Song of the Day:
Lotus Flower by Radiohead

watch on youtube

Because all I want is the moon upon a stick
Just to see what it is
Just to see what gives
Take the lotus flowers into my room
Slowly we unfurl
As lotus flowers
All I want is the moon upon a stick

(Click on the picture to watch the video on YouTube)
Discovered via Matt Brown, who shot the video.

More Songs of the Day on The Road

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About adaptation, mitigation, floods and the need for information

Punjab farmer on dam

Climate change adaptation and mitigation in agriculture is more than merely “the need for better seeds”. It needs a way to exchange information so we can re-apply proven solutions rather than re-inventing the wheel every single time….

In a wide, slow gesture, Gurbachan Singh shows me a panorama of lush fields. It is as if he hand touches the abundant, young wheat sprouts from afar. They are bright green, showing a promise for a plentiful harvest. Wide fields are bordered with tall poplar trees whose leafs softly whisper in the light wind, chasing away the early morning mist.

“All of this”, says Gurbachan, “All of this was gone. Flooded. As far as you can see. All of it. People had fled to higher grounds, but the twenty-four hours notice we had before the flood, was not sufficient to evacuate all live stock. Most buffalo and cows drowned. The harvest was lost.”

We are standing near the village of Bhoda in Punjab, North West India. From a large dike, made of sandbags, probably five metres (15 ft) high, we see the river, flowing slowly beneath us. It is hard to imagine that in July last year, this small stream had swollen with a mighty force, digging a hole in the dike, half a mile long. (...)

Read my full post on the CCAFS blog

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Aid-y-Wood: Celebrities' Good Intentions Are Not Good Enough

Madonna in Malawi

Next to Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood, we also have Aid-y-wood: the way that celebrities throw money at humanitarian causes.

Here is one. Read in the New York Times:

("Raising Malawi",.. ) A high-profile charitable foundation set up to build a school for impoverished girls in Malawi, founded by the singer Madonna and fellow devotees of a prominent Jewish mysticism movement, has collapsed after spending $3.8 million on a project that never came to fruition.(...)

Madonna has lent her name, reputation and $11 million of her money to the organization. (...)

(...) the plans to build a $15 million school for about 400 girls in the poor southeastern African country of 15 million (...) have been officially abandoned.(...)

(...) an examination found that $3.8 million had been spent on the school that will now not be built, with much of the money going to architects, design and salaries and, in one case, two cars for employees who had not even been hired yet.(...)

So they planned to build a $15 million boarding school for 400 girls in Malawi, hey?
That is about 10% of the annual budget for the Malawi Ministry of Education.. catering for 8.1 million kids.

Celebrities lending their name, voice or face to make publicity for a good cause is one thing. It all starts to go wrong when they decide to "do it themselves".

"Good intentions" are really not enough. Good aid is complexer than just "giving something". And the more you give wrong, the more adverse the impact you might have.

It also takes a turn for worse if some hawks "assist" the Aid-y-Wood's efforts in development and rip the charity off. The aid world as such, but certainly the celebrity charities, are such a fertile soil for con-men: Loads of money with no clue, what more do you want? The good feeling of giving, the good feeling of "hey at least we tried" even if all goes wrong, and the forgiveness of "Well, at least you tried.." gets them off the hook.

Eight workers at Madonna's Malawi charity are suing the U.S. pop star for unfair dismissal and non-payment of their benefits. (Source) - Another thing celebrities underestimate: "Be ready to get ripped off. If is not a question of "if", but of "how much".

Picture courtesy Mark Richards via Social Earth

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US military hijacks social media

CENTCOM on Facebook

The United States military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter by using fake online personas to influence Internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.

A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an "online persona management service" that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.

The project has been likened by Web experts to China's attempts to control and restrict free speech on the Internet. Critics are likely to complain that it will allow the US military to create a false consensus in online conversations, crowd out unwelcome opinions and smother commentaries or reports that do not correspond with its own objectives. (Source)

Original picture courtesy Evan Vucci/AP

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You have been an aidworker for too long (Part 14)


You have been an aidworker for too long...

...if you can sum up the names of all political parties in Zambia, but can't remember which parties formed the government in your own home country. (*)

(*) which is not valid for Belgian aidworkers, as we haven't had a government for almost a year.

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You've been an aidworker for too long (Part 13)

on a relief flight

You have been an aidworker for too long...

...if you can curse fluently in Pashtu, Swahili and Urdu but forget the translation for the word "assessment" in your own mother tongue.

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In the shadow of the news: 1940's US syphilis experiments on humans

US ethics cartoon

Guatemalans subjected to U.S. syphilis experiments in the 1940s are suing federal health officials to compensate them for health problems they have suffered.

