Slow start on World Bank reform angers climate-hit countries

Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, speaks at the COP27 UN Climate Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (File/AP)
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Updated 17 April 2023
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Slow start on World Bank reform angers climate-hit countries

  • Growing demands for powerful financial institutions to change their lending practices so that less-wealthy nations can afford to harden themselves against rising seas

WASHINGTON: The World Bank meetings were supposed to be a first step in a new era of affordable loans for developing nations hard hit by climate change like Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s Barbados, one of many Caribbean islands battered by worsening hurricanes.
But if this was a new era, the World Bank meetings that closed Sunday in Washington left Mottley feeling much like she did in the old one — sidelined by wealthy nations that balked at either providing more money themselves or significantly changing the lending rules for existing funds. And increasingly, beyond angry.
“I get really furious,” Mottley said, when hearing “that people are not ready, or people want to kick the ball down the road.”
She spoke at sessions held by the non-profit Rockefeller Foundation in conjunction with the World Bank meetings, where Mottley and some African leaders detailed the growing human and financial cost of natural disasters that are growing more relentless as the climate warms: a record-breaking tropical storm that sat over southern Africa for days last month, killing hundreds; tens of thousands of deaths from years of failed rains in the Horn of Africa; a formal declaration from Italy this month of a refugee emergency.
“How much more must happen?” Mottley asked. “How many more people must lose their lives?“
With a World Bank head appointed by former President Donald Trump on his way out, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and others have been pledging a World Bank climate overhaul.
Momentum — and demands — have been growing for the World Bank and other powerful global and regional financial institutions to change their lending practices so that less-wealthy nations can afford to harden themselves against rising seas, worsening storms and other extremes of climate change. Developing nations also need help with the big investments it would take to move their economies away from climate-damaging coal and petroleum.
But so far, the governments with the biggest say, including the US, have been reluctant to put more of their own money into lending. As a group, they’ve also shied away from some of the changes in lending rules encouraged by Yellen and some others, fearing any move that could risk the World Bank’s AAA credit rating and make borrowing more expensive.
And looking ahead, advocates of freeing far more climate funding for countries primarily in the southern hemisphere worry no one is putting together the big tough plan that will turn lending-reform talk into action.
Some climate advocates expressed exasperation at one of the sole concrete steps approved by World Bank member countries at last week’s meetings: reducing the bank’s mandated ratio of equity to loans from 20 percent to 19 percent. That 1 percent percent tweak is expected to free about $4 billion a year for more lending.
The figure pales next to the $2.4 trillion that World Bank officials estimate developing nations need, in public and private funds, each year for the next seven to deal with climate change, pandemics and conflicts.
Developing nations complain — accurately — that the United States, Europe, China and other bigger economies have caused most of the climate damage and are leaving poorer nations to deal with the results.
The cost ranges from the Pacific island of Vanuatu struggling to move dozens of villages to higher ground to Pakistan dealing with sustained floods last year that covered a third of the country.
Global inflation and the strong US dollar have increased the debt burden on global and regional development loans in just the past year. Barbados’ interest rates on existing development loans soared, such as with an IMF loan whose rate went from 1.07 percent to 3.9 percent, Mottley said. She has spearheaded a World Bank lending-reform agenda, called the Bridgetown Initiative, by developing nations.
The US and other wealthy nations never made good on an old pledge to provide $100 billion a year in climate funding for developing nations by 2020.
US climate envoy John Kerry and other Biden administration officials make clear they see no point in asking a Republican-heavy Congress for that kind of money to give other countries for climate change.
Instead, the administration wanted to see how much money it could free up for developing countries with tweaks like the 1 percent cut in the equity-to-loan ratio, said Scott Morris, a former deputy assistant treasury secretary for development finance, now at the Center for Global Development research group.
Yellen last week called that move “responsibly stretching the balance sheet.” She promised discussions on “many more” procedural moves in the months to come.
There’s an argument, though, that Republicans in Congress would be more receptive to appropriating money for the World Bank, and that the Biden administration “ought to be willing to make the ask of Congress for this,” Morris said. The administration didn’t seem to anticipate “the degree of backlash” from developing countries against the modest steps so far, he said.
The World Bank and IMF spring meetings were the start of a series of upcoming global gatherings that advocates hope will build momentum toward significant action on emissions cuts and climate finance. They culminate with the annual UN climate talks in Dubai in November and December.
But climate is a “crisis that is obviously proving itself hard to adequately describe to people in a way that actually motivates them,” Kerry said at another side event to the World Bank and IMF meetings.
Evoking what international climate bodies say will be increasing flows of climate refugees worldwide, Kerry cited a 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, and the surge of nationalist and far-right political parties that followed.
“And the anger that my colleagues here, particularly Mia Mottley, have described is going to grow if we don’t respond,” Kerry said. “You’ve seen nothing compared to what is going to happen if we don’t respond more rapidly.”


