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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The depths of debt


Developing countries such as Bangladesh are struggling to balance fighting Covid-19 and keep up with their growing public debt

The global leaders have realized that the coronavirus crisis has jolted the world from a slumber, to understand that the crisis has unveiled the spectre of a larger global crisis.

The health care crisis and its cascading economic consequences are predicted to further plunge many countries in the developing world into an unprecedented crisis, further pushing millions of people into poverty and starvation.

These conditions shine a strong light on the continuing debt problem that stands in the way of people’s survival -- the fight against inequality, the realization of their human rights, sovereignty and the self-determination of people, economic, gender, and ecological justice, and the pursuit of a dignified life.

Hundreds of international, regional, and civil society organizations (CSOs) including Action Aid, CADTM International, Oxfam, Third World Network, joined by 120 Bangladesh NGOs led by Coast Trust, are demanding to suspend the realization of debt instalments for all public debts of developing countries combating the Covid-19 pandemic so that the ongoing coronavirus crisis is not aggravated.

They call upon world leaders, national governments, and financial institutions both public and private, to take urgent action in compliance with their obligations and responsibilities, and commit to unconditional cancellation of public external debt payments.

The CSOs demanded the suspension of all instalments of public debt for at least the financial year 2020-2021 so that countries can develop the capacity to combat the pandemic and overcome the impact of this disaster on its citizens’ health, food, and economic vulnerabilities.

An international statement issued during Global Week (October 10-17) of action for debt cancellation sought the decisive and full solution to the debt problem as part of the profound transformation of economic and financial systems that the present crises so urgently demand.

Meanwhile, the CSO network appealed to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), Asian Development Bank (ADB), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and other bilateral, regional, and multilateral development financiers of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh’s economy is severely under stress due to the additional burden of pandemic management, while the country has a budget deficit of $17.65 billion in the current financial year.

The CSOs in Bangladesh are trying to urgently bring to global attention that the government of Bangladesh for the current financial year is being forced to allocate $6.20bn for servicing external debts to international financial institutions.

They are urging the multilateral, regional, and bilateral financial institutions to strictly follow the suggestions made by the World Bank and IMF and suspend the servicing of the public debts for 2020, so that the government can use its resources to fund initiatives to help the people in overcoming the Covid-19 challenge.

On the other hand, the G-20 governments announced the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) -- not a cancelation but merely an eight-month delay of up to $12bn worth of payments for public debts.

Much of this debt is illegitimate, the CSO network argues. The international creditors lend irresponsibly and unfairly, driven by predatory lending. The money is used to finance harmful projects and policies, failing to comply with legal and democratic requirements, is saddled with onerous and unjust terms, and incurred by private corporations but assumed by governments or incurred through public guarantees of private profits.

The conditional loans, including cuts in public services and social protection, and severe austerity programs, have also caused as great if not greater harm than debt servicing, especially on women and girls, indigenous people, and the most impoverished and vulnerable people and communities.

CSOs argue that the demand is much more than “debt relief,” but also for “debt justice.”

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 24 November 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at; Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Feeding the children in coronavirus pandemic

Children School Meal Policy/Photo: Latif Hossain


The coronavirus pandemic severely dents free meal programme to help mitigate hunger and malnutrition amongst the most vulnerable school children

In 240 government and BRAC-run educational institutions for children in Trishal, Mymensingh, thousands of school students enjoyed attending classes as the authorities provided a free midday meal.

The cooked food ingredients include rice, lentils, and mixed vegetables -- in total 178 grams which costs Tk10.50. The school students’ nutritional intake of calories was 545 kcal and protein 11.46 gm. The hot cooked meal is culture-specific and nutrition-rich. Dietary diversity is ensured through a change in the recipe to maintain appetite.

The midday meal in rural and urban schools mitigates short-term hunger -- for most students, it was the only full meal.

A study by key civil servants in Bangladesh known as MATT (Managing at Top Team) showed that almost 60% of children go to school hungry. 

