UNICEF takes a bold and brave stand … to avoid controversy, it says

From Haaretz today, this headline and sub-head: “UNICEF severs ties with Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev: UN children’s fund says company owned by mogul has been involved in building settlements in W. Bank“.

And from the text of the story: “UNICEF decided to review its relationship with Leviev after a campaign by Adalah-NY and found ‘at least a reasonable grounds for suspecting’ that Leviev companies were building settlements in occupied territory, a UNICEF official said”.

The report continues: ” ‘I can confirm that UNICEF has advised Adalah in New York that it will not be entering into any partnerships or accepting financial contributions from Lev Leviev or his corporate people’, Chris de Bono, a senior adviser to the executive director of UNICEF, told Reuters. ‘We are aware of the controversy surrounding Mr. Leviev because of his reported involvement in construction work in the occupied Palestinian territory’, de Bono said, adding that it was UNICEF’s policy to have partners who were ‘as non-controversial as possible’.” UNICEF could not say how much Leviev had donated as an individual. In his only known partnership with UNICEF, Leviev last year donated jewelry to a fashion event in France that benefited the French national committee for UNICEF, de Bono said…” The full report can be read in Haaretz here.

Report: food costs rising world-wide

“What’s rare is that the spikes are hitting all major foods in most countries at once”., the AP has reported today.

The story says that “In the long term, prices are expected to stabilize. Farmers will grow more grain for both fuel and food and eventually bring prices down. Already this is happening with wheat, with more crops to be planted in the U.S., Canada and Europe in the coming year. However, consumers still face at least 10 years of more expensive food, according to preliminary FAO projections. Among the driving forces are petroleum prices, which increase the cost of everything from fertilizers to transport to food processing. Rising demand for meat and dairy in rapidly developing countries such as China and India is sending up the cost of grain, used for cattle feed, as is the demand for raw materials to make biofuels”. This AP report can be read in full here .

Hungry (and poor) Haitians eat dirt cookies

This is front-line journalism: “A reporter sampling a cookie found that it had a smooth consistency and sucked all the moisture out of the mouth as soon as it touched the tongue. For hours, an unpleasant taste of dirt lingered”.

The Associated Press article reports that these dirt cookies are “a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country’s central plateau. The mud has long been prized by pregnant women and children here as an antacid and source of calcium. But in places like Cite Soleil, the oceanside slum where Charlene shares a two-room house with her baby, five siblings and two unemployed parents, cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening have become a regular meal”.

This AP report is posted here.

He wants another checkpoint?

Dr. Samir Hazboun, Director of the Chamber of Commerce of Bethlehem — the city where Jesus is believed to have been born, which is now locked in behind a massive Wall constructed by the Israeli Military — recently suggested adding another checkpoint into the town, for tourists. The Jerusalem Post reported that Dr. Hazboun suggested: “If we give tourists a special checkpoint it will make things easier for them and the tourism will be of mutual benefit to both sides [the PA and Israel]”.

Main checkpoint into Bethlehem - photo by Rev. Julie Rowe

Photo by Reverend Julie Rowe

The JPost added that “Some Bethlehem residents have accused Israel of discouraging tourists from entering the city, but Rafi Ben-Hur, senior deputy director-general of the Israeli Tourism Ministry, insists this is not true. ‘While the situation is safe we are actively encouraging Christian tourists, through travel agents, to go and visit the town. We see Christians as a bridge for peace between our two communities’, he says. The ministry has also recently opened a tourism office at Rachel’s Crossing, near Rachel’s Tomb, the aim of which is to quicken the passage of tour coaches through the checkpoint by exempting them from searches. It has even introduced a policy of handing out candy to Christian pilgrims”.

The JPost continues: “Tourists choose to travel with tour companies rather than wander the town individually for several reasons. The pilgrims often travel in groups along with a pastor, so that they can pray together. And the town is still commonly perceived to be unsafe and tour companies claim to provide people with protection. That tourists can easily feel intimidated is understandable. Outside Giacaman’s shop, in full view of tourists, a commotion breaks out as armed Fatah security men, some masked, others beating the sides of their jeeps with batons, try to push their way through traffic. But Giacaman says that the tour companies take advantage of people’s fears by strictly controlling where they can and cannot go, including where they can eat and shop, thus depriving small businesses like his of a fair share of the profit. Taxi drivers have also been feeling the pinch. At Rachel’s Crossing, drivers anxiously wait to take visitors down into the city. When a foreign face approaches from the turnstile, a throng of five or six drivers gather round, angling for a deal. Tourists present good income potential as they are normally willing to pay as much as double the local rate for a ride. But such opportunities are few and far between” … This JPost article about Bethlehem and tourism is here.

