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One beneficiary of the financial crisis

Organized crime.

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said that until the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, the banking system "has been very active and clean," forcing organized crime to return to cash transactions.

"That was basically the situation until the financial crisis, which started as a liquidity problem, an unwillingness of banks to (engage in) inter-banking transactions," Costa said. "So you have on the one hand a supply, resources, cash from organized crime and you have banks very (that are) illiquid and striving for cash. Well, that is really license for organized crime to penetrate into the financial system."

And as with much of the rest of the economy, this dynamic is profiting the few at the expense of the many. Costa made his rather canny financial analysis during the launch of a program bringing multiple UN agencies together to combat West Africa's rampant trafficking problems, which span from drugs to toxic wastes (?!?). The UN's political, economic, and peacekeeping offices are all involved in the effort, which is placing an emphasis on the post-conflict issues that trouble much of the region.

On the plus side, it does seem that the "cocaine iceberg" of trafficking from West Africa to Europe is shrinking.

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Easterly’s pessimism on the MDGs

It's not surprising that William Easterly has pronounced the Millennium Development Goals dead.  S-G Ban Ki-moon himself cautions that "progress has been too slow for most of the targets to be met by 2015."  What might be more surprising is that Easterly calls the activism surrounding the MDGs "a success in global consciousness-raising."  Yet not without flaws -- his post on the subject concentrates on the inability of the MDG movement to identify an appropriate target, reason, and policy prescription (the WHO, WHY, and WHAT, in Easterly's terms) for their activism.

Some of Easterly's points are certainly well made -- it is difficult, for instance, to pinpoint an actor to blame for the MDGs' struggles, or who needs to be galvanized to action, when 189 countries have signed on to the agreement.  But how could the MDGs have emerged in any other way, least of all without attracting the label of "colonialism" had they been prerogatives solely of the developing world?  The MDGs were set up to be difficult to achieve -- that they set specific goals should not be reason to qualify the campaign to reach them as a failure "on its own terms."

Furthermore, the MDGs have not been utter failures.  They have achieved tangible benefits for millions of human beings, in alleviating poverty, reducing disease, increasing access to education, improving women's health.  That they have not reached their intended milestones, or that the global economic crisis has put a further damper in their prospects, is not a reason to abandon them.  So while their certainly is reason to investigate aid agencies, and to ensure that funds all reach the poor whom they are supposed to reach, I disagree with Easterly that we shouldn't "waste any more effort" in pushing countries to meet their commitments by 2015 and in coming as close to achieving the MDGs as possible.  To fall short of that would be unfair both to the poor and to our own principles.

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Economic crisis threatening progress on MDGs

It's often been said that the global economic crisis has hit the developing world the hardest. I've always taken that to be sort of a given, but the new 2009 Millennium Development Goals report, just released, is one of the first documents I've seen to actually quantify the toll that the current economic downturn has taken on the world's poor.  

The report shows that significant gains had been made since the 2000 Millennium Declaration to reduce the number of people around the world living in abject poverty.  Over the course of the last year, however, progress made over the last decade has slowed--and even reversed. 

Major advances in the fight against extreme poverty from 1990 to 2005, for example, are likely to have stalled. During that period, the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day decreased from 1.8 billion to 1.4 billion. In 2009, an estimated 55 million to 90 million more people will be living in extreme poverty than anticipated before the crisis.

 Likewise, the encouraging trend in the eradication of hunger since the early 1990s was reversed in 2008, largely due to higher food prices. The prevalence of hunger in the developing regions is now on the rise, from 16 per cent in 2006 to 17 per cent in 2008. A decrease in international food prices in the second half of 2008 has failed to translate into more affordable food for most people around the world.

One of the MDGs is to halt the spread of AIDS and increase access to treatment.  A second report out today, by UNAIDS and the World Bank, shows how the economic crisis is threatening the global fight against AIDS.  Here is UN Spokesperson Michelle Montas describing the report's findings. 

Finally, in related news, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and TB is facing a $3 billion shortfall this year. Hard times, indeed. 

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Poverty tourism is getting a lot of attention lately

Poverty tourism is getting a lot of attention lately. It’s not a new idea; we’ve been seeing slum tours for a decade now. People have a natural desire to see how the other half lives, and these tours make it happen in a safe and easy way. Opinion has always been mixed on where it’s exploitation, a lesson in empathy, or irrelevant.

 A recent article Huffington Post, a truly breathtaking rant from Senegalese entrepreneur Magatte Wade, has brought poverty tours back to prominence and controversy. She thinks that the Millennium Villages Project – an experimental program developed by development economist Jeffery Sachs - is ill-conceived and that the tourism there treats Africans like zoo animals:

 “…American professors spending tens of millions of dollars telling villagers how they should live their lives, so that American tourists can go and watch the new feature at the zoo in which the African natives are doing just as they are told by the American experts -- with the careful warning to the tourists not to contaminate the zoo display by feeding the animals…”

 This was followed by several posts on Bill Easterly’s Aid Watch blog, where the tour operator responded to Wade’s criticism. The tour operator pointed out, among other things, that the brochure language that Wade was angry about had been written by inhabitants of the village in question, not by outsiders. That does put a damper on the zoo animals argument.

 Today, the Christian Science Monitor weighed in, with a slightly broader look at poverty tourism as a whole. They quote Josh Ruxin, of the Millennium Villages Project, who argues that having visitors arrive as an organized tour alters the power balance in a positive way. “Tourism shows, 'This community has value, for which we will be paid.' It's a totally different way of thinking...”

My own take: I agree with Josh Ruxin. Shifting modes from gawking guests to paying tourists makes it clear to host communities that they possess things of value. Tourists in poor places are inevitable; well-meaning people want to learn about the lives of the poor, and the less thoughtful just want to gawk. Corralling those visitors into a tour uses their energy in a useful way.

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World’s Hungry Top 1 Billion, 4 Million New Hungry People a Week

Unfathomable numbers:
High food prices have pushed another 105 million people into hunger in the first half of 2009, the head of the U.N. World Food Program said Friday, raising the total number of hungry people to over 1 billion. Urging rich nations at a meeting of the Group of Eight's development ministers not cut back on aid, Josette Sheeran told Reuters the world faced a "human catastrophe" as more and more people struggle to eat a decent meal. "This year we are clocking in on average four million new hungry people a week, urgently hungry," Sheeran told Reuters.