Austria to resume aid to UN agency for Palestinians

Updated 8 sec ago
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Austria to resume aid to UN agency for Palestinians

VIENNA: Austria said Saturday it will restore its funding to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees after suspending it over allegations that staff were involved in the October 7 Hamas attacks.
Israel alleged in January that some United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) employees may have participated in the Hamas attacks on October 7 that triggered the war in the Gaza Strip.
In the weeks that followed, numerous donor states, including Austria, suspended or paused some $450 million in funding.
Many, including Germany, Sweden, Canada and Japan, had since resumed funding, while others have continued to hold out.
“After analizing the action plan in detail” submitted by UNRWA “to improve the functioning of the organization,” Austria has decided to “release the funds,” its foreign ministry said in a statement.
A total of 3.4 million euros ($3.7 million) in funds have been budgeted for 2024, and the first payment is expected to be made in the summer, the statement said.
“Some of the Austrian funds will be used in the future to improve internal control mechanisms at UNRWA,” it added.
Austria said it will “closely monitor” the implementation of the action plan with other international partners, noting that “a lot of trust had been squandered.”
The Alpine country said it has substantially increased support for the suffering Palestinian population in Gaza and the region since 7 October, making 32 million euros ($34.8 million) in humanitarian aid available to other international aid organizations.
The Hamas attack on October 7 resulted in the death of more than 1,170 people in Israel, most of them civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
Israel’s campaign in Gaza has since killed at least 35,303 people, also mostly civilians, according to data provided by the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Flash floods kill at least 50 people in western Afghanistan

Updated 1 min 33 sec ago
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Flash floods kill at least 50 people in western Afghanistan

  • Death toll was based on preliminary reports and might rise
  • Hard-hit province of Ghor has suffered significant financial losses

ISLAMABAD: Flash floods from heavy seasonal rains in western Afghanistan have killed at least 50 people and dozens remain missing, a Taliban official said on Saturday, adding the death toll was based on preliminary reports and might rise.
Afghanistan has been witnessing unusually heavy seasonal rains.
The hard-hit province of Ghor has suffered significant financial losses, said Abdul Wahid Hamas, spokesman for the provincial governor, after thousands of homes and properties were damaged and hundreds of hectares of agricultural land destroyed following Friday’s floods, including the capital city Feroz Koh.
The Taliban’s government chief spokesman posted on social platform X, mourning “the loss of our fellow Afghans,” and urged ” responsible authorities ... to provide all necessary support to alleviate the suffering.” He also called on “our benevolent donors” to help and humanitarian organizations to provide the affected communities with aid.
Last week, the UN food agency said the exceptionally heavy rains in Afghanistan have killed more than 300 people and destroyed thousands of houses, mostly in the northern province of Baghlan, which bore the brunt of floods on May 10th.
Survivors have been left with no home, no land, and no source of livelihood, the World Food Organization said. Most of Baghlan is “inaccessible by trucks,” said WFP, adding that it is resorting to every alternative it can think of to deliver food to the survivors.
The latest disaster came on the heels of devastating floods that killed at least 70 people in April. The waters also destroyed about 2,000 homes, three mosques and four schools in western Farah and Herat, and southern Zabul and Kandahar provinces.


Nearly 10,000 evacuated in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region: governor

Updated 37 min 5 sec ago
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Nearly 10,000 evacuated in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region: governor

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky plays down Russia’s gains in the offensive
  • Moscow has been attacking several settlements including Vovchansk, just five kilometers from the border

KYIV: Nearly 10,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region since a ground attack launched by Russian forces on May 10, the regional governor said.
The assault may only be the first wave of a wider offensive, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.
Over a week after its launch, “a total of 9,907 people have been evacuated,” governor Oleg Synegubov said.
They were fleeing Russian soldiers who managed to advance between five to 10 kilometers (three to six miles) along the northeastern border before being stopped by Ukrainian forces.
Synegubov said Ukraine’s armed forces had repelled two attempts to break through defenses overnight.
The situation was “under control” with “defenders in certain areas conducting assault... and combing operations.”
Moscow has been attacking several settlements including Vovchansk, just five kilometers from the border.
“In the area of the city of Vovchansk, Ukrainian troops are reinforcing their defense,” Synegubov said.
A day earlier, he said Russian forces have started to destroy Vovchansk and all but 200 of its residents have fled due to fighting.
Russian forces have taken 278 square kilometers (107 square miles) between May 9 and 15, their biggest gains since the end of 2022, AFP calculated using data from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
Russia’s offensive “could consist in several waves. There was the first wave” in the Kharkiv region, Zelensky said journalists.
Zelensky played down Russia’s gains in the offensive but added: “We have to be sober and understand that they are going deeper into our territory. Not vice versa. And that’s still their advantage.”
Speaking about the offensive during a visit to China on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was a response to Ukraine shelling border regions.


