Policy and Advocacy

The need for a debt moratorium in the time of coronavirus

Debt Moratorium - our Pre-budget Submission recommendations

Developing countries are being hardest hit by the COVID crisis – unfortunately, they lack the financing mechanisms widely used across the EU to mitigate the worst impacts of the pandemic. A fall in exports and commodity prices has wiped out anticipated revenue, and with the expectation of recovery being pushed out to 2022 and beyond, hunger and poverty are skyrocketing. The sense of urgency will only grow. However, European institutions and Member States like Ireland could reduce the burden on developing nations by facilitating and supporting debt relief for the world’s poorest countries.

The World Bank and the IMF have already called for an unconditional moratorium on debt interest payments for poor countries. This move – if supported – would free up an estimated $44 billion in Africa alone, which could then be allocated to public health services. Cancelling the debt is the easiest way to keep money in country and free up resources to tackle the urgent health, social and economic crises resulting from the pandemic.

Shockingly, in 2018, the total debts of developing countries were 191 percent of their combined GDP. They were due to pay approximately $400 billion of debt repayments this year. In light of the coronavirus crisis, in particular, it makes no sense for poorer countries to transfer vital resources to rich nations. Before the pandemic, 46 countries were spending on average four times more on repaying debt than on their public health services. As the virus took hold, the costs of the debt burden continued to be paid through cuts to the state services of the world’s poorest people, with women being the hardest hit.

The United Nations has called for $2.5 trillion to rescue the economies of developing countries in the time of coronavirus. This funding would include debt release, aid for health systems, as well as creating additional finance flows, including the issuing of Special Drawing Rights. Experts have encouraged G20 leaders to lead this call for funding as they warn of “unimaginable health and social impacts”.

Debt relief is a must – not an option – and is vital to provide fiscal space to invest in health and economic recovery.

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Budget 2021: Poverty, climate and coronavirus should take centre stage

On Tuesday 13 October, the Irish government will unveil Budget 2021. We have released our pre-budget submission in the hope of ensuring that this year’s budget provides support to those who need it most, is climate centric, and addresses the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While we are all familiar with the enormous challenges faced by Ireland due to the pandemic, the situation in low-income countries is much more dire. A fundamental part of ensuring that low-income countries can prevent the spread of the disease is by supporting infrastructure. This can be done by the government through corporate tax reform, official development assistance and a debt moratorium.

As it is impossible to form solutions to global poverty and inequality while corporate tax avoidance drains $100 billion in resources annually from low-income countries, Ireland needs to further reform its corporate tax avoidance and double taxation treaties. This can be done by contributing to a second generation of international tax reforms and by supporting a transformative international reform of corporate tax leading to an equitable rebalance of taxing rights between developed and developing countries.

In terms of official development assistance (ODA) during the COVID-19 crisis, it is paramount that the funding of aid is not cut. Instead, aid to combat the pandemic should be additional – not supplemented from the current aid budget. Furthermore, Ireland needs to publish a roadmap for meeting its 0.7 percent of gross national income (GNI) commitment on ODA with detailed year-on-year increases and continue to uphold the country’s reputation for delivering highly effective aid.

Finally, in order to ensure that low-income countries have the tools to combat COVID-19, Ireland should support an immediate, unconditional moratorium on debt interest payments for poorer countries. In Africa alone, this act would free up $44 billion this year to finance public health and fight the virus.

While is it fundamental that we support, in global terms, the furthest behind first, that must also be the case here in Ireland. Care work is the “hidden engine” that runs our economy and is predominately done by women and girls who often sacrifice autonomy, community engagement and personal income. Care work in Ireland and around the world is highly gendered and undervalued, with many in the care sector earning poverty wages. Ireland should ensure proper State-funded wages and supports for care workers, hold a referendum on Article 41.2 of the Constitution to include gender neutral language, and prioritise gender budgeting which enables the allocation of funds in a way that promotes gender equality.

Finally, COVID-19 is not the only threat to our world right now. As the virus rages on, the devastating impacts of climate change are being felt everywhere and are having real consequences on people’s lives. In some of the world’s poorest countries, lives and livelihoods are under threat due to changes in temperatures, rainfall and intensity of natural disasters. The insecurity cause by climate change perpetuates and deepens poverty. To combat this deepening crisis, richer countries likes Ireland need to reduce carbon emissions and provide sufficient climate financing to ensure that the nations most impacted by climate breakdown have the resources to implement adaptation and mitigation measures. In many cases, the countries most impacted by climate change are the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions.

