Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu gets a High Five

Whatever your view on Swine flu (which we now officially call H1N1) my reality is that it has taken up all my waking hours (and extended them) over the last week. I haven't had lunch since last Friday and there are journalists following this story with a dedication I have rarely witnessed. What is it that grips the collective imagination to such an extent? The Spanish flu of 1918 / 1919, which laid waste to an impressive 40 million people, is certainly a harrowing lesson of our time but really, how many people truly knew about it last week? (In fact, some accounts claim that as many as 100 million perished).

But how much has our world changed since 1919? How much has our world changed since 1999 for God's sake? Last night, at 22h00 Geneva time the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the global alert to level five. Again, people and journalists (often one and the same) who last week knew little about WHO, never mind phase four or five, are now providing sensational and, sorry to say, hysterical commentary. 

What we really need, in my view at least, is a sense of perspective. At the same time I fully acknowledge we also need people to consider and plan for the worst case scenarios. And this is very much part of our daily modus operandi if truth be told. Disaster preparedness has to consider the gloomiest possibilities, else it will not work.

There is a human need to know the "what if" and the "worst case". If you doubt me just tune in to your nearest tv station and chances are it will be betting on millions of us falling about out of our minds on nature's latest toxic creation a.k.a. swine flu a.ka. H1N1.

Today at 14h Geneva time, we went to the international media to present our plans for scaling up and our sober analysis. Four Red Cross people talking to more than 50 journalists from Geneva's international press corps, including 6 different TV stations. Some even carried live on major news channels like Sky and repeated on a number of other major media afterwards. So, what did we have to say that is so different?

On one side we concur with WHO's analysis about taking the situation seriously - how could you not? On the other hand we feel calm and even confident. Never has the world been so well prepared for a global pandemic. We know that more than 70% of our national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are already active, contributing to reducing the risk of pandemic in their countries. Next week this figure will most likely be closer to 100%. 

And this is our niche. WHO provides the global guidance if you like, the Science. We, and many other governmental and civil society partners at the national and community level, carry out the much-needed efforts on the ground to drive the message home, coordinate efforts on the ground, deliver protective gear and advice and promote "respiratorial etiquette" (a wonderful phrase which I learned today - basically it means, don't cough in my face and I won't cough in yours).

It has been a real professional pleasure for me this week to be part of our crisis team, gearing itself up to support the global response of the international Red Cross. I have had the pleasure to work closely with some hugely experienced colleagues like Dr. Pierre Duplessis, our human influenza expert. Pierre is the former head of the Canadian Red Cross and has spearheaded our program to combat Avian flu over the last few years. A good guy to have in your corner, pandemic or not.

The situation has also provided an opportunity to reconnect with a former colleague, Marco Jimenez, in Mexico city, who has volunteered to report back for us and provide photographs so we can keep our worldwide network informed and provide some authentic images and stories to the world's media. 

When I worked in Sudan, Marco was my handler in Geneva and plenty of sparks flew. That was 5 years ago or so and now our roles are somewhat switched - and this time we were hooked up through facebook. 

There is no doubt that we are in a serious situation but we need to address it calmly, reassured in the knowledge that we have never been so well prepared. We have never had such early warning and early action. As far as I know all cases (more or less) have originated in Mexico and no more than a few dozen confirmed elsewhere. If we fail to prepare we prepare to fail - this is a truism and this is our thinking right now. And its Roy Keane's motto - and your a braver person than me if you take issue with his philosophy.

WHO is right when it advises that we are beyond containment. But we are absolutely not beyond mitigation and organizations such as the Red Cross will certainly make a massive difference in reducing the impact. Let's go about our business cooly and calmy, confident in our capacities to make a difference. Confident in knowing that we have learned some positive lessons from recent pandemic scares. Confident in our own common sense. Perspective is a good ally in such sensationalistic times.  

Btw; for the latest updates on H1N1 around the world, I highly recommend the Veratect twitter feed - the first with the latest for my money:


Monday, April 27, 2009

Outbreak of Swine Flu grips the world

I have been in crisis mode all weekend and today. Busy providing support and guidance to our global membership and operations on how to communicate about the emergency of the so-called swine flu in Mexico. As I write, cases are now confirmed in the US, Canada, New Zealand and Spain with many other reported cases from around the world.

We can also imagine that surveillance and monitoring capacities in developing countries will mean that alot of swine flu cases may go undetected. It has been a very interesting experience working closely with our health experts, liasing with the World Health Organization (WHO), all in an attempt to get our messaging right and to provide good support to our member Red Cross and Red Crescent around the world.

At the start of such a potential pandemic it is generally advised to exercise caution in your public communication and not to contribute to any destabilizing over-reaction or panic due to sensational messages. At times like this it is usually advisable to stick to the science and leave the hyperbole to the tabloids.

At times like this it is also gratifying to see how crucial and effective organizations such as WHO and CDC are in providing the knowledge and direction for a global response to what is in reality a potentially severe and life-threthening pandemic which will be extremely difficult to stop.

This is the gist of our public communication issued first thing today in Geneva - alot more expected on this topic which has truly gripped the media and public's imagination.

IFRC: Swine flu outbreak is “a situation of immediate and serious concern”
27 April 2009

The confirmed Swine Flu outbreak in Mexico, and the reported cases in the United States, Canada, Brazil, The United Kingdom, France, Spain, Israel, Australia and New Zealand, is a situation of serious concern for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The IFRC shares the World Health Organization’s analysis that there is a potential for swine flu to develop into a global pandemic affecting a much larger geographical area of the world.

