Genocide, community and NGOs

April 28, 2013

Daniel Nelson

Daniel Nelson
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

When Terry Cannon accused fossil fuel corporations of genocide for continuing to explore for oil, gas and coal, he caused eyebrows to rise. Yet some of his other remarks to the final session of the conference on community-based adaptation to climate change – and to a short parallel course on monitoring and evaluation – may prove to be both less sensational and more controversial (not least because he told me later that he had not intended to use the g-word).

For example, he questioned the morality of non-governmental organisations that were interested only in the people in their project areas. Given that these projects touched only a small proportion of the public, he said, unless NGOs designed activities so that they could be scaled up without cost, they would be failing. Is that ethical, he asked.

“If we don’t help everyone adapt, there will be hunger and crisis,” he told participants on the course, run by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, set up in Dhaka by Saleemul Huq, who is also one of the organisers of the conference.

That wasn’t Cannon’s only challenge.

He questioned the very idea of “community”: “Communities are not warm and cuddly… it’s we who find community convenient. It fits in with what we want to do and what funders want. Let’s not be afraid to talk about class and power.”

There was also a need to design top-down policies that would help people adapt to climate change, he said: not a revolutionary idea in itself, but not the sort of language that participants in community-based activities – proud of their bottom-up approach – are accustomed to hearing.

Investment in community-based adaptation was infinitesimal compared with the billions spent annually on subsidies for fossil fuels and agriculture and on fossil fuel exploration: “We are tiny gnats trying to push an elephant,” he commented. “I’m not convinced agencies are interested in scaling up. They are comfortable working in projects.”

Cannon, a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, also said that NGOs needed to experiment if they were to find policies to deal with climate change, and that meant they should seek funds for research rather than projects. It might mean, too, going into partnership with academics and research organisations, and becoming more scientific – donors would demand that they do so.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International Conference on Community-based Adaptation which takes place 22-25 April 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Climate change delegates stranded in Dhaka hotel

April 24, 2013

Daniel Nelson

Daniel Nelson
Freelance journalist, SciDev.Net

A conference on community-based adaptation to climate change in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is in lock down because of a “hartal”, or general strike, which aims to bring commercial life in the city to a halt. The strike makes it risky to leave the hotel that is staging the meeting and where most participants are staying. Demonstrators use sticks and stones and occasionally fire to enforce their action, and the conference hotel has “strongly recommended” guests not leave the premises during the 36-hour protest.

That solves the problem faced by all such conferences of participants going for walks or shopping and failing to attend sessions on time. But the organisers have provided in-house entertainment with a number of “out of the box” sessions, the star of which was a climate change game under development by game champion Pablo Suarez. For more than an hour groups of participants representing communities, doctors and governments rolled dice, jumped up, sat down, made instant decisions and gambled beans competing fiercely with each other and with the clock.

The extraordinary thing about such games is how quickly players of all genders, cultures and roles assume the identities they have been assigned and enter into the spirit of role-play.

Suarez, associate director for research and innovation for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre – and a member of the Games for A New Climate Taskforce – is an enthusiastic proponent of games, which he says are an entertaining and effective way of learning.

“They can elicit behaviour that is likely to happen in the real world”, he says, and can vividly illustrate elements such as complexity, risk and unexpected events – “Knowing what is likely to happen is useful but is not enough”.

He says that “serious games” involve brain power and emotions, “and everyone engages”.

Judging by the whoops of excitement from the winning groups and the buzz and applause at the end of the session, every conference needs a game.

In a later session, a comment by Gareth Jones of Oxfam introduced a different form of reality. He told the organisers that the proceedings were engendering “a sense of false optimism”. True, said conference host Saleemul Huq, “but we wouldn’’t be here if we were no’t optimistic.”

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of International Conference on Community-based Adaptation which takes place 22-25 April 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Looming dangers for India’s handloom technologies

July 11, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

Telling a story is an Irish way of life, and I got to hear several about druids, Celts, Vikings, and the ‘leprechaun’, a mischievous fairy in Irish folklore. So, here is mine – about a British textile loom that headed to India, but ended in Ireland’s Wicklow mountains.  I found it in a corner of Ireland’s oldest working wool mill in the village of Avoca.

