Monday, August 31, 2009

Aid workers now sixty days as hostages in Darfur

It is now some sixty days since Dubliner Sharon Commins and her Ugandan colleague Hilda Kuwuki were seized by gunmen from their base in the town of Kutum, North Darfur, Sudan. Kidnapping of aid workers is an upward trend in Darfur and the case of Sharon and Hilda is the longest saga to date. HDEO hopes for the best.

North Darfur is a place I know well. A beautiful landscape, washed by the Sahara's sands and laced with the dry riverbeds of its numerous wadis. Its capital is called Al Fashir, my favourite town in Darfur, and it is home to wonderful settlements like Kabkibiye and Kutum.

During my time in Sudan one of the relief actions we carried out from Kutum - which lies smack in the middle of a major north-south migration route - was the mildly ambitious program to vaccinate (and provide assorted veterinary services) to about one million camels belonging to the region's nomadic Arabs - a group which has been largely neglected by the myriad aid groups corralled in the urban areas of Darfur.

Darfur is an immense region with forbidding terrain and no real road network. It is about the size of Spain and north Darfur itself is about the size of Italy. And this is where, in Kutum almost sixty days ago, Irish aid worker Sharon Commins (pictured above) and her Ugandan colleague Hilda Kuwuki, were seized and taken hostage without warning. Both are working with Goal, a well-respected Irish humanitarian organization.

Hostage taking in Darfur is a more or less recent development. During my time (from 2004 to 2006) it started with the odd attack on aid convoys (interestingly, they were normally the ones who had chosen to use armed escorts - go figure), progressed onto the car jacking of the ubiquitous land cruisers, and from time to time involved planned or opportunistic robbery of aid workers driving off-road or resting at home.

Today, while the intensity of violence has somewhat dissipated (though bubbling upward in the oil rich central province of Kordufan and re-appearing in the politically complex South Sudan) disenchanted factions appear to have elevated their activities to the more lucrative business of hostage taking.

There were already two such events in recent months involving foreign aid workers (both resolved quiet quickly with money reportedly changing hands) and only yesterday two staff from the UN and African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) were abducted in the early hours of the morning as they slept in their compound in Zalengei town.

While we are being told by the Sudanese authorities that money is the soul motivation for the rise in hostage taking we can assume there are also political agendas or related disgruntlements attached. The UNAMID kidnappings for instance are seemingly related to a statement delivered by the force commander at his farewell ceremony where he all but declared the war over and Darfur at peace. For rebels with a cause this is not very clever and what better way to prove the commander wrong than by kidnapping some of his staff.

The abduction of Sharon and Hilda also indicates a 'progression' of sorts in that theirs is the longest period that hostages have been kept, more or less incommunicado, in Darfur. This in itself is worrying. Under normal circumstances sixty days is a long time to spend in Kutum but it is a lifetime to spend in captivity there, where we can assume conditions of detention are basic at best.

It is reported in Sudanese media that tribal leaders are now actively involved to negotiate the girls' release - this is a welcome signal and lets hope that their safe return is imminent in the holy month of Ramadan.

However, if the Sudanese officials are genuinely using this case to demonstrate their unwillingness to pay ransoms then it could drag out for a long time with all the risk and unpredictability that such a scenario brings. It may also harden the resolve of Sharon and Hilda's captors who will be keen to demonstrate that Khartoum holds no sway in North Darfur.

In the meantime, wherever Sharon and Hilda are in Darfur tonight, we hope they have the strength and courage to see this ordeal through to the end. We also hope that the renowned Sudanese hospitality is being extended to them. And, knowing a bit the wonderful people of Sudan, I am sure they will concur with these sentiments.


Some more photos from Sudan here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Head Down Eyes Opener-in-training, Denis McClean, celebrates how a thick skull can serve you well when wandering through the wilds of County Kerry.

My top 20 of personal misfortunes has a new entry this month. In the category of natural disasters, it has just overtaken an old favourite: being bitten some years ago by a dog on the Caribbean island of Montserrat during a volcanic eruption.

“New entry” is an apt term for describing the impression which a pre-historic piece of rock can make on the human skull when least expected.

I was taking what sun there was between the scudding clouds, and admiring the Blasket Islands in the distance while recovering from a bracing tumble in the cauldron of surf that helps make Coumeenole one of Ireland’s most beautiful beaches, when a fist-sized chunk of limestone jolted me from my reverie.

