Monthly Archives: February 2016

Europeans fall back on old alliances in lieu of unified refugee strategy

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Roughly five weeks ago, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council and one of the European Union’s most powerful political figures, issued a blunt warning to its 28 countries: Come up with a coherent plan to tackle the refugee crisis within two months, or risk chaos.

Surprisingly, given the plodding pace of European Union policy making, many of Europe’s national leaders are now moving swiftly, announcing tough new border policies and guidelines on asylum.

Austria joined with many of the Balkan countries to approve a tough border policy in what some are wryly calling the return of the Hapsburg Empire. Four former Soviet satellites, led by Poland and Hungary, have become another opposition power bloc.

All the while, a call for unity by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is increasingly being ignored, even as she struggles to tamp down on a political revolt at home while searching for a formula to reduce the number of refugees still trying to reach Germany.

“We are now entering a situation in which everybody is trying to stop the refugees before they reach their borders,” said Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a research institute in Sofia, Bulgaria. Krastev added, “The basic question is, which country  turns into a parking lot for refugees?” … Greece [is]  the so-called refugee parking lot.

While European Union leaders agreed to pay 3 billion euros, roughly $3.3 billion, to aid organizations in Turkey to help stanch the flow of migrants departing the Turkish coast for the Greek islands, record numbers of migrants keep coming.

[New York Times]

70000 refugees may be stuck in Greece this month

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The UN is warning of a growing humanitarian challenge along Macedonia’s border with Greece as thousands fleeing war remain stuck in limbo. Four Balkans countries have announced a daily cap on how many people can pass through and Austria has restricted entry for hundreds of thousands.

Following the border shutdowns, Greece, a primary gateway to Europe, has been inundated with refugees. Greek officials say the number of refugees trapped in the country may reach 70,000 in the coming weeks, although a NATO plan to crack down on smugglers could limit the flow of migration significantly.

About 22,000 migrants and refugees were already in Greece, Yannis Mouzalas, the immigration minister, told Greek Mega TV on Sunday.

Last week, NATO diplomats said ships already deployed in the Aegean Sea, including Turkish and Greek vessels, would pass intelligence and reconnaissance information to Turkish and Greek coastguards and to the EU border agency, Frontex, and also return to Turkey any people rescued by NATO crews.

Greece has asked for emergency funding from Europe to tackle the unprecedented crisis, Mouzalas said, without providing details on the amount requested.

[Al Jazeera]

UN envoy says Syrian ceasefire ‘moving in the right direction’

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International task forces established to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access and a ceasefire in Syria “are moving in the right direction,” a United Nations mediator said Thursday, ahead of a Friday deadline to accept a truce.

Speaking to the press in Geneva, Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria, said that today’s humanitarian task force meeting was “useful and effective,” reporting that humanitarian aid on nearly 200 trucks had reached to 110,000 people in besieged areas and, yesterday, a trial run began for air drops aimed at reaching another 200,000 people in need. However, he stressed that “nothing is enough and much more need to be done.”

The 26th of  February is a “crucial day,” Mr. De Mistura said, noting that, following a midday deadline for the acceptance of the cessation of hostilities agreement, a ceasefire task force will meet to discuss the modalities. He will then brief the UN Security Council and will speak to the press to announce a date for the resumption of intra-Syrian talks aimed at ending five years of bloody warfare there.

If the cessation of hostilities takes hold, humanitarian assistance would reach more people not just in the besieged areas but everywhere in Syria, he said.

[UN News Centre]

Humanitarian fears hang over Balkans migrant talks

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Balkan countries along the well-trodden migrant path towards northern Europe met Wednesday to explore ways to stem the flow despite growing fears that tighter controls will spark a humanitarian crisis, particularly in Greece.

The talks come after figures showing Europe’s migrant headache continuing to rage, with over 110,000 people arriving in Greece and Italy so far this year alone, following more than one million in 2015.

The influx has boosted anti-immigration parties, driven a wedge among many of the 28 members of the European Union and thrown into doubt the continent’s cherished passport-free Schengen Zone that is crucial for commerce.