The loom’s travel itinerary as it left England in the 19th century, was presumably altered by rough seas and would not have led to a ‘diplomatic incident’ as both countries were then ruled by England. And so, the old ‘Hattersley’ loom —  a power loom for textile weaving to replace hand weaving – came to Avoca.

I was curious about Avoca because I wanted to see how traditional weaving survived against the onslaught of sophisticated textile technologies, mass-produced goods and branded wear in these days of globalisation.

A man using a handloom in India (Flickr/jankie_SquareCrop)

Indian weavers, whose families for generations spun by hand some of the country’s best known (at home at least) products – from the famous Benaras (Varanasi) silk brocade saris to ‘pochampally’ (a typical bright hand-woven pattern) silks and cottons — were, and some still are, in dire straits. Their plight was highlighted by multiple suicides by poor, debt-ridden weaving families  a few years ago,  as their modern power looms took over in India’s newly liberalised economy.

Avoca long ago switched to power looms, albeit the older ones, and has retail chains of its products that are now advertised as traditional crafts. The old loom operated by hands and legs, though working, is more of a ‘touristy’ attraction, than the norm.

Sadly, scientific studies on improving traditional, less energy-intensive technologies are few as they are not recognised as ‘frontier’ science, capable of finding a place in high-impact journals or boosting one’s one scientific career.

Or maybe some  leprechaun or fairy will, one day, help organise conference sessions on how innovation can help traditional technologies survive.

This blog post is part of our ESOF 2012 blog which takes place 11-15 July, 2012. To read news and analysis on themes related to the conference please visit our website.

Brazil’s delicate balancing act at Rio+20

June 12, 2012

T. V. Padma

T. V. Padma
South Asia regional coordinator, SciDev.Net

The BASIC countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – are trying their best to hold together as they tackle their common problem of how to maintain their current growth rates and yet not be accused of contributing to global environment problems.

It’s worse if one of them happens to host a once-in-20-years global environment summit – that country has to maintain the delicate balance between addressing the BASIC countries’ concerns and finding a global consensus that could go against the BASIC countries’ interests.

Back home in India, local dailies reported last week on Indian officials’ concerns that Brazil, as host to the Rio + 20 meet, could feel the need to break away from the BASIC group during the Rio+20 Summit.

Brazil’s minister for science, technology and innovation Marco António Raupp voiced the BASIC group’s views in a keynote address on the opening day of the Forum here in Rio de Janeiro.

Raupp mentioned three shifts of the past 20 years. There is the huge global interconnectivity and the emergence of the anthropocene age of human impact on Earth systems.

The third, said Raupp, is of a geopolitical nature: Brazil, China and India are now critical to global sustainability in the next two decades.

Raupp said that in the global quest for a green economy, the economic crisis that started in 2008 posed additional challenges, not only for the developed countries, but also to the emerging economies which needed to continue their fight against poverty in their societies.

The Brazilian minister described the green economy as a “controversial subject”, adding that it should be an inclusive green economy covering the three dimensions of sustainability: economical, environmental and social.

It must promote new jobs, technological innovation, science, social inclusion and the conservation of natural resources.

Each country must develop its own strategy for transition to a green economy, he added.

So far, echoing what many developing countries are saying not just BASICs. What emerges next week as Brazil hosts Rio+20, remains to be seen.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

World Science Forum: how did it do?

November 22, 2011

Yuan Tseh Lee (with microphone): 'this forum has been very successful in many ways' (Credit: Flickr/gedankenstuecke)

The World Science Forum has been held every two years, since 2003, in Budapest, Hungary, but now it will alternate between Hungary and other countries, starting with Brazil in 2013.

Aloizio Mercadante science and technology minister of Brazil, called the forum “one of the most important scientific events in the world”. He announced the theme of the next forum to be ‘Science for Global Development’ and promised regional preparatory meetings ahead of the forum.

Indian science and technology minister, Vilasrao Deshmuk, invited the forum to India in 2017.

Yuan Tseh Lee, president of the International Council for Science (ICSU), said that “forum has been very successful in many ways”. Despite numerous presentations, discussions and different views, he said, “we did come up with some common agreements and common views”.

