Sunday, February 28, 2010

GMOs: You Pay Me to Shit in Your Garden

Supposing I were to re-engineer my domestic sewage system so that it dumps sewage from my house into my neighbour's garden, my neighbour would be quite upset, right? But supposing I were to take it a little further and sue my neighbour in court for refusing to pay me for manuring his garden, that would really add insult to injury, wouldn't it? It sounds ridiculous for me to be claiming that I am the injured party, when I have, without permission or discussion, used my neighbour's land as if it belonged to me.

Well, that's how GMOs (genetically modified organisms) work. If I grow GMOs on my land and they contaminate my neighbour's land, my neighbour will have to pay royalties to the seed manufacturer, even though my neighbour may grow non-GMOs or organic crops. My neighbour's crops have been contaminated, not in some way blessed with the bountiful gift of genetically modified crops. I should be compensating my neighbour because the crops now grown on my neighbour's land will no longer be non-GMO and will no longer be organic.

My choice to grow GMOs in the first place is questionable enough, because it is inevitable that they will eventually contaminate my neighbour's crops. But I have effectively also taken the decision that my neighbour should no longer have the right to grow non-GMOs or organic crops. Where did I get this right and why does my neighbour not have the same level of autonomy over their land that I have over mine?

Farmers in Brazil and Argentina are facing this very absurdity, that the serial rapist is taking their victims to court for compensation for the use of their genetic input. Those contaminating the land, the land belonging to those who wish to have nothing to do with GMOs, are set to be paid for their contamination. Australia is busily trying to patch up their laws so that unwitting non-GMO farmers can be protected. But the multinationals that produce GMOs are rich and they are not going to give up easily.

Absurd though this is, it is exactly what awaits any country that is tricked into allowing GMOs to be grown on their land. Individual farmers will not have the right to choose whether to fall for GMOs or not; if their neighbours accept the thirty pieces of silver, their land will also quickly become contaminated and they will also have to pay royalties, they will also be stuck with weeds that are resistant to certain pesticides, their soil will become degraded and they will be forced to buy expensive fertilizers. Their yields and crop quality will also suffer.

Consumers, also, will have to pay for the greed of the few farmers who are willing buy into the plot. Eventually, consumers will not have the choice of GMO or non-GMO crops, they will all become contaminated. It is simply not possible for both GMO and non-GMO crops to be grown in the same areas. While non-GMOs may attract a premium for a while, the price will quickly rise before they become unavailable.

The only solution is to hold out against GMOs, regardless of what carrots the GMO manufacturers hold up, whatever threats they make or whatever lies they propagate about 'food security' and the rest. They are interested in deciding what people grow and eat and that's the way things are in countries like Brazil and Argentina. The costs to the farmers are higher and growing, therefore the costs to consumers are also higher and growing. The only ones that benefit from GMOs are the multinationals.

If anyone has seen the wonderful Italian film, The Bicycle Thieves (or the more recent Bejing Bicycle), they may notice a similar irony, where the person who has been wronged is made to pay for their victimization. How has this cruel and dangerous absurdity been allowed to arise in the first place? Why do faceless multinationals have so much power and influence that they can pay for a policy of appeasement, while they treat the defenceless as guinea pigs in their deadly experiments? And will we simply say 'never again' after conventional farming has been destroyed? There may be time to prevent this disaster in some countries, but it has to be now. The consequences cannot be reversed.


Saturday, February 27, 2010

World Domination Trumps Science in the GMO Industry

One of the most scary things about genetically modified organisms (GMO) is that they are not being pushed because there is scientific evidence that they are a potentially useful tool in improving global food security. Firstly, global food security is not primarily a problem of a lack of food, it is a problem of unequal access to food. Secondly, GMOs have been shown to lead to decreased food security, for several reasons. Yields are not higher, they are the same or lower. GMOs do not show any signs of being resistant to drought or pests. And overuse of pesticides has given rise to pesticide resistant weeds, just as critics predicted it would.

Scientific evidence for or against GMOs is irrelevant because the GMOs are all about world domination. The issue is one of geopolitics rather than science. It is an attempt by some of the most powerful multinationals in the world to gain control of all the arable land in the world. When you grow GMOs, you use GMO seeds and GMO products. You can't save the seed for the next growing season and the amount of fertilizer you need every year will increase because of soil degradation. The amount of pesticides you will need also increases because of ever growing resistance. If you try to return to growing conventional crops, they will become contaminated and there is a risk that the GMO manufacturer will either claim royalties or prevent you from growing the crop. And you will find your markets rather limited too, as Canada has found.

India may have successfully rejected the genetically modified brinjal (aubergine or egg plant) by putting a moratorium on its production. But India rejected the crop because of the flawed scientific arguments that were used to try to force it on the country. If the science is irrelevant, the moratorium is merely a political matter. Already the powerful and well paid pro GMO lobby there is busying itself with laws and regulations that will prevent people from criticizing GMOs with threats of fines and prison sentences. Ironically, they say that you are not permitted to criticize GMOs without scientific evidence.

There is no scientific evidence to show that farmers should not become indentured slaves to these multinationals. It is a human rights issue, not a scientific issue. The scientific arguments against GMOs have been available for years but they are dismissed, out of hand, dismissed by a lot of sales pitch and political bluster. Those opposed to GMOs are branded Luddites and said to be anti development and denying people in developing countries access to this life saving technology. US soya farmers, Canadian cotton farmers and Indian cotton farmers know just how life threatening this technology really is.

There was a facetiously titled programme on the BBC recently called 'Food Fights'. It wasn't about GMOs, specifically, it was about large scale land grabbing by rich countries, multinationals and investment portfolio administrators to grow food, biofuels and anything else they need in developing countries. It is clear that this land grabbing is not even intended to benefit those in developing countries, yet the programme gives the impression that it is a viable answer to global food insecurity. The programme is not completely biased, but it allows some palpable falsehoods to remain unscrutinized.

For a start, this sort of land grabbing is said to be the only alternative to the present situation, where developing countries depend to a large extent on food and other kinds of aid. The only real alternative for developing countries is for them to become self sufficient and self reliant, which is the opposite to what this neo-colonialism offers. Rich foreigners are not looking for an alternative, they are looking out for their own interests, regardless of the costs to those in the countries where they propose to extract everything they can get.

Although it is not a GM crop, the example of sugar cane fields is examined because sugar cane is one of the favoured biofuel crops planned for Kenya. Even before biofuels and stories about food insecurity started, sugar cane was grown on farms as if the farmers were nothing but indentured slaves. This is still the case. The sugar company supplies all the inputs and does all the mechanised tasks. Once they have extracted what they want, the little that is left goes to the farmer. Often, farmers produce the sugar cane at a loss but there is no other cash crop with a ready market. In some cases, they lease the crop on their land to the sugar company to get some ready cash. Come the harvest, they have nothing left after they have paid their bills.

Farmers in this sort of situation already know what it means if foreign interests take over large tracts of arable land in Kenya. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of land, referred to as 'marginal' is threatened with this kind of incursion. And those who object are referred to as Luddites, anti-development, whatever. Those using this 'marginal' land will be dispossessed and the whole ecosystem that the land supports will be destroyed. And GMO manufacturers don't even need to lease or buy the land, like the sugar companies.

But this is the sort of world domination that GMO manufactures want. They don't want people to be able to produce their own food or to choose what farm inputs to use. They want farmers to effectively give over their land to a multinational that will tie the land into a system that will be virtually irreversible. Yields will decrease and input costs will increase, but the farmer will be forced to continue purchasing products from that multinational, and that's the important thing. Human rights, food security and environmental destruction are irrelevant to multinationals. As for the science, it is a handy political tool sometimes, but other times, it just doesn't give the right results.

[The possible contribution of GMOs to antibiotic resistance is discussed in this interesting article. While it doesn't fit into the above posting so well, it is of particular significance to countries that have a very high HIV and TB burden because these countries also have reduced access to drugs and often have to make do with older versions, for which pathogens are more likely to develop resistance in the near future.]


