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Update: news from around the world


new internationalist
issue 177 - November 1987



Debts bazaar
Campaign plan

[image, unknown] Instead of granting tax relief to big banks with bad debts in the Third World, Western governments should simply buy the debts. That is the radical proposal being put forward by the UK-based War on Want Campaigns. It would cost governments no more but would still benefit the banks and, more importantly, millions of impoverished people in the debtor countries.

Under current arrangements taxpayers in the developed world are being faced with a huge bill for the banks' adventures in the Third World. This is not going to bring the solution to the crisis any closer.

But up to $3,300 million - or 12.6 per cent - of British bank lending in the Third World, for example, could be taken over by the Government at no extra cost to the taxpayer.

The major British banks are now making huge provisions - the money they set aside for their own security - against their Third World losses and are claiming tax relief of at least $1,600 million. Under the War on Want Campaigns proposal the Government would buy Third World loans at, say, a 50 to 60 per-cent discount, which is the market value of the loans, instead of granting tax relief.

The banks, for their part, could use the money received for the loans to bring provisions up to a satisfactory level. Meanwhile the Government could use the loans it has bought for debt relief in a number of ways. It could simply cancel the loans, reschedule them on favourable terms with lower rates of interest, or use them for debt-development swaps to fund programmes for the poorest people in debtor countries.

For more information contact War on Want Campaigns, 37-30 Great Guildford Street, London SEl 0E5, UK.


Zapping madness
Danger food

A pile of bright red strawberries sits next to a pile of darkening mouldy ones. The moral of this picture in a glossy food and drink trade booklet is that irradiation is a wonderful means of preserving food.

It is simple, fast and long lasting. It inhibits the sprouting of vegetables, delays the ripening of fruits, kills insects and reduces microorganisms that cause food to spoil. But is it safe?

The nuclear industry says 'yes'. The International Atomic Energy Agency spends 36 per cent of its annual budget on research into uses of radiation in food and agriculture - a large proportion of which goes to convincing scientists that irradiation is a good idea.

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are convinced of its benefits. 'World food requirements continue to grow and the problems of food storage and processing make it necessary to search for effective alternative methods of food preservation,' they say. Irradiation is the answer, they believe.

In 1971 WHO, FAO and IAEA joined forces to form the Joint Expert Committee on Food Irradiation which declared the process safe. The committee based some of its findings on studies conducted by the US army during the 1960s. The American Food and Drug Administration later rejected this research on the basis that it was poorly conducted.

Nonetheless, the committee continues to encourage nations to jump on the irradiation bandwagon. A recent press release by WHO stated; 'All countries - regardless of their stage of development - are encouraged to apply food irradiation.'

But according to Dr Geraldine Dettman, Radiation Safety and Biosafety Officer at Brown University, US, irradiation causes cancer and foetal abnormalities. At doses of 100,000 rads the cells of fruits and vegetables will be killed and most insect larvae will be destroyed, but fungi, bacteria and viruses will not be killed or inactivated. Instead they may be mutated, possibly leading to more virulent contaminants.

A Japanese study by Dr Kosei Takahashi has also condemned the Expert Committee position saying it is 'unworthy of the authority and responsibility of international organizations'.

One of the advantages of irradiation is that it is a good way of using up nuclear waste. But as opposition mounts in industrialized countries, the atomic energy industry has begun promoting irradiation in the Third World.

Consumer organizations are already on their guard, however. 'We will not be back-yards for the First World,' says the Consumers' Association of Penang in Malaysia in its recent report on irradiation.

Markus Schwabe / Gemini


Softly, softly
Police scheme

Women run the show in Brazil's new-style police stations.
Photo: I Butchinskey

Monday morning is a busy time at São Paulo's women-only police station. Domestic violence usually occurs at the weekend so this is the earliest that victims can get away from home to report it at any one time up to 200 women are being attended by the all-female staff of the city's unit

In a country not renowned for its feminism, Brazil's pioneering attempt to crack down on violence against women and girls is impressive. There are now women's police stations in 16 of the country's 24 states.

This is largely thanks to the efforts of a São Paulo group called the Conselho do Condicao Feminina (Council for Women's Conditions) who were unhappy with the kind of treatment female citizens were getting from male police.

The first women's police station was opened up in the city in 1985. The aim was to provide a secure and sympathetic atmosphere where victims could report crimes committed against them - battering, rape and incest being the most common. If injured, the victims receive medical treatment immediately on arrival at the station. Policewomen then perform all the usual functions of officers of law, from taking statements to making arrests. The scheme has earned wide and enthusiastic support amongst the public. Perhaps other Latin American countries, where violence against women is equally common, will be tempted to take a leaf out of their large neighbour's book.