Alice Abreu, professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said this forum was better than the previous one, but still lacked time for discussions. This was also a general feeling among the other participants I talked to.

Zaid Naffa, honorary consul from Jordan, said that line-ups of 5-6 speakers in two hour blocks were not a friendly enough format for the politicians and diplomats, who need shorter presentations and more opportunity to ask questions.

Mićo Tatalović, deputy news editor, SciDev.Net

Science commercialisation should be the new mantra: Dzinotyiweyi

October 20, 2010

Heneri Dzinotyiweyi (MDC)

Zimbabwe’s minister for science and technology development Heneri Dzinotyiweyi wants Africa’s scientists to adopt a new mantra of commercialisation of their research — indeed, devote about 20 per cent of their science efforts in commercialising and ploughing back the returns into research and development. This was his message at the ministerial round-table on India-Africa science collaboration on Tuesday (19 October).

For so long the buzzword at both national and international fora has been ‘capacity building’ on the continent.  Which is all very well, Dzinotyiweyi, a TWAS fellow and former mathematics professor at the University of Zimbabwe, told me and Danny Schaffer from TWAS last night. But by now African scientists have some degree of ‘capacity’ in some science sectors at least, both within the country and among its diaspora. “What is missing is that we do not see significant transformation of our economy despite this capacity building in science”, he said.

“We are now in an era where we should seek to get immediate benefits, especially market benefits [of research],” he added.

Dzinotyiweyi also suggests a reverse thinking on science investment and national wealth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP). Policymakers are used to thinking in terms of percentage of GDP devoted to investment in science. “If we seriously address commercialisation of science and technology, we can tell on a year-to-year basis how much [a nation’s] GDP has grown due to commercialisation of S and T.”

Dzinotyiweyi uses diamonds as an example. There is nothing so complex about diamond processing techniques that African scientists cannot master and emerge as major players in the international markets, he said.

So far so good. But as India’s experience — a rise in GDP but fall in global hunger index — shows, developing countries still need to go a long way to ensure a more sustainable development that ensures a more equitable distribution of economic gains.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

Not just microbes, missing micronutrients culprits too

October 20, 2010

Countries that have adopted zinc as national diarrhoea treatment programmes (Zinc Task Force, 2007)

Conventional wisdom assumes a clear direct link between a bacterium or virus and the infection it causes. Then how does one explain why the same microbe may not cause much illness in a developed country, but could wreak havoc in a developing country?

The answer lies in deficiency of zinc, a crucial micronutrient (needed by the body in trace amounts). Zinc deficiency weakens immunity against infectious diseases, and could have important implications for not just poor response in developing countries to oral vaccines against polio and cholera; but also other infections such as malaria and tuberculosis, Maharaj Krishan Bhan, secretary of India’s department of biotechnology (DBT), told the TWAS meeting on Tuesday (19 Oct).

“An infectious disease can be initiated by a microbe. But the outcome of an infectious disease in developing countries depends entirely on nutrition, as opposed to a developed country,” Bhan said.

The link between zinc deficiency and weakened immunity came to light thanks to collaboration among nine developing countries that pooled their knowledge together for over a decade; and took part in WHO trials to provide sufficient study data to identify the crucial link between zinc and diarrhoea. Currently, diarrhoea kills over a million under-fives in Africa and Asia.

Zinc deficiency has up to 43 per cent prevalence in India, 68 per cent in Mexico, 80 per cent in Lima (Peru), and 37 per cent in Papua New Guinea. Much of the deficiency in the body and diet can be traced to deficiency in soil — for example, half of arable land in China, India and Turkey is deficient in zinc; and so is 60 per cent in Iran and 70 per cent in Pakistan.

Thanks to the data from different country studies, scientists have now clearly established that zinc supplements can, not only treat diarrhea, but also help reduce pneumonia incidence, and deaths in babies with low birth weight.

Zinc supplements have now been adopted as part of national programmes to treat diarrhoea in several countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

That does not mean the problem has been solved. A study in Bangladesh showed that despite mass media campaigns, children still miss out on zinc treatment. And as Bhan observes, zinc deficiency in pregnant women will have implications for the foetus and the new born.

T V Padma, South Asia Regional Coordinator, SciDev.Net

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