The sand around me was soon spotted with blood. Friends and family rushed to my aid with great wads of tissue-paper as we tried to make sense of what could have caused such an ugly gash on the back of my head.

We could only put it down to the Vivaldi weather – four seasons in one day – which has been plaguing the Dingle Peninsula for the past few weeks resulting in a loosening of the cliff rock as rain and wind continue their millennia-old work of shaping the unique Co Kerry landscape.

The steep stone road which spirals down to the cove which features in David Lean’s reworking of Madame Bovary, Ryan’s Daughter, is often lined with tourists looking aghast at the native Irish frolicking in the Atlantic rollers despite posted warnings of strong currents and what, to non-Irish eyes at least, must look like a clear ban on swimming there.

Legend has it that in those pre-climate change days, David Lean’s cast and crew waited for months to film a storm scene there, something that is pretty much a daily occurrence this summer.

These land-loving tourists often join the innocent souls sitting under the cliff face, oblivious to the threat posed by loose rock, so I am now urging Kerry County Council to put up a warning signs and some netting. Other weather-beaten maritime county councils might also take note.

In the meantime, I made the journey to Dingle with a splitting headache, but must have looked very relaxed with one hand holding the back of my head to avoid bloodying the upholstery of my brother-in-law, Peter Murphy’s car.

There I ended up on the operating table of Dr Margaret O’Shea at her Dingle surgery who kindly saw me out of normal office hours and deftly knitted up my scalp with seven stitches and threw in a hair cut for free to get at the wound.

She was anxious to have my skull X-rayed as quickly as possible, so the ambulance was summoned and I disappeared into the back of it feeling like a bit of a fraud.

Hoever, you soon get into the mood when you’re hooked up to an oxygen saturation monitor and strapped to a gurney while trying to take a swig from a bottle of Lucozade as the “white bus” shuttles you across the peninsula and you try to pick out landmarks such as Inch strand and Tom Crean’s South Pole Inn in Annascaul.

The journey was made that bit more agreeable thanks to the company of one of Ireland’s most well-known paramedics, Pat Hanafin, who was chairperson of the Association of Ambulance Personnel for eight years.

In light of recent tragic events in Croke Park, an ambulance ride across Co. Kerry is bound to awaken in any thoughtful Dubliner intimations of mortality, but Pat diplomatically steered the conversation towards more esoteric subjects such as how emergency medicine benefits from his passion: the high-tech world of Formula 1.

Pat bought one of its innovations, Water-gel, for the Dingle ambulance – out of his own pocket – some years before it became standard issue as atype of bandage which prevents further damage from burns and thus reducesthe likelihood of bodily deformity.

I felt a dart of loneliness as Pat said goodbye and left me sitting in a wheelchair in the A E department of Tralee General Hospital. My injury might have made the charts in Dingle, but it was only bubbling under as far as the busy medics of Tralee were concerned so some hours passed before, X-rays taken and examined, I was given the all-clear to be driven back to Dingle by my patient brother-in-law.

There was a full moon rising over the Conor Pass as we hit a rabbit on the road back. His head injury was a lot worse than mine. Ni fheicimid a leitheid aris ann.

This post first appeared in the Irish Times

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Banking on Ban Ki

Ban Ki-moon isn't having a good year for public relations. Halfway through a five-year term as U.N. secretary-general, he's been hit with a wave of negative assessments by the Financial Times,The EconomistForeign Policy and other media organisations.

In a March 2009 editorial entitled "Whereabouts Unknown", the Times said Ban was "virtually inaudible" on pressing issues of international security and "ineffectual" on climate change, the one issue that Ban claims he has made the biggest difference on.

The Economist gave him a mixed report card, assigning him two out of 10 points for his management skills while praising him on climate change (eight out of 10 points).

This week, Norway's Aftenposten newspaper made an unpleasant situation much worse. It published a confidential memo assessing Ban's 2-1/2 years in office from Oslo's deputy U.N. ambassador, Mona Juul, to the Norwegian Foreign Ministry. Juul's report is scathing - and it comes from a representative of one of the world's body's top financial contributors. She says the former South Korean foreign minister suffers from a "lack of charisma" and has "constant temper tantrums" in his offices on the 38th floor of the United Nations building in midtown Manhattan.