Isabelle Butchinsky


Ox sense
Animal power

Oxen are making a comeback in Sierra Leone where farmers can no longer afford to keep machinery like tractors running.

Fuel is scarce and expensive, spare parts are costly and once they break down tractors are likely to stay out of action for long periods of time.

But because oxen have not been widely used as draught animals since the 1920s, many farmers have little idea of how to use them for ploughing. So a Work Oxen project has been launched, based at Njala University College, with financial backing from several Western governments, which involves training farmers in the methods and practices of their ancestors.

Fortunately parts of Sierra Leone never abandoned the ox although the rest of the country adopted newer systems. These areas are being studied to enable their methods to be passed on.

The most suitable animal is the N'dama ox still used by the Fullah nomadic herdsmen - Sierra Leone's traditional cattle-raisers. These oxen are prized because they are strong, adapt readily to local conditions and are resistant to a number of diseases including trypanosomiasis - or sleeping sickness - the deadly disease spread by tse-tse flies.

There are about 370,000 N'dama oxen in the country, about 80 per cent of them in the northern regions where the Fullah live. The number used for farm labour has grown from 30 pairs in 1980 to 600 teams in 1986.

Oxen are not cheap - a pair costs $300. But they are a good buy for farmers as they can be sold for a profit after years of work in the fields or hired out on a daily basis to other farmers who have no animals of their own.

Rod Mac-Johnson / Gemini


Sex and westerns
Book bankruptcy

Book shortages are leading to 'intellectual bankruptcy' and turning Zambia's bookshops into grocery stores, says President Kenneth Kaunda. The population is being fed a reading diet limited to sex, crime, westerns and other rubbish', he adds.

Due to its dire foreign-exchange shortage - Zambia broke off relations with the IMF earlier this year - book dealers can no longer afford to import less popular but better-quality reading material.

As a result Zambians have to make do with 'the left-overs of the book world, rather than its riches'. Although half the country's population is under 20 the contents of book shops suggest 'were are all over 90 and have lost our eyesight and are unable to read seriously,' complained the President.

This is not the first time he has taken his countrymen and women to task for what he considers to be their cultural failings. A decade ago, Kung Fu martial arts films were banned by Zambian cinemas after Kaunda attacked them for encouraging violence. Recently such films have made a comeback in the form of Ninja movies, based on the exploits of Japanese martial arts experts. The popularity of these films has been blamed for the emergence of Ninja gangs in Lusaka suburbs who wear black masks, carry home-made swords, iron bars, clubs and sticks which they use during burglaries and muggings.

A report produced by the Kaunda Foundation recommended the formation of a national book development council along the lines of a programme recommended by UNESCO. With adequate funding and a proper policy, the book industry could achieve self-sufficiency and satisfy national demand, says the report.

Francis Mwanza / Gemini


Of mouth and money
Common fund

Can the new fund halt the fall of commodity prices?
Photo: Philip Wolmuth

After 11 years of talk and delay a $750 million Common Fund to help Third World commodity trade is about to be born. The Soviet Union provided the necessary push by signing the Fund treaty at the recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva.

The first part, or 'window', of the fund, worth $470 million, will go towards financing buffer stocks. This means that when there is, for instance, a surplus of coffee on the market, countries which have signed commodity agreements will be able to buy up stocks and thus stave off a price collapse.

The second 'window' of voluntary contributions - up to $280 million - will be available to help countries process their commodities and market them. For instance coffee growing nations could start producing instant coffee.

This would help the 84 developing countries that still depend upon commodities - from coffee beans to copper ore - for more than half their export earnings. Since 1976, when the fund was a mere twinkle in UNCTAD's eye, commodity prices have fallen by 30 per cent in real terms. Establishing the fund was delayed because the US - which would have provided most of the cash - refused to support it. Until recently the Soviet Union also refused to back trade reform, blaming Western capitalism for Third World poverty.

The Fund has to be ratified within the next few months by at least 90 countries pledging two thirds of the capital. 'If all those who have pledged follow through, that will give us 66.9 per cent of the capital,' said an UNCTAD spokesperson. This is more than enough to breathe life into the fund.

However, the British and Canadian delegations have made it clear they do not want the Common Fund at any price. Western nations argue that commodity agreements should reflect the market and are not willing to be party to any attempt to boost prices artificially.

John Tanner

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