarian disaster in Libya.

But while this new wave of attention is welcome and necessary, it does raise key questions: Why did it take so long to have this near-unified voice of condemnation on a well-researched and well-covered issue that has been in the public domain for the better part of the last decade? Why now and not before? And more importantly, what does this delayed reaction say about race and racism in international humanitarian work?

This information is not new. International organizations, politicians, and journalists have all reported the dire conditions facing African migrants in Libya from at least 2010.

The vast majority of the world’s refugees and migrants today are Asian and African, unlike in the 1940s when the original instruments of protection were negotiated.

Bottom line: Countries only want “good migrants” – where “good” means primarily white and/or wealthy.  Helping black and brown bodies is couched in the polite language of  “helping them where they are”. Race and racism are at the heart of the ongoing refugee and migrant crisis, but, to date, humanitarianism has been reluctant to talk about it in stark terms.

[Read full IRIN article]

Scientists watch and wait as Bali’s menacing volcano rumbles

The question Indonesian volcanologist Devy Kamil Syahbana gets most is the one he cannot answer—when, or if, rumbling Mount Agung on Bali island will blow up in a major eruption.

The 3,000 meter (9,800 ft) Agung—a so-called strato-volcano capable of very violent eruptions—has recorded a sharp rise in activity that has raised worries.

In 1963, pyroclastic flows of lava and rocks poured out of the volcano, killing more than 1,000 people and razing dozens of villages. According to survivors, that eruption was preceded by earthquakes, volcanic mudflows, and ashfall—all signs that Mount Agung is showing again now, said Syahbana.

Authorities raised the alert status to the maximum after the volcano started erupting last month, spewing out ash over the holiday island and causing travel chaos by closing its airport for three days last week. While hot magma has produced an eerie orange glow just above the crater, and thousands of villagers have fled from their homes on the mountain’s slopes, Agung has, this time, yet to explode violently.

Syahbana, who studied volcanology in Brussels and Paris, said his team’s main job was to “increase the preparedness of the communities here in the event of a major eruption”.

Indonesia has nearly 130 active volcanoes, more than any other country.

[Reuters]

On World AIDS Day 2017

Today is World AIDS Day.

The number of worldwide deaths from AIDS has gone down by 50 percent since 2005, though there are still more than 36 million people around the world who are living with AIDS, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Only half are receiving appropriate treatment, which makes the NGO’s global theme for the 30th World AIDS Day particularly fitting. This year, WHO declared the theme is “right to health.” Specifically, the organization hopes to draw attention to the need for universal health coverage.

“Under the slogan ‘everybody counts,’ WHO will advocate for access to safe, effective, quality and affordable medicines, including medicines, diagnostics and other health commodities as well as health care services for all people in need, while also ensuring that they are protected against financial risks,” the organization stated on its website.

[Newsweek]

Women as agents of climate change action

Arguably the biggest problem facing humanity—climate change—may have a surprising solution: legally recognize and enforce the land rights of rural women in customary tenure systems.

We already know that strong land rights for women reduce poverty and increase economic empowerment and personal agency. A growing body of research also suggests that when women have secure tenure rights, climate change resiliency increases for women and their communities. Women commonly rely on community lands that [collectively] hold at least 24% of the aboveground carbon found in the world’s tropical forests—a sum equivalent to almost four times the global greenhouse gas emissions of 2014.  This initial research suggests a dual approach: treating women—those hardest hit by climate change—as agents of prevention, while prioritizing women’s participation in adaptation measures.

At least 2.5 billion people derive their livelihoods from rural land-use economies, and communities hold and manage over half of the world’s land area through customary tenure systems in which land is held at the community level.  Those living under individualized and community-based customary systems are likely to be among the majority of those living in poverty worldwide. They are especially dependent on rural land for their livelihoods, yet they often lack legally recognized land rights under national laws. This holds especially true for people in the lowest income countries, and those experiencing the most extreme forms of poverty due to intersecting discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, class, or caste.

These same populations are among those most affected by climate change. According to recent research, 52% of agricultural land worldwide is affected by climate-changed induced drought, just one example of a climate change-induced “slow-onset” disasters. Land degradation, another example, is estimated to affect 1.5 billion people.

Securing rural women’s rights to land may be key to the survival of our species.

[Landesa]

Promise for a HIV vaccine

Researchers at the University of Maryland and Duke University (UMD) have designed a novel protein-sugar vaccine candidate that, in an animal model, stimulated an immune response against sugars that form a protective shield around HIV. The molecule could one day become part of a successful HIV vaccine.