She describes Ban as a "powerless observer" during the fighting in Sri Lanka earlier this year when thousands of civilians were killed as government forces ended a 25-year civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels, trapping them on a narrow strip of coast in the country's northeast. In Darfur, Somalia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Congo, she wrote, Ban's "passive and not very committed appeals seem to fall on deaf ears." She says that his recent trip to Myanmar was a failure and that some people in Washington refer to Ban as a "one-term" secretary-general.

Juul's letter could hardly have come at a more inopportune time. Ban is planning to visit Norway in the coming weeks, where he intends to meet with government officials and visit the Arctic Circle to see for himself the effects of global warming and the melting polar ice. Now U.N. officials fear reporters will be more interested in what he says about Juul's memo than climate change. So far Ban has not reacted to the letter.

Ban Ki Who?

Ban's PR difficulties didn't start this year. In March 2008, his chief of staff Vijay Nambiar sent a memo to U.N. employees explaining how to say his boss's name. "Many world leaders, some of whom are well acquainted with the Secretary-General, still use his first name mistakenly as his surname and address him wrongly as Mr. Ki-moon or Mr. Moon," Nambiar complained.
Then came Ban's own speech to senior U.N. officials in Turin, Italy last year, in which he described how difficult it was to improve the working culture inside the United Nations. 

The secretary-general seemed to acknowledge that his internal management style had failed. "I tried to lead by example," Ban said. "Nobody followed."

Ban's aides vehemently defend him, saying he's being treated unfairly by the press. One senior U.N. official suggested privately that Ban could very well turn out to be "the greatest secretary-general ever." They complain that people continue to compare him to his predecessor Kofi Annan, who was a very different U.N. chief and relied less on "quiet diplomacy" than Ban.

Annan became a hero to many people around the world for standing up to the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Annan called the March 2003 invasion illegal.

U.N. officials also complain bitterly about the indefatigable blogger Matthew Lee, whose website Inner City Press regularly accuses Ban and other U.N. officials of hypocrisy and failing to keep their promises to reform the United Nations and root out corruption. (Some U.N. officials accuse Lee of not always getting his facts right, but his blog has become unofficial required reading for U.N. staffers around the world.)

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, diplomats in New York say, is among those supporting a campaign against a second term for Ban. Juul's memo said Helen Clark, New Zealand's former prime minister and current head of the U.N. Development Program, "could quickly become a competitor for Ban's second term." But diplomats say they expect the United States, Britain and other major powers to reluctantly back a second term for Ban, if only because there appears to be no viable alternative whom Russia and China would support.

A recent article in the Times of London said the best U.N. chief in the organization's 64-year history was not Swedish Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dag Hammarskjold but the Peruvian diplomat Javier Perez de Cuellar, who held the top U.N. post for 10 years until 1992. Nicknamed "mumbles" because he was so difficult to understand, Perez de Cuellar kept a low profile and, like Ban, preferred backroom diplomacy, not Annan's bully pulpit.

Among the Peruvian diplomat's successes were managing the end of the Cold War, leading a long-delayed revival of U.N. peacekeeping and encouraging member states to back a U.S.-led military operation to drive Iraq's invading forces out of Kuwait in 1991.

Whether Ban's preference for quiet diplomacy will produce similar successes remains to be seen.


This was first published on the Reuters Global News Blog 

Monday, August 24, 2009

Spancill Blog

I'll let Conneally or Lacken or McClean or Deely or someone else wax lyrical on the curious combinations but for now I want to celebrate the man and the method behind the words of one of Ireland's most famous and badly-sung songs, "Spancilhill". Or "Spencer Hill" as I thought it was when first I heard it.

No wonder, it's usually butchered by booze, verses juxtaposed and half sung, or even put to

the music of "Ghost riders in the sky" complete with "Yippie-yi-ya, yippy-i-o"s.

Oh yes Spancilhill exists, there's even a website warning ORGANISING COMMITTEE ACCEPTS NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR ACCIDENTS TO HORSE RIDER OR INDIVIDUALS. But as I've never been, I'll leave it to others to reminisce on the famous fair. Or the disused Calcite mines.

The song's been on my mind as emigration increases from Ireland, and begins to take on a similar mythology it had in previous waves. The early Ryanair out of Dublin the equivalent of the 8.45 (am and pm) boat-train from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire in the 80s, or the mailboat
in the 50s. Scattered to the wind and waves, re-convening on large islands like Australia, or smaller ones; Ellis, Staten, Dogs. Or like myself, isolated in a country without an Irish community. Is the "saudade" worse when lived alone, or with peers? Answers on a postcard...

Probably the greatest song of emigration, at least of how it relates to my generation, the soundtrack to the "hungry eighties" is "Thousands are Sailing" by the Pogues, which is well worth a post-Tiger spin.

McGowan is a gifted poet in his own right. We’ll celebrate him elsewhere on this blog I am sure. He has done the one thing that Michael Considine, author of "Spancilhill" couldn't: he has lived. And - sweet Jesus - how he has lived. Or perhaps, sweet Jesus, how has he lived?

Considine was born around 1850 and emigrated to the USA from Spancillhill around 1870. Some of his siblings came with him, but some stayed behind. One of his brothers, Patrick, died, leaving his widow to look after a five month old son called John (pay attention, that
detail is important).

Michael went to the USA with the intention of bringing his sweetheart over and for them to be married, but he never saved enough money for her passage. His sweetheart was "Mack the Ranger's Daughter" and not "Ned the Farmers daughter" as in the popularised version. She was his childhood sweetheart, Mary MacNamara.

Michael worked in Boston for two years or so before moving to California. He suffered from ill health for a long time. Knowing he hadn't long to live, he wrote the poem "Spancilhill" to send home in remembrance of his love. He sent the poem to his nephew, John,
Patrick's son, in Ireland.

Michael Considine died sometime in 1873. Some sources say he was buried in Spancillhill, but others say he was buried in California. Mary MacNamara remained faithful to his memory and never married.

In the late 1930s or early '40s, Robbie McMahon, a local folk singer and composer, during an Irish traditional music session in Spancillhill, was in a neighbour's house with some friends singing when someone suggested singing "Spancillhill". The woman of the house, Moira Keane, left the room and when she came back said, "If ye are going to sing that song ye might as well sing it right" and she gave Robbie a script of the original.

Some time later at another session in the parish Robbie was asked to sing "Spancilhill" when a gruff voice in the corner growled out "Don't sing that song". When asked "Why not?" the voice barked back " 'Cos ye don't know it."

Robbie, however insisted he did and launched into the version he'd got from Moira Keane. After singing a few lines Robbie noticed the gruff man sitting up and paying attention. As Robbie progressed with the song the gruff man foostered more and more with his cap and became agitated. When the song ended, the gruff voice in the corner demanded "Where did ya get that song?" in a tone both perturbed and pleased.

Moira Keane was the gruff man's aunt and the gruff man was 76 year old John Considine, who had kept his uncle Mike's song safe for 70 years.

Despite being a terribly simple rhyme, the type you'll find on any hallmark card, the song is deep and lovely. The rhyming scheme is AABB (or in fact AABB CCBB DDBB etc, as the third and fourth lines end with "...ill". Whenever I hear it now I can' help but think of the tragedy of Michael Considine, composing this piece of beauty sitting in a chair or propped up in a bed in California, slipping in and out of consciousness, knowing he'd never, ever again see Mary. No facebook in those days, no webcams. Probably for the best.

So forgive me for taking up your screen, but here's all eleven stanzas and a sung version. I've searched the web high and low for something approaching a definitive version, and the one by Geasa, which I'd never come across before ain't bad. Nor is Paddy Reilly's, the Dubliners' or many others. If, however, you can't afford an emetic, and botulism is too extreme, I recommend the Corrs wimpish piece of saccharine.

There's a few hundred versions out there in webland, many of them good, too many contrived, and just a few verging on brilliant. And as if to prove that you have to be very very good to make anything look effortless, I've picked Shane and Christy's version. Ruined slightly
by Gaybo's whooping at the end, but still and all a great piece of work.



Last night as I lay dreaming, of the pleasant days gone by,
My mind being bent on rambling and to Erin's Isle I did fly.
I stepped on board a vision and sailed out with a will,
'Till I gladly came to anchor at the Cross of Spancilhill.

Enchanted by the novelty, delighted with the scenes,
Where in my early childhood, I often times have been.
I thought I heard a murmur, I think I hear it still,
'Tis that little stream of water at the Cross of Spancilhill.

And to amuse my fancy, I lay upon the ground,
Where all my school companions, in crowds assembled 'round.
Some have grown to manhood, while more their graves did fill,
Oh I thought we were all young again, at the Cross of Spancilhill.

It being on a Sabbath morning, I thought I heard a bell,
O'er hills and vallies sounded, in notes that seemed to tell,
That Father Dan was coming, his duty to fulfil,
At the parish church of Clooney, just one mile from Spancilhill.

And when our duty did commence, we all knelt down in prayer,
In hopes for to be ready, to climb the Golden Stair.
And when back home returning, we danced with right good will,
To Martin Moilens music, at the Cross of Spancilhill.

It being on the twenty third of June, the day before the fair,
Sure Erin's sons and daughters, they all assembled there.
The young, the old, the stout and the bold, they came to sport and kill,
What a curious combination, at the Fair of Spancilhill.

I went into my old home, as every stone can tell,
The old boreen was just the same, and the apple tree over the well,
I miss my sister Ellen, my brothers Pat and Bill,
Sure I only met my strange faces at my home in Spancilhill.

I called to see my neighbors, to hear what they might say,
The old were getting feeble, and the young ones turning grey.
I met with tailor Quigley, he's as brave as ever still,
Sure he always made my breeches when I lived in Spancilhill.

I paid a flying visit, to my first and only love,
She's as pure as any lilly, and as gentle as a dove.
She threw her arms around me, saying Mike I love you still,
She is Mack the Rangers daughter, the Pride of Spancilhill.

I thought I stooped to kiss her, as I did in days of yore,
Says she Mike you're only joking, as you often were before,
The cock crew on the roost again, he crew both loud and shrill,
And I awoke in California, far far from Spancilhill.

But when my vision faded, the tears came in my eyes,
In hope to see that dear old spot, some day before I die.
May the Joyous King of Angels, His Choicest Blessings spill,
On that Glorious spot of Nature, the Cross of Spancilhill.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pearl of Crumlin

Not many get to do rock and roll without lots of sex and drugs, and Phil Lynott, born 60 years ago today, was no exception.

There were three remarkable things about him (ok, ok, four allegedly
but I'm not going to comment on the nature of THAT gift).

The fact that he was black, in the 70s in Ireland made him stand out. That he
succeeded in rock (then a predominantly white genre) was unusual, but a reflection of his massive talent. And oh man was he charismatic.
Tall and scrawny, with the one eye blocked out by the Afro mane. The 'tache, the stance, the cheeky grin. He was a magnet, a role model for teenage lads like us at the time. And when he'd walk past a bunch of female fans, well... you could hear the moist thud of wet cotton hitting the floor at thirty paces.

There was something awe-inspiring about the man. The looks of Hendrix, the seamless segue of the rolling bass to his deep voice. That quintessential Dublin accent... who else made "knowwarrimean?" his own?

Saying he was a complex character is a) stating the bleedin obvious, and b) not my right as we never met. All I can judge him on is his music, some of which I found frankly shite, but most of it I just adored. I'll still reach for "The Boys are back in town" when I need some energy, a hit of summer, a bit of the Lothario, devil-may-care swagger. He got away with a lot Phil, being Irish, being black and being so cool... red hot... I mean he was steaming.

Could any Irish singer get away with it these days? Can you see Ronan Keating shwhshsing his way through lines like "And that time over at Johnny's place
Well this chick got up and she slapped Johnny's face Man we just fell about the place If that chick don't want to know, forget her"

I only saw saw Thin Lizzy play the once, live, in Dublin. It was 1980 and my first big gig. We were there before the doors opened, jammed against the front of the stage, having to endure a truly awful band called "The Lookalikes" in pastel satin suits before Lizzy hit the stage. The crush was immense, scary. I was dragged from one side of Simmonscourt to the other and eventually spun out of the wringer enough to bang my head and play air guitar for a couple of glorious

And how did they end the gig? The crowd roaring for Whiskey in the Jar and Philo looking bemused. "Wha'? Nah, we can't play that. We need Eric Bell on lead guitar...ah Jayzis howya Eric."

Cue Eric Bell and the roof raised. We stumbled out into the June night, sweat steaming off us and onto the bus home. Unable to hear properly for two days. The inter cert starting in three days. Who gave a fiddlers? Magic.

28 years on and I meet Eric Bell on in the River Palace casino in Kiev. He's playing mighty blues and does more than one spirited version of Whiskey in the Jar. Ironic, as all the websites have it that he quit Lizzy because he thought playing a jazzed-up trad song night after night was just infra dig.

Our mate Ray, the manager of River Place takes me into the star's dressing room before the gig. I got to shake the hand that played all those great solos and mumble something about the 1980 gig. Bell's face tells a tale or seven of
life on the road, and one wonders how Phil would look today.

In fact he'd been seriously ill in the States in the mid 70s with hepatitis. "I contracted a disease I knew could put you of of business completely. It scared me because I had never been ill before, suddenly I was catching every bug going. When I got hepatitis I became a half strength person. The doctor told me to give up drugs, sex and alcohol. Give up all that. No way! So I gave up half of them. I won't tell you which half. The illness made me very sensible."

What's great about Philip Lynott's legacy is that no one has a bad word to say about him. That in a country who's capital city is vicious for the tall poppy syndrome. In fact it's almost the reverse with Phil. Dublin indulges and assists his mother Philomena in keeping his memory alive and loved. The annual Vibe for Philo, run by his mates, just gets bigger every year.

So, let's let her have the final word (see the clip below). She used to call me and my sidekick Tony Mac a lot in the Northside People newspaper, years ago, when the loss of Phil hurt like a raw wound. Organising this. Refuting that. Always up for a chat. Now she carries the loss with dignity, even humour, the same humour that carried Phil through his turbulent life.

On Live and Dangerous he says: "Are there any of yiz out there with a bit of the Irish in them? Are there any of the girls who'd like a bit more of the Irish in them?" Good God. Imagine anyone in Westlife saying that on stage.

Or his famous reply to the quesiton "what's it like being Irish and Black?"

"Just like a pint of Guinness".

Good on ya Phil. Gifted, Irish and Black. Shame you were a Man U fan,
sorry if Burnley ruined your 60th. Sleep well, even in the darkest
night.... And God bless you, Philomena.

p.s. am uploading this via mobile and difficult to manage more than one pic - will rectify that as soon as I have a laptop.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Swine Flu: Being part of the solution not the problem

Swine Flu, or the H1N1 pandemic, is serious. Deadly serious. It is a situation when unfounded skepticism can literally be life-threathening. HDEO thinks its high time we were all part of the solution.

When catastrophes hit the world - killing people, wreaking havoc, and threatening our way of life - the world responds with its entire means. However, when we can predict a crisis, armed with irrefutable scientific evidence, the sceptics often outnumber those willing to respond.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced a change in how it will continue to monitor and report the influenza H1N1 pandemic (commonly called Swine flu). They are no longer quantifying confirmed cases or numbers of affected countries because “further spread … within affected countries and to new countries, is considered inevitable” but also because of the unprecedented speed at which the virus is spreading. Basically, the inevitability of a global pandemic means its pointless to count any more.

Projections and predictions, in blogs and mainstream media, cover both extremes from dismissing the pandemic as hyped to emphasising worst-case scenarios as the best course of action. Very few query what is needed to prevent the worst from happening - or at least to limit its consequences.

May yet mutate

Neither approval nor scepticism can change the reality that the virus is spreading and affecting more people, and may yet mutate into a more severe form that causes a significant increase in mortality.

The uncertainty about if and when this might happen is in the nature of scientific search for truth. The big question that needs answering now is while we hope for the best, what do we do in preparation for the worst, which might come sooner than we know?

So far, two big solutions are suggested - vaccines and antiviral medications.

First doses of vaccine

The first doses of the vaccine can be available in late September and the most optimistic production estimates are at 4.9 billion doses in the following 12 months, a more conservative estimate puts the production capacity at 1 to 2 billion doses per year.

Experts recommend that priority for vaccination be given to health care workers and high-risk groups, but several rich countries already pre-ordered enough vaccine to cover their entire populations. This means that health workers and at-risk groups in less fortunate parts of the world will have to wait until more vaccines are available. So, if you pay you’re OK and developing countries will yet again be stranded without the best means to combat the pandemic.

Tamiflu (Oseltamivir) is the antiviral medicine that H1N1 responds to now, but this can change rapidly and resistant strains are already appearing. Additionally, with only several million doses available and insufficient production capacity, this is another solution that may also be a case of “if you can pay you’re OK”.

Simple steps to reduce risk

So where does that leave those on modest or average incomes, or the billions who live in poverty, with no health infrastructure, and who are not likely to receive vaccines or medicines?

There are some simple solutions that will make it less likely that you will catch the virus or, should you be infected, to pass it to your friends and family.

