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Editors ́ Picks

There once was a world meeting called the G20 Summit

Maybe it’s been said many times before, but this year’s G20 Summit, due to take place in Hamburg from the 7th to the 8th of July is a real Orwellian tale. 20 world leaders (why just 20?) gather to discuss the global economic, environmental, and security issues for the year to come. The Summit often draws protesters’ attention, while political scandals, too, are not uncommon; this year has been no exception. Yet, I’m not here to discuss any of that. Instead, I’d like to draw attention to one of the uncomfortably missing topics from the Summit’s agenda: education.

While the Summit is still one day away, media outlets have been basking in the chaotic events in its lead up. For instance, predicted clashes between Merkel (this year’s chair of the charade) and Trump on issues regarding climate change, free trade, and the management of forced global migration; or Putin and Trump’s anxiously anticipated first meeting, and numerous extreme-Left protests against capitalism – some peaceful, some titled ‘Welcome to Hell’. What concerns me most, however, is that within this milieu of political noise, there has been scarce media coverage regarding the absence of global education from the programme.

It’s estimated that by 2030, low-income families in Sub-Saharan Africa will see only one in 10 children gain basic secondary school education, which, ironically, is the same target year for the realisation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We needn’t look as far as Africa; even in middle-income countries only half of young people are expected to complete secondary school by that same target year. Add to the mix the growing job loss to automation and, therefore, much higher educational requirements for employees. As Austria’s former Labour Prime Minister Julia Gillard writes, “literacy and the ability to seek out and act on information are critical to rebuilding communities affected by conflict, climate change and natural disasters.”

Without a solid agenda to fund education across the globe, the G20 Summit seems, to me at least, useful only for the outrageous headlines we’ll certainly soon be drowning in. Solutions for forced migration, climate change, women’s rights, sustainable growth, and job creation are to be promoted in tandem with an increased global investment in education for all, as those issues are inextricably linked. This G20 Summit is exemplary of 2017 itself. Once again we’re seeing our world leaders hovering over rather than smacking global issues right on the mark, and our media platforms too occupied with trending headlines to filter through the smoke and divert our attention back to where it all starts, education. 

Afghanistan criminalizes ‘child play’

The Afghan government has finally included the malicious practice of ‘Bacha Baazi’ [sexual exploitation of children and young boys] as crime in its revised penal code.

‘Bacha Bazi’, literally „boy play“ is a slang term in Persian for a wide variety of activities involving sexual relations between older men and younger adolescent men, or boys that sometimes includes child sexual abuse. The victim of “Bacha Bazi” is called “bach bey rish” (boys without beard) while the abuser is called “bacha baz or kaata”.

Abdul Basir Anwar, the country’s Minister of Justice announced on Thursday that the sexual abuse of children is one of the main crimes included in the revised version of the penal code. This review is part of Kabul’s broader pledges at the international forums for reforms in its legal system. The minister said the penal code has been finalized following lengthy and extensive reviews at various levels. ‘Bacha Bazi’ was among some 50 offenses for which punishments were not specified that led to the culture of impunity and acceptance.

Widely popular among warlords and other influential individuals, the ancient practice of ‘Bacha Bazi’ continues to stain the face of modern-day Afghanistan that is lingering towards a more lawful and democratic way of life thanks to the enduring support from the international community. Weakening the Afghan society from within, the abuse of children and young boys has also penetrated into the country’s nascent security forces. The country’s Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) has long been raising concerns over the broader impacts of this social taboo.

With the fresh legislations, the Kabul government has taken a long-due step forward towards strengthening the judiciary, and broadening its scope to cover literally all aspects of life in a bid to end ambiguities and streamline legal system.

Sierra Leone Teenage Pregnancy Surges After Ebola

It’s been a year since the West African country of Sierra Leone declared itself free of the second outbreak of Ebola, affecting around 14,000 individuals, with a death toll of over 3,000. The country is now facing a ricochet effect – a spike in teenage pregnancies.

