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Myanmar's Healthcare System Post Coup

On February 1, 2021, Myanmar’s military seized control of the country in a coup. Following a series of raids, several democratically-elected government officials were arrested, including the president, Aung San Suu Kyi. Since the coup, many protesters have taken to the streets, resulting in more than 100 deaths on March 27 alone. Even before the coup, Myanmar’s healthcare system was in shambles. However, NGOs and other groups believe that the coup, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, will exacerbate conditions in the country. The situation is compounded by the return of 100,000 migrant workers to Myanmar in March 2021.

Effect on COVID-19 and Immunizations

Healthcare workers were among some of the first to join the pro-democracy movements. However, this has led to shortages of staff, significantly impacting healthcare service delivery. According to The New Humanitarian, “Soldiers have also occupied major public hospitals and attacked healthcare workers, including emergency responders trying to help injured protesters.” With limited healthcare services available, some doctors are volunteering their time and community groups are stepping in to bridge the gap in healthcare. “The public health system has practically collapsed,” said Andrew Kirkwood, the senior U.N. official in Myanmar, during a briefing in March 2021.

Additionally, the coup has stalled routine vaccinations for children. Due to healthcare workers joining the movement, as well as continued fighting in the remote regions, many refugees and citizens are unable to get their children vaccinated. By July 2021, close to one million children were unable to receive their vaccinations since the coup began.

Due to the fragility of Myanmar’s healthcare system, COVID-19 testing and treatment also came to halt, producing uncertainty regarding Myanmar’s vaccination rollout amid the coup. The coup and the counter-protests induced outbreaks, worsening COVID-19 and causing shutdowns. With the economic strain as well as the risk of the virus, Myanmar’s impoverished families are struggling. Fortunately, in July 2021, the U.N. Country Team in Myanmar stepped in to scale up “the provision of critical health services and COVID-19 vaccination efforts.” The U.N. Country Team is also working to increase testing rates and accelerate the COVID-19 vaccination rollout while tackling the oxygen shortage.

Effect on HIV/AIDS

The coup also led to the shut down of HIV treatment programs and testing, putting many lives at risk. Before the coup and the COVID-19 pandemic, Myanmar implemented several programs to tackle HIV/AIDs in impoverished areas. With the ongoing conflict, it has become harder to access anti-retroviral drugs and there are concerns of shortages due to disrupted supply chains.

ICAP, a global public health NGO, with funding from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief  (PEPFAR), is “collaborating with the community-based organization Myanmar Positive Group (MPG) to build its capacity to deliver HIV care services.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, ICAP provided “virtual conferencing software for community self-help groups” to host virtual support meetings as these services are crucial to controlling HIV in Myanmar. ICAP also provided training on using virtual software and conducting tele-counseling. During the coup, these established tools will ensure these services continue.

The Good News

Several NGOs stepped up to help Myanmar. The Myanmar Red Cross is intensifying its efforts for humanitarian assistance and healthcare. The organization reported in June 2021 that nearly 236,000 people require assistance as COVID-19 shutdowns and the coup exacerbate poverty. About 2,000 Red Cross healthcare volunteers provided frontline assistance to those injured during the protests and others in need of healthcare services. The organization also provided ambulance services.

The EU also stepped in to assist with a donation of “€9 million in emergency humanitarian aid” in April 2021. The funding will go toward “emergency health support, protection, food security and multi-sector emergency assistance” in Myanmar.

With organizations taking a stand to help Myanmar’s most vulnerable people during the coup, citizens will receive the aid they need while the country awaits the end of the widespread violence and instability.

– Lalitha Shanmugasundaram
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Child Poverty in FijiFiji is an archipelago or chain of islands. Many tourists worldwide know its remote beaches as a tropical paradise. While Fiji’s geography makes it a popular vacation spot for celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Tony Hawk, its geography has adverse effects on the children living there. However, organizations are taking steps to combat child poverty in Fiji.

Child Poverty in Fiji

Child poverty in Fiji is widespread throughout its rural areas. The United Nations released a report that displays rural child poverty rates at 40.92%, almost double urban rates of 22.22%. The extent of the discrepancy between those living in rural and urban areas is clear. There is a similar difference in the ages of those experiencing poverty in Fiji. The United Nations report highlights that 32.1% of children younger than the age of 14 experience poverty.

