Yearly Archives: 2013

Trust but verify: Companies assessing their own impacts on human rights?

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Oxfam’s experience supporting communities to conduct human rights impact assessments

Gabrielle Watson is the Manager of Policy Advocacy Evaluation at Oxfam America.

First came Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) in the project assessment world to determine the affects of business investments, infrastructure projects, governmental policies, or trade agreements on our environment.

Wait, then people realized—it’s not just the environment that’s affected, so are people. So then we had Social Impact Assessments (SIA).

The new wave of impact assessments focuses on human rights. But here’s the catch. These are starting to be conducted by the private sector. After a seven-year consultative process, led by Harvard Professor John Ruggie, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously endorsed the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in 2011. Now companies are starting to step up to the plate, embracing the new concept of “human rights due diligence.”

This is a real step forward. But it’s still early days, and it’s best to be cautious.

Ruggie’s framework of “Protect, Respect and Remedy” is pretty straightforward. It’s a basic “do no harm” principle. Governments have a duty to protect their citizens’ human rights. Companies have a responsibility to respect human rights too. You know, no torture, no forced evictions, no slave or child labor, and so on.

The third pillar, remedy, is a bit trickier. There are still few mechanisms to make sure companies do the right thing. For environmental impacts, we have conditionalities on financing, permitting processes with periodic reviews, etc. But not so for human rights, or at least, oversight is thin. Mostly what we have are ‘watchdog’ groups that raise an alarm when things go really wrong. Sometimes there are formal efforts to address egregious issues, like the work of human rights commissions, the International Finance Corporation complaint mechanism, and so on.

Wouldn’t it be better if human rights were taken seriously from the start? And private investments were designed to avoid harm and maybe even enhance human rights? Most companies would probably agree that’s what they’d like too.

Getting It Right

But until then, investments in community-driven mechanisms to monitor and assess human rights are a needed counter-balance. Oxfam has used a community-based Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) tool, Getting it Right, to help communities and their support organizations bring hard evidence to bear when companies have ignored human rights concerns.

The tool was first tested in the Philippines, Tibet, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Argentina and Peru, and then improved. In 2010 and 2011, Oxfam supported local partner organizations to conduct community-based HRIAs with tobacco farmworkers in North Carolina and with mining-affected communities in Bolivia. In our experience, community-based HRIAs have: (1) built human rights awareness among community members, (2) helped initiate constructive engagement when companies have previously ignored community concerns, and (3) led to concrete actions by companies to address concerns.

Oxfam welcomes companies’ initiative to conduct HRIAs. But we believe communities still need to do HRIAs along side them, independently. Not only will this provide an evidence-base for assessing the quality of company-led HRIAs, but it can enhance the dialogue between companies and affected communities. Getting it Right is one such tool. In fact it is the only HRIA tool specifically designed to be done by, with, and about communities themselves.

“Trust but verify” should be the watch-word on company-led HRIAs until we see whether companies actually take human rights seriously.

For further reading:

Oxfam’s experience supporting community-based HRIAs is featured in the new special edition of the Journal of Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, focused on Human Rights Impact Assessment. Guest editors Deanna Kemp and Frank Vanclay gather an impressive array of articles to explore different dimensions of this emergent field, put HRIAs in historical context, and set out some of the challenges ahead.

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It’s just not true—the Arms Trade Treaty and gun registration (Part II)

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More myths from the gun lobby on end use monitoring and record keeping

Part I

Chris Cox, the NRA’s chief lobbyist, put forth another absurd argument that the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) will lead to national gun registration in The Hill newspaper last week. Cox argued that “Article 12 of the treaty ‘encourages’ countries to compile ‘records’ of all ‘end users; of firearms imported into their county — and to supply this sensitive personal information to the government of the exporting country.” He says, “This is gun registration on an international level, plain and simple.”

Italian shotguns and existing records

Cox wrongly argues that “if you bought a shotgun made by an Italian manufacturer, the U.S. government would keep a record of your purchase and provide your information to the Italian government.” This argument makes for a good sound bite and is effective in scaring members of Congress and the NRA. But the fallacy of his argument becomes very clear when assessing Article 8 of the Arms Trade Treaty on imports and Article 12 on record keeping, as well as existing US law.

Article 12 of the Arms Trade Treaty requires all exporters of conventional weapons to keep records on their exports. It encourages, though does not require, each State Party to maintain records of conventional arms that are transferred to its territory as the final destination. Finally Article 12 also encourages, though does not require, the records to include: the quantity, value, model/type, authorized international transfers of conventional arms, conventional arms actually transferred, details of exporting State(s), importing State(s), transit and trans-shipment State(s), and end users, as appropriate. (My emphasis added.)

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The first question is which, if any, new records must be kept if the US signs the ATT. The truth is that the US already maintains records on both the import and export of conventional weapons, including firearms. (Again, bear with me through the legalese, which is offered for Cox’s sake.)

Individual gun owners, unless he or she is a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, or licensed dealer, are already barred by US law from importing firearms (See 18 U.S.C § 922; and 27 C.F.R. § 447.41.). Those applying for a permit to import firearms must file with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), listing details on the importer, the exporter, the item, and the purpose of the import, including final recipient if different than the importer. Similar import records are kept by the Customs Department when inspecting shipments entering the country.

The records currently kept by the US government do not extend to commercial sales of firearms. Pursuant to the Firearms Owners Protection Act, unless the specific firearms are suspected of being involved in a specific crime, no records of firearms transactions may be recorded once the weapons enter the domestic market.  The point is the Arms Trade Treaty does not require records to be kept beyond the import records already maintained by the ATF. The details already required in a permit application are extensive and there is no requirement in the treaty to expand the records to include firearm transactions once the arms enter the stream of commerce.

“Give me all your records!”

The second question raised by Mr. Cox is whether the US is required to hand over records to potential exporters. Article 8 of the Arms Trade Treaty states that “each importing State Party shall take measures to ensure that appropriate and relevant information is provided, upon request, pursuant to its national laws, to the exporting State Part.y” (My emphasis added.)

The treaty includes this section because many countries, including the United States, often require that countries provide details on potential recipients of US arms transfers prior to transfer. The US maintains records on the armed forces receiving exported weapons and checks on whether the arms transferred are being used pursuant to the agreement. This process is called end use monitoring, and is currently routinely carried out by both the State Department through its Blue Lantern Program and the Pentagon through its Golden Sentry Program.

According to existing US law and upon request of a foreign government, ATF will certify the importation and provide evidence that shows the US importer has complied with import regulations from the ATF and customs regulations from the Department of Homeland Security. (See 27 C.F.R. § 447.51.)

Sorry Cox, unless your NRA members are the importer him or herself, none of these regulations include individual gun purchases.

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It’s just not true—the Arms Trade Treaty and gun registration (Part I)

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More misinformation from the gun lobby on a national control list

The central argument coming from the gun lobby against the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which opened for signature on June 3, is that the treaty is a back-door way to require every American to register their firearms.

As I have said often on this blog, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their allies are mischaracterizing the treaty. Because they are once again aggressively putting out false justifications for their argument that the ATT will lead to national gun registration, today and tomorrow I am using this space to set the record straight. Their arguments represent a gross misreading of the treaty and a lack of understanding of existing law on these subjects.

First, John Bolton and John Yoo argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that because Article 5 of the treaty “requires nations to ‘establish and maintain a national control system,’ including a ‘national control list’…gun-control advocates will…argue the U.S. must enact measures such as a national gun registry.”

A national control list in this context is a list of items that the federal government has determined require oversight and approval when exported from the United States to another country. The idea behind such a list is simple: Export controls have been established because it is not in the economic, foreign policy or national security interest of the United States to allow certain technologies, including arms, to be freely traded on the global market. This is not a new idea, created by the ATT, rather it is the cornerstone of US export control law, regulation, and practice.

A necessary component of such a system is the determination of which items should be subject to scrutiny and which items can be freely traded. Thus, national control lists are created to inform manufacturers and exporters when an export license is required and to alert law enforcement and custom officials which items must receive extensive oversight. (For Bolton and Yoo’s sake, bear with me through the legalese.)

The U.S. has maintained a national control list for military technology ranging from pistols to fighter jets and warships, including most firearms, for almost forty years called the US Munitions List (USML). (See PL 94–329, June 30, 1976, 22 U.S.C. § 2778.) The USML includes rifles, handguns, shotguns under 18 inches in barrel length, associated ammunition, and certain optical sighting devices. (See also 22 C.F.R. § 121.1.) The Commerce Control List, regulated by the Commerce Department has jurisdiction over the export of shotguns with a barrel length of 18 inches or more and related components, muzzle loading rifles and handguns, air guns, replica firearms, shotgun shells and components, and most optical sighting devices. (See 15 C.F.R. Pt. 774, Supp. 1.)

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While the United States maintains the US Munitions List and the Commerce Control List, many other countries currently do not have control lists of any kind. They have few, if any, rules as to what items may be exported and under what conditions. Thus, the Arms Trade Treaty requires all countries to maintain and build effective export control systems. Countries have determined that a foundation of any effective system is the establishment and maintenance of a national control list. Article 5 of the Arms Trade Treaty requires that each State Party maintain a list and are encouraged to share the list with other countries in order to create an atmosphere of transparency and predictability in the global arms trade.

It seems disingenuous to me to see John Bolton warn about the dangers of these lists. While Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Bolton was in charge of maintaining the US Munitions List (USML) and the State Department bureaucracy that maintains the US export control system. If the USML could be seen as a means of back-door gun control, he should have warned the world about the dangers when serving in this role, instead of waiting until he joined the board of the NRA.

It is hard to see how the establishment and maintenance of a national control list, which the United States has maintained for close to 40 years, could be used to argue that this will lead to Americans being required to register their firearms by those who know better. It’s just not true.

Part II

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Senators consider Froman as US Trade Rep: Infinite wisdom or delusion?

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Big Pharma shows its influence in the Senate Finance Committee.

Stephanie Burgos, Senior Policy Advisor for Trade
Stephanie Burgos, Senior Policy Advisor for Trade

Teenagers are notorious for giving one-word responses when their parents inquire how school is going. Last week’s Senate Finance Committee’s hearing on Michael Froman’s nomination as US Trade Representative reminded me of this dynamic.

Because so much of the interrogation airtime was devoted to grandstanding, rather than actual questioning, Mr. Froman seemed to have little option other than to say “yes” and express his willingness to work with a Senator on an issue. Teenagers will say just enough to end their parents’ lecturing and get them off of their backs, eye rolls an added bonus. Well-intentioned parents, after all, were teenagers once too and want to impart their knowledge.

But that wasn’t the case for Senators last week. As one after another Senator pontificated on his infinite wisdom on the topic of intellectual property (neither of the two women on the committee were in attendance), I couldn’t help but be appalled by the non-truths (to be polite) that rolled off their tongues, clearly confident that no one in the room would challenge their assertions, content to defend corporate rather than consumer interests When it comes to pharmaceuticals, it’s unfortunately not surprising, given that PhRMA in representation of the brand-name pharmaceutical industry, tops the list of big-spender lobbyists. They registered over $100 million in lobby expenses over the last five years according to Open Secrets. And that doesn’t include lobby spending by individual companies, much less direct campaign contributions, which is no chump change.

What intellectual property systems are meant to do

Senators seem to have forgotten that intellectual property systems are, in essence, social pacts. Governments enable monopoly power through patents, which give inventors an economic advantage, as an incentive for research and development that will benefit the public through technological advancement. The challenge for governments is maintaining an appropriate balance between incentivizing innovation, on the one hand, and ensuring that new products are widely available, on the other. Extended monopoly protection keeps prices high, meaning less access to medicines for consumers. And access to medicines is a critical public health issue.

hiv_medicinesIn the developing world, access to affordable medicines is literally a matter of life and death, where many people lack insurance and must pay for medicines out-of-pocket. When a family member falls ill, that means hard making hard choices – like whether to buy treatment, food, or pay school fees.  At one point in the hearing, a Senator expressed concern about labor conditions in Bangladesh when he exclaimed, “How many more lives have to be lost before we act?

Why does it matter whether lives are lost or made more difficult either by labor rights violations, or by lack of access to affordable medicines?

Vilifying India’s generics industry

In their infinite wisdom, several Senators flailed against India – the country where one-third of the world’s poorest people live. They attacked the country for protecting its generic industry. Indian is known by many as the ‘pharmacy for the developing world’ because generics sourced from India have been critical to improving access to medicines for poor people in many low-income countries. In fact, 80 percent of the AIDS medicines used by donor-funded programs are sourced from India, resulting in a 90 percent cost savings for PEPFAR.

access to medicines

The irony of seeking more monopoly protection in the name of free trade also seems to be lost on Senators. The “strongest protection possible” of intellectual property that Senators repeatedly said they seek, further delays the onset of generic competition, which is the only proven method of sustainably reducing medicine prices. Here in the US, generic medicines are hugely important to consumers – accounting for 75 percent of prescriptions but only 22 percent of total drug spending. Yet Senators, in their passionate defense of US industry, seem to be unresponsive to the interests of their generics industry, which has spent less than one-tenth of what Big Pharma has on lobbying.

One Senator went so far as to accuse India of “invalidating and breaking US patents and violating WTO rules.” India’s patent law and enforcement is fully consistent with the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) Agreement. It’s unconscionable that US Senators, at the behest of Big Pharma, are pushing the US government to sanction India because it promotes generic competition that provides affordable medicines to the developing world.

What consensus?

The nominee was diplomatic, but my eye-rolling continued throughout the hearing. One Senator cited a favorite ‘fact’ of Big Pharma, that it takes $1.3 billion to bring a pharmaceutical product to market, which the CEO of GlaxoSmithKlein recently indicated as “one of the great myths of the industry”. And even though it puts the interests of the drug industry above public health and threatens access to affordable medicines for millions, several Senators specifically called for the ‘highest possible of standard’ of intellectual property protection in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement.

Perhaps most annoying in the two-hour hearing was the smugness with which one Senator proclaimed, and others affirmed, that a strong consensus exists in the Administration, Congress and throughout the country for the maximum possible intellectual property protection. That is an offense to the many public health, consumer and development organizations like Oxfam that for years have been showing how strict intellectual property rules undermine public health, as well as several Members of Congress who have been pushing for change in US trade policy.

I’d like these Finance Committee members to know that their infinite wisdom, with regard to intellectual property, is just another delusion.

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Tanzanian farmer to Congress: We don’t want food aid. We want reform.

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“We can help children survive in other regions of Tanzania and other countries.”

“The great problem is that we have no sure markets where we can buy and sell,” Emiliana Aligaesha explained exasperatedly.

“This makes the young people discouraged to deal with farming because they see their parents and neighbors do it. They see them die poor, so they are not interested.”

Emiliana Aligaesha (left) with Mwanahamisi Salimu, Campaigns & Advocacy Manager for the GROW Campaign in Tanzania at the Oxfam America offices.
Emiliana Aligaesha (left) with Mwanahamisi Salimu, Campaigns & Advocacy Manager for the GROW Campaign in Tanzania at the Oxfam America offices.

Emiliana Aligaesha’s visit to DC last week corresponded with the Senate and House’s decisions to increase local and regional procurement by just $20 million. Much more work remains to be done to achieve the kind of real reform the Administration has asked for and that Oxfam supports. (Listen to this Humanosphere podcast on the politics of aid reform with Oxfam’s Eric Muňoz and Jon Scanlon, who both accompanied Aligaesha last week.) 

Oxfam invited her as a farmer in the developing world who would stand to benefit from food aid reform. Emiliana Aligaesha formed a successful farmer’s cooperative, Kaderes Peasant Development Ltd. (KPD), with her fellow community members in the Karagwe District of northwest Tanzania in 2007. After getting support from USAID, they gained a small contract for beans with the World Food Programme (WFP). (Read more here.)

Below are Emiliana Aligaesha’s words, pieced together from various events, but exactly as she said them to stakeholders this week. (You can watch a livestream recording here of an event at which Aligaesha appeared, Enough Food For Everyone If: The G8’s Role in the Fight Against Global Hunger.)

As we bemoan the vested, status quo interests that prevented reforms proposal from gaining much ground, hardworking and innovative farmers like Aligaesha will carry on.

Her words speak for themselves.


“I believe in farming because many people at our area cannot get employment. So farming is another way to create jobs to the people. So many of the people are farmers. These small farmers feed their families, feed all the urban people, and nearby countries.

“Most of them are women, working hard, feeding their families, providing all their needs, fetching water, paying school fees. At the end of the day, they are the poorest in the area because they use much energy and profit almost nothing.

Aligaesha and two of her cows in the Karagwe District of northwest Tanzania.
Aligaesha and two of her cattle in the Karagwe District of northwest Tanzania. Photo: MaishaPlus2012 / Oxfam

“The problem here is that whatever we produce, we sell under the [production] costs. This breaks the heart of farmers. At harvest, we don’t know who is going to buy our products. You have no opportunity to bargain with these middlemen during harvest. They can simply go away to another farmer. Within the same day, prices can change, because if they see five people come with beans. Some of us have very small houses for family use, but we have nowhere to keep these products [after harvest]. So we need to sell quickly, another way to benefit middlemen. When people run out of their own food, they will have to go to these middlemen who will sell food back to them at two or three times the price.

“KPD competes with the middlemen, but it is not enough. If we can increase the WFP contract [currently only 5-10% of the beans harvested] to buy more and get more contracts, this will help make the price stable. We don’t have malnutrition issues in our area to the same extent because we produce different kinds of food. The soil is fertile. Take beans from our own home country because it supports these farmers, these women, and can help people in war or people in difficulties.

“I sometimes sit with women and do research. I ask, ‘If you want to get 20 kilos of beans, how many days can you work there? How much seedlings are you going to put? How many days have you gone there and each day? How much are you to be paid?’ When we look at production costs [and profit], it is empowering.

“If we get means of transport, we can help children survive in other regions of Tanzania and other countries. What is needed here is… Farming with hand hoes, up to now farming with hand hoes – it makes you tired. You have to bend your back. If we get improved farming tools, this could help us much, and irrigation methods. We have rivers, Lake Victoria, but just need some systems to use the water.

“I met different women’s groups in Texas and New York. I visited official offices in Fort Worth and New York and Washington, DC [Kay Granger, R-TX Nita Lowey, D-NY, Lois Frankel (D-FL)]. All American people are all smiling to me. I feel at home.

Emiliana Aligaesha. Photo: MaishaPlus2012 / Oxfam.
Emiliana Aligaesha. Photo: MaishaPlus2012 / Oxfam.

“I am also happy that the environment here is almost the same at home. Everywhere is green. The difference is those very, very high buildings. Whenever I meet people, they are all busy, thinking to promote their lives.

“I believe in farming because it has supported my children’s education. I have six cows. I have built a water tank for my farming [to collect rainwater], rehabilitated half of my house. I suggest that farming is good because I always have something to eat. Whenever any visitor knocks on my door, I know what to do. I am almost 70 but I never grow old because I have food.”

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What’s the return on investment on the New Alliance?

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Oxfam finds it’s an initiative in need of repair.

An initiative to increase private sector investment in agriculture, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition was born at last year’s G8, hosted by the US. The New Alliance signals an emerging trend by donors to promote public-private partnerships to address key global challenges such as hunger.

Tomorrow the New Alliance will celebrate a one-year anniversary of sorts with a half day event in London that promises to take stock of progress and chart a path forward – including launching new country partnerships.

It seems an opportune moment to ask: How is the New Alliance performing?

The New Alliance is very much a work in progress that is still in the early stages of getting organized with few concrete outcomes to date. To get a better sense of what has been happening in the six countries that have joined the New Alliance, I have been reviewing the evidence, talking to colleagues and partners in these countries, and doing a bit of fact-finding myself.

When the New Alliance launched, Oxfam and other civil society organizations, cried foul, pointing to major gaps remaining in public finance for agriculture.* From Oxfam’s perspective, the New Alliance provided the wrong solution to addressing the needs of small food producers. With companies only offering up existing business plans, it was “neither new nor a true alliance.”

Violeta Sithole, works with her family to prepare a field to plant beans near her home in Nzeve, Mozambique. Photo: Chris Hufstader/ Oxfam America
Violeta Sithole, works with her family to prepare a field to plant beans near her home in Nzeve, Mozambique. Oxfam reports that civil society participation has been lacking in New Alliance planning in Mozambique, which means that risks to smallholder farmers like Sithole are not being adequately addressed. Photo: Chris Hufstader / Oxfam America

So what did stakeholders stand to gain from joining the New Alliance?

The answer seems to be in what countries have agreed to – major policy reforms in critical areas that impact private investment in agriculture. Many of the reforms on the table have the potential to tip the balance of national policies in favor of big business over small-scale family farmers. While some reforms such as incorporating nutrition more centrally into the agriculture investment agenda are positive, changes in land policy and seed sector liberalization are more controversial and threaten to put farmers’ rights and access to land, seed and water at risk.

I have found a lack of systematic, country-level, civil society participation in the negotiation of Cooperation Framework Agreements. This means that questions of risk to farmers are not being adequately addressed. In Mozambique for example, farmers’ organizations that are intensely involved in these issues and are part of Oxfam’s GROW campaign, only learned about major changes to seed, land and fertilizer regulations at the launch event for the New Alliance in Maputo. This signaled to us that these policy reforms were made in a parallel forum and had not yet been in the spotlight of public scrutiny, using existing, transparent platforms such as NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme and following the good practice guidelines (including land tenure reform) developed by the FAO’s Committee on Food Security.

Even if these transparency shortcomings are addressed, will the New Alliance deliver real results for small producers?

Cries of neo-colonialism are being heard from civil society. (See here and here.) There are good reasons to be wary of how companies engage with small producers, and plenty of examples of how this can go wrong. Though most investments are still only on paper, I don’t think the proper groundwork has been laid to ensure this won’t be the case.

With these concerns in mind and so many unanswered questions being raised, not just by Oxfam but by civil society organizations across the Africa, US, and Europe, we are calling on the New Alliance to halt further expansion. It’s time to review existing country commitments and undertake reforms to address major shortcomings. (Read more about Oxfam’s appeals to the New Alliance here.)

Without these reforms, the New Alliance might lead to increased investment in agriculture.

But it will fail to meet its goal of lifting 50 million people out of poverty.

* For the sake of full disclosure, Oxfam America’s Executive Director, Ray Offenheiser, is currently participating in the Leadership Council (LC) of the New Alliance, a body which is supposed to serve as a kind of global accountability mechanism. The LC continues to struggle to meet this responsibility.

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#NotJustNumbers: Congress, where is the logic?

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Cutting poverty-reducing foreign aid will not solve our country’s budget problems.

Ask the average American what the 302(b) allocations are and very few will be able to tell you that they are the spending caps that the Appropriations Committees in Congress put on our federal budget. 302(b) allocations are important because they are where a lot of decisions get made in the Senate and House.

From Oxfam America's publication, “Foreign Aid 101.”
From Oxfam America’s publication, “Foreign Aid 101.”

The House Appropriations Committee has set their 302(b) allocations for poverty-reducing foreign aid and the Senate is yet to do so. Jeremy Kadden of InterAction argues that the proposed cut to the state and foreign operations appropriations bill (SFOPs) in the House is “grossly disproportionate.” Estimates vary, but poverty-reducing and life-saving aid would see 15-20% cuts from current funding levels. Under the House spending plan, departments such as Defense, Homeland Security, Veterans and Congress itself would see budget increases.

Oxfam America has always argued that discussions of “more aid” should never be divorced from discussions of “better aid” or ways to  deepen the US government’s commitment to making poverty-reducing foreign aid more effective. This is because within the aid system, we all know that promised money does not directly translate into promises kept for people in developing countries. However, we also know that cutting such a small portion of the overall US federal budget (poverty-reducing aid is currently less than 1%) will in no way solve our country’s budget problems.

Last week’s article by Lindsay Abrams in The Atlantic, “The New Idealism of International Aid,” discusses how governments of developing countries are having more say in where aid money goes. This suggests that though the more aid argument might be hard for policymakers to hear, efforts to better aid are still resonating in Congress. The much-anticipated “Foreign Assistance Transparency and Accountability Act” (in previous iterations known as the Poe Bill) will be a movement towards making the most out of aid dollars.

With various other aid reforms moving in a promising direction and foreign aid becoming a better tool for development in recipient countries, it seems the only logical question to ask Congress is this—why divest now?


You can learn more about InterAction’s Day of Action here. Do get in touch with your Congressional representatives. #NotJustNumbers

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15-Year-Old Thinking for Post-2015 Solutions on Inequality?

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A serious critique of the new UN goals

The much-anticipated recommendations for a post-2015 agenda report is bold and full of optimism, as my Oxfam colleagues acknowledge (a welcome treat in an otherwise uncertain era). I especially like the authors’ certainty that we can eradicate extreme poverty from the earth by 2030.

150px-Cat_post2015The new goals also specifically address a number of challenges left out of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 13 years ago, which signals to me that world leaders are really listening (a welcome, and unfortunately too uncommon, occurrence). Toward that end, the report acknowledges the interplay of conflict, violence, sustainability, governance, urbanization, and inclusive growth as not silos; but rather as a constellation of interdependent issues that must be addressed to create a more prosperous and healthy world for everyone.

Now that I’ve gushed, let me raise a serious critique about how the report addresses inequality.

Despite a growing global consensus that income inequality must be halted, the High-Level Panel did not generate targets for inequality reduction. Instead, reducing inequality is claimed to be imbued across all the goals. The Panel claims, rightly, that inequality is a national issue. For sure, solutions to inequality must happen within the cultural, political, economic contexts of countries. However, though solutions need to be tailored nationally, that doesn’t mean we can’t insist on global targets. There’s still plenty of time to develop what targets could look like. Others will agree and disagree, but I think excluding the idea this early on is premature and lacks creativity.

Further, there’s very little in the report to help countries think about ways to reduce inequality. Unfortunately, the report falls back on a tired narrative of economic growth as a be-all solution.

Who defines the post-2015 agenda? Infographic ‘Defining the post-2015 agenda’ by The Broker. View it interactively:

This answer reflects 15-year-old thinking that’s inappropriate for post 2015 world. For instance, in the report there’s a lot of talk about inclusive growth, which inherently reduces inequality, but there’s no suggestion for how to make growth inclusive, only talk about the need to increase productivity.

Worse, the parts on inequality and growth lack any mention of the role of government. As we know, it’s committed governmental intervention and political will making reductions in inequality possible among the few countries where it’s decreasing. Along these lines, there’s no mention of policies aimed toward inequality reduction, including stronger social insurance, more efficient taxation, and cash transfers to the poor. Last, there’s a few lines on the need for deregulation, which makes perfect sense in terms of curbing corruption. However, there should equally be language about how the deregulation of labor standards over the past 30 years has contributed to growing inequality.

With regard to measuring inequality, the report encourages countries to use income quintiles. I’m happy to see an endorsement for looking at how income is distributed. Yet, as we know, in many countries the severity of inequality is between the very, very top 1-5 percent and the rest. Therefore, the Panel should encourage countries to take data collection more seriously to gain a more fine-grained understanding of the differences between the very top and the very bottom. One way to start down this path is encouraging countries to utilize the Palma measure of inequality, which is the ratio of income between the top 10% and the bottom 40%.

I’ve said it once. After reading the report, I’ll say it again. It’s time to move the discussion from absolute to relative gains.

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Over sixty nations sign Arms Trade Treaty, US soon to follow

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Oxfam celebrates a historic day at the United Nations

The world has come together and said ‘Enough!’ to unscrupulous arms dealers, dictators and human rights abusers. We have a clear message. Your days of easy access to weapons and ammunition are over. The world is watching, and the world will hold you to account.” ~Oxfam’s Anna MacDonald today at the the UN gathering of foreign ministers and senior ambassadors

Earlier today over 60 countries took the stage at the United Nations and signed the Arms Trade Treaty. The Arms Trade Treaty is the first internationally-binding agreement to regulate the $85 billion annual trade in arms and ammunition. If implemented rigorously, the treaty will transform the global arms trade by requiring states to put human rights and humanitarian law before profits when making arms trade decisions. Major arms exporters such as Germany, the United Kingdom, and France all signed the treaty. We expect many more countries, possibly over 100, to join before the end of the year.

penismighterThe United States was not able to sign today, but Secretary of State John Kerry put out a strong statement welcoming the treaty and committing the United States to sign in the very near future.

The Arms Trade Treaty was approved by the United Nations General Assembly on April 2, 2013 and it opened for signature today–two months later. This proved too short of a period for some countries to complete their internal review and for all countries to agree on the translations of the text.

Oxfam and our allies pushed the United States to be one of the first countries to sign the treaty. Unfortunately that did not happen. However, contrary to some media reports and commentaries, the reason the US could not sign was technical rather than political. It seems crazy, but there are differences in the translations of the treaty when the English base text was translated into different languages. The US did not feel comfortable signing the treaty before these differences were reconciled and authenticated.

The US approach is not surprising as the US takes its treaty obligations very seriously; the US will not normally sign a treaty when the obligations of all parties are not crystal clear. This process of reconciliation will be completed on August 28, 2013, and we expect the US to sign the treaty within weeks of that date.

The US is not the only treaty supporter to not sign the treaty today. Kenya, for example, has been a leader of the UN process toward an ATT since its inception in 2006 and was not prepared to sign today. Still, the absence of these signatures does not take away from today’s historic significance.

But now that we have the words on the paper, we need the action on the ground. The treaty will only be as strong as the commitment of countries to implement its provisions. Oxfam and our allies are not going away, and we will continue to pressure all governments to sign the agreement and rigorously implement its provisions.

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