Science & Policy Must Remain Partners in Mercury Challenge

Credit: UNEP

By Celia Chen and David Evers
GENEVA, Nov 25 2019 – It has been more than two years since the Minamata Convention on Mercury entered into force. The global treaty protects humans and the environment from the toxic metal, but countries are still stuck on how to measure the agreement’s effectiveness.

As delegations discuss Minamata this week in Geneva, the decisions they make will be critical to the health of humans and the environment for generations to come.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury came into force in August 2017 with 128 signatories; 115 of those countries have since become parties to the agreement.

Minamata is the world’s youngest environmental treaty and it is among the most promising. Science has informed international policymaking on mercury since negotiations around the treaty began in 2005.

As the treaty takes hold, it is important that national delegations continue to listen to the science – and scientists – as they approach agreement on how to measure Minamata’s effectiveness.

Celia Chen. Credit: Dartmouth College/Robert Gill

Mercury is a pollutant that has long been known to cause neurological problems. Recent studies have shown effects on behavior, development, renal and immune function, and reproduction. Science has also clearly determined that the main exposure route for humans is through eating fish.

This puts communities that derive most of their protein from seafood at great risk. Island nations around the globe and First Nations cultures in the Arctic all sit in the direct line of fire of the mercury menace. But the challenges don’t stop there. Mercury pollution is a universal threat.

Unlike other treaties that focus only on pollutant sources or waste disposal, Minamata contains measures for addressing the full life cycle of mercury including its use in mining and industry, its integration into products, all the way to its disposal. Just as important as controlling the use, handling and disposal of mercury, countries also need to determine if the treaty is working.

Minamata contains articles that require that measures be taken to assess the effects of the treaty on reducing mercury in the environment. This is the “effectiveness evaluation” of the agreement. Not all parties to the treaty agree on how that will be accomplished, but the treaty does specifically require monitoring of mercury levels in fish, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals.

Of particular importance are the fish and marine mammals that are commonly consumed by people – these are the main vectors to human exposure.

David Evers

In order to determine whether levels in the environment are changing for the better as a result of Minamata’s mandated controls, measurements of concentrations have to be determined before and after controls are put in place. Where do countries begin to get those data?

Fortunately, there is information currently being compiled from peer reviewed scientific papers (the Global Biotic Mercury Synthesis). Findings from that project reveal places where mercury is elevated beyond levels considered healthy for humans or wildlife, as well as areas with no data.

However, at present, no global mercury monitoring network actually exists for biota, creating a major challenge for protecting people around the world.

At this week’s Third meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP3), it will be important for delegations to consider the methods by which effectiveness baselines are created. Should mercury concentrations be measured in the environment through air or water?

Should they be measured in the biota through fish, sea turtles, marine mammals or birds? Or should countries measure all of these? And what about concentrations in humans? Should those be measured and, if so, which populations should be assessed?

The answers to all of these questions will help parties determine whether in ten years the Minamata Convention has done a good job in reducing environmental mercury. Those answers will require scientific understanding of how mercury moves through the biosphere and whether, for example, the concentrations in the air and water can be related to concentrations in fish, other biota and, ultimately, in humans.

For this essential purpose, science and policymaking must continue to work together on Minamata.

There are only a few scientists among the delegates making decisions about these matters in Geneva this week. Therefore, at COP3 it will be important for the science to be communicated to the non-scientists at the table in order for the best and most “effective” policy decisions to be made.

There is much work to be done, but the partnership between science and policy has been strong. As we approach this important phase in the life of the treaty, the exchange of information on the science of mercury fate in the environment is more critical than ever to help the Minamata Convention achieve its global promise.

“Celia Chen”:
“David Evers”:
“Minamata Convention on Mercury”:
“Mercury is a pollutant”:
“Global Biotic Mercury Synthesis”:

More Austerity for Developing Countries: It’s Bad News, and It’s Avoidable

As the West questions damaging austerity policies, it is becoming the new normal for the rest of the world, risking achievement of sustainable development goals.

By Isabel Ortiz and Thomas Stubbs
WASHINGTON DC and LONDON, Nov 25 2019 – After years of austerity, a number of Eurozone countries are now considering expansionary fiscal policies. And in the UK, government spending is set to return to levels last seen in the 1970s. But austerity abounds elsewhere in the world, including in some of the poorest countries.