If you wash your hands regularly, keep a safe distance from people who might be sick, cover your nose and mouth with a tissue or sleeve when you cough or sneeze, and avoid crowded areas, you will be less likely to contract the disease. And, If you did contract influenza, you would be less likely to die from it. This is a fact.

A recent survey in the UK showed that only 37 per cent of those surveyed used prevention measures and fewer than five per cent followed avoidance behaviour to protect themselves from influenza.

Why such complacency? The survey concludes that when people believe a threat is real and trust the advice they are given, they are more likely to follow the recommendations. However, if they believe “that the outbreak had been exaggerated” they are less likely to change.

This is a time when unfounded scepticism could be life threatening.

There is a need to promote a culture of prevention. Only when everyone takes responsibility for spreading the word, when people have the knowledge and determination to protect themselves, their families and their neighbours, will we reach a point where we are likely to make a real difference. Such simple gestures can bring about life-saving change.

The planet will not be saved by superheroes but by each one of its own people. Take H1N1 seriously, and know it is not too late to be prepared.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Here's to you Mrs. Robinson

HDEO is still lost in the wilds of Andalucia. Access to internet is rare and to international media rarer still. Word did get through however about a prestigious honour bestowed on one of our great human rights advocates, former Irish President, Mary Robinson.

In a lavish White House ceremony this evening, Mary was awarded the Medal of Freedom - one of the highest civilian honours in the US - by President Barack Obama. She was one of 16 people being honored, including Senator Edward Kennedy and physicist Stephen Hawking.

In a statement from Dublin, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said the award was a fitting tribute to Mrs Robinson. "Throughout her career, in particular in her role as President of Ireland and as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and more recently through her work as founder of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, Mary Robinson has been an outstanding advocate and champion for human rights and fairness for all. Irish people everywhere are very proud of her being honoured by this award and her many achievements during a distinguished career of advocacy," he added

Mrs. Robinson was Ireland's first female President and served from 1990 until 1997 and she also worked as a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights for five years until 2002 where she earned a no-nonsense reputation often taking to task the core members of the UN Security Council itself.

Well done Mary - keep fighting the good fight.

p.s. HDEO will be back in full post-holiday swing from 24th of August.


Friday, August 7, 2009

A Challenge to Aidocrats

War Child turned Peace builder: Is Emmanuel Jal the type of Leader that the 21st century needs to look to if it is to genuinely have an impact on the multiple conflicts and disasters that, despite all the great minds and millions, continue to multiply in frequency and intensity? HDEO thinks there is a good case to bring Emmanuel (and his fellow-travellers) to the table.

Jal's hypnotic voice rises from hellish origins as a beacon of hope for those caught in seemingly endless cycles of war and despair. Jal and his ilk are arguably the real spokespeople and potential architects for development and conflict solutions.

In keeping with yesterday's post, HDEO reckons it is such knowledgeable voices - so undeniably anchored in personal experience and hard fisted reality - that can provide the real key to overcoming the monumental challenges posed by today's conflicts and disasters. The very same solutions that have eluded well-heeled, well-paid global (so-called) experts. Experts (so-called) who, more often than not, will always lean towards real politik rather than humanitarian reality.

It is time to listen to the people who have the answers. And these people are not necessarily in London, Luxemburg or Langersville. They are often in Juba, Jericho and Jalalabad. Are we ready to listen? Can we hear? Do the yearly billions spend on aid even have the right mechanisms in place which allows us to listen, learn and act? And consider such voices as worthy counterparts? And....?

For five years, young Emmanuel Jal fought as a child soldier in the Sudan. Rescued by an aid worker, he's become an international hip-hop star and an activist for kids in war zones. In words and lyrics, he tells the story of his amazing life.

Hip-hop star Emmanuel Jal first exploded into dance halls with Gua in 2005. His music has energized music lovers of all ethnicities and nations. But Jal's life story is far darker. Swept up into the Sudanese rebel army at age seven, he finally escaped with 400 fellow soldiers, 16 of whom survived, the rest succumbing to starvation, ambush and animal attacks. Rather than resort to cannibalism, Jal ate snails and vultures until he arrived at a refugee camp, where he was adopted by aid worker Emma McCune and later sent to England. Jal found an outlet for his turbulent life story in music. His lyrics tell moving and disturbing stories, but wrap them into hope and love. He is active in charity work across Africa, fighting against poverty and child warfare. War Child, his biography, was released in early 2009 along with a documentary film.