Poverty in Fiji has an unparalleled effect on young children in rural areas. This has led to a stunting rate tallied at 7.5% among infants and young children in 2004. Infants and young children are not the only ones affected by malnourishment as 22% of adolescents in Fiji were underweight as of 2005.

The Effects of Geography on Child Poverty in Fiji

In Fiji, there is a clear connection between poverty, geography and education. Fiji’s remote location impacts the price of uniforms, books and transportation. Although education is free up to the second level, the secondary costs of education present additional barriers for children living in poverty.

Even if rural Fijian families scrape together money for their children’s education, underdeveloped road and sea transportation prevent easy accessibility. Children often have to travel through three or more towns on foot to reach the nearest school.

Furthermore, children do not receive consistent protection against violations and abuse. Many children work as domestic servants and face domestic or sexual violence. Authorities underreport these conditions, and oftentimes, local authorities dismiss the crimes with little supervision from the country’s federal policing system.

Solutions to Child Poverty in Fiji

Many efforts are in place to help combat child poverty in Fiji. Several Fijian children in poverty reside in rural areas where the lack of access to quality education perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Understanding this issue, the Australian High Commissioner administered the Australian Direct Aid Program. The program seeks to help improve educational opportunities for these children. This project gifts items like new furniture, library books, water tanks and dormitory renovations that provide better education resources to students in rural Fiji.

Similarly, help from volunteer groups such as the Peace Corps, Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross and student initiatives, such as Rustic Pathways, greatly impacts these Fijian communities. For example, the Peace Corps states that close to 90% of the communities improved in livelihood security and sanitation.

Another significant step in combating child poverty in Fiji occurred when Fiji joined the Sanitation and Water for All Partnership. The partnership made access to clean water a constitutional right. This led to 70.1% of Fijian households having access to clean water. Increased access to clean water means children can go to school and receive an education instead of spending time collecting water for the home.

Moreover, the World Bank has approved the Fiji Transport Infrastructure Investment Project. It awarded the Fijian government $50 million to make improvements to land and sea infrastructure. The expected outcome is easier and safer travel, which in turn, allows children facing poverty in rural areas of Fiji better access to education.

The Future of Poverty in Fiji

Fiji’s geography negatively influences impoverished children within its borders. Through improvements to the education system, increased sanitation, access to clean water and better infrastructure, children facing poverty in Fiji have a greater opportunity to attend and complete school. Through education, children are able to break cycles of poverty.

– Lily Vassalo
Photo: Flickr

Eritrean Refugees Flee Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia
The conflict surrounding the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, bordering on the south of Eritrea, has forced more than 42,000 refugees to flee west to eastern Sudan since the conflict started in November 2020. The fighting between Ethiopian soldiers and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) has resulted in tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees in refugee camps. It erupted violence along Ethiopia’s northern border with targeted killings, abductions, lootings and sexual violence.

Difficulties Due to Conflict

It is still difficult to tell precisely how destructive the conflict in northern Ethiopia is since there are so many access restrictions in place. The conflict gets further complicated with the involvement of the FANO militia group and Eritrean Defence Forces. Even now, as humanitarian workers return to what were sites of violence in the weeks prior, they are finding tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees in dire straits and desperate need of aid. The last and only aid they received was food from the WFP in December 2019.

The camp structures managed to weather most of the violence, and while the TPLF spared some refugees from direct contact with the war, many experienced harassment and threats and underwent forcible recruitment. Roughly 5,000 Eritrean refugees have gone to the town of Shire, Ethiopia, and are living with no shelter, food or water.

Refugees in Sudan

This issue serves as a reminder that violence feeds the cycle of poverty in struggling countries, and conflicts like this hit the vulnerable populations hardest. This includes not only the impoverished but also the displaced. Driven away from an already precarious living situation by the violence, the Eritrean refugees that are fleeing to the impoverished nation of Sudan are malnourished and injured, and have almost none of the means to meet their daily needs.

In addition to poverty, the worst floods have ravaged Sudan in over 100 years, devastating the agricultural sector and leaving many people homeless. The threat of malaria hangs over people’s heads as they struggle to salvage their livelihoods, all while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on. This leaves Sudan ill-equipped to receive and support the refugee population flooding over the eastern border.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Founded on the tenants of the Geneva Convention of 1949, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) focuses on humanitarian aid and protection for those enduring violent conflicts. Working with the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and the Red Crescent Movement, ICRC has concentrated its efforts on the Tigray refugees.