Against the backdrop of this virus, Budget 2021 provides the Government with an opportunity to build on the above commitments and improve the lives of people living in, or vulnerable to, poverty and crisis.

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How Ireland can Build Back Better Using the Economic Stimulus Plan

Now that the incidences of COVID-19 have greatly decreased, due to the collective efforts of the Irish people, the new Government is rightly starting to focus on ‘renewal and recovery’. In his acceptance speech as Taoiseach, Micheál Martin stated that the COVID-19 pandemic “is the fastest moving recession ever to hit our country and to overcome it we must act with urgency and ambition… to secure a recovery to benefit all of our people”.

One of the first major actions of the new Government will be to unveil a major stimulus plan for the economy. There is a growing consensus that we need we need swift and transformative system change to address the many crises we face, that we can’t go back to the old ways of doing things.

Despite all the pain this crisis has caused, it presents a unique opportunity to put us on the path to a more sustainable, just and feminist future. A just approach to tackle underlying multiple inequalities. A sustainable approach, using the “doughnut economics” approach developed by Oxfam, to ensure that we live within the Nine Planetary Boundaries – scientific “tipping points” that focus directly on environmental wellbeing. And a feminist approach to challenge patriarchal structures and put women’s leadership front and centre. History has shown that gender inequality holds back progress on economic performance, health, wellbeing, environmental protection and social progress. The security and stability of our nations literally depends on the status of women.

The response to COVID-19 so far has shown that we are able to mobilise collectively on a huge scale. It is making the impossible possible. It is revealing that what truly matters is human lives. It has forced us to reconsider what is essential to keeping our economies and societies functioning, and is shedding a light on the role of care in terms of our healthcare, nursing care and childcare systems. Yet many workers in the care sector are still paid poverty wages.

The crisis has also highlighted the important role of low-wage workers in terms of the provision of essential goods and services. Most importantly, it has revealed the vital role women play in our economy, despite the unequal rewards and recognition they receive. A study of essential workers by the ERSI has found that the majority (almost 70 percent) of essential employees in Ireland are female. This trend is replicated worldwide, with more than 70 percent of healthcare workers worldwide being female. If not all heroes wear capes in this crisis, most cape-less heroes are women – their voices and considerations should now become central to how we plan for the future. The stimulus plan for the economy must not be gender blind and needs to take the above considerations into account.

In stimulating the Irish economy, we need to make sure that it works for everyone. A recent report by Oxfam noted that Ireland has the fifth-largest number of billionaires per capita in the world. Overall, the world’s 2,153 billionaires own more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the entire population of the planet.

The global value chains of numerous businesses operating from Ireland often involve exploitative working conditions, gender discrimination and violence; violations of trade union and workers’ rights; corruption and tax evasion; land-grabs and evictions of indigenous peoples and local communities; and violent attacks on human rights and environmental defenders.

Oxfam’s Ripe for Change report exposed the economic exploitation faced by millions of small-scale farmers and workers in food supply chains. Our surveys of people working in supermarket supply chains found that a large majority struggle to adequately feed their families. Women bear the heaviest burden – overwhelmingly concentrated in the least secure and lowest-paid positions in food supply chains, shouldering most of the unpaid work on family farms, and routinely denied a voice in positions of power. Our modern food system is built on squeezing women’s labour hardest of all.  While frontline supermarket workers in Ireland have been rightly recognised as essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis, the essential labour of workers who actually produce our food through global value chains remains hidden.

Although some businesses and financial institutions are already taking steps to meet their responsibility to respect human rights and the environment in their global operations, too many others are linked to serious abuses. At present, there is no legally binding business and human rights regulation to stop this exploitation and abuse – this needs to change. Voluntary measures have failed to prevent abuses and are simply not strong enough. A recent report published by the Centre for Social Innovation at Trinity Business School in Dublin, Business and Human Rights in Ireland: Benchmarking compliance with the UN Guiding Principles, paints a very poor picture of Irish company engagement with business and human rights. 

