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How Open Source Technology can be a Development Tool

Yesterday, the United Nations Foundation and the Vodafone Group Foundation announced the successful conclusion of a year long pilot program that integrated open source mobile phone technology into the public health systems of Kenya and Zambia. The pilot program equipped Palm Zires with a software tool called EpiSurveyor, created by the NGO Datadyne. (A little while back UN Dispatch featured a Delegates Lounge post by Datadyne’s Dr. Joel Selanikio, who was training public health officials in Zambia how to use EpiSurveyor.)

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The pilot projects were huge successes.

[H]andheld devices facilitated the supervision of public health clinics, and resulted in improved drug supply-chain management and more regular access to public health trends. Additionally, country health officials modified the EpiSurveyor software to track and contain disease outbreaks, and to identify immunization campaign coverage rates.

And because the pilot program used open source software, it could be easily modified by country health officials as needed.

Designed to facilitate the supervision of health data in public clinics using handheld computers, the initiative broke ground when country officials modified the open source EpiSurveyor data-gathering software to meet other public health needs as they arose. In Kenya health officials modified EpiSurveyor to investigate and contain a polio outbreak, and in Zambia health officials modified the software to conduct a post-measles-immunization campaign coverage survey to identify which children had not been vaccinated. Because the EpiSurveyor application is open source, its application was owned and controlled entirely by WHO and country health officials without depending on outside consultants.

Next week, the United Nations will be hosting a conference on how free and open source software (FOSS) can be better harnessed as a development tool. The conference, organized by the United Nations Institute for Training and Research and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development will “present case studies of successful FOSS implementations in various environments.”

No doubt they could point to the Episurveyor experiment in Zambia and Kenya as a case study.

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The UNCLOS Battle

At the Heritage Foundation’s in house blog, Andrew Grossman admits ignorance to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Nothing wrong about that–you have to be fairly plugged in to know what the Convention is all about.

The problem is, he looks to Doug Bandow for enlightenment. Bandow, you may recall, was the syndicated columnist who resigned from CATO last year after it was revealed he was secretly on the take from Jack Abramoff, who paid Bandow $2,000 per column to shill on behalf of his clients. Bandow was picked up by an outfit called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which apparently does not mind if one its “experts” used to accept cash to promote the clients of a now convicted felon.

Meanwhile, over at the Washington Note, Scott Paul offers some smart commentary on what is really at stake with the UNCLOS ratification battle:

The conventional wisdom is that multilateral treaties are dead on arrival in the Senate. If we’re interested in promoting the International Criminal Court, a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or the Conventions on women’s rights, children’s rights, landmines, or biological diversity, we’ve got to get the Law of the Sea done.

My colleague Don Kraus sums it up:

“Think about it. If a Senate with a Democratic majority can not muster the 66 votes to pass a treaty supported by a Republican president, what is the possibility of doing so under a potential Democratic president who will face much stiffer Republican opposition?

“If the U.S, cannot join an agreement supported by environmental groups, petroleum trade associations, peace groups, the Coast Guard, Navy, departments of State, Commerce, and the Interior (just to name a few) — what is the chance that we engage on other agreements?

“One senate staffer I talked to recently has been yelling at groups coming to talk with him about climate change. He’s been telling them that he doesn’t want to talk to them unless the first words out of their mouth are “Law of the Sea,” because “if we can’t get this one through, none of the other agreements are going to get through.”

The stars are aligning on UNCLOS’ behalf. As Scott and Don like to say UNCLOS is “low hanging fruit.” Perhaps this helps explain why folks like Bandow and Frank Gaffney are on a mission to make UNCLOS into a boogey monster. (To wit: this ad, flagged by Matt Yglesias, from “America’s Survivial,” which is an outfit dedicated to opposing international treaties.) The stakes are high for the knee-jerk anti-UN crowd. UNCLOS’ wide support from diverse constituencies could mean ratification. And from there it is only a slippery slope to the moment when UN tax collectors come knocking at their door the United States becomes more positively engaged in multilateral institutions that advance American interests by promoting the rule of law.

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What about the Veto?

I certainly agree with Blake’s premise that the unilateral efforts of any one nation, even China, are unlikely to completely turn the tide in Myanmar. However, I think he overlooks one key aspect of China’s foreign policy arsenal, its veto on the UN Security Council.

Unfortunately, for those who see multilateral economic sanctions and curbing of weapons sales as a logical move forward, China chose today to withdraw that option, stating that it is “resolutely opposed” to Security Council sanctions. This announcement no doubt came as a relief to Than Shwe, who has been concerned enough about sanctions to state that he would meet with Aung San Suu Kyi if she stopped calling for them.

