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Western tax avoidance hinders African development | Chris Jordan

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 09:12

Associated British Foods has spirited millions away from its sugar operations in Zambia, where two-thirds live in poverty

The litany of major multinational companies accused of tax avoidance has grown, with Associated British Foods – owners of brands ranging from Silver Spoon and Ryvita to Primark – added to the list including Vodafone, Starbucks, Barclays and Boots.

The one big difference is that this time ActionAid is not accusing the company of finding "clever" ways to shrink their British tax bills but those owed in Zambia, where two in three people live below the poverty line and 45% of children are malnourished.

The financial engineering performed by Associated British Food's Zambian sugar operations follow an all-too familiar pattern of tax liability reduction. Pre-tax profits of $123m generated since 2007 have been whisked away through the tax havens of Ireland, Mauritius, the Netherlands and Jersey, depriving Zambia of some $17.7m. That's enough to put 48,000 additional Zambian children in school a year.

Associated British Foods has responded with John Bason, ABF's chief financial officer, arguing: "I've looked really closely at this, and the payments made by the sugar business [to Ireland and Mauritius] are all for services provided and it is at cost." But it's odd then that the Irish accounts show profits of 26% on these huge "management fees". It's also not accidental that these fees are going to Ireland, which allows the company to exploit an abusive tax treaty preventing Zambia applying the normal 20% withholding tax levy on these transactions.

On top of these fairly standard tax avoidance schemes, the company also won a court case against the Zambian government, enabling it to exploit a tax break originally designed to support domestic farmers. This saw its tax rate tumble from 35% to just 10%, costing a further $9.3m of revenue. We estimate Zambia has lost $27m in total – a huge sum for one of the poorest countries in the world.

The sad thing is that African nations (just like the UK) desperately need the jobs and investment that big business, such as Associated British Foods, can provide. Yet the positive impact companies bring is massively undermined by systematic tax avoidance, which ultimately means fewer teachers and doctors can be employed, stunting development overall.

Like the independent British coffee shops and booksellers outraged by the lack of a level playing field when faced with the likes of Starbucks and Amazon, domestic Zambian businesses also suffer. ActionAid met market traders like Caroline Muchanga, who in some years has paid more business tax in Zambia – in absolute terms – than the giant multinational she lives next to, despite the fact that her children go to bed hungry at night.

While we believe that companies have a responsibility to shun aggressive and artificial tax practices, ultimately it's the rules of the game that have to change. Permissive international corporate tax rules were built for a bygone era and are simply not fit for purpose in today's globalised economy.

Leaders from India, South Africa, Argentina, Senegal and indeed Zambia have been calling for systemic change to fix a broken system and there's certainly been no shortage of handwringing rhetoric from UK politicians; from George Osborne telling us that tax avoidance was "morally repugnant", to David Cameron imploring big business to "wake up and smell the coffee" on the issue. Now it's time for the politicians to put their money where their mouths are.

Securing the visionary international agreements we need won't be easy, but there are signs that big breakthroughs are on the horizon. The US and EU have recently tabled legislation making extractive industries much more transparent about their financial contributions, though of course this will have no impact on a company like Associated British Foods. The US is twisting the arm of tax havens to eliminate the secrecy that enables tax avoidance and evasion to flourish unchecked.

This week, the G20 finance ministers will discuss new proposals on how to make transient multinationals pay their fair share, with Britain, France and Germany raising expectations of a breakthrough.

Cameron has already (and admirably) stuck his neck out by making tax and transparency priority issues as chair of the G8 this year. There are even rumours that he'll lead the way by forcing the 50% of tax havens with close constitutional links to the UK to break their culture of secrecy.

While these highwire political processes might seem a world away from Muchanga's market stall in Zambia, this year we have a golden opportunity to give her children a better future. It won't happen without a fight, so we need to keep the pressure up on our political leaders to deliver a fairer tax system for us all.

Chris Jordan © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Greece is facing a humanitarian crisis | Alex Politaki

Mon, 02/11/2013 - 07:12

The EU's own poverty standards show that Greece is in crisis. But member states won't admit their 'bailout' was to blame

European societies typically assume that humanitarian crises only take place in the aftermath of natural disasters, epidemics, wars or civil conflicts.That such a crisis could happen in a European country, especially one that is a member of the European Union, seems out of the question to many of us.

And yet a number of experts would maintain that Greece is currently in the centre of a humanitarian crisis. The head of Médecins du Monde, Nikitas Kanakis, the largest and most prominent NGO in Greece, was among the first to declare it openly. The port area of Perama, near Athens, in particular, is in the midst of a humanitarian disaster. The Medical Society of Athens, the largest professional body of its kind, has even sent a formal letter to the UN asking for intervention.

If this humanitarian crisis has so far been little talked about, there are political reasons why. By acknowledging the severity of the situation, the Greek government and the EU would also have admitted that the current state of affairs has been brought about by the so-called economic "rescue" of Greece. So the authorities have chosen to keep quiet.