Friday, February 26, 2010

The Free or Almost Free Model

Walking around Nakuru town today, I was thinking about why a particular project was going so slowly. The project involves showing people how to make simple solar cookers. They just require cardboard or something similar, reflective paper, glue, tape and a blade. But the main problem has been getting hold of the materials in large enough quantities at as low a cost as possible. It's all very well to say 'just buy them' but I don't have a budget and if I buy them, what use will that be to the free or almost free model.

I would like to think that certain things can be constructed using free or very cheap materials. In Western countries, such as the UK, you can get all the cardboard you need by visiting a supermarket or department store. But here, you have to pay. I don't know about the lowest price yet, but I had to pay the price of half a kilo of maize for a single cardboard box. They are reused until they can no longer be called a box, and that's a very good thing. You don't see lots of cardboard box waste lying around, not until it's completely useless. Because this 'waste' is valued, it doesn't present the sort of litter problem they have here with plastic bags, say.

Similarly, I wanted to find some kind of durable reflective paper. I know that lots of sweets, biscuits, chocolate and other products are wrapped in such paper. Even better, car tyres are wrapped in a very durable reflective paper. Having identified these sources, I now need to identify places where people can get the stuff in large enough quantities. I'm still working on that. Some shops I visited were reluctant to hand over any more than a small sample, others simply said they didn't have any to spare. Perhaps this stuff is also reused for something, perhaps people are just holding out for an appropriate price. Tin foil would be Ok but it's expensive and not very durable.

Anyhow, I think people who are making these solar cookers should source the materials by themselves. They will get a much better price and will be better placed to source the materials for free. I just want to know that the materials are available so no one can tell me that I'm asking them to do something impossible. I'm getting closer, but I'm not there yet. Once I have found a good place to get adequate amounts of cardboard and reflective paper at a good price, hopefully free, then I can tell people where to go and get started making the cookers. I'll throw in a free pot of glue and anything else that is required!

I've had similar experiences with cooking baskets (also called fireless cookers). The main material for these devices, which insulate cooking pots sufficiently to allow partially cooked food to cook completely, is some kind of stuffing. An ideal kind of stuffing is a waste product from a local blanket factory. However, this waste product is also used for furniture, pillows, quilting, etc. So, again, you have to pay for it. Enough for a medium sized cooking basket costs about the price of two kilos of maize meal, enough to feed quite a number of people. I'm sure buying it in large quantities would bring the cost down but it's a challenge to the free or almost free model. Alternative, waste from local sisal factories could be used, but this too costs money as it is used to stuff furniture.

Another of our proposed projects is to construct a press that can compress briquettes made from organic waste. I spent some time looking for someone who could make such a press (it's not as easy to find someone as you might think!). When I found one, I gave him some plans I had found on the internet, a variety of wooden and metal ones. I was surprised that he recommended making the press from metal because the sort of high strength wood required would be very expensive. On the other hand, the metal could be sourced from scrap metal dealers. The labour would be cheap and I'm expecting to have a version of the press in the next week or so.

The briquettes can be made out of many things, fruit and vegetable peelings, charcoal dust, sawdust, waste from food production and other sources. Getting large amounts of waste in the right form may not be so easy. Sawdust has to be paid for, though the other materials are free (unless the word gets around that they are valuable). But they will probably need to be chopped or crushed so they can be mixed in the right proportions. And chopping or crushing machines are available, but they are very expensive. Ok, expensive means tens or hundreds of dollars. But where you only stand to make a few dollars a day profit at the most, no one is going to shell out large amounts for materials.

Economy of scale would make a huge difference, of course. But the aim of these projects is to be small and cheap. They need to be small enough and cheap enough for people who have very little money and probably very little education. If the money, training and education were readily available, there wouldn't be so much of a problem. So I'm looking for as many of these 'free or almost free' ways of either making money, saving money or a combination of the two.

Luckily, the organisation I'm working with, Ribbon of Hope, in Nakuru, has a number of other projects. We grow crops and support people to produce things that get them an income. Some of our clients keep livestock and we are investigating the possibility of breeding rabbits for food. These are all good 'bread and butter' projects because they provide people with income or food or both. But the more we can branch out and find other ways of making money, especially ways that don't require much capital, the better. Hence my aim to work on the free or almost free model to see how far it can take us.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Experimenting with Diversity

It's odd how the weather can go from very dry to very wet quite unexpectedly. During the wet season, there was sometimes too much rain all at once, which threatened to wash away crops which were about to be harvested. Rain delayed the harvest of beans, which also resulted in some losses. Then the dry season started, so after harvesting, we returned to the practice of irrigating the other crops that were planted to overlap with the harvesting, a field of watermelon. And then the dry season was interrupted by a week of torrential rain, which threatens the watermelon, due to be harvested in Late March.

With any luck, the dry weather will return and what is left of the watermelon crop, hopefully most of it, will do well. But the field is waterlogged and some of the smaller fruit and plants have been overwhelmed by the thick mud that has been stirred up. All we can do is make sure water is not collecting anywhere and that any plants and fruits that can be saved are saved. Things have been looking brighter and drier for the last two days.

And with the brighter, sunnier weather, we at Ribbon of Hope have been able to return to demonstrating solar cookers. We had a good day at Mogotio, North of Nakuru, last week before the heavy rains started. Over thirty people came to see the demonstration and the debate about whether it was or wasn't possible to cook with 'a piece of silver cardboard and a saucepan painted black' was noisy. Scepticism turned to interest as we checked the food's progress about one hour in; interest turned to amazement when we invited people to test out the result half an hour later.

Today, we went to a town called Salgaa, also North of Nakuru. Closer to 40 people turned up and asked many questions as the rice and ugali (boiled maize meal, the staple food) and sukuma wiki (kale) cooked in the hot sun. In fact, giving a lot of time to answering questions was good because many people cook things one way and one way only. Today, they saw their beloved staple food cooked without using boiling water and without stirring. The whole thing can be put on to cook while the chef attends to other things. And that's just one of the many advantages of cooking this way!

Our aim is to increase self reliance through a variety of income generation schemes and ways of reducing day to day costs. So next week, we hope to return to Salgaa and show people how to make a solar cooker. Buying one is good, because people can save a lot of money and learn a great technique. But if they could make a solar cooker themselves, they could save even more money and they would always be able to make another when the original one wears out. Someone today was asking me if it was really sustainable to sell people a solar cooker for 500 Kenyan shillings (about 4 UK pounds). Well, it is a lot more sustainable than using charcoal or wood. But being able to make these cookers, and it's not difficult, would really put the icing on the cake.

On the opposite end of the scale in terms of self reliance, there is a big problem with the country's dependence on maize for almost all their food needs. It is not an indigenous crop and, for various reasons, it is becoming less productive. Because the weather has been so unpredictable lately, it would be far better to grow more resistant crops such as millet, sorghum, amaranth and many others. These do better in challenging conditions, like drought and flooding. But they also tolerate poorer soil and require less fertilizer and pesticides, substantially reducing the costs that farmers face.

Many farmers remain too dependent on a government that has never actually done very much for them. The scandal of the subsidized maize scheme, which allowed well connected people to make money out of 'relief' food supplies while the costs to ordinary people continued to rise and around a quarter of the country faced serious shortages, was less than a year ago. But the failure of farmers to produce enough food is partly their own fault. Some try to produce cash crops that end up making money for someone or some industry, but don't make much for individual farmers. Others, most farmers in fact, rely on rain fed agriculture, rather than employing some relatively simple method to harvest rainwater.

Small farmers are, of course, in need of ready cash, no less than non-farmers. But there are also those who produce far too little food for their own family and yet also make too little from cash crops to purchase additional food. There should be enough land in Kenya for the country to be food secure, regardless of how weather patterns are changing. True, the government should do a lot more, but perhaps people shouldn't wait for their politicians to do things that it has never done before. Hence the need for anything that increases self reliance.

Sadly, I am not an experienced farmer, I have to go around asking people for advice on what to plant and how to deal with problems that arise. But I feel that the very practice of experimenting with diversity is a good thing in itself. Equally, I think people need to experiment with cooking and eating different things and cooking them in different ways. I can't claim to have many converts yet but this kind of experimenting can be done without spending very much money. And development at low cost is, I think, well worth striving for, especially given the relative lack of success with development at high cost.