The corporate world also has a huge impact on sustainability. Every decision can affect the most vulnerable people and ecosystems. It can threaten livelihoods and exacerbate poverty. For example, the fast fashion industry has shaped the way that we consume clothes. Due to overconsumption and lack of regulation we are buying vast amounts of low-quality textiles. Not only are these garments unfit for long-term use, they cannot be recycled, resulting in a worldwide waste problem that is detrimental to the environment. The wages and working conditions of clothes producers in countries like Bangladesh, who are usually women, often fall well below basic human rights standards. Textiles have been identified as one of the waste streams with the highest untapped potential to implement circular practices. Throwaway fashion is unsustainable and is stretching the planet’s resources beyond its limits. Every year Irish people dump 225,000 tonnes of clothing – a huge waste of water and energy considering that it would take 13 years to drink the amount of water needed to make one t-shirt. 

It is therefore welcome that support to the circular economy features strongly in the Programme for Government. The circular economy concept brings a holistic perspective to the lifespan of a product from design, material choice, sustainable production processes, product use, reuse and recycling. Circularity benefits the environment and helps to fight the climate crisis. It also generates innovative and sustainable economic opportunities. Oxfam Ireland works with a wide range of companies committed to sustainability. These business partnerships directly improve the lives of millions of people worldwide by making it easier to keep excess stock out of landfills. The economic stimulus plan needs is a good place to start to develop the potential of the circular economy in Ireland.

The nature of Ireland’s planned economic stimulus should underpin a new social contract between people, governments and the market – one that radically reduces inequality, gender inequalities and lays the foundations for a just, equal and sustainable human economy that works for all throughout their lives.

The European Commission has provided guidance for any State Aid to private businesses through a Temporary Framework that includes a ban on payment of dividends and share buybacks and an obligation for large companies to report on their investments in terms of commitment to the Paris Agreement and digital transformation. This week the Commission added to these guidelines by recommending that states do not support companies with links to the EU’s tax haven list. It is important that Ireland introduces these minimum conditions. However, it can go a lot further.

Priority must be given to supporting small businesses who have the least ability to cope with the crisis. Bailouts of big corporations should be conditional on measures to uphold the interests of workers, farmers and taxpayers, and to build a sustainable future. For those corporations receiving company-specific assistance, financial support should take the form either of interest-bearing loans or of the government taking a stake in the company. Governments should ensure proper oversight of all bailouts, including being represented on boards, to prevent corruption and mismanagement.

The response to the COVID-19 crisis has also shown the incredible power of government-led solidarity and collective action. While governments have started to act decisively domestically, international solidarity has yet to materialise on a grand scale. After the financial crisis of 2008, few lessons were learned. A decade of austerity and failed economic policy has undermined our societies and led to the rise of dangerous right-wing nationalism, a regression of democracy and a violent backlash against feminist movements. It does not have to be this way.

We can rebuild a better world. A fairer world. A more sustainable world. One that radically reduces the gap between rich and poor. One where we do not jeopardise the lives of our children and future generations. One where the richest pay their fair share to contribute to collective solutions to the challenges facing humanity. One where feminist principles are central. One where governments are held accountable by their citizens and where we are all enabled us to take action to stop climate breakdown. Together we can learn the lessons from this unprecedented crisis, to build a more human economy and a fairer world.

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COVID-19: The Hunger Virus

2020 will go down in history as the year of the global pandemic. COVID-19 is a global public health crisis: millions have been infected worldwide, and hundreds of thousands of people have died. The disease is not the only deadly threat the pandemic has highlighted, unfortunately. COVID-19 has worsened the hunger crisis in some of the world’s worst hunger hotspots – and even created new ones. By the end of this year, as many as 12,000 people could die every day from COVID-19 related hunger. To put it in an Irish context, it would equate to the entire population of Galway city dying in just one week. It is critical that all governments work to end the hunger crisis and build fairer, stronger and more sustainable food systems.

Even before COVID-19, hunger was on the rise with nearly 820 million people estimated to be food insecure in 2019. Of that figure, 149 million suffered crisis-level hunger or worse. However, in the wake of the pandemic, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that the number of people experiencing crisis-level hunger will reach 270 million – an increase of 82 percent on last year. This crisis is being felt most acutely in 10 extreme hunger hotspots: Yemen, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Venezuela, the West African Sahel, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Haiti. These 10 countries and regions alone host 65 percent of the people facing crisis-level hunger.

The pandemic is not only worsening conditions in established hunger hotspots but creating new ones in countries including Brazil, South Africa and India, where instability has been exacerbated by the pandemic and restrictions to control its spread. The situation in both emerging and established hunger hotspots is worsening because of pandemic-triggered mass unemployment, restrictions on food producers and a broken food system, diminished humanitarian aid, the climate crisis and systemic extreme inequality, and ongoing conflict.