During the two years of the epidemic, the country’s medical resources, as well as international aid funding, were directly focused on the termination of the lethal virus. In conjunction, social services collapsed and schools closed for an entire year. What Sierra Leone experienced over this period is not only anxiety and death from the highly contagious virus, but also a halt to what essentially holds the country together in terms of education, sexual health and family planning services.

Sierra Leone has one of the world’s highest number of teenage pregnancies and maternal mortality rates; a third of girls between the age of 15-19 will become teenage mothers and less than half have access to medical care during birth. To allow a hint of perspective, that’s 18,000 teenage pregnancies in one year alone. Most of girls drop out of school, experience shaming in their communities, and receive virtually no support from the government. 

The United Nations Population Fund have been the primary providers of the country’s contraception (95%), while funding the majority of its family planning services long before the 2014 outbreak of Ebola. With poor sexual health education – focusing on women, who, more often than not, have very little power over contraceptive choice or consent – the UNFPA’s aid is also the country’s only means to tackle growing numbers of teen pregnancies.

As the country now recovers from both the Ebola virus and a fragile economy as a result of price drops in global commodities, global aid is crucial. However, and here Trump’s repercussions are felt again; last month the US president made a disastrous (yet, sadly, not at all surprising) decision to cut all US backing of international family planning programmes as well as cutting support of UNFPA’s work in countries including Sierra Leone. It seems that in places where the myth around contraceptives is still rife, the population’s trust in aid is essential; thus, reconstructing clinics and building networks between international support is where UNFPA is needed in order to get teenage girls back in school, pregnancy numbers down, and the basic human right of family planning services running once again.

Shedding off the climate refugee tag

At a recent climate convention for Africa, staggering statistics were released on a new phenomenon gaining pace but which is not getting the attention it deserves. The name climate refugees is increasingly dominating national, regional and international discourses as vagaries of weather become an everyday affair. Globally the number of people who have been forced by changing weather patterns to abandon their traditional ways of survival and move elsewhere in search of better days and lives is estimated at around 100 million according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Nowhere is this effect more felt than in Africa where the bulk of the population, 80 per cent, rely on agriculture, the worst hit sector by climate change, for livelihoods. Scientists are already predicting catastrophic effects in years to come, which will take their toll on Africa’s most primed agricultural crops.

The latest science estimates the average production losses by 2050 for African maize at 22 per cent, sorghum 17 per cent, millet 17 per cent, groundnut 18 per cent and cassava 8 per cent.

With agriculture contributing up to 30 per cent of majority of African national income and employing more than 70 per cent of the population, the impact is bound to be widespread. Farmers who have counted on their farms for generations to feed them and generate income to educate their children, open other businesses and take care of their other needs like health have to grapple with this new phenomenon.

Unable to fight back, the rural people are now fleeing their farms for greener pastures in cities which are not so green.

According to an annual survey by Africa Litmus, out of all the total population coming to cities from the rural areas in Africa, 30 percent is fleeing as a result of failed agricultural practices caused by failed rains. The locus of poverty is gradually shifting from rural to urban areas and is manifested in growing food insecurity with majority of those coming to the cities finding themselves worse off economically than they were back in the rural homes.

The numbers will grow, the woes will multiply unless humanity get its acts together. It is no longer a matter of if but when. Yet in the melee of changing weather patterns and food insufficiency nations can rediscover themselves. Africa has always been billed as a resilient continent, with a highly creative workforce that has homegrown solutions to homegrown problems. Hardly a year goes by without its scientists receiving international accolades for discovering transformatory innovations. That is the spark that should call the continent to action. Noble activities like brainfed agriculture and high superior seed varieties are surebets to insulating Africa from any threat to food production. Africa owes it to the future generations to make the continent food secure.

Bonfires and parades fuelling tension in Northern Ireland

On July 12th Northern Ireland experienced once again traditional loyalist marches that celebrate the historic victory of Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of Boyne in 1690. Despite the battle occurring over 300 years ago, the date still represents an important milestone for Protestants residing in Northern Ireland, the descendents of English and Scottish settlers who support maintaining the territory in the United Kingdom.

