26 July 2008

Hope is in sight for an independent Iraq

By Liam Carroll

The future of Iraq has surely become the most pivotal issue in world affairs in recent weeks, not only for its own sakes, but also for the bearing it will have on the Iranian crisis, the 'War on Terror', and the US presidential race. The central issue concerns the stability of the Iraqi government in Baghdad; if it consolidates and prospers over the next few months then tensions with Iran will be reduced, al Qaeda's days in Iraq will be numbered and Barak Obama's policy of troop withdrawals will seem prescient and well timed.

If however, the government collapses and civil war resumes then the inevitable Iranian support for Shiite militia will raise tensions with the United States, al Qaeda will have a recruitment field-day and the idea of withdrawing US troops will seem reckless and fool hardy. There is a lot at stake in Iraq, primarily the lives of the people who live there, but the consequences of a failed state for others, could be astronomical too.

The renewed hope for a stable Iraq has come in the wake of the Surge and the new found assertiveness of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who led a bloody but successful counterinsurgency effort in southern Iraq, mostly directed at the Sadrist militia forces in Basra. The Surge and the Charge of the Knights as Maliki's campaign was somewhat pretentiously dubbed, have coincided with the settlement of a number of turf wars between several Shiite factions, and the battle between al Qaeda and the Sunni tribes that joined the 'Awakening' (the US plan of paying and arming Iraqi tribes to fight al Qaeda). Al Qaeda have been hugely degraded as a result of the Awakening, according to US analysts, and a lot of the insurgent and militia forces are now managing various rackets and criminal fiefdoms that have helped to establish an uneasy, but relatively peaceful status quo. The Surge, the Charge and the Awakening have come at a considerable cost in terms of casualties, but the hope now is that this hard won reduction in violence can be converted into a non-violent political process.

The big challenge then for the Iraqi government in Baghdad is finding a way to reach out to tribal and sectarian groups who are well armed but insecure about their future and wary of how power will be distributed in the long run. Building trust in the government through providing effective services and appealing to the Iraqi sense of nationalism over and above sectarian divisions is the strategy being advocated by the United Nations and the International Crisis Group. This will not be easy; the Sunni Awakening tribes and the Sunni insurgents are suspicious of a majority Shia government that may end up close to Iran, and the Shia parties are wary of the well armed Sunni groups that remain outside the writ of the government. None the less, important talks on the return of the leading Sunni bloc, Tawafuq, to the Government is a good indication of progress in that regard, and the cease fire with Moqtada al-Sadr, a key Shia militia leader, is also positive.

The delivery of services, particularly water, sanitation, electricity and health care is a pressing need that the government needs to resolve post-haste to reverse the dreadful humanitarian conditions that still prevail over most of the country. The inability of the government to develop a working relationship with the provincial and municipal authorities has been a major impediment to relieving the dire consequences of years of conflict. The rejuvenation of the state apparatus is therefore a vital component in stabilizing the country, and in this regard several international agencies and the UN are working hard to ensure funds are available, and that the government remains on target to deliver free and fair provincial elections in October that should help resolve some of these difficulties.

The policies of the two most influential outside powers, the US and Iran, are also important elements in helping to support the non-violent political process. The two countries have been extremely wary of each others' influence in the country but it now looks like Iraqi nationalism and the government's desire to assert its own sovereignty could help settle these fears. Prime Minister Maliki's recent statement that he would like to see US forces leave in 2010 and his opposition to a UN mandated multi-national force, are manifestations of a growing self-confidence and the strong desire in the country to achieve national independence.

The elements for peace in Iraq finally appear to be on the horizon and there is certainly cause for hope. The next few months will be crucial, and boy do we wish them well.

19 July 2008

Could the US make peace with Iran?

By Liam Carroll

The United States is, for the first time, sending a senior envoy to sit down at the same table with the Iranians and the other world powers to discuss the Iranian nuclear fuel programme. This is a first for the Bush administration which over six years ago placed Iran on the 'Axis of Evil' on the basis that they supported terrorists and were developing weapons of mass destruction. For good measure, it was added in the speech that the unelected Iranian leaders also "repressed the Iranian people's hope for freedom".

What the Americans meant by 'terrorists' were the militant groups opposed to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territories and disputed parts of Lebanon. It wasn't a reference to al Qaeda, whom Iran had helped the American's fight in Afghanistan during the first few months of the 'War on Terror'. The al Qaeda terrorists, it should be remembered, emerged from the fighters assembled by the American CIA, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to fight the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, back in the eighties. The Iranians too, like everyone else in the region, is still suffering from the after effects of the American plan, as al Qaeda and the Taliban cause trouble for the Iranian regime by aligning themselves with the militant separatists in Iran's tribal region which borders Pakistan (known as Balochistan).