Monday, February 22, 2010

A Pill for Underdevelopment

An article published on the 24 of December last year claims that a three week drive to test as many people for HIV as possible succeeded in testing one and a half million people. Perhaps my scepticism is misplaced, but I find it hard to believe that over 6600 people were tested every day for three weeks. Still, if it's true that the country has the capacity to test this number of people this quickly, their aim to test 80% of the adult population by the end of 2010 should be fairly easy.

Unfortunately, providing antiretroviral treatment (ART) for everyone found to be in need of it may not be so easy. The Kenyan government has only ever provided a fraction of the money needed to supply ART to everyone who needs it. Most of the money came from donor funds, such as the (US) President's Emergency Fund for Aids Relief (PEPFAR), the Global Fund and the Clinton Foundation. But they are not due to increase their funding in line with the surge in numbers being found to be HIV positive. The Global Fund has even stopped some expected funding due to serious financial irregularities.

The funding gap is thought to be 2.5 billion shillings this year but will rise to many times that in the next few years. Kenya is currently almost out of stocks of some drugs and the Ministry of Health is applying for emergency funding that should tide them over for six months, if the money is forthcoming. The problem will be exacerbated by new World Health Organisation guidelines that recommend the use of more expensive drugs and putting HIV positive people on ART at an earlier stage of disease development.

Meanwhile, the advocates of 'treatment as prevention' are back in the news. They claim that rolling out ART to everyone found to be HIV positive and testing every adult about once a year could prevent nine out of every ten infections. If this is true in practice, testing everyone regularly and treating everyone found to be positive would be even better than very high levels of condom use (levels that have probably never been achieved). Of course, the approach to funding would have to be completely changed as current funding would be nowhere near high enough to cover the costs of 'treatment as prevention'.

Another study claims that the sort of mass screening suggested above could allow HIV to be eradicated in 40 years (in South Africa). My reaction to these articles, and I'm thinking specifically of Kenya, is that if it were possible to test many millions of people every year, it may also be feasible to put millions on treatment. And if it were possible to successfully treat so many people, then transmission rates should drop radically.

But I would question the feasibility of testing most sexually active adults in Kenya every year. This is a country where health services are in very short supply and high quality services are only available to the very rich, if at all. Long term care for the chronically ill is in even shorter supply. Is the country really going to raise the money for and implement the vast improvements in health infrastructure that would be required just to make this level of HIV screening possible? And if this happens, will the country also develop its capacity to provide long term care to millions of HIV positive people for several decades to come?

Even if the money is forthcoming, I find it hard to believe that Kenya's levels of health care, education, infrastructure and social services will be raised sufficiently to make anything like these predictions about 'treatment as prevention' become a reality. Maybe it is true that 1.5 million people were tested in three weeks. And maybe the sort of funding required to eradicate HIV will be provided. But I can't help remaining highly sceptical.

My discomfort stems from reflecting on the fact that HIV spread rapidly in Kenya at a time of high and increasing levels of poverty and unemployment. Levels of health and education provision were low and are still decreasing. Health indicators, especially for maternal, child and infant health, were particularly poor and most have been disimproving since the 1980s. Gender inequalities have never been given very high priority and those among whom HIV spread most rapidly, women, commercial sex workers, men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users, are as vulnerable now as they were three decades ago.

If it is true that HIV transmission is related to the conditions in which people live and work, as I would maintain, provision even of astronomical levels of funding to test and treat millions of people will still fail to address these conditions. Therefore, I'm suggesting, HIV could still be a problem for countries like Kenya in 40 or 50 years time. In fact, we have hardly even started to address HIV transmission because we continue to ignore the conditions mentioned. But that's just my take on it.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Homophobia is the Problem, Not Homosexuality

Rabid homophobia continues in Kenya and is being actively promoted by political and religious leaders. Police had to 'rescue' three men accused of being gay in a coastal town. When you are 'rescued' by Kenyan police, you know you are in trouble. There was also a case of two men said to be getting married being arrested by police after neighbours complained about them being 'notorious gays'. Meanwhile, a Muslim and a Christian leader are united in their opposition to their town being turned into 'Sodom and Gomorrah'.

These religious leaders feel that if gays are not persecuted, their community will be 'doomed'. This is odd, because Kenya currently faces numerous instances of massive criminal acts being carried out by the country's most powerful and wealthy people. The country is, in a sense, already doomed. At least, a lot of people's lives are doomed.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for education, HIV and internally displaced persons have been stolen, the people behind the post election violence have yet to be tried and will probably never be punished, the power sharing government is a farce, the constitution promised in the first hundred days of 2003 is as far away as ever, millions are facing starvation while donated food is being stolen by politicians and surpluses are being destroyed because of lack of storage facilities. The list goes on and on.

Facing these conditions, why are religious and political leaders so obsessed with homosexual activity? They seem to think that the practice of men having sex with men or women having sex with women is going to turn the heads of heterosexuals and make them into homosexuals too. They imagine that same sex practices are un-African and that they didn't exist before being 'imported' by colonials.

They see homosexuality as a crime but who are its victims? The victims of corrupt politicians, church leaders, police, businesspeople, both foreign and indigenous, are clear enough. Most Kenyans are victims of the excesses of the wealthy and powerful. But who are the victims of the 'crime' of homosexuality?

Of course, there are victims of rape and sexual assault. But perpetrators of sex crimes are already covered by the law. It's just that these laws are not usually upheld, especially when the crimes are carried out by the rich and powerful. The police, who are so quick to go after people who are accused of being gay, are not usually interested in ordinary everyday crime, unless they happen to be involved in it themselves.

Just why is the public so ready to become a baying mob of vigilantes when their target is a defenceless individual or group of individuals? They would achieve a lot more by objecting to the real criminals in this country but the most they do is complain about them. Not that I'm advocating mob justice, but there seems to be no sense of proportion in people's reactions to crimes.

Meanwhile, a politician in Uganda, Otto Odonga, has said he would agree to be the executioner even if the person being tried for homosexuality was his own son. Another politician there seems to think bisexuality is something that has been 'imported' into Africa. But thankfully, at the same meeting, someone else said that he had seen homosexual activity when he was young and that it was not a new thing. Like in Kenya, people in Uganda seem content to be living in one of the poorest countries in the world, made poorer by greedy leaders, as long as they can let loose their mob law against homosexuals or those thought to be homosexuals.

Interestingly, the Ugandan politician who wants to introduce draconian laws against homosexual activity, even against those who witness or know about homosexuality (or who are suspected of witnessing or knowing about it), David Bahati, thinks that everyone is susceptible to being turned into a homosexual. This means that it is possible for him or his friends, colleagues or family members to be 'made into' a homosexual, given the right influences. This seems like a very odd for a homophobe to hold.

What these Kenyan and Ugandan politicians should really be asking about is where the homophobia was imported from. Homosexuality exists in every country and always has, as far as anyone knows. You can't 'import' it. But homophobia is actively encouraged by religious groups, especially extreme right wing Christians. Several prominent American Christians and Christian groups are said to have been backing Bahati and people like him. No doubt they will support anyone who promotes their bigotry. Homophobia is the curse that Kenyans and Ugandans should be worried about, not homosexuality.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Punishing Victims; Protecting Perpetrators

Several Christian organisations and churches in Kenya are claiming 'victory' because the draft constitution has been rewritten to specify that life begins at conception. They threatened to sabotage the whole constitution if this was not done. As a result of their threats, other clauses have also been removed. Kenyans will not now have a right to health care, in particular, reproductive health care. Also, the clause stating that no one may be refused emergency medical treatment has been removed. And there is a phrase that specifically rules out abortion unless the life of the mother is in danger.

Abortion is already illegal in Kenya, but this has not prevented several hundred thousand woman and girls seeking abortion every year. The majority of these abortions, an estimated 800 per day, are unsafe, being carried out in insanitary conditions by untrained personnel. Those who go through these unsafe abortions are less likely to seek professional medical attention and less likely to receive it. As a result, over 2000 die every year, adding considerably to the thousands of maternal deaths that occur.