Seth Freedman, who writes from Jerusalem for The Guardian’s Comment is Free, said in a recent article that “Britain’s former prime minister … announced four projects designed to kickstart the ailing Palestinian economy. One of the plans was to revive the tourism industry in Bethlehem, by easing the restrictions on entering the city and making the town centre more appealing to sightseers …
After making my way through the bottleneck of the checkpoint – where two long queues on either side of the border converged on one harassed-looking teenaged soldier – I headed for the dilapidated Aida refugee camp on the edge of the city. Once there, I went to meet Abdel Fattah Abu-Srour, the head of the Al-Rowwad Theatre Centre who had left such an indelible impression on me when I first interviewed him in May … He said that he was doubtful that any increase in tourism would have much effect on the Bethlehem economy, unless the fundamental way in which tourists visited the town changed significantly. ‘At present, the buses bring the groups in, they visit the Church [of the Nativity], jump back on their bus and are gone’, he said. ‘That means that they don’t sleep here, so the hotels are empty, as are the restaurants, and none of their tourist money filters down to the street. They just use Bethlehem as a passageway’. A Palestinian policeman I spoke to outside the Church of the Nativity was equally unenthusiastic about Blair’s proposals. Shivering in his bomber jacket and felt beret, he said that ‘I don’t know what it is he wants to do here, but I do know that you shouldn’t trust what you read in the media. We’ve heard nothing about spending on the tourist industry – they talk about putting money in, but the tourist policemen sleep with the mice’. He wasn’t exaggerating, he said – ‘we sleep in an underground building, with rats everywhere, and we don’t even have enough money for guns’, he complained, patting his waistband where his pistol was conspicuous by its absence. ‘We didn’t get our salaries for 15 months and even when we did finally get paid, they didn’t cover the debts we’d accumulated during that time’. Where did that leave him? ‘I’ve got five kids – and no cash’ he replied flatly … Whether or not Tony Blair’s tourism drive manages to inject life back into Bethlehem’s collapsed economy, the main obstacle to financial health is the far more significant problem of the wall and the checkpoints. ‘Most people can’t even leave their own cities anymore’, Abdel Fattah told me, ‘and that has a devastating effect on their ability to find work’. The prime minister of the Palestinian authority, Salam Fayyad, said the same thing when unveiling Blair’s plans, stating that the private sector wouldn’t recover until roadblocks were lifted to permit the passage of goods and people. And, until that happens, Tony Blair’s idealistic proposals seem like nothing more than window-dressing, given that the West Bank’s problems are far worse than a mere dearth of tourists in Bethlehem. ‘Peace be with you’ reads the cynically placed Israeli tourism ministry billboard where tour buses pass through the security wall to enter Bethlehem. But, until that very same wall is opened up just as freely to the Palestinian people, then the last thing that will be bestowed on the people is peace – and the situation will continue to deteriorate as steadily as before”. This article can be seen here.

Now, I’ve got to find the article in which I read recently of scams by taxi drivers in Bethlehem to intimidate tourists into spending more money — the taxi drivers pick the tourists up at the checkpoint and tell them it will cost 20 shekels ($5.00) to be driven to Manger Square at the center of town, where they can find the Church of the Nativity. But, instead, the taxi drivers take the tourists waaayy out of town, and tell them it will cost them 100 shekels to get back into town…

There is also a lot of aggressive panhandling in the center of town, and a lot of lousy cheap merchandise being forced on tourists — which some of them nevertheless seem happy to buy.

A whole re-think, and re-education of people working in the tourism business, might also help stimulate better and longer interactions between tourists and Bethlehem merchants and vendors…

UNGA President disappointed with attendance at meeting on finance for development

The spokesperson for the President of this annual General Assembly told journalists at UNHQ/NY on Tuesday that the President is, indeed, disappointed that there was not sufficient high-level attendance at the meeting that opened Tuesday.

The President’s “disappointment”, the spokesperson said, “reflects is the fact that he was expecting them, probably based on assurances, to be here at a high level. In fact, if you may remember the whole process of scheduling this particular high-level debate or dialogue, the original date was 22nd and 23rd of October. Then, because of the meetings in Washington of the World Bank and the IMF, this had shifted to 23-24 in order to allow for those meetings to conclude and to have finance and development ministers, central bankers here, and also high-level representation from the international, financial and other relevant institutions. We’re not talking about the financial institutions only but, for example, World Trade Organization, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), etc., the ones that are relevant for FfD [Financing for Development].  So, in that context, yes there was expectation for something higher, thus the expressed disappointment”.

Of course, there is a problem in explaining the purpose of the two-day High-level Dialogue on Financing for Development — just look at this jargon: “The two-day high-level event is a key element of the preparatory work mapped out by the Assembly to hold the Follow-up International Conference on Financing for Development to Review the Implementation of the Monterrey Consensus in the second part of 2008 in Doha. That Review Conference is supposed to assess progress made on the key elements of the Monterrey consensus, which, as you may remember, was adopted in 2002. The idea there is to reaffirm goals and commitments made and share lessons learned … The two-day Dialogue that we have here now is to provide impetus to preparations for the Review Conference and also to provide some substantive elements as to what that Review Conference is going to look like”.