The lawsuit comes after revelations that U.S. scientists studying the effects of penicillin in the 1940s deliberately infected about 700 Guatemalan prisoners, mental patients, soldiers and orphans. None was informed or gave consent. (...)

The Guatemalan experiments were hidden for decades, until a medical historian uncovered the records in 2009. (Source)

Why does this remind me of the experiments on humans another nation did around the 1940's?

Guess the earlier US apology did not help.

Cartoon courtesy Indiana University

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Teak trees or food crops: Will climate change force farmers to make a choice?

teak seedling

One or two generations ago, smallholder farmers might have grown food crops mainly to feed their own families. But those days are gone. Farmers are looking more and more for cash income.

Like in Bihar, North-Central India: farmers still value the “yield” of a crop, but the “revenue” becomes increasingly important. It is not just because of the “Modern Times”, where electricity bills and school fees are to be paid, and people want to buy a mobile phone, a television or a tractor.
No, there is more than that: climate change has chased up the expenses: boreholes, mechanical or electric pumps, hybrid seeds… Each of these has a price ticket attached to it. A price ticket, farmers are scrambling to pay, but a necessity for any land to bare any crop.

The droughts
A good crowd had gathered in Rambad, a small village in Bihar. Both young and old, from the better-off farmers to the day labourers, all were sitting around us. We were talking about the change in weather, the effects it had on this farmers’ community and ways these people have tried to adapt over time.

When we asked who of the farmers had experimented with new things in the past years, they pointed out a slim man, probably in his late thirties, standing in a bit of a distance. As we all looked at him, he came nearer, stood up straight and held his arms stiff along his body as he said his name, “Vidyabhushan Kumar”, in a loud voice. As if a teacher had just summoned him. We asked Vidyabhushan to sit with us and tell his story. (...)

Read my full post on the CCAFS blog

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Climate change, smallholder farmers and the cycle of poverty

Indian woman

When discussing climate change, we often discuss about the technical part of “agriculture”: crop varieties, irrigation or farming methods. But climate change also has a profound social impact within the rural communities, which rely mostly on agriculture. Climate change will push many smallholder farmers over “the edge”, back into poverty.

Arti Devi from Rambad in Bihar, India, is one of them.

Arti is married and has three children, two girls and a boy. Up to some years ago, she owned a small plot of land where she cultivated wheat and some vegetables, and had two buffaloes. This was sufficient to provide food and an income to her family.

“As the weather changed, we had less rain in this region. The yearly floods which used to bring in new fertile soil to my fields, just stopped. So my field yielded less and less.”, Arti explains, “As the lands dried up, it also became more difficult to find fodder for the buffaloes”. (...)

Read my full post on the CCAFS blog

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Pimp my aid worker

Oh God...

Video via, no kidding!

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Wanted: humanitarians with a conscience
- About the small steps from UNICEF to NESTLE, from PEPSICO to WHO

Humanitarian aid cartoon

Within the humanitarian world, there has always been a debate about the professional profile of development or aid workers. While the world often has an image of aidworkers resembling "the long-haired hippie singing 'We are the world' with a bunch of black kids on our knees, wearing hand-knitted goat-wool socks", many of us agree that the profile of a humanitarian should be different. Rather than "Good Intentions-only" we often look for "professionals", people who can bring an aid organisation to a operational level comparable to the commercial sector.

But somewhere there is a trade-off. We can not only hire shark-like business people, "to cut our overhead and bring more aid for less money", as often this would conflict with our humanitarian mandate. Simple example: We might buy those schoolbooks at 50% of the price, but those are made in sweat shops.
Understand the dilemma?

So, the ideal profile of a humanitarian, in my book, is a "professional with a conscience".

While my ideals stand, I can only validate them up to a certain point. Beyond that, "humanitarian executives" will, more often than not, be career politicians or even mere business people...

According to an interesting article in India Today, quoted below, Ann Veneman -the ex-chief of UNICEF- might be one of those. Switching from the UN agency mandated for child nutrition, promoting breast feeding, to joining the board of Nestle.

Nestle being the very same company which has been heavily critized for its low-faith/low-ethics campaigns luring women in the developing countries into to powder milk for babies... Nestle is the very same company which has been accused by UNICEF of using commercial methods below WHO standards.

As I said, an interesting article:

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) has just released a glossy report on the state of the world's children. Senior officials of the UN body made the right noises about children, the need to improve their nutritional status and so on, at media dos in several important capitals across the globe.

At a similar occasion a couple of years ago, Ann Veneman - who was Executive Director of the agency till April 2010 - had articulated Unicef's position on how exclusive breastfeeding for toddlers is critical to combat hunger and promote child survival. Post-retirement the UN official has undergone a change of mind.

