Malawi is in upheaval.
Just as when Tunisians first rose up against their government, few outside are paying much attention.
The same basic forces — unemployment, high food prices, human rights abuses and mistrust of government — which sparked the revolt in Tunisia and then led to today’s widespread popular revolution across the Arab world, is now at play in this small, southeastern African nation.
Time magazine sees From Malawi to Senegal, signs of a Sub-Saharan Arab Spring:
Malawi is the latest in a series of sub-Saharan countries to face political unrest in recent months — what some analysts claim are echoes of the Arab Spring that swept North Africa and the Middle East earlier this year.
As the United Nations and the international community ramps up to airlift food and supplies into East Africa, mostly for starving Somali refugees, two perspectives on this crisis seemed especially interesting to me.
In Foreign Policy, Charles Kenny contends that, in this day and age, allowing a famine to occur is basically a crime against humanity:
For all its horror, starvation is also one of the simpler forms of mortality to prevent — it just takes food. Drought, poor roads, poverty — all are contributing factors to the risk of famine, but sustenance in the hands of the hungry is a pretty foolproof solution.
As a result, famine deaths in the modern world are almost always the result of deliberate acts on the part of governing authorities. That is why widespread starvation is a crime against humanity and the leaders who abet it should be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Sorry, I know that sounds a bit preachy.
But I’m sure I’m not the only one dismayed at how little urgent attention the world, and the media, is paying to the massive tragedy and loss of life in East Africa right now as compared to the deadly havoc created by the right-wing, Nordic hate-monger Anders Behring Breivik.
The tragedy in East Africa is getting covered, to some extent, but certainly to a lesser extent than than Norway’s bomber-gunman — and almost as if the tragedy in Somalia is just another, well, inevitable and largely unmanageable African crisis. This is wrong on a number of fronts.
I’m a Norwegian-American and have relatives in Oslo. So I’m maybe more interested in this episode than most — and perhaps less surprised given I’ve been aware of the festering problem of neo-Nazi nationalism that pervades much of Scandinavia today despite its deserved reputation for tolerance and liberality.
Breivik is top of Google News as I write this (closely followed by Amy Winehouse). Meanwhile, thousands of people are dying in Somalia and throughout East Africa right now, this very moment.
Why do we shrug our shoulders at one huge, ongoing cause of deaths and stare in fascination and horror at a much smaller and, arguably, somewhat unique and peculiar cause of death?
ALSO BY TOM PAULSON
As I noted earlier, members of humanitarian organizations are often doing the media’s job overseas — of being there (when the media organization isn’t) and “reporting” on what’s happening.
Joy Portella of Mercy Corps (the subject of my earlier post) is back in Seattle after traveling in East Africa and sharing her observations for her organization’s blog — as well as doing stories for other media. Portella was in the world’s newest nation South Sudan for its first independence day celebration and after that traveled to do reports on drought-stricken east Africa.
ALSO BY TOM PAULSON
Marla Smith-Nilson is director of Seattle-based Water 1st International and has worked for decades trying to improve access in the developing world to clean water and safe, healthy sanitation.
Smith-Nilson said she welcomes the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation decision to get more involved in water and sanitation issues. But she is concerned that their primary interest in re-inventing the toilet is focused too much on the simple fix. Here are Smith-Nilson’s thoughts:
Today, 2.5 billion people lack access to both a safe, convenient water supply and a sanitary toilet – a situation that stems from but also drives poverty, illness and inequality.
As someone who has worked for 20 years on water and sanitation needs in the developing world, I welcome the Gates Foundation’s increased interest and investment in addressing these twin problems.
But I am concerned with their emphasis on reinventing the toilet — or with any solution that is based primarily on solving the water and sanitation problems by virtue of a technological advance. I’m an engineer by training and hardly opposed to technological progress.
The fundamental challenge in water and sanitation is not so much a technological hurdle to overcome as it is a systems problem that simply cannot be resolved by trying to fix any one part in isolation.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced that it is shifting its emphasis in water and sanitation efforts to push for a radical re-invention of the toilet.
The Gates Foundation on Tuesday formally announced its new strategy at a sanitation conference in Kigali, Rwanda (though the gist of the toilet re-invention project was leaked a week ago by Germany’s Die Welt).
Sylvia Mathews Burwell, head of development for the Gates Foundation, made the announcement of $42 million in new grants devoted to the cause of water and sanitation in a speech at a meeting organized by the African Ministers’ Council on Water.
Mathews Burwell said their focus is on the toilet because it is a 200-year-old technology that helped spark a revolution in public health and hygiene, but now needs updating:
Now that the CIA has acknowledged running a deceptive, if not totally fake, vaccination program in Pakistan as part of the effort months ago to hunt down Osama bin Laden, here are three reasons why this episode is prompting an angry response by those who work against global poverty and disease:
- This isn’t just about vaccines — about fighting terrorism vs fighting polio.
- Health workers and aid workers overseas have to be seen as neutral and independent if they are to operate effectively and safely.
- National security isn’t achieved just by hunting and killing bad guys. It’s also achieved through humanitarian efforts, aid efforts and other forms of international collaboration based on mutual trust.
So let’s review where we are so far with the strange case of “The Immunizer of Abbottabad.” (more)
ALSO BY TOM PAULSON
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the world’s leading funders in the battle to defeat malaria, which is both a good and bad thing.
To give an overview of the progress against malaria to date, the Gates Foundation has posted on its website this global map of malaria showing country-by-country how many deaths are estimated to have been prevented through the increased distribution of bednets and insecticides. Go to link, below is a screen grab only.
So how could it be a bad thing for the Seattle philanthropy to be one of the leading sources of funding for the fight against malaria? As this article in TropIKA.net notes, some are concerned that malaria funding has become too concentrated on select research priorities set by a handful of organizations:
ALSO BY TOM PAULSON
Two clinical studies done in Africa, the largest done by Seattle scientists involving nearly 10,000 people in Uganda and Kenya, have shown that the same drugs used to treat HIV infection can be used to prevent the infection.
“This is huge news because of the impact it could have on prevention worldwide,” said Jared Baeton, one of the leading researchers at the University of Washington on the study, which was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“These results are tremendously exciting and confirm we are at a pivotal period in the AIDS epidemic,” said Mitchell Warren, a leading voice on HIV-AIDS prevention matters and director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition.
One of the chronic problems the international community has with almost every disease-fighting campaign has been the need to overcome mistrust — mistrust of government, of foreign health workers or outsider do-gooders in general.
This is, for a variety of reasons, especially true of vaccines.
So many worry that such global health efforts will suffer from the revelation, reported first in The Guardian and later by the New York Times and others, that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) set up a fake vaccination program in Pakistan in order to collect DNA samples. Says The Guardian:
The CIA organised a fake vaccination program in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader’s family, a Guardian investigation has found.
The CIA has refused to confirm or deny these reports.
Most of the media reports tend to focus on issues of terrorism, foreign policy and the increasingly strained relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. There was little attention, initially anyway, given to the possibility that this CIA ruse could also seriously undermine a key tool in the worldwide battle against disease.
As anyone who has worked in the field in a foreign country on a vaccination campaign or other such project will tell you, establishing and maintaining trust is critical to success in public health.
Pakistan is one of those corners of the world where polio continues to spread.