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Working towards safer and more inclusive schooling in Democratic Republic of Congo

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As a parent, I have repeatedly watched in horror and deeply empathized with the families of victims of gun violence affecting schools in the United States. As a father of two daughters, I also find it heart-wrenching to know that girls are currently deprived of their potential and barred from going to school in Afghanistan. An unexpected bright spot for me last week was a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a grievance redressal approach, based on a call center named “Allo Ecole,” is part of a wave of reforms making it possible for more children to attend primary school free of cost and in a safer environment than in the past.  

In 2019, the government of DRC rolled out an ambitious free primary education program. Abolishing school fees has expanded primary school enrollment to 3 million more children, including many girls in rural areas who were previously left out. It is also paving the way for greater accountability and trust between the state and its citizens and thereby forging a new social contract.

Through a $800-million perform-based IDA financing package, the World Bank is helping the government partly shoulder the costs of free primary education to lessen the burden on families. Until recently, public schools charged parents roughly $100 a year per child – on top of textbooks, school uniforms and other costs – an amount that was out of reach for poor families in a country where 73% of the population lives on less than $1.90 a day.

More importantly perhaps, the project is helping put in place systemic changes that could benefit generations of children to come.

The project’s social safeguards and disbursement linked indicators are putting in place fundamentals towards safer and more and inclusive schools – schools where both girls and boys are able to learn.

The “Allo Ecole” grievance redress mechanism is one of several innovations that underpin that vision. The free hotline (dial 178) was piloted in 2018 but is now functional and accessible nationwide. When it was inaugurated in its new configuration, the hotline received 1,200 complaints and queries in the first week.

Some of the grievances are important but non-sensitive, lodged for example by teachers who have not been paid. Others are highly sensitive – mothers and girls reporting that a teacher has sexually abused a child – and treated with the urgency and confidentiality those types of complaints deserve. An investigation is carried out, and survivors receive socio-psychological and medical support as needed; any legal actions are taken in ways that protect the identity of the victim so that they are not stigmatized. The cases that are emerging are painful to hear – every instance of sexual assault is one too many. Gender-based violence wreaks havoc with its survivors and holds the country back. But the reporting of these cases and the actions that follow are vital first steps toward making schools safer for girls.

For the first time, as a condition of their employment, all teachers must commit to follow a Code of Good Conduct that includes clear definitions of prohibited behavior pertaining to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, and also lays out sanctions.  Following a massive communications and social mobilization campaign, over 300,000 copies of the code have already been signed.  Focal points in all the administrative districts and the 20,000 primary schools in the project provinces have been appointed and are being trained to handle complaints related to gender-based violence. The project is also working to generalize the recruitment of primary teachers and school directors based on merit, to improve the quality of education services delivered by the state.  Furthermore, the project supports the government’s efforts to bring practicing teachers onto the payroll, which thus far has resulted in roughly 60,000 more primary teachers receiving a salary, thereby alleviating the financial burden of nearly two million poor households.

Pragmatic but ambitious systemic change in primary education has been a powerful driver in the improvement of learning outcomes in many countries, and I’m comforted that DRC is tackling thorny issues to decrease its learning poverty and provide education work for all. Undoubtedly, it will take more than a call center to put an end to the scourge of gender-based violence, but changing norms and facing challenges head on to protect school children is a good place to start.

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Africa

Russia Scrambles for Higher Performance Marks in Africa

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Squeezed between Western and European sanctions due to its “special military operation” in Ukraine since late February and its dilapidating effects on Africa’s economy on one side and its decades-old desire to regain part of the Soviet-era influence despite the weak economic presence and negative perceptions at the core among the public especially the youth and middle class, Russia is gearing up for the next traditional African leaders summit. 