It is true that there is no general agreement on what constitutes a humanitarian crisis. But the definition used by those with experience in the field is practical and straightforward. A humanitarian crisis is usually marked by rising poverty, heightened inequality in education and social protection, and lack of access to social welfare services. Particularly important indicators are loss of access to primary health services, medical examinations, hospitalisation and medication. In other words: when you see a crisis, you will not mistake it for anything else.

Greece never imagined that it could face a humanitarian crisis. According to the UN Human Development Index, in 2008 Greece was ranked 18th in the world. No one in the country really thought that this could change so dramatically.

It was false security offered by the institutions and mechanisms of the EU. Member states had to pay for this imaginary security by meeting demanding economic and political criteria. The paradox is that even the EU, the supposed guarantor of the security and prosperity of member states, has well-defined ways of measuring poverty, both absolute and relative, which show that a humanitarian crisis exists in Greece.

On the basis of the criteria and the data of the EU, Greece is a country in serious poverty. In 2011, 31.4% of the population, or 3.4 million people, lived on an income below 60% of the national median disposable income. At the same time, 27.3% of the population, or 1.3 million people, were at risk of poverty. There is no data yet for 2012, though things have certainly got worse.

Using further EU indicators, a large proportion of Greek households currently live in conditions of "material deprivation". A little more than 11% actually live in "extreme material deprivation", which means without enough heating, electricity, and use of either a car or a telephone. It also means having a poor diet, devoid of meat or fish on a weekly basis, as well as total or partial inability to meet emergency expenses or payments for rent and bills.

The ineffectiveness of European programmes for reintegrating the unemployed into the labour market and the lack of national social protection programmes have pushed Greece even further down the ranks of poverty. The adult unemployment rate stood at 26.8% in October 2012. This level, although huge in comparison to the recent past, still does not give the whole picture.

It misses, for instance, unemployment resulting from the failure of thousands of small businesses. To the unemployed should be added the working poor, ie, workers with such low wages that they cannot meet basic needs. At 13% of the workforce they represent the highest proportion of the working poor in the eurozone. 

There are three more indicators that point to a humanitarian crisis. First, the number of homeless people has risen to unprecedented levels for a European country: unofficial estimates put them at 40,000. Second, the proportion of Greek beneficiaries of NGO medical services in some urban centres was recorded at 60% of the total in 2012. This would have been unthinkable even three years ago, since such services were typically provided to immigrants, not Greeks.

Third, there has been explosive growth in soup kitchens and general food distribution. The levels are not officially recorded, but the Church of Greece distributes approximately 250,000 daily rations, while there are unknown numbers of rations distributed by municipal authorities and NGOs. By recent government order, municipal rations will be expanded further because of rising incidence of children fainting at school due to low calorie intake. There will also be light meals provided to young students.


The evidence of poverty, inequality, and inability to access primary services confirms the increasingly desperate statements by people at the frontline. The country has become a field of humanitarian action, and should be treated as such. It is shameful for the Greek government and the EU to turn a blind eye to it. The international humanitarian community should respond with urgency.

Alex Politaki © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Bhutan set to plough lone furrow as world's first wholly organic country

Sun, 02/10/2013 - 23:00

By shunning all but organic farming techniques, the Himalayan state will cement its status as a paradigm of sustainability

Bhutan plans to become the first country in the world to turn its agriculture completely organic, banning the sales of pesticides and herbicides and relying on its own animals and farm waste for fertilisers.

But rather than accept that this will mean farmers of the small Himalayan kingdom of 1.2 million people will be able to grow less food, the government expects them to be able to grow more – and to export increasing amounts of high quality niche foods to neighbouring India, China and other countries.

The decision to go organic was both practical and philosophical, said Pema Gyamtsho, Bhutan's minister of agriculture and forests, in Delhi for the annual sustainable development conference last week.

"Ours is a mountainous terrain. When we use chemicals they don't stay where we use them, they impact the water and plants. We say that we need to consider all the environment. Most of our farm practices are traditional farming, so we are largely organic anyway.

"But we are Buddhists, too, and we believe in living in harmony with nature. Animals have the right to live, we like to to see plants happy and insects happy," he said.

Gyamtsho, like most members of the cabinet, is a farmer himself, coming from Bumthang in central Bhutan but studying western farming methods in New Zealand and Switzerland.

"Going organic will take time," he said. "We have set no deadline. We cannot do it tomorrow. Instead we will achieve it region by region and crop by crop."

The overwhelmingly agrarian nation, which really only opened its doors to world influences 30 years ago, is now facing many of the development pangs being felt everywhere in rapidly emerging countries. Young people reluctant to live just by farming are migrating to India and elsewhere, there is a population explosion, and there is inevitable pressure for consumerism and cultural change.

But, says Gyamtsho, Bhutan's future depends largely on how it responds to interlinked development challenges like climate change, and food and energy security. "We would already be self-sufficient in food if we only ate what we produced. But we import rice. Rice eating is now very common, but traditionally it was very hard to get. Only the rich and the elite had it. Rice conferred status. Now the trend is reversing. People are becoming more health-conscious and are eating grains like buckwheat and wheat."