“An obstacle to creating an effective HIV vaccine is the difficulty of getting the immune system to generate antibodies against the sugar shield of multiple HIV strains,” said Lai-Xi Wang, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UMD. “Our method addresses this problem by designing a vaccine component that mimics a protein-sugar part of this shield.”

Wang and collaborators designed a vaccine candidate using an HIV protein fragment linked to a sugar group. When injected into rabbits, the vaccine candidate stimulated antibody responses against the sugar shield in four different HIV strains. The results were published in the journal Cell Chemical Biology on October 26, 2017.

[Read full University of Maryland article]

Young people driving social change

Finding new ways to get young people excited about reducing food scarcity, and to improve access to decent and affordable housing are just some of the challenges that teams of young people from around the world tried to address as participants in the BeChangeMaker (BCM) initiative developed by the HP Foundation and WorldSkills International. Read about three such teams:

  • Team Sci-Kid Hub from Mexico designed a training program to help teachers make science lessons more exciting.
  • Team Terracotta from Indonesia developed a training program to support rice farmers and address food scarcity in Indonesia by improving the quality of rice crop yields.
  • Team T-Chan from Mexico created a business that offers decent jobs to lower-income people, so they can support themselves and build their own houses.

The three winning teams will have access to funding and training opportunities with business incubators and accelerators in their own countries so they can continue to refine their solutions.

“Getting young people excited about social entrepreneurship, and seeing it as a viable career option, is key to driving positive social change,” said Debby McIsaac, Executive Director of the HP Foundation. “Through BeChangeMaker, these inspiring young people have harnessed their skills and talents to help make life better for others by creating real-world solutions to some of society’s toughest issues.”

The HP Foundation’s free online skills training program, HP LIFE, was a key resource for the participants. HP LIFE offers access to 27 courses in seven languages, including courses on social entrepreneurship and design thinking, which help users develop the knowledge and skills they need to start, grow, and run successful businesses.

[SocialEarth]

India’s children deserve a solid foundation

India has made remarkable progress towards universalizing primary education, but learning outcomes are poor. Current efforts to address poor learning outcomes focus on improving primary education but ignore the preschool years. But, the preschool years are one of the most powerful levers to address this challenge.

The ages from 3-5 are particularly important as this is when a child learns critical pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills that are essential for a child’s readiness to enter primary school.

The impact of good early education is disproportionately high for children from low-income households.

86% of children from low-income families – who constitute 70% of urban India – attend affordable private schools (APSs). These families invest ~6% of their income per child on private preschools despite the availability of free public options because they believe them to be of better quality. Unfortunately, APSs use a rote based approach and learning outcomes are as poor as in Government schools (e.g. in Class 1, 78% cannot read 3 simple 3-letter words) but little effort is invested in improving APSs.              [Alliance]

Read about an innovative private pre-school system developed in Bangalore, Building Blocks India

On China banning foreign waste

For many years China has been the largest global importer of many types of recyclable materials, last year importing 7.3m metric tonnes of waste plastics from developed countries including the UK, the EU, the US and Japan.

However, in July 2017, China announced big changes in the quality control placed on imported materials, notifying the World Trade Organisation that it will ban imports of 24 categories of recyclables and solid waste by the end of the year. The impact of this will be far-reaching.

China is the dominant market for recycled plastic. There are concerns that much of the waste that China currently imports, especially the lower grade materials, will have nowhere else to go. So what will happen to the plastic these countries collect through household recycling systems once the Chinese refuse to accept it? Alternatives include:
– Plastics collected for recycling could go to energy recovery (incineration). They are, after all, a fossil-fuel based material and burn extremely well – so on a positive note, they could generate electricity and improve energy self-sufficiency.
– They could also go to landfill (not ideal). Alternatively, materials could be stored until new markets are found. This also  brings problems, however – there have been hundreds of fires at sites where recyclable materials are stored.

The current situation offers us an opportunity to find new solutions to our waste problem, increase the proportion of recycled plastic in our own manufactured products, improve the quality of recovered materials and to use recycled material in new ways.

[Scientific American]

A recipe for creating Zero Hunger

In 2016, the number of hungry people increased to 815 million – a rise of 38 million from 2015.

However, ending hunger and chronic malnutrition remains within our grasp. The ingredients required for ending hunger also include-sustainable and durable food systems (from fork to farm), elimination of malnutrition (particularly stunting), elimination of food waste, and universal access to nutritious food all year long-all quite feasible.

As the son and grandson of farmers, African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina, an agriculture economist by training, with significant government and institutional agriculture leadership experience, has long recognized and supported sustainable agriculture and nutrition as key ingredients in the recipe for developing strong healthy economies.