Nepal latest to ban Indian spice brands over safety concerns

Updated 18 May 2024
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Nepal latest to ban Indian spice brands over safety concerns

  • Hong Kong, Singapore last month banned products from Everest and MDH after tests detected presence of ethylene oxide
  • Besides its use as a pesticide, ethylene oxide is used to sterilize medical equipment and as a sterilising agent in spices

KATMANDU: Nepal has become the latest jurisdiction to ban the import and sale of two popular Indian spice brands after reports that some of their products contained a cancer-causing pesticide, officials said Friday.
Hong Kong and Singapore last month banned products from Everest and MDH — two brands popular in India and exported worldwide — after tests detected the presence of ethylene oxide, according to media reports.
Besides its use as a pesticide, ethylene oxide is used to sterilize medical equipment and as a sterilising agent in spices to prevent illnesses caused by salmonella and E. Coli bacteria.
Regular exposure to the colorless and odourless compound increases the “risk of cancers of the white blood cells,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Matina Joshi Vaidya, chief of Nepal’s Department of Food Technology and Quality Control, told AFP that the Himalayan country had also decided to halt the sale of the spice blends.
“It is an issue of public health,” she said. “We have its banned import and sale from Thursday.”
Nepal has banned four products — three variants produced by MDH and one by Everest.
“We do not have the lab resources to run the tests in the country. The ban will be lifted when Indian authorities declare it safe,” Vaidya said.
Everest and MDH are India’s top two spice brands with a market share of 16 and 10 percent respectively in 2022, according to consumer research monitor Statista.
Both companies have put out statements denying their products pose a health hazard to consumers after the Singapore and Hong Kong import bans.
“We clarify and state unequivocally that these claims are untrue and lack any substantiating evidence,” MDH said last month on social media platform X.
India’s food regulation agency has asked for state authorities to carry out random testing of spice products, broadcaster NDTV reported.


Argentine president begins unusual visit to Spain, snubbing officials and courting the far-right

Updated 18 May 2024
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Argentine president begins unusual visit to Spain, snubbing officials and courting the far-right

  • The brash President Javier Milei has no plans to meet Spain's PM — nor any other government official
  • He will instead attend a far-right summit Sunday hosted by Sánchez’s fiercest political opponent, the Vox party

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina: Even before kicking off a three-day visit to Madrid on Friday, Argentina’s libertarian President Javier Milei stirred controversy, accusing the socialist government of bringing “poverty and death” to Spain and weighing in on corruption allegations against the prime minister’s wife.

In such circumstances, a typical visiting head of state may strive to mend fences with diplomacy.
Not Milei. The brash economist has no plans to meet Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez during his three days in the Spanish capital — nor the Spanish king, nor any other government official. Instead, he’ll attend a far-right summit Sunday hosted by Sánchez’s fiercest political opponent, the Vox party.
The unorthodox visit was business as usual for Milei, a darling of the global far right who has bonded with tech billionaire Elon Musk and praised former US President Donald Trump. Earlier this year on a trip to the United States, Milei steered clear of the White House and took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, where he railed against abortion and socialism and shared a bear hug with Trump.
Milei presented his 2022 book, “The Way of the Libertarian,” in Madrid Friday at a literary event organized by La Razón, a conservative Spanish newspaper.
The book — withdrawn from circulation in Spain earlier this month because the back-flap biography erroneously said Milei had earned a doctorate — traces his meteoric rise in politics from eccentric TV personality to national lawmaker and outlines his radical free-market economic ideas.
To thunderous applause, Milei condemned socialism as “an intellectual fraud and a horror in human terms.”
“The good thing is that the spotlight is shining on us everywhere and we are making the reds (leftists) uncomfortable all over the world,” Milei said.
He took the opportunity to promote the results of his harsh austerity campaign in Argentina, celebrating a decline in monthly inflation in April though making no mention of the Buenos Aires subway fares that more than tripled overnight.
Repeating a campaign pledge to eliminate Argentina’s central bank — without giving further details — Milei promised to make Argentina “the country with the most economic freedom in the world.”
At the event Milei gave a huge hug to his ideological ally Santiago Abascal, the leader of the hard-right Vox party and the only politician with whom Milei has actual plans to meet in Madrid.
The Vox summit Sunday seeks to bring together far-right figures from across Europe in a bid to rally the party’s base ahead of European parliamentary elections in June. Milei described his attendance a “moral imperative.” He also has plans to meet Spanish business executives Saturday.
Tensions between Milei and Sánchez have simmered since the moment the Spanish prime minister declined to congratulate the libertarian economist on his shock election victory last November.
But hostility exploded earlier this month when one of Sánchez’s ministers suggested Milei had taken narcotics. The Argentine presidency responded with an unusually harsh official statement accusing Sánchez’s government of “endangering the middle class with its socialist policies that bring nothing but poverty and death.”
The lengthy government statement also accused Sánchez of having “more important problems to deal with, such as the corruption accusations against his wife.”
The allegations of influence peddling and corruption brought by a right-wing group against Sánchez’s wife, Begoña Gómez, had prompted Sánchez, one of Europe’s longest serving Socialist leaders, to consider stepping down.