Efforts have gone toward getting the essentials to refugees by using donations for food, cooking items, blankets and soap. ICRC is also intent on ensuring that refugees have a consistent and safe water supply and a medical care center stocked with the appropriate supplies and equipment, particularly to provide specialized care for victims of sexual violence.

While Eritrean refugees are still facing the fallout from the Tigray conflict, organizations like the International Committee of The Red Cross, the Ethiopian Red Cross Society and the Red Crescent Movement are offering support. Areas these refugees have gone to, like Sudan and other parts of Ethiopia, are taking this aid and working to provide a location with food, medical care, clean water and other supplies necessary to assist refugees through this difficult time.

– Catherine Lin
Photo: Flickr

Conditions Improving in Lipa Migrant Camp
Deep in the snow in Bosnia’s Lipa migrant camp, hundreds of refugees huddle in wind-blown tents without food, water or heat. A fire outbreak destroyed the refugee camp in December 2020. The 1,700 inhabitants of the camp evacuated but, with nowhere else to go, 900 migrants returned to the remnants of the camp where they are now living in tents along steep wintery slopes.

Migrants Face Struggles

Many of the migrants in Lipa are coming from Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. Since the European Union shut its doors to new members in 2015, the migrants’ goal was to reach Croatia, which many see as a “gateway to the E[.]U.” According to The International Organization for Migration (IOM), 8,500 migrants are currently living in Bosnia with hopes of someday getting farther into Northern Europe.

The United Nations explains that thousands of migrants who have spent innumerable weeks outside in negative temperatures are in desperate need of viable shelters. Many migrants, according to The New York Times, live in tattered tents, have exhorted to washing themselves with snow and stand in line barefoot for food and supplies.

In October 2020, authorities in Bihać, Bosnia, closed its migrant reception center, the biggest in the area. Those living there underwent relocation to the Lipa, Bosnia, camp 75 kilometers away. Bosnia’s central government then ordered local enforcement to reopen the reception center in Bihać, Bosnia, but the local enforcement refused. Therefore, approximately 2,500 people currently live on the outskirts, suffering exposure to the elements.

Migrants’ Struggles Amid COVID-19

Due to the threat of the novel coronavirus, the IOM quickly established the camp in Lipa, Bosnia, in summer 2020 when the country had to close its borders.  Even before the fire, the camp did not prepare itself for winter. Migrants would usually have received thermal floor mats, insulation for shelters and tents, new blankets, stoves and fuel. But now, lacking amenities such as power, water, winter clothes and tents, the camp was virtually unsustainable.

On December 11, 2020, the IOM stopped funding the migrant camp due to the failure of authorities to make conditions sustainable through winter. Aid agencies left later that month. As of January 6, 2021, 700 people remained in the camp, finding shelter in abandoned shipping containers and the devastated remnants of tents. Bihać, Bosnia’s mayor apparently agreed to reopen the Bihać Reception Center and even sent buses to relocate the migrants. However, the buses left Lipa, Bosnia, completely empty. Migrants experienced outrage at the heating and sanitation conditions and went on a hunger strike to protest the issues.

Raising the Alarm

The approaching threat of harsh winter brought to light the migrants’ predicament. The Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner Dunja Mijatovic raised alarm over the growing danger in December 2020. Conditions seem to be looking up for refugees in both Lipa and Bihać, Bosnia. Peter Van der Auweraert, chief of mission in Bosnia for the IOM, says that aid groups distributed winter sleeping bags, apparel and food. The army has begun to bring in heated tents for migrants living in the Lipa migrant camp in Bosnia in what Van der Auweraert calls an “important step forward.”

The Danish Refugee Council

The Danish Refugee Council has provided protection, shelter, food security, community infrastructure as well as water, sanitation and hygiene supplies. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, currently, 82 staff members from the Danish Refugee Council are caring for a total of 8,500 displaced peoples. Working alongside the Red Cross and the IOM, the Danish Refugee Council had distributed food, winter clothes, sleeping bags and hygiene kits to more than 1,500 displaced peoples. The Bosnian local officials agreed to relocate migrants from the Bosnian Lipa migrant camp to the reception center in Bihać, Bosnia, while reparations to the Lipa Emergency Reception Centre are taking place. The center will also have water and electrical services ready for occupants come April 2021.