In the face of the pandemic, a common thread across the globe has been a dramatic slowdown of the economy. This coupled with movement restrictions has resulted in mass job losses and lost income, particularly in the informal economy. The ad hoc social measures frantically implemented by governments in wealthy countries cannot be replicated in lower-income countries to protect their populations from the financial impacts of the virus. The same movement restrictions put in place to stop the spread of the virus are hindering the ability of food producers to manage crops, access markets and sell their produce. Women make up a large percentage of the informal economy; many of them are also small-scale farmers. Not only are they being heavily impacted by the loss of income due to the pandemic, they are often the first to go hungry in a family unit.

Diminished humanitarian aid is a symptom of both the economic slowdown and the movement restrictions around COVID-19. To date, just 24 percent of $7.3 billion Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 has been funded. In practice, this means that the WFP halved their rations for 8.5 million people in Yemen, while Afghanistan has received just six percent of the money it needs to fund food programmes. Along with diminished aid from other countries, the climate crisis has made farming increasingly difficult. Higher-than-average annual temperatures and extreme weather negatively impact crop yield, putting an estimated 183 million at risk of climate change-related hunger.

Conflict and inequality are systemic issues which exacerbate the growing hunger crisis. Eight of the 10 established hunger hotspots are affected by high levels of violence and insecurity. Those who are forced to flee violence often leave without food, and find themselves in areas where farming is dangerous and travelling to markets potentially fatal. Additionally, hunger can be weaponised and warring parties can use food as a tool of submission and power. For example, Yemen relied heavily on imported food before the war. Now it is experiencing massive food shortages due to a blockade and its food supply system is broken.

As the world works to bring the number of those infected with COVID-19 to zero, we must also work on bringing those affected by hunger to zero. While thousands will starve because of the virus, the biggest food and drink companies have paid out over $18 billion to shareholders since the beginning of the year.

Inequality is at the root of the hunger crisis and Oxfam is urging governments to:

  1. Provide emergency assistance to save lives now
  2. Build fairer, more resilient, and sustainable food systems
  3. Promote women’s participation and leadership
  4. Cancel debts to allow developing countries to scale up social protections
  5. Support the UN’s call for a global ceasefire
  6. Take urgent action to tackle the climate crisis

 

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Diminished, Derogated, Denied: Asylum in Greece under the new International Protection Act

One of the most devastating human rights disasters happening on European soil is taking place in the refugee camp ‘hotspots’ on the Greek islands. These overcrowded, unhygienic and under-resourced camps have only worsened since the EU-Turkey deal was implemented in 2016.

Increased pressure on the Greek authorities as a result of dire conditions in the camps led to the creation of the International Protection Act (IPA), which was implemented in January. Instead of improving conditions, however, the IPA restricts the rights of the most vulnerable, establishes unfair asylum timelines, increases administrative detention and negative decisions, limits asylum appeals, and highlights an alarming pattern of an EU-wide effort to deter and reduce the number of people seeking asylum in Europe.

Asylum seekers in a new country are extremely vulnerable, and as such, are afforded special protections. As well as the inherent vulnerability of being an asylum seeker, many groups – such as unaccompanied children, survivors of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and torture, and those with mental health disorders – need additional support. Under Greek law, these vulnerable populations can access medical treatment and specialised reception conditions – but in practice, this is rarely done due to the shortage of healthcare professionals to identify and help those who need it.

The IPA has further contributed to the suffering of vulnerable people by reversing this practice and no longer prioritising or fast tracking their asylum applications. This disregard for the vulnerability of specific populations, such as single women or survivors of SGBV, is especially dangerous during the pandemic and while incidents of rape and assault have risen dramatically due to a decrease in security in the camps.

The IPA was implemented following months of groundwork laid by the Greek government to paint people seeking asylum  as “fake refugees” and normalise refoulement and deportations. The government is using the new law as a deterrent by speeding up returns of those deemed ineligible for protection. To that end, the new law fast tracks asylum seekers who have arrived throughout this year, with the aim of illustrating to people in Turkey – who are hoping to make the crossing to Greece – that their stay will be short.

In practice, fast tracking denies people seeking asylum the opportunity to prepare for their interview, attain counsel or even understand the complex process. Another disastrous consequence is that people who arrived in Greece last year – and endured months in horrendous conditions in Greek ‘hotspot’ centres – are now seeing their long-awaited first asylum interviews being rescheduled for 2021.