In what sense have these Christian groups achieved a victory? They don't appear to be opposed to the fact that rape and forced sex often goes unpunished because it is carried out by the more powerful against the powerless. It is carried out by adults against young people, even children. Those who should protect the victims, church leaders, political leaders, teachers, police and others, are often the perpetrators.

If, as Christians are so fond of claiming, life is sacrosanct, why are the lives of certain people so unimportant? Why are human lives so unimportant as to be denied the right to health and the right to make their own reproductive decisions? Women should be able to choose when to have children, under what conditions and with whom. Where these rights have been denied, why should they be made to pay for someone else's crime?

Nothing that these Christians have done will reduce the incidence of unsafe abortions, of seriously compromised reproductive health for women, of women suffering and dying unnecessarily. Nothing that these Christians have done will reduce the incidence of rape and forced sex. Victims of crime should be entitled to protection, not punishment. Perpetrators of crime deserve punishment, especially when those perpetrators are in a position that gives them a level of power that they subsequently abuse.

One priest has said 'we should not victimise the innocent unborn children' but what about the woman or girl who has already been victimised and is now to be punished, perhaps for the rest of her life? Kenya is in dire need of good leadership and the interference of interested parties, whether they be political, religious, commercial or whatever else, is frustrating this need. The country also needs good health care and equal rights for all people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, tribe, wealth and anything else. But some of the Christian churches clearly have other ideas.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Lack of Logic in the Received View of the HIV Pandemic

Something I have always found mysterious about UNAIDS' view (it's something of a received view) of the course of the HIV epidemic is that they estimate that the number of new infections peaked in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) some time in the mid 1990s. And they reckon that the reason new infections began to drop from then on can be put down to the success of HIV prevention and education programmes in changing the sexual behaviour of people, especially men who have sex with men (MSM), commercial sex workers (CSW), intravenous drug users (IDU) and young women.

With few exceptions, most SSA countries were doing very little to treat people with HIV or to prevent the transmission of HIV in the 1990s. Treatment was in its infancy and was inaccessible to the majority of Africans. And where prevention programmes had been implemented, they consisted of little more than mass education campaigns. They had very little influence on people's behaviour in the 1990s. And why would they have much influence? They had only started and only in a few countries, Uganda being one of the countries that started HIV prevention early. But even the nature and effectiveness of Uganda's HIV prevention campaign is still being hotly debated. Prevalence there has changed little in years and sexual behaviour indicators have long been sliding in the wrong direction.

What bothers me is that even if widespread prevention activities started in the mid 1990s, it would take many years for them to have much effect. That's if they actually had any effect at all. Ok, I can't research every country in SSA, but in the case of Kenya, very little was being done in the 1990s. It was only in the early 2000s that some serious work started, say 2002 or 2003. And the Kenya Aids Indicator Survey (KAIS) makes it quite clear that HIV prevalence, which had been dropping before 2003, actually increased and is now higher, after half a decade of HIV prevention work.

What I'm getting at is this: if rates of HIV transmission peaked in the mid nineties, then it did so for some reason other than the fact that every country had implemented widespread prevention programmes. The reason I suggest this is because prevention just wasn't a big thing then, at least, not big enough to explain why the epidemic started to 'decline'. I'm not saying that rates of transmission didn't drop, just that they didn't drop because of prevention programmes.

Another reason for thinking that prevention programmes didn't have much influence on rates of HIV transmission is because even after they did start, there is little evidence that they could have been the cause of the drop. There is plenty of evidence that most current HIV prevention programmes have little or no effect. In Kenya's case, scaling up HIV prevention programmes seem to have resulted in an increase in prevalence, the total number of people living with HIV. This doesn't tell us if transmission rates have decreased, so what about transmission? Are there still lots of people becoming newly infected?

According to the KAIS, transmission patterns are changing. Numbers infected in urban areas have dropped but numbers infected in rural areas have increased, especially among men. The majority of Kenyans, 75% or more, live in rural areas. Poorer and less well educated people are now being infected in greater numbers. The majority of poor and less well educated people live in rural areas and most Kenyans are poor and badly educated. These trends all follow what KAIS refer to as a 'rapid scale up of HIV prevention, care and treatment services'.

A recent article in quotes UNAIDS as claiming that their successful prevention and education programmes have *finally* begun to change the behaviour of those who are most at risk. If this is only happening in recent times, how can they claim that it had anything to do with a decline in incidence that began in the mid 1990s. But Kenya, along with many other SSA countries, have explicitly not targeted some of the groups who are thought to be most at risk, MSM, CSWs, IDUs and young women. The well presented 'Modes of Transmission Survey' for Kenya makes it quite clear that these groups are still being ignored.

There may be isolated signs of people's behaviour changing in some ways. All sorts of movements may have achieved great things, especially relating to HIV treatment and increasing access to treatment. I certainly wouldn't claim that all the billions that have been poured into HIV for over two decades has been wasted. But I have yet to see clear evidence that HIV transmission has declined as a result of prevention efforts. I think the epidemic has its own dynamics, like any epidemic, but I am not convinced that the enormous Aids industry has had much influence on its course. I just hope I'm wrong.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

GMOs, the Antithesis of Sustainable Development

Yesterday I went to see a lovely farm in Ngubreti, just a few kilometres north of Mogotio, in Kenya's Rift Valley province. Of course, if you like farms, many of them are beautiful. But when the climate is hot and dry for most of the year with flash floods that can wash everything away, the odds could be stacked against the farm being beautiful. This farm is beautiful because the farmer has employed numerous techniques to get as much as he possibly can from a twenty acre plot.

This farm has 30 or 40 orange trees, 80 or 90 mango trees, vegetable crops, grain crops, animal fodder, 20 or 30 beehives, a tree nursery (which has already produced 2000 seedlings), cattle, sheep and, most importantly, water pans for collecting and storing as much as possible from those flash floods. It's hard to believe there is so much variety on this small farm but it's encouraging to see everything doing so well, given the amount of work that has been put in over the years.

One of the sickening things about institutions like the World Bank and the IMF (International Monetary Fund) is that they can (and do) produce research to show that the way forward for farmers in developing countries is to increase support for farm inputs, provide extension programmes, improve infrastructure and other somewhat obvious things.

Obvious, except that the same two institutions also give loans with conditions that include reducing public sector employment, cutting expenditure on extension programmes and banning anything that could be considered a subsidy, such as grants, loans or anything else to help farmers afford farm inputs, fertilizer, pesticides and the like. Never mind that these are allowed in rich countries, that's not the point. The point is that these institutions are run for the benefit of rich countries and what is good for them would never be allowed in developing countries.

Well, the new head of the UNDP (United Nations Development Program), Helen Clark, has now said that she thinks there should be more public funding for agriculture, for extension services and for research that improves productivity and yield. There should also be public funding to help farmers to reduce inputs. The last one is especially gratifying because 'modern' agriculture often involves a constantly increasing dependence on things like fertilizer and pesticide. So there would still be inputs but the financial costs would be significantly lower and the environmental costs incalculably so.

In the case of the farmer in Ngubreti, I said the water pans were the most important initiative on his farm. The failure to avail of cheap water harvesting techniques in the area is quite extraordinary. But this farmer has taken heed of what the local agricultural extension officers have taught him. He has two water pans, one that is just fed directly, the other which is fed by run-off water from the main road. These supplies ensure that the farm does not run out of water, even during prolonged dry periods.

I shouldn't leave out the point that the head of the UNDP was actually responding to a question about genetically modified organisms (GMO). Ms Clark said that world food security depends on getting "back to the basics" with agriculture, it does not depend on GMOs. She also said that crops for biofuel competed with crops for food, despite the lies to the contrary that we so often hear from those investing in biofuels. So congratulations to Helen Clark. She could really benefit farmers in developing countries.