With preparations underway, Russia would have to begin preparing for and play different attractive rhythms at the second African leaders summit in 2023 at St. Petersburg, Russia. Reports monitored by the author indicate that the modest economic gains are gradually eroding due to Covid-19 these past two years and the situation is turning complicated currently due to the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The Russia-Ukraine crisis has a strong immeasurable negative impact, generating social discontent across large spectrum of the population in Africa. Therefore, African leaders would indiscriminately have cooperate with any foreign investors willing to invest and support their development process. Across Africa, more than 282 million people are food insecured – and that number is rising, according to the estimates by the World Bank. 

Throughout Africa, many across the population are displaying discontention and dissatisfaction due to unbearable rising prices for commodities and consumables. This latest food crisis, which did not originate in the continent, is reaching alarming dimensions especially in Africa. In fact, African leaders are confronted with these hurdles and emerging challenges. They are feverishly looking for both short-term solutions to calm down existing tensions among the people, and also long-term strategies to push sustainable development and make pace for growth.

The United States percieves most of the challenges and opportunities with a difference in Africa. It is constantly investing and its private investors are active exploring the continent. The United States is well-connected with its public outreach diplomacy. American institutions and organizations are linking up with the youth, women and the civil society.

After a peak in 2014, foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa from the United States dropped to US$47.5 billion in 2020. During the pandemic, it provided more than 50 million doses to 43 African countries. It has further given more than US$1.9 billion in Covid-related assistance, for urgent needs like emergency food and other humanitarian support.

President Joe Biden has launched the Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience. The year, the Congress allocated US$3 billion every year by 2024 to finance climate adaptation projects, the largest commitment ever made by the United States to reduce the impact of climate change on those most endangered by it. Through the Power Africa programme, the U.S. has connected more than 25 million homes and businesses across the continent to electricity, 80 percent of which is based on renewables. Development Finance Corporation supports renewable energy across Africa, including a solar project in Nigeria, wind farms in Senegal and Kenya. Nigeria marked a new chapter with the signing of a US$2.1 billion development assistance agreement that supports collaboration in the fundamentals: in health, in education, agriculture, good governance. 

And then four U.S. companies are collaborating with the Senegalese Government on infrastructure projects; that’s the Institut Pasteur de Dakar, which is working toward COVID vaccine production with American support and investment; and pushing innivation, technology and entrepreneurship with women and youth groups in Africa.  The popular partnership between the United States and Africa is YALI – the Young African Leaders Initiative.

The Prosper Africa initiative aims to increase two-way trade and investment.  The Africa Growth and Opportunity Act – known as AGOA – provides duty-free access to American markets, and most African countries have taken full advantage of it. U.S. investors are seriously leveraging unto the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Similarly, China, Japan and South Korea have started localizing production of automobiles and tech gadgets. 

Despite some criticism, international development institutions and organizations are ready and offering support. In addition, external countries are stepping up efforts in that direction. The World Bank stands ready. Its latest three-year, US$93 billion global programme – about 2/3 of which will support Africa’s development agenda – delivered through the International Development Association (IDA). The IDA is the world’s largest source of concessional funds, including grants for low-income countries, helping them seize opportunities to reduce poverty and stimulate inclusive growth.

This latest IDA replenishment will enable our support to Africa to increase even more in the years ahead.  Africa has become the prime region benefiting from IDA resources – growing more than tenfold its annual program of about US$3 billion in 2000 to well over US$30 billion currently. This support, plus our growing on the ground presence across Africa, is enabling us to work hand-in-hand with governments, with the private sector, and civil society to implement the continent’s ambitious development agenda.

While in Dakar, capital of Senegal, meeting more than a dozen Heads of State from across Africa, Axel van Trotsenburg, World Bank Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean, said “African leaders have, through the African Union process, articulated clear goals – from digitalization to electricity to education – and we are committed to helping Africa translate these ambitions into strong programmes that can, within a short period of time, improve people’s lives and transform the continent.”

Foreign countries, the United States, European Union, Asian states such China, and from the Gulf and Arab states are, indeed, at the forefront in Africa. In March during the heat of Russia-Ukraine crisis, the United States and European Union supported Africa through the African Development Bank (AfDB), when the bank sought funds more than US$50 billion for curated bankable projects in key priority sectors identified in the Africa Investment Forum’s 2020 Unified Response to Covid-19 initiative.