In the third year, the school attendance in urban areas in BRAC-operated midday meal projects increased from 55% (2011) to 81% (2013), and in rural areas, attendance increased from 64% (2011) to 92% (2013).

Basanta Kumar, Kar chief of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) in Bangladesh pushed the idea of a midday meal in schools with the Bangladesh government in 2011 after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s political pledge in Vision 2021 articulated a strong priority on primary school education and nutrition to ensure food security.

However, the Covid-19 crisis has contributed to a child rights crisis. For children, the costs of the pandemic were immediate.

In Bangladesh, like most developing countries, accessibility and affordability of food and nutrition become challenging, while keeping staple food distribution and local food markets is an uphill task for the governments amidst a lack of accountability and weak transparency.

The brunt of the suffering when it comes to access to adequate nutrition with depleting income sources falls on the children, adolescents, and women.

According to the Primary Education Census (2011), there are 20 million primary school-age children, of which 18.4 million children are enrolled in primary schools.

Various studies show that quality education in primary school is hindered by a high dropout rate caused by hunger and malnutrition and widespread micronutrient deficiencies.

The provision of nutritious food improves the cognitive and physical development of children, remarks Basanta. An estimated 20.9% have sub-clinical Vitamin-A deficiency, 19.1% are anaemic, and 40% are iodine deficient.

To ensure the sustainability of the free-midday meal in schools in Trishal, local government representatives, school committees, and participation of mothers of the students have ensured accountability of free mid-day meals in schools.

Unfortunately, after the departure of Basanta, the fruitful negotiations with development partners and international multilateral donors have become weak.

The pioneering program initiated by GAIN with development partners BRAC and Banchte Shekha emerged as a “game-changer.” Recently the government renewed commitment to replicate and scale up the school feeding model nation-wide in primary schools.

“It is critical to ensure food diversity and adequate nutrition, including key micronutrients and fortified staples,” Basanta said.

On Universal Children’s Day which is on November 20, the United Nations claims a definite impact has been found in investing in children. In response to the global nutrition crisis, school feeding programs can be adapted and scaled up to reach the most vulnerable children.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 17 November 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Myanmar polls a step closer to China

Will a Suu Kyi win help Myanmar stay in China’s good graces?


When the world was extremely preoccupied with the tense Trump-Biden American elections, Myanmar held its parliamentary polls on Sunday (November 8), which are expected to deliver a government with a strong popular mandate in Southeast Asia.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party (NLD) won a landslide in 2015 and established the first civilian government after 50 years of global isolation and ruthless military regime. Five years later, Suu Kyi remains popular, but 2020 has widened the image from 2015.

Suu Kyi has fallen from the grace of world leaders and is no longer a democracy icon, primarily because she mishandled the rogue military crackdown against the ethnic Rohingya Muslim population, which the United Nations said had “the hallmarks of genocide.”

More than a million Rohingya fled from Rakhine State into neighbouring Bangladesh in 2016 and 2017 after the military waged a campaign of persecution, which the United Nations dubbed as “textbook ethnic cleansing.”

The Rohingya’s citizenship rights were deliberately and permanently erased, restricting them to vote under the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law. Even the Rohingya political parties were banned from contesting the elections.

In the face of global criticism, last year Suu Kyi defended her country’s military crackdown and denied genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, explaining that the claims were “incomplete and misleading.”

Many international observers fear that the November elections will not be free, fair, and credible, citing disenfranchisement and campaign restrictions imposed by the Union Election Commission (UEC).

Military chief Gen Min Aung Hlaing’s warnings to the UEC on electioneering directives soured relationships with the government. President U Win Myint stated that the military’s “remarks over the election were inciting instability and causing public concern.”

Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who has written extensively about Myanmar’s armed conflicts, politics, and ethnic crises for nearly 40 years, says it is unfortunate that elections have been suspended in several constituencies, primarily in ethnic areas where armed conflict rages against the Myanmar regime.

China wants Suu Kyi to win Myanmar’s polls. China’s interests will be better served by the Suu Kyi-led status quo than a return to military-dominated rule. Much has changed since the leaders in Beijing favoured Myanmar’s authoritarian military regime and were deeply suspicious of then opposition leader Suu Kyi.