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AU-UN Force Commander Speaks Out

The force commander of the AU-UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur, Gen. Martin Luther Agwai, grants an interview to Newsweek International. The frustration he expresses is palpable. Via the DARFUR blog:

You’ve warned the international community not to set its expectations too high. Why?

The resolution that created this hybrid [peacekeeping] operation is not a secret document, so many people have read that the force is to have 20,000 troops. I have had telephone calls from different organizations and individuals congratulating me that I now have 20,000 troops. Unfortunately, as you and I know now, we don’t even know the troop contributors, so how can we talk about what those troops will do? Those people who are calling me will see nothing happening on the ground and feel disappointed. That is why I have already cautioned people not to expect too much because there is not much happening on the ground.

So you’re saying things aren’t changing fast enough?

Definitely. I am very concerned. I accepted the job because I wanted to give it my best, and I can only give it my best and be judged by the world depending on the resources available to me. And the resources are not forthcoming. They are not giving me 20,000 [troops], not to mention the equipment the troops will use, not to mention the other staff we will need in the mission. Nothing. So I am really, really concerned.

Plus, there’s no peace deal yet. How can you be expected to provide security when there’s no peace deal?

Lack of peace on the ground is definitely another big challenge because we are here as peacekeepers, and our job would be easier and smoother if there were a peace deal brokered for us. Unfortunately, right now, there is no peace to keep. So it has become another Herculean task to see that people are protected. We hope the talks in Libya [scheduled to start Oct. 27] result in an acceptable, comprehensive peace agreement for us and for every party involved.

Essentially, the general is saying that he has no troops to keep a peace that does not exist–and, in any case, he does not expect troops will be made available to him in the near future. Until member states pony up, it is hard to see how the situation on the ground can change for the better. This includes providing the force with proper financial and diplomatic support. A Security Council peacekeeping authorization is basically useless unless member states are willing to back it up by providing troops and funding for the mission.

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Environment conference begins in Belgrade

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) has started a ‘carbon-neutral’ environment conference in Belgrade.

“Ministers and other high-level representatives will discuss environmental policy, including measures to tackle global warming. But they will not have contributed to climate change by meeting in Belgrade,” the Commission said.

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Milliband Defends the UN

The new (and young) UK Foreign Minister David Milliband is blogging and appears to be doing it well. He’s making an effort to directly connect with other bloggers. As Blake noted, he sat down with Steve, Sameer, Blake, and I at an event coordinated by UN Dispatch when he was in town for the opening session of the UN General Assembly. And, he’s directly responding to comments.

Yesterday, he defended the UN.

Quite a few of the comments on the blog so far have attacked the UN for various failings. It’s not a perfect institution — shock. It should be reformed — of course. But don’t fall for the argument that because it’s not perfect it is not valuable.

The UN deploys the second-largest number of troops and police (over 80 000) and in operating 15 peacekeeping and political missions around the world. It organises peace negotiations for the some of the most difficult places — Darfur coming up. Its development fund has sponsored projects in over 100 countries for women’s health and safety. It raises more than $2 billion a year for devastating natural and humanitarian disasters. It oversees criminal tribunals on Former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Lebanon. Immunisation rates for the six major vaccine-preventable diseases are up to over 75%. And it has unique authority to speak for decent opinion around the world.

To add to that, the UN peacekeepers he mentions are most often deployed to some of the world’s most complex conflict zones — including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, southern Sudan, and Liberia. Were the UN unable to undertake these missions, the U.S., the U.K., and our allies would either be forced to do so themselves or allow the conflicts to fester and, in most cases, destabilize entire regions. The UN not only raises massive amounts of money for humanitarian relief, it undertakes often dangerous missions to conflict zones like southern Lebanon and souther Sudan and in the wake of earthquakes, tsunamis, and droughts to deliver that aid.

In addition to their unmatched vaccination work, the WHO and other UN agencies are also coordinating national and regional programs in over 100 nations to fight HIV/AIDS, working to halve the world’s malaria burden by 2010, and monitoring and coordinating responses to possible global epidemics, including avian flu. The UN eradicated smallpox in 1979 and has nearly done the same to polio.

The UN has monitored elections for over half of the world’s nations and has also coalesced the world behind a set of robust goals to reduce poverty and promote development. It inspects nuclear facilities in over 140 nations. And, perhaps most importantly, while it is sometimes difficult for the UN Member States to arrive at a consensus, when they do that consensus carries the weight of the world behind it.

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