Mijatovic continues to advocate for better conditions for migrants in Bosnia, including rapid procedures for asylum-seekers, ending the anti-migrant rhetoric of Bosnia, as well as better care for the approximately 500 unescorted migrant children. Currently, the European Union has provided Bosnia with €60 million, approximately $70 million, for emergency funding, including migrant centers. This response to the crisis is not uncommon. According to Nicola Bay, the country director for the Danish Refugee Council, “Every year we have this winter crisis and an emergency response is crafted at the last minute.”

Looking Forward

For the future, refugees hope that conditions will continue to improve, with further services and supplies going to those living in dangerous conditions. The Danish Refugee Council is focusing its efforts on improving human health and emergency response in regards to the migrant crisis. The organization is also currently working on improving the availability of primary healthcare services in reception facilities, providing mental and psychosocial support for refugees and documenting human rights violations experienced at the Bosnia-Croatia border. The humanitarian group supplied the migrants with doctors beginning in January 2021 when the migrants at the Lipa camp in Bosnia underwent screening for respiratory and skin infections, as well as other health conditions.

The Danish Refugee Council Secretary-General Charlotte Slente believes that the fault lies in the inherently flawed immigration policy of the European Union: “We believe it is necessary for the European Commission to move beyond the current crisis mode approach to migration and ensuring that there is sufficient long-term and predictable financial support made available, in this case to Bosnia and Herzegovina, to ensure that a dignified reception capacity can be put in place.” Hopefully, with the reopening of the Lipa Emergency Reception Centre in Spring 2021, those from the migrant camp currently bracing the cold will have shelter and safety.

– Nina Eddinger
Photo: U.S. National Archives

Mental Health in Bosnia and Herzegovina
In the past half-century, mental health treatment has become a hallmark of national development and Europe has been no exception. Nations of the former Soviet Bloc have seen major developments in the last several years. Before violence broke out in the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina had a fairly strong psychiatric care system with wards in larger hospitals. However, since the stabilization of the region, the system has undergone rebuilding with a focus on not only hospital wards, but also community mental health care clinics.

Despite its small population of only 3.5 million, Bosnia and Herzegovina have been a model of mental health care in the Balkan region. Mental health care in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been extremely important since the deadly conflicts within the former Yugoslavia, particularly the Bosnian Genocide from 1992-1995. Additionally, it continues to be important into the 20th century with high rates of mental illness among survivors of the conflict.

The Situation

While mental health in Bosnia and Herzegovina has not received a lot of study, it is clear that post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina has comparatively high levels of mental illness stemming from trauma. This includes but is not limited to mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and personality disorders. Many citizens have experienced internal displacement or repatriation or suffered violent trauma during the period of unrest in the Balkans in the 1990s and early 2000s leading to extensive need for mental health care both long term and in crisis situations. While this suffering is certainly not ideal, it has encouraged a number of organizations to assist in not only the implementation of systems of accessible mental health care but also campaigns to destigmatize mental illness in new and innovative ways.

These systems have been highly successful and have provided care for thousands of individuals through 74 community mental health centers, several teaching clinical centers in major cities and nine full psychiatric wards all of which can handle both acute and chronic mental health concerns. The involvement of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs has helped make these achievements possible. It has made a major effort to structure and fund the creation of vast mental health programs and networks along with the help of several international NGOs including HealthNet International, the World Health Organization (WHO), Medica Zenica and the Red Cross. All of these organizations have contributed to funding, training and organizing clinics around the country. This has allowed for a complete restructuring of the mental health care system in the country including international advocacy groups collaboration on legislation to improve the lives of mentally ill citizens.

Government-Provided Mental Health Care

While Bosnia and Herzegovina have an absolute poverty rate of over 16% which is above the global average, citizens can rely on government-provided mental health care through the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare operates through a decentralized system and receives funding through citizens’ mandatory national health insurance.

In addition to improvements in mental health care, new programs have seen extensive success in destigmatizing psychiatric illness. In the last several years, mental health in Bosnia and Herzegovina has improved through the implementation of mental health promotion programs in schools as well as in communities, which serve to normalize mental illness and discuss mental health. The success of these systems offers an example by which to construct mental health systems in smaller nations that desperately need access to these services.

Despite the struggles of the past half-century, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become an example of positive mental health care restructuring. Moreover, it seems likely that the system will continue to make improvements over time.

– Che Jackson
Photo: Flickr

How Hurricanes Affect Poverty Around the WorldHurricanes are large storms that develop from warm ocean waters. As they reach land, they create a storm surge, pushing ocean water onto the land, causing extreme damage such as infrastructure loss and flooding. Hurricane season lasts from May to November and causes loss of life and property for coastal regions around the globe. This article will examine how hurricanes affect poverty around the globe and organizations that help combat their destruction.

Hurricanes And Poverty: The Cycle

Hurricanes affect global poverty as they slow development and cause a significant loss of money, pushing people and countries into poverty. Each year 26 million people fall into poverty due to natural disasters. In particular, hurricanes cause a decrease in development and a loss of GDP. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch caused 30 years of decreased development in Honduras and Nicaragua. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan led to losses of more than 200% of Grenada’s GDP.

Hurricanes disproportionately affect impoverished communities. Those with lower income have less access to technology, which leads to a lack of information and leaving them unprepared for a coming natural disaster. Additionally, disadvantaged populations live in less stable housing that does not fare well against natural disasters. For example, the Caribbean has a history of suffering a severe impact of hurricanes, and this is partly because 60-70% of the infrastructure is informal, meaning not professionally made or following safety protocol.

Impoverished communities also have less access to transportation and healthcare, leaving them with fewer resources after a hurricane. In Puerto Rico after the 2017 Hurricane Maria, 2975 people died as a result of not having the transportation to go to a hospital or sufficient life-sustaining medicine. Rebuilding also requires funds that many disadvantaged populations do not have. While the rich can often afford to move out of high-risk areas, impoverished households cannot. Developing countries also cannot afford to protect high-risk areas, by, for example, rebuilding structures with higher elevations and installing sea walls. Hurricanes affect those living in poverty the most and, as a result, hurricanes push them further into poverty.

The Red Cross

The Red Cross is one of many organizations that provide hurricane relief around the world. It has stations throughout the globe, so it can provide emergency services and life-saving materials quickly to those who need it in the aftermath of a natural disaster, such as hurricanes. Many people working with the Red Cross are disaster response specialists who can work quickly in a disaster zone and are trained in situations that may occur during and after a hurricane. The Red Cross also reconnects families separated in natural disasters. The Red Cross has helped in hurricanes around the globe, including Haiti after Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian in 2019.

Other organizations that help those living in poverty recover from hurricanes include Heart to Heart International, Convoy of Hope and Tourism Cares. By donating to any one of these organizations, one could help bring an impoverished person their livelihood back and help them recover from a hurricane, helping to bridge the gap between the rich and poor in terms of hurricane recovery.

– Seona Maskara
Photo: Flickr 

 

Period Poverty in Uganda
Uganda’s Ministry of Education reported that, as of 2019, nearly one in every four Ugandan girls between ages 12 to 18 will drop out of school once they begin menstruating. For those who do attend school, girls’ absence rates triple from 7% to 28% during their periods. Dropping out of school decreases their likelihood of escaping the cycle of poverty and increases their chances of early marriage and motherhood. Like many other international leaders, the Ugandan minister of higher education, John Chrysostom Muyingo, stresses the importance of girls’ school attendance, adding that this must include proper menstrual health practices. He articulates that period poverty in Uganda seriously jeopardizes Uganda’s likelihood of reaching many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those which concern gender equality, education and health care.

Understanding Period Poverty in Uganda

The definition of period poverty is inadequate access to menstrual health care and sanitation, as well as the stigma and shame surrounding menstruation that prevents menstruating women from fully participating in society. Poverty, education and a lack of waste and sanitation management exacerbate the global problem of period poverty.