This year, the parades took place in 18 locations around Northern Ireland, involving thousands of people and were considered the largest in a generation. Draped in Union Jacks, protestors once again displayed their passionate British patriotism that is really glimpsed in Britain itself. Typically, the parades are followed by scenes of violence and clashes between the Catholic and Protestant communities as the parades are provocatively routed through Catholic neighbourhoods and in recent years have led to rioting.

On the previous night of July 11th, large towering bonfires were lit in Protestant neighbourhoods. Provocatively, unionists burned flags of the Republic of Ireland, along with images of Sinn Fein electoral candidates, the party that supports political reunification of the island of Ireland. Highly controversial, an image of a black coffin with a photo of the historic Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness, recently deceased, was also attached to a bonfire in east Belfast. Such actions are hugely offensive towards Catholics, who consider them as hate crimes.

Although this year’s parades passed without major confrontations, the moment advises more prudence on the part of the unionist community. Although a majority of Northern Irish people (56%) voted to remain in the EU, the UK-wide vote for Brexit has now propelled the possibility of a hard border returning between the south and north of Ireland, potentially jeopardising the peace process. 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to 30 years of conflict between the Protestant and Catholic communities, much progress has been made in the region’s peace process.

Nevertheless, much remains to be done in achieving harmonious coexistence between the two communities, which have become more and more polarised in recent years, as shown in the rise of radical parties in recent elections. As social divisions seem to be increasing, this kind of patriotic display and constant provocation do not help the normalisation of Northern Irish society.

Being curious is the cure

I’ve recently read through Eliot Weinberger’s long serial-essay, ‚An Elemental Thing‘. It’s an astonishing work – some 35 essays linked together by the barest of narrative threads, describing, among other things, the Mandaens, Ancient Chinese beliefs about seasons and winds, Muhammad, Valmiki and many, many more. If it sounds esoteric as I write it, it’s only because I’m not doing justice. Written in a remarkable, collage-based style, which pieces together verifiable statements and beliefs, the essays provide the reader with an immanent picture of the thing – not simply a description. 

You may be wondering why I’m writing about this – what with the world being so full of atrocity and challenge. Well, two things. Firstly, it’s precisely because the world is full of atrocity and challenge, that I think it’s important to remind oneself of just how great and privileged a thing it is to be able to read. Secondly, the Weinberger’s book is revitalising – in the best sense. It’s so curious about all of its subjects, the reader can’t help but feel the same. In reading it, I realised just how deep I’d sunk into a well of cynicism – world politics being such a goddamn mess, after all. But then, being reminded that the world is a strange and interesting place, filled with remarkable beliefs and utterly different people can only serve as a cure to entrenched cynicism. 

Kafka once said that books should be able to break the frozen sea of beliefs within us. It might sound portentous, but it’s certainly true that being cynical and knowing about how the world works is very easy these days. Releasing that wave of curiosity may be difficult but entirely worthwhile. Otherwise what do we have? Yet another Donald Trump tweetstorm, yet another satire about that tweetstorm? How dull. The world is big and weird place. Enjoy it. 

Image: Yellow Emperor, featured in Weinberger’s book. 

The dilemma of undermining justice for politics

Two high-profile political leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan are facing courts in cases of different yet grim nature, but there are already signs of maneuvers to undermine the legal system for political reasons.

Evading mounting pressure to face court over allegedly molesting his political rival, the Afghan Vice President Abdul Rasheed Dostum has urged the international community ‘not to intervene’ in domestic affairs. In a statement issued by his office, the former warlord has stated that such ‘irresponsible remarks’ by the foreign diplomats and missions will only spark concerns among the people. On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy Kabul Special Chargé d’Affaires Ambassador Hugo Llorens said the ongoing legal process [against Dostum] underscores the Afghan state’s efforts to uphold the rule of law, combat impunity, and send a signal to the Afghan people, and indeed to the whole world, that no one, no one in Afghanistan, is above the law. 

Ahmad Ischi, a senior ethnic Uzbek politician from Dostum’s hometown has levelled serious allegations of torture and sexual abuse against the Afghan VP. The matter is the court.