Akin recognizes and expounds about the sub-Saharan African agribusiness market value projected to exceed 1 trillion U.S. dollars by 2030.  Further, he understands and often discusses the global economic impact resulting from African household expenditures rising to $1.4 trillion over the next three years.

Seizing these trillion-dollar opportunities requires partnerships.  This partnership of actors must include governments, donors, civil society and NGOs, the multilateral institutions including the banks and the UN, and the private sector.

[Read this Opinion piece by Ertharin Cousin who formerly served as Executive Director of the World Food Program and as the US Representative to UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture]

Fourth storm, Hurricane Nate slams U.S. Gulf coast

Hurricane Nate slammed into the Mississippi coast on Sunday with destructive winds and torrential rains that flooded streets and highways throughout the region as the fast-moving Category 1 storm made landfall.

The fourth major storm to strike the United States in less than two months, Nate killed at least 30 people in Central America before entering the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and bearing down on the U.S. South. It has also shut down most oil and gas production in the Gulf.

Nate comes on the heels of three other major storms, Harvey, Irma and Maria, which devastated Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, respectively. However, with winds of 85 miles per hour (135 km per hour), which make it a Category 1 storm, the weakest in the five-category ranking used by meteorologists, Nate appeared to lack the devastating punch of its predecessors.

[Reuters]

Africa holds the keys to its own development

As a region, Africa accounts for around 20 percent of U.S. aid, with Egypt, Kenya, and South Sudan being the biggest beneficiaries. Although critics argue that lowered public international spending will adversely affect development projects, this reduction should also be seen as an opportunity for the continent to rise and for the relationship between the U.S. and Africa to evolve.

Africans must identify priorities, define, and implement them:
Priority 1: Job creation – Given that the continent will have a shortfall of 74 million jobs that need to be created by 2020, governments need to create policies and implementation plans that will allow for a more competitive private sector that favors business growth and job creation.
Priority 2: Regional Integration – African governments should seek to improve regional integration initiatives, which are key to sustaining development and encouraging long-term prosperity for the entire region.
Priority 3: Commercial engagement and trade – Leaders must actively seek commercial and trade engagement. The recent Trump administration trade report to Congress clearly reflects that the U.S. will unequivocally protect America first in future trade regimes.

Though aid to Africa looks like it will get cut, it doesn’t mean that U.S. engagement will too. The region is of paramount importance because of Western reliance on natural resources, trade, economic opportunities, and long-term security issues. In fact, American engagement in Africa largely serves American interests.

African leaders should not be dismayed by possible cuts in foreign aid, instead, they should actively seek to create the enabling environment necessary to boost local economies, attract foreign investment, negotiate transfer of technology, encourage private sector growth/competitiveness, and increase regional integration.

[Excerpts of Brookings article by Angelle Kwemo]

Who are the Rohingya?

The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar at the center of a humanitarian catastrophe, many of whom have ended up sheltering in makeshift camps in Bangladesh, telling tales of killings, rape, and massacres.

But the Myanmar government won’t even use the word “Rohingya,” let alone admit they’re being persecuted. Instead, the government calls them Bengalis, foreigners, or worse, terrorists. This difference between these two terms—Rohingya and Bengali—is crucial to understanding the crisis unfolding in Myanmar, where more than 500,000 Rohingya have recently fled following a government crackdown and which has been called a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing by the top United Nations human-rights official.

Before the massacres, there were thought to be around 1.1 million Rohingya living in the country. Indeed, the Rohingya have existed in Myanmar—a Buddhist majority country formerly called Burma—for centuries. The Rohingya had carved a place for themselves in Burma; with some serving in parliament and other high offices. Their ethnicity was included in the 1961 census.

The situation quickly deteriorated for the Rohingya, however, following the 1962 military coup, when the government refused to fully recognize new generations of the Rohingya population. In 1982, a new citizenship law was passed that prevented Rohingya from easily accessing full citizenship, rendering many of them stateless.

Since the late 1970s, nearly one million Rohingya are estimated to have fled Myanmar. In 2009, a UN spokeswoman described the Rohingya as “probably the most friendless people in the world”. Yet many Rohingya—collectively dubbed across international media as “boat people”—were stuck because they were turned away from a number of Southeast Asian countries where that had hoped to flee to.

[Quartz]

Richard Branson: Hurricanes are the ‘start of things to come’

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson rode out Hurricane Irma in his wine cellar on his private island in the British Virgin Islands. As many of the same islands brace for the impact of Hurricane Maria, he appeared on CNN’s “New Day” with a message: “Climate change is real.”