She will now be on the board of a company which has been accused of subverting efforts to promote breastfeeding by flouting laws in order to market its formula foods. Yes, Veneman is joining the Board of Directors of Switzerland-based food giant - Nestle.

Veneman's transition from advocating nutrition and health to the board room of a multinational food company has been rather smooth, but has shocked health advocates all over.

It is nothing short of a coup for the food industry which is increasingly under attack for promoting unhealthy snacking and eating habits among children.

Veneman has had an 'illustrious' past.

In 2005, when she was appointed to the top post in Unicef, not everyone was comfortable because of her past connections with agrobusiness as secretary of agriculture in the Bush Administration.

"Veneman's promotion by the Bush Administration - Unicef is traditionally headed by an American - was greeted with concerns by some grassroots activists because of her good relations with big business and her limited experience in child welfare issues", medical journal The Lancet had noted in 2006.

While at the UN body, Veneman consciously emphasised the use of ready-to-use foods as a strategy to counter malnutrition.

As per her own admission made a few months before her term ended, " Unicef has significantly contributed to accelerating the use of ready-to-use therapeutic foods for treatment of acute malnutrition, with Unicef purchases of the product increasing from 100 metric tons in 2003 to over 11,000 metric tons in 2008". Veneman's appointment is part of the trend which has seen junk food makers trying to position themselves as marketers of healthy and nutritious foods.

A few years back PepsiCo appointed Derek Yach, former Executive Director of non- communicable diseases at the World Health Organisation (WHO), as its head of health and nutrition policies.

Yach frequently writes or coauthors review articles and comments in medical journals, pushing the industry point of view.

Such articles are then cited to influence policy makers.

PepsiCo got the head of cardiovascular diseases at Centre for Disease Control (CDC) - a US government arm - to head its own division on heart health. By appointing people connected with top health bodies, these companies want to portray themselves as part of the solution and not problem, and also want to influence policy making in health and nutrition.

At this rate, the day is not far off when junk food makers will position themselves as 'health and nutrition research' outfits and start dictating national health policies. (Source)

And there is loads more we can say about the positioning of junk food and junk drinks companies within the humanitarian organisations... Right? Right?

H/T to I.T. having the courage to tweet this link...

Cartoon courtesy and Speechless - The Book

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The subjectivity of war hunger

US tank cartoon

A week ago, it seemed that a military intervention in Libya was far fetched. Less so today.

That raises the question of the norms the international community uses to determine for which countries it should intervene.

If it is:
- use of unreasonable armed force against civilians
- atrocities against civilian population
- instigating civil war
- causing a mass exodus of civilian refugees

... then Israel should have been "invaded" a long time ago, I guess.

Certainly when we think of using internationally banned weapons against civilians and civilian targets (use of white phosphorus in densely populated civilian areas of Gaza), economic sanctions against Israel would have been justified. As well as expelling them from all kinds UN committees, a Security Council condemnation, engaging the ICC to prosecute Israeli government officials, and implementing a no-fly zone over the country...

So what are the prediction when this will all happen? For Libya, probably within the next week. For Israel, probably never.

Ok, but then how about a military intervention in Ivory Coast? Or a no-fly zone above Sudan?

Cartoon courtesy Al Jazeerah

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Musing on India - Part 5:
Faces from Bihar

Here are some people we met in Bihar, North India

Bihar farmer

Ramiwash is a small farmer, but probably one of the most create ones we met. On his plot, he combined fruit trees and several vegetable crops. He also implemented convervation farming, planting crops in small holes rather than ploughing his entire field. That way, he could preserve more water, a very scarce resource.

Bihar farmer

Anil talked to us about the dire need for water, now that the rains have become more scarce and the water level decreased over the past years.

Bihar farmer

Indramani is a widow taking care of her grandson. Her son, daughter in law and another grandson moved away to the city. She had a small plot with wheat and one buffalo to barely make ends meet.

Bihar farmer

Susila had to rent out one of her plots, as she had no access to water. Her husband has a mobile temple which he drives around to bring in a bit of extra money. She could read and write, and stressed the importance of educating her children, so they could move to the city and "get proper jobs".

Bihar farmer

Vidyabhushan invested in a set of teak tree seedlings, which he wanted to plant along his land, so he could harvest the timber and sell it in the years to come.

Bihar farmer

Arti lived alone with her three children. Her husband worked in the city and came home only once a year. She worked as a day labourer on other people's farms. She told us how the opportunities to work have drastically decreased as people leave their land barren in the summer due to lack of access to water for irrigation.

Bihar farmer

Arjun is the village chief (or "president") from four villages. He is also the chairmain of PACS, a cooperative bank who gives micro-loans to its members, and allows the farmers to ensure their crops against calamities.

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Predicting revolutions in Arab countries

The Economist predicts which Arab countries are most vulnerable to revolutions...

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