In the west, organic food growing is widely thought to reduce the size of crops because they become more susceptible to pests. But this is being challenged in Bhutan and some regions of Asia, where smallholders are developing new techniques to grow more and are not losing soil quality.

Systems like "sustainable root intensification" (SRI), which carefully regulate the amount of water that crops need and the age at which seedlings are planted out, have shown that organic crop yields can be doubled with no synthetic chemicals.

"We are experimenting with different methods of growing crops like SRI but we are also going to increase the amount of irrigated land and use traditional varieties of crops which do not require inputs and have pest resistance," says Gyamtsho.

However, a run of exceptionally warm years and erratic weather has left many farmers doubtful they can do without chemicals.

In Paro, a largely farming district in south-west Bhutan, farmers are already struggling to grow enough to feed their families and local government officials say they are having to distribute fertiliser and pesticides in larger quantities to help people grow more.

"I have heard of the plan to turn everything organic. But we are facing serious problems just getting people to grow enough", said Rinzen Wangchuk, district farm officer.

"Most people here are smallholder farmers. The last few years we have had problems with the crops. The weather has been very erratic. It's been warmer than normal and all the chilli crops are full of pests. We are having to rely on fertilisers more than we have ever had to in the past and even these are not working as well as they initially did."

Dawa Tshering, who depends on his two acres of rice paddy and a vegetable garden, says that for decades his farming was chemical free.

"But its harder now because all our children are either in the capital or studying. Nobody wants to stay, which means we have to work harder. It's just my wife an myself here. We cannot grow enough to feed ourselves and take crops to the market, so we have to use chemicals for the first time. We would like to go back to farming how we used to, where we just used what nature provided."

But in a world looking for new ideas, Bhutan is already called the poster child of sustainable development. More than 95% of the population has clean water and electricity, 80% of the country is forested and, to the envy of many countries, it is carbon neutral and food secure.

In addition, it is now basing its economic development on the pursuit of collective happiness.

"We have no fossil fuels or nuclear. But we are blessed with rivers which give us the potential of over 30,000megawatts of electricity. So far we only exploit 2,000 megawatts. We exploit enough now to export to India and in the pipeline we have 10,000 megawatts more. The biggest threat we face is cars. The number is increasing every day. Everyone wants to buy cars and that means we must import fuel. That is why we must develop our energy."

Agriculture minister Gyamtsho remains optimistic. "Hopefully we can provide solutions. What is at stake is the future. We need governments who can make bold decisions now rather than later."

John VidalAnnie Kelly © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Poor people have got a right to be angry | Jonathan Glennie

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 22:59

I have detected a worrying lack of empathy towards poor people demanding their rights. But what would you do if your child was growing up stunted or you couldn't pay for your electricity?

On a recent trip to Guatemala, a glance at the local paper revealed a country riven by social conflict. On the front page, indigenous groups and NGOs were blocking the way to a mine in San José del Golfo, one of the many mining operations seen by the government and oligarchy as key to Guatemala's development, but by most indigenous people (who make up 40% of the population) as a threat to their wellbeing, with few apparent benefits.

On another page, a man in a Che Guevara T-shirt was handing in a petition to the government to nationalise the electricity system – private companies are hiking prices and then disconnecting the poor households that are unable to pay. The neighbouring article presented a World Vision report on children forced into dangerous work (such as making fireworks) through poverty. Meanwhile, talks to agree next year's minimum wage have failed – the unions are asking for a 47% increase to cover the rising prices of basic goods, while the private sector prefers 2% (inflation is about 6%).

Finally, the proposed rural development law stipulating gradual reform of land use and titling has led to an unlikely alliance between the former general and now right-of-centre president, Otto Pérez, and the leftwing NGOs. Predictably, the private sector is opposing such "socialism". Malnutrition is chronic in much of Guatemala, at about 50% of the population – higher than in many African countries.

Attempts to reduce poverty in Guatemala since the 1996 peace accords formally ended civil war (a consequence, let's not forget, of a US-led coup d'etat in 1954 removing a president pursuing land reform) have either not been serious or been ineffective, or both. Inequality levels have worsened slightly, as has undernourishment, in the past 10 years, according to World Bank data, although some child health indicators are improving slowly.

So what is to be done? While the answer is far from obvious, I detected on my trip a concerning lack of empathy in some quarters, both national and foreign, and including among some development professionals, towards the increasingly angry poor.

Some complained that NGOs connecting poor families to the electricity grid were in clear violation of the law. Others that indigenous communities need, in short, to get with the programme, and accept that mining is here to stay, essentially a message of adapt or die. The war ended 16 years ago, I was told, and NGOs and community organisations need to get off the streets and negotiate through formal channels. Some called for a restriction of funding to NGOs seen as "disrupting" order. One government minister described the killing of six protesters by soldiers in October as "no big deal".

My response to such complaints is simple: what would you do if your child was growing up stunted? What would you do if you could no longer pay for the electricity your household needed to learn and stay safe? What would you do if your one place of safety, your land, was threatened by mining companies for which you had nothing but distrust, based on harsh experience. I know what I would do if it were my children's lives at stake.