In 2015, the Ugandan government rolled out an initiative to work alongside NGOs and schools to improve access to menstrual care. However, reports indicate that Uganda’s school system has failed to improve these rates. Poor washing and hygiene facilities that make product removal and privacy difficult, as well as the embezzlement of funding for pads and sanitation infrastructure improvements, have hampered the initiative’s success. A profound stigma surrounding menstruation also exists as people often perceive it as dirty and a private matter. This makes educating girls and boys on the matter difficult without proper funding and insistence. Additionally, despite a 2017 tax removal on sanitation products, they still cost around $2 USD per package, unaffordable for those living in poverty.

Developing Sustainable Solutions

Fortunately, several organizations are working tirelessly to combat period poverty in Uganda. The Red Cross and AFRIpads, a local manufacturer, have partnered with the Ugandan government for the Keep a Girl in School Initiative to provide girls with sanitation products and educational services. AFRIpads’ reusable pads help tackle the problems of waste and affordability. The Binance Charity Foundation uses cryptocurrency donations to directly reach women in need to circumvent corruption within the school systems. To date, the organization has helped over 1,400 girls in Uganda pay for sanitation pads.

PLAN International has worked with schools in Torono, Uganda by adding doors to toilets for privacy and creating “menstrual hygiene management clubs.” Both girls and boys between the ages of 11 to 18 learn about periods and make reusable products for the girls to take home. The clubs use songs and other fun activities to create a positive culture surrounding menstruation, using roleplay to combat social norms. Educators have been highly supportive of this initiative and noticed a change in boys’ attitudes and support and girls’ attendance.

Men Making an Impact

This is not the only initiative that has stressed the role of men in creating supportive environments for girls’ health. One church in Mulatsi, Uganda, realized that period poverty was the biggest problem the community reported. One father, Milton, became motivated to improve the situation for his daughters but noted the high cost of pads. With a church organization, he and his community work to educate and make reusable pads, which cost only $1.50 USD and last an entire year. Other men judged Milton for his involvement in this but Milton has insisted that fathers must involve themselves in reducing period poverty in Uganda for their daughters’ sake. The project’s success inspired more churches to join the movement, which has educated 4,800 boys and girls about periods and proper feminine care.

The Ganda Boys are another male group supporting the cause. This group, made up of male musicians, has helped over 2,000 girls gain access to menstrual products using donations they received from their performances. After moving to the U.K., the men give back by working in refugee camps to improve menstrual hygiene education.

Period poverty in Uganda is far from being solved, and it presents a threat to Uganda’s SDGs. Yet, it has presented several opportunities for innovative solutions that can be learned from. While funding for supplies and sanitation improvements may come from all over the world, local communities are working to untangle deep-rooted stigmas. The inclusion of men and boys in educating about women’s and sexual health has contributed to the success of these projects. With continued government and INGO support, period poverty in Uganda can reduce, and more girls can continue their education.

Elizabeth Stankovits
Photo: Flickr

Homelessness in Latvia
After the Great Recession of 2008, Latvia saw a large rise in its homeless population. After a 389% increase in homelessness from 2009 to 2017, the nation recorded 6,877 homeless people, three-quarters of whom are concentrated in Riga. Data from 2018 also displays that the majority of subjects living in shelters are pre-retirement, ages 41 to 61. Coupled with its lack of affordable housing and deteriorating household economic situation, Latvia has long struggled to provide organized and well-funded state programs to its homeless population. As the government continues not to act, many citizens struggle against addiction, health problems, a weakening economy and stereotypes that exacerbate homelessness in Latvia.

Why Latvia Has Been Unsuccessful So Far

Latvia’s main weakness within its programs is the lack of national and state support. Measures to address homelessness in Latvia are left entirely to the local authorities, which are often inadequate and only provide low-intensity aid. For example, shelters do not offer essential and progressive services such as transfers to temporary or permanent accommodations, making it difficult for individuals to leave shelter systems. Latvia dismisses this issue to such a great extent that has yet to even recognize a formal definition of homelessness in its legislation. The nation’s poor funding and organization, as well as the exceedingly small size of its housing stock, causes the ineptitude of homeless prevention. Municipalities provide social housing exclusively, though some larger governments have formed specific companies to maintain and manage public stock.

Most shelters in Riga have limited services that only provide basic emergency shelter and minimal support-worker time. Displaced individuals thus struggle to re-establish themselves in society and find sufficient private housing, leaving them stuck in public housing systems. Those with alcoholism or other addictions may use detox and rehab programs that Latvian social services provide, but these interventions are costly at €200 for 28 days with an additional €50 per month for accommodation.

Discrimination Against the Homeless

A pervading culture of discrimination also limits opportunities for displaced citizens. In 2018, Latvijas Sabiedriskie Mediji, the official news portal of Latvian radio and television, reported a case of blatant prejudice towards 43-year-old homeless man Gunārs. Gunārs did not qualify for free healthcare, as he was the victim of an inventive tax evasion scheme that firms targeting the homeless used. However, even after Gunārs offered proper payment and was proved a registered patient, the doctor still denied him treatment by claiming his intoxicated state was in violation of code and removing him from the premises. The news source’s further investigation revealed mistreatment towards alcoholic clients at the Red Cross shelter on Gaizina street, which limited drunk individuals to stay on the first floor where they faced verbal and physical abuse by guards and even preachers.

Persons without tax-paying families are also unable to claim financial assistance, as applications of welfare for homeless citizens can only occur through the head of the household based on additional household costs. Latvian citizens returning from abroad are also subject to police inquiry and assessment to determine whether people have a genuine reason to be homeless.

A recent video campaign that the local transport authority in Riga released encourages this anti-homeless sentiment by urging passengers who encounter homeless individuals on their commute to call the police to arrest them. The advert repeatedly plays on the screens of buses, trams and trains throughout the city that advise citizens to identify homeless individuals through their “odor.”

Initiatives to Reduce Homelessness in Latvia

Fortunately, Latvia has taken steps to improve conditions for its homeless citizens. The Riga Central Library, for example, started an initiative in 2017 by collaborating with a local day center to serve as an easily accessible intermediary for homeless clients seeking social needs. The library also solicits food, toiletries and supplies for the homeless; offers brochures, posters and handouts that describe the services available within the library/community; and offers assistance in public service application forms, as well as time to discuss with lawyers, social workers and career consultants.

According to the 2019 ESPN Thematic Report on National Strategies to Fight Homelessness and Housing Exclusion, the government aims to develop a uniform housing policy that improves insufficient social housing, develops affordable quality housing support mechanisms, expands the range of services offered to homeless individuals and prevents homelessness through increased material support. Additionally, the plan strives to ensure that national and local governments designate fiscal funds to make this goal a reality. Statistics from 2019 showed a 3% decrease in Riga’s homeless population in comparison to the previous year, which could indicate that these projects had some positive impact.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has also hastened the Latvian government to take more direct action. To prevent further evictions, the Riga municipality has guaranteed both minimum income benefits and housing benefits for its population. Citizens can also request food from the city’s six food dispensers. In addition to increasing funding for social services provided to homeless and vulnerable persons by €93,320, the Riga Municipality has demonstrated initiative in enforcing hygiene to stop the spread of COVID-19 in shelters by increasing funding to the Blue Cross Men’s Shelter of the Evangelical Christian Church by €4,211 to install five toilets and two disinfection tables.

These new policies could indicate a shift toward greater direct government funding and organization to help homeless persons. By aiming to reduce both shelter occupation numbers and rates of poverty in the next decade, the elimination of homelessness in Latvia is possible.

– Christine Chang
Photo: Flickr

A photo of people in the country to represent who hunger in Spain can impact.
With more than 10 years of recovery from the eurozone crisis that was particularly devastating to Spain, the nation’s economy has been relatively successful and demonstrated steady growth. Despite this recovery, Spain’s poverty rate has risen since the crisis. Its unemployment rate is also more than double the EU average, with concerning levels of youth unemployment. Lockdowns due to COVID-19 have only worsened conditions, causing food insecurity for millions of Spaniards. Prior to the pandemic, Spain had maintained a consistent low hunger rate similar to those of other EU countries at just 2.5%. Amid the COVID-19 lockdowns, Spain’s government and outside organizations are trying to help those who have been impacted by hunger in Spain.

The Impact of Lockdowns

Prior to the pandemic, Spain had high poverty or near poverty rates as well as high unemployment rates. While hunger rates had been kept low, there is a fine line between poverty and going hungry.

Since Spain went into lockdown, 1.6 million people have been assisted by The Red Cross in order to feed themselves and their families. This is more than five times the amount helped in 2019. In Madrid, more than 100,00 people are looking to neighborhood charities and government services for aid. The demand for basic necessities has also risen by more than 30% since the pandemic hit.

