Friday, July 31, 2009

GM Maize Puts Lives and Livelihoods in Danger

Photo: Small scale maize production in Western Tanzania.

Some South African farmers have found out what can happen when genetically modified organisms (GM) go wrong. 200,000 hectares of Monsanto's GM maize, an important staple crop in many African countries, failed to produce anything but stalks.

Monsanto have compensated the commercial farmers, who are not allowed to speak out about the affair. Some resource poor farmers were also provided with the disasterous seed but it is not clear if they have been compensated in any way.

The South African GM regulatory authority appears not to have taken any steps to challenge Monsanto about this incident and Monsanto has remained customarily secretive about it. Three separate varieties of their grain suffered from the same problem.

If you would like this incident to be investigated, would like companies like Monsanto to be obliged to explain what went wrong and to ensure that GM organisms are properly monitored in the future, you can sign a petition organised by the African Centre for Biosafety. Sphere: Related Content

Converting Food for Africans into Fuel for Westerners

Photo: Arusha Market (from IRIN)

The Tanzanian government has allocated TSH1 billion to an irrigation project in Singida to 'boost agriculture'. This would be very welcome if it really were intended to improve food security and avoid famine. But I can't help suspecting that biofuels production will be one of the main beneficiaries of these irrigation projects.

Of course Tanzania needs to be able to ensure that enough food is produced to feed people and to have a surplus for export. But the last thing the country needs now is to lock itself into deals where it is obliged to produce crops that will be converted into fuel for the greedy and wasteful minority world in the West.

There is also mention of the need to mechanise farming practices, which is all very well, but what will the millions of people engaged in subsistence farming do when the land is bound over to foreign operators? About 85% of Tanzanians depend on subsistence agriculture in some way. In what way will these irrigation projects benefit the majority?

There is a danger of such projects merely moving the drought problem around so that the little water available is wasted on running cars in foreign countries rather than in producing food for Tanzanians. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A $1.25 Million Facelift for the Kenyan Image

Photo: Homes in Molo, destroyed in post election violence in 2008 has an article on a US trade delegation, headed by Hilary Clinton, that is due to visit Kenya to help them clean up their image as an investment destination. I don't think the article intended any irony.

But the post election violence certainly didn't help the country's image. This crisis was followed by a fuel crisis, a food crisis, a global financial crisis and various other serious setbacks.

The delegation will attend the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) Forum. Apparently it "offers a great opportunity for American importers and investors to see and assess first hand East Africa's needs and challenges". Still no hint of irony.

But the figures cited show that the US exports to Kenya are worth more than double the value of Kenya's exports to the US. And while goods the US exports to Kenya are high value products, such as "aircraft parts, machinery and electronic equipment [and] pharmaceuticals", Kenya's exports to the US are generally lower value products and raw materials, such as "tea, coffee, textile goods, processed nuts and pyrethrum".

A commentator said "the forum will review its impact and explore new ways of exploiting other opportunities created by the [AGORA] Act". Opportunities for whom? I just wish I could see the commentator's face. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Public-Privateer Partnerships

One often hears of Public Private Partnerships (PPP), as if the public sector and the private sector get together and do something that is of mutual benefit, but that's far from the truth. Any PPPs I've come across involve the public sector handing over large sums of money to private sector enterprises and getting nothing in return but demands for even larger sums of money. At the same time,the public sector still has to pump additional public money into the services that they were, ostensibly, paying the private sector to provide.

Well the World Bank has always been very keen on PPPs. They give loans to desperate governments with certain conditions attached and those conditions often include the privatization of things like public utilities, for example, water. This happened in Tanzania with a company called Biwater. They screwed up so badly in the UK that the World Bank felt they could make an even bigger mess in developing countries, which they obligingly did.

They and other wealthy operators continue to asset strip, steal, threaten, maim and kill in various ways in other countries. And with generous handouts from the World Bank in addition to what they can extort from the most impoverished people on earth, they will probably continue to do so for many years to come. Sphere: Related Content

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sweat Shops or 'Export Processing Zones'

Further to my previous posting, about the extractive industries and how the Tanzanian government does little to protect Tanzanian people from the excesses of this massively wealthy industry, here's some more mixed news.

Fourteen regions have been identified as suitable for Export Processing Zones (EPZ). EPZs are almost indistinguishable from sweat shops. Fair enough, the government needs to find some way to get more people into employment and to generate some revenue for the country. But EPZs have been operating for sevearl decades in several countries and they simply lead to exploitation.