Since 2010, governments around the world have been cutting public expenditure. New research found that about 75 per cent of the global population, or 5.8 billion people, will be in countries undergoing austerity by 2021.

Isabel Ortiz

This new wave of austerity will commence next year and will affect 130 countries, most of which are in the developing world. As many as 69 countries will undergo “excessive contraction”, cutting expenditure below levels achieved prior to the global financial crisis of 2007. The list includes countries with dire development and human needs, such as Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Iraq, the Republic of Congo, and Yemen.

Rather than investing in a robust recovery to bring prosperity to citizens, governments are cutting pensions, public sector wages (including those of teachers and health workers), social assistance, and labour protections. Yet, the social consequences of austerity policies are already painfully clear. Millions of people will be pushed into poverty as a result, many of them women, children, and persons with disabilities.

In the developing world, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) advises governments to undertake austerity reforms either as part of its regular surveillance missions, or when countries have to sign up to its structural adjustment programmes to borrow money.

While the IMF claims to protect social spending in these programmes, independent research proves otherwise. IMF-mandated policy reforms led to cuts in government education and health (pdf) spending, increased income inequality (pdf), reductions in labour rights (pdf), declining access to healthcare, and a rise in neonatal mortality in developing countries.

Thomas Stubbs

Beyond these direct effects on social protection, there is another less-recognized problem. By shedding qualified civil servants, IMF austerity prescriptions have undermined the administrative ability of governments (pdf) to deliver effective public services in the future. Recent evidence also shows IMF-imposed tax reforms do not result in greater government revenues (pdf). It simply reshuffles where revenues come from: more from regressive goods and services taxes, and less from other sources. This represents a passing of the buck onto the poorest members of society.

The recently completed Annual Meetings of the IMF and World Bank presented an opportunity to take stock of the damaging consequences of austerity. In the wake of widespread protests in Ecuador’s ongoing IMF programme, continuing from earlier protests in Argentina, the need for an alternative path was especially pressing. Critical observers hoped for intellectual leadership and concrete commitments away from austerity. What they got was more of the same: trumped-up statements on the need to strengthen social spending, but with a bottom-line of fiscal belt-tightening.

Austerity does not need to be the “new normal.” One of the most disturbing conclusions after the past decade of austerity is that these budget cuts were never actually necessary. Governments could—and should—have pursued alternative policy options. These would have brought prosperity to citizens and avoided the current wave of social discontent.

Even in the poorest countries, governments can create fiscal space. Public services and investment can be funded through progressive taxation, a crackdown on illicit financial flows, improved debt management, more accommodative macroeconomic frameworks, and—in the case of the poorest countries—lobbying for more aid. For example, more than 60 countries have renegotiated sovereign debt in recent years, allowing governments to spend less in debt service and more in necessary development expenditures.

These strategies for increased funding are consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed upon by 193 countries in September 2015 at the United Nations, with specific commitments for universal education, health, and social protection.

Meeting these internationally agreed development goals means putting-to-bed the damaging austerity policies of the past decade. Most importantly, it entails recognition that an austere future is an avoidable catastrophe.

Isabel Ortiz, a former director of the International Labour Organization and UNICEF, is director of the Global Social Justice Program at the Initiative for Policy Dialogue, Columbia University.

Thomas Stubbs is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a Research Associate in Political Economy at the Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge.

Enhancing partnerships for impact

Nov 25 2019 (IPS-Partners)

The United Nations (UN) Kenya Resident Coordinator’s Office and Council of Governors convened a high-level meeting Kenyan County Governors, and the leadership of the UN Kenya Country team to enhance a common understanding on the Kenya United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) 2018-2022 and explore areas to deepen and further collaboration.

The 2018-2022 UNDAF for Kenya was officially signed and launched by the three UNDAF co-chairs, Cabinet Secretary National Treasury, Cabinet Secretary Devolution, planning and ASALs and the UN Resident Coordinator (RC) on 26th June 2018. The UNDAF was developed and is implemented within the context of Delivering as One, as a collective response of the UN agencies and the Government of Kenya to coherently, effectively and efficiently realize the national development priorities. The Cooperation framework is embedded on the country’s blue print for development, the vision 2030 and national priorities as outlined in the Medium-Term Plan (MTP) III, the Big 4 Agenda and the Sustainable development goals.

