The Sex Workers Who are Stopping HIV

by Jules Montague

Sex workers in Mozambique are providing health support to those at the margins of society. They face political and financial challenges, but against the odds they are helping thousands. Jules Montague reports.

It’s late when we reach Inhamízua on the outskirts of the city.

Stalls sell crackling chicken feet and sizzling plantain. Scores of men and women are gathered by a makeshift bar topped with corrugated steel. Spirits are high. The sound of laughter rises above the rumble of trucks trundling by.

Light from the gas station across the road illuminates the scene. Some of the women sit on white plastic chairs, nursing infants. It’s a nativity scene of sorts, set under coconut trees and soundtracked by Marrabenta-style dance music surging from a battered loudspeaker.

Luisa* and I walk behind the bar, through dried mud and over shards of glass and used condoms. We’re at the huts now. It’s 80 meticais for five minutes – about a pound. A bottle of beer in this town, to put things in context, costs 55.

In Beira, like everywhere else, sex sells – and there’s a good chance that HIV will be part of the transaction. Truckers drive here along the trade corridor that stretches from Zimbabwe’s eastern border. The end of their journey is a Mozambican port city where life expectancy is less than 50 and HIV rates are among the highest in the world. When they leave, that legacy often follows them.

One in ten adults in Mozambique is HIV positive, making the country’s HIV prevalence the eighth highest globally. But while the government has made progress on controlling the epidemic in recent years, reaching the marginalised along the Beira corridor has remained difficult.

How do you reach a population that is perpetually mobile? A population fearful of police intimidation, or of being found out by friends and family? In their eyes, they have little to gain from meeting you and everything to lose. To reach them, you need an innovative approach.

On we go, Luisa and I and the others, to place after place late into the night. Hotspots they call them, each one the same – makeshift bars with white plastic chairs, pumping music, overturned trucks, stacks of old tyres, broken beer bottles, and every time those huts out back.

© Billy Clark

Luisa is a peer educator – part of a team that dispenses medical advice to the local community – but will return to these streets as a sex worker when money is low.

And her story is the story of this project.

For here in Beira, I’ve discovered a group helping people to help themselves – even as Mozambique threatens to fall back into the political chaos of its past. Amid the discord, this project is countering the seeming inevitability of contracting HIV along the transport corridor by enabling sex workers to become peer educators for a couple of nights each week, sometimes more. Joined by counsellors and outreach workers, they provide safe-sex guidance, offer advice on family planning, and deliver on-the-spot HIV testing. They distribute condoms and lubricants. And, crucially, they connect some 3,800 sex workers and 4,500 long-distance truck drivers to health clinics they might otherwise never visit.

This is the Corridor Project, established by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in January 2014. And despite its perilous situation, it’s reaching the unreachable.

§

The story of Mozambique’s HIV epidemic is embedded in its history of bloodshed.

After a decade of armed struggle, Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in June 1975. Hundreds of thousands of Portuguese fled, including many who worked in healthcare. By Independence Day, just 80 doctors remained in the whole of the country.

The Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) came to power, but inherited a fractured country with a fragile infrastructure and few skilled workers. Within two years a brutal civil war had broken out, with FRELIMO violently confronted by the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO), an armed and much-feared rebel movement. Over the next 15 years, up to a million died and 10 per cent of the country’s population became war refugees.

Yet as HIV ravaged neighbouring countries, Mozambique was shielded by limited population movement into the country.

A peace agreement was eventually reached in 1992, and with international help the government began to focus on improving the country’s main transport corridors to restore economic growth. Ripe for development was the Beira corridor, spanning the 300 km from the Indian Ocean to Zimbabwe’s eastern border. Previously marred by dilapidated infrastructure, staff shortages and bandit attacks, transport links from Beira’s rehabilitated port soon stretched to surrounding countries.

Mozambique was open for business.

But development came at a cost. When populations become more mobile, so do sexually transmitted infections like HIV. Long-distance drivers, for example, are more likely to engage in transactional sex, with a string of partners. They frequently make overnight stops, arriving with money to spend in the midst of poorer communities.

Within 15 years of its first, solitary case, one million people in Mozambique were living with HIV

And so after the civil war, truck drivers often carried HIV from stop to stop along the Beira corridor until they reached their families at home. Sex workers followed the money. And HIV followed them all.

Meanwhile, refugees returned from neighbouring countries – another factor believed to have contributed to a rise in HIV rates. Mozambique’s first case was reported in 1986. By the end of 1992, there had been 662 confirmed cases. By 1998 that number had risen to 10,863.

These spiralling rates partly represented improved diagnostics, but the figures went far beyond this. Within 15 years of that first, solitary case, one million people in Mozambique were living with HIV.

Yet solid political and economic reforms had led Mozambique to become one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa, with GDP growth of 7 per cent per annum. The government prioritised HIV prevention and treatment, and international donors stepped forward. The number of people on HIV treatment grew 37-fold between 2004 and 2013.

By mid-2016, about 900,000 people living with HIV were receiving antiretroviral treatment, three times as many as in 2012. Expanded treatment coverage for pregnant women living with HIV resulted in a 73 per cent decline in new infections among children in just three years. New HIV infections among adults dropped by 40 per cent from 2004 to 2014.

Mozambique had become a shining example of how to battle an HIV epidemic. Yet there was a missing piece in the puzzle.

Its HIV success story did not extend to the Beira corridor – it didn’t even come close.

§

Our group receives a warm welcome at our next stop – Pinta Boca’s Premium Bar. Many of the peer educators are familiar faces here.

Luisa carries a notebook and collects the telephone numbers of sex workers who want to be called during the week with advice on how and where to get antiretroviral drugs. Quanto custa? They’re free, Luisa replies. To one woman standing by a pool table, its legs embedded deep in the mud and cues nowhere to be seen, Luisa says yes, she can get refills at the clinic if she has run out. And TB treatment, too? Sure, Luisa says. She’ll call her tomorrow with advice.

The pages of Luisa’s notebook are filling up fast.

A man drinking a bottle of Impala beer approaches one of the women sitting on a white plastic chair by the roadside. She passes her baby gently to a fellow worker and walks towards the huts with the truck driver. A rapidinha, they call it – a quickie.

The Corridor Project is not about one organisation. It’s really about 300

Jaime – a counsellor from MSF – has joined us tonight. He knows this crowd well, too. As he bounces one of the infants on his knee, a camionista, a long-distance truck driver, steps forward. “Can I have the test?” he asks. Jaime walks him towards the van and the man gets an HIV test there and then. A preliminary result follows 15 minutes later. If his test is later confirmed as positive, he will join the 1.5 million others in Mozambique living with HIV at the last count.

We end up back in the van – now 144 red condoms lighter, each 53 millimetres wide and made of natural latex rubber. Luisa and others like her are just the right people to be here: better suited than well-meaning outsiders who, without relatable experiences, might never be able to connect with those at risk in such a profoundly personal way.

Luisa, 29 years old and a mother of five, tells me that her ex left her soon after she was gang-raped. The attack gave her HIV. For her, it was too late. But not for these women, she believes.

By the end of this week, her notebook will be full.

© Billy Clark

It’s fair to say there was an endless amount of bargaining to get the MSF Corridor Project off the ground – and no better woman to contend with this than its Brazilian coordinator, Daniela Cerqueira Batista.

A psychologist by background, Daniela is effortlessly glamorous in a Goan beach sort of way. There are kisses on either cheek and arms flung around those she meets. Her messages have more emojis than mine have characters. Her energy is resolutely undiminished by this oppressive heat, despite managing a team of 90 here in Beira.

When she saw how expensive books were at a local sale here, she set about trying to establish a library. When she couldn’t find a Pride flag, she picked up a multicoloured umbrella back in Brazil. And so on Rua Dom Francisco Gorjão, the umbrella now forms an improvised Pride symbol stuck above the front door of MSF’s Beira headquarters.

Meeting after meeting it took to set up the Corridor Project – with local NGOs, transport sector representatives, law enforcement agencies, Ministry of Health officials, truckers’ unions, border community representatives and customs personnel. Add to that input from donors and funding institutions, including the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Global Fund and many others.

The Corridor Project is not about one organisation. It’s really about 300. In a country of 43 languages.

But these alliances ultimately proved fruitful, explains Daniela, establishing firm links with port companies who hold staff education sessions, community theatre groups who put on productions with safe-sex themes, and organisations who run workshops on domestic abuse. And the project would be incomplete without its linkage to care – the health centres at Ponta Gêa and Munhava.

Some lessons you just won’t find in textbooks. In the early days, those working as part of the project wore MSF T-shirts but were shunned – sex workers and truck drivers associated the charity solely with HIV care and didn’t approach the peer educators in case others thought they were HIV positive. Staff at the health centres soon learned to dispense antiretroviral drugs in boxes that had fake labels – that way, patients could go home with a box that looked like it was just full of painkillers.

They want to change their own lives and help their sisters on the streets

Mobile clinics have now been established along the corridor, with adapted opening times; sex workers and truck drivers work unconventional hours. MSF counsellors and peer educators make door-to-door visits and stop by 200 hotspots along the corridor. And their staff support care at government health centres so that stigma and discrimination do not drive these marginalised populations away. The Corridor Project now stretches across Mozambique and has been extended to Malawi and Zimbabwe.

More recently, MSF has introduced health passports for all patients diagnosed with HIV who are on treatment. Containing test results and medication regimens, they allow for continuity of care along the corridor. MSF are working to have these multilingual passports recognised in Zimbabwe and Malawi – if they are successful, patients could receive uninterrupted HIV treatment across borders.

And then there are the peer educators. At those makeshift bars, it’s Luisa and the others who engender a sense of genuine trust, connection, camaraderie and solidarity. They’ve been there; sometimes they still are. And back at Rua Dom Francisco Gorjão, they’re involved in all aspects of the project – design, implementation, decision making and oversight, at the community level and nationally. Luisa has a chance, if she wants it, to progress through the organisation; several peer educators have become counsellors. Others have been supported to set up their own businesses.

© Billy Clark

Luisa receives remuneration for her peer educator role. I ask Sebastiana Cumbe, supervisor of psychological support, how this factors into sex workers signing up to this project. “Yes, there is a salary,” she tells me. “But it’s not just that. They want to change their own lives and help their sisters on the streets.”

Not many projects provide that linkage to care, a bridge between community and clinic. A 2016 study assessed healthcare programmes for sub-Saharan African truck drivers in 30 countries. Of 22 programmes, only three covered testing and care for conditions other than HIV, such as TB and malaria. Few tested for other STIs. Just above half have been evaluated to date. And where data has been gathered, it primarily focuses on the number of sites established, staff trained, resources used or clients reached. It’s one thing to give out condoms, but another thing for people to use them. Few projects have reported on impact indicators such as changes in infection rates.

In 2016, 71 per cent of the HIV-negative sex workers in the Corridor Project were retested at least once, with 94 per cent still HIV negative when retested. It’s these sorts of metrics that should help scale up and sustain the programme.

If, that is, the project can weather the political challenges faced by Mozambique, both now and in the future.

§

“You’re sick,” Luisa’s partner had said to her. He had just found out that she had been raped. Then, he left her.

She had already been a sex worker for some time when it happened. Her first child had been born when Luisa was 14; her second, four years later. So she became the family breadwinner when her partner couldn’t get a job.

She remembers her first day on the streets. Overcome by shame when she saw a neighbour, she ran home before a single transaction. But two days later, with no food for her children, she returned.

She always ensured her clients wore condoms, even though they would pay more if they didn’t have to. The ones who refused, she refused them too. She remained HIV negative.

I would have been more ashamed if I had to beg my friends for money. This was a conscious decision

“Half the money now,” the client had said that night. “Half the money after we have sex.” He wanted her to travel away from the huts. In the car, he phoned his friends.

“He took out a gun and told me, ‘Get out,’ and I did. He told me to take my clothes off and I did. His friends arrived. They had sex with me, five people. But they didn’t use a condom. Afterwards, he left me there. I had no strength left, and then I took my clothes, I hitched a ride and went to the hospital.”

Luisa’s internal and external injuries were so severe that she was unable to work for another six months.

She was tested again, not too long after. She was HIV positive.

Worldwide, sex workers are 12 times as likely as the general population to be HIV positive. Across 16 sub-Saharan African countries surveyed in 2012, the prevalence of HIV among sex workers was 37 per cent.

“When I was sick,” Luisa tells me, “my children ended up not going to school because I couldn’t afford paying for the school truck, because I didn’t have money left. MSF always came to take me to the hospital, to do everything. I didn’t have anything left to eat because I couldn’t go on the streets. They gave me a letter and I went to collect food, even when I said I had HIV. And I started to take some medicine. Slowly, I recovered.”

Luisa has five children now, aged between two and fourteen.

She became an MSF peer educator two years ago. As she walks through that dried mud and over those shards of glass, I see something in her. Energy. Empathy. A need to be there for others the way others were there for her.

She works less frequently on the streets than she did before. But she does not regret her choices. “I would have been more ashamed if I had to beg my friends for money. This was a conscious decision. When my heart tells me to do something, I do it.”

© Billy Clark

Back at Rua Dom Francisco Gorjão, I meet 22-year-old Antonio*. He explains how the Corridor Project reaches out to other at-risk populations, not just those connected to sex work. Similar strategies are used for each group, despite their differences.

Antonio knew as a child in Maputo that he was different from his friends. Or at least he was made to feel different. As he played with dolls and cookery sets, his stepmother told him to play with cars, to make friends with boys instead of girls. In his teens he was sent to live in Beira with his cousins. “Here I felt comfortable,” he says. “I was able to paint my nails, freely wear make-up and dresses.” He was sometimes bullied at school. But Beira became his home.

His journey with his own family has been more difficult. He visited his sister’s house recently with a gay female friend. Afterwards, his sister said if she were to discover her daughters were gay, she would murder them with her own hands.

Antonio works as a peer educator for men who have sex with men (MSM). Globally, gay men and other MSM are 19 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population. A recent Beira study found a third of MSM over the age of 25 are living with HIV.

Another recent study suggested a third of MSM in Beira had never been tested for HIV. Fourteen per cent of those said that this was because they simply did not know where to go.

These interventions are a necessary first step. The larger question is what can we do to remove stigma and other barriers

With such high HIV rates in Beira’s MSM, the cornerstone of MSF’s work here is to scale up preventative strategies. This is where PrEP comes in – pre-exposure prophylaxis. By taking a certain combination of drugs in one daily tablet, people can reduce their risk of contracting HIV by more than 90 per cent. (It does not protect against other STIs, and missing doses decreases its effectiveness.)

José Carlos Beirão manages the PrEP Operational Research Project, established within the Corridor Project in 2016, and the only one of its kind in Mozambique. So far 214 participants, MSM as well as female sex workers, have been recruited, with a target of 250. Beirão hopes that by the end of the project, he’ll be able to understand the demand for PrEP and the feasibility and acceptability of implementing a wide-scale PrEP programme.

I ask Ken Ho, an HIV specialist and prominent PrEP researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, whether he thinks the corridor approach might be applicable to settings far outside Beira.

“We know that young black MSM are disproportionally impacted by HIV,” he explains. “These are the same people who may have limited access to healthcare because of lack of insurance, distrust of medical institutions, or fear of stigmatisation.” And so he sees the corridor approach as being relevant in the USA, at least initially in establishing a link with difficult-to-reach populations.

But he sounds a note of caution: “The risk is that these targeted interventions function more like Band-Aids and allow – perhaps even encourage – the underlying problems to persist. So I think they are a necessary first step. The larger question is what can we do to remove stigma and other barriers that are responsible for the disparities in the first place.”

Antonio’s confidence has grown since his schooldays, he tells me.

For him, it’s about visibility. When he arrived in Beira, nobody looked like him. Now he sees others who do. Boys growing up today, he believes, will have a chance to think differently because of this: I see it, I can be it.

§

I am outside Beira’s airport, right where José Manuel was shot dead in April 2016. He was a RENAMO member of the National Council for Defence and Security. Formerly the civil war rebels, RENAMO are now the opposition party. Human Rights Watch noted reports that it had taken the police ten hours to arrive on the scene.

Armed conflict resumed in Mozambique in 2015, after two decades of peace. The results of the 2014 general election, won by FRELIMO, were bitterly contested by RENAMO. There were summary executions of villagers, abductions and sexual violence, political assassinations, raids on health clinics, attacks on civilian buses, and even reports of mass graves.

Mozambique was in danger of plunging back into the chaos of its past. Faced with violence from both sides, over 11,000 Mozambicans fled to Malawi and Zimbabwe. By the end of 2016, a truce had been agreed, and most of the refugees had returned, but many families remain internally displaced.

In 2016 economic growth halved, with a downturn in commodity prices. And then there was an astonishing and ultimately devastating admission from the government: it had guaranteed $1.5 billion in secret, unconstitutional loans. Fourteen donor countries and multilateral institutions – including the UK, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank – promptly suspended direct support to the state budget. The foreign debt burden has risen to $9.9bn – up 20 per cent a year over the last five years.

By the beginning of 2017, cholera outbreaks had become so common that they were barely making the national news. The cost of bread and other staples was rising. The currency was falling. Nurses were not being paid. The ceasefire is still holding, but uneasily so.

Ordinary people in Mozambique are paying a high price. It is possible the Corridor Project will, too.

The average Mozambican’s daily struggle remains to lift themselves out of poverty

Health infrastructure is already in a perilous state. There are only three doctors per 100,000 people, one of the worst ratios in the world. Already more than half the population must walk an hour or more to their nearest health facility. Just over half of health facilities lack electricity and 41 per cent have no running water.

Mozambique expert Alex Vines has been head of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, an international affairs think-tank in London, since 2002. How will recent political and economic developments affect healthcare in Mozambique, I ask him, and in turn the Corridor Project?

Vines points out that the ceasefire is at least indefinite, and that better rains over recent months have provided some economic respite. “But the debt burden – because of the undisclosed loans scandal of 2016 and suspension of direct budget support by international donors – has seriously impacted the government’s finances, and this has a knock-on impact on healthcare and HIV programmes,” he explains.

Mozambique receives more than 95 per cent of its HIV programme funding through international donors. The Corridor Project depends heavily on this funding, and it could suffer profoundly. Vines is hopeful, though: “I believe the international donors will resume their direct support of the government but will require greater accountability. Trust is central to this.”

What happens next to the support of healthcare, and in turn to the Corridor Project, he believes, will partly depend on the outcome of an ongoing independent audit into those murky secret loans.

But a question remains, Vines says, about some leading donors. Donald Trump has proposed a cut in US global health funding, which will affect projects in Mozambique related to family planning. Who will fill those gaps remains unclear. Mozambique’s longstanding status as a donor darling is now far from secure.

The withdrawal of funding for the Corridor Project is something Caroline Rose, MSF’s head of mission in Mozambique, is only too aware of, even at ground level. “In the field we are receiving more and more requests from health facilities in trouble: ‘Could you fix our ambulance?’ ‘Could you transport our drugs from our clinic to the districts?’ ‘Could you pay for fuel?’” She is negotiating with international donors to the project, encouraging them to implement interim funding strategies until more long-term solutions are ironed out.

Vines envisages that the country will have a difficult few years before large-scale exporting of gas reserves starts, in the mid-2020s. Mozambique is now entering another election cycle that will doubtless be contentious, and which will likely span the next two years. “Meanwhile, the average Mozambican’s daily struggle remains to lift themselves out of poverty.”

And so women like Luisa will continue to walk towards those huts each night. They will take further risks to feed their families. As Mozambique’s uncertain future unfolds, ventures like the Corridor Project will be needed more than ever.

© Billy Clark

Luisa is healthy and optimistic for her future, for the future of her children. The corridor is where she has found, at different times, a livelihood, unspeakable trauma, a feeling of community and now a sense of purpose. In some ways it has defined her life, even as it has endangered it.

In 2014, the Corridor Project was established to reach the unreachable. Night by night, hotspot by hotspot, from one gas station to the next. It’s early days, but already it has connected with thousands of sex workers and truck drivers. Preliminary figures suggest this is giving a significant boost to HIV prevention and treatment. And the project refuses to fade even in the face of precarious funding streams and a deeply fractious political climate.

The night is over for us. In a few hours, the sun will rise. Traders will set up their stalls at Mercado do Goto to hawk fruit and vegetables. Fishermen will repair their nets by Macúti beach lighthouse, their wooden boats pulled high up onto the sand. Luisa will walk her children to school.

Daniela will fling open the doors of her office under the Pride umbrella.

The Corridor Project will live to see another day.

 

* Some names have been changed.

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.

Indigenous people need control over digital tech

by Inga Vesper

Indigenous people need more support to become tech-savvy and deal with the threats digital technology can pose to their culture, a conference has heard.

Digital technologies such as smartphones and drones can bring problems as well as advantages to indigenous communities, an expert panel said at the World Conservation Congress on 5 September. Without in-depth knowledge of the scope of such technology, indigenous people may allow themselves to be misrepresented and their knowledge to get exploited, they said.

One issue is the struggle to keep sacred sites a secret in a world where posting photos and publishing blogs can reveal their locations. Often, well-meaning researchers compound the problem when they digitise photos of cultural sites or traditional knowledge for scientific purposes, says Mikaela Jade, the founder of Indigital Storytelling, an Australian company using digital technologies to preserve aboriginal culture.

“Companies supplying indigenous people with services should have a cultural protocol to clarify who are the custodians of their data,” she told SciDev.Net. “We need to know, can we take our data back and can we destroy it if it is causing a problem to have it in the public space?”

These issues are compounded by the fact that many indigenous communities still lack access to the digital world, the event heard. Having better access can encourage them to become more assertive in protecting their culture, suggests M’Lys Flynn, a digital mapper working with indigenous people in Australia.

The panel, which took place on 5 September in Honolulu, Hawaii, acknowledged that digital technology can enable indigenous communities to claim rights over land and better preserve traditions. Having access to GPS mapping, social media platforms and other communication tools is also crucial, to make their voices more prominent in global discussions, the panellists agreed.

The best way forward, says Roberto Borreo, a consultant at the International Indian Treaty Council, is for communities and digital companies to work together. The Taino people in the United States, for example, helped a start-up game company to develop Arrival: Village Kasike, a mobile-phone strategy game set in pre-Columbian Central America.

Taino representatives were involved throughout the development process, ensuring the game represents their culture correctly and gives a balanced view of their lives.

“Some game developers just appropriate Indian culture, they use our stories and symbols without any benefits to the communities,” Borreo says. “They represent us as violent or primitive, and we do not need to encourage any more racism or violence against indigenous communities.”

With better knowledge of digital technologies, indigenous people will also be in a position to choose which technologies they want to let into their lives, Jade says.

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.

How religion motivates people to give and serve

David King, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Saturday, August 19 is World Humanitarian Day – a time to remember the tremendous humanitarian need around the world.

The stark reality is that the world is facing the greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945: Mass starvations are threatening millions of people in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, while an unmatched refugee crisis continues in Syria.

World Humanitarian Day is also a time to remember the sacrifice of those who risk their lives to serve. What often gets ignored, however, is the role that faith plays in people’s desire to give and serve. This is where I focus my research.

Philanthropy and religion

Let’s first look at available data to understand how much giving is tied to one’s faith.

According to Giving USA, the leading annual report of philanthropy in America, religious contributions (narrowly defined as giving to houses of worship, denominations, missionary societies and religious media) made up 32 percent of all giving in America in 2016.

Another study found that 73 percent of all American giving went to a house of worship or a religiously identified organization.

Many of these organizations make up the world’s largest NGOs. For example, three of the top 10 biggest charities by total revenue last year (Catholic Charities, Salvation Army and National Christian Foundation) are explicitly religious. Religious agencies make up 13 of the top 50 charities in the U.S.

It is true that factors such as wealth, income, education and marital status are all predictors of giving. But religious belief and practice are one of the best predictors.

Overall, religious Americans volunteer more, give more, and give more often not only to religious but secular causes as well. Among Americans who give to any cause, 55 percent claim religious values as an important motivator for giving.

What religions tell us

These values of giving are deeply rooted in the texts, traditions and practices of many faiths. Take, for example, the messages within the three Abrahamic faiths.

In Judaism, the Hebrew Scriptures refer to “tzedakah,” literally meaning justice. Tzedakah is considered a commandment and a moral obligation that all Jews should follow. The commitment to justice places a priority on their giving to help the poor. Beyond giving just time and money, rabbis even spoke of “gemilut chasadim,” literally meaning loving-kindness, or focusing on right relationship with one another as the prerogative of religious giving.

Even more broadly, an ancient Jewish phrase, “tikkun olam,” meaning to repair or heal the world, has been adopted by many religious and secular causes. Barack Obama, when he was president, would often refer to the phrase. So did past President Bill Clinton and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. President George W. Bush hinted at a vision of tikkun olam in his second inaugural address.

Similarly, the Christian tradition has considered giving a key religious practice. Many Christians still look to the Hebrew Bible and the tithe (giving one-tenth of an individual’s income) as God’s commandment.

In the New Testament, Jesus spoke of giving not only a tithe but challenged followers to give far beyond it. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions. Pursuing those values, a long monastic tradition has seen men and women taking vows of poverty to give themselves to the work of their faith. Today, while the tithe might not be practiced by a majority of Christians, most understand the practice of giving as a central part of their faith.

For Muslims, giving is one of the five pillars of Islam. “Zakat” (meaning to grow in purity) is an annual payment of 2.5 percent of one’s assets, considered by many as the minimum obligation of their religious giving. A majority of Muslims worldwide make their annual zakat payments as a central faith practice.

Above and beyond the required zakat, many Muslims make additional gifts (referred to broadly as “sadaqa”). Interestingly, the word shares the same root as the Jewish “tzedakah,” meaning justice. Muslim giving also focuses primarily on the poor.

Of course, charitable giving is not just for the rich. For those with no money to give, the Prophet Muhammad considered even the simple act of smiling to be charity, a gift to another.

Building a community

An aid worker in Addis Ababa. Bread for the World, CC BY-NC-ND

 

Religious traditions are clear that the value of giving does not simply rest with those receiving the gift. Givers themselves benefit. As sociologist Christian Smith makes clear, there is a paradox to generosity – in giving we receive and in grasping we lose.

At the same time, the goal of religious giving is not just about what it brings to individuals. Rather, it is more a focus on human interaction and a vision of community.

Perhaps most famously, the 12th-century Rabbi Maimonides outlined eight levels of giving – the lowest being giving grudgingly and the highest to sustain, but also to empower a person to no longer need charity.

Maimonides made clear it is not so much the amount of giving but how one gives that is important in establishing a relationship between the giver and the recipient. Giving should avoid humiliation, superiority and dependence.

With the majority of global citizens belonging to a religious tradition, it should be no surprise that religion often becomes the greatest asset in humanitarian work. Whether fighting AIDS, malaria or poverty, the development community has realized that the success of local programs so often turns on the support of the local faith community. The engagement of the local imam or priest is essential.

Just a few years ago, the humanitarian industry was convinced of the truth of this view when they found that a majority of the health care workers left on the ground in the midst of the Ebola crises were missionaries. Faith was the chief motivator for those both funding and serving in some of the most difficult parts of the world.

The positive side to faith

It is true that too often, faith also appears to serve as the motivation for exclusion, bigotry and hate: Brutal terrorism by the Islamic State, attacks on religious minorities in Myanmar, the defacing of mosques, synagogues and churches across the United States and even the recent clashes in Charlottesville, illustrate how religions can also be used to promote violence.

When it comes to humanitarian aid, there are certainly criticisms of religious aid agencies whose work does not follow minimum humanitarian standards – for example, the prohibition against discriminating or proselytizing before giving aid.

But returning to the centrality of religious giving, evil in the name of religion does not have the last word.

A priest and a nun work together to send aid supplies. Direct Relief, CC BY-NC-ND

 

Take the case of the United Nations staffer Michael Sharp, who gave his life working for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo this past March. Sharp had worked earlier with the Mennonite Central Committee, a humanitarian organization set up for alternative military service by the Mennonites, a historic peace church. Sharp’s faith guided his call to peacemaking.

There are many such examples around the world where people of faith were moved to shared solidarity. It was their faith work that inspired Jordanian Muslim youth to protect local Coptic Christians at this year’s Easter services after repeated attacks on the Christian minority by Islamic terrorists. It was the same with Muslims in the Philippines this past June who hid fellow Christians in their homes to protect them from Islamic State fighters.

The ConversationIn working through the mandate of our various religious traditions towards the healing of the world, we often come to understand that we have more in common than we had initially realized. And perhaps, we might want to remember this, as we commemorate World Humanitarian Day.

David King, Assistant Professor of Philanthropic Studies, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Human, Land, and Technology

For all we know, nature doesn’t need us to stay alive. We need nature to survive. Unfortunately, the Earth today has turned into a problematic place for us to live. Global warming, Rainfall’s drought, more frequent heat waves, climate change, diminishing rivers, and low-quality soil are among of many issues we face today.

Those issues later triggered food crops failure. Food production and distribution disruption lead to inflation, which would potentially cause riot in societies. Majority of these issues are due to human’s fault: exploitation of natural resources, industrial wastewater, over-population, also unbalances between needs, wants, and demands. When we talk about crops, we talk about economy, especially macroeconomics.

Economy is a study of human behavior that focuses on mutual exchange to fulfill human’s necessities – and, food is one of them.

My colleague told me that – whom I agree with, from macroeconomics perspective, quantity and quality of food are based on three aspects: lands and its fertility level, the development of technology, and of course, the growth of human population.

Lands relate to the size of agrarian areas. Fertility relates to the quality of the soil. Development of technologies relates to our understanding on agricultural issues so that we can find an answer and then make it work. Human population means how many mouths that must be fed. These three aspects are interdependent.

For example, there’s a country that has enough size of area to produces 2000 food crops. The problem is, this area isn’t fertile enough; it could only produce 1500 crops – let’s say one crops per person, while there are 2000 people need to be fed; and yet, no technologies have been invented to counter this problem. With a simple calculation, we can figure out that there are 500 people who cannot eat. The result will be the same if the country eventually has the technology to fertilize the area while the growth of population is skyrocketing until it reaches – let’s say 5000 people. If that happened, then the country’s technological advancement must be capable of not only to fertilize the area, but also to produce more food; or they can “bulldoze” a forest to open an agricultural land, which means they would commit deforestation.

If these three aspects wouldn’t support one another; it will bring chaos to a nation. Imagine if this issue takes place on a global scale. If we don’t think and act wisely, I’m pretty sure we’ll go back to cannibalism.

Read the article below about food crops failure and let your imagination run wild.

BP


What if several of the world’s biggest food crops failed at the same time?

Anthony Janetos, Boston University

Less than one-quarter of Earth’s total cropland produces nearly three-quarters of the staple crops that feed the world’s population – especially corn, wheat and rice, the most important cereal crops. These areas are our planet’s major breadbaskets.

Historically, when a crop failed in one of these breadbaskets, only nearby areas had to contend with shortages and rising prices. Now, however, major crops are traded on global markets, which means that production failures can have far-reaching impacts. Moreover, climate change is expected to generate heat waves and drought that could cause crop losses in most of the world’s breadbaskets. Indeed, failures could occur simultaneously in several of these key regions.

Top 10 grain-producing countries (5-year average, 2012/2013 – 2016/2017), based on 5-year USDA PS&D data. Brian Barker, University of Maryland, Author provided

 

Pardee Center postdoctoral scholar John Patrick Connors and I are using mathematical models to study the potential environmental and economic impacts of failures in multiple breadbaskets around the world. It is already clear from our preliminary work that this is a real, near-term threat.

The good news is that not all of these regions respond in the same way to shocks in other places in the world. Some could bring new land into production quickly, easing stresses caused by crop failures elsewhere. But in order to make global food systems more robust, we need to know more about the most damaging consequences of multiple breadbasket failures.

A vulnerable system

In the past several decades, many of the world’s major breadbaskets have experienced shocks – events that caused large, rapid drops in food production. For example, regional droughts and heat waves in the Ukraine and Russia in 2007 and then again in 2009 damaged wheat crops and caused global wheat prices to spike by substantial amounts in both years. In 2012 heat and drought in the United States slashed national corn, soybean and other crop yields by up to 27 percent. And yields of important food crops are low and stagnating in many countries due to factors including plant diseases, poor soil quality, poor management practices and damage from air pollution.

At the same time, many experts assert that world food production may have to double by 2050 to feed a growing population and satisfy rising demand for meat, poultry and dairy products in developing countries. Global agricultural production has risen over the past 50 years, largely fueled by improvements in plant breeding and more intensive use of inputs, such as mechanized equipment, fertilizers and pesticides. This trend has eased pressure to bring new land into production. But it has limits, especially in the developing world, where the need to produce more food has been a main driver of deforestation in recent decades.

High food prices and stagnant wages trigger riots in Egypt in 2008.

 

It is clear that rising demand, growing international trade in agricultural products, and the potential for weather-, climate- and soil-related shocks are making the world food production system less resilient. Global agricultural trade can mean that price spikes in one region, if they are severe enough, can be felt broadly in other regions. Minor shocks, on the other hand, could be lessened by trade and by using grain reserves.

There is increasing evidence that in very poor countries, food price increases and shortages can lead to civil unrest and worsen other social and political stresses. And more wealthy countries are not immune, given the concentration of world food production and the global nature of trade. For example, the Russian/Ukrainian heat wave referenced above led to spikes in food prices, not just in the price of wheat. However, more wealthy countries also typically have more ability to buffer price shocks by either using grain reserves or increasing trade.

Modeling potential shocks

How can we understand this risk and its potential consequences for both rich and poor nations? Programs already exist to provide early warning of potential famines in the world’s poorest countries, many of which already depend heavily on food aid. There also are programs in wealthier nations that monitor food prices and provide early warnings of price spikes.

But these programs focus mainly on regional risks, and often are not located in major food production areas. Very little work has been done to analyze risks of simultaneous shocks in several of the world’s breadbaskets.

We want to understand the impacts that shock events could have if they occur in the real world so that we can identify possible contingency plans for the largest-impact events. In order to do that, we have used an integrated assessment model, the Global Change Assessment Model, which was developed by the U.S. Department of Energy and is freely available to users around the world. Integrated assessment models have been designed specifically to simulate the interactions among Earth’s energy, economic and land use systems.

We have developed scenarios in which small shocks (10 percent crop loss) and large shocks (50 percent crop loss), averaged over five years, are applied to corn, wheat or rice in their major production regions, and then to all the combinations of one, two or all three crops in one, two or the top three production regions.

Flooding in October 2009 caused heavy damage to rice farms in Indonesia. NR-PH001 World Bank/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

 

Unsurprisingly, our results to date suggest that large shocks have larger effects than smaller shocks, as measured in subsequent changes in land use, the total amount of land dedicated to agriculture and food prices. But more interestingly, not all breadbasket regions respond to shocks in the same way.

Some of these areas are quite unresponsive to shocks occurring elsewhere in the world. For example, the total amount of land in agricultural production in South Asia changes relatively little due to shocks elsewhere in the world, largely because most of the arable land is already in use.

But other regions are extremely responsive. Notably, Brazil has the ability to bring a lot of new land into production if large shocks occur elsewhere, because it still has a significant amount of potentially arable land that is not currently being farmed. However, this land currently is mostly forest, so clearing it for agriculture would add significantly to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, and thus to global climate change.

Mapping risks

The Pardee Center has published a research agenda that discusses what we still need to know about these risks. Key questions include understanding the full distribution of risks, whether increased international trade can ameliorate risk and where the most responsive and the most sensitive regions are.

The ConversationUltimately, understanding and preparing for multiple breadbasket failures will require input from climate scientists, agronomists, ecologists, remote sensing experts, economists, political scientists and decision-makers. Mounting such an effort will be challenging, but the costs of failing to do it could be devastating.

Anthony Janetos, Director, Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and Professor of Earth and Environment, Boston University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How the brain perceives rhythm

Study finds the brain is biased toward rhythms based on simple integer ratios.

Anne Trafton | MIT News Office

When it comes to perceiving music, the human brain is much more tuned in to certain types of rhythms than others, according to a new study from MIT.

A team of neuroscientists has found that people are biased toward hearing and producing rhythms composed of simple integer ratios — for example, a series of four beats separated by equal time intervals (forming a 1:1:1 ratio).

This holds true for musicians and nonmusicians living in the United States, as well as members of a Bolivian tribe who have little exposure to Western music. However, the researchers found that the Bolivians tended to prefer different ratios than Westerners, and that these ratios corresponded to simple integer ratios found in their music but not in Western music.

“Both of these cultures seem to prioritize rhythms that are formed by simple integer ratios. It’s just that they don’t prioritize all of them,” says Josh McDermott, the Frederick A. and Carole J. Middleton Assistant Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and the senior author of the study, which appears in the Jan. 5 issue of Current Biology.

The paper’s lead author is Nori Jacoby, a former MIT postdoc who is now a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University.

Mental representations of rhythm

For this study, the MIT team devised a new way to reveal biases in the brain’s interpretation of sensory input. These biases, called “priors,” are thought to be based on our past experience of the world and to help resolve sensory stimuli that could be interpreted in multiple ways. For example, in a noisy room, priors on speech help you to extract a conversation of interest by biasing perception toward familiar speech sounds, words, and linguistic forms.

“You often rely on your prior knowledge of the states of the world that are more or less likely, to help relieve some of that ambiguity,” McDermott says. “When you get some piece of data and you have to make your best guess as to what’s actually out there in the world, you use the prior — the prior probability of different things in the world — to constrain your guess.”

To try to reveal priors for musical rhythm, the researchers first asked American college students to listen to a randomly generated series of four beats and then tap back the rhythm that they heard. The researchers recorded the taps and then played the tapped sequence back to the student, who tapped it out again. With each iteration, the new rhythm changed slightly, just as words morph as they are spoken from person to person in a game of “telephone.” Eventually, the tapped sequences became dominated by the listener’s internal biases. By running the procedure many times, Jacoby and McDermott were able to measure these biases for simple rhythms.

“It’s a way to probe the mental representation of what people unconsciously expect,” Jacoby says. “We wanted to find a way to ‘read their minds,’ but without requiring people to introspect or verbalize anything.”

After five iterations of the task, the rhythms that people produced were all approximated by ratios of simple integers — but not all such ratios were present. The rhythms corresponded to those most often heard in Western music, such as 1:1:2 and 2:3:3. However, the subjects did not produce ratios uncommon in Western music, such as 2:2:3, 3:2:2, and 2:3:2.

“The rhythms that have high probability in people’s heads seem to coincide with these simple integer rhythms that we know to be common in Western music,” McDermott says.

The researchers found the same results in musicians and nonmusicians, suggesting that the priors are formed by listening to music rather than making it.

Cultural comparisons

Next, the researchers performed the same study with members of the Tsimane tribe, who live in a remote part of Bolivia and have little exposure to Western music. In a study published earlier this year, McDermott and his colleagues found differences between Tsimane and Western preferences for chords. While Westerners dislike dissonant chords, such as the combination of C and F#, the Tsimane rated them just as likeable as “consonant” chords, which feature simple integer ratios between the acoustic frequencies of the two notes.

When musical rhythm was tested, the researchers found that, like Westerners, the Tsimane tended to produce rhythms consisting of simple integer ratios, but the ratios they generated were different than those preferred by Western subjects.

The rhythms favored by the Tsimane appear to be consistent with those that have been documented in the few records that exist of Tsimane music, McDermott says, a finding that offers evidence that priors are based on musical exposure.

“Using an iterated learning task, Western listeners could be compared to the Tsimane, as such giving insight into the process of cultural transmission and a possibly innate predisposition for small-integer-ratio rhythms,” says Henkjan Honing, a professor of music cognition at the University of Amsterdam, who was not part of the research team.

In future work, the researchers hope to use this technique to study other groups of people.

“What we plan on doing over the next year or two is to look at this in a number of different cultures and see how closely these priors mirror what we know about various cultures’ music,” Jacoby says.

The research was funded by a Hebrew University ELSC Postdoctoral Fellowship, the Center for Society and Neuroscience at Columbia University, and a McDonnell Scholar Award.

Reprinted with permission of MIT News