In theory, they don't have to lead to exploitation. In theory, the government could use existing legislation and international agreements to protect their people against the overwork, underpay, sexual coercion and other forms of exploitation faced by employees in existing EPZ. And that may be what the Tanzanian government is intending.

But, looking at their record with regard to the gold mining industry, the fishing industry, tourism and other areas of commerce, it seems unlikely that anything will be done that might interfere with rich multinationals becoming richer, at all costs. Any threat of regulation or legislation could result in these vultures leaving the country and moving to somewhere regulation and legislation could always be waved in the interests of moneymaking. Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Penetrative Theft

Photo: A view of Mwanza, North Western Tanzania.

Tanzania is the third largest producer of gold in Africa. Does this mean that the country receives lots of revenue from this massive industry and that hundreds of thousands of people are employed extracting gold? No, most people are poor and only a few thousand people are employed in the industry now.

In fact, the government gives so many tax breaks and other benefits to foreign miners that even politicians, who usually make lots of money even when their electorate remain poor, don't make that much from gold. Well, I'm sure they do ok, but for some strange reason, they seem happy to watch the country's gold being raided by these foreign operators.

In addition to demanding low royalties from foreign companies, the country is losing out because gold had traditionally been labour intensive. Now, with high technology extractive processes, employment is minimal, most of the big earners are not Tanzanian and the majority of workers are paid very low wages. Several hundred thousand former artisan miners are unemployed as a result of these foreign companies taking over.

Much of the Tanzanian government's thinking on the industry seems to have been shaped by the bizarre strictures of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, who insist on low taxes, low royalties, incentives for foreign 'investment' and various de facto subsidies that are not available to any Tanzanians who might otherwise be able to get into the industry. As a result, Tanzanians haven’t a hope of being to compete, competition only being a good thing when the odds are stacked against them, it seems.

The biggest operators in Tanzania, Canadian Barrick Gold and South African AngloGold Ashanti, appear to be making huge amounts of money by these various deceits. But those who can do anything about this don't seem interested in intervening. The above international financial institutions don’t actually see any problem in such iniquities. The Canadian and South African governments could intervene, though they may not see this as being in their interest. But I don't understand why the Tanzanian government has for so long failed to right this terrible injustice.

In addition to this assault on the Tanzanian economy and the welfare of Tanzanians, the international financial institutions, multinational extractive operators and others involved don't seem to have any respect for democracy or human rights. In the long term, extractive industries cause immense environmental damage, the consequences of which will be borne by Tanzanians.

National and international laws need to protect people and prevent multinationals from destroying whole communities and defrauding sovereign countries. They should also prevent irreversible destruction of environments, which will probably affect future generations more than present generations. Rich country governments who are profiting from these industries, along with the powerful but unelected and unaccountable members of international financial institutions, also have a duty to see that these laws are properly policed.

Sadly, Tanzania is not the only country in Africa where this sort of exploitation is taking place. In fact, most African countries with natural resources that are highly valued by the West are being similarly plundered: Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, the list goes on. But Tanzania is one of the few where Western governments didn't have to oversee a war in order to take what they wanted. For some reason, the Tanzanian government is far more compliant that some other African administrations. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, July 24, 2009

Prevent One Disease or Prevent Many: Decisions, Decisions.

Photo: The famously smelly Nairobi River

Here are two choices: one, giving people access to clean water and sanitation in order to reduce the incidence of all water and sanitation related health problems, which are numerous; two, providing people with a low cost vaccine against one water and sanitation related disease, namely cholera.

Which one sounds preferable? After all, the first choice includes the second. Why just grant people the second when granting them the first makes the second superfluous?

Well, if you're the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, you may want to spend $60 million on such a cholera vaccine. I wonder if the vaccine will be a pill, a drink or an injection. At least if it's an injection the recipient can put off their next drink of water, which may make them sick.

Photo: Water Delivery in a relative well off Nairobi suburb (Fedha Estate). Sphere: Related Content

Super Fast E Everything for All

Photo: Nairobi slum, pre superfast internet connection days.

There may be food shortages, deadly epidemics, extreme poverty, inequality, abuse and various other problems in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Uganda, South Africa and Rwanda. But we can all sleep well knowing that there is now an undersea fibre optic cable connecting them all up.

The children in Nairobi who are not attending school, the HIV positive people in Uganda facing drug shortages, the many Tanzanians who have no electricity supply, the Mozambicans who are not served by any roads, the Rwandans who have no access to clean water and sanitation and the South Africans who suffer from extraordinarily high crime rates need worry no longer.