Under EU law, administrative detention is the exception for managing migration, but the IPA has laid the groundwork to make it the default. The IPA allows for indiscriminate detention of all people seeking asylum until a judge recognises that they are eligible for international protection. This practice has resulted in a massive increase in detention centre capacity – a deadly and dangerous reality in the midst of a pandemic.

The reckless decision to detain asylum seekers does not just apply to adults; the number of unaccompanied children in detention reached a record high in March. This arbitrary detention of minors violates the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other legal mechanisms which stipulate that the detention of children should only be used as a measure of last resort.

The new measures enacted by the IPA earlier this year severely diminish the safeguard of the asylum process and do not allow for redress of administrative mistakes. Asylum claims are now being refused as ‘unfounded’ and viewed as implicitly withdrawn if a person fails to attend an interview. These refusals do not take into account administrative errors – which are a major issue in camps like Moria – or dense overcrowding, which makes making appointments difficult and dangerous.

Additionally, the IPA allows for Greek asylum services to refuse applications as unfounded if they cannot provide an interpreter for the applicant. This is a violation of EU law. In May, amendments were added to the IPA which allowed people seeking asylum to apply for a continuation of the examination of their application. While this amendment was welcome, it did not address the errors made between January and May and those people who had their applications for asylum refused.

Accessing legal assistance and the right to appeal was severely impacted with the implementation of the IPA. People are allowed to apply for State-funded legal aid, but this is severely limited. This means that most asylum seekers rely on legal assistance from under-resourced and overstretched NGOs. The inaccessibility of legal aid along with the convoluted system for notification of decisions means an increase in negative decisions for people seeking asylum.

Oxfam and the Greek Council for Refugees have released a report on this issue, which highlights the changes needed to improve the situation on the Greek islands.

The European Commission and (when relevant) the European Parliament should:

  • Review Greece’s compliance in both law and practice with European directives pertinent to international protection. The findings should be published, and the situation closely monitored.
  • Promote respect for fundamental rights and the rights of refugees. This includes ensuring all communications avoid inflammatory language and war-like terminology. Countries which instrumentalise the plight of people seeking asylum for political gain end up demonising vulnerable people.
  • Ensure that all vulnerable asylum seekers are explicitly exempt from expedited border procedures. The use of expedited procedures, which are more prone to errors in judgment, should be restricted to the absolutely necessary minimum. Access to safe accommodation, healthcare and legal assistance should always be guaranteed.
  • End the administrative detention of children and their families by explicitly prohibiting it in legislation.
  • Establish mandatory responsibility-sharing mechanisms for asylum seekers that enhance their protection – this is the only effective and long-term solution to reducing the pressure on asylum services and social support in Greece.

EU Member States should:

  • Provide financial and in-kind support for protection work, social services and legal assistance to people seeking asylum in areas that see a large number of arrivals, under an EU-wide responsibility-sharing mechanism. All projects should be gender-sensitive and address the specific needs of women.
  • Pledge to resettle refugees from non-EU countries and commit to creating additional legal pathways for refugees and migrants, in order to gradually reduce the need to resort to dangerous routes.

The Greek government should:

  • Review and amend the International Protection Act based on an impact assessment, so as to ensure respect for the rights of people seeking asylum and compliance with international and EU law.
  • Ensure that all asylum seekers, regardless of nationality, have access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure in a safe environment, as well as the healthcare and services they need.
  • Enhance State-funded legal aid so that, at a minimum, all people are able to receive legal assistance at the second instance of their asylum examination, as mandated by EU law. Guarantee that lawyers and organisations that provide legal assistance have unhindered access to people seeking asylum so as to provide legal assistance and services at first and second instances.
  • Implement alternatives to detention and only ever use administrative detention as a measure of last resort, after a thorough examination and justification of its necessity on a case-by-case basis.  Explicitly prohibit the detention of children and their families by law.
  • Significantly bolster the capacities of the Greek Asylum Service, the Reception and Identification Service and the National Public Health Organisation by increasing staffing and improving training.
  • Take all necessary measures to eliminate all phenomena/instances of xenophobia and racist violence. Promote a facts-based engagement between Greek authorities, Greek nationals, and refugees and migrants to reduce tensions and foster social cohesion between communities on the islands.
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