new internationalist
issue 316 - September 1999

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Action, not empty words
Cover of the NI Issue 314 I am shocked and incensed that the NI, in issue 314, should print Sarah Blackstock’s superficial and pompous dismissal of microcredit. If I were a child in South Asia going hungry to bed, I would expect more to come from microcredit than from the empty words of Ms Blackstock. Does she always base her opinions on the whispered complaints of a disgruntled handful? Are the Bangladeshis all illiterate and dumb, so that not one of them was invited by the NI to write in and balance the views of this patronising development tourist? Hot air flows rather easily from rich to poor countries, as the NI article demonstrates, but micro-credit has moved against the tide from Bangladesh to rich countries, for a simple reason: it involves action, not words, and demonstrable results, not muddled dogma and empty promises.

There are many evils and even many windmills to tilt at in this world. By printing this superficial and facile smear against microcredit, the NI has, sadly, struck a blow against the hungry. Shame on you.

Joël Almeida,
Trowbridge, England

Hidden from view
After reading your article ‘Big foot, small world’ in the issue on Green Cities (NI 313) I wanted to make a comment about the zaballeen waste recyclers in Cairo. The writer extols what they are doing in terms of creating urban sustainability but makes no mention of the terrible cost to these people in terms of their health, degradation, alienation from the rest of the population and extreme poverty.

I have seen the total isolation of the place where a large group of these people live. They live in deplorable conditions; tumble-down shacks constructed of anything suitable they have managed to salvage from the rubbish. They are surrounded by large piles of rotting garbage. The stench all over the area is unbelievable; the people are dressed in rags and as filthy as the rubbish they live with. They walk, breath and eat in this stinking mess.

The zaballeen may be playing a part in recycling waste but active urban democracy should not mean that people are abused and used. It appears to be a way for a city to shirk its responsibilities, to show others that they are doing their bit for the environment by recycling. But the real cost is well hidden from view.

Karen Tidswell
Great Preston, England

Disability expectancy
The brief article ‘Eye-Opening Experience’ (NI 313) illuminates one important portion of the disability picture. We can’t underestimate the importance of programs to deal with the 80 per cent of cases of blindness in the Majority World that, as suggested in the article, are preventable. But at the same time we must realize that 20 per cent will remain blind and many of rest will acquire disabilities, mainly due to the successes of development.

Two acronyms popularly in use reflect the importance of dealing with lives with disabilities. DALYs or ‘Disability Adjusted Life Years’ reflect the assumption that all life years are not considered to be equal, clearly the assumption of non-disabled statisticians oblivious to the importance of working for a world in which no adjustment would need to be made. DE or ‘Disability Expectancy’ is joining life expectancy as an important quality of life indicator. We can hope that the individuals who enjoy the gift of sight will also live to enjoy a large disability expectancy.

Art Blaser
Orange, US

Human waste
Municipal sewage sludge can never be safely used as a fertilizer. You are on to something when you imply that the best disposition of human waste is back to the land (NI 313 Green Cities). But you make the mistake of calling for ‘pipelines’ that ‘could transport urban sewage... to agricultural land and forests.’

Urban sewage is a toxic waste. True, human excreta is a valuable fertilizer that should be treated and used as a soil addendum and fertilizer; but it is not only human excreta that goes into sewers. Chemicals contained in sewage sludge include polychlorinated biphenyls, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, nonylphenols from detergents, and pesticides like lindane and dieldrine. None of which you want on soil or in food. Powerful forces in industry and government are promoting this cheap option for waste disposal under the guise of recycling.

If you are not to play into their hand then you must be careful of the language you use. If it is recycling you are after, then talk first of source separation. Exploring a healthy future for urban environments means taking the bold step of calling for no pipelines. Rethink human excreta management with the goal of realizing safe and valuable end-products. Then we won’t be talking about ‘waste’ at all.

Laura Orlando
Boston, Massachusetts, US

I need a good PR spin for this.
Illustration by VIV QUILLIN

Nestlé correction
Your report about Nestlé (NI 313) featured a very misleading photograph under the caption ‘For sale – Nestlé’s global lies’. You clearly intended to imply that the infant formula pack on the right, which features a picture of a mother and baby, is a Nestlé product. In fact, it is not.

This is typical of many accusations that are made against Nestlé of breaking the World Health Organization Code. Often the product is not ours and is a locally manufactured item, in this case made by a local milk-product factory. In the interests of accurate journalism, I would ask you to include a correction in a future issue.

Hilary Parsons
Corporate Affairs Manager, Nestlé,
Croydon, Surrey, England

Virtual slavery
I am teaching in Qatar. There is virtual slavery here for a lot of expatriate Indians/Nepalese/ Filipinos and this is all condoned by the UK. ‘There are no human-rights problems here’ was stated by a British embassy official but we see a few, like small children riding camels and workers out in the sun. The law here is that above 42oC outside work stops. The temperature reading is taken at 6.00 am; by 10.00 am it is often over 50oC but the guys have to work. All of this is often condoned and no effort is made by the foreign companies here to try to improve conditions.