“This is a situation of immediate and serious concern,” says Bekele Geleta, Secretary General of the IFRC, “Our national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, supported by IFRC health specialists, and working closely with their governments at the national level, are on full global alert. We will spare no resources in tackling this threat full on.”

In Mexico, the most affected country so far, Mexican Red Cross put its volunteers from 486 local branches in high alert, working closely with the authorities to limit the spread of the disease.

The worldwide network of Red Cross and Red Crescent has invested heavily in recent years in pandemic preparedness and provides a solid foundation at the community level to expedite critical alerts and actions. This is a key contribution to a well coordinated response at the local level that is in line with global priorities as well as existing practices and recommendations at the national level.

In addition, the IFRC has the ability to swiftly mobilize well-trained volunteers based in communities at risk which is a vital capability when dealing with pandemic threats. “At this moment in time we are on full alert” according to Dominique Praplan, head of the IFRC’s health department in Geneva, “and are preparing for all eventualities”.

“The best case scenario right now would be for national level epidemics to be managed which would lessen the likelihood of a widespread global pandemic. The worst case scenario is for the epidemic to develop into a severe, potentially life-threatening pandemic. If this transpires,” says Praplan, “the IFRC will apply the full vigour and commitment of its resources and expertise to join a global effort”.

If the threat of pandemics is to be effectively reduced it requires the international community to work in partnership. The IFRC works in close coordination with the World Health Organization, other United Nations agencies and with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) at regional and global levels, to ensure a complementary approach.


Friday, April 24, 2009

The One Million People Killer Disease

A child dies every thirty seconds from Malaria.

One million people die every year from Malaria.

Yet malaria is a preventable disease. And mosquitoe nets are the most cost-effective and hands-on preventive solution available.

Malaria will not be eradicated unless the distribution of mosquito nets is accompanied by extensive and prolonged community education and empowerment efforts.

Communities must own the response if malaria prevention is to be successful. Families at risk of being infected with the disease must know how to properly use nets and fully understand the risks they are taking if simple preventive steps are neglected.

A new report which we have just published today (World Malaria Day) demonstrates how the combination of distributing mosquito nets and working closely with the affected communities is a winning formula in the fight against malaria. When communities are trained in prevention of malaria and are empowered to ensure effective use of mosquito nets then the impact is significant and lasting. Specifically, independent studies now show that preventive use of mosquito nets goes up between ten to twenty three per cent each time a volunteer from the affected community visits families that have received a net.

Statistics may fluctuate from one country to another depending on the type of comnunities reached by the campaigns. However, the report makes it clear that distributions will only successfully reduce malaria if they are complemented by the forgotten component of malaria prevention: door-to-door education and support.

Eighty six per cent of malaria cases occur in Africa but it nevertheless remains a global problem also affecting countries in large parts of Asia and Latin America.

Rolling Back Malaria in Haiti

Let's take the case of Haiti.
The year 2008 was not a good one for Haiti. This small country – one of the most vulnerable in the world – suffered a string of cyclones that devastated coastal areas, claiming a considerable number of victims and causing widespread destruction.

The health effects of the disaster were also considerable. The presence of stagnant water led to a resurgence of diseases caused by dirty water, and the dramatic rise in the number of mosquitoes led to an increased risk of malaria.

Right after the cyclones struck the country, volunteers from the Haitian Red Cross distributed impregnated mosquito nets. But we very quickly realized that we needed to extend immediate recovery efforts to include training for volunteers on how to prevent malaria, detect suspected cases and refer them to health facilities, so that they could disseminate relevant messages in the community, such as the importance of using mosquito nets, particularly for pregnant women and children under five.

This was how the programme, initially designed to distribute mosquito nets to 10,000 families, came to be launched in various areas in the country affected by the cyclones. Subsequently, it was extended to the area of Nippes, in the southwest of the country, which was chosen because it is an inaccessible area populated by vulnerable people, where the bad condition of roads hinders access to health care. Most inhabitants are poor. Although the effects of the disaster in this region received little media coverage, the impact was no less real or traumatic.

Around fifty volunteers from the Haitian Red Cross have been involved in the malaria prevention programme over the past few weeks. Their job is to identify the people most at risk in 45 places in the towns of Miragoane and Baradères, particularly households with pregnant women and children under five, who are most at risk from malaria. The three-month prevention and education campaign targets approximately 6,000 people out of a catchment population of around 60,000.

Thanks to the domino effect of the dissemination of messages, it is estimated that a total of around 30,000 people will be reached indirectly through their neighbours, relatives and community leaders (mayors, priests, hospital directors, etc.).

Once families have been identified, volunteers organize community meetings, discussion groups and home visits, during which they explain the dangers of malaria and how impregnated mosquito nets can provide effective protection. They then distribute the mosquito nets and visit the beneficiaries’ homes to ensure that they have been properly fitted.

Furthermore, these same volunteers are trained to detect people presenting the telltale signs of malaria and send them to health centres as quickly as possible.

All our volunteers live in the town where they work. They therefore know the area that they operate in very well, which increases their credibility in the eyes of the beneficiaries. This increases acceptance of prevention messages in the community and promotes changes in behaviour for the benefit of their health.

Many volunteers recruited for the programme to combat malaria also received first aid training, so that they are able to answer basic public health questions from beneficiaries when they visit their homes during the malaria prevention campaign promoting the proper use of mosquito nets.