For those interested, some other articles of interest in Rolling Stone and the Guardian or, an account of an unusual day in South Sudan that I had the privilge of spending back in May 2005.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Challenge to Aid Workers

HDEO is surprised, and unpleasantly.

The congruence of aid workers, digital cameras and social media should allow us to be posting up-to-the-second images of our work in disasters to our own pages, to our blogs, and to our peers. What's
happening? Maybe it’s the rarefied air of management that I breathe these days but I am seeing very little outside of our corporate websites of the victims and consequences of natural, social and
man-made disasters.

And why? It's happening all around us. Yes, even in the stable cities to which we have retreated to headquarter ourselves. Do we think our personal involvement is prurient? Undignified? Or do we only want to show the shiny happy side of aid work, the clapping families in their new tsunami-proof houses? The well-nourished babies at "our" feeding centres? The old ladies with nice new blue rinses getting a lift to the social centre from a young friend with slicked-back hair and neat teeth?

I got a gallery of pics from Reuters this morning that made me feel physically ill but I'm damn glad I saw it. It was from Slovenia, that well-known crisis hotspot. And it showed, in clean, graphic detail, a
person shooting heroin. None of your Trainspotting "oooh that's gooooood" to be seen here. Just a manky falling down shooting gallery, blue-blistered scabby veins, bleeding knuckles, lit up by summer sun coming in through the gaps in the walls.

What's he banging on about now? you are wondering. Well folks, this person is our client, our raison d'etre. (Not to mention our brother). He's clearly given consent to being photographed, knowing that this is the one great gesture he can make, to show injecting drug use with all its glamour stripped away. The end of the road.

The point, from the pictures, seems to be that the needles are clean and this guy has been reached. He has, at least, the option of safe fixing and perhaps a way out of an expensive, disabling addiction that has long ceased to have any joy attached to it. And so he won't go on to contract HIV and infect his partner and their unborn kid.

The pictures are ugly, but dignified. No one is being objectified here. I don't suggest that we all (re)start sticking our Canons and Panasonic into the faces of starving African babies or recording the
death-rattle of a TB victim in the depths of a Siberian winter. I'd rather those clichés remained rare but powerful. But I am getting mightily bored of the holiday snaps we are posting in our travels round the scarred planet.

I think the reason may be that we are nervy of being seeing as wearing our bleeding hearts on our sleeves. "C'mon, we know you work for an aid organisation, we can see our friends commenting. "Don't ram it down our throats, eh?"

To which, my diplomatic reply would be "sod off".

We "aid workers" (do we even like that nomenclature?) are so bloody privileged to zip round the world, generally staying in pretty groovy digs where we solve the word's problems from air conditioned
conference-rooms with regular coffee breaks at which we've long since forgotten the irony as we freeload up on canapes and sushi ("they're paid for anyway").

Surely our duty, as well as our privilege, is to bear witness. To what we see, what we hear about. Our "civilian" friends are not going to see the depth of squalor, the abomination of the human condition that
we get to see (well, if we choose to truly partner local NGOs and stick a toe outside the hotel lobby).

And my other contention (or conceit as my old boss DLP liked to call his contentions) is that we are obsessed with public relations. Urgh. Phtoo. Spit. Gargle. Rinse.

We are so donor driven that we think the only obligation we truly have is to the governments and fat cat philanthropists who assuage their guilt at ignoring the injustices that lead to favelas, filthy hospitals and empty schools by throwing money at us. And we dutifully round up the gap-toothed kiddies, the prettiest urchins, and snap them goofily glugging from a new waterpump, cutely yelping as they get
their vaccination and so on and so predictably on, all under a sticker of the donor, the donor, the donor.

Friends, comrades, colleagues. Our world is in a mess. Make your move. You have the tools to tell the story of the slum kids who still haven't gotten round to opening up a facebook account. Tell it as it
is right now, as you see it, before the aftersales service. Don't wait till they get their annual jab of charity. Be a friend. Be more. And if your mates don't like it, remember your diplomatic training. Sod
them. Life's too short, literally.


Monday, August 3, 2009

Horsing About .....

Dear Head Down Eyes Open audience - we are currently lost in the wilds of Andalucia, southern Spain, horse racing, lynx spotting, gambas grilling and manzanilla sampling. We are battling with Telefonica to hook us back onto the hinternet and are confident will be back in the full swing of blogging in the next week or less. Hasta la proxima and enjoz the holiday season - P.