Paul Robert Smith

War Resisters
On your ‘Own the Peace’ page of peace organizations in NI 311 on peace and reconciliation, I was surprised to find no mention of War Resisters International. This organization works to strengthen non-violent methods of dealing with conflict. It can be contacted at 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DY, or in the US via the War Resisters League, 339 Lafayette St, New York, NY 10012. The website is www.nonviolence.org/wrl

D Geise
New York, US

Debts owing
I am writing in response to your issue on Third World debt (NI 312). While I fully support the campaign to end the debt of Third World nations, I also believe that it is equally important to ensure that the money that was once used to pay debt, is used for health, education and welfare purposes instead of arms. The 52 countries that the Jubilee 2000 Coalition has nominated to have their debt removed include those like Burma and Nigeria. Judging by past articles in the NI, I am not confident that the governments of these countries would put the extra revenue to good use.

This is an issue that the NI and the Jubilee 2000 Coalition have overlooked. It is vital that the money once used for debt relief goes to the people most in need, and not just to fund bloodthirsty dictatorships.

Nic Townsend
Melbourne, Australia

The views expressed in these letters are not necessarily those of the New Internationalist

Letter from Lebanon

Death of a firefighter
Reem Haddad witnesses the bombing of a power station by Israeli
warplanes and finds herself haunted by one particular death.

Looking back I can’t really remember which of the firefighters was Wissam Chaaban. They all looked so young and eager when I stepped back to let them pass into the blazing inferno inside the building. I remember debating whether I should sneak in after them. But the soldiers were forcefully preventing all reporters from entering the burning electricity power station.

Israeli warplanes had bombed the station less than an hour before as part of a wide-ranging series of air strikes against the country’s infrastructural targets. The air strikes, the heaviest in three years, were in response to a rocket attack by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas against northern Israel earlier in the day. The rocket assault, in turn, was retaliation for the wounding of six Lebanese civilians over the previous four days in Israeli artillery bombardments.

While the residents living around the power station were fleeing the area, we reporters were trying to draw nearer to see what was going on.

All I could think of at that point were the praises of a satisfied newspaper editor. I gave little thought to the firefighters passing by though I did stare at them – rather enviously.

‘Now you reporters get out of here,’ yelled an army officer. ‘We don’t know what machinery could explode in there. It’s too dangerous.’

Just as we were about to argue our case, the warplanes returned for another raid. A flash of light and an appallingly loud explosion scattered us. Amid screams, journalists and soldiers ran in panic trying to seek shelter. The next few minutes were pure chaos as cowering journalists stared at each other in fear and soldiers forced everyone to retreat even further.

It was only then that it suddenly hit us: where were the firefighters we had just let through into the building minutes before the bomb had hit?

As ambulances raced passed us, we all held our breath. Some firefighters, we were told, were badly burned but still alive. Others couldn’t be reached.

Fear turned to outrage. It had been over an hour since the first Israeli air raid. The Israelis must have realized that the scene would be crawling with firefighters and reporters but they attacked the power plant again regardless.

But our anger was overshadowed at the thought of the young men burning inside. Sombrely, we waited for any news of them.

Five, it transpired, were killed. One of them was 22-year-old Wissam Chaaban, though it was only the next morning that I found out his name. It was his mother who informed me. Dishevelled and in bedroom slippers, she ran into the street calling his name in grief. My journalistic training of not getting emotionally involved completely left me. I was already involved. I was one of the last people to see her son alive. When I told her this, she clung to me and would not let go.

‘Then you know how handsome he was, how wonderful, how perfect,’ she said. ‘Of course you liked him, everybody did.’

I said he was wonderful and perfect.

‘My son, my son,’ she yelled as she ran towards the mosque where funeral prayers were under way. ‘I want to see him. Oh, God, how could you do this? He’s only 22 years old. It’s too early.’

Female relatives ran after her trying to hold her back. But she broke through and ran after the ambulance that carried his corpse.

‘May God strike down the Israelis by sending them earthquakes,’ she screamed.

Pushing aside relatives, she joined the hundreds of men walking behind firefighters carrying the coffin of her son.

‘I want to see him, I want to see my baby’s face,’ she yelled among chants of Allah u Akbar (God is greatest). But since Wissam’s face was burned beyond recognition, her request was refused.

Turning to me, she tearfully demanded to know whether Wissam suffered. I told her that he died instantly and didn’t feel a thing. Grateful, she held me close to her before meekly letting herself be led by relatives back to her house.

But it was another 22-year-old firefighter, Danny Abu Daher, swamped in bandages and lying in a hospital bed, who recounted Wissam’s horrific death.

‘There was a sudden explosion and I was thrown across to the other side and my clothes were completely torn off my body,’ he recalled. ‘I looked up to see two of my friends knocked into the fire and burning. Israelis have firefighters in their own country. We were only there to put out the fire and protect the people. We don’t even carry knives. Why do they do this to us?’

Reem Haddad is a reporter for the Daily Star in Beirut.

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New Internationalist issue 316 magazine cover This article is from the September 1999 issue of New Internationalist.
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