It is generally forgotten these days that Iran was encouraged to develop nuclear power, and indeed the United States built a nuclear reactor there, when the Shah Mohammed Pahlavi ruled the country before being overthrown in a popular mass revolution. Since that time the United States has done everything in it's power to prevent the Iranians from acquiring further nuclear technology in violation of Article IV of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which is designed to help deliver the benefits of nuclear power to all. One could argue with the wisdom of that intention, but one cannot dispute the fact that the basic right to make nuclear fuel has been enshrined in one of the world’s most important post world war treaties.

Since the Iranian people overthrew Washington's favoured Iranian ruler, the Shah, who used brutal forms of repression to preserve his reign, the United States has held a deep animosity toward the Iranian regime, against whom they have supported a string of adversaries. The principle adversary that Washington backed was Saddam Hussein who fought a long and dirty war against the Iranians that included extensive use of chemical weapons against the Iranian troops and their Kurdish allies, with full knowledge and acquiescence from the United States (including the infamous gassing of the town of Halabja which killed an estimated 100,000 Kurds). In the same year, 1988, the US also accidentally shot down a civilian Iranian airliner in Iranian airspace killing some 290 people.

Since then US hostility toward Iran has only deepened over Iranian support for Shiite militias in Iraq, and the continuing rise of the Iranian backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, whom US backed Israeli forces tried to destroy two years ago, resulting in large numbers of Lebanese civilian casualties. If these confrontations weren’t bad enough of course, we now have an increasingly bitter war of words escalating between Iran and Israel over the nuclear fuel programme, with US aircraft carriers, armed with tactical nuclear weapons, floating close to the Iranian border in the Persian Gulf.

It is commonplace in the West to depict Iran as the unreasonable aggressor in this long standing confrontation with the United States and Israel, and to wonder at what point these two nations will deliver what the Iranians have clearly got coming to them. Fortunately for the people of Iraq, who most likely would be the first mass casualties as Baghdad went up in flames, the threatened air strikes are extremely unlikely to happen. The proof of this is the volte-face by the Bush administration over it’s refusal to negotiate with the Iranian regime unless they suspend their uranium enrichment programme, which they have not.

The big question then, is to ask why it is that the Bush administration has made this dramatic policy shift. The answer is that the US needs Iranian help to stabilize Iraq, or else it has no chance of maintaining a central government in Baghdad. The US needs the Iraqi government to authorize a legal agreement on keeping US military forces in the country and to get the Oil Law passed, and it increasingly seems like they won't be able to do that without Iranian help. The US doesn't normally negotiate with 'evil', but as the saying goes, "needs must when the devil drives."

12 July 2008

Three coins in the UN fountain

By Marguerite Finn

As the dust settles on the latest G8 talk-fest, I thought it would be interesting to look at some UN Agencies quietly getting on with the long-term business of defeating malnutrition. My research took me on a voyage of discovery that ended up right here in Norwich!

Last week, I described the World Food Programme (WFP) as the emergency service at the heart of the UN – which it is – but it collaborates with two other agencies in a coherent way. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) and the WFP are all based in Rome. One might call them the 'Three Coins in the Fountain' (for those who can remember that 1954 song!), 'each one seeking happiness' by working together to alleviate the scourge of hunger.

A good example of this three-fold partnership in action was their collaborative response to the Asian tsunami. The WFP moved thousands of tons of food, by land, sea and air, to the tsunami zone. The FAO helped the governments plan the rehabilitation of the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sectors. The IFAD mobilised funds to rebuild livelihoods in coastal communities. The three agencies, while separate and independent, were complementary and effective, bringing the benefit of their combined strengths to the affected communities.

Last month, the FAO hosted a Summit meeting in Rome, where 40 heads of governments gathered to discuss the food crisis and the poor state of world farming. The outcome was an acknowledgement that misplaced subsidies and the consequent stunting of the agricultural sector in the developing world was largely to blame for the current crisis. For example, in 2006, only £2 billion was spent on agricultural development in developing countries compared to £12.5 billion spent worldwide on subsidies to farmers in the developed world. The World Bank admitted neglecting farming in Africa and forcing poor countries to "liberalise their economies prematurely" - which damaged their agricultural sectors.

Government ministers in Rome and Japan are unanimous in their calls for increased investment in agriculture as a matter of urgency. Nothing less than a "second green revolution" will suffice.

The first green revolution, however, was achieved in the 1970's when scientists and policymakers focused on increasing production at whatever cost, binding small farmers into dependence on big (Western) corporations. The result we have today is an unsustainable global agricultural system that is highly intensive and relies on the availability of cheap energy and vast amounts of water for irrigation. What was seen as the solution, thirty years ago, has become today’s problem.

The IFAD is committed to reversing the decline in agricultural productivity and the growing problem of desertification. Since IFAD was created in 1977, it has focused exclusively on rural poverty reduction. Lennart B├ąge, Head of IFAD, believes that supporting smallholders is crucial to future food security. He says, "the world's 450 million smallholder farms of two hectares or less are often efficient producers on a yield-per-hectare basis". He cites the example of Vietnam, which has risen from being a food-deficient country to the world's second-largest rice exporter, largely as a result of the development of its smallholder farming sector. The portion of Vietnamese living in absolute poverty has declined from 58 percent to 14 percent.

To realise their potential, smallholder farmers need unfettered access to technology to boost productivity and to microfinance for fertilisers, seeds and tools; they also need access to water, roads and market information - but with no strings attached this time round.

At this point, I encountered something that was a surprise to me.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an organisation most associated in the public mind with nuclear weapons inspection, works closely with the three agencies in Rome. The IAEA, whose restrictive treaty with the World Health Organisation in 1959 discourages that latter from publishing research into health problems associated with radiation, is nevertheless using nuclear technology positively to develop better varieties of food crops. IAEA worked on the development of saline-tolerant rice varieties and on projects to determine how supplementation programmes affect the breast milk of nursing mothers - this is where the link with Norwich comes in. The Institute of Food Research in Norwich works with the IAEA on nutritional issues, putting Norwich at the cutting edge of modern technology, working alongside those at the heart of the United Nations to deliver a second green revolution in agriculture and food production. If the UN oversees ethical standards necessary to protect vulnerable members of society, then there could be a win-win situation where both rural populations and private enterprise benefit.

5 July 2008

The emergency service at the heart of the UN

By Marguerite Finn

Before shutting down my computer of an evening, I often take a quick look at the UN News Service to see what is happening in the rest of the world. It can be a shocking reminder of how unforgiving and complex a world we live in. It is not always the best news to go to bed on, yet at the heart of all this complexity there is a beacon of hope.

Here in Norwich, we may be enjoying some of the hottest days of the year, the strawberries may be cooling in the fridge and the Wimbledon season may be in full swing; meanwhile in Ethiopia, 4.6 million people are facing acute malnutrition as the drought in the southern and south-eastern parts of that country intensifies. Seasonal rains have failed, affecting crop production, the availability of pastures, the raising of livestock – in fact, just about everything required for survival.

Ethiopia is not alone. At the World Food Crisis Summit in Rome on 4th June, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) announced it was "scaling up its urgent food assistance in 62 countries".

I found myself wondering what organisation on earth could cope with the challenges of global disaster management? Even those who habitually groan at the mention of the 'United Nations' would have to agree that the World Food Programme does a pretty good job – although their successes rarely make media headlines.

This is their story.

A wave of food-price inflation is moving across the globe, leaving in its wake drastically increased levels of hunger and poverty. The phenomenon is affecting everyone but the poor and hungry are on the front line, as are the agencies working with them. We are facing a real war here: against malnutrition on the one hand, and dwindling resources, climate change and the protection of unsustainable lifestyles, on the other. As in all wars, the strategic planning and execution of the various 'battles' determines whether the war will be won or not. Imagine a scenario in which three different organisations are competing over the 'units' of starving people: one might be a multinational corporation with good ideas but governed by the profit motive; another might be a well-meaning NGO but with a necessary eye on good publicity; the third might be a religious charity with its own spiritual agenda.

Who pulls all these different strands together?

The World Food Programme was established in 1963 as a multilateral food-aid programme. Current high food prices represent the biggest challenge in its 45-year history. Everyday it tackles the daunting task of mobilising enough food and delivering it where – and when - it is most needed. Staff have been ambushed and killed in the process. WFP recently appealed to the world's naval powers to provide escorts to protect its food-aid ships from pirate attacks. The Royal Netherlands Navy is about to finish its tour of duty but so far there have been no offers to take over from them. Without escorts, the WFP maritime supply routes will be threatened.

Wearing my nuclear-disarmament hat, I am tempted to say that in a world where over 854 million people are hungry, escorting ships of essential food supplies might be a more useful and honourable job than permanently patrolling the bottom of the seas with unusable nuclear weapons.

WFP has drawn up a strategic plan which is quite a revolution in food-aid: 80 percent of its cash for food is spent in the developing world, 80 percent of ground transport is similarly procured and 80 percent of staff is hired locally.

I asked Greg Barrow, current head of WFP-UK, how did the various aid agencies manage not to fall over each other and duplicate their efforts. He agreed that in any particular humanitarian crisis a combination of agencies usually did respond, including UN agencies, NGOs, governments and even private individuals. He said much has been done to co-ordinate the activities of these different agencies, with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) playing an important role and WFP taking the lead on providing logistical support and food assistance. UN agencies work hand-in-hand with NGOs. WFP works with more than 3000 NGOs around the world, using its heavy-lifting support to get the food to where the NGOs on the ground say it is needed.

The people of Norwich will have a unique opportunity to put their questions directly to the head of WFP-UK on Saturday 25 October, at a Public Meeting in Blackfriar's Hall (7.30pm) hosted by the local branch of the United Nations Association, who are celebrating their 60th anniversary.