According to the China-Africa Economic and Trade Relationship Annual Report (2021), while Covid-19 has shaken the global economy, Chinese investment in Africa has been climbing. The report says China invested US$2.96 billion in Africa in 2020, up 9.5% from 2019.  The turnover of Chinese enterprises’ contracted projects in Africa amounted to US$383.3 billion in 2020, that is a 16.7% drop from 2019.

In a media release, the U.S. Government’s lead development agency, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), has renewed its partnership with many African countries. Quiye recently, it offered to fund various projects, including investment in health and education, women and youth, and infrastructures in a number of African countries. For instance, in April this year, it gave assistance funding of US$1.5 billion to promote a more peaceful, prosperous and healthy Mozambique.

The economic significance of Eurasian Union for Africa’s development here need not be over-discussed. Members of the European Union such as Britain, France, Germany and The Netherlands are play some visible roles in Africa. The European Union, as a substantial economic power bloc, has long-term working relations with African Union.

With its new Global Gateway Strategy, the EU is demonstrating the readiness to support massive infrastructural investment in Africa.  It also seeks to unlock new business and investment opportunities, including in the areas of manufacturing and agro processing as well as regional and continental value chains development. In a document entitled “Toward a Comprehensive Strategy with Africa” – the document sets forth the template of what the EU plans to do with Africa. 

Valdis Dombrovskis, Executive Vice-President and Commissioner at the EU Secretariat pointed out that “In this new approach towards Africa, we can build a modern, sustainable and mutually rewarding partnership of equals. Of course, there will be challenges along the way but the EU stands ready to help. We want to share the lessons from our own process of economic integration, and with our new Global Gateway Strategy. We have demonstrated that we are ready to support massive infrastructural investment in Africa.”

That said, African leaders are exploring available possibilities and windows that have been opened after the last EU-Africa summit. The European Union has unveiled €300 billion (US$340 billion) alternative to China’s Belt and Road initiative – an investment programme the bloc claims will create links, not dependencies.

There great rivalry and keen competition among key global players now. And Africa is now seen from different perspectives, but more importantly, it has been described as the last investment frontier due to the current transformations taking place there. During the 35th Assembly of the Heads of State and Government of the AU in Addis Ababa in February, António Guterres argued that Africa was “a source of hope” for the world. 

In November 2021, a report prepared by 25 Russian policy experts, titled ‘Situation Analytical Report’ explicitly noted that many external countries are using diplomacy in all ways to support their efforts in Africa. It criticized the inconsistency of Russia’s current policy towards Africa. The intensification of political contacts is only with a focus on making them demonstrative. Russia’s foreign policy strategy regarding Africa needs to spell out and incorporate the development needs of African countries. 

While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues on the agenda remains small. There are little definitive results from such high-level meetings. Many bilateral agreements largely remain not implemented, and many pledges undelivered. It pointed to lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa. According to the report, Russia has to intensify and redefine its parameters as it has now transcended to the fifth stage in its relationship with Africa.

That report was also critical about public speaking. The report lists insufficient and disorganized Russian-African lobbying, combined with the lack of “information hygiene” at all levels of public speaking among the main flaws of Russia’s current Africa policy. In several ways, ideas and intentions are often passed for results, and worse Russia’s possibilities are overestimated both publicly and in closed negotiations.

Several reports monitored by this author show clearly that there has been little approach, in terms of government and institutional public relations, in Russia’s foreign policy in Africa. This author has written a lot about this, emphasizing the seriousness of using media networks – an calculated attempt to build an atmosphere of trust and confidence. Quite obviously, Russians have to devote a great deal of thought to creating strategic communication group that could highlight its diverse performance and practical genuine interests in Africa.