After anchor John Berman asked if he saw a correlation between the recent hurricanes and climate change, Branson said, “…Scientists have said the storms are going to get more and more and more intense and more and more often. We’ve had four storms within a month, all far greater than that have ever, ever, ever happened in history.”

“Sadly,” he continued, “I think this is the start of things to come.”

Branson noted that recent storms like Irma, which tore through the Caribbean, and Harvey, which ravaged Houston, Texas, have been extremely devastating.

“Look,” the philanthropist said, “Climate change is real. Ninety-nine percent of scientists know it’s real. The whole world knows it’s real except for maybe one person in the White House.”

“The cost of rebuilding just the British Virgin Islands will be three or four billion dollars,” Branson responded. “The cost of rebuilding Houston will be billions of dollars. If all that money could be invested in clean energy, in powering the world by the sun and by the wind, where we won’t have to suffer these awful events in the future, how much better than having to patch up people’s houses after they’ve been destroyed?”

[CNN]

Irma leaves trail of destruction and broken records

Irma finally weakened to just a big storm, 10 days after it became a hurricane and started on a destructive and powerful path that killed 40 people in the Caribbean and the Southeastern United States.

Irma was producing very heavy rain across the Southeast, leading to flash floods and rapid rises in creeks, streams and rivers. The hurricane center said that significant river flooding would persist over the Florida peninsula for several days and that parts of Georgia, South Carolina and north-central Alabama remained vulnerable to flash floods.

In Irma’s wake, meanwhile, lay a trail of devastation from the Cape Verde Islands to Georgia. Irma was so strong and so robust that it seemingly set a record for the number of records it set. According to Phil Klotzbach, a noted atmospheric research scientist at Colorado State University:

  • When Irma reached Category 5 — the strongest there is — it stayed there for more than three days, the longest run since forecasters began using satellites to monitor tropical storms more than a half-century ago.
  • Irma kept blowing 185-mph maximum sustained winds for 37 hours — the longest any cyclone has ever maintained that intensity anywhere on Earth since records started being kept.
  • Irma generated the most accumulated energy by any tropical cyclone in the Atlantic tropics on record.

But if there’s one statistic that sums Irma up, it’s this one: It generated enough accumulated cyclone energy — the total wind energy generated over a storm’s lifetime — to meet the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s definition of an average full Atlantic hurricane season.

About 7.5 million customers remained without power in Florida late Monday. Almost 1½ million had no power in Georgia, which experienced the oddity of tropical storm warnings over Atlanta, more than 800 miles from where Irma made its first U.S. landfall. “This will be the largest ever mobilization of [electric] line restoration workers in this country, period, end of story,” Tom Bossert, President Donald Trump’s homeland security adviser, told reporters Monday.

The U.S. military spread far and wide in what Bossert called “the largest-ever mobilization of our military in a naval and marine operation. … We have the largest flotilla operation in our nation’s history to help not only the people of Puerto Rico, the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands, but also St. Martin and other non-U.S. islands affected,” he said.

[NBC]

What Hurricane Irma brought

Record-setting Hurricane Irma, which began as a Category 5 storm, has weakened but continued a furious climb up the Florida coast on Monday, toppling cranes, swallowing streets and leaving millions without power, after a multi-billion-dollar rampage through the Caribbean. At least 30 people have been killed.

The storm was downgraded to a Category 1 hurricane, after striking the Florida Keys island chain as a more powerful Category 4 on Sunday. But warnings of hazardous storm surges remained in effect through vast swaths of the Florida peninsula.

Maximum sustained winds had decreased to 75 miles (120 kilometres) per hour as of 5:00 am local time (0900 GMT).

While southwest Florida bore the deadly brunt of Irma, the eastern coastlines of Miami and the barrier island of Miami Beach were heavily inundated by storm surges.

The death toll is at least 30: 14 in the French island of St Barts and the neighboring Dutch-French territory of St Martin; six in the British Caribbean islands; at least four in the US Virgin Islands; at least two in Puerto Rico; and one in Barbuda. Three other deaths occurred in Florida due to car accidents sparked by strong winds and torrential rain.

In Florida, more than six million customers were without power, according to the state’s Division of Emergency Management. More than six million people had been ordered to flee their homes in one of the biggest evacuations in US history.

The combined economic cost of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma could reach $290 billion, equivalent to 1.5 percent of the US gross domestic product, US forecaster AccuWeather said in a report.

Flooding in six Indian States –and climbing!

Months of flooding in six Indian states have caused huge economic losses and heaped misery on the millions of people. With millions struggling to cope in the flood-hit states of Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Gujarat, the Indian government is now warning of more floods to come in 12 other states over the next week.