In addition to the recovery assistance provided to help people get back to normal after the damage caused by the cyclones last year, the project also contributes to community health education and prevention efforts, making local communities more aware of the dangers of malaria and ensuring that they are better prepared to deal with future outbreaks of malaria when natural disasters strike Haiti again,” concludes Dr Myrtha Louissaint.

As a result of Red Cross / Red Crescent net distributions, since 2002 more than 289,000 malaria deaths have been averted, while 17.5 million people have been protected.

For more information please check out the World Malaria Day section on our website or watch this 2 min video on our youtube channel.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gran Torino: Ending a Dead Giveaway

As long as you remember that it’s Clint Eastwood/ Dirty Harry/ Pale Rider on screen the denouement of Gran Torino does not strain credulity; otherwise how likely is it that six evil Asian gang members, in front of witnesses would open fire with Uzi sub-machine guns on an old age pensioner standing in front of their house on the possible chance that he might be reaching for a Magnum.

Perhaps in the sequel they will enter a plea of justifiable homicide for a Bush-like pre-emptive strike against an enemy who could have been carrying weapons of mass destruction but embarrassingly had nothing more lethal on his person than a Zippo lighter. 

Defence counsel could also argue that they were ridding their community of a grumpy old working class racist who had confessed to at least one war crime in Korea with dark hints that there may have been more. 

Fat chance. These slant-eyed Hmong gooks as Clint, the recently widowed Polak vet,  describes them to titters from the cinema audience, had just raped a feisty young Hmong woman who lives next door to Clint and, as we know, from his filmography, there is nothing like the rape of a defenceless female to get Clint reaching for his shooting iron. 

There is an arty hue to Clint’s latest take on his standard western narrative and in a neat reversal of audience expectations revenge is exacted in an early Christian-like way with a voluntary visit to the lions’ den resulting unexpectedly in the lions snacking on our post-modern Daniel. Self-sacrifice is part of the Hollywood American loner’s make-up. 

Cars replace horses and the mean hombres are transformed into the street gangs that prey on the run-down neighbourhood flooded with Asian immigrants like latter day settlers moving out west. And Eastwood is the reluctant neighbourhood marshall doubling as the last “native” American of substance in the film, another curious role reversal reflective of demographic and cultural change in America’s inner cities, the bottom rung of an increasingly complicated social ladder. 

Clint plays the part of the recently widowed Walt Kowalski, reluctantly coming out of retirement to protect a community under siege as he allows himself to be seduced by the exotic good neighbourliness of his Hmong co-citizens who have fled persecution in south-east Asia for having collaborated with the Americans during the Vietnam War. 

On the surface we are invited to identify with an emotionally damaged ex-Ford assembly line worker and Korean war veteran who upholds key American values to the extent that the plainspoken agnostic – pestered by a boyish priest who serves as a communication channel between the audience and Clint’s innermost thoughts - even abides by his dead wife’s wish that he make a confession. He also mows his lawn, keeps the Stars and Stripes flying from his house which is well-stocked with every kind of tool imaginable and no shortage of guns and bullets. 

The not-so subliminal message is that white supremacy was not so bad after all. Clint succeeds in inculcating some white working class grit into the young Hmong teenager he saves from a life of mindless delinquency, murder and rape in Hmong gang circles despite the kid’s botched attempt to steal his treasured 1972 Gran Torino, symbol of his pride in working class American values. 

The central place of the gun in American life is something Clint Eastwood has always exploited in an uncritical manner throughout his cinema career. Just because he gets ventilated by an awful lot of lead in what may be his valediction to the big screen, doesn’t mean he has had a deathbed conversion. 

Much of the dramatic tension resides in wondering when he is going to pull the trigger. The film turns on the fact that he doesn’t pull his own but he pulls everyone else’s. The blood sacrifice is achieved in a climactic fashion. The National Rifle Association and the gun gods have been appeased. 

P.S. There are 85 gun-related deaths in the US every day. There are one million gang members in over 20,000 street gangs. There are 2.3 million people in US jails. More money is spent on prisons than higher education in States such as Michigan where Gran Torino is set.

Dennis McClean posted HDEO's first cinema review.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Greenpeace continue to inspire action and change

Greenpeace is an organization many of us have grown up with. This 3 min video is a brilliantly edited and catch-all video about the major climate and environmental challenges we face from pollution to over-fishing. The spectacular stunts carried out by greenpeace volunteers over the years have become a hallmark of the organization, derided by some and applauded by many. Enjoy this and if you know of other inspiring video clips which advocate for change and action let us know, we are always keen to see what's out there.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Ducking and Diving; or when Black & White is anything but

Although I was teased for having a crush on a Nigerian girl in kindergarten, my first brush with the politics of race in (then) 99.9 pe rcent white Ireland was a “Smash Apartheid” poster on my mate Richo’s bedroom wall in the late 70s.

It was a picture of Nelson Mandela’s head being squeezed like an orange, a reference to the Dunnes Stores strikers who refused to handle South African fruit.
A decade or so later I was fortunate enough to meet and interview the likes of Kader Asmal, later to become foreign Minister under Madiba’s first rainbow government, and John deCourcy Ireland, for the best part of six decades in public life a beacon of tolerance and internationalism in a very introverted little nation.

I found myself thinking of them in the strangest of locales last week – 18 metres under the Aegean sea off the coast of Turkey. It was a rare moment away from work, family, the internet and the mobile phone. Apart from the obvious attractions of diving – seeing the fishies in their own environment – the floaty disconnect and the surge of fine oxygen gets the brain ticking.

