30 April 2005

May the Food Force be with us all

By Marguerite Finn

The UN has come in for a lot of stick recently. Former UN Secretary General, U Thant, once remarked: "The United Nations is a mirror of its members." So we, the peoples of the UN, now have an opportunity to reform this battered, creaky but internationally legitimate leviathan.

As a member of the Norwich Branch of the United Nations Association, I am continually amazed by the extent and variety of the activities conducted throughout the world, on a daily basis under the UN banner, activities its critics seem determined to ignore.

The bulletins I get detail the actions of up to 30 UN Agencies on any particular day. These might involve anything from fighting the first outbreak of polio in Yemen for nine years (WHO - World Health Organisation) to helping Congolese refugees cross some of the world's most rugged terrain to return to their homes (UNHCR - UN High Commissioner for Refugees). Simultaneously, OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) in the Horn of Africa swings into action after torrential rains sweep away entire villages in Ethiopia and Somalia.

Meanwhile, UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) continues its daily task of repairing buildings and providing food and education to around a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. UNRWA's 'Special Hardship Programme' also targets the most impoverished families living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. In 2004, approximately 50% of the Palestinian population was living below the official poverty line. Standards of health and education had deteriorated and unemployment had increased as Palestinians encountered problems reaching their places of work, schools and hospitals due to the construction of the Israeli Barrier.

The UNHCR is now warning that fighting is threatening the existence of Colombia's indigenous peoples, caught between Government, rebels and armed militia, while at the same time, it struggles to provide water and food for 1.8 million people uprooted by the conflict in Darfur.

Here comes news of another disaster: chronic poverty, combined with failure of the rains in 2004, has left 2 million Kenyans in need of food aid. Between May and August 2005, the World Food Programme (WFP) will provide 83,000 tons of food to these drought-affected people. While in Niger, locust infestation and scanty rainfall has left an estimated 350,000 children under 5 years suffering from malnutrition and stunted growth. What can be done? WFP, the world's largest humanitarian agency rises to the challenge. Each year, it provides food aid to an average of 90 million people, including 56 million hungry children, in more than 80 countries.

Most of us know little about this life-saving work being done by the United Nations. The statistics seem literally mind-boggling and too uncomfortable to read.

So the World Food Programme has come up with a novel way to spread the word. It has just launched the world's first interactive humanitarian video game (comprehensively reviewed in EDP Centro 20.04.2005), which shows how WFP responds to actual food emergencies - just like the real life situations in Kenya and Niger.

"Food Force" is a PC based video game which can be downloaded free from http://www.food-force.com/ . It offers a welcome change to the gratuitous violence of most of today's video games. While playing Food Force, youngsters will avoid video games that reward players for killing innocent bystanders and blowing up islands again and again. Neither are Food Force characters predominantly male or white - gender and racial balance ensures that all play a vital role in the operation - just as in real life.

This is a wise move by the UN Agency - to use today's technology to reach out to the wider public. Are games-players, however, too steeped in violent "blow them away" games to overcome their feelings that "Food Force" is "uncool" and "a bit cissy"?

No one these days can be under any illusion about the dangers faced by humanitarian aid workers in the field; many have lost their lives bringing aid to others. What better way to celebrate their dedication and bravery than to learn more about the difficulties they routinely face and "Food Force" offers a great way to do it.

As Kofi Annan says: "Humanity will not enjoy security without development, it will not enjoy development without security, and it will not enjoy either without respect for human rights In their modest ways, all local United Nations Associations are involved in the great humanitarian work of the UN, whether raising vital funds or lobbying MPs, they support and sustain a global institution which remains the last best hope of mankind.

23 April 2005

Off my trolley

By Jacqui McCarney

My very personal, very grassroots and admittedly unusual eco-friendly campaign for 2005 is to establish the shopping trolley as a fashion accessory superior to a Saab or BMW - more subtle, more refined more intelligent by aeons and definitely way, way cooler. This may look like an uphill battle, it may sound like the ramblings of a very deeply disturbed mad woman - the shopping trolley after all seems to fit snugly into that gap between the last vestiges of independent living and institutionised care. The forward moving ones are often used as a kind of walking frame, and the pull along types are reminiscent of bag-ladies who carry all their worldly processions around with them.

This is, however, a deeply unfair and superficial view. Why is it only ridiculously expensive items are valued so religiously? Why can't older people be leaders of fashion too? Why, Oh Why, do we reserve such gluttonous desires for machines that poison the very oxygen we breath, destroy the health of our children in a multitude of ways eg: they can't get good healthy exercise by playing in their streets as children a few generations ago did and so they are becoming increasingly obese. There is a huge increase in the number of children with asthma caused by breathing in car fumes and unprecedented numbers are killed every year by cars when they do venture onto our street! This is before we mention the huge global problem of CO2 emissions from cars contributing heavily to climate change.

The unfortunate offspring of western civilization, if they do make it to the age of 18, may then find themselves packed off with inadequate protection to fight an unjustifiable war in order to procure more cheap oil for our oil guzzling society. As decent responsible members of the literate class we all claim to love our children! But how much! Enough to think! Enough to stop for a moment and look at the direction we are heading in.