While optimists look for signs of a change in attitude from a traditionally intransigent and, to be frank, racist elite – an indigenous leader was invited recently to open a major business conference – there is depressingly little evidence that wealthy Guatemalans are putting the needs of the majority ahead of their perceived need for private jets, gated communities and vast tracts of unused land. One NGO leader I spoke to, and I hope he's wrong, argued that the wealthy do not want to see incomes increased as that would mean more negotiating power for the rural poor.

There is no point just denouncing the Guatemalan elite. A shift in mentality among the younger generation of business leaders will be vital for progress against poverty and inequality, and it is hypocritical, in this Facebook era, to criticise the middle classes in poor countries for aspiring to the lifestyles they see in the affluent west, as I have argued before. It is as important to cultivate change in the posh business plazas of the capital city as in the dusty squares of the western highlands.

But nor is it acceptable, as indigenous communities see their children grow up deficient in vital nutrients, for opinion-makers in the capital to condescend that they are bringing the country to a standstill with their unwarranted civic disobedience. The insistence on patience is the refuge of conservatives with nice homes throughout history, even those who think themselves progressive.

Large-scale mobilisations, including civil disobedience, are sometimes the last resort of people trying to bring about change within a timescale from which their family might actually benefit.

Because, ultimately, we can have a debate on various policy approaches to Guatemala's complex problems, but such debates must be based on the unchanging principle of empathy: always stand with the poorest and most marginalised, whether that means working with them in the coffee fields, strengthening their leadership in negotiations with government (decimated by decades of violent conflict), or marching with them on the streets.

Jonathan Glennie © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Women's lives put at risk in India by private healthcare providers

Thu, 02/07/2013 - 09:00

Private hospitals are subjecting women to unnecessary surgery for financial gain, highlighting urgent need for health reform

Profoundly shocking stories are coming out of India about the exploitation of poor, ill-educated or illiterate women at the hands of doctors in private hospitals. Thousands are being given hysterectomies and caesareans that they do not need by doctors and hospitals that can make substantial sums of money out of the operations. They leave women in pain, infirm, unable to work to earn a living and in horrendous debt.

Indian women earning just enough to feed themselves and their families cannot go to government clinics because they are too few and far between. The private healthcare market has swept all before it. In 1949, the private sector provided 8% of India's healthcare facilities. Now, with the unfettered growth permitted by the unquestioning worship of market forces, it accounts for 93% of hospitals and 85% of doctors.

The private health sector in India makes a fortune out of health tourism, attracting people from Europe and the US for high-quality care that is cheaper than at home. Meanwhile, the absence of government regulation allows the appalling abuse of the country's own people.

Oxfam's staff and partners in India have been amassing distressing evidence of the plight of women who go to private clinics with a minor complaint and come out unable to work and with an impossible burden of debt. This was the account of 38-year-old Kaushalya, who works as a farm labourer in a rural district of Rajasthan. She visited a private clinic with stomach pains and was told she must have a hysterectomy. She was charged 30,000 rupees for the operation (around £360).

I went to get medication and have a check-up. Because the government hospitals are far away, I went to a private clinic. They didn't check me, they didn't give me any medication, but they gave me an injection and performed an operation. Even though I only had a tummy ache, they took my uterus out. I still have the same stomach pain I had before. I can't work, I can't lift heavy things. Being a poor farmer, I don't have any money, so I had to borrow money. I have not even been able to pay the interest.

Akhil Bhartiya Grhak Panchayat, a local NGO in Dausa district, Rajasthan, found evidence of hundreds of women who had been subjected to unnecessary hysterectomies. The NGO filed an RTI (right to information) case. Nearly 70% of the women at three of five clinics which provided information had had their uterus taken out. The RTI also revealed a large number of the women who had undergone the procedure were aged under 29, with the youngest being just 18. Complaints have been made to the police and local government, but no action has yet been taken.

"Whatever abdominal stomach problems they are coming to doctors with, the doctors make them scared that they have cancer and are going to die. They mislead them into undergoing surgery that is not necessary … in their greed for money," said Durga Prasad Saini of the NGO.

Chandra Kala, a mother of two in her late twenties, was told she must have a caesarean by a private clinic for both of her deliveries. She was charged 20,000 rupees for the delivery of her first child and 15,000 rupees for the second baby she delivered recently.

I said I didn't want an operation performed on me, but they said I had to have one and they charged me. We are only villagers who farm, but I managed to borrow some money from here and there. But being a farmer now I can't work, I can't lift anything heavy or bend too low, I don't feel well enough to work. I only finished off paying my debts two months ago from my first child who is now nine years old.

There have been accounts of unnecessary operations that risk lives taking place in other parts of India too. Dr Satyaveer Singh, chief medical officer for a government hospital near Bharatpur, said the abuse was widespread:

For private doctors who do a normal delivery, what will they get? Only 5,000 or 6,000 rupees. But whenever they perform a caesarean, they charge 18, 20,000, and they will add a bed charge, a consultation charge – with all these included, it's about 30,000. Most of the women having a caesarean face problems financially. They have to sell their assets, or borrow money.