This UNDAF has three Strategic Priority Areas that are aligned to the three MTP III Pillars (Political, Social and Economic) of the Government’s Vision 2030 : 1) Transformational Governance encompassing respect for the rule of law, improved security, and effective implementation of devolution, 2) Human capital development comprised of education ,training and learning, health, Multi-sectoral HIV and AIDS response, access to safe water and sanitation, social protection, gender based violence and violence against children, access to adequate housing and strengthening capacities for addressing disaster and emergencies and 3) Sustainable and inclusive growth focusing on a competitive and sustainable economic growth that is increasingly resilient, green, inclusive, equitable, and creating decent jobs and quality livelihoods for all.

Through this framework, the UN in Kenya will in the coming five years, commit a total of Ksh.197 billion (approximately $1.9 billion) to support the government realize development needs of the country. 58% of the estimate budget (about Ksh.116 billion) will support human capital development contributing to two of the GOK Big Four Agenda, namely housing and universal health coverage. 27% (about Ksh.50 billion) will support sustainable development and growth contributing to the other two agendas of food security and manufacturing. The remaining 15% (about ksh.30 billion) will focus on transformative governance, which is a key enabler of the Big Four Agenda as well as the MTP III.

The UNDAF 2018-2022 is building on innovative approaches, strengths, lessons learnt, and efforts initiated by the UN, National and County Governments, and development partners in Kenya. As such, the new UNDAF speaks to and intend to advance the UN Secretary General’s agenda on repositioning the UN system. Regarding strategic change and reforms, the new UNDAF will make even greater strides towards, expanding public private partnerships for SDG realization; deepen integrated programming, supporting counties and bordering countries going to the furthest first, to enhance the roots of cohesion and socio-economic transformation.

The UNDAF results and common budgetary framework, bringing all UN agencies in Kenya to Deliver as One (DaO) responds to the UN Secretary Generals call for optimizing resources and improving the effectiveness of the UN’s response to countries and regions. The UNDAF integrates the global programming principles and approaches of: leave no one behind; human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment; sustainability and resilience; and accountability towards realization of SDGs. This UNDAF will strategize social inclusion as a principle to address inequality and socio-cultural discrimination, which are perceived as some of the root causes of exclusion and vulnerability in the country.

Siddharth Chatterjee, UN Resident Coordinator to Kenya, lauded the Government of Kenya for its leadership at both national as well as county level and underscored the meeting demonstrated the strong partnership between the UN Kenya Country Team and Kenya’s County Governments for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals agenda in Kenya in order to leave no-one-behind. The Resident Coordinator highlighted that over the period 2018 – 2019 the UN had provided US $205 million catalytic support towards UNDAF programming in support of Kenya’s Big Four agenda and the achievement of Kenya’s Vision2030

H.E Wycliffe Oparanya, Chairman of the Council of Governors, and Governor of Kakamega, shared his deep appreciation for Kenya’s long-standing partnership with the UN, and encouraged the UN to continue to advance its programming at County and grassroots levels in order to address the root causes holding back Kenya’s social economic development.

The Governors expressed their deep appreciation for the continued support from the UN Agencies and encouraged the need to deepen the engagement with all counties.

The forum acknowledged the need for stronger engagement with County Governments moving forward through a well-structured framework for engagement to ensure better coordination and improve impact.

For more information also see:

Global Gender Summit 2019: African leaders take on the responsibility to urgently close the gender gap.

KIGALI, Rwanda, Nov 25 2019 (IPS-Partners)

The 2019 Global Gender Summit, the first to be held on the continent, kicked off on Monday with a strong call to surge ahead on gender issues and move from commitment to action.

Africa’s only female President, Sahle-Work Zewde of Ethiopia, said Ethiopia’s parliament is one of the only two on the continent with over 50% gender parity in seats, and women currently hold key ministerial roles in defense and national security for the first time. Despite her own country’s huge advances, however, the work has just started, she said.

Zewde was speaking during the opening plenary of the Global Gender Summit, a biennial event organized by the multilateral development banks (MDBs), bringing together leaders from government, development institutions, private sector, civil society, and academia.
The Summit is taking place in Kigali Rwanda from 25th to November 27th.

“There is good momentum for women and African women, but the work has just started…‘There is no template to follow…we (women) can deliver, but we can deliver differently,” President Zewde said.

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who officially opened the Summit, described gender equality as “real commonsense.” Rwanda leads the word in gender representation in parliament with 61% of its parliamentarians being women — the highest in the world. In addition, half of all ministerial positions are held by women, just like in Ethiopia.

“We got it from the beginning that there is a lot of work to do…made investments to ensure that women are at the center of development. We are making sure that narrowing this gender gap is everyone’s responsibility,’ President Kagame said.

Echoing their sentiments, Chairperson of the African Union Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat said the African Union’s Agenda 2063 was deliberate about gender parity.

“What we are telling our heads of states is to take the bull by the horns…This discrimination is political, economic, and social; it is politically incorrect, unjustifiable socially…not to take (gender) into account is a real waste.”

In Africa, 70% of women are excluded financially. The continent has a $42 billion financing gap between men and women. And women, who are the majority of farmers, face a financing gap of close to $16 billion.

“The challenges are not just about gender. They are about under-representation and lack of empowerment of women,” African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina said.

“A smarter world must invest in women and girls. Let’s be smart, and let’s be wise. Women are the best investment any society can make,’ he added.

The African Development Bank is doing its part to transform the financing landscape for women with the launch of the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA). AFAWA aims to mobilize $3 billion of new lending by banks and financial institutions for women in Africa. G7 leaders approved a package totaling $251 million in support of AFAWA during the summit in August.

Welcoming the conference participants, Rwanda’s Minister of Gender and Family Promotion, Soline Nyirahabimana, said the Kigali Conference center was set to glow orange in honor of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. The 16 days kick off on November 25th, each year, which marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and runs until December 10th.

The 2019 Global Gender Summit is attended by the first ladies of Rwanda and Kenya as well as representatives of the heads of state of Gabon, Mali, Senegal, Chad and the King of Morocco. Also in attendance are ministers of genders from Niger, Somalia, Senegal, South Sudan, Tunisia, and Libya.

The Summit runs from 25th to 27th of November under the theme: ‘Unpacking constraints to gender equality.’

‘The African Development Bank believes in women. Women are bankable,” Adesina said.

Contact: Amba Mpoke-Bigg, Communication and External Relations Department, African Development Bank, email:

Statistics and Stories – Time to Change the Refugee Narrative?

Rohingya refugees carry blankets at a camp in Bangladesh. Credit: Naimul Haq/IPS

By Farhana Haque Rahman
ROME, Nov 25 2019 – Statistics and stories. When aid agencies appeal for funding to tackle the latest refugee crisis and journalists do their reporting, then these are the two narratives most chosen — one impersonal and the other upfront and individual. The sheer numbers can feel overwhelming. The UN refugee agency UNHCR says more than 70 million people are currently displaced by conflict, the most since the Second World War. Among them are nearly 26 million who have fled their countries (over half under the age of 18) and 3.5 million more are registered as asylum seekers.

Just last year, 13.6 million people were newly displaced, either as refugees crossing borders or as IDPs (internally displaced peoples). Syria accounts for the largest forcibly displaced population in the world, with nearly 13 million people on the move since war erupted in 2011, including 6.7 million refugees escaping across borders. Neighbouring Turkey is the world’s top host country, with 3.7 million displaced Syrians on its territory.

But then there are the images and personal stories that carry so much more impact than the bare statistics. For Syria possibly the most devastating, and also far reaching in political terms, was the picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on a Turkish beach, drowned trying to reach Europe with his family. And the stories that do convey hope also make it seem possible to the public and donors that something can be done to help, even with relatively small amounts of money. Naturally everyone displaced by conflict has his or her own story, although it must be recognized that some would rather not tell theirs for reasons to be respected. I have my own to share, briefly.

I first became aware of Afghanistan when, as a young child in the ‘60s in what was then East Pakistan I read in Bangla, Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Kabuliwalah”. The tale of the kind, compassionate man who periodically left his family behind to sell goods he carried in a large sack and make loans to Bengalis made a deep impression, as did his sense of humour and his attachment to a little girl Mini, clearly a cherished substitute for his own children back in Kabul. He was at first a rather frightening figure, giving her treats from his sack, but he slowly gained her and her father’s confidence and respect.

Farhana Haque Rahman

My next contact with Afghanistan was more direct, fraught with danger. While a student in an all-girls British run college in Lahore, Pakistan, my country of birth Bangladesh became independent. I fled what was then West Pakistan, avoiding camps and a protracted repatriation, to reach the newly independent country, taking a hazardous route by ‘tanga’ horse drawn carriages, trucks and buses across inhospitable terrain and mountain through Quetta and the border crossing of Chaman into Afghanistan. Along the way, in no man’s land, armed smugglers extorted more money from our group of about 40, some of them families with children, and one night we had to trek over mountains, exhausted to the point of hallucination. Fearing death but quite ignorant of the danger of rape, dressed in a white ‘burqa’ throughout the perilous journey, monitoring with piercing eyes the movement of those who were temporarily my guardian angels, I made it to the Indian embassy in Kabul after spending days in a dilapidated farmhouse in Kandahar, and, with Indian ID papers, we were flown to New Delhi then on to Kolkata by train, eventually making it to Dhaka after 552 hours of 23 harrowing days. I was fortunate to make it; the new country was still reeling from a war that cost millions of lives.

Nearly 50 years later that is so often not the case, and that is why we should consider shifting the dominant narrative, moving beyond the statistics and the stories to convey a fuller understanding of what is happening to these tens of millions of displaced people and why, particularly in Europe.

Reece Jones, a professor of political geography, has researched how in recent decades countries have become inter-connected through complex networks of transport and communication, but the purpose of borders has shifted to become the place where the movement of people is controlled.

“Border security and the construction of walls have increased dramatically in the supposedly borderless world of globalisation,” he says.

As walls and fences go up, so do the dramatic increases in migrant deaths. The Associated Press reports that 56,800 people died or went missing crossing a border from 2014-18.

Countries announcing new border barriers recently include Austria, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Kenya, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. President Donald Trump’s “beautiful wall” on the US-Mexico border was a popular theme in his election campaign. Britain is spending some $200 million on border security in France, including the building of a one-km concrete wall in Calais to stop people hiding
themselves in trucks crossing the Channel.

Prof. Jones says the borders of the EU are “by far the most deadly” with roughly two-thirds of all migration related deaths occurring there or on the way to the EU. The high death rate, he says, is a combination of an extremely dangerous border in the Mediterranean sea coupled with increased enforcement that drives people to use smugglers and take more risks, as tragically seen in the deaths of 39 Vietnamese found in a refrigerated trailer near a UK port last month.

Walls did not work in the past and only divert but do not prevent migrant flows, so why are so many going up? The answer is political. Walls are effective as symbols used by politicians to demonstrate they are addressing perceived economic, cultural and security threats from migrants.

The crucial legal distinction between who a legitimate refugee and an “illegal” economic migrant is one fiercely upheld by politicians and institutions. However, as noted by Daniel Trilling, author of Lights in the Distance: exile and refuge at the borders of Europe, the system of placing people into categories does not always fit the reality of their lives. And when the system breaks down, “people are cast into a legal and moral grey zone that lasts for many months or even years”.

The EU, says Trilling, has perhaps the world’s most complex system to deter unwanted migrants, spending billions of dollars on surveillance systems and patrols on land and sea. In reality the EU tries to prevent even genuine asylum seekers from reaching its territory.

“Asylum seekers are subject to particularly complex and often violent filtering. Once they cross Europe’s frontiers, their movement is restricted: they are locked up or segregated in accommodation far from city centres. Their right to work or to access social security is denied or severely limited. While their claims are being assessed, often by a process that is opaque, hostile and inconsistent, they
live with the threat that the freedoms they do have may be curtailed at any moment.”

A sense of panic and chaos is fuelled in the public by even twists of language, just as the media dubbed the Calais migrant settlements “the jungle”. The idea of a “global refugee crisis” may provoke sympathy among some, but it is also used by populist parties to spread the sense that we are at “breaking point”. More people are displaced by conflict than before but, as Dutch sociologist Hein de Haas points out, more than one in 10 migrants entering Europe do so legally. Well over 80 percent of displaced people remain in the developing world, such as the 4.5 million made homeless by scattered conflicts within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), or 4.6 million Venezuelans who have fled their country, its economy in tatters and under US sanctions.

Over two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia.

In the future far greater displacements of people may occur for complex and interrelated reasons — war, the climate emergency, and outbreaks of diseases like Ebola in the DRC. Rapidly changing circumstances can make refugees of people most unexpectedly. Solutions lie in policy and resources.

Can we change the narrative ?