CEO Blog

The cracking edifice behind the brands

It is not two months since the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,100 people. But as the New York Times reports this week, inspections of buildings might as well not be happening at all.

Buildings propped up with beams that are cracked and disintegrating are still operating as factories, with workers producing clothes for companies that include GAP. Even though inspectors recommended that the use of one building “be discontinued immediately”, it is still operating.

Construction of high rise buildings can be seen everywhere in Dhaka, but even the Prime Minister accepts that 90 per cent are not built to local standards, let alone international building standards that would be expected in an earthquake-prone country like Bangladesh.

Above: Rescue workers take part in the rescue of the eight-storey building Rana Plaza which collapsed at Savar, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, 25 April 2013. Photo: Abir Abdullah / Oxfam.

Oxfam is working to reduce the risk of disasters like Savar by working with architects and municipal authorities to improve building standards, and by working with communities to prepare themselves for disasters. With a major earthquake overdue, we are concerned that this terrible tragedy will be repeated on a far greater scale.

The tragedy that was Rana Plaza should serve as a reminder of the story behind the brands we buy. But conditions will not change until consumers choose to buy clothes that are the products of transparent and non-abusive supply chains. Retailers can choose to do the same, and can hold their suppliers to account – not least by ensuring they respect standard safety measures that protect their workers lives.

Until that happens the garment industry will continue to be a dangerous, low paid and exploitative sector where 75% of waged workers do not have a contract and 88% of garment workers do not know what their basic salary is before overtime.

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Preventing tomorrow’s famines today

On the other side of Lough Erne where this Monday’s G8 Summit is being held, in the graveyard of a Medieval Church, the bodies of 200 victims of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1848 lie. 

As I wrote in the Irish Independent this week, many of their deaths and those of the one million who died across Ireland were preventable. 

And so it was with Somalia. 

We now know that 250,000 people died in Somalia two years ago.

We also know that most of the deaths were preventable. 

Between August 2010 to June 2011, the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit of the FAO and partners released 78 communications highlighting the deteriorating nutrition and food security situation.

Yet little was done for a long time.   

Above: In Turkana, northern Kenya, the rains used to come twice a year – the long rains from March to May and the short rains from October to December, but these days light drizzly showers, lasting minutes rather than days, have come to replace what was called the rainy season. Photo: Rankin / Oxfam

Despite warnings as early as September 2010, when the ‘La Nina and Food Security in East Africa’ said “poor October-December rains could lead to rapid depletion of resources” there was still no relief effort in place at the start of the long rains in March 2011, which also failed. 

The situation then rapidly deteriorated. 

Rainfall was less than 30% of the 1995-2010 average from March to April, after which the price of some grains shot up by 240%. Mortality levels for cattle and sheep rose as high as 40-60%. 

Still, it was not until June 2011 that a crisis was mooted and July 2011 that concrete plans were made to tackle it (by the International community and regional governments), when the UN declared a famine in the country.  

But by then it was too late.

Getting humanitarian aid to those in need is never easy. In Somalia it was harder than almost anywhere on earth, given the lack of stability in the south of the country and lacks roads and infrastructure to deliver assistance in all of it.

But still, more should have been done. And earlier. As Challiss McDonough of the UN World Food Programme said at the time, “If we don't get the resources until people are starving it costs more”. 

Last month's conference on Somalia in London, where donors pledged $300m to assist the country towards bolstering justice, security and financial institutions, is an encouraging sign that we have begun to learn the lessons. 

So too was the response to last year’s food crisis in West Africa, when the international community quickly stepped in to avert a hunger crisis. 

All national governments, NGOs, donors and the UN need to act decisively when early warning systems indicate trouble is on the horizon. 

But they must also take action in other areas. As the Enough Food For Everyone IF campaign points out, we can prevent hunger in the future.  

If we act to ensure that small-scale farmers can hold on to their land to grow food; if we crack down on tax dodgers depriving poor countries of resources to ensure the right to food; if all of this is underpinned by transparency, rule of law and strong institutions, then the world has a chance to end the scandal of hunger that allows 2.3 million children to die from malnutrition every year.

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Power to the masses

There’s an interesting piece of reading in Oxfam’s latest report on the response to the Sahel food crisis. It’s on electricity. 

When Chad began developing oil in 2003, there was some hope and a little expectation that it might help lift people out of poverty. Money would be poured into schools and hospitals and electricity would be brought to the masses. 

Its two main donors, the World Bank and European Union hoped so too. That’s why they agreed to work with the Chadian government on prioritising initiatives to alleviate poverty, by making oil companies enact strict mechanisms for managing oil revenues.

In the end it came to nought, with the government dismantling the agreed governance system to shift money to the military. It was engaged in an armed rebellion in the east, and needed money fast. 

It would be easy to bash the government for transferring funds. But what government wouldn’t do something similar if faced with a similar threat? Indeed, during World War II Britain spent well over 50 per cent of national income on defence spending.

Either way, economic development in Chad has since remained stagnant.

By one measure, the maternal mortality rate, depressingly so.  

Clockwise from left: Harne Waddaye, aged 60, lives in Louga village, Chad and cares for her 4 children and 6 grandchildren (clockwise from left Matar 8, Khadije 6, Fatime 13, Amne 11, Fatouma 7 and Salamata 6). The village is a collection of mud huts separated by grass fences. Harne holding maize at the Oxfam food distribution point. Harne waiting to receive her allocation of food. Each family receives 34 kilos of maize, 4-5 kilos of beans, 2.25 litres of oil and 0.37 kilograms of salt. In 2005, the maternal mortality rate was 1,100 deaths/100,000 live births. In 2010, the figure hadn’t budged. Photos: Abbie Trayler-Smith / Oxfam. 

Meanwhile in Kenya it dropped from 450 to 360, in Mali from 620 to 540 and in Nigeria from 820 to 630.

Much of this terrible problem could be solved if rural areas had access to electricity. Hospitals could be built and powered, schools funded and even jobs created.

But just 3-4% of people outside Chad’s capital Ndjamena have access to electricity. Chad pumps out over 100,000 barrels of oil a day but people do not see the benefit as they do in countries such as Norway, which by way of comparison pumps 1.5million barrels (and has a maternal mortality rate of 7).

That means 8-9 million people cannot access proper health facilities or have reasonable hope that a company may turn up and set up shop close to them with the promise of work that could raise incomes. 

But it’s not just in Chad that the government has not provided power. All across Africa, governments have systematically failed to provide one of the most essential services of the modern age. According to this recent piece on blackouts in Ivory Coast, Corruption and under-investment mean sub-Saharan Africa's 47 nations produce a maximum of 68 gigawatts of power daily between them – roughly the same as Argentina alone.

This is a shame. Rural electrification has provided enormous benefits to people around the world. In Bangladesh, for example, incomes have risen by up to 30 per cent according to one study. 

Then there is Ireland, which launched its rural electrification scheme in the 1950s. Agricultural output gradually increased and the volume output of livestock and livestock products doubled during the period 1951-70. 

This might not have led to an explosion in commerce. But it did help boost economic development and hold communities together that might otherwise have been utterly decimated by emigration.  

Indeed, when people did get electcirty, the common refrain wasn’t ‘what size fridge’ have you bought. It was “did you get the light”. 

A farmers son could study at night after working during the day, always on the lookout for ways in which he could boost his prospects. 

There is every reason that people in the developing world will do the same. 

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