Sparked by sparked by Austria’s much-criticized introduction last week of daily migrant limits, countries throughout the western Balkans have begun unilaterally to impose restrictions. Most recently, Macedonia has closed its frontier to Afghans and introduced more stringent document checks for Syrians and Iraqis seeking to travel to northern and western Europe. The restrictions have caused a bottleneck of thousands of people at the Greek-Macedonian border.

Amnesty International hit out Wednesday at Europe’s “shameful” response, saying most EU countries had “simply decided that the protection of their borders is more important than the protection of the rights of refugees”.


Will international NGOs survive?

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International NGOs (INGO), whether humanitarian, human rights, development or environment, are all facing a set of critical and far-reaching crises.

Their very legitimacy is in question from all sides: governments, southern partners, donors, and even their own staff. The critiques are myriad. Southern organizations and governments argue that INGOs are unaccountable and have too much power; humanitarian agencies, meanwhile, fail to consult beneficiaries and local groups effectively, and it’s unclear where donors’ money goes. At home some politicians argue that INGOs shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds them by campaigning while receiving government grants. Conversely, they’re accused of not campaigning enough; that they are apolitical, and too close, in some cases, to the corporate sector.

In spite of what some perceive as great successes of the sector – reaching the 0.7% foreign aid target or international debt relief – there is no backing away from the view that the sector needs, at the very least, a tune-up, if not a wholesale revolution to enable it to face modern times.

Social innovation seems to be rising up around INGOs, making them appear out-dated and static. Social enterprises are rapidly occupying the service delivery space where INGOs once led, with a fresh wave of philanthro-capitalists seeking out “beyond charity” solutions to poverty.

The sector’s traditional approach to challenge has been to develop codes of practice, joint charters, or training schemes. Some go further: Action Aid and Oxfam have shifted their headquarters to the global south. But such approaches feel a bit like changing a warning sign on a poorly engineered aircraft – they still have a high likelihood of failure.

It is unlikely that INGOs will survive, at least in their current form, without a direct full-frontal assault on the sector.

[An Opinion printed in The Guardian]

Why so much progress in developing countries?

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Three major forces have been at work since the 90’s:
First, the end of the cold war, the demise of communism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union dramatically improved the global environment for sustained and peaceful development. The United States and the Soviet Union stopped propping up some of the world’s nastiest dictators. Proxy wars and political violence associated with the cold war came to an end in Central America, Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, and elsewhere. Perhaps most powerfully, economic and political ideologies shifted substantially. Communism and strong state control lost credibility and a new consensus began to form around more market-based economic systems and –at least in many countries– more accountable and democratic governance, along with greater respect for basic freedoms and rights. Developing countries around the world introduced major economic and political reforms and began to build institutions more conducive to growth and social progress.

Second, globalization and international access to new technologies brought more trade and finance and a far greater exchange of ideas and information. Exports from developing countries are five times as large today as they were just 20 years ago, and financial flows are 12 times as large, creating many more economic opportunities. With deeper global integration came technologies that spurred progress: vaccines, medicines, new seed varieties, mobile phones, the Internet, and faster and cheaper air travel. To be sure, globalization has brought challenges, risks, and volatility, not least the 2007 food and 2008 financial crises. But it has also brought investment, jobs, ideas, and markets, all of which stimulated progress.

Third, while global changes mattered, the countries that began to move forward did so primarily because of strong leadership and courageous actions by the people in those countries themselves.

In addition, foreign aid played a supporting role in bolstering progress. Aid has been particularly helpful in improving health, fighting disease, mitigating the impacts of natural disasters and humanitarian crises, and helping to jump-start turnarounds from war. Aid programs have helped save millions of lives by fighting malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and diarrhea, and by immunizing children around the world. Aid is not the most important driver of development, but it has played an important secondary role in the development surge over the past two decades.

[Christian Science Monitor]

Pope delivers a stinging critique of both US and Mexico for mistreating the poor and marginalized

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On Wednesday, Pope Francis unleashed another aspect of his complex public persona: The disappointed prophet who excoriates world powers for mistreating the poor and marginalized.

Celebrating Mass in Ciudad Juarez, a city just across the border from the United States, Francis delivered a stinging critique of leaders on both sides of the fence, calling the “forced migration” of thousands of Central Americans a “human tragedy” and “humanitarian crisis”. … “Injustice is radicalized in the young,” the Pope said during his homily before a congregation of more than 200,000 people. “They are ‘cannon fodder,’ persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs.”

The Bible readings at the Mass told the story of Jonah, another angry prophet. The Bible passages set up the Pope to blister injustices in Mexico and indifference in the United States, casting both countries as modern-day Ninevehs. “Go and tell them that injustice has infected their way of seeing the world,” the Pope said, describing Jonah’s mission to rouse the city of Nineveh from the morass of moral decay. “Go and help them to understand that by the way they treat each other, ordering and organizing themselves, they are only creating death and destruction, suffering and oppression.”

It was a grand geopolitical gesture from the Pope’s political playbook, mirroring his prayer at the wall separating Palestinian territories and Israel in 2014. It also thrust Francis into the polarized debates over immigration in both the United States and Mexico.


UN: Humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Yemen

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The UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien has said a “humanitarian catastrophe” is unfolding in Yemen with more than 21 million Yemenis in need of some form of aid.

O’Brien said that the situation was exacerbated by increased restrictions on efforts to respond to what he called the “staggering needs” of millions of people, including the diversion of a UN aid ship by Saudi-led coalition forces.

O’Brien said that more than 6,000 people had been killed since the beginning of coalition strikes against Houthi rebels in March 2015, of which about half were civilians. He said more than 700 children had been killed and some 1,000 injured. At least 7.6 million people were now “severely food-insecure” and more than 3.4 million children were out of school, the official said.

UN sanctions monitors said in a report last month that the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi rebels have targeted civilians and that some of the attacks could be crimes against humanity.

[Al Jazeera]

A major transformation in the Global War on Poverty – Part 1

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Global poverty has fallen faster during the past 20 years than at any time in history. Around the world hunger, child death, and disease rates have all plummeted. More girls are getting into school. In fact, never before have so many people, in so many poor countries, made so much progress in reducing poverty, increasing incomes, improving health, reducing conflict and war, and spreading democracy.

Some of these gains–especially the declines in poverty and child mortality–rank among the greatest achievements in history. Yet few people are aware that they are even happening.

In 1993 almost 2 billion people around the world lived on the paltry sum of less than $1.90 a day (the World Bank’s definition of “extreme” poverty), or less than $10 a day for a family of five. By best estimates, the number was down to around 700 million in 2015, and falling. More than 60 developing countries around the world have seen a decline in the number of extreme poor, despite continued population growth.

Meanwhile, millions more poor people have access to clean water and basic sanitation facilities. The share of people living in chronic hunger has been cut nearly in half, with better nutrition and lower rates of stunted growth in children.

Prior to 1980 just half of girls in developing countries completed primary school; now 85 percent do. Less than 50 percent of adult females could read and write, but today global female literacy has passed 93 percent.   Read more

A major transformation in the Global War on Poverty – Part 2

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Perhaps most remarkable of all are the widespread improvements in the global war on poverty is in basic health.

Diarrhea killed 5 million children a year in 1990, but less than 1 million in 2014. Malaria deaths have been cut by half since 2000, and deaths from tuberculosis and HIV have both fallen by one-third.

Because of better nutrition, greater access to immunizations, and success in fighting diseases, life expectancy at birth has increased from 50 years in 1960 to 65 years today.

The biggest health gains have been for children. The rate of child death has declined in every country in the world since 1980

At the same time, economic growth has accelerated, and average incomes have risen. As incomes have risen and democracy has spread, conflict, war, and violence have fallen sharply.  (This fact surprises anyone reading the daily news about Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan.)

The fight against extreme poverty is far from over. Not all developing countries are making progress, and even in those that are, not everyone is moving forward. There are still 700 million people living in extreme poverty. Every year, 6 million children die of preventable diseases. Many countries, especially the poorest, remain vulnerable to calamities such as the Ebola outbreak that swept through West Africa in 2014. Too few women and girls get the opportunities they deserve. Nevertheless, the changes over the past two decades are a big start–the strongest and most promising start ever–in improving the well-being of millions of people in many of the world’s poorest countries.

[Christian Science Monitor]