Dr Narendra Gupta from Prayas, a partner organisation working with Oxfam India, said:

Subjecting women to unethical and unnecessary hysterectomies or Caesarean sections for financial gain is a violation of human rights and most awful form of gender-based violence. The mass hysterectomies by private clinics in Dausa is a wicked act, but such malpractice is happening in other areas as well.

The stories of these women, damaged by doctors for financial gain, are the strongest possible testimony in favour of a comprehensive system that delivers affordable healthcare to all people. Oxfam is calling for the Indian government to make healthcare for all a priority – and is urging international donors to support them and back regulation of the private healthcare sector in developing countries.

Sarah Boseley © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

WTO eyes pared-down deal to revive trade talks | Paige McClanahan

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 23:00

Early agreement to cut red tape could break impasse of Doha round, benefit developing countries and prove relevance of WTO

With the WTO's beleaguered Doha round of talks at an impasse, trade officials in Geneva have set their sights on a more modest deal for 2013. If they succeed, the agreement, which would be announced at a high-level meeting in Bali at the end of this year, could provide a big boost to developing country economies.

"Everybody has agreed that there can be an early harvest," says Patricia Francis, the head of the International Trade Centre, using trade officials' preferred term for a pared-down agreement under the 11-year-old Doha talks. "I think what is potentially doable is a trade facilitation agreement," she adds.

Trade facilitation is WTO-speak for cutting the red tape that slows the movement of goods and services across international borders. "Facilitating" trade involves easing documentation requirements, streamlining customs procedures and training border officials.

At its worst, red tape can be a formidable barrier to international commerce. According to the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business index, exporting a product from Malawi requires 10 separate documents and takes an average of 34 days. Compare that with Singapore, where the export process requires four documents and takes only five days to complete. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that reducing the transaction costs of global trade by just 1% would increase worldwide income by more than $40bn, nearly two-thirds of which would go to developing countries. 

"The thickness of borders today costs two to five times more than import tariffs," WTO director general Pascal Lamy said in a speech in Delhi last week. He added that an agreement on trade facilitation would be "a logical first step" in reviving progress in the multilateral trade talks, which have seen little progress in the past few years.

More positive signals came from Davos, where trade officials meeting on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum last month discussed what might emerge from the multilateral trade talks in 2013. An agreement on trade facilitation was high on the list.

But negotiators are still a long way from finalising the wording of a potential trade facilitation deal. The draft text, as it stands, contains more than 200 brackets, or items on which negotiators disagree. There is no guarantee that they will manage to work out their differences in time for the ministerial meeting in Bali, which is scheduled for the first week of December.

At least some of the controversy arises because developing countries are wary of signing up to a new set of legally binding rules that they might struggle to implement, says Lucas Saronga, a Tanzanian trade official based in Geneva. Poorer nations also worry that slashing red tape could lead to an influx of cheap imports, undercutting their domestic producers.

"No one is questioning the benefits of trade facilitation if it is taken properly," says Saronga. "But we believe that it's only when we can be assured of flexibilities … that we can be comfortable to take on binding commitments."

If developing countries sign up to anything on trade facilitation, they want to be sure that they get something in return, Saronga added. Among other things, they are pushing for concessions on issues like agriculture and a potential "monitoring mechanism" to track the implementation of special provisions for poor countries in WTO agreements. But it's not clear what, if anything, the developing countries will be able to secure in the talks on these fronts.

The trade facilitation talks may be complicated because the WTO is deeply engrossed in picking a new leader, a process that will last until the end of May. Whoever replaces Lamy as director general on 1 September will have only three months to get up to speed before the meeting in Bali.

"It's probably 50-50," says Aileen Kwa of the South Centre, on the likelihood of an "early harvest" deal at the Bali meeting. "Yes, there is a lot of momentum in the sense that some people are pushing it a lot, but at the same time there are so many differences in the negotiations, and those differences are very deeply entrenched."

But WTO officials are growing increasingly eager to actually get something done, as many observers are beginning to question the organisation's relevance.

Securing a deal "would give the WTO a boost of energy, which it really requires now", says Francis of the ITC, adding: "If we can't do something at Bali in December in terms of delivering something on the Doha agenda, then I think we're in big trouble."

Paige McClanahan © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Why we need to make customary laws work for women | Mark Tran

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 09:11

Trying to fix informal justice systems can backfire, unless male domination of community power structures are addressed

Afghanistan's constitution and domestic laws offer extensive protection to women, yet abuse of Afghan women from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape to trafficking of women and children and "honour killings" is pervasive.

Even where violations of the 2009 law on the elimination of violence against women are reported, such behaviour is often considered legitimate or a family rather than a legal matter in the country's informal justice systems, which are largely composed of influential male elders. These informal systems seek to preserve family harmony and to prevent tribal and other conflicts from escalating.

