Taking Humanitarianism Hostage – the Case of Afghanistan & Multilateral Organisations

Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Peace, TerraViva United Nations


Women receive food rations at a food distribution site in Herat, Afghanistan. Credit: UNICEF/Sayed Bidel

NEW YORK, Jan 12 2023 (IPS) – Can you imagine what it would be like if women were simply not allowed to step outside of their homes, let alone to work for a living? When women choose to do so, and they can afford it, then it is a matter of choice. When women mostly cannot, as is the case in Afghanistan now, not only is half the population imprisoned, but children go hungry, and communities sink deeper into poverty.

World Bank data (as incomplete as it is), indicates that the average number of female-headed households (i.e. households where women are the primary – if not the only – breadwinners), is around 25%.

What that means is, that on average, a quarter of all households around the world depend on women earning an income. Children, families, communities, and nations –depend on women’s work, to the tune of a quarter of their labour force.

Economists are still pointing to the obvious challenges of counting female labour, which often lies disproportionately on the frontiers of the formal economy, such that women continue to serve as reserve armies of labour and frontline workers during industrialization.

Economists who work to document these specificities, also point out that as soon as these frontiers expand or change, women are expelled or relegated to the shadows of the informal economy and piece-rate labour, identifying this as an all too frequent failure to recognize the importance of the kind of work many women engage in, which both keeps an economy running, and enables its expansion and growth.

The Covid-19 Pandemic should have resulted in a clear realisation that all hands are necessary on deck, with so many women actually needed as first responders–the backbone of the public health crisis – everywhere in the world.

As economies take a nosedive and the realities of recession hit many of us, all economies need to be kept running, if not to expand and grow.

And beyond these very real challenges to counting women’s work – and making that work count – there is another very critical reality: culture. Lest we think only of the vagaries of women who take over “men’s jobs” (whatever that means in today’s world), we need to stop being blind to the fact that women are needed to serve other women.

In fact, in many parts of the world, including the supposedly liberal and ‘egalitarian’ Western world, many women still prefer to receive life-saving direct services from other women – in public health, in sanitation, in all levels of education, in nutritional spaces, and many, many others.

Now let us pause a moment and consider humanitarian disaster zones, where women and girls often need to be cared for – and this can only be done by and through other women.

Then let us envision a reality one step further – let’s call it a socially conservative country, which is facing humanitarian disaster, and is heavily dependent on international organisations (governmental and non- governmental) for the necessary humanitarian support.

How is it conceivable that in such a context, women can be excluded from serving? And yet this is precisely what the Taliban have decreed on December 24, when it barred women from working in national and international NGOs. And this is after they banned women from higher education.

Many international NGOs halted their work in Afghanistan, explaining that they cannot work without their women staff – as a matter of principle, but also as a question of practical necessity. Yet, the United Nations – the premier multilateral entity – continues to see how they could compromise with the Taliban rule, for the sake of ‘the greater good – real humanitarian needs’.

Thank goodness they are letting the UN continue to work with their women employees, runs one way of thinking. We will not fail to deliver humanitarian needs, runs another UN way of thinking.

Of course, humanitarian needs are essential to human survival – and thus, should never be held hostage. But why is the United Nations being accountable for humanitarian needs only?

Meanwhile, the Taliban claim that these edicts about womens’ work and education are a matter of religious propriety, a claim which, as of this moment, is not strongly challenged by another multilateral entity – the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), encompassing 56 governments and members of the United Nations.

While individual governments have spoken out, this multilateral entity has remained relatively silent on the Islamic justice of such a decree. Is it because this multilateral religious entity sees no need to speak to humanitarian needs?

Or is it because it sees no value to hard economic realities where women’s agency plays a central role? Or perhaps it is because there is no unanimity on the Islamic justification behind such decrees?

In light of this hostage-taking of humanitarian relief efforts, a group of women of faith leaders, have come together to ask some simple questions of the two multilateral entities involved. They have sent a letter with over 150 international NGO sign ons.

Multilateralism is supposed to be the guarantor of all human rights and dignity, for all people, at all times. But as governmental regimes weaken, so do traditional multilateral entities heavily reliant on those governments. Time for community based transnational networks based on intergenerational, multicultural, gender sensitive leaders.

Rev Dr Chloe Bryer is Executive Director, Interfaith Center of New York; Prof Azza Karam is Secretary General, Religions for Peace; Ruth Messinger is Social Justice Consultant, Jewish Theological Seminary; and Negina Yari is Country Director, Afghans4Tomorrow

IPS UN Bureau


Gender Parity at the UN Willfully Ignores the Facts

Civil Society, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Gender, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, TerraViva United Nations


WASHINGTON DC, Dec 21 2022 (IPS) – There are two sides to the problem of Gender Parity at the United Nations.

On the one hand, member states need to appoint more women to their senior ambassadorial ranks. There is always tremendous competition for the post of UN ambassador, especially if a member state is on the UN security Council.

It’s a pipeline question for the member states. To reach that level of seniority, a diplomat has to have the years of service. It will likely take time for countries to have the flow through of women ambassadors. So, the UN Secretary-Genera (SG) is correct in putting the onus on member states to change or accelerate their systems.

That said, there is still a problem within the UN itself.

In the last 5 years, many governments notably the UK, Italy, the Scandinavians have sponsored the regional women’s mediation networks. For example. I’m a member of the Women Mediators Across the Commonwealth (WMC).

The vision was to identify women with the requisite skills and experience in mediation efforts and provide a new pathway into senior UN positions particularly as Envoys and mediation work. In the WMC we have 50 amazingly experienced women from across Commonwealth nations.

Similarly, the Mediterranean Women’s Mediation Network has members from that region. For senior positions, our governments have to support our candidacy, and they have done so.

But the UN system is a blockage, because when it comes to determining eligibility, their criteria still include things like ’15 years of UN experience’. Well, the whole point is that most of us have gained experience outside of the UN bureaucracy or as expert consultants with the UN, but not as UN staff.

We bring a wealth of other valuable expertise, yet the skill and knowledge that outsiders might bring seems of less value to the recruiters, than then traditional institutional knowledge. As a result, the female candidates that member states might endorse, are blocked by the UN.

If they are serious about having more women in the peace and security sector, particularly women with the relevant experience in inclusive and gender responsive peacemaking, security humanitarian work, they need to look for us in civil society. This is where most of the innovation has happened and is happening.

The work being done by women on the ground and lessons sharing that goes on through our networks is invaluable. It is exactly what the UN needs to be more fit for purpose. It is also the path towards actual reform and renovation of the UN architecture and practice.

But it can only happen if the member states and the UN leadership and bureaucracy have the vision, political will and willingness to change their recruitment priorities and practices.

Anyone claiming they can’t find the women, is willfully ignoring the facts.

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, MBE, Founder & CEO, International Civil Society Action Network in Washington DC.

IPS UN Bureau


Gender Inequality: A Question of Power in a Male-Dominated World, Declares UN Chief

Civil Society, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Gender, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, TerraViva United Nations

While women have come a long way since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action nearly 25 years ago, they still lag behind on virtually every Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). Credit: UN Women, India

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 21 2022 (IPS) – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has singled out Gender Parity as one of his key priorities in his second term in office, beginning 2023.

Describing it as “a strategic goal of the Organization,” he pointed out some of the “notable advances achieved in the past five years.”

Gender parity, he said last week, has been reached among the UN’s senior leadership two years ahead of the target date; along with parity among heads and deputy heads of peace operations; as well as parity among the 130 Resident Coordinators.

The number of UN entities, with at least 50 percent women staff, has also risen from five to 26.

But, the Secretary-General added, gaps remain. In the field, “progress has been slow, and in some cases, we have gone backwards”.

“Therefore, the next phase of implementing the Gender Parity Strategy will focus on advancing and sustaining progress in the field.”

He pointed out that gender inequality is essentially a question of power.

“Our male-dominated world and male-dominated culture damage both men and women. And to transform power relations, we need equality between men and women in leadership, decision-making and participation at all levels. “

Still, the 193 member states lag far behind in promoting gender parity and gender empowerment.

There have been nine secretaries-generals over the last 77 years—all men.

Trygve Lie of Norway, Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, U. Thant of Burma (now Myanmar), Kurt Waldheim of Austria, Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, Kofi Annan of Ghana, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea and, currently, Antonio Guterres of Portugal.

The male-female ratio for the Secretary-General stands at 9 vs zero. And the Presidency of the General Assembly (PGA), the highest policy-making body at the UN, is not far behind either.

The only four women elected as presidents were: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of India (1953), Angie Brooks of Liberia (1969), Sheikha Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa of Bahrain (2006) and Maria Fernando Espinosa Garces of Ecuador (2018).

The score stands at 73 men and 4 women as PGAs– even as the General Assembly elected another male candidate, as its 77th President, and who serves his one-year term, beginning September 2022.

The 15-member Security Council’s track record is probably worse because it has continued to elect men as UN Secretaries-General, rubber-stamped by the General Assembly, – despite several outstanding women candidates.

Purnima Mane, a former Deputy Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), with the rank of UN Assistant-Secretary-General (ASG), told IPS the UN Secretary General’s recent remarks on gender empowerment in the UN evoke a mixed reaction.

“While one can certainly celebrate the progress made by the UN in this area, one would also regret the lack of it in many areas that have proven resistant to change. As SG Antonio Guterres stated, gender parity has been achieved for the first time in the UN in 2020 and two years ahead of the target date, to boot”.

The SG gave several examples among senior leadership in the Organization, including Resident Coordinators, where gender parity has grown significantly. But he admitted that gaps remain, and mentioned the slow progress in the field.

However, one of the most difficult areas to change has been one over which the member states exercise control, she noted.

“As many have repeatedly said over the last several years is that there has not been a single woman SG in the history of the UN and only 4 women have been presidents of the General Assembly, the UN’s highest policy-making body, as compared to 73 men.”

To date, it has also been difficult to raise the number of women UN ambassadors, which remains regrettably low. And this despite the significant number of resolutions supporting gender empowerment which have been adopted by the GA and key UN committees, said Mane, a former President and CEO of Pathfinder International.

At the current rate of progress, Guterres said, the Secretariat as a whole is forecast to be close to parity in professional staff in 2025 – three years before the deadline.

“But this aggregate figure disguises the fact that in the field, we are unlikely to reach parity at any level by 2028”.

So, the next phase of implementing the Gender Parity Strategy must therefore focus on advancing and sustaining progress in the field.

He said he was also pleased to see positive changes to support gender parity in the wider working environment.

“I welcome the decision of the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) to recommend 16 weeks of parental leave for all parents, and to provide an additional 10 weeks to birth mothers to meet their specific needs.

These recommendations are now under consideration by the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee. “And once again I ask for the support of the members of this group.”

Roopa Dhatt, Executive Director, Women in Global Health (WGH), told IPS: “We applaud the statement by UN Secretary-General António Guterres last week — and the progress made within the UN system towards reaching gender parity in leadership.”

“We agree with the Secretary-General that there remain gaps and areas where progress is still lacking. Women in Global Health remains committed to supporting the UN, particularly in the health sector, to achieve equality and leadership in the UN which will be a game changer not only for women but also for achieving the UN‘s mission,” she said.

“We have campaigned for equal leadership for women in global health since we were launched in 2015. Women are 70% health workers but hold only 25% senior leadership roles. So, the issue is not attracting women into the health sector, the issue is addressing the barriers that keep women out of leadership”.

WGH tracks the percentage of women in global governance in health.

“Our data shows that women are seriously underrepresented, especially women from the Global South. It also shows that women have lost ground in health governance since the start of the pandemic”, she declared.

Mane said it is truly regrettable that when it comes to acting on their good intentions and rhetoric on gender empowerment, the member states do not seem to indicate a sense of urgency.

One cannot say that there is lack of global pressure and support to take the necessary steps. For example, before every election of the UN SG over the last several years, the need to seriously consider a woman candidate has been raised by different UN stakeholders, not just civil society, and with every year, this advocacy has grown substantially, she argued.

Having a woman in the role of the SG was raised to a critical level of discussion at the last election of the SG when there were several female candidates who were being considered but business went on as usual.

“We are fortunate to have a strong SG in Guterres and one who values gender parity and empowerment. With the help of continued and heightened advocacy from all quarters, the strong examples of stellar female leadership especially in relation to the efforts to work on the multiple crises the world is facing (including the COVID pandemic and areas like climate change), and the UN’s repeated calls for gender empowerment, a strong case has already been made for the member States to act on areas that are not progressing in gender empowerment within the UN – by electing a woman in the role of the SG, increasing the proportion of women in the role of the President of the General Assembly and building up the number of women UN ambassadors”.

By taking on their own calls for gender empowerment, the member States would thereby show that they are serious about translating the rhetoric of gender empowerment into concrete action, even in areas which have earlier proven difficult to change, she declared.

Meanwhile, A study published in April this year by the WGH network on gender representation in World Health Assemblies (WHA) (from 1948-2021) found that 82.9% of delegations were composed of a majority of men, and no WHA had more than 30% of women Chief Delegates (ranging from 0% to 30%).

At the current rate, some countries may take over 100 years to reach gender parity in their WHA delegations. In January 2022 WGH calculated that only 6% of members of the World Health Organization’s Executive Board were women, down from an all-time high of 32% in 2020 .

WGH’s research in 2020 showed that 85% of national covid-19 task forces had majority male membership. The extraordinary work by women in the pandemic right across the health workforce has not translated into an equal seat at the decision-making table.

WGH has campaigned for senior leadership posts in the UN and other multilaterals in health to have equal representation of women.

To date, eight of the 13 Global Action Plan agencies in health (WHO, International Labour Organization, Global Fund Financing Facility, United Nations Development Programme, Unitaid, Global Fund, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and World Bank), the most influential in policy and spending, are headed by men from high income countries.

Only one – UNAIDS – is headed by a woman from a low-income country.

“We commend Dr Tedros, Director General of the World Health Organization, for his efforts when he took up office in 2017 to appoint a majority (60 percent) of women to the senior leadership team”, said Dhatt.

IPS UN Bureau Report

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Biodiversity Agreement Historic But Difficult to Implement

Biodiversity, Civil Society, Climate Action, Climate Change, Climate Change Finance, Conferences, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Environment, Featured, Global, Global Governance, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Latin America & the Caribbean, Regional Categories, Sustainable Development Goals


Government delegations celebrate the close of the historic negotiation at COP15 of the New Global Framework on Biodiversity in the early hours of the morning on Monday Dec. 19, at the Palais des Congrès in Montreal, Canada. CREDIT: Mike Muzurakis/IISD

MONTREAL, Dec 19 2022 (IPS) – The pillar coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus), which takes its name from its shape, is found throughout the Caribbean Sea, but its population has declined by more than 80 percent since 1990. As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed it as “critically endangered” due to the effects of the human-induced climate crisis.

Its fate now depends on the new Kunming-Montreal Global Framework on Biodiversity, which was agreed by the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) on Monday Dec. 19, at the end of the summit held since Dec. 7 at the Palais des Congrès in Montreal.

Now, the world’s countries must translate the results into national biodiversity strategies, to comply with the new accord. In this regard, David Ainsworth, spokesman for the CBD, in force since 1993 and based in Montreal, announced the creation of a global accelerator for the drafting of national plans, with the support of U.N. agencies.

COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity approved a new program to protect the world's natural heritage for the next 10 years during the summit held in the Canadian city of Montreal. The picture shows a statue of a polar bear, whose species is threatened by melting ice and habitat loss, on a street in Montreal. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

COP15 of the Convention on Biological Diversity approved a new program to protect the world’s natural heritage for the next 10 years during the summit held in the Canadian city of Montreal. The picture shows a statue of a polar bear, whose species is threatened by melting ice and habitat loss, on a street in Montreal. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

The menu of agreements

COP15, whose theme was “Ecological Civilization: Building a shared future for all life on earth”, approved four objectives on improving the status of biodiversity, reducing species extinction, fair and appropriate sharing of benefits from access to and use of genetic resources, and means of implementation of the agreement.

In addition, the plenary of the summit, which brought together some 15,000 people representing governments, non-governmental organizations, academia, international bodies and companies, agreed on 23 goals within the Global Framework, for the conservation and management of 30 percent of terrestrial areas and 30 percent of marine areas by 2030, in what is known in U.N. jargon as the 30×30.

This includes the complete or partial restoration of at least 30 percent of degraded terrestrial and marine ecosystems, as well as the reduction of the loss of areas of high biological importance to almost zero.

Likewise, the agreement reached by the 196 States Parties at COP15 includes the halving of food waste, the elimination or reform of at least 500 billion dollars a year in subsidies harmful to biodiversity, and at least 200 billion dollars in funding for biodiversity by 2030 from public and private sources.

It also endorsed increasing financial transfers from countries of the industrialized North to nations of the developing South by at least 20 billion dollars by 2025 and 30 billion dollars by 2030, and the voluntary publication by companies for monitoring, evaluation and disclosure of the impact of their activities on biodiversity.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) will manage a new fund, whose operation will be defined by the countries over the next two years.

With regard to digital sequence information (DSI) on genetic resources, the Global Framework stipulates the establishment of a multilateral fund for benefit-sharing between providers and users of genetic resources and states that governments will define the final figure at COP16 in Turkey in 2024.

The Global Framework also contains gender and youth perspectives, two strong demands of the process that was initially scheduled to end in the city of Kunming, China, in 2020. But because that country was unable to host mass meetings due to its zero-tolerance policy towards COVID-19, a first virtual chapter was held there and another later in person, and the final one now took place in Montreal.

The states parties are required to report at least every five years on their national compliance with the Global Framework. The CBD will include national information submitted in February 2026 and June 2029 in its status and trend reports.

With some differences, civil society organizations and indigenous peoples gave a nod to the Global Framework, but issued warnings. Viviana Figueroa, representative of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, and Simone Lovera, policy director of the Global Forest Coalition, applauded the agreement in conversations with IPS, while pointing out its risks.

“It’s a good step forward, because it recognizes the role of indigenous peoples, the use of biodiversity and the role of traditional knowledge,” said Figueroa, an Omaguaca indigenous lawyer from Argentina whose organization brings together indigenous groups from around the world to present their positions at international environmental meetings.

“It has been a long process, to which native peoples have contributed and have made proposals. The most important aspects that we proposed have been recognized and we hope to work together with the countries,” she added.

But, she remarked, “the most important thing will be the implementation.”

Goal C and targets one, three, five, nine, 13, 21 and 22 of the Global Framework relate to respect for the rights of native and local communities.

Lovera, whose organization brings together NGOs and indigenous groups, said the accord “recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, and of women. It also includes a recommendation to withdraw subsidies and reduce public and private investments in destructive activities, such as large-scale cattle ranching and oil palm monoculture.”

But indigenous and human rights organizations have questioned the 30×30 approach on the grounds that it undermines ancestral rights, blocks access to aboriginal territories, and requires consultation and unpressured, informed consent for protected areas prior to any decision on the future of those areas.

Discussions at the Convention on Biological Diversity summit intensified in the last few days of COP15 and ran late into the night, as in this session on health and biodiversity. But in the end, agreement was reached on a new Global Framework on Biodiversity, which will be binding on the 196 states parties. CREDIT: IISD/ENB

Discussions at the Convention on Biological Diversity summit intensified in the last few days of COP15 and ran late into the night, as in this session on health and biodiversity. But in the end, agreement was reached on a new Global Framework on Biodiversity, which will be binding on the 196 states parties. CREDIT: IISD/ENB

Major challenge

While the Global Framework has indicators and monitoring mechanisms and is legally binding, it has no actual teeth, and the precedent of the failed Aichi Targets casts a shadow over its future, especially with the world’s poor track record on international agreements.

The Aichi Biodiversity Targets, adopted in 2010 in that Japanese city during the CBD’s COP10 and which its 196 states parties failed to meet in 2020, included the creation of terrestrial and marine protected areas; the fight against pollution and invasive species; respect for indigenous knowledge; and the restoration of damaged ecosystems.

Several estimates put the amount needed to protect biological heritage at 700 billion dollars, which means there is still an enormous gap to be closed.

In more than 30 years, the GEF has disbursed over 22 billion dollars and helped transfer another 120 billion dollars to more than 5,000 regional and national projects. For the new period starting in 2023, the fund is counting on some five billion dollars in financing.

In addition, the Small Grants Program has supported around 27,000 community initiatives in developing countries.

“There is little public funding, more is needed,” Lovera said. “It’s sad that they say the private sector must fund biodiversity. In indigenous territories money is needed. They can do much more than governments with less money. Direct support can be more effective and they will meet the commitments.”

The activist also criticized the use of offsets, a mechanism whereby one area can be destroyed and another can be restored elsewhere – already used in countries such as Chile, Colombia and Mexico.

“This system allows us to destroy 70 percent of the planet while preserving the other 30 percent,” Lovera said. “It is madness. For indigenous peoples and local communities, it is very negative, because they lose their own biodiversity and the compensation is of no use to them, because it happens somewhere else.”

Figueroa said institutions that already manage funds could create direct mechanisms for indigenous peoples, as is the case with the Small Grants Program.

Of the 609 commitments that organizations, companies and individuals have already made voluntarily at COP15, 303 are aimed at the conservation and restoration of terrestrial ecosystems, 188 at alliances, and 159 at adaptation to climate change and reduction of polluting emissions.

The summit also coincided with the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the 4th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits from their Utilization, both components of the CBD.

Images of the planet’s sixth mass extinction reflect the size of the challenge. More than a quarter of some 150,000 species on the IUCN Red List are threatened with extinction.

The “Living Planet Report 2022: Building a nature-positive society”, prepared by the WWF and the Institute of Zoology in London, shows that Latin America and the Caribbean has experienced the largest decline in monitored wildlife populations worldwide, with an average decline of 94 percent between 1970 and 2018.

With a decade to act, each passing day represents more biological wealth lost.

IPS produced this article with support from InternewsEarth Journalism Network.


Digital Treatment of Genetic Resources Shakes Up COP15

The executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, highlighted on Friday Dec. 16 the results of the Nagoya Protocol on access to genetic resources and fair benefit sharing at an event during COP15 in the Canadian city of Montreal. But the talks have not reached an agreement on the digital sequencing of genetic resources. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

The executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, highlighted on Friday Dec. 16 the results of the Nagoya Protocol on access to genetic resources and fair benefit sharing at an event during COP15 in the Canadian city of Montreal. But the talks have not reached an agreement on the digital sequencing of genetic resources. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

By Emilio Godoy
MONTREAL, Dec 16 2022 (IPS)

In addition to its nutritional properties, quinoa, an ancestral grain from the Andes, also has cosmetic uses, as stated by the resource use and benefit-sharing permit ABSCH-IRCC-PE-261033-1 awarded in February to a private individual under a 15-month commercial use contract.

The permit, issued by the Peruvian government’s National Institute for Agrarian Innovation, allows the Peruvian beneficiary to use the material in a skin regeneration cream.

But it also sets restrictions on the registration of products obtained from quinoa or the removal of its elements from the Andean nation, to prevent the risk of irregular exploitation without a fair distribution of benefits, in other words, biopiracy.”The scientific community is willing to share benefits through simple mechanisms that do not unfairly burden researchers in low- and middle-income countries.” — Amber Scholz

The licensed material may have a digital representation of its genetic structure which in turn may generate new structures from which formulas or products may emerge. This is called digital sequence information (DSI), in the universe of research or commercial applications within the CBD.

Treatment of DSI forms part of the debates at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which began on Dec. 7 and is due to end on Dec. 19 at the Palais des Congrès in the Canadian city of Montreal.

The summit has brought together some 15,000 people representing the 196 States Parties to the CBD, non-governmental organizations, academia, international bodies and companies.

The focus of the debate is the Post-2020 Global Framework on Biodiversity, which consists of 22 targets in areas including financing for conservation, guidelines on digital sequencing of genetic material, degraded ecosystems, protected areas, endangered species, the role of business and gender equality.

Like most of the issues, negotiations on DSI and the sharing of resulting benefits, contained in one of the Global Framework’s four objectives and in target 13, are at a deadlock, on everything from definitions to possible sharing mechanisms.

Except for the digital twist, the issue is at the heart of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization, part of the CBD, signed in that Japanese city in 2010 and in force since 2014.

The delegations of the 196 States Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity have failed to make progress at COP15 in the negotiations on new targets for the protection of the world's natural heritage, in the Canadian city of Montreal. In the picture, a working group reviews a proposal on the complex issue. CREDIT: IISD/ENB

The delegations of the 196 States Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity have failed to make progress at COP15 in the negotiations on new targets for the protection of the world’s natural heritage, in the Canadian city of Montreal. In the picture, a working group reviews a proposal on the complex issue. CREDIT: IISD/ENB

Amber Scholz, a German member of the DSI Scientific Network, a group of 70 experts from 25 countries, said there is an urgent need to close the gap between the existing innovation potential and a fair benefit-sharing system so that digital sequencing benefits everyone.

“It’s been a decade now and things haven’t turned out so well. The promise of a system of innovation, open access and benefit sharing is broken,” Scholz, a researcher at the Department of Microbial Ecology and Diversity in the Leibniz Institute’s DSMZ German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures, told IPS.

DSI stems from the revolution in the massive use of technological tools, which has reached biology as well, fundamental in the discovery and manufacture of molecules and drugs such as those used in vaccines against the coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Aichi Biodiversity Targets, adopted in 2010 in that Japanese city during the CBD COP10, were missed by the target year, 2020, and will now be renewed and updated by the Global Framework that will emerge from Montreal.

The targets included respect for the traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities related to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, their customary use of biological resources, and the full and effective participation of indigenous and local communities in the implementation of the CBD.

Lack of clarity in the definition of DSI, challenges in the traceability of the country of origin of the sequence via digital databases, fear of loss of open access to data and different outlooks on benefit-sharing mechanisms are other aspects complicating the debate among government delegates.

Through the Action Agenda: Make a Pledge platform, organizations, companies and individuals have already made 586 voluntary commitments at COP15, whose theme is “Ecological civilization: Building a shared future for all life on earth”.

Of these, 44 deal with access and benefit sharing, while 294 address conservation and restoration of terrestrial ecosystems, 185 involve partnerships and alliances, and 155 focus on adaptation to climate change and emission reductions.

Genetic havens

Access to genetic resources for commercial or non-commercial purposes has become an issue of great concern in the countries of the global South, due to the fear of biopiracy, especially with the advent of digital sequencing, given that physical access to genetic materials is not absolutely necessary.

Although the Nagoya Protocol includes access and benefit-sharing mechanisms, digital sequencing mechanisms have generated confusion. In fact, this instrument has created a market in which lax jurisdictions have taken advantage by becoming genetic havens.

Around 2,000 gene banks operate worldwide, attracting some 15 million users. Almost two billion sequences have been registered, according to statistics from GenBank, one of the main databases in the sector and part of the U.S. National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Argentina leads the list of permits for access to genetic resources in Latin America under the Protocol, with a total of 56, two of which are commercial, followed by Peru (54, four commercial) and Panama (39, one commercial). Mexico curbed access to such permits in 2019, following a scandal triggered by the registration of maize in 2016.

There are more than 100 gene banks operating in Mexico, 88 in Peru, 56 in Brazil, 47 in Argentina and 25 in Colombia.

The largest providers of genetic resources leading to publicly available DSI are the United States, China and Japan. Brazil ranks 10th among sources and users of samples, according to a study published in 2021 by Scholz and five other researchers.

The mechanisms for managing genetic information sequences have become a condition for negotiating the new post-2020 Global Framework for biodiversity, which poses a conflict between the most biodiverse countries (generally middle- and low-income) and the nations of the industrialized North.

Brazilian indigenous activist Cristiane Juliao, a leader of the Pankararu people, calls for a fair system of benefit-sharing for access to and use of genetic resources and their digital sequences at COP15, being held at the Palais des Congrès in the Canadian city of Montreal. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Brazilian indigenous activist Cristiane Juliao, a leader of the Pankararu people, calls for a fair system of benefit-sharing for access to and use of genetic resources and their digital sequences at COP15, being held at the Palais des Congrès in the Canadian city of Montreal. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Indigenous people and their share

Cristiane Juliao, an indigenous woman of the Pankararu people, who is a member of the Brazilian Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of the Northeast, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo, said the mechanisms adopted must favor the participation of native peoples and guarantee a fair distribution of benefits.

“We don’t look at one small element of a plant. We look at the whole context and the role of that plant. All traditional knowledge is associated with genetic heritage, because we use it in food, medicine or spiritual activities,” she told IPS at COP15.

Therefore, she said, “traceability is important, to know where the knowledge was acquired or accessed.”

In Montreal, Brazilian native organizations are seeking recognition that the digital sequencing contains information that indigenous peoples and local communities protect and that digital information must be subject to benefit-sharing. They are also demanding guarantees of free consultation and the effective participation of indigenous groups in the digital information records.

Thanks to the system based on the country’s Biodiversity Law, in effect since 2016, the Brazilian government has recorded revenues of five million dollars for permits issued.

The Working Group responsible for drafting the new Global Framework put forward a set of options for benefit-sharing measures.

They range from leaving in place the current status quo, to the integration of digital sequence information on genetic resources into national access and benefit-sharing measures, or the creation of a one percent tax on retail sales of genetic resources.

Lagging behind

There is a legal vacuum regarding this issue, because the CBD, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, in force since 2004, do not cover all of its aspects.

Scholz suggested the COP reach a decision that demonstrates the political will to establish a fair and equitable system. “The scientific community is willing to share benefits through simple mechanisms that do not unfairly burden researchers in low- and middle-income countries,” she said.

For her part, Juliao demanded a more inclusive and fairer system. “There is no clear record of indigenous peoples who have agreed to benefit sharing. It is said that some knowledge comes from native peoples, but there is no mechanism for the sharing of benefits with us.”

IPS produced this article with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Three Ways to End Gender-based Violence

Civil Society, Featured, Gender, Gender Violence, Global, Headlines, Health, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Poverty & SDGs, TerraViva United Nations, Women’s Health


Testing new approaches for preventing gender-based violence to galvanize more and new partners and resources. Credit: UN Women

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 30 2022 (IPS) – How are the multiple shocks and crises the world is facing changing how we respond to gender-based violence? Almost three years after the COVID-19 pandemic triggered high levels of violence against women and girls, the recent Sexual Violence Research Initiative Forum 2022 (SVRI) shed some light on the best ways forward.

Bringing together over 1,000 researchers, practitioners, policymakers and activists in Cancún, Mexico, the forum highlighted new research on what works to stop and address one of the most widespread violations of human rights.

While some participants candidly – and bravely – shared that their initiatives did not have the intended impact, many discussed efforts that transformed lives, in big and small ways.

After 5 days of the forum one thing was clear; a lack of evidence is not what is standing in the way of achieving a better future. It is a lack of opportunities and the will to apply that evidence.

Among the many shared findings, UNDP presented its own evidence.

Since 2018, the global project on Ending Gender-based Violence and Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a partnership between UNDP and the Republic of Korea, and in collaboration with United Nations University International Institute for Global Health, has tested new approaches for preventing and addressing gender-based violence, to galvanize more and new partners, resources, and support to move from rhetoric to action.

Three key strategies have emerged.

1. We need to integrate

Gender-based violence (GBV) intersects with all areas of sustainable development. That means that every development initiative provides a chance to address the causes of violence and to transform harmful social norms that not only put women disproportionately at risk for violence, but also limit progress.

Bringing together diverse partners to jointly incorporate efforts to end GBV into “non-GBV” programmes has been central to the Ending GBV and Achieving the SDGs project. Pilots in Indonesia, Peru and the Republic of Moldova integrated a GBV lens into local development planning.

The results were local action plans that focused on needs and solutions identified by the communities themselves, including evidence-based GBV prevention programming such as the Common Elements Treatment Approach, which has been proven to reduce violence along with risk factors such as alcohol abuse. This approach is growing, opening up new and more spaces for this work.

2. We need to elevate

While evidence is crucial to creating change, the work doesn’t stop there. We also need to elevate this evidence to policy makers and to support them in putting the findings into action. In our global project, we went about this in different ways.

In Peru women’s rights advocates and the local government worked together to draft a local action plan to address drivers of violence in the community of Villa El Salvador (VES). By working collaboratively and building trust between key players, the project was able to take a more holistic approach and to create stronger alliances to boost its sustainability and impacts.

In particular, the local action plan was informed by cost analysis research that showed that this approach would pay for itself if it prevented violence for only 0.6 percent of the 80,000-plus women in VES who are at risk for violence every year.

Since the pilot’s launch, more than 15 other local governments have expressed interest in the model, and it has already been replicated in three.

3. We need to finance

Less than 1 percent of bilateral official development assistance (ODA) and philanthropic funding is given to prevent and address GBV, despite the fact that roughly a third of women have experienced physical or sexual violence.

The “Imperative to Invest” study, funded by the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative and presented at the SVRI Forum, shows just what can be achieved with a US$500 million investment. The study highlights that Spotlight’s efforts will have prevented 21 million women and girls from experiencing violence by 2025.

The Ending GBV and Achieving the SDGs project also finds positive results when financing local plans. Through pilot initiatives in Peru, Moldova and Indonesia, it was possible to mobilize funds when different municipal governments take ownership of participatory planning processes at an early stage.

The local level is a key, yet an often overlooked, entry point to identifying community needs and, through participatory, multi-sectoral partnerships, to translate them into funded solutions.

In Moldova the regional government of Gagauzia assigned funds to create the region’s first safe space, with the support of the community.

The SVRI Forum was living proof that a better future is possible. It offered profound moments for thoughtful exchange, learning with partners and peers, and deepened our own reflections on the outcomes and next steps for this global project.

As we approach the final countdown to meeting the SDGs, including SDG5.2 on eliminating violence against women and girls, it has never been more urgent to take all this evidence and turn it into action against gender-based violence. Let’s act today.

Jacqui Stevenson is Research Consultant UNU International Institute for Global Health, Jessica Zimerman is Project Specialist, Gender-based Violence, UNDP, and Diego Antoni is Policy Specialist Gender, Governance and Recovery, UNDP.

Source: UNDP

IPS UN Bureau