The Chinese Communist Party has made no secret that they would prefer to see Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) win and are wary of the military top brass, whom they find increasingly difficult to influence and control.

Lintner also agrees that the Myanmar foreign policy will likely take its course after the poll -- towards a stronger and closer relationship with China. While the Tatmadaw sees it as their pledge to defend the nation’s sovereignty and seeks to lessen dependence on China, Suu Kyi turned to Beijing for the economic and controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) after her allies and admirers in the West distanced themselves from her over the Rohingya refugee crisis.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 10 November 2020

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Saudi Arabia, Pakistan face-off over Kashmir

A world map minted in Saudi Arabia's banknote shows Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan not in Pakistan - Photo: Public Domain


The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has now fallen out of grace from Saudi Arabia. The diplomatic relations have gone cold after Islamabad attempted to ally with Turkey.

In recent times, the relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Turkey have dived further after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

The Kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (popularly known as MBS), squeezed Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to repay a $1 billion loan.

To further humiliate Pakistan, the Kingdom announced that the $1 billion, repaid by Pakistan, would be invested in Reliance Jio Fibre in India.

Embarrassed, Pakistan saved its face by repaying the debt with the help of China, and Khan’s electoral vision for “Naya Pakistan” is in shambles. 

After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck Article 370 from Jammu & Kashmir on August 5, 2019, which revoked its special status, Islamabad did not hesitate to criticize Riyadh over the contentious issue.

The worst is yet to come.

On October 24, Saudi Arabia released a 20 Riyal banknote to commemorate its presidency of organizing a G-20 summit on November 21-22. The world map displayed at the rear of this commemorative banknote deliberately scraped Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir from the map of Pakistan.

Riyadh was angered over Islamabad’s official publication of a new political map in August 2020, which has shown Kashmir annexed with Pakistan, leading Delhi to term it as “political absurdity.”

Riyadh believes Pakistan has no legitimacy over Gilgit-Baltistan and Jammu & Kashmir. The depiction of the map of Pakistan devoid of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan has adequately disgraced Pakistan in the international arena, particularly in the Muslim world. 

Well, the disputed Jammu & Kashmir have been taken out from the map of India too. The map depicts Kashmir Valley as an independent nation.

South Block in New Delhi immediately protested for the exclusion of Kashmir from India and demanded an explanation. Riyadh is yet to issue a statement. 

China, an all-weather friend of Pakistan, had been irked in the process and along with Pakistan has thrice dragged the Kashmir issue to the UN Security Council in the past year.

Pakistan miserably failed to draw the attention of the 57 members of Muslim nations -- the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) -- for a call for condemnation on scraping Kashmir autonomy.

During the China and India face-off over Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, Pakistan became desperate to form a new bloc with Turkey, Iran, Malaysia, China, and Russia, outside the traditional dictates of the United States. Malaysia silently backed out.

The Kingdom has given a clear signal to Islamabad that the KSA-India economic ties strengthened with a rejection of any financial aid to Pakistan is a new marker in international relations.

Observers understand that Saudi Arabia’s attitude towards Pakistan may also be “read” as “no confidence” against China.

Further pouring salt in the wounds, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran refused to allow Pakistan diplomatic missions to hold public events to observe the October 27 anniversary of Jammu & Kashmir’s accession to India as a 'Black Day'.

Plans to hold a public event inside Pakistan’s consulate in Riyadh were also blocked by the Kingdom.

Similarly, the Pakistan embassy in Tehran’s proposal to hold an event at Tehran University to observe Black Day was refused.

The change in stance adopted by two influential Islamic countries is a reflection of Pakistan’s equations in the Middle East as a fallout of its growing partnership with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is seen to aspire for a leadership role in the Islamic world.

Analysts believe Imran Khan had bitten off more than he could chew. It’s a clear sign of Khan’s growing desperation for his failure to garner support over India’s abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune on 3 November 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad