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In Rio this week up for discussion and negotiation (mostly negotiation) is a 49-page draft document that aims to establish clear sustainable development goals and action to achieve them.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, better known as Rio Plus 20, marks 20 years since the Earth Summit, which at the time was the largest gathering of heads of state ever to talk about environmental challenges.

This time, the agenda has been softened to be about sustainable development, with an emphasis on development. Indeed, some people here don’t seem to believe that environment really plays any part in the conference. Earth isn’t anywhere isn’t mentioned – despite that this is clearly supposed to be a follow-on to the earlier event.

Yet it’s hard to imagine how the discussion of sustainable development can take place without careful consideration of our natural environment.

The reality and the urgency is that our world’s population is expected to rise from its current 7 billion to more than 9 billion in 2050. That’s scary in a world where already an estimated 3 billion people don’t have clean water to drink and 14 percent of our planet, to adequate food.

According to the final version of the Rio Plus 20 Common Vision submitted today under the title, The Future We Want, one in five people, over 1 billion people, still live in extreme poverty. By 2050 two-thirds of our world will live in cities.

So where we find food and water for another 2 million people in 38 years is the crux of the challenge and one that really can’t be denied, regardless of political leaning.

And we live in Asia, where most of that future population growth is expected to occur. This places the challenges front and centre for those of us engaged in work to combat environmental challenges and with communities without adequate means to survive.

Despite the enormity of the task at hand, however, few here in Rio are optimistic that real change will come from or be led by the conference.

The Brazil delegation worked hard in recent days to ram through a document that is in essence hollow, fearing more than anything a repeat of the Copenhagen disaster when no one could agree on anything.

I guess the sense is that if they can at least agree on nothing meaningful that’s better than agreeing on nothing at all over the three-day official proceedings, which begin Wednesday?

The conference document finalized today was, “the result of intensive and prolonged negotiations,” according to the press release, and is a “compromise text,” in which, “countries have had to both give and take to achieve progress.”

The text is to be approved by heads of state at the conference conclusion on Friday. Significantly, Barack Obama, David Cameron and Angela Merkel will not be present in Rio.

Still, the text does include a commitment at least to the concept of sustainable development and recognition that eradicating poverty is one of our greatest challenges. It emphasizes the urgency around “freeing humanity from hunger and poverty”.

The text establishes the clear linkages between sustainable development and the environment, between sustainable development and the means to bolster our struggling economies, and emphasizes the value of public-private partnerships.

Sadly, the hope that this translates into government action is absent from the jaded community spending long hours being bused among several distant event locations in fancy and frigid coaches that have nothing to do with sustainable development other than collective transport.

Part of the skepticism also derives from the fact that the earlier Rio conference ended with two treaties aimed at curbing emissions of greenhouse gases and conserving biological diversity that have since languished amid lack of political will.

There is, additionally, a certain exhaustion generally with the promotion of international frameworks to make sweeping change toward environmental progress.

Those just have been too hard to achieve in our economically challenged world that doesn’t yet seem to link better development, protection of our natural world and an improved economic environment.

like the posh buses, the main conference venue itself is a reflection of misunderstanding of the challenges we face. The huge Riocentro is two hours in traffic from Ipanema and Copacabana, where most participants are staying.

There, air conditioning blasts through huge buildings that are no model of efficiency – either in space or energy consumption.

At the same time, Rio Plus 20 is largely white and male – at least this is particularly true of the official and business delegations. Amongst the NGO community, women are better represented.

At the alternative youth summit in Flamengo, three hours from Riocentro in traffic and closer to Rio’s pulsing centre, the situation is considerably different.

Here, the youth and community-connected people are basing themselves, including many of the smaller NGOs – and diversity is evident in the variety of national dress, skin hues and music that accompanies many events.

In a long stretch of tents, people gather for animated discussion or to listen to seminars on topics related to conservation and sustainable development. Here, the environment is very much present although it’s hard to see where, concretely, the discussion will lead.

Official delegations are noticeably lacking these communities – the NGOs and youth. This is despite the final text emphasizing wide agreement among business, NGOs and government.

Perhaps one bright light here in Rio seems to be the talk on many levels of the importance of valuing our natural resources. Companies, NGOs and governments alike seem to recognize the need to bring environmental value into economic decision-making.

And engaging the private sector, governments, communities in this important dialogue, in partnerships to achieve results, is key to real change.  As always in large gatherings it’s the back-room learnings and discussion that are the real drivers for change.

 

 

I recently spent a week at Angkor Hospital for Children in Siem Reap, Cambodia with Francesco Caruso, director of ADMCF’s Children at Risk program and Ryan Glasgo, our new finance director. Both are working hard to help bring the hospital to the point where it can become a fully Cambodian institution.

When the hospital was founded in 1999 by Japanese photographer Kenro Izu and then was nurtured into being in partnership with an American board as a free pediatric hospital, Cambodia was a very different place.

Now there is a growing middle class, many of whom would be fully able to pay something for medical care. AHC for now, however, is still entirely free to any Cambodian child.

At the same time, the hospital in 2012 has a talented and dedicated medical and administrative staff that is fully capable of taking the hospital forward.

There is now an almost entirely Cambodian staff of 149 nurses and 46 doctors, including AHC’s executive director. Only two doctors and two nurses are foreign.

Last year, the hospital treated more than 150,000 children for illnesses ranging from acute diarrhea to tuberculosis. The Outpatient Department sees between 400 and 600 patients daily, while the Inpatient unit of 40 beds is almost always full.

An emergency room has eight beds, four of these in a separate isolation ward. There are plans to build a separate neonatal ward since on any day 10 of the patients are babies and many have suffered birth trauma or are premature.

Surgeries in the one operating theatre range from hernias to heart repair.

A pediatric Satellite clinic that is part of the government hospital in Sotnikum, 35 kilometers from Siem Reap, last year treated 12,300 Children. The Satellite staff works closely with the government hospital to build the quality of care offered there, with a focus on assisting the lab, X-ray unit and pharmacy, which the clinic shares. The clinic also has  installed an emergency button in the delivery room to summon a Satellite  doctor to assist any baby in distress.

AHC  also has become northern Cambodia’s premier pediatric teaching facility. The Medical Education program includes a three-year residency program for every doctor who joins and then on-going internal education and fellowships abroad.  ME also offers internships and trainings  for medical staff  from other hospitals.

“What we are developing is to be shared,” the hospital’s executive director, Dr. Bill Housworth emphasized, explaining the hospital’s full engagement via the AHC External Program with both the Ministry of Health in Phnom Penh and directly with many of Cambodia’s government hospitals.

The AHC Capacity Building program works with rural Health Care Centres and communities to provide education on nutrition, hygiene, sanitation and relevant disease – some of the main challenges for the AHC patient population.

The hospital, Satellite, Medical Education and  CB programs together cost US$4.5 million last year. This amount is covered almost exclusively by donor funding and is a challenge for the hospital to raise each year.

Consequently, AHC is of necessity looking at revenue-generating programs and already for a fee provides hospital services to the children of some local NGO workers and airport staff in Siem Reap.

Although public hospitals are not free in Cambodia, about 30 percent of the rural population has what is known as a Health Equity Card, which establishes that they are poor and reimburses some of the medical costs and travel expenses to get to the hospital. But even then, it is not uncommon for doctors and hospital administrators to ask patients for payment ahead of treatment.

Private clinics are expensive and don’t necessarily provide a better quality of care, underlining the importance of a hospital like Angkor for the population that just cannot pay medical costs.

Research shows that the most common reason for impoverishment in Cambodia remains emergency healthcare costs, which force families to enter an often unending spiral of debt. For families who have a child with a chronic disease, healthcare costs can be devastating.

In Cambodia, an average of one in 20 children die before their fifth birthday, compared to a rate of one in 120 found in developed nations, according to UNICEF. And four children out of five live in rural areas, where the mortality rate is much higher at 64 deaths per 1,000 live birth.

Government census data shows that in 2010, 40 percent of children under five were too short for their age, stunted by malnutrition. Roughly 30 percent of Cambodians live on less than $1.25 per day, which the World Bank has established as the poverty threshold.

Indeed, Siem Reap province, better known abroad for its 11th century temple complexes and lavish hotels replete with Western tourists, has the third-highest poverty rate among the Cambodian provinces at 52 percent.

For a province of 1 million people, the total health budget of Siem Reap this year is about $2.8 million, according to provincial health officials, and almost two-thirds of that represents support from large foreign government donors.  None of that makes its way to AHC.

Clearly, part of the problem with provincial hospitals is that the government can afford to pay only low salaries to its health workers. Thus doctors, who might earn as little as $100 a month, often supplement their incomes with private clinics that take precedence over any hospital care.

Still, Cambodia is making headway in medical care on offer, in part with the support of AHC.

Part of the problem is the legacy of destruction leftover from the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge rule, when medical professionals and other educated people were singled out for slaughter. In all, an estimated 1.7 million people were killed or died from forced labor, starvation or disease over the period.

When they marched into Phnom Penh and other cities, the Khmer Rouge emptied the hospitals, eliminated the doctors and then left the care of sick and injured to untrained young soldiers who favored traditional Cambodian remedies over Western medicine.  By the time the Vietnamese ejected the Khmer Rouge from power, there were only an estimated 40 doctors left in the country.

Decades of war and isolation followed, leaving the medical infrastructure in shambles. In the 1990s, NGOs simply took over the health care system without trying to build anything indigenous, and change only began in earnest with the end of the Cambodian Civil War in 1998.

Angkor Hospital is working hard to be part of the solution.

Forest Impact Bonds:

Lisa Genasci —  January 4, 2012 — Leave a comment

We have been thinking a lot about Social Impact bonds and how the concept might apply to conservation finance, which is something about which we ponder a great deal.

Why not a Forest Impact Bond, issued against promised aid streams from sovereign development banks wanting to mitigate climate change and/or promote forest conservation?

These could work in circumstances where communities are key to protecting High Conservation Value forest.

FIBs would be focused on impact-driven community development (schools, livelihoods, health, education) but linked also to real conservation outcomes.

Time is slipping as we try to establish the best way to protect ourselves at scale from climate change, manage and protect our forests for future generations.

The multiple challenges around forest conservation is something we’ve written about previously in this blog here and here.

In essence, the problem is how to compensate governments and landholders for the huge rewards they reap cutting trees from native tropical forests; how to balance development with conservation.

Since 57 percent of the world’s forests are located in developing countries, it is hard to make the economic argument that these areas should not be developed for the benefit of the national population.  Indeed, timber revenues represent the major, sometimes only, export commodity of a country.

The Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests has estimated  that 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions – an amount equal to the transportation sector – are from deforestation.

At the same time, the scale of financing required to halve deforestation will reach US$30 billion annually by 2020, the U.S.-based commission estimated in the same report.

Only turning to the global capital markets will provide sufficient funding to meet the challenge deforestation presents today.  That strategy could include the use of bonds, which would allow the desperately needed investment at scale.

Communities and Livelihoods the Key to Conservation

Key to this discussion is that not only do governments and landholders need to be compensated for not chopping forests for timber, but local livelihoods are also often linked to forests.

Nearly 90 percent of the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide depend on forests, which provide them with building materials, food, coffee, cocoa, medicinal plants and income from other sources.

Without access to the forests not only do many of these people lose livelihoods but they also may lose their crops to droughts or floods as climates change with deforestation.

Thus communities living in and around forested areas are key to their protection.

Still, even with access to forests, local populations who face the immediate need of supporting their families often don’t recognize the value of conserving forests for the longer term because they cannot meet their immediate needs for food, housing, clothing and education, among others.

Thus, local communities need both education on the value of long-term forest conservation to their own lives (livelihoods, water etc) and help establishing alternative and sustainable income sources.

At the same time, battling to defeat poverty, poor nations argue they cannot be expected to forfeit income from economic activities that lead to deforestation, particularly since there are global  benefits from developing world forest services – carbon, water etc.

They have argued collectively that if global powers want to preserve the rainforests and their natural services provided then those must be paid for.


Rainforest Bonds Not a New Conversation

Indeed, for many years now there has been talk of rainforest bonds, which would help pay the large upfront capital expenditure required to invest in development, livelihoods, conservation to maintain the forests.

Under conventional thought, either forest carbon revenue or other sources of income such those generated by sustainable timber, agriculture or ecosystem service markets (water, biodiversity for example,) would repay investors.

But the conversation around REDD carbon has stalled with regulatory uncertainty. Additionally, in Asia certainly, we are a long way from any scalable ecosystem markets, while the significant upfront investment needed to promote agriculture as an alternative or to build local livelihoods to protect forests is just not available philanthropically.

And that’s just it…the bond conversation has gone on for years with significant players like the Prince’s Rainforest Trust and others eventually pulling back given the difficulties in identifying revenue streams that would work.

Turning to Forest Impact Bonds

So why not step back entirely from the conversation around how to make forests pay and look instead to the large sums promised by sovereign development banks at Copenhagen (US$4.5 billion) and other aid that has yet to find a home for want of knowledge of how to invest those funds with surety and with impact.

And that’s not surprising. Over the past two decades, substantial funds have flooded into Indonesian conservation  (usually to secure national parks or protect wildlife and its habitat) without corresponding transformational change. Over the same period, deforestation has only accelerated, fueled by burgeoning consumption, population explosion and massive urbanization.

So the problem remains, how to ensure that limited funding for conservation is spent with measurable and significant impact? How to balance development and conservation and raise the funds from global capital markets to pay for both?

Indeed, we must increase the availability of performance-linked finance to protect forests for local communities and local governments, in order to maintain them for global biodiversity and as carbon sinks.

In 2007, a similar discussion emerged in the UK around improving social outcomes and reducing uncertainty of funding for social services.

Shortly thereafter, London-based Social Finance introduced the concept of social impact bonds, which target funds to specific projects with measurable results.

If the identified targets are reached, the UK government saves on social programs and those savings are used to repay bond investors, in certain cases with interest. If targets are not reached, bond investors lose out as they would in any junk bond investment.

Turning to the U.S, in last year’s  budget speech, President Obama announced that he had set aside US$100 million for social impact bonds and at the same time two Boston-based companies have recently been established to apply the UK social impact bond concept to the U.S. context.

Why could this innovative approach to generating social impact in the UK and the U.S. not work also to protect forests in Indonesia, targeting communities and livelihoods but at the same time generating extra and measurable impact in conservation?

Given the argument above, and the lack of current appetite for REDD+ and other forms of eco-securitisation backed by forest assets or credits, might we then apply the social impact bond example to community development initiatives in a country like Indonesia?

In this scenario, international government funds, funds from multi-laterals with an interest in combating climate change and conserving  forests for future generations pool funds in an SPV that are then allocated to community development initiatives with specific parameters and measures of impact.

The key would be to persuade the local government to join what would essentially be billed as a development initiative but with additional conservation benefits.

The SPV funds would be available to repay investors in the event that the community development programs, livelihood initiatives, the conservation targets achieve desired results. In this way, the pooled funds are used only if they have been effective and only after impact has been achieved and quantified.

Country funds would likely have to be established separately, with their own fund administrators (local country officials?)  and project monitors.

An initial pilot would likely include just one country – Indonesia perhaps – and one specific target: perhaps livelihoods and education around several conservation areas.

For in-country implementing partners we could draw on local NGOs to support conservation (research and protection) and identify appropriate targets. Microfinance institutions could support business initiatives where appropriate and rural development organizations would help build agricultural businesses that local communities in Indonesia want to generate income.

Legal organisations would need to be employed to help sort out land-titling to establish a legal basis to land ownership. Education NGOs could be employed to boost local knowledge around conservation, while healthcare providers could support rural health development.

This would then be associated by local communities, along with improved education, for example, with conservation of their local forests.

So rather than trying to pry an uncertain financial return out of forest services or REDD+ (although if these markets develop in the future, certainly these could be added to SPV funds) we are trying  to achieve only effective allocation of government/multilateral resources  and measurable impact.

At the same time, however, there could be a return on investor depending on the effectiveness of the programs., while a tranche structure with different risk/return profiles could be used to simultaneously appeal to both groups.

The difference with the UK Social Impact Bond, of course, would be the potential for shared savings. Although it would be important to have local governments as key participants, it is unlikely their own development investments would make this worthwhile.

Who would buy Forest Impact Bonds?

There is growing interest on the part of institutional investors in markets where there are environmental and social as well as financial returns or where there are at least screens for negative impact.

According to Eurosif, total SRI assets under management increased dramatically from €2.7 trillion to €5 trillion, as of December 31, 2009. This represents spectacular growth of about 87% since 2007.

The sense is that when environmental social and governance issues start to affect share price or impact bottom lines boardrooms will take note.

Increasingly, SRI is a mainstream criterion in equity analysis and several stock exchanges have launched tradable indices that track SRI companies or ESG alongside financial performance.  And ratings agencies are emerging to rank companies on their ESG performance.

At the same time, part of the consideration around forests is that they have long carried appeal to institutional investors.

According to an article in The Banker from 2007, more than US$30 billion globally is invested in forest assets, although mostly through funds and largely in the US.

These investments generally offer competitive returns with low or negative correlation to traditional asset classes making them a counter-cyclical hedge.

In Summary…

  • A FIB is a contract with the public sector in which it commits to pay for improved environmental and social outcomes
  • On the back of this contract, investment is raised from investors motivated perhaps not only by commercial but also by environmental and social returns.
  • This investment is used to pay for a range of social outcomes such as poverty alleviation of local communities, improved health and education, all tied to and contingent on conservation of an area of high-conservation value local forest
  • The financial returns investors receive are dependent on the degree to which outcomes improve i.e, they may receive part or all of the initial investment back, and in some cases additional financial returns.
  • A FIB shifts emphasis from paying for inputs and outputs to paying for impacts
  • In its purest form, a FIB has a risk profile more similar to an equity investment than a debt investment

I’ve been thinking recently about Fiduciary responsibility and what that has come to mean over the past two decades of rapid growth.

I’ve been thinking about how and why the interpretation that has crept into investment culture over that period – simply to maximize rates of return  – has slowed an appreciation of investment that doesn’t cause social or environmental harm.

It goes without saying that this has also slowed investment that promotes social good as well as generating returns.

I’ve also been thinking that by itself  this narrow interpretation ignores both business risk and opportunity  – neither of which should be ignored considering the dictionary definition of fiduciary duty:  to act prudently.

Writing in a Capital Institute blog, Stephen Viederman, former president of the US-based Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, argues that foundations should align program work with investment strategy – something that is all too rare.

“Foundation fiduciaries have an obligation to seek  ‘good’ and ‘competitive’ returns, not necessarily to maximize them,” he says.

Part of the problem has been the accompanying  “myth of financial underperformance from ‘social investing,’ a myth that still lies at the heart of the problem for finance committees who conveniently forget that two-thirds of traditional active managers underperform their benchmarks every year,” Viederman says.

“Yet the profit-maximizing argument–that you will underperform if you do sustainable investing–comes up time and time again in conversations and is never examined by the people who are making it.”

Indeed, most investors are not considering the business risk associated with investing, for example, in a power company, a textile operation or mining business in a region that is water scarce.

Most ignore the reputational risks associated with investing in factories or plants that are polluting, overly consumptive of resources, or engaged in bad labor practices.

“All investments are about the future, but most investment decisions are made on retrospective data, which as fund offerings make clear, are not predictors of future earnings,” says Viederman.

“We need to ask about …  ‘predictable surprises,’ which include climate change, the BP Gulf disaster and the financial bubble among others. …Any institutional investor who ignores them is in breach of their fiduciary duty. To be prudent, as in the prudent person, is in its original meaning, to be farseeing.”

The ADM Capital Foundation launched a web portal, China Water Risk, in October to provide investors and companies with information about water scarcity and pollution in China.

Part of the thesis behind the initiative is that better investment decisions produce better returns in the long run and these usually come with more information – and not the information investors traditionally have sought.

But, certainly, few could disagree that the regulatory environment is changing to reflect resource consumption and that water pricing in the near future will reflect scarcity.

Few could disagree that NGOs are increasingly sophisticated in exposing pollution incidents (see my blog posts on IPE’s Ma Jun and Apple, on Greenpeace’s Dirty Laundry and other reports) and that local protests in China are growing around pollution incidents.

Workers are no longer content to suffer exposure to hazardous chemicals silently, or work extraordinarily long hours without proper compensation.

All are, potentially, a drag on profits. Would it not then make sense for fiduciary duty to include analysis of  such risk?

Fully Risk-Adjusted Returns (FRR), as they might be called, should certainly not be lower as a result, indeed given the current and future challenges the world faces, they could even be enhanced by additional information.

For those who missed this, one company that is looking to consider the impact of production is PUMA, which earlier this year announced the results of an unprecedented environmental profit and loss screening.

This was a big step toward assigning economic value to resources consumed and to emissions. The value assigned was also a step toward determining the true cost of production of PUMA apparel and shoes.

Results from PUMA's Environmental Profit and Loss Analysis

The analysis showed that raw material production accounted for the highest relative impact of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and water consumption within PUMA’s operations and supply chain.

According to PUMA’s report, the direct ecological impact of company operations translated to the equivalent of 7.2 million euros of the overall impact valuation. An additional 87.2 million euros was distributed along the four-tier supply chain.

Thus, the overall environmental impact of GHG and water consumption amounted to 94.4 million euros. That compares to a third-quarter net profit of 82 million euros.

“By putting a monetary value on the environmental impacts, PUMA is preparing for potential future legislation such as disclosure requirements,” the company said.

“By identifying the most significant environmental impacts, PUMA will develop solutions to address these issues, consequently minimizing both business risks and environmental effects.”

Finally, a new and important report from IESE Business school, “In Search of Gama, an Unconventional Perspective on Impact Investing,” steps into the discussion with questions such as:

  • By focusing exclusively on the creation of financial wealth for individuals are financial markets destroying value for society?
  • Is social responsibility a component of investment that is necessarily detrimental to financial return?
  • Should changes be made in the taxation and supervision of financial transactions to account for financial markets’ responsibility to society?

Clearly, business as usual is no longer smart business and change is imminent. Considering the impact of investments and reconsidering how we make investment decisions will be the way forward.

Let’s start  by redefining fiduciary responsibility, considering Fully Risked Returns. Clearly, returns may actually be enhanced either when viewed through the lens of an appropriate risk framework/weighting or in reality as a result of a superior business environment.

ADMCF recently spent time in Patna, in India’s Bihar state where we were looking at how we might work effectively with the Musahar community, which ranks at the bottom of the dalit or untouchable caste.

We found that there is apparently relatively little concrete information about or assistance given to the Musahar, whose name translates quite literally as the “rat-eaters.” Estimates of their numbers in Bihar and other states range from 2 million to as high as 5 million.

The Musahar fall so far down the well of the Indian caste system that by all accounts its people live in modern India much as they did 2,000 years ago. In an initiative that was perhaps telling about the regard in which the community is held, in 2008 the Indian government acted to help the Musahar by allowing the commercialization of rat meat.

A brief portrait of their situation gleaned from what is available online and through conversations in Bihar: In the villages around Patna in Bihar state, India, child marriage at 13 or 14 is still common, although illegal in India.

In the rural areas, Musahar are primarily bonded agricultural labourers, but often go without work for as much as eight months in a year.  Children work alongside their parents in the fields or as rag pickers, earning as little as 25 to 30 rupees daily.

The Musahar literacy rate is 3 percent, but falls below 1 percent for the women. Yet it is cast discrimination rather than parents that keep Musahari children away from schools. That said, the schools to which they have access apparently offer so little in the way of education that perception among the community is that schooling doesn’t offer them anything. And it is certainly true that even if they do manage an education certificate, discrimination means few manage to find jobs anyway.

By some estimates, as many as 85 percent of some villages of Musahars suffer from malnutrition and with access to health centres scant, diseases such as malaria and kala-azar, the most severe form of Leishmaniasis, are prevalent.

Besides eating rats, the Musahars are known for producing a good and cheap alcohol so not surprisingly alcoholism is rampant among the community, particularly the men.

Government development programs provide very little support to the Musahars. They are not recipients of housing schemes because generally they do not possess title deeds for their land. They are also the lowest number of recipients of loans from revolving funds within government schemes.  Thus the social support system bypasses them, as do private donations since so little is known about them.

The Dalit community in Bihar as a whole suffers frequent and often unpunished human rights violations. In the ten years before 2003, for example, 4243 cases of Dalit atrocities were registered in police stations, including 694 cases of murder, 1049 of rape, 1658 of severe injury and 842 cases of insult and abuse.

Into this picture walked Sudha Varghese 26 years ago, a nun who wanted to give voice to India’s dalits. The Musahars were the least advantaged of the dalits she could find and she moved into their community to truly understand their needs and way of thinking.

her organization, Nari Gunjan, was born to give voice to the Musahar women in particular. The organization now runs 72  primary education centres and a residential hostel/school for girls. Nari Gunjan promotes social, political, and economic empowerment for the women and girls. Beyond education, some of the centers provide vocational training and assist with micro-credit for Musahar women.

A decade ago, recognizing the need also to represent Musahar women in the courts, Sudha sent herself to law school and returned armed with a new skill set she has used to pursue the prosecution of ten rape cases that without her would have gone unpunished. In each case, she lead a column of Musahar women to the police stations to persuade officers to make the right arrest and in each case she has succeeded in putting the perpetrators behind bars, she says.

Known as the “bicycle nun” Sudha visits the various communities on her bicycle, and her fragile appearance belies a ferocious determination to provide Musahar children with education, self-esteem and purpose, its women with hope. For her courage, India’s national government recently awarded Sister Sudha the country’s highest civilian award, the Padmashri.

During a visit, the difference between children who attend her education centers and those who don’t was immediately apparent. Still, like any organization working in difficult circumstances that has been around for some time, achieving a constant flow of funding, even at the modest scale Nari Gunjan requires, is extremely hard. Some of the education centers have gone unfunded for 10 months although the teachers continue to work and the children appear.

Hong Kong vegetables, mostly imported from the mainland, contain high levels of lead and traces of other metals, including cadmium, according to research released last week by the Hong Kong Baptist University. This followed last month’s revelation by Chinese government scientists that 12 million tons of Chinese rice are contaminated with heavy metals.

The Baptist University tests were of 93 vegetables imported from the mainland and bought at local Hong Kong street markets or supermarkets, as well as of produce grown on Hong Kong farms, between September and December last year.

The most contaminated vegetable was apparently mainland-grown choy sum, which is also one of Hong Kong’s most consumed vegetables.

An article in the South China Morning Post on Friday showed that although the levels of lead in the study were 2.8 times higher than the global standard, they were acceptable under Hong Kong regulations. Traces of Cadmium also were found in some vegetables.

According to the SCMP, Hong Kong’s standards are shockingly 20 times less stringent than those of the World Health Organization, the European Union or Australia.

Author of the study, Professor Jonathan Wong Woon-Chung of Baptist University’s Hong Kong Organic Resource Centre told the Standard that ninety percent of vegetables in Hong Kong were imported from the mainland.

“The result demonstrates that lead pollution in mainland farm produce is serious,” he was quoted as saying.

In China, heavy metal pollution in crops comes mostly from contaminated irrigation water, pesticides or excessive application of chemical fertilizers and hormones as well as direct heavy metal contamination of the soil as a result of emissions from nearby factories.

Long-term consumption of vegetables polluted with heavy metals can contribute to cancers as well as damage the nervous system. Excess cadmium can also cause kidney stones, while excess lead can affect brain activity in children.

Wong pointed out in the SCMP article that leaf vegetables such as choy sum and spinach were more likely to absorb heavy metals. He suggested people alternate between these and fruit vegetables such as tomatoes and eggplants.

China has recognized that food security is a real issue for the country, following scandals over melamine in baby milk and many others that have caused unrest in many parts of China following discovery of contamination.

In February the SCMP reported that government scientists revealed millions of acres of Chinese agricultural land and 12 million tons of grain, or about 10 percent of the country’s rice crop, were contaminated by heavy metals. China’s southwestern provinces, where much of the country’s export manufacturing is concentrated, were particularly contaminated, according to the article.

Potential economic losses from the contaminated rice, which is enough to feed more than 40 million people, hit 20 billion yuan or HK$23.66 billion a year, the China Economic Weekly said, citing 2007 statistics from the Ministry of Land and Resources.

China is also confronting a serious and potentially costly health crisis, with clusters of “cancer villages” springing up downstream from factories and near mines.

At  the annual plenary session of China’s parliament this past week, soil contamination was a topic of urgent discussion.  In a news report on China.org Jia Kang, a CPPCC National Committee member and head of fiscal science at the Ministry of Finance, called for legislators to begin drafting a soil protection law.

Jia was quoted as saying that land pollution already threatens the sustainability of economic growth and social stability.

Meanwhile, the same site quoted Health Minister Chen Zhu as saying that comprehensive evaluations of health risks from soil pollution are underway. Environment Minister Zhou Shengxian in recent months has said he will work to curb soil pollution during the period of the current, or 12th, Five-Year Plan – a framework for China’s economic development over the period.

The most recent plan, introduced at the parliamentary session this past week, calls for China to step away from exclusive focus on rapid economic growth to a more balanced development model that includes more benefit sharing and recognizes the environmental challenges the country faces.

The annual parliamentary gathering generally sets the country’s political tone and government priorities.

Let’s hope that food security stays at the forefront of China’s agenda and that we see action from officials both on the mainland and in Hong Kong to protect public health.

An estimated 50,000 children of refugees from Burma live in the Mae Sot area of Thailand,  80 percent with no access to schools. Among them are children from the Mon, Karen and Shan minority groups fleeing decades of political, economic and military oppression at home.

These migrant populations along the Burmese border are largely forgotten, subject to harassment and have little access to support or education.

Estimates are that with a near absence of economic, educational, health and job options at home, about 2 million Burmese have migrated to Thailand since 1988.

Of these, 150,000 are living in refugee camps, 500,000 are legal migrants and the rest live illegally in Thailand.

Although the camps and borders are officially closed, an estimated 1,000 people cross into Thailand daily and this was evident on a recent visit to Mae Sot, with fighting raging just across the border.

Life for migrant Burmese in Thailand, however, is not much better than at home.  In a report released last year, Human Rights Watch described “an atmosphere circumscribed by fear, violence, abuse, corruption and intimidation for illegal Burmese in Thailand.”

The illegal migrants are kept to just a few low-skill job opportunities.  Most work as day labourers with no rights, no protection. They are commonly exploited and abused by employers, police, immigration and others with little recourse, according to HRW.

Schooling options for their children are also limited. Places for them in local Thai schools  are almost non-existent, although there are some limited Burmese “education centres” as the Thai government prefers to call them.  

In the Mae Sot area, Ashoka fellow Naw Paw Ray has worked hard to get Burmese children into some sort of schooling over the past 11 years. Of the 50,000 locally, she estimates 12,500 attend the  60 education centres, as they are called by the Thai government, gathered under her Burmese Migrant Workers Educational Centre network.

BWMEC works to make sure the curriculum and facilities of the education centres under her umbrella are adequate for learning, providing training, funding, administrative support and school buildings or dormitories where necessary.

A migrant herself, Paw Ray’s story is fairly typical of the migrant Burmese community. She left Burma  in 1986 when her village was destroyed by soldiers and entered a refugee camp in Mae Sot when they were set up by the United Nations a year later.  

In Burma, Paw Ray was a teacher but in Mae Sot she worked in a gas station until she said she could no longer stand to see the discrimination. “I could teach and I wanted to teach. I wanted to do something to help my people,” she said, setting up a first school with just 25 Karen and Burmese students.

Chosen as an Ashoka fellow in 2007, Paw Ray said that in her work she hoped to address the vast educational gap between Thai children and the children of Burmese migrant workers.

Naw Paw’s schools hopefully give migrant children options – preparing them for a prospective return to Burma or integration into Thai society and culture – critical to establishing a pluralistic and tolerant Thai society. The idea is to pave the way for migrant schools, students, and teachers to gain public support and official accreditation in Thailand.

No other organisation in Thailand fields such an array of minority schools or is doing so much to build a long-term solution to the growing number of uneducated migrant children coming to or born in Thailand each year.

Yet like many good organizations, Paw Ray struggles to find adequate funding to support this forgotten community.

And the problem remains, children attending the Burmese elementary schools have only limited access to Thai secondary schools for reasons related to cost, discrimination and availability.  That limits future job opportunities and integration.

So Paw Ray’s challenge remains: what is the best way to provide education to a migrant population that may or may not return home ?