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King Tut Died of Malaria

King Tutankhamun, an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, discovered with his tomb almost completely intact by Howard Carter in 1922 and made funny by Steve Martin a half-century later, likely died of malaria after a degenerative bone condition weakened his immune system. It was not foul play as was previously suspected. Or at least that’s what a team led by Zahi Hawass, the leader of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, is saying after running a series of DNA tests on Tut’s mummified body. Others disagree

Regardless, the statement made by Hawass should be a reminder of what disease wears the crown. Yes, malaria has been around since Tut died, 1323 B.C.  In fact, the parasite may have been infecting humans for as long as humans have been around.  Sneferu, who ruled Egypt 1,200 years before Tut, used a bed net to protect himself against malaria, as did Cleopatra 1,300 years later.  No bed nets were found in Tut’s tomb.

Since Tut’s time, millions have died from malaria. It’s impossible to know how many, but this formula would lead us to believe that 1.45 trillion “person-years” have passed since then.  Currently, a million people — mostly children under the age of five — die every year (6.8 billion “person-years” in 2009) from malaria. That’s 3 per 10,000, or, in total, 435 million starting with Tut. For reference, 15 million died in World War I, 70 million died in World War II, and the Black Death killed up to 100 million, still less than a quarter of malaria’s toll.

Malaria has been killing people for as long as there have been people and destroying their livelihoods as long as there have been economies.  However, at this moment in history, we are better prepared than ever to combat our oldest foe. Recently, Bill Gates, who has put the weight of his fortune behind fighting the disease, said a vaccine might be ready in as few as three years.  And, the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets is currently working to cover the continent of Africa with bed nets, a low-cost solution that reduces the risk of malaria infection by up to 90 percent.  If the winter weather has got you pining for summer blockbusters, join this epic battle; spend $10. Send a net, save a life.


The UN’s Top Humanitarian Official Issues Concerns over Haiti Response

Colum Lynch gets his hands on an email that the top UN Humanitarian official John Holmes sent to his deputies in which the OCHA chief is critical of how certain UN agencies are handling their responsibilities.  At issue is the “cluster” mechanism that the UN put into place a few years ago in which certain UN agencies take the lead in coordinating the humanitarian response in specified sectors. For example, UNICEF is responsible for water and sanitation; the WFP is responsible for food and logistics; the World Health Organization is responsible for health, you get the picture. In all there are twelve cluster areas.  This CNN piece gives a snapshot of what the cluster mechanism looks like, first hand. 

This approach helped put experts in water and sanitation on the ground in Haiti within days of the earthquake, according to Paul Sherlock of the charity group Oxfam.

“There are meetings every day at 3 p.m. at the Ministry of Water in Port-au-Prince, in the offices which have not been too badly damaged, so that all water and sanitation agencies will go to that meeting and coordinate how they best respond,” he explained.

The cluster system was devised after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the response to which sometimes included aid agencies performing duplicative tasks. The Haiti earthquake is the first big test of the new system. And as the email from Holmes shows, it is not without challenges.  He singles out, for example, the pace at which emergency shelter is being provided to vulnerable Haitians (the International Organization for Migration is in charge of that cluster, by the way.)  In the email, he explains the source of his concerns.

Part of the problem relates to our overall operational capacity. I fear we have simply not yet injected the necessary resources in some areas in terms of capacity to implement practical programmes and deliver on the ground. The magnitude and complexity of the disaster are such that all major organisations need to deploy their most experienced disaster response staff and to make sure they are procuring, delivering and distributing what is needed as quickly as possible. This is a major test for all of us and we cannot afford to fail. So I ask you all to take a fresh hard look at what you are able to do in the key areas, and pursue a much more aggressive approach to meeting the needs.

To me, this email reads like a boss is trying to light the fire under the feet of his deputies.  That’s a good thing!  The bottom, line, though is that this is a massive disaster that is testing a new response mechanism for the humanitarian community.  It’s in everyone’s best interest that they get this right. 

Image: UN Foundation. A cluster meeting.


Brain Drain or Brain Gain?

For a long time, received wisdom held that migration of skilled professionals out of the developing world was damaging to poor countries. Wealthy countries gained, developing countries didn’t. Africa was hit especially hard by labor migration.

Or was it?

New research indicates that labor migration benefits the developing world, and not just through remittances that are sent home.  Blog posts today from Aid Watch and Owen Barder highlight new thinking on labor migration and its benefits. On Aid Watch, Laura Freschi identifies for benefits from labor migration: gains to migrants, gains to their families, the benefit to poor countries when skilled professionals return home with useful background, and the incentive labor migration represents for higher education. Barder frames it as a trade issue “…preventing people from developing countries from accessing the labour market in developed countries impoverishes poor nations in a the same way as preventing access to our markets for goods and services.”

To back up his argument, Barder links to a Foreign Policy article from 2009 on labor migration. It’s a very readable and convincing piece that argues labor migration benefits both emigrant and immigrant countries. Freschi offers a new paper by Bill Easterly and Yaw Nyarko, entitles “Is the brain drain good for Africa?” I was especially impressed by the paper’s argument for labor migration as an incentive for skill accumulation.

