News blog

Insight, debate and development news from ActionAid's media team

India’s mission to Mars

Jane Moyo's picture Posted by Jane MoyoHead of Media Relations
 
Villagers using a well in Sundarban. Traditional water holes have become saline and tube wells are now the only means of obtaining drinkable water.
Villagers collecting water in Sundarban. Sinking tube wells is the only way to collect safe drinking water as overground waters sources are contaminated with saline.
Photo: Nilayan/ActionAid

As a teenager I watched the broadcast of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969 with wonder. Yesterday I found the images of India’s satellite blasting off to Mars almost equally as inspiring.

It may seem strange for an anti-poverty agency to applaud the Indian government’s commitment to space exploration but as Sandeep Chachra, ActionAid’s Director in India has said, investing in space technology is an important part of the aspirations for an economy such as India.

India was the first country ActionAid ever worked in and it remains the country where we do most work – last year we spent £3.2 million helping some of its most vulnerable communities build better lives for themselves. So ActionAid knows better than most that India is home to half the world’s poor.

We believe that it is vital that the immediate needs of India’s millions of poor people are met, especially the most vulnerable so that people get proper access to food, healthcare and education.

Yet equally we believe that developing a sophisticated technological base in a country with this level of poverty is not a simplistic contradiction.

Harnessing the advances that science and technology bring

What is important is to harness the advances that science and technology bring for the greater good and to use those advances to overcome ingrained poverty and build hope for future generations.

And investing in technology has already reaped rich dividends for the poorest.

Space technology has revolutionised India’s mobile phone industry for example, bringing banking services to even the poorest people. It’s also been instrumental in searching for new underground water sources and helping to track extreme weather events such as recent super cyclone Phailin, enabling the government to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people and save countless lives.

So we shouldn’t dismiss technological advancement out of hand. As an example, it has been estimated that for every dollar the US spent on their space programme they got $45 back from diversifying industries and new technologies.

Ultimately, investing in new industries – including satellite technology - is as essential for development now as it was for the tiger economies in the Far East in the 1950s.

Deloitte’s tax avoidance advice could cost poor African countries hundreds of millions of dollars

Richard Grange's picture Posted by Richard GrangeSenior Media Officer (News and Current Affairs)
 
Pupils in class at the Forces Primary School in Maputo.
Pupils in class at the Forces Primary School in Maputo. Making sure companies pay their fair share of tax could pay for more classrooms like this.
Photo: David Rose/Panos/ActionAid

From Starbucks to SAB Miller, and from Associated British Foods to Google, there’s been a constant stream of tax avoidance controversies over the last couple of years.

But who dreams up the tax plans that make this kind of avoidance possible?

The answer is that some of the chief architects include accountancy firms.

These firms not only audit the books of other companies, but also sell them advice on how to minimise their tax bills.

Until now it has been quite difficult to see how this might work in practice – but today we hope to partly answer this by revealing evidence of how Deloitte is advising big business on how to avoid tax in some of the world’s poorest countries by using the Indian Ocean tax haven of Mauritius.

Deloitte earned made more than $32 billion in revenue last year alone – the most money out of any of the Big Four firms.

The kind of avoidance it is advising, which is entirely legal, could be costing African countries hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

It could mean teachers or doctors don’t get hired or roads and sewers don’t get built, keeping whole countries dependent on international aid.

The document we found is called Investing in Africa through Mauritius (pdf) and was part of a presentation which Deloitte made at conference in June this year attended by many large companies.

Using the country of Mozambique as an example, the example ofthe example ofDeloitte showed how withholding tax and capital gains tax could be avoided by structuring a business through Mauritius.

Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, where the average age at death is 49 and 40% of people are malnourished.

However the document is also important for another reason – because it lifts the lid on how big businesses with operations in Africa use the tax haven of Mauritius to avoid tax.

According to one estimate, three times as much money is being lost to tax avoidance globally as developing countries receive in aid each year.

Want to know more about Deloitte and tax?

UK push for 5% biofuels cap could feed over 68 million per year

Anjali Kwatra's picture Posted by Anjali KwatraHead of News
 

Yesterday was World Food Day. Coincidentally European Union ambassadors met in Brussels to talk about the future of biofuels, discussions which could have a huge effect on food prices and hunger.

As a letter yesterday in the Guardian signed by several MPs said:

“Many of these old-fashioned biofuels are derived from food crops, such as wheat and oilseed rape, which are essential food sources for a rapidly expanding global population.”

Research has shown that most biofuels cause climate emissions just as much as the fossil fuels they were designed to replace, as well as pushing up food prices and causing hunger.

And biofuels have been a major, if not the biggest, driver of land grabs in the past few years. In Sub-Saharan Africa six million hectares of land – 38 times the size of London – is now under the control of European companies seeking to make money from Europe’s biofuel policies. Of the European companies that have invested in biofuels in Sub-Saharan Africa, 30 are from the UK.

The