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>>China – Envoys from the Dalai Lama will travel to China on Saturday for informal talks. China has blamed the exiled Buddhist leader for fomenting the March 10 unrest in Tibet, which it claims was aimed at distracting attention from the Beijing Olympic Games in August. This is the seventh round of dialog between China and the Dalai Lama’s envoys since 2002. While the envoys are there, they can visit Beijing airport’s newly opened terminal 3 (the largest building in the world), a factory that will soon produce one in four bibles, and the world’s longest sea bridge. If I were them, I’d avoid Mia Farrow though.

>>Iraq – Turkish bombers launched three hours of fierce raids on northern Iraq last night. No casualties were reported. The raids were targeting senior PKK members in Iraq’s remote Qandil mountains.

>>Germany – A rally by 6,000 left-wing demonstrators to protest a rally by Germany’s extreme right-wing National Democratic Party broke bad yesterday in Hamburg, as protesters set cars on fire and pelted police with bottles. Water cannons were used to quell the violence. May Day typically brings violent street protests to German cities, but these may have been the worst in years.

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Don’t Throw the Biofuels out with the Bathwater

Commenting on the rush to blame biofuels for the global food crisis, the UN’s Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes has warned against “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” His ideas were echoed by Lennart Baage of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, who said, “It is important not to go to extremes.”

In fact, there are a number of experts trying to dispel the myth that biofuels are the sole or primary force behind the unfolding global food crisis. As I have discussed previously on UN Dispatch, the processes that have caused the spike in food prices are numerous and complex (including increased demand, rising oil prices, the weak dollar, commodity speculation, trade distortions), and policymakers should avoid making a scapegoat out of biofuels simply because it is politically expedient.

The truth is that sound policy toward biofuels can be extremely beneficial for the developing world. Nobody has said that the shift to biofuels from fossil fuels has been perfectly executed, but you would be hard pressed to find an energy expert who says that the situation presented by fossil fuel reliance is a sustainable path. The initial move toward biofuels offers developing countries an opportunity to develop natural resources and infrastructure that will help lead away from oil addiction, with the significant environmental, economic and security benefits that implies. Policymakers have already learned many lessons about the “smart” and “dumb” ways to manage the production and sale of plant-based fuel, and with this experience leaders will be all the more prepared to deploy the next generation of biofuels (made from non-food plants and agricultural waste products), which will be even further dissociated with the limitations of the current generation.

John Holmes and Lennart Baage are right, managing food and energy requires a longer-term perspective and casting blame is counterproductive. The food crisis should be approached as a whole and responses must be measured. Thankfully, the UN is prepared to take a cautious approach, so at least on the international level, it seems unlikely that the world will throw the biofuels out with the bathwater.

Current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has initiated immediate and sweeping responses to prevent dire impacts from rapidly escalating food prices. And former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is stressing the importance of long-term investment in agriculture, as part of a drive toward a second “green revolution” in Africa. He estimates that food production on the continent could be doubled or tripled through such a change. Unfortunately, this is made difficult as a result of such factors as drought and lack of property rights for farmers in many African countries. If these problems can be overcome, however, the African continent could quickly move simultaneously toward growing its own food and securing its economic, energy and environmental future.

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Don’t Throw the Biofuels out with the Bathwater

Commenting on the rush to blame biofuels for the global food crisis, the UN’s Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes has warned against “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” His ideas were echoed by Lennart Baage of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, who said, “It is important not to go to extremes.”

In fact, there are a number of experts trying to dispel the myth that biofuels are the sole or primary force behind the unfolding global food crisis. As I have discussed previously on UN Dispatch, the processes that have caused the spike in food prices are numerous and complex (including increased demand, rising oil prices, the weak dollar, commodity speculation, trade distortions), and policymakers should avoid making a scapegoat out of biofuels simply because it is politically expedient.

The truth is that sound policy toward biofuels can be extremely beneficial for the developing world. Nobody has said that the shift to biofuels from fossil fuels has been perfectly executed, but you would be hard pressed to find an energy expert who says that the situation presented by fossil fuel reliance is a sustainable path. The initial move toward biofuels offers developing countries an opportunity to develop natural resources and infrastructure that will help lead away from oil addiction, with the significant environmental, economic and security benefits that implies. Policymakers have already learned many lessons about the “smart” and “dumb” ways to manage the production and sale of plant-based fuel, and with this experience leaders will be all the more prepared to deploy the next generation of biofuels (made from non-food plants and agricultural waste products), which will be even further dissociated with the limitations of the current generation.

John Holmes and Lennart Baage are right, managing food and energy requires a longer-term perspective and casting blame is counterproductive. The food crisis should be approached as a whole and responses must be measured. Thankfully, the UN is prepared to take a cautious approach, so at least on the international level, it seems unlikely that the world will throw the biofuels out with the bathwater.

Current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has initiated immediate and sweeping responses to prevent dire impacts from rapidly escalating food prices. And former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is stressing the importance of long-term investment in agriculture, as part of a drive toward a second “green revolution” in Africa. He estimates that food production on the continent could be doubled or tripled through such a change. Unfortunately, this is made difficult as a result of such factors as drought and lack of property rights for farmers in many African countries. If these problems can be overcome, however, the African continent could quickly move simultaneously toward growing its own food and securing its economic, energy and environmental future.

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The Meaning of “Realism”

Security Council countries took a turn at word interpretation yesterday, somewhat ambiguously invoking the need for “realism” in negotiations between Western Sahara and Morocco, which has occupied the desert territory since 1975. What this means in reality — no pun intended — is that outright independence is likely off the table for Western Sahara. The Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force that has maintained a ceasefire there since 1991, but the Council’s president in April, South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, objected to what he perceived as powerful countries’ bias toward Morocco in the dispute.

“This council has made a mistake. They sent a wrong message to Morocco, thinking that they will always support Morocco,” Kumalo told reporters after the vote, adding that he nevertheless voted in favor because he still held out hopes for the negotiations.

In a statement to the council after the vote, he said the reference to realism could set a precedent in other conflicts, such as that between Israelis and Palestinians, that the principle “might is right” would hold sway.

Kumalo also complained that the resolution drafted by France, Russia, Spain, Britain and the United States omitted any reference to human rights, a sensitive subject for Morocco. He said such an omission was a case of double standards.

I can’t help but notice that Kumalo’s examples conspicuously did not include Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe’s faltering government has long benefited from South Africa’s protection. If it is “realistic” to downplay the prospect of Western Saharan independence, then surely it is equally so to acknowledge the electoral defeat that even Zimbabwe seems ready to admit. For South Africa to continue to shield Mugabe, then, would represent an entirely unambiguous “case of double standards.”

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The Meaning of “Realism”

Security Council countries took a turn at word interpretation yesterday, somewhat ambiguously invoking the need for “realism” in negotiations between Western Sahara and Morocco, which has occupied the desert territory since 1975. What this means in reality — no pun intended — is that outright independence is likely off the table for Western Sahara. The Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN peacekeeping force that has maintained a ceasefire there since 1991, but the Council’s president in April, South African Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, objected to what he perceived as powerful countries’ bias toward Morocco in the dispute.

“This council has made a mistake. They sent a wrong message to Morocco, thinking that they will always support Morocco,” Kumalo told reporters after the vote, adding that he nevertheless voted in favor because he still held out hopes for the negotiations.

In a statement to the council after the vote, he said the reference to realism could set a precedent in other conflicts, such as that between Israelis and Palestinians, that the principle “might is right” would hold sway.

Kumalo also complained that the resolution drafted by France, Russia, Spain, Britain and the United States omitted any reference to human rights, a sensitive subject for Morocco. He said such an omission was a case of double standards.

I can’t help but notice that Kumalo’s examples conspicuously did not include Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe’s faltering government has long benefited from South Africa’s protection. If it is “realistic” to downplay the prospect of Western Saharan independence, then surely it is equally so to acknowledge the electoral defeat that even Zimbabwe seems ready to admit. For South Africa to continue to shield Mugabe, then, would represent an entirely unambiguous “case of double standards.”

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Mobile Phones for Social Change

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The Vodafone Foundation and the United Nations Foundation released a new report on innovative uses of mobile technology by NGOs working to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals. The report identifies emerging trends in “mobile activism” through 11 case studies, and highlights the results of a global survey of NGO usage of mobile technology.

Here’s a taste of some of the findings from three of the case studies:

Cell-Life, a non-governmental organization based in Cape Town, South Africa, created its “Aftercare” program to work with the public health system and its health workers to provide home-based care for HIV/AIDS patients receiving Anti-Retroviral Treatments. Each Aftercare worker is assigned to monitor 15 to 20 patients. The worker visits the patient in his or her home, and in a one on one session discusses the patient’s current treatment. Using their mobile phones for data capture, Aftercare workers record information about patient medical status, drug adherence, and other factors that may affect a patient’s ART therapy. Aftercare workers then relay this information via text message to a central Cell-Life database. The data sent via text message reaches the Cell-Life server, where a care manager uses a web-based system to access and monitor the incoming patient information. The manager can also respond to Aftercare workers’ questions and provide supplemental information to improve patient care. The information collected not only facilitates individual patient care, but is also used to build a database of information on the severity and prevalence of the South African AIDS epidemic in these regions.

More examples like this after the jump. EpiSurveyor
In 2002, Dr. Joel Selanikio teamed up with computer scientist Rose Donna to form the DataDyne Group, a non-profit dedicated to increasing access to public health data through mobile software solutions. Inspired by an earlier Centers for Disease Control product called Epi Info, Selanikio created EpiSurveyor, a free, open source mobile data collection software tool. EpiSurveyor offers health data collection forms that can be downloaded at no cost and modified by anyone with basic computer skills.

Through the pilot, thirty provincial health supervisors in Zambia and Kenya were trained in how to use EpiSurveyor on Palm Zire handheld computers. The health officers then used EpiSurveyor to collect management data about public health clinics–such as medical supply quantities and levels of staff training. In both countries, officers went beyond the purpose of the pilot to gather additional health data as new needs arose. In Zambia, for example, the supplied PDAs and EpiSurveyor software were used by health officers to conduct a post-measles vaccination campaign coverage survey–the very first time that such a survey had been independently conducted by in-country staff using PDAs.

HOW IT WORKS: EpiSurveyor incorporates a Windows- based “Designer” forms creation application, and a Java-based engine that can run on personal digital assistants (PDAs), smart phones, and soon, common mobile phones. Users start by downloading the software from the DataDyne.org website (www.datadyne.org). Then, using a desktop or laptop computer, they enter the health survey questions into the Designer program. The resulting form can then be published to a mobile device. For data that is collected via PDA or smart phone, once data is collected from the field the mobile device is synchronized with the computer. Data from multiple handsets can then be combined into a single data table for analysis.

And here in the United States
SexInfo
It was while standing in front of the Mission High School near her home in San Francisco, California that Deborah Levine, executive director of internet Sexuality Information Services (ISIS-Inc.), a nonprofit she founded that develops “high-tech solutions for sexual health education,” conceived of a potential solution to a pressing public health problem.

Levine had recently been approached by the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) to develop a website to address rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases among at-risk youth. In 2005, rates of gonorrhea among African-American youth, ages 18 to 25, had gone up over 100 percent, with African-American women being infected by the disease at 12 times the rate of American women of Caucasian descent. With 85 percent of the city’s youth owning a mobile phone, a text-based approach simply made sense.

ISIS hired HipCricket, Inc., a mobile marketing firm in Australia, to program a service it developed known as SexInfo. Next came the task of working with mobile operators to provide mobile phone subscribers with access to the service. HipCricket offered to let ISIS-Inc use its five-digit ‘short code’ during the project’s
start-up phase. Levine was then able to work through an aggregator in the United States to obtain the short code (61827) now being used to access SexInfo.

During the first 25 weeks of the project (April–October 2006), 4,500 individuals accessed the service, with 2,500 taking the steps to retrieve content and referrals. The top three messages accessed were: “What 2 do if ur condom broke,: “2 find out about STDs” and “if u think ur pregnant.”

Eight more case studies are examined in the report. And be sure to check out our interview with report co-author Katrin Verclas.

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