In diving, colours are muted by the light-filtering action of water. But in terms of politics, there is only black and white for us humans under water. One leader, one set of rules. When you are down to 50 bar, it’s time to surface. Thumbs up means ascent. Two fingers against the mask means look. Nothing else. No finesse, no nuances, no discussion, no being clever with words.

And there, under the water and face-to-face with a Moray eel I wondered what Asmal and deCourcy-Ireland would have made of Sarkozy saying “African man has not entered into history” in the home of Youssou N’Dourr without getting kicked in the Dakars? A “not very intelligent” remark if I ever heard one, as the wee man himself may have said. (Will readers forgive my ironic slight on his Frenchness and his vertical similalry with Napoleon? How sophisticated are you headdowneyesopeners?)

Yes, I was in Durban in 2001 (see here for the company line and here for as close to the wire as I could go). And even though I was impressed by our former president Robinson and her obvious commitment to Ubuntu, I was perplexed and a little disgusted by the professional Israeli and Palestinian protestors who seemed to be acquainted a litle too well and to be almost preening as they shouted one another down for the cameras.

And here we are again, with the son of an African man making history, yet we are resolutey unable to separate religion from race, race from politics, politcs from religion. Let me attempt to clear the muddy waters. We enter the world as innocents, in only our skin. Politcs and religion we choose, (or they are forced onto us) but into our skin we are born. The darker that skin, the deeper the racism, the less the opportunity.

This is a self-evident truth for me, and I am sure for the many, many delegates who attended Durban 1 and 2 with our naïve little notion. A great Red Cross boss I had years ago once hauled me over the coals because I used the phrase “race discrimination” in a report. “We are all one race Joe,” she told me. “The human race.”

Sounds a little too hippyish and poncy aid-worker to you? Stop reading now if that’s the case, because I’m going to quote a poem that we hung on the wall of the GOAL house in Mogadishu in 1993 and which survived the UN’s bombardement.

I can’t recall it all, and it’s not on the net, but it went something like:

“When you are hot you are red.

When you are cold you are blue

When you are sick you are yellow

When you are envious you are green

When I am hot I am black

When I am cold I am black

When I am sick I am black

When I am envious I am black.

And yet you call me coloured.”


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Gazans still knee deep in rubble

It is now three months since the end of the latest round of conflict in Gaza between Hamas and Israel. Last December and January this conflict topped the news agenda and the world was appalled by the shocking and disproportionate force against the civilian Palestinian population which was literally trapped inside the Gaza enclave. More than 1300 Palestinians (an estimated 400 of them children) lost thier lives in the military operation and some 5000 suffered serious and debilitating injuries. 

In early March, the 'international community' gathered in the Sharm el Sheik Red Sea resort in Eygpt and pledged some US$5 billion in assistance - a record when it comes to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). At the time, we posted a slightly tongue in cheek blog about past experiences when the Israeli authorities cut Gaza off and not even washing machines were allowed in. We wondered aloud whether the 5 billion would get to those who really needed it or if it would stay stuck at the crossing points, and suffer the same fate as the washing machines. It seems our worst fears were realized. 

Despite the vast majority of these pledged funds being earmarked for reconstruction, Israel has continued to refuse the transport of badly-needed construction materials into Gaza. This means that Palestinian families are still standing knee deep in the rubble of their homes (it is estimated as much as 20% of Gaza's buildings were razed to the ground during the conflict). 

After some research on this issue here are a few bullet points of interest taken directly from the most recent online humanitarian reports:

  • No construction materials, industrial/electrical appliances, livestock, vehicles/transport and/or any other type of commodity were allowed entry this week.
  • Fishing continues to be restricted to three nautical miles only, causing major losses to fishermen. Sardines were not available last week in the market even though the sardine season has already started. Fish imported from Israel (at 30-40 NIS per kg) was available.
  • On 19 March COGAT (the Israeil authority in charge of access in and out of the OPT) refused clearance for tomato paste, white tahine, macaroni and jam to Gaza. This decision meant that 150 pallets of food parcels (approximately 6 truck-loads) were prevented from delivery to Gaza. 
  • Plastic floor mats were rejected by COGAT, the reason being their potential use in mosques.
  • No petrol or diesel for public use was allowed entry from Israel to Gaza during the reporting period. Petrol and diesel were last allowed entry for public use on 2 November 2008.
  • A total of 2,159,620 litres of industrial gas for the Gaza Power Plant was allowed in; similar to the amount being allowed in during the last seven weeks. This amount represents only 69% of the required weekly needs set by the Power Plant authority.
  • As of 25 March one out of the six Gaza flour mills is still not operating (El Bader Mill), destroyed during the military operation. The total stock of wheat flour at the Gaza mills stands at 11,300 tons, sufficient for approximately 25 days.
  • The Crossing Points, controlled by Israel (except for Rafah which is mainly controlled by Egypt) have been more or less sealed off. This is the latest status report for the last week of March: Sufa crossing was last open on 12 September 2008. Karni crossing was closed. Karni grain conveyor belt was operational on three days. Karni cement lane has been completely closed since 29 October 2008. Rafah border crossing was closed for cargo on all days during the reporting period.

If this issue were not so serious in humanitarian terms it could be an amusing exercise in comic absurdity. What justification can there be one wonders for prohibiting macaroni and tomato paste? At least an excuse was provided for refusing plastic mats (in case they were used as prayer mats). 