The humble shopping trolley makes a gigantean leap to a simple and intelligent approach to hunter gathering in the 21st century. It enables the family provider to carry sufficient items without having to pile them, as quickly as possible in to the back of car. It enables the fore mentioned provider to walk some distance with their consumables perhaps even all the way home, or to the nearest bus stop, or better than private car, a taxi - thus reducing congestion and pollution in the city. The trolley does away with the necessity of using plastic bags - a throw-away item made primarily with our scarce oil reserves

Watching unthinking shoppers use plastic bags as if there were no tomorrow makes me quite literally C Red. And then, this makes me think of our very local initiative to cut carbon emissions and help our children to have a future. I can be then be heard muttering to the checkout girl about not wanting to go to war again so that we can get enough oil to make more plastic bags so that we can throw them away - so "no thank you I do not need a plastic bag". I mostly feel like a lone voice in the wilderness! But by now there is no stopping me and the next question is when is this supermarket going to start charging for plastic bags? I go to customer services and repeat the question and then I write it down and post it in their suggestion/complaints box. The hypocrisy of the supermarkets leads to blood pressuring, vein popping fury by the time I have reached those gracefully sliding exit doors. All the apparently, ethically sound, re-cycling bins stand like over stuffed elephants in the car park and yet supermarkets do nothing to pressurize manufacturers to reduce their hideous overpackaging and do nothing to encourage shoppers to reduce their consumption of plastic bags.

They did it very successfully in Ireland, they set a date for the introduction of charging on plastic bags; they explained their motives to the shoppers and won their support and on the big day shoppers turned out sporting their own shopping bags.

I appeal to all shoppers; let's see you out there with your own bags and to those really up market, fashion conscious ageless hip types I look forward to seeing you with your Rolla trolley. I will just smile and know that there goes a person with a brain and a soul.

16 April 2005

Collective rights - and wrongs

By Marguerite Finn

"An Englishman's home is his castle". This old saying reflects an attitude towards property that is enshrined in the laws, customs and emotions not only of this country but in most countries throughout the western world.

Is it not remarkable then, that there are upwards of 300 million people in the world for whom the notion of individual property has no meaning at all? These are Indigenous Peoples such as the American Indian tribes, the Innuit and Innu of the circumpolar regions, the Masai of Tanzania, the Aborigines of Australia, the Sami of Finland and thousands of other groups, for whom the idea of 'land' is a collective notion. Many of these peoples live in western countries whose property laws are based upon individual rights and therefore have no meaning for them.

To Indigenous Peoples, their land is sacred as a 'communal whole' - not in individual patches. The land's sacred nature sustains them spiritually only if it remains intact and inviolate. Likewise for the produce of the land: it sustains them only if it is husbanded by collective agreement. Their law is based upon the indivisibility of the land therefore individual property ownership is unthinkable to them. Their housing, too, is often a communal unit - such as the 'yanos' - the huge communal building that is home to the Yanomami Tribe. Because they live in concord with their lands, Indigenous Communities have tremendous knowledge of the plants and animals with which they share their territories. Their knowledge of medicinal plants, hardy plant species and disease-resistant cattle, developed over generations, is shared and used collectively. Now these communities are vulnerable to corporate globalisation and "development". Their lands, rich in natural resources and biological diversity, present great opportunities for profit; and because their sovereignty is not recognised or protected by international trade agreements, corporations are not required to compensate or consult with Indigenous Peoples before coming on to their land, displacing them from their homes, destroying their way of life, to drill for oil, cut down forests or mine for minerals.

The World Trade Organisation's rule concerning intellectual property rights is particularly threatening because it does not recognise collective intellectual property. As a result, precious tribal knowledge is being appropriated by individuals and corporations, with a view to claiming patent rights. In addition to robbing Indigenous knowledge and wealth, current global trade agreements undermine the entire basis of Indigenous Knowledge by creating incentives for individuals to keep new knowledge for themselves rather than share it with the community. Indigenous Peoples have a completely different concept of knowledge, wealth, development and progress to that of non-indigenous people. They tend to value environmental sustainability, cultural preservation and spirituality over economic growth. They offer a radical alternative to mainstream individualism.

Some Indigenous Peoples have reached working agreements with their western-style governments, who recognise that they have collective rights, (mysterious though they may seem to a western capitalist society), upon which their survival depends and which governments must respect. A British Royal Proclamation of 1763 recognised the legality of Indian territorial possessions in Canada and Florida. The Waitangi Treaty of 1840 referred to lands in New Zealand that Maori Peoples "may collectively possess". Sometimes the arrangements have not been so satisfactory. The 1887 Dawes Act split US Indian land into individual plots which outsiders could obtain by trickery, bribery or violence. The plight of Australia's 450,000 Aborigines was significantly improved by two High Court Rulings in the 1990s, but fierce lobbying by the powerful mining and farming industries, forced the Australian government to undermine the Aboriginees' legal victories and render them meaningless.

Aborigines remain the most disadvantaged group in Australia's 20 million population. This month, Australian Premier, John Howard, raised the prospect of a major change to aboriginal land rights by replacing an ancient communal system with private ownership. In a wilful misunderstanding of the notion of collective rights, he insisted, "every Australian black or white, should be able to own their own home as a symbol of a person's worth."

A UN Working Group recently completed a draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, encompassing collective rights and sovereignty. But Britain, with Australia, Canada and the US, is blocking this new Declaration - insisting that 'collective' human rights don't exist. Where previously it accepted the concept of collective title to land, it now says this is an individual right "exercised collectively"! Norway, Denmark and 33 other countries have signed up unreservedly - only the post-colonialists prevaricate. Why? Survival International believes that the UK's actions in this case are reprehensible and should be firmly opposed.