Governmental Response

In May 2020, Spain’s government, led by Pedro Sanchez, introduced a minimum monthly payment to protect vulnerable families. The plan “will cost around €3 billion per year, will help four out of five people in severe poverty and benefit close to 850,000 households, half of which include children.” Since his election in 2018, the prime minister had spoken of plans to implement this subsidy, but the pandemic accelerated this process.

Accessing Government Aid

Local organizations report that accessing government services is difficult and can be a source of shame for newly affected families. These government systems can also become overwhelmed, thereby more difficult to access. People can also be blocked from registering if they do not have adequate documentation. This leaves charities and neighborhood organizations to provide additional food and supplies for those who cannot access government aid. Foodbank providers also report that an influx of informal economy workers and tourism employees have been turning to food banks since Spain implemented its strict lockdown.

Looking to the Future

The government responded to increased hunger in Spain with subsidies to help citizens put food on the table. However, Spain is also a popular destination for a record number of immigrants, many of whom do not have access to these subsidies due to the lack of documentation. The service industry, which suffered immensely under lockdowns, was also the primary employer of foreigners in Spain. This is where local groups can and are stepping in to make a positive change, trying to reach those who lack access to governmental resources. 

– Elizabeth Stankovits
Photo: Flickr

Poverty in North Korea
Poverty in North Korea has been persistent for decades. North Korea is one of the most secluded countries in the world, both socially and economically. Since the Korean War in the 1950s, the nation has followed an ideology of self-reliance, called Juche in Korean. According to the official website of the North Korean government, Juche has three tenets: political independence, economic self-sufficiency and self-reliance in national defense. Adhering to these principles, North Korea withdrew from contact with other nations, gradually developing into the closed-off state it is today.

However, poor economic policies and the misallocation of resources have caused much of North Korea’s population to fall into poverty. One study estimates that the poverty rate of North Korea is around 60%, and another puts the percentage of undernourished North Koreans at 43%. The country suffers from chronic food shortages and has some of the worst income inequality in the world. Here are four influences on poverty in North Korea.

4 Influences on Poverty in North Korea

  1. Resource Misallocation: North Korea is notorious for its obsession with nuclear weapons and its military. The Korean War created high tensions between the country and its neighbors, leaving North Korea feeling threatened. As a result, North Korea funnels large amounts of resources into developing and maintaining weapons and the military, when it could better use those resources to fight famine and improve the economy.
  2. Environmental Collapse: To become self-reliant in food production, North Korea has employed intensive agricultural methods, using copious amounts of chemicals and cutting down forests to create farmland and increase crop yields. The loss of forests has led to erosion and flooding, costing the country much of its food supply. In addition, people chop down trees for firewood and eat wild animals to survive, leading to an imbalance in the ecosystem. With land growing less fertile, North Korea struggles to produce enough food for its people.
  3. Government Decisions: In 1995, the government cut supplies to the north of the country to provide more food for the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, to garner support for the regime there. This decision hurt the regime greatly. Farmers began hoarding food and selling it independently of the state. Citizen support of the regime fell, decreasing even further when the regime used force to maintain its power. The Juche ideology backfired, as the country had to rely on international aid during the famine.
  4. Decreased Foreign Aid: During the Cold War, North Korea received Soviet aid. However, the country refused to pay its debts to the USSR, which responded by withdrawing support for North Korea. The fall of the Soviet Union forced North Korea to rely more on China for imports. In the 1990s, however, China decreased its grain exports because its own population needed the crops. In response, North Korea condemned China as a traitor. Without foreign aid, poverty in North Korea has only worsened.

These four influences on poverty in North Korea show that it is the product of ill-advised governmental decisions. Fortunately, the global community has begun to take note of the country’s struggles, and other nations are offering help. China has been the most generous donor, sending over 200,000 tons of food in 2012 and $3 million in aid in 2016. South Korea has also been generous to its neighbor, pledging 50,000 tons of rice and $8 million in 2019. The U.N. asked donors for $120 million to give to North Korea, eliciting responses from countries like Denmark, Norway and Germany. Non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross and the World Food Programme likewise commit to helping North Koreans in need. Hope remains for the people of North Korea.

Alison Ding
Photo: Flickr