But behind these statistics are human needs that are not being met. Shelter is not being provided to people left homeless by the destruction caused by the military operation; livelihoods cannot recover without raw materials for production; fishermen in ricketty boats are not allowed past three nautical miles and are left to stand on the shore as others hunt the seasonal shoal of sardines (interestingly Gaza is allowed to import fish products from Israeli merchants).

Three months on and Gazans are still in dire need. Little has changed for them and even while the Israeil military operation is officially over, incursions continue and violent internecine clashes between Palestinian factions are a daily reality for the population. The only difference today is that much of the worlds media attention has moved on (piracy being the topic of the hour). 

John Ging, the Irish Director of the UN relief agency in Gaza, and someone who has demonstrated incredible dedication to the humanitarian plight of Gazans, declared recently, the exasperation obvious in his voice: "We need access. Its the number one issue, the number two issue and the number three issue".

A trickle of less than one hundred trucks a day are entering Gaza, about 20% of which are carrying humanitarian assistance and the remainder an assortment of commerical goods (mostly of Israeli origin) which are considered 'safe' by the Israeli authorities. To be noted, that even during the impoverished times of June 2007, Israel was allowing in some 500 truckloads of goods a day to 'maintain' the population. But it is not enough to gaurantee survival for the population in Gaza. It is not about keeping people alive but about giving them a reason to live a dignified life.

Meanwhile, the political landscape has reshaped itself with some interesting dynamics in place. Fatah and Hamas are today heading off to Egpyt for another round of reconciliation talks with zero headway reported to date. A far right of centre coalition has taken power in Israel, torn up the Annapolis peace agreement and asserted its intention to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank (this gives us the sad irony that while Gazans cannot rebuild their homes, illegal settlements continue to be built on Palestinian lands in the West Bank). 

The whereabouts of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit remain unknown, presumably still held by Hamas inside Gaza after nearly three years. Talks on a prisoner swap with Gilad as Hamas' bargaining chip, have all but failed. George Mitchell has been appointed by President Obama to mediate the Arab-Israeli peace process. He is a skilled and brilliant man whose role in Northern Ireland proved to be key to building peace there. My fear would be that like many of his predecessors, including Condoleza Rice, Mitchell gets stuck at the micro level negotiating the opening hours of crossing points with Israel while the big picture remains untouched and any hopes of real rapproachement and a political solution grows ever more distant.

For more on the daily life of Palestinians, I would recommend the reports of Ayman Mohyeldin, a brave and objective journalist.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Stuck in Reverse (all the way back to Square One)

About two months ago, on the phone with my friend Joe who lives in Minsk (and now a regular contributor to Head Down Eyes Open), we threw a lot of ideas about on the subject of migration and how the financial crisis was exacerbating the problem. In fact, if we talk about migration, be it regular (legal) or irregular (illegal) economic boom and bust are two sides of the same coin.

Booming economies are like magnets for those in search of a better life and failing economies create the push factor, sending cheap and easy labour back (against its will) to where it came from. This is the scenario we discussed and later posted a story, researched by Joe, on the scourge of trafficking in eastern Europe. Soon after, another story, on the same issue, was posted, after several hundred migrants drowned off the coast of Libya in a failed attempt to reach the promised land of Europe.

What came out of that conversation also was the growing realization that 'reverse migration' could soon top the humanitarian agenda - a direct product of the global financial crisis. This manifests itself in the hundreds of thousands of central and eastern European migrants that have toiled in the building sites and hotel rooms of Ireland, UK and western Europe are now being involuntarily pushed back to Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus and other such hard-hit locations from whence they came.

"Apart from the obvious, do you know what this means?" Joe asked, "Tell me" I answered, knowing better than to second guess our man in Minsk, "a business opportunity for people traffickers" he said. And of course, he's right. Young men and women, especially women, forced by recession-hit (recently booming) countries to return to economically-deprived regions will be exposed to the lying lure of people traffickers, offering prospects and prosperity in Russia or the Gulf or wherever. Trafficking - the bastard child of migration.

And reverse migration is not just a European concern or phenomenon. In the state of Kerala in India, it is estimated that some 90% of thier migrants have ended up on the construction sites of Dubai and the Gulf. This region has been particularily badly hit and, according to Kerala's finance minister, Thomas Isaac, quoted in India today, more than half a million are expected to return in the next two months. They will return in debt to the money lenders who sponsored their speculative soujourn to the Gulf in the first place. They will return to seek work that is not there. They will return in frustration with their faded dreams, back to the dreary daily drudge of poverty.

China's internal migration is now also stuck in reverse and yet another phenomenon well underway. Its global factory is shedding its droves of workers, cost-effectively and efficiently, almost as if they too were products on an assembly line.

They sit in long rows, shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting for the trains that will take them back to their home provinces, to the places they once left for China's industrial east, lured by the promise of prosperity.

It's hard to put an exact number on this mass movement of people but it is estimated (under-estimated probably) at around 200 million. Some analysts believe many of these workers will be transferred to some of the massive Chinese infrastructural projects underway in Africa and the Americas - at the expense of local employment of course.


The financial lifelines sent home by foreign workers are falling from Latin America to Central Asia. The drop has been so sharp in Kyrgyzstan for example, which relies on remittances for 27 percent of its gross domestic product, that the U.N. World Food Program was asked to rush in emergency food aid in November 2008 for the first time since 1992.