Being connected to the 'global information superhighway' means 'super-fast internet connections' and 'vastly expanded bandwidth capacity'. According to the president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, 'e-government, e-commerce, e-medicine, e-anything is now very possible'.

Quite so. But you need politicians for government, people need money for commerce and for e-medicine, there needs to be trained health personnel at one end of the connection. Aside from that, I agree wholeheartedly. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, July 23, 2009

HIV Treatment Must Be Accompanied by HIV Prevention

In most high HIV prevalence African countries, rates are currently flatlining or changing very slowly. The rate of new infections is high, the death rate is high and about one third of those needing treatment are receiving antiretroviral drugs.

Ideally, HIV programming should aim to reduce the number of new infections while treating as many people as possible. Unfortunately, prevention programmes have not been too successful. Therefore, the number of people living with HIV continues to increase and is only held down by a high death rate.

Continuing to treat those receiving drugs right now is becoming a problem because of funding shortfalls, so it is unlikely that the number of new recipients of treatment is going to increase in the foreseeable future. If people needing drugs are unable to get them, even temporarily, death rates will rapidly increase.

Ironically, this could result in the death rate exceeding the rate of new infections and HIV prevalence would then decrease. This may make it appear as if we are winning the fight against HIV because the prevalence figure tends to be used as a measure of epidemic severity.

Funding for HIV programming needs to increase because, in addition to getting as many people on treatment as possible, the rate of new infections also needs to be reduced. Otherwise the epidemic will continue to grow and, if treatment programming is not presently unsustainable, it soon will be.

Judging the state of a HIV epidemic using prevalence figures is futile because prevalence goes down when death rates exceed new infections; and prevalence goes up when those needing treatment are receiving it because more HIV positive people are living longer.

Instead of being blasted with prevalence rates all the time, we need some indication of the rate of new infections (incidence), death rates, treatment rates and possibly some other figures. Otherwise we have no way of judging the status of an epidemic. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

De Facto Subsidies for Big Pharma

It sounds like this article, about a HIV prevention trial of gel and tablets, is actually about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

PrEP is the use of antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to prevent HIV infection. At present, ARVs are used to treat people who are at an advanced stage of HIV. They are also used to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV.

One of the reasons that HIV programmes, especially treatment programmes, are so expensive is because the price of ARVs are kept artificially high by drug companies and this phenomenon is supported by donor funding, which is a de facto subsidy to the pharmaceutical industry.

If PrEP gets the go ahead, HIV prevention could also become dominated by capital intensive pharmaceutical technologies. There are an estimated 33 million people living with HIV at the moment. The number of people who could be targeted with PrEP would run in to the hundreds of millions.

It seems odd that the article never mentions PrEP but perhaps it's just an oversight. Sphere: Related Content

Hands off African Countries

Let's not fool ourselves, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is an American institution that aims to further the interests of America and, sometimes, its friends. This institution has been giving crap advice to developing countries, especially in Africa, for several decades. As a result, most of the countries now suffering food shortages and overall food insecurity are in dire straits because they followed IMF advice to dismantle the support mechanisms they once gave to their farmers and other food producers.

If free trade is such a good thing, why does the US and the EU subsidize their food producers to such an extent that developing countries cannot compete? Is it possible that these wealthy regions want developing countries to depend on them?

We in the West boast about how much money and aid we are 'giving' to developing countries but in reality, we take far more than we give. We buy raw materials as cheaply as possible and sell back finished products, often produced in developing countries by people who are paid slave wages, at grotesque prices.

Yes, corruption is a terrible thing and top politicians in developing countries shouldn't accept bribes. But Westerners are falling over themselves to bribe them, and that must stop too.

We have failed to help developing countries to develop, the only hope now is that we stop preventing them from developing.

The photograph is of a school in Isiolo built with donor funds. The school is far away from anyone and there are no surfaced roads. No one goes there. Sphere: Related Content

NASA and Benevolence

There's an article on IRIN entitled "The art of predicting Rift Valley Fever outbreaks". NASA is doing the predicting. Now why the hell would NASA be interested in doing that?

Granted, Rift Valley Fever is a big problem, but why should problems in the (East African) Rift Valley be of interest to NASA. NASA is interested in military matters and outer space and propaganda that are related to the US but diseases that affect animals and animal owners in East Africa?

The article doesn't answer these questions. It simply makes it clear that NASA is collecting detailed geographical information about East Africa (that also happens to relate to Rift Valley Fever).

In case you're worried, they are not just confining their data collection to East Africa, or to Rift Valley Fever. I hope that makes you feel better., Sphere: Related Content