Opening a new stage of relations becomes important especially when analyzing the contradictions and confrontations posed by the Russia-Ukraine crisis and its multiple effects on future relations. Without doubts, African leaders complained bitterly that they have become direct victims of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Overall Russia’s investment in economic sectors is still staggering there in the continent and comparatively, the fact still remains that the United States, the European Union and a number of Asian and Gulf States are investing heavily in Africa.

The Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Deputy Mikhail Bogdanov, most often show their crosshair of consistent criticism for Western and European dominance and investment in Africa. It lacks strategies for implementing those oftentimes forward-looking policy for Africa. The passion for repeating the same things in different ways in speeches. In a general sense, their repetitive theme of Soviet-era support for political liberation and now efforts to help Africa fight neocolonialism is highly appreciated but Russia has to, in practical terms, show its latest policy achievements in various sectors for the past two decades. 

On another side note, Russia most probably needs to design its template of its communication strategy ahead of the 2023 summit, that has to largely win the hearts of African leaders to the emerging New World Order. As already promised, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergey Lavrov, indicated in a mid-June message that “in these difficult and crucial times the strategic partnership with Africa has become a priority of Russia’s foreign policy. The signed agreements and the results will be consolidated at the forthcoming second Russia-Africa summit.” 

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Ethiopia: Without immediate funding, 750,000 refugees will have ‘nothing to eat’

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Children displaced by conflict and drought pose for a photo n Semera, Afar Region, Ethiopia. © UNICEF/UN0639245/Sewunet

UN agencies appealed on Tuesday for $73 million over the next six months to provide food rations to more than 750,000 people seeking refuge in Ethiopia.

The World Food Programme (WFP), UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and Ethiopian Government Refugees and Returnees Service (RRS) made the plea for assistance because without it, WFP will run out of food for the refugees by October.

The impending crisis will leave vulnerable families at risk of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, and increased susceptibility to diseases, the agencies warned

“Three quarters of a million refugees will be left with nothing to eat in just a matter of weeks unless we receive funding immediately,” said Claude Jibidar, WFP’s Representative and Country Director for Ethiopia.

Ration cuts

Cutting rations has been an issue with which WFP has long had to grapple.

Food rations for refugees in Ethiopia were first reduced by 16 per cent in November 2015, then 40 per cent in November 2021, and finally 50 per cent in June 2022.

The impact of these cuts has been heightened by global limitations on food availability, widespread economic shock, rising food and energy costs, the COVID-19 fallout, and armed conflict.

Impact of cuts

To understand the impact of ration cuts on refugees, WFP, UNHCR and RRS conducted in April, a rapid assessment on 1,215 refugee camps households throughout relevant regions.

The results show that most had coped with food insecurity by reducing the number of meals eaten in a day, consuming less expensive foods, or limiting meal portions. 

The joint assessment also revealed that households are going to desperate measures to make up for funding cuts.

Funding repercussions

Funding cuts have forced refugees to rely on an ever-finite supply of food, which increases the likelihood of resource-based conflicts.

Data shows that many families have been relying on children to generate extra income to afford food.

Other households were forced to borrow cash, relying on friends or relatives for sustenance.

“We have a shortfall of $73 million for refugees’ minimum needs and we are deeply concerned that if funding cuts continue, they may consider returning to their places of origin when it is unsafe,” warned Mr. Jibidar.

Taking action 

More resources must be mobilized to meet immediate food demands, and smart investments should be taken to prioritize sustainable farming.  

“The priority for us all must be to restore assistance to at least minimum levels for refugees, all of whom are solely reliant on WFP’s cash and food assistance for survival,” said the UN Country Director.

With an immediate donor response, WFP would be able to buy food available in the region to meet the dietary needs of the refugees and also transfer cash to the refugees, providing them the choice of how to meet their immediate needs and stimulating local markets.

Support needed

The agencies have established an effective system to identify the food assistance needs of refugees through biometric verification, accountability mechanisms and programmes to grant monthly food and cash assistance.

The trio called on all partners to strengthen efforts to address their immediate and long-term food needs in line with international commitments. 

Meanwhile, WFP, UNHCR and RRS will continue to count on donors for extended funding support based on the principle of shared responsibility to implement basic humanitarian life-saving activities.