“Flooding during the monsoon season normally happens from June to September, but this year’s floods have been much worse,” Hari Balaji, a consultant on disaster management, told DW. “It has wrecked the village economy and ravaged cities. We have failed to predict rainfall intensity and its impact.”

India’s disaster mitigation and response mechanisms have once again come into question as for weeks the floods have caused immense damages to barrages, crops and entire villages. Aid agencies and the Indian government’s own estimates reckon that over 1,000 people have been killed and more than 32 million affected – displaced or stranded –in this round of flooding.

Humanitarian organizations have warned the floods also have knock-on effects on children by disrupting their education and severely impacting their well-being in the future. “We haven’t seen flooding on this scale in years and it’s putting the long-term education of an enormous number of children at great risk,” Rafay Hussain of Save the Children in Bihar told DW.

“Unfortunately, like flood risk mapping, India fails miserably on forecasting. We have to modernize the flood forecast network and invest in better flood forecasting policy,” Sandeep Duggal, an expert on disaster risk reduction, told DW. Duggal also maintained that a lack of coordination and inadequate training at the ground level remained the biggest challenges in mitigating losses.

[Deutsche Welle]

Promoting STEM amongst young women in Lebanon

‘Girls Got IT’ is a joint Initiative between five Lebanese NGOs, led by Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB) in collaboration with the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education, in partnership with UNICEF and funded by the Kingdom of Netherlands.

Female students participate in hands-on activities and to learn more about the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), with influential speakers inspiring the girls and sharing their knowledge on the topics.

“The main goal of ‘Girls Got IT’, one of the initiatives UNICEF supports through its Youth Innovation Labs programme, is to promote digital literacy amongst young girls by introducing them to various careers and enriching their knowledge and developing their skills in digital and STEM fields, thus bridging the gender gap,” said UNICEF Representative Tanya Chapuisat.

The skills being taught and developed through the ‘Girls Got IT’ program aim to make young females better qualified for job positions and increase their experience in the STEM fields.

[UNICEF Lebanon]

New Orleans looks to Amsterdam for a new flood plan

Twelve years after Hurricane Katrina became the worst natural disaster in U.S. history, New Orleans is still struggling with infrastructure issues that make it difficult to stave off floods. As the city scrambles to fix its broken water pumps for the remnants of Hurricane Harvey, engineers are working with the Dutch government on a longer-term, environmentally friendly plan to let the water in and make New Orleans look more like Amsterdam.

“We can’t simply address the hard infrastructure issues,” like drain pumps and levees, said Justin Ehrenwerth, president and chief executive of The Water Institute of the Gulf, an independent research group. “We have to look at green infrastructure and develop better practices of living with water.”

Last month, The Water Institute joined forces with a Dutch research company, Deltares of the Netherlands, to develop nature-based solutions to New Orleans’ water problems. Dutch designers have been collaborating with New Orleans engineers and architects since 2006, but the work grows more urgent each year as climate change exacerbates the storms and coastal erosion that threaten to sink New Orleans. If the city can learn to embrace and store the water in productive ways, as Dutch cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam have done with their canal systems, flooding will cease to be as much of a threat.

[Huffington Post]

Muslims have assimilated well in Germany

Muslim immigrants in Germany have an easier time finding a job and building a community than those in Switzerland, Austria, France and Britain.

That’s according to a new study from the Bertelsmann Foundation. The researchers spoke to more than 10,000 Muslims who were either born in Europe or arrived before 2010, which means they did not interview the millions who traveled to Europe from Syria and the Middle East during the recent refugee crisis.

There are presently 4.7 million Muslims in Germany. According to researchers, 96 percent said they felt connected to the country.

About 60 percent now hold a full-time job, and an additional 20 percent are employed part time. These rates are similar to those for ethnic Germans, and higher than Muslim employment rates in the other western European countries studied. It’s probably thanks to Germany’s booming economy.

Muslim migrants do lag, however, when it comes to finding good jobs–they make less money than their German peers. And the most religious Muslims, who often dress differently and require time to worship during work hours, struggle to find employment in Germany. Devout Muslims had an easier time finding employment in the United Kingdom.

“When it comes to participation of Muslims in society, [it] isn’t as bleak as it is often presented in the media,” says Ayse Demir, spokeswoman for the Berlin-based Turkish community organization TBB. “It shows that a lot of Muslims feel integrated, but there is a lack of acceptance–and that’s also our perception. Participation isn’t a one-way street: It needs to come from both sides.”

[Washington Post]