In my own opinion, it’s time we started respecting the benefits of labor migration to all countries involved. And it’s not just an economic issue – in addition to the benefits identified by everyone I’ve listed above, it’s hard to ignore the human rights aspect of allowing people to make their own labor choices from as many options as possible.


The End Of The Peacekeeping Mission on the Chad-Darfur Border?

When the fighting in Darfur reached its peak intensity in 2003 and 2004, hundreds of thousands of Darfuri’s fled Sudan to neighboring Chad.  Militias, though,  did not respect the international border and launched raids against the refugee population.  On top of that, the Chad and Sudanese government have been arming local militias in a proxy war along the Chad-Darfur border.  Refugees became the first victims of this proxy war: refugee camps were looted, refugees raped and killed, and humanitarian access blocked.

Finally, in 2007, the European Union (with Security Council consent) launched a mission to protect the refugee population of Chad and the Central African Republic. In 2008, this became a UN peacekeeping mission known as MINURCAT.  The mission has deployed nearly 3,000 uniformed personnel, most of which are peacekeeping troops. According to NGOs working in the region, the mission has helped to deter attacks against the refugee population and has played a critical role in training Chadian police to provide security for their refugee and IDP population. 

In other words, the mission was doing what it was meant to do: protect Darfur refugees and IDPs in Chad and CAR. It is a wonder, therefore, why Chad President Idriss Deby would declare his government’s desire to see to MINURCAT leave.  The mission’s mandate is due to expire on March 15, and Deby has called on the Security Council to not renew MINURCAT’s mandate.  This is very significant (and from the perspective of the refugees served by MINURCAT distressing) because peacekeeping missions require the consent of the host state to remain operational.  A peacekeeping mission becomes an invasion (or in UN-ease a “peace enforcement” mission) when that consent is withdrawn.  This, in turn, means that the Security Council would have to invoke Chapter VII to authorize the violation of a country’s sovereignty by an invading force.

Needless to say, this is not how UN peacekeeping operates.  UN Peacekeepers are just that–peacekeepers. They do not fight wars against a member state.  This is why the host country’s consent is so critical. When that consent is withdrawn, as it appears to have been in Chad, the peacekeeping mission effectively ends.

The only thing that can save the mission at this point is the Security Council.  Or, to be more precise: France.  “Unless France decides to push Deby on this, MINURCAT’s mandate renewal is not going to happen,” says Erin Weir, a senior Peacekeeping Advocate with Refugees International.  That’s because France is by far Chad’s most important international benefactor; French troops even helped repell an attack on Chad’s capital two years ago.  

The fate of hundreds of thousands of Darfur refugees and internally displaced in Chad and CAR hang  the balance.  The only question is whether the international community (read: France) can muster the requisite political will to save MINURCAT. 


Image: UN Photo/Olivia Grey Pritchard “Officers of the United Nations Police (UNPol) and Détachement intégré de sécurité (DIS) interview Sudanese refugees in their camp.”

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How UNICEF is Helping Haiti’s Orphans

Issues surrounding the exploitation of Haiti’s orphans are increasingly coming to light in the wake of the January 12 earthquake. Fortunately, we have UNICEF on the ground. The organization is setting up a way of systematically identifying and caring for Haiti’s unaccompanied children.  Here is UNICEF in its own words.

“There are still many unaccompanied children who are in the company of other adults and children, and are therefore vulnerable,” said Ms. Bissell. UNICEF and its partners are working to identify these children and direct them to the interim care centre, where they can be safe from exploitation, abuse and trafficking while every effort is made to reunite them with their surviving family members.

“We have specialists on the ground who know how to trace families and reunite separated relatives,” Ms. Bissell said, noting that such reunions have already begun.


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Yurts for Haiti?

Wired magazine ran a piece today about the Hexayurt, a six-sided structure designed to be cheap, durable, and easily assembled. It’s not a new design; it was created years ago by Vinay Gupta and promoting it has been a longstanding project for him. However, the Wired article suggests a new and interesting use for the Hexayurt – emergency housing in Haiti.

It’s an interesting idea. More than a million people are homeless in Haiti. Aid agencies have actually given up handing out tents at this point. They are just focusing on building transitional structures, which cost about $3000 each. The Hexayurt, on the other hand, costs $100 to build and can be erected rapidly. They can last for years while permanent housing is rebuilt. Hexayurts are cheaper even than tents, and can be made of locally available plywood.

The idea is not without its flaws. So far, the Hexayurt has been field-tested in West Virginia and at Burning Man, neither of which actually compare to hurricane season in the Caribbean. However, the Hexayurt Project is currently fundraising to test the yurts for Haiti, so there should be a Haiti-appropaite design soon.

Another issue is that protocols for appropriate shelter are actually well-established, and organizations receiving funding from major government donors will be expected to follow existing guidelines. I think that a Hexayurt would meet SPHERE standards for appropriate emergency shelter, but would a conservative government bureaucrat think so?

I am really not sure if yurts are the solution to transitional housing in Haiti. But in an emergency of this magnitude, we may need to look outside the box – or the tent – in our response. Image: Hexayurt.

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