In Pakistan, the country’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif has made it clear he will not resign regardless of the demands being made by the opposition’s mounting pressure on him in the wake of money laundering and corruption cases.

Earlier this week, a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) by the country’s Supreme Court noted that significant gap/disparity amongst the known and declared sources of income and the wealth accumulated by the by the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and his sons Hussain Nawaz and Hassan Nawaz.

For both countries, it is absolutely crucial that any efforts to politicize the cases or use it to sow all sorts of tensions for political gains would only harm the rule of law, peace and stability.  Legal system in both the countries must be allowed to freely and fairly pursue justice and not succumb to any political pressures. Fair and transparent justice system is a hallmark of a democratic society.

In Bed With The US Coal Industry

Inside Charleston Civic Centre in West Virginia, the then presidential candidate Donald Trump put on a miner’s hard hat as he blurted out “miners, get ready, because you’re going to be working your asses off.” During Trump’s presidential campaign, his ambition to restore jobs for miners’ communities across the US has been key, and since the election his administration adhered to their promise. The only hindrance to Trump’s vision is that the coal industry is (and should be) declining, leaving thousands of families in need of support as they transition into a new, post-coal world.

The coal industry was a fundamental reason for Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement, in conjunction he lifted a freeze of new coal mining leases on public land, all in the ‘hopes’ of securing a mere 76 thousand jobs. While this is a substantial amount, Google’s number of employees alone is 61 thousand. Together with 18% of coal jobs lost to renewable energy, and a growing percentage of job loss to automation the numbers are falling fast.

Trump claims he’s helping miners by reducing regulations on coal industries, but the inherently muddy connection between coal, coal miners, and coal companies allows him to pass legislation in favour of coal industry CEOs. For instance, Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy Company, is currently lobbying Trump’s administration to inflict softer criminal negligence laws on health and safety breaches, securing larger profits.

All of the above has little to do with neither the well being nor job security of coal miners. Instead, Trump’s administration has been cutting funds for non-profit organisation such as Appalachian Regional Commission. The ARC helps revitalise communities affected by coal mining job loss with funding employment programmes, such as Bitsource in Kentucky, hiring miners as software programmers and paying them throughout their learning course.

In lieu of a final profit to be had from a collapsing industry, the US government is leaving the miner communities in limbo by denying the necessary funding to create new jobs in rising industries.

Africa’s young innovative population is its silver bullet

While countries like Spain, Germany and Japan are currently experiencing population decline, the African continent has been on an unprecedented explosion, currently being home to some 1.2 billion people, a steep climb from the 477 million it had in 1980.

It is a trend attributed to improved healthcare that has reduced child mortality rates while increasing life expectancy. Yet this ballooning trend is expected to persist. By 2050, data shows that on average there will be more than 42 million people born in Africa each year which will see the continent’s population hit the 2.4 billion mark. As the world marks the Word Population Day this week, global leaders are meeting in London for a Family Planning Summit as they seek to deliberate on how to tap into the demographic dividend potential while exploring its potential drawbacks.

Majority of African countries like Nigeria are expected to be among those that will contribute to half of the world’s population between now and the year 2050. But even as the world ponders on how to tame this larger-than-life phenomenon in the wake of dwindling resources which could elicit conflicts, it is worth celebrating the relatively young African population burning the mid night oil to redefine history.

Africa is home to the youngest population with 50 per cent of the population in about 40 African countries being under 20 years. And while majority have had to make do with spiraling unemployment, and humanitarian crises, they have been at the driver’s seat in bringing to life some of the most innovative technologies that have not only solved homegrown problems, but have been adopted world over. From smart jackets that detect the life threatening pneumonia faster than a doctor, mobile money services that reach the unbanked giving them a guarantee to access credit at reasonably cheaper terms to applications that fight endemic corruption in the public sector, the young population in Africa has breathed new life to the continent.

As the world leaders look to family planning to address a prospective population crisis which may emanate from Africa, maybe they should also consider enlisting the support of the young African population in coming up with sustainable ways of taking care of the immediate needs of the current population while also letting them own the family control debate.

Photo: LPT