But such informal systems in developing countries present a major challenge to efforts to promote gender equality, seen as a cornerstone in achieving the millennium development goals (MDGs). As the International Development Law Organisation (IDLO) noted in a new report: "Informal justice systems often tolerate or reinforce discriminatory practices such as female genital mutilation, bride sales, denial of widow inheritance, or discriminatory sanctions such as forced marriage or the exchange of women or young girls as resolution for a crime or as compensation."

Despite these shortcomings, many women prefer these informal systems on the grounds of familiarity, cost and convenience. In Afghanistan, 73% prefer local jirgas and district shuras to state courts, describing them as in keeping with local norms and values.

"Most legal disputes in developing countries end up being resolved outside the courts. Informal justice systems are here to stay. So wherever these systems are receptive to change, and not inherently unjust, we should make them work for women instead of against them," said Irene Khan, IDLO director general.

IDLO's report questions the approach of aid donors that consists of trying to wrench customary rules and procedures into line with internationally recognised standards of women's rights. It warned that this "fix it" approach can backfire unless more fundamental issues are addressed, which comes down to traditional male domination of community power structures.

For instance, attempts to change Kenya's customary procedures for land titles to widen women's access to land had the effect of cementing male ownership and precluding women's access and use of land under customary law. IDLO advocates "legal empowerment" strategies through legal literacy programmes, legal aid or alternative mechanisms to settle disputes.

"Bottom-up legal empowerment approaches targeting women can pressure community leaders to reform discriminatory practices," said the report. "When women are informed of their rights and encouraged to discuss or challenge informal laws and practices, they can put pressure on customary justice systems to better protect basic rights."

In Afghanistan, IDLO supported the creation of the violence against women units in the attorney-general's office in Kabul in 2010, expanding the programme to seven other provinces. It has also set up a training programme for those in the informal justice sector to address the lack of information about sharia and Afghan constitutional law, which is seen as a major factor behind traditional practices harmful to women. During its first year of operation in Kabul, the unit received 300 cases. By June 2012, the number of cases had risen to 1,175.

In Namibia, it was a case of getting more women to be appointed traditional leaders in the Uukwambi region, where one of the five district senior councillors in the traditional authority is a woman. IDLO also worked to increase the presence of women in court proceedings, encouraging them to take part as witnesses and representatives, and to promote gender equality among village chiefs. IDLO said Namibia provides a successful example of the legal empowerment approach, attributing it to commitments to gender equality at national level and a momentum for change following independence.

However, the legal empowerment approach brought less success to the issue of land rights in Rwanda, despite national legislation allowing daughters to inherit land from their parents, because of the larger framework of social beliefs. Despite limitations of the legal empowerment approach, Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel peace prizewinner, believes in the value of empowering women through legal education, legal training and the provision of legal services.

"Legal empowerment strategies can slowly pay long-term dividends, by allowing women to claim power from those who rule in their name, rather than leaving reforms to the whims of the state and community decision-makers, whose interests often lie in the preservation of the status quo," she said.

Mark Tran © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Is David Cameron off message on fighting inequality? | Liz Ford

Tue, 02/05/2013 - 08:55

The UK PM's comments at the end of the high-level meeting in Liberia, on putting growth ahead of combating inequality, were at odds with the final communique and the tide of opinion

The comment came at the end of the press conference last Friday. The British prime minister, David Cameron, looking perky from a day's discussions on the future of development, in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, was asked whether he would prioritise inequality over economic growth in efforts to move countries out of poverty.

No, he said. Encouraging economic growth was the priority.

Cameron's comments came as a surprise, not only because they were at odds with the statement given by the Liberian president, Ellen John Sirleaf, moments earlier, and the tone of the UN high-level panel (HLP) communique, but also because they went against the tide of opinion – and evidence – that shows economic growth has led to massive inequality. If you want to reduce poverty, you need to address that.

While growth may have reduced the gap between rich and poor countries, it has increased inequity within countries. Just look at India and China. Writing on the Global development site last week, Kevin Watkins said rising inequality had dampened the "poverty-reducing effects of growth". He said the Asia's Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, over the past two decades had increased from 39 to 46. "Had it remained constant, poverty incidence would by now be 28% lower," he said.

The language of the HLP communique, agreed after two days of talks between members and following consultation with civil society groups, was very much about inclusion (although we'll wait to see what the HLP final report brings in May). The communique said the agenda of the panel was "to address the universal challenges of the 21st century: promoting sustainable development, supporting job-creating growth, protecting the environment and providing peace, security, justice, freedom and equity at all levels".

It said the process was "first and last" about people and their "protection and empowerment", especially that of women and girls, and young people.

As if to ram the point home, Sirleaf told the press conference: "Economic growth, although crucial, is not sufficient to achieve social justice and equity or sustainability for all … Achieving this will require great attention to equity, fairness and providing opportunities for all."

Earlier in the week, civil society groups had cited gender equality as a major barrier to development. Women's rights are crucial to reduce poverty, they said in a document produced at the end of their own three-day event in Monrovia. It added that older people and those with disabilities must have "full and equal participation" in all stages of the economic process.