The farm in Ngubreti was the scene of a number of agricultural extension programmes yesterday, including improved cooking stoves, cooking baskets, solar lighting and phone charging, beekeeping, water harvesting and various other ways of increasing the productivity of small farms. I'm hoping that Ribbon of Hope can try some of the things being done there, especially water harvesting and perhaps growing tree seedlings.

It is clear from visiting a farm like this that GMOs have nothing to offer, especially in the sort of dry areas that make up so much of Kenya's land. The farmers are almost all smallholders, whereas GMOs are designed for farmers with huge tracts of land (that they can afford to waste, presumably). The farmers are poor but GMO seeds cost several times more than conventional seeds. Inputs for GMOs are far higher than inputs for conventional crops and increase over time (and conventional crop farmers usually put by their own seed every year). Organic methods, which increase yields, improve resistance to pests and to bad growing conditions and therefore cost less, are inimical to GMO production.

GMOs are the antithesis of organic farming, indeed, the antithesis of sustainable agriculture. And there are many other problems with GMOs, as make clear. It's good to know that much of Kenya's land is, as yet, unspoiled by modern agriculture. The same is true of much of the land in most developing countries. So it's time to ensure that it stays that way by resisting GMOs and anything else that compromises the future of the world's food security.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Generating Self Reliance

Sometimes I get carried away when I'm blogging and I write something quite different from what I set out to write. The other day I wrote about how food insufficiency could affect people's likelihood of transmitting or becoming infected with HIV. That's fine, but my intention was also to say why I ended up working for a community based organisation that aims to help people become more self reliant, to produce food or goods that they can sell, or to identify ways of cutting their day to day costs. But now I think the answer should be clear.

Ribbon of Hope Self Help Group, Nakuru, are working on a number of projects involving both HIV positive and HIV negative people in poor communities. Those projects range from growing food crops and keeping livestock to making things for sale here and abroad, providing various services and spreading intermediate technologies, such as solar cooking. The main thing is that we find income generation activities that are easy for people to do, even if they have very little money and training. If people are able to make or save some money, they will be more self reliant and better able to cope with the many stresses of life.

Today was a great day for solar cooking. The location was ideal, about one kilometer from the Equator, and the sun was hot. We got there in time to set things up, not that that takes very long, and then started to answer the numerous questions people had. We were in a conspicuous area, so groups of people would form and disperse throughout the morning. I have no idea how many people came to see food being cooked using bits of reflective cardboard and pots that were painted black and stuck in a bag. But when the food was cooked, there were around thirty people willing to taste the rice, boiled maize meal and cabbage. If I'd known so many people were coming I would have prepared something more appetizing. But there will be plenty of opportunities to go back and demonstrate again!

Will this prevent HIV from spreading? Not on its own, no. But there are many intermediate technologies that can provide people with cheap or free energy, solar cookers are just one example. We will be demonstrating others when we have the equipment. There are also many ways people can make money. We are researching the ones which will be most suitable for this particular context, poor, rural, isolated, etc. We want each person or family to take on more than one way of making or saving money, in fact, as many as possible each. The Scottish say 'many a mickle makes a muckle', here in East Africa they say 'haba na haba hujaza kibaba' (little by little fills the pot).

Those who collect HIV data are probably not going to note a drop in HIV transmission in this area next year, or perhaps even several years from now. HIV is going to continue to spread in an area where the disease is endemic, where people are poor and lack health facilities, where a good level of education is rare, where basic things like food and water are in scarce supply, where infrastructure is falling apart and where most people don't work.

But Ribbon of Hope aims to reduce poverty to the extent that some people will be able to send their kids to school, pay for their health care and provide them with adequate nutrition and clean water. And when those children leave school, they will have a better chance of being able to find work, being better educated and healthier than the generation before them. They may even have developed some entrepreneurial skills and know good ways to make enough money to do the same for their children.

Most HIV money is spent on very expensive projects that target one disease and only one aspect of that disease, sexual behaviour. As long as the contexts in which this sexual behaviour takes place are ignored, most of the money is being wasted. Health, nutrition, food security, education, infrastructure and many other things are crying out for money but unless sexual behaviour is somehow involved, they will not be funded. This approach has not worked. HIV rates have waxed and waned in certain areas and in certain demographic groups. But rates are still high and the levels of sexual practices said to spread HIV have remained relatively unaffected by the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been thrown at the problem for over two decades.

People's sexual behaviour is at least partly determined by the conditions in which they live and work (in addition to physiological conditions, hormonal levels, etc). But their health seeking behaviour, their diet, the way they raise their children and their attitude towards education are also constrained by these same conditions. If you want to influence people's sexual behaviour, and especially their attitude towards sexual health and risk, you need to look beyond their sexual behaviour in isolation. This sexual behaviour is likely to be pretty much the same all over the world. But the conditions in which people live and work are very different in Kenya than they are in, say, Ireland.

There are exceptions, but most people I have met who are HIV positive spend their days getting on with the same things as people who are HIV negative, and worrying about the same things, too. They need to earn money, pay bills, raise their children, support their dependents, get by and perhaps even think about the future, if there is any money or energy left over for that. That's why I think a community based organisation that helps people achieve these goals is doing more to reduce the spread of HIV than all the expensive HIV prevention programmes that UNAIDS can think up.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

There's a lot of talk these days about the need for a new Green Revolution, especially in Africa. Behind this talk, there is often the assumption that the original Green Revolution was an unmixed blessing, which it was not. Countries most profoundly affected by the revolution saw land ownership patterns change to the extent that small farmers almost disappeared and small farming became uneconomic for most. Farming become more intensive, with devastating environmental impacts, it became more mechanized, generally more expensive and less scalable.

Some countries in Africa did experience some of the excesses of the revolution, though you wouldn't always think that when you read about the phenomenon. So now there is AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa. This is funded by some of the funders of the original revolution, a number of prominent philanthropists that includes Bill Gates and several powerful international institutions. Again, the assumption is that such an initiative is an unmixed blessing.

Kenya has a number of problems at the moment relating to land ownership. There are pressures for the number of people owning land to go down and the amount of land each owner owns to go up. One of these pressures comes from the many countries and institutions that want to invest in African land to grow food for themselves. Another pressure comes from those who want to exploit cheap African land and labour for biofuels. And a third pressure comes from the desire of biotech companies to spread their genetically modified crops (GMO).

All these pressures go to exacerbate the already serious problem of food shortages that millions of Kenyans face every year. The new green revolution, the 'opportunity' to grow GMOs, the great foreign direct investment (FDI) that is being 'injected' into the country, all these incursions on the country's food sovereignty are being presented as a chance for Kenya and other African countries to reverse their fortunes.

What most Kenyans know and what most of the people hawking these 'solutions' wish to ignore is that hungry people need food. Those interested in investing in Kenyan land are not coming here to provide people with food, they want to grow food to export it to the highest bidder. Biofuels are being produced for the Western market. GMOs are not a gift, except in the Trojan Horse sense. Once people grow GMOs, they are effectively working for the multinational that produces the seed, fertilizer and pesticides that all necessarily go together.

Kenyans need to produce their own food and the only way that can be done is if the millions of people who own or rent small farms, the vast majority of Kenyans, are enabled to do that better. They need access to information, skills, tools and techniques that will benefit them as small farmers. They need to reduce their dependence on rain fed agriculture by availing of some of the many irrigation and water harvesting techniques. They need to grow more varieties of crop, rather than depending on a few non-indigenous staples, such as maize.

Malawi has been praised for its 'green revolution' but things are not so straightforward there. As in Kenya, people there still need better access to land and to more land. They need to reduce their dependence on imported fertilizers and adopt some organic methods. Countries like Malawi and Kenya simply dump tonnes of organic waste every year that could provide better sustenance to their crops than the artificial fertilizer that requires much more water than is readily available and eventually poisons the soil and water table.

People here have been promised so much, they have been promised massive production levels, copious foreign markets and great wealth. These things have been promised for decades and yet all Africans have seen is greater poverty, starvation and dependence. Whatever will result in food security in Africa, it will need to arise in Africa. None of the many foreign initiatives have ever resulted in Africans being better off, probably none ever will. The sooner people see this, the better.


Friday, February 12, 2010

HIV and Sexual Behaviour

It sometimes appears that it is difficult for big HIV donors and NGOs to accept that they can waste a lot of money concentrating solely on trying to influence people's sexual behaviour with a view to cutting HIV transmission. They seem to have the attitude that sexual behaviour takes place in a kind of social vacuum and that it is completely unrelated to the way people live their non-sexual lives. Perhaps these organisations don't view gender inequalities, economic inequalities, differences in educational status or social status or intergenerational differences as having any bearing on sexual behaviour.

A paper entitled 'Food Insufficiency Is Associated with High-Risk Sexual Behavior among Women in Botswana and Swaziland' is part of a whole body of research that challenges the view that targeting individual sexual behaviour should be the main approach to cutting HIV transmission. This 'behavioural' view tends to imply, without arguing or demonstrating, that the cirucmstances in which people live and work are irrelevant to their behaviour, their sexual behaviour and, therefore, their relative risk of becoming infected with HIV, or of transmitting it if they are already infected.

The paper finds that food insufficiency results in increased sexual risk taking, especially among women. The sorts of sexual risk are inconsistent condom use with non-regular partners, transactional sex, intergenerational sex (usually where the female is the younger party) and lack of control over the circumstances of the sexual relationship. The paper recommends targeted food aid and income generation programmes and also an improvement in women's social and legal status.

The fact that HIV is sexually transmitted does not mean that transmission can successfully be reduced merely by 'teaching' people about safe sex, by distributing condoms and facile 'messages' or by lecturing people, children and adults, about right and wrong. This is not a new discovery. But as soon as HIV was found to be sexually transmitted, the whole issue was hijacked by political and religious (and later commercial) crusaders. And it's only occasionally that people have been able to wrestle back some control over HIV as a human rights, health or development issue.

If the conditions under which HIV spreads are to be changed, people need health, education and social services that are accessible to all, female as well as male, rural as well as urban, poor as well as rich. People need to be enabled to ensure their own health and the health of their children and dependents. People need their rights to be recognised and upheld by the law. The right to food is particularly important.

Seeing the connection between food insufficiency and risky sexual behaviour shouldn't take much genius. Surely those who think HIV is just a matter of sexual behaviour don't think that being hungry or having hungry children makes people feel a stronger sexual urge or enjoy risky sex more? So if the limit of their HIV prevention programmes consists of things like behaviour change communication, mass male circumcision and, eventually, HIV vaccines and microbicides, they will find HIV continuing to spread.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Behaviour Change for Journalists

The BBC can be funny sometimes, though not very funny. The title of one of their articles runs "Is Zuma's sex life a private matter?" and they promptly answer it in the negative by writing about it. Perhaps the author would have been wiser to ask about the president's attitude towards women and equality, since they have taken the liberty of asking about his sex life. But even an organisation as well (publicly) funded as the BBC often can't resist asking the same questions as almost every other journalist in the mainstream media.

The media needs to get past the connection between HIV and sex. True, HIV is mainly transmitted sexually. But rates of HIV transmission depend on many other things, such as the relative economic circumstances of the people involved, their relative levels of power in relationships (whether ephemeral or otherwise), their levels of education and access to information, their levels of health and nutrition and the like. Indeed, the nature and accuracy of the information to which people have access may also be significant; exalted claims about the role of the media in HIV publicity campaigns certainly suggest this.

Studies have shown that there is no strong correlation between rates of HIV in different countries and levels of what is considered to be unsafe sexual behaviour, for example, multiple concurrent partnerships. In other words, some places where rates of multiple concurrent partnerships are low, HIV rates are high and vice versa. High rates of HIV transmission in South Africa are, to the extent that they are well understood, explained by many things other than sexual behaviour.

If the BBC is really concerned about HIV transmission, it shouldn't be beyond the capacity of the corporation to research the subject a bit better than the average tabloid newspaper. They could even have discussed the fact that Zuma didn't use a condom during his extra-marital relationship and is well known for being against the use of condoms. Sadly, there is very little to HIV prevention in South Africa, or any other developing country, aside from condoms.

It may never become a popular view that HIV has numerous transmission routes and that many of the circumstances in which people live and work determine whether they will be infected with HIV and whether they will go on to infect others. HIV will probably always be viewed as such an extraordinary disease that it is transmitted in isolation from people's overall health and welfare, and that issues such as gender, power and politics are completely irrelevant. But it seems unlikely that the BBC will stick its neck out and adopt an unpopular view.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

India Tells Biotech Industry Where to Put its Aubergines

The good news today is that India has decided to place a moratorium on subjecting the country to genetically modified aubergine (eggplant/brinjal). The usual industry 'scientists' and 'experts' did everything they could and managed to drum up (pay for) the support of some senior politicians. But this time common sense has prevailed.

It remains to be seen whether the country is sensible enough to treat other genetically modified organisms (GMO) the same way. It will also be interesting to see if other developing countries are tricked into accepting GMOs based on the industry lies about their increasing yields, being more nutritious, being better for the environment, being drought resistant and whatever make-believe rubbish they come up with.

Sadly, it's too late for India's cotton farmers. They were promised increased yields, but yields have stayed the same or decreased. They were promised lower costs from reduced pesticide use but pesticide use (and therefore costs) is steadily increasing. Seeds for GMOs are far more expensive than those for conventional crops. Prices have also increased far more rapidly and farmers are not permitted to store cotton seed for later planting.

In addition to damaging the environment, especially through reduced biodiversity, the whole of India's cotton industry is contaminated with genetically modified cotton. It is probably not possible to reverse this process so if any farmers are still trying to grow conventional cotton crops, they will soon face demands for payments from the multinationals that sell the seeds (something already happening with Brazilian soy beans).

As a result, many Indian farmers have gone bankrupt or are facing bankruptcy. The costs are so high that others have tried to pull out of cotton production. Some have found that they have no viable alternative livelihood remaining and leave farming altogether. And thousands of farmers have committed suicide because their businesses have been ruined by this genetically modified cotton, a phenomenon that has been going on for at least a decade.

Only a few countries have been rash enough to grow GMOs on a large scale and only a handful of crops are available in genetically modified forms. But the industry seems to have unlimited amounts of money available to 'persuade' powerful people to support them. In addition to DfID, the Gates Foundation is also interested in GMOs. It's hard to know whether the Gates Foundation has bought into the hype or whether they have bought into the industry. Ok, it's not hard to know, they have well and truly bought into the industry.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Why are DfID Giving 'their' Money to the Rich?

In many developing countries, a substantial majority of people live in rural areas. The majority of rural dwellers depend, directly or indirectly, on agriculture of some kind. And most of those engaged in agriculture are smallholders, producing food for their families, their local market and perhaps a bit beyond that. Even a lot of people who don't depend on agriculture grow some food for their own use. Small scale food crops, fodder crops and stock keeping is so widespread in Kenya, where over 80% of the population lives in rural areas, that it would be difficult to estimate their value in the overall economy.

On the other hand, 'aid' from the UK's Department for International Development (DfID), seems to assume that the best way to help poor people in developing countries is to give the bulk of their money to large and wealthy sectors of agriculture. DfID favour large-scale agriculture, high use of expensive, environmentally destructive technologies, such as fertilizer, pesticide, various pharmaceutical products, heavy machinery and genetically modified organisms (GMO).

Small farmers, who can't afford these technologies and who are stuck with relatively undestructive farming methods that preserve biodiversity are therefore denied the opportunity to investigate ways of increasing their yields in sustainable ways. DfID seems particularly opposed to the production of food crops and stocks, spending only 3% of their of aid on food (.3% in Sub-Saharan Africa). MPs are calling for the figure to be raised to 10%.

DfID probably hasn't realised that these small farmers produce most of the food that people live on in Kenya. Many of the rich farmers in Kenya produce for export, things such as tea and coffee and a lot of non-food crops such as flowers and sisal. A lot of land is even being used to produce crops for biofuel, which, whether for export or the domestic market, is not going to help starving people very much. DfID even supports programmes that 'donate' food aid, which is just a form of dumping that suits Western countries but serves only to destroy local markets in developing countries and leaves many of the putative recipients worse off than they were before.

Any institution that supports GMOs has no right to call itself an 'aid' agency. GMOs are the prerogative of wealthy and rapacious multinationals who want to control the food market in order to maximize their profits. Such institutions also have no regard for the importance of biodiversity, which is under serious enough threat but will be even more rapidly destroyed by widespread use of GMOs. An example is the current attempt to introduce genetically modified aubergine (eggplant, brinjal) into India, where there are currently several thousand varieties. If these modified aubergines are introduced, all others will either die out or become contaminated.

Every few weeks there is an article about some kind of crop that will supposedly save a country or reduce levels of malnutrition or increase yields or whatever. These articles don't usually say so, but if you check further, you'll often find that the crop in question is genetically modified. The article may even talk about biodiversity and sustainability and all sorts of lovely things. But if GM is involved, then neither biodiversity nor sustainability are involved.

There are many reasons why GMOs should not be grown anywhere, yet some GMOs now dominate in a few countries, such as cotton in India and maize and soya in the US. Many farmers in countries like India, the US and Canada are now regretting the fact that they bought into GM but it's very hard to get back out again. Yet the industry still churns out its lies about GM being high yielding, uses less pesticides and herbicides, is more drought resistant, grows well in marginal land, etc. It's hard to understand why so many seem to fall for their lies.

But DfID, with all its money and expertise, could not possibly be in the dark about the dangers of GM or even the inappropriateness of funding only large scale, industrial agriculture in developing countries. The question is, who has nobbled them and what are they getting out of supporting the biotechnology and other industries that stand to profit from their big spending?


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Orphanages Versus Community Based Care

Given the numbers of orphaned, abandoned and otherwise needy children in developing countries such as Kenya, the issue of whether institutional or community based care is preferable is a difficult one. There are badly run institutions and well run ones. But there are also children who face their greatest dangers in their own homes, from their parents or from their carers. From what I can see in Kenya, social services often don't get involved in cases where things go wrong, either in institutions or in community care settings.

A study with a large sample size published a couple of months ago looked at both types of care, comparing cognitive functioning, emotion, behavior, physical health, and growth. The conclusion was that community care is not better and that, for some indicators, institutions are better. The authors of the study advise against aiming to transfer as many children as possible to some kind of community care setting. This is good advice if the children are in a well run institution or if an adequate level of community care can not be guaranteed.

However, the organisation I am working with, Ribbon of Hope, does not advocate merely keeping a child in their community. We advocate for children to be cared for with the support of other people in the community, in addition to their carer or carers. We would like to see children receive any state support to which they are entitled. And we would like to help provide their carer with the means to provide for the child.

Many children in institutions have one living parent and many more have close relatives who are living. But there are also children who may not have any close relatives or whose relatives are unknown and untraceable. So I wouldn't argue that there is no need for institutions to care for children.

But there are institutions that have been set up with the express aim of making money. I don't know how many of these bogus orphanages there are compared to legitimate orphanages. I just know that several bogus orphanages have been set up in the immediate area around Nakuru. There are also institutions that cannot cope with the number of children they are trying to provide for and conditions for the children, and even the staff, are terrible.

The only well run orphanages I have seen receive very large sums of money from benefactors. It's right that institutions providing for children receive large amounts of money, of course, but most institutions are not able to attract enough money and the children can suffer as a result. Keeping children in an institution usually costs a lot more than providing assistance for them to live in a family setting. Therefore, there may be a good case for more children being raised in a family setting when that is feasible.

In addition, many of these well run orphanages are funded by private donations and are at least partly administrated by foreigners. This is not a bad thing in itself but it does suggest a lack of sustainability and a high degree of dependency. It can be difficult enough for local people to confirm that children presented to them are really orphans but for non-local people it can be impossible. Some people see orphanages as an opportunity to cut their own costs by sending one or more of their children there and claiming the children belong to a deceased relative.

So the stark dichotomy between institutions and community care for orphans is not helpful. Both settings have their advantages and disadvantages. It is quite true that institutions should not aim to transfer as many children as possible to community care. But I think there should be fewer orphanages and far more children should be cared for in a well supported environment. Some of the money available, both state, donor and private, could better be used to provide families with everything they need to give a good home to children who have been orphaned, abandoned or are otherwise in need of care. The study in question is a good one, with a sound methodology, but I don't think it took into account the scenario where the carer is actively supported in providing care.

Incidentally, people often ask about how you can tell whether an orphanage is legitimate or not. They even ask the same question about charities, philanthropic organisations, philanthropists, NGOs, CBOs and the like. I don't have a list of things but the Information in Context blog gives advice on this and other matters. The only rule of thumb I have at the moment is that when people or organisations seem to obsess about numbers, size and quantities, to the exclusion of all other criteria, this can indicate that they are more interested in raising money than in changing things for the better. That always makes me suspicious.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Predicting the Predictable

Often in natural disasters, it's not the disaster itself that causes widespread injury, loss of life and damage to property. Where people are well off enough to protect themselves and their property against whatever disasters may occur, far fewer people suffer. Therefore, the magnitude of natural disasters in developing countries is often measured in people killed, injured or displaced. But in developed countries, the magnitude is usually measured by insurance claims for damage to property.

There are exceptions, of course, but generally where people are vulnerable, natural disasters have a high human cost. Where people are less vulnerable, property is more likely to be the main loss. Developed countries, such as Japan and the US, experience natural disasters without anything like the human costs experienced by developing countries, such as Haiti. The hurricane that devastated New Orleans is not an exception just because it happened in the US. A lot of the people most affected were poor, vulnerable and marginalised.

When a natural disaster hits a vulnerable country, the disaster itself may not have been entirely predictable, at least, not by people in that country who were able to do anything about it. But it is pretty predictable that, when a country has little infrastructure (especially water and sanitation), minimal health services, low levels of food security and the rest, most disasters will have a huge human cost. Insurance claims may well be negligible for people who have very little to insure and no money to insure with.

Kenya and most other Sub-Saharan African countries are like Haiti in many ways. They have been treated as pawns in the political and commercial games of various Western countries; they have few social services of any kind and little or no resilience to any kind of disaster; they have huge debts and widespread poverty, poor health and malnutrition. We don't know what disasters await them, we just know that there will be disasters and that the consequences will be severe. Perhaps when some disaster strikes, there will be massive press attention, pledges of money, influxes of aid agencies driving white four wheel drives and resolutions to cancel debts.

But all these pledges and other post disaster phenomena won't reduce the immediate impact of the disaster. The human cost will be high. The press will bemoan the fact that the country is so poor and infrastructure is so bad and debts are so high and politicians are so corrupt and whatever else they tend to bemoan in developing countries when it's too late. The amounts of money that are pledged, and even the amounts that actually reach the country, may be far higher than the amounts that were previously needed to strengthen the country's capacity. But that doesn't result in money being spent on increasing the capacity of developing countries to increase their resilience.

Kenya has what could turn out to be a pathological attachment to maize, a non-indigenous crop introduced by the colonials because it's cheap and it's easy to grow large amounts on small areas of land, it fills you up, although it has little nutritional value. This pathological attachment could be compared to Ireland's staple food in the decades before the Great Famine, though I suspect the potato may be a bit more nourishing (or perhaps I'm biased). The potato is not indigenous to Ireland and eventually the inevitable happened. The ideal conditions came together for potato blight that wiped out most of the country's crop.

Much of the currently used agricultural land in Kenya is covered with crops that can not be used for sustenance, such as tea, sugar or coffee. Much is used for non-food crops, such as sisal or flowers. And much of the food that is grown is maize. For many years, maize crops have been threatened or have even failed because of the dependence on rain fed crop growing. But the country still plants mostly maize and it's still mainly rain fed.

The question is not whether disaster will strike in Kenya, it is when and how bad it will be. If the crops just fail in places where there is not much rain, several million people will be affected. If places that usually get a lot of rain have problems, several million more will be affected. Some countries around Kenya, even many areas in Kenya, have recently seen army worms attack, and they can obliterate entire fields. And there are other pests and factors that can take a large area by surprise. Maybe this year most people will survive, maybe not.

But one thing is certain: millions of people are vulnerable. And they are vulnerable in more than one way. If a crop fails, they risk starvation. If the aid agencies come in, the food may not get to people in time because of the infrastructure problems or because of widespread corruption. Or people may die of whatever diseases start spreading, unchecked because of the terrible health service. There's a hair's breadth between Haiti's circumstances and Kenya's circumstances.

It's now that the press should be clamoring for education, health, infrastructure and other social services to be improved, now that pressure needs to be put on the government to deal with corruption, now that individual people need to stop depending on rain fed agriculture, now that they should grow (and consume) things other than maize. And now is the best time to cancel the huge debts that developing countries have been arm-twisted into amassing for decades. Recognition that these circumstances make people vulnerable to inevitable disasters doesn't need to wait until it's too late.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Discovering Poverty

Only a few months ago there was great excitement about the 'discovery' of oil in Isiolo, in Kenya's Eastern province. This is not the first time oil has been 'discovered' there. Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into exploration without any commercially viable discovery. A few hundred thousand dollars were put into making local people think that they will benefit from being an oil producing region and no money at all went into cleaning up the pollution and environmental damage caused over the years.

A local politician was predicting that "Kenya will join Uganda in celebrating the status of a new oil producer". So far, Kenya is not celebrating. But neither is Uganda, despite discovering huge quantities of oil. This is not a new story of developing countries having enormous mineral wealth while their own people make nothing and lose a lot. It's the same old story of Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Uganda and, indeed, Kenya. There's no reason why the story should change, as long as wealthy countries can get hold of all the oil and other resources they require.

As Uganda is finding out, deciding who gets to profit from the oil deposits is not up to them. It's up to their senior politicians, a handful of business people and a bunch of rich foreigners. If anyone who doesn't belong to one of those groups happens to have property or interests affected by work of extracting oil, that's their tough luck. Sure, some people will be employed for a while, but most of the top jobs will go to foreigners or to people who are already pretty well off. A hell of a lot more people will lose their livelihood, most of them being subsistence farmers and others who are just getting by.

Local consultation, democratic accountability, sustainability, environmental impact, social impact, these are all as relevant as condoms at a USAID sponsored HIV awareness programme. Tullow Oil and that bastion of corporate social responsibility Royal Bank of Scotland will be able to wallow together in their ethical vacuum without having to worry about petty matters like human rights, environmental contamination or mass evictions of people from their land. And no one need worry, the Ugandan government will compensate the oil company if anything threatens their profit margins.

Kenya should note what's happening in Uganda at the moment. Not that their politicians are likely to behave any differently if oil is discovered here. But maybe civil society groups here can start now, before the sort of secret negotiations seen in Uganda get going. It's hard to imagine what a developing country successfully extracting a natural resource would look like, where people in that country actually gained from the process rather than suffering greater poverty, disease and death.

Maybe oil will not be discovered in Kenya, or perhaps not yet. It's not that natural resources are a bad thing, but as long as developed countries and multinationals always have the upper hand when they are discovered, the resources might as well remain in the ground. Some Kenyans may not know how lucky they are, but many in Isiolo would still remember the fallout from the various explorations and 'discoveries' of the last few years.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Speaking from Inexperience...

An old and extremely rich German wearing funny clothes and a bizarre hat who, ostensibly, has neither knowledge nor experience of sex or sexuality, is going to the UK to share his outdated, uninformed, biased and bigoted views on homosexuality with anyone there who is still prepared to listen to the current pope. One of his defenders says he is only saying what his followers believe about this subject, but that doesn't wash. He is supposed to be a leader and I think he has made his views pretty clear on other occasions.

The pope feels that recent legislation in the UK runs counter to natural law. What 'natural law' is he talking about? Is he talking about the findings of a scientific community or some community of experts or is he merely using a meaningless phrase that anyone can use to support whatever prejudice they happen to be hawking? My question is merely rhetorical, by the way. I could claim that it runs counter to natural law to abstain from sex (or to purport to) but the fact that having sex is natural to many people does not preclude others from deciding to abstain. This is not because there is any 'natural law' involved, it's just that people are entitled to decide for themselves.

Such laws as the ones the pope is complaining about, the Equality Bill and the like, do not "impose unjust limitations on the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs". They have no bearing on religious communities doing anything except things that are already illegal, such as discriminating against others on the grounds of their sexual orientation, for example. I would hate to have to list for the pope the excesses that have been perpetrated over the centuries by religious communities and the lengths that his colleagues have gone to in order to allow such excesses to continue, despite their being proscribed by (positive) law.

Religious communities acting in accordance with their religious beliefs, whatever that happens to mean, doesn't itself sound like something governed by 'natural law'. Or perhaps the pope would claim otherwise. Perhaps some religions are more natural than others. Perhaps having no religion is 'unnatural', at least, according to natural law. But to be frank, the pope's defender seems to have to resort to meaningless arguments to defend his boss. For example "[the pope] wants his reasoned voice – formed by the treasures of the Christian heritage which is deeply embedded in our culture – he wants that voice to be heard", etc, blah blah.

The current pope follows a long line of popes who have done everything they can to perpetuate various forms of bigotry and discrimination. I'm surprised he is intending to spread his vitriol in the UK, where I imagined most people to be fairly unswayed by any particular religion. But he has certainly done a lot of damage in African countries he visited. Perhaps he hopes for the same level of 'success' elsewhere. The man seems to have little respect for concepts like human rights and democracy and I hope he gets an appropriate reception, wherever he goes.


Monday, February 1, 2010

Do Wealth and Power Exclude Wisdom?

To quote the late comedian Linda Smith, "I don't mean to sound racist, but rich people are weird." The very good climate change blog, has an article about Bill Gates and his maunderings on climate change and related issues. The guy seems to know very little about climate change and all his information seems to come from corporate funded mouthpieces like Bjorn Lomborg.

Gates seems to think most of the current worries about climate change are pointless and that none of the proposals made by activists and experts should be considered. But he thinks that there will be a technological solution or two to the problems of clean energy, energy efficiency, etc (one of those solutions being nuclear, which he thinks is 'as good as' renewable).

This would sound very familiar to Gates-watchers. He advocates technical solutions to health problems, diseases such as HIV, TB, malaria, cholera and rotavirus. He also advocates technical solutions to problems like food shortages, food insecurity and low levels of food production (in the form of biotechnology). And for climate change, he advocates bioengineering. He's certainly consistent, so far.

Despite all his money and his rich and influential friends, Gates seems to be very misinformed and is falling behind on his knowledge of current research, but read the article for the full details. He's into 'altering the stratosphere to reflect solar energy', filtering 'carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere' and 'brightening ocean clouds'. Do we really want this lunatic to be let loose on the only life supporting planet we know of?

There's also a very strange article on purporting to be about poverty eradication that is really about a deal between the richest man in the world (Gates) and one of the richest and most rapacious corporations in the world (Coca-cola). The Gates Foundation is providing most of the capital, over 10 million dollars, to allow 50,000 Kenyan and Ugandan farmers to sell fruit to Coca-cola for 'fruit-juice' production.

The article is very short on detail and I don't see why Coca-cola can't get these farmers to sell fruit to them without the help of Gates. But is it really a good thing that these farmers are going to sell their healthy food products for what will be a very low price to an organisation that will convert them into an unhealthy and very expensive beverage?

Coca-cola is better known for covering otherwise beautiful areas with their revolting logos and other excrescences, for marketing harmful products to people who are starving and in need of fresh water, for polluting water supplies and using up water supplies in areas where water is scarce and for maintaining a very poor record of corporate social responsibility (see for further details).

Rich people and organisations are weird, but they can also be sinister, completely undemocratic and downright inhumane. I'm not calling for a law against being rich or even curbs on how rich people can be. But I think rich people and organisations should be subject to the same laws as other people and organisations. And poor people should be protected from the excesses of the rich and powerful. Why should a handful of very rich people and organisations be able to dictate the future of the planet and the futures of all its inhabitants?