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Central African Republic: Militias spreading ‘terror, insecurity’, must lay down arms

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UN peacekeepers patrol the town of Bambari in the Central African Republic. (file) MINUSCA/Hervé Serefio

Armed groups in the Central African Republic (CAR) must lay down their arms and engage in political dialogue, a UN-appointed independent human rights expert said on Friday, urging the international community to strengthen efforts to restore State authority and end impunity there.

“I vehemently condemn the obstinacy of the Coalition of Patriots for Change and other armed groups who continue to spread terror, insecurity and suffering among the civilian population and victims of violations and abuses,” said Yao Agbetse, who monitors rights abuses in CAR.

Armed groups in the Central African Republic (CAR) must lay down their arms and engage in political dialogue, a UN-appointed independent human rights expert said on Friday, urging the international community to strengthen efforts to restore State authority and end impunity there.

“I vehemently condemn the obstinacy of the Coalition of Patriots for Change and other armed groups who continue to spread terror, insecurity and suffering among the civilian population and victims of violations and abuses,” said Yao Agbetse, who monitors rights abuses in CAR.

Grave human rights violations

At the end of a ten-day official visit to the country, he expressed dismay over reports from residents in the town of Bria, capital of the Haute-Kotto prefecture, who described the ease with which armed groups can move in and out of neighbouring Sudan.

In that same district, schools in Ouadda, Yalinga, and Sam-Ouandja regions, have been closed for four years.

Meanwhile, in Haute Kotto and Mbomou prefectures, the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic and the Front Populaire pour la Renaissance en Centrafrique (FPRC) have committed numerous grave human rights violations, including sexual violence, particularly rape and sexual slavery, mostly targeting girls aged 11-17.

Mahamat Salleh, an FPRC leader based in Nzako, has been implicated in several cases of rape and other serious human rights abuses, Mr. Agbetse said.

‘Unacceptable’ attack

He pointed to the brutal, organized attack on the village of Boyo last December, saying that human rights violations committed by the CAR national army (FACA) and the internal security forces (FSI) and their auxiliaries were “unacceptable”.

Russian allies and the FACA had allegedly provided support to the mostly Christian anti-Balaka militia who committed atrocities there, including beheadings and sexual violence, and forced thousands of residents to flee.

“The seriousness of these facts requires appropriate responses from national authorities towards the victims,” Mr. Agbetse said.

“I recommend that the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCAset up a more reactive warning system and regular joint operations with the FACA to prevent tragedies like the one in Boyo”.

Mercenaries

The UN expert also demanded that Russian mercenaries of the Wagner security group refrain from obstructing collaboration and joint operations between FACA, FSI and UN peacekeepers. 

“The Wagner group must not prevent the deployment of MINUSCA protection operations and not obstruct the investigation of human rights abuses and violations of International Humanitarian Law,” he continued.

In the interest of all citizens of CAR, the UN expert urged outlawed militias to engage in the peace and reconciliation process led by the Commission on Truth, Justice, Reparation and Reconciliation.

Systematic investigations

At the conclusion of his visit, Mr. Agbetse recommended that all allegations of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law be systematically and thoroughly investigated by Central African authorities.

“These investigations must be followed by concrete actions to ensure that the victims have access to justice,” he said.

The expert said a reparation fund should also be established to ensure justice for victims.

Moreover, he strongly recommended extraordinary judicial sessions to tackle the heavy caseload of sexual violence allegations linked to the chronic instability and conflict across CAR.

Sentencing

Mr. Agbetse upheld that in cases of conflict-related sexual violence, so-called “amicable settlements” were simply unjust to victims, and must be stopped, he added.

Moreover, he noted that some testimonies and reports indicated a lack of control and accountability within the State apparatus, including the judiciary, police, and the civil service in general.

He also called on Authorities to address hate speech and incitement to violence, and on the international community to strengthen its support to ensure that State authority restoration is effective.

Independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not paid for their work.

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