Studies on economic growth and the impact on women found that greater gender equality in education and work "had made a positive contribution to economic growth", wrote Professor Naila Kabeer, from the School of Oriental and African Studies, last year. There was much less evidence to support the idea that economic growth leads to gender equality, if that's what Cameron is hoping. In its 2012 world development report, the World Bank backed up this argument.

Sheelagh Kathy Mangones, from UN Women in Liberia, told me that gender equality is "central to achieving all of the other [development] goals". Giving women sexual and reproductive rights, and addressing their unpaid work looking after children and family, is not only a human right but also means women are able to fulfil their economic potential.

While reaction to the HLP communique from NGOs has been largely positive, addressing inequalities was a persistent concern.

VSO's chief executive, Marg Mayne, said achieving sustainable economic growth would need "greater emphasis on tackling the root causes of poverty, especially those that are resulting in persistent inequalities in the opportunities that people have to fulfil their potential in life". Meanwhile, Brendan Cox, Save the Children's director of policy and advocacy, said: "We must focus on the very poorest, who have been left behind by growing inequality".

A spokeswoman from ActionAid said the communique didn't go far enough on ensuring women's rights were central to any future development framework. And Dominic Haslam director of policy at Sightsavers, expressed disappointment that there was no specific mention of people with disabilities, "a particularly vulnerable group".

So were Cameron's comments merely a throw away line at the end of a busy few days? Or do they expose the prime minister's true beliefs, that despite a new bit of gloss, it will be business as usual for post-2015 development?

Cameron may need to tread carefully when he goes to Bali next month for the last HLP meeting. Comments like these risk undermining the work of the panel, which the UN sees as a step towards restoring trust in the system after the lame outcomes of Rio+20 last year. But more important, he risks turning civil society away, which could only harm his ambitions of eradicating extreme poverty.

Liz Ford © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Forget post-2015 development goals – a global new deal is what's needed

Mon, 02/04/2013 - 23:00

Finance-led globalisation has failed – which is our cue to forget about setting targets and adopt a development-led approach

Many familiar problems were raised at the Liberia meeting of the UN high-level panel tasked with drafting global post-2015 development goals: extreme poverty, lack of productive employment, environmental degradation and growing inequality. But these big questions are still being met with small answers, suggesting that the international community remains in the wrong frame of mind to meet such major challenges.

A recent Guardian editorial noted how "small", "technocratic" and "fragmented" the discussion within the international development community has become. But it missed a major reason for this: the continued but misplaced faith in "market fundamentalism". This adds to the perception that globalisation is an irresistible force beyond the control of governments, a process driven by countless invisible hands, infallible business acumen and continuous technological revolution, and reaching its zenith with the unleashing of finance.

Over the past three decades, open markets and global capital were supposed to raise savings, bolster investment, create jobs and spread new technologies; this would release a tidal wave of economic prosperity, above all in the poorest countries. But finance-led globalisation has not lived up to its billing: debt-riven global growth has trended downward, capital formation has been sluggish, and recurrent crises have destroyed jobs and threatened livelihoods, even as those at the very top enjoyed soaring incomes. Some big emerging economies have enjoyed sustained and even rapid growth, but it is no longer credible to think deregulated markets, financial engineering or shareholder value will deliver inclusive economic growth.

Business as usual simply will not work any more. The UN has recognised this in its call for a new post-2015 development agenda. But to move the agenda forward, some hard truths will need to be recognised. There is a good deal more to development than poverty reduction. Simply adding human rights, peace and security – however important these challenges are – will not necessarily point things in the right direction. However understandable, devoting attention to those at the bottom has resulted in insufficient attention being paid to those at the top with access to the resources needed to drive investment and create jobs.

Development is less about deprivation and more about transformation – structural, institutional and normative – in ways that add to a country's wealth-creating potential, ensuring the gains are widely shared and extending the possibilities of future generations. For most developing countries, that still means building industrial capacity, providing secure livelihoods for rapidly growing urban populations, and guaranteeing food security.

David Cameron's calls for eradicating extreme poverty and more responsible capitalism are well-intentioned. But his call to use aid to strengthen the "golden thread" of open markets misses the point, ignoring the strategies that have actually worked in successful developing countries over the past half century, where the state plays an active role in mobilising resources and disciplining their use.

President Obama's inaugural address, which recognised that a successful economy mixes dynamic entrepreneurial effort with effective collective action and a strong social contract, provides a more reliable compass. Success, he insisted, does not follow "when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it".

Making inequality part of the development policy agenda has already gained traction. But to make lasting progress, it will be necessary to move beyond MDG-style targets and instead consider a global new deal allowing different economic strategies providing benefits for all.

To start with, rebalancing the global economy should follow an expansionary macroeconomic path based on productive employment generation and shifting labour to higher value-added activities in developing countries. The rising threats posed by food and energy insecurity and environmental degradation require a strong investment response, which must necessarily be led by public action. International institutions should support countercyclical fiscal policy and public investment by making adequate funding available and attaching fewer conditions to their lending.