The Gulf stream of Indian migrants heading back to Kerala for instance will return to an Indian economy which, according to the World Bank, will already suffer a shortfall of $2.5 billion dollars in lost remittances from its migrant labour (India is the number one ranked country when it comes to remittances sending home some $45 billion per annum). You could quickly double that figure by estimating what the cost of support to return migrants might be for the state of India.

Migration, forward or reverse, and its economic companions such as remittances and money lending, is a deep and broad topic. What is certain is that the knock on effects of the financial crisis in Asia and beyond have been quick and multifaceted. Reverse migration potentially ranks as one of the more urgent and challenging issues to tackle. Apart from the obvious economic burden that will fall on those least equipped to deal with it, there is a fair chance that trafficking, economic deprivation and even civil unrest could also be predictable consequences.

There are many good analysis presented on the current financial crisis, best of which is probably in the Financial Times. For a different perspective however, I would also recommend a look at the excellent Spiegel in english.


Monday, April 13, 2009

A Hummer Humbled

You don't hear many "New Russian" jokes these days. If you don't live in the former Soyuz then you probably never heard them. They are the little guys way of getting back at the fat cats who raped the region's assets in the 90s, deploying any number of nefarious, dangerous and plain evil strategies to get loadsaroubles.

The chief characteristic of the "Novy Russki" (who can also be from anywhere between Crimea and Chukotka - in fact there's two really fertile breeding grounds right there!) is black clothes, gold chains, model-level babe called Nastia on his arm, Hummer, enormous mobile phone (or tiny depending on the fashion) and - most impressively - zero taste. In anything.

Novi Russky will eat deep-fried calamaris covered in garlic and wash it down with a 1,000 dollar grand cru. Or hang a priceless picture of Ukraine's national Bard Shchevknenko on the wall but never have a book in the house, and never see the irony. It's all about conspicuous consumption, not value, taste or enjoyment.

I almost rented an apartment from one such langer last year, a no-neck lowlife called Sergei whose apartment was full of worthless junk that he'd paid thousands for. He might have inspired the classic New Russian joke: Dima opens the door of his black BMW and as he does, a hummer roars by and wrenches off the door and Dima's arm. Dima looks down at the gushing stump (think opening scenes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail) and roars "BLYAD. My Rolex!"

Why mention it now? Cause it seems hubris is finally fading and some much needed humility is back in vogue. I do, of course, feel sorry for the middle classes who are losing their savings, but I still relish seeing bad things befall these baddies.

We have an office driver, and this morning he was taking me back from a meeting in downtown Minsk. Traffic was ground to a halt, unusual for Minsk where the wide streets are relatively traffic-free. And then we saw why. Locked in a smashed embrace were two identical shiny black Beamers. And two identical New Russian's blabbering into brick-like PDA phones, jabbing their air with their impertinent sausage-like fingers

Our driver coughed, and I caught his eye in the mirror. I smiled. He grinned. And we both pissed ourselves laughing all the way to the office.

More New Russian jokes at


Friday, April 10, 2009

The Good Friday Agreement: Eleven years and counting

The 'troubles' in Ireland always loomed large in my childhood and formative years. Like most families we had our stories of victimhood from the War of Independence. The hunger strikes of 1981 that left ten men dead hardened my own  republican skin and  gave me a passion for history studies that served me well ultimately. 

In college, I remember a great trip to Belefast accompanying a friend to carry out research as we photographed and decoded the urban landscape of murals which were all pervasive back then. In those days, the murals helped you stay on the right side of the tracks. And, in the rare instance where murals were absent, you navigated the invisible sectarian borders by observing what the pubs were advertising: Tennants for unionists; Harp lager for republicans.

After leaving college and taking up my first serious journalistic assignment I was to spend a year on the ground all over the six counties of northern Ireland documenting a violent period of our country's history. In those times things were ugly: tit-for-tat killings of civilians were such a regular occurrence that media hardly reported it anymore. "People are fed up with Northern Ireland" a UK journalist friend told me over a pint of Harp one night. 

In March 88 in Milltown cemetery a lone loyalist gunman called Michaeal Stone opened up on a crowd of mourners (there to bury three unarmed IRA volunteers who had been executed by undercover SAS forces as they gathered intel on British troop movements on the Rock of Gibraltar). In the end three people died and upto sixty were injured and all of it caught on the assembled TV cameras. In the politics of paint in northern Ireland of that time, a mural sprung up hours later declaring: three birds with one Stone. 

Then, a few days later, at the funeral of one of Stone's victims, two plain clothes British soldiers drove into the path of the cortege and were pulled from thier cars, driven away, and later found naked on waste ground beaten to death. Again, the whole episode was filmed live on tv (including the two soldiers being driven away in a Black Taxi) and the anger of the crowd and the barbarity of the killings underscored, if needed, how far down the spiral of violence we were in those bleak last days of the eighties. 

Then there was the 'normal' stuff for journalists to follow up: allegations (and proof) of torture were rampant; internment was an accepted method of 'managing' the Catholic population; up to 30'000 British soldiers on the streets. In the area of Crossmaglen (known as Bandit country), where I spent many's a day and night back then, it was estimated that British soldiers outnumbered the local male population. What's more, the army had commandeered the local Gaelic football pitch to use as its base, much to the understandable annoyance of the locals. Helicopters constantly buzzed in the air and bodies were pulled out of ditches every other day.