That’s the way the UN talks — and it’s hard to sell that.
Continue reading UNGA President disappointed with attendance at meeting on finance for development

What is the UN system?

Good question. UN SG BAN Ki-Moon met with the Chief Executives Board in Geneva, Switzerland, on Friday and Saturday. Of course, they always meet in private — despite all the pious talk about transparency.

One thing you can be sure of — all parts of the UN system are working to promote and implement the Millennium Development Goals. The UN Chief Executives Board website writes loftily: “The organizations of the UN system stand together poised to adapt and intensify their efforts, with the support of Member States, and on behalf of them and their peoples, to bring the vision of the Millennium Declaration to life…” The organizational lock-step behind these exhortative but ultimately unverifiable goals puts North Korea’s reverence for its Dear Leader and its Great Leader to shame.

Investigative journalist Claudia Rosset does a good job in writing about how unknowable the UN is — see her somewhat disorganized but fascinating article, How Corrupt is the UN?, published about a year ago in Commentary Magazine:

A grand committee that reports to itself alone, the UN operates with great secrecy and is shielded by diplomatic immunity. [I don’t think the issue of diplomatic immunity is as much a problem as Claudia Rossett does, but the penchant for secrecy is a huge problem.] One of its prime defenses, indeed, is the sheer impenetrability of its operations: after more than 60 years as a global collective, it has become a welter of so many overlapping programs, far-flung projects, quietly vested interests, nepotistic shenanigans, and interlocking directorates as to defy accurate or easy comprehension, let alone responsible supervision.

But let us try. Continue reading What is the UN system?

It's easy to dupe donors

The Los Angeles Times is reporting today that the United Nations was among potential donors duped by a donor-savvy woman called “the Angel of Soweto”, who established a private school, the Ithuteng Trust, for pupils who, she told donors, were orphans. But, the paper says, the woman, who ran her school on a philosophy of “tough love”, is no angel, according to some of her former students.

The article, written by the LA Times’ Robyn Dixon, reports that “students called her Mama Jackey and sang gospel-style hymns in her praise. The 100% high school graduation rate that her private school claimed impressed many, including former President Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey and the makers of a documentary scheduled to air on HBO beginning today.”

But, the article says, “Jackey Maarohanye and her school, the Ithuteng Trust, were plunged into a scandal after the students told the South African investigative television program ‘Carte Blanche’ that they are not orphans. They said Maarohanye scripted and rehearsed horror stories about how they had watched their parents die. Students, six of whom were contacted by The [Los Angeles] Times, repeated their allegations, saying she had coached them on how to sob for the television cameras or contributors to extract bigger donations. They told The Times that they recounted their false tragedies with tears and drama at the United Nations and for former President Clinton in 2001, on U.S. television and radio and for other visiting donors and media. Contacted by The LA] Times, she declined to answer questions on the allegations but said the program was malicious and unethical, and expressed anger that ‘Carte Blanche’ had contacted some of her donors for their reactions. The Ithuteng Trust board has since informed sponsors of the allegations and is setting up an independent investigation. Maarohanye ran an adult literacy program before approaching Mandela in 1999 for help in setting up an outreach program for children involved in crime. She recruited students from schools in Soweto, a township outside Johannesburg. Former students told The Times that the program was fun at first, and gave them life skills. But later they had to tell lies for media and sponsors. One Ithuteng patron, Judge Yvonne Mokgoro, argues that the program still has great value for children and says it’s important to distinguish its worth from Maarohanye’s alleged methods. The LA Times story is posted here.

The United Nations is not immune from the donor-duping syndrome. One of its worst manifestations is the numbers-generating done to generate media reporting of stores to attract donor interest.

UN Truth would like to know: How does UNAIDS know exactly how many people have died from AIDS (they give a figure of nearly 40 million persons worldwide)? How do they know even the approximate number of people who might be affected by HIV or AIDs? They rely on statistics provided by Governments — and, if Governments permit, they might do sample testing in some places of women who are admitted to hospital to give birth. The more victims and potential victims, the more press — and the more donations.

The World Health Programme proclaimed that they were on the verge of ending polio, through their vaccination campaigns, by the year 2000. It attracted a lot of media coverage, and donor funding. Then, the WHO said, they were aiming at a 2005 deadline. Now, maybe it will be 2007…

The main United Nations relies much less on donor funding, because the bulk of its budget is composed of its membership dues, called “assessments”, based on a fixed rate for each country according to its level of development and ability to pay. The U.S. pays the most – around 22 percent.

But, the UN’s Millennium Goals are one of the most egregious examples of fluffy nonsense. At a high-level meeting at UNHQ/NY in October 2000, UNSG Kofi Annan and his “strategic communication” honchos got world leaders to pledge to work to half poverty in the world (and other lofty goals) by the year 2015. They worry, now, that the target might not be achieved. But, how do they know the exact numbers of people around the world who were, in the year 2000, “living on less than a dollar a day”? And how will they know, exactly, whether or not half that number will be doing better in the year 2015?