Second, unruly markets, especially financial markets, must be tamed. Even before the crisis, it was clear that stable and inclusive development is incompatible with speculative market behaviour and boom-and-bust cycles. Finance everywhere needs to get back to the business of providing security for people's savings and mobilising resources for productive investment. At the international level, that means promoting capital controls (something the IMF now seems ready to do), implementing a financial transaction tax (something the EU is now actively pursuing), and designing a sovereign debt workout mechanism that deals fairly with lenders and borrowers alike (a long-standing Unctad proposal).

Finally, growth is unlikely to be inclusive without effective measures for redistribution. Strengthening the position of labour to ensure wages match productivity growth is central, along with asset redistribution to prevent excessive concentration. Policies of universal social protection (including basic income policies) can help repair the social contract. Along with humanitarian aid for the poorest and most vulnerable, the international community needs to guarantee adequate policy space for countries to develop measures relevant to their own contexts.

The challenge in building such development-led globalisation is not so much the shortage of big ideas but their scaling up through international collective action. Current arrangements cannot serve this purpose, and have already lost legitimacy. A small number of economic powers, home to the world's largest corporations and financial institutions, continue to exercise a controlling influence at the IMF and the World Bank, driving negotiations at the World Trade Organisation and on the climate challenge. This dominance is no longer assured, but conditions for stable international economic co-operation remain elusive. Only a global new deal can help build the levels of trust needed to tackle shared problems and broaden the scope for effective development partnerships.

Richard Kozul-WrightJayati Ghosh © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Why Comic Relief is still a cunning plan

Mon, 02/04/2013 - 14:46

It should have been a car crash. But despite some grinding gear changes, the risky format proved to have lots of fuel in the tank

Comic Relief, on the face of it, should never really have worked. Using comedy to highlight tragedy was, and still is, a technique that needs to be approached with caution.

But as we mark the 25th anniversary of the first ever Red Nose Day, there can be few doubts that it really has worked. In 13 Red Nose Days since that first brave venture in 1988, we have raised £660m.

It's estimated that at least 40 million people across Africa and the world's poorest countries have been helped, and another 10 million in the UK. And on top of that, the first nationwide domestic violence helpline has been established.

Nowhere is that success more apparent than in the vital area of education. Between 1999 and 2008, the number of children attending school in sub-Saharan Africa increased by 46.5 million. On a visit to a Comic Relief-assisted school in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, I saw for myself exactly what those pounds and fivers donated over the years translate into on the ground.

This was a slum school, built with Comic Relief money: spartan and still short of books. But it was a lovely place to be, rammed with the most beautiful, playful children you could ever hope to meet. Every one of them wanted to be there because from a very young age these youngsters know that to be given an education is to be given a way out.

To walk from room to room, being greeted in each by the "happy to see you" song – a little number we should use back home much more than we do – was to be astonished at the breadth of the education being delivered under these conditions. English, French, science, art, algebra: it was all here. Because this isn't just about passing exams: this is about gaining a solid education to become self-sufficient enough to escape poverty for good.

Which is exactly what is happening across Africa as this mighty continent turns itself around.

In the early years of Red Nose Day, these achievements seemed unlikely. To me, as one of the presenters, the very first night of Comic Relief television felt much more like a stage show that was being filmed than a slick telethon.

For a start, the number of us involved was tiny in comparison with today. As you stood there on stage, with the organisation's founder and driving force, Richard Curtis, furiously writing links in his booth in the wings as the running order changed and changed again, you just had to hope the person who said they would be there to do a 20-minute set at 11.30pm would actually turn up. There was also an endurance element to the whole thing: "It's 2am. We're still here. Who's staying with us?" To our surprise, people did, in their millions.

It's much more polished now, of course. There's much more of a sheen to it. In fact – let's face it – it's better. But there was something about the early days that I kind of miss – although not all of it.

I remember vividly, for instance, many a gear change between the comedy and the serious films being far less than smooth. Griff Rhys Jones, I recall, once launched himself into a comedy link with his trademark enthusiasm and vigour, only to realise halfway through that what he was actually introducing was a story about a girl from Kenya that couldn't have been more harrowing.

But it didn't matter. In fact, I think the very obviously rough-and-ready nature of it helped to foster the sense of everyone being in it together that has coalesced into the extraordinary support shown by the British public in their fundraising.

They feel like they own Comic Relief, and they are right. It has proved to be a very successful model, with longstanding partners such as Sainsbury's and BT also playing their part in pushing the overall total raised by Comic Relief above the half-billion mark.

In our drive to raise as much money as possible to do as much good as possible over these past 25 years, we have perhaps been guilty of not taking enough time to chart the impact we have had. Much of the progress now comes from Africans themselves, as indicators improve and nations take strides to secure a better future for their children.

What's for certain, though, is that if Comic Relief, in all its red-nosed glory, has played even a small part in helping to make that change happen, then it can only have been a good thing.

Even if it shouldn't really have worked in the first place.

Jonathan Ross © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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