In August of 88 I remember also eight British soldiers were killed by the IRA as they returned to their base. It upped the ante and tit-for-tat revved up, reprisal killings escalated and the fear and hatred became even more deeprooted. Nobody back then saw even a sliver of hope for calm or dialogue or peace. The political rhetoric was in full throttle and the tribal narrative of oppression and resistance was the language of the day. 

In 1989 we followed the renowned Dr. Ian Paisley around his constituency for a couple of weeks. He had never allowed media get so close before and we produced an award winning reportage called: the 16th Century is alive and well and living in Northern Ireland. While we didn't find it in us to prase Paisley too much - he was generally carricatured as a venomnous rabble rousing Catholic-hater back then - we did pass him a back-handed compliment of sorts and labeled him 'the most consistent politician in Northern Ireland'. Our times 'up North' also gave us reason to meet with the likes of Ken McGuinness, Fr. Dennis Faul, Gerry Adams and Billy Hutchinson.

But, incredibly, ten years later, in 1998, bloody violence did give way as the seeds of peace were sown in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. This agreement sprung from a 1994 ceasefire declared and more or less honoured by the key paramilitary organizations (interestingly, this was about six months from the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords - a conflict resolution initiative that took an altogether different direction). 

An amazing 94% of the population in the Irish republic voted in favour of its terms and also threw out a constitutional reference which laid claim over the entire island of Ireland. In the north of Ireland, some 74% voted for it, an even more amazing majority given that the balance of power was clearly with the unionists. 

Alot of important concessions were made by politicians who, when it came to the crunch, really did give a damn and put their country's future ahead of their political ambitions. John Hume stands out as a towering figure in this respect. Ireland's greatest living Irish man for my money. But there were many others, including those gathered from the paramilitary circles, who opted for peace and led the charge for change. 

The Agreement wasn't easy of course. Concessions never are. Many prisoners for instance with 'blood on their hands', including Michael Stone, were released back on the streets. But I think both sides just came to the realization that it was unwinnable. The death and division was not worth it and, importantly, the timing coincided with a real a political will in Belfast, Dublin, Washington and London. Once the activist Irish diaspora was on board the path to peace was suddenly visible, bumps and all.

So, eleven years on (even the same date, 10th of April) and the historic Good Friday agreement still sets the tone of peace in Ireland. It shaped a new era on the island and remains a benchmark for conflict resolution around the world. It is easy to forget just how bad things were in those dark decades. And more decades will be needed still to ensure that the seeds of peace become as deeprooted as the hatred which so recently dominated large sections of life and politics in Ireland. 

The economic 'miracle' of the Celtic Tiger, despite all the hubris that came as part of that bulging package, was also a major factor in winning the peace in Ireland. As global financial crisis heralds a return to harsher economic times in Ireland - completely reminiscent of the high taxes, debt, emmigration and unemployment of the eighties - lets hope that the Good Friday Agreement is resolute enough to withstand any assaults that might sprout from the rapidly rising poverty, a despicable bedfellow of sectarianism. 

Already in recent months there have been a few worrying dents to the upward trend of peace in Ireland. "Real IRA" and "Continuity IRA" have stepped out of the shadows picking off soft targets and even armed robberies are making a nightly comeback to the nine o clock news; an indicator that the economy is tanking and with it, possibly, a fertile ground for a return to violence dressed up as politics.

The Good Friday Agreement is a triumph in my mind. Peace and solidarity are always preferrable to murder and sectarianism. As we are tested economically in the months and years ahead lets hope that this remarkable piece of contemporary history is bolstered and supported by political will on both sides of the Irish Sea and that the will of the huge majority of the people of Ireland is the ultimate winner. Eleven years and counting, onward and upward (and head down eyes open).


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Every Rose has its thorn

It's only six year since a hundred thousand jubilant Georgians wrestled their way into the Parliament in the Rose Revolution and installed their man, a bewildered thirtysomething Mikheil Saakashvili as president. Now the same numbers are being mustered to oust him.
Knowing Georgia reasonably well, having spent eighteen months there in the mid 90s I was delighted at the time that the people seemed to be getting what they wanted. And I was deeply moved at Saakashvili's humility and meekness as he took power from Papagei (the Parrot) Eduard Shevardnadze, perhaps the second-best known figure of the perestroika era.
But there was something about the tinny America accent and the love of Americana that rankled. The Ivy league generation were much in evidence in Georgia even in 1995/96. Smooth suits, western spouses, IQs off the scale, they were a brilliant advertisement for the country and showed that this achingly beautiful  country perched between the Black Sea and the Caucasus ("between Marx and Mohammed" as one author coined) was a separate, and vibrant place.
Sadly, the place is riddled with crime and corruption. And even a successful marketing campaign about the "other" Georgia couldn't bring all the improvements that Saakashviuli's erstwhile fans wanted. Yes, there may have been electricity (almost) 24 hours a day for the first time since Communism, but the country was still fragmented.
Stinging the bear to the north in the rump was a silly, silly move. The bear has just been made to look a little helpless over a new country in the Balkans, and was looking for a bee to swat. Saakashvili proved to be that bee and little Georgia was lucky to escape oblivion. The global recession may have come just in time for Russia to realise that military adventures might be fine when oil is 150 bucks a barrel, but a little less attractive when it's under 50.
So watch out little Mishiko. The bear may have lumbered away rubbing its stung butt, but you are just as vulnerable to a million ants who are right now crawling up the stem of your rose. If you go, remember how Babu Eduard did it. With grace and dignity, and without using the troops.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Twitter Revolution - Literally

Yesterday, our man in Moldova, Joe Lowry, gave us a first hand perspective of revolution either side of Trans-Dnistria.

In a previous post last week we also broached the topic of social media and its growing importance (and pervasiveness) in all facets of life including humanitarian action.

I came across this article on Tech Crunch this morning which ties both subjects together. The article also contains samples of typical tweets in Moldova right now.

Very interesting but not in the least surprising. Crowd sourcing and micro blogging have proven themselves to be literally revolutionary!

I also notice that the Guaridian UK carries a report on this too and has already dubbed Moldova the Twitter Revolution.

Thanks to Raj Rana for drawing this to my attention.


Our World Your Move

Today, around the world, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is launching a global campaign to mark 150 years since its birth on the battlefields of Solferino in Italy. All these years later the Red Cross is still battling today's humanitarian challenges in conflict and disaster zones, on the human cost of climate change and migration, in prisons and refugee camps, and in countless other corners of the world - including Italy - where a simple humanitarian gesture can go a long way.

The theme of the global campaign is precisely about encouraging more individual humanitarian 'moves' to make a difference and to be a force for positive change in a fast-changing world. It is a call to action. We have a collective responsibility to make our world a better place. It's up to each of us, as individuals, to make a move and do something to help others. Young or old, we can all make a difference. Our World. Your Move.

This is very much an online campaign, reaching out to new audiences though social media and viral videos.

I hope you can find the time to explore the website and cruise the videos.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Moldovans riot against 'fraudulent' elections

What is happening in Moldova now has resonances of what happened in neighbouring Ukraine five years ago. I happened to be based in Kiev at the time and got a call from Sky News Ireland to do a live piece to camera. I was told to look for a white satellite truck on the main square, where a Polish TV crew would sort me out. Halfway to the Maidan (man square) in Kiev I realised I'd left the Polish mobile number back at the flat, but carried on as I was going to be breaking my live TV cherry and I wanted to be fresh.

So I get to the main square, where about half a million people are packed in listening to president-to-be Yushchenko and PM-to-be Timoshenko on stage. Noise deafening, crowds gridlocked, and at least a dozen white satellite vans. None of which were Polish. I racked and racked my brains and suddenly it came to me: the 12-digit number I'd been given earlier that day, and had not committed, consciously to memory.

After half an hour of fruitless ringing an engaged number, and knocking on doors of Turkish, Spanish and many other TV crews I decided the only thing for it, on the cold evening, was to give up and head to O'Briens pub (where we had our wedding reception a year or so later) for a hot half one.

I pressed "redial" one more time and a little Polish voice answered.

"Do you speak English?"

"No, no, only polski".

Somehow we communicated in bits of Russian and English and he told me he was under the main screen. At the front of the square, heavily guarded, was the stage, with massive TV screens on either side. Waving my diplomatic card I pushed through security and found myself standing under Yushchenko's feet. My phone rings. My Polish friend. And he's shouting "Rainsford Rainsford" And I see it... across the square, through a throng of thousands, an advertising screen, with the word Rainsford under it.

Against the tide I pushed and squeezed and finally wriggled up a snowy slope, strangers hands pushing my arse and him reaching down and pulling me up. "Joe Lowry?" "Yes yes, that's me". "OK, put in ear". The wire is put in my ear and I hear a whirr of white noise and then a calm South Dublin accent. "Joe Lowry? You're on in 5-4-3-2-1...."

And I was so pumped, so up for it, so busting with adrenaline that I got through my first live TV spot without an "aaah" or an "uuuuh" or a "welllllll". Job done I hugged the little bearded Pole, thanked him for taking my virginity and high-tailed it through the melee to O'Briens, where I started to shake with the unspent adrenaline pooled in my blood. But the whisky stopped the shakes and started the songs. Quite a night was had, if I remember aright.

But back to Moldova. Here's hoping there's no bloodshed, and the result will be fair and transparent. The country has too many woes, too much bad stuff happening. Let this lovely little corner of Europe be spared violence.

Joe Lowry is our man in Moldova

Impressions from an earthquake zone

Tommaso Della Longa is a colleague of mine working for the Italian Red Cross and is on the spot in the disaster zone of Abruzzo right now. These are his impressions after 24hrs.

My first impression – it is a very big tragedy. Very sad. Being a war journalist I am acquainted with death and tragedy, but what I see here is hard to believe: no war, but the city looks as if it has been ruined by heavy bombing. I have seen it in Gaza, in Kuwait, in Sarajevo. Now I see the same in my country. No words.

My second impression: during last night L’Aquila was like a city of ghosts. Nobody here, except those who were still working in the ruins - rescue operators, volunteers, police.

My third impression: I cannot but admire the spirit and dignity of the local people. They do not cry, they do not complain, but everyone is trying to help, to reach relatives, to reach friends, to help, to support.

There is so much dignity in what they are doing and how they are taking this horrible tragedy. The people are wonderful. I think it is very important in this situation.

We have 350 volunteers here working with the Italian Red Cross. There are many more people who would want to come and help, but we are trying to organize them in such a way that we could ensure they work in shifts. Our help will be needed here for a long time. Hard to predict now, but we will need volunteers for a long time, we must be able to replace them, rather than have them all here for the first days only.

These 350 are coping with the needs so far, 150 are ready to join at any moment. We’ll need them here, in two weeks, in three weeks and longer.

Hard to predict now, we still do not know the entire losses and damage. Please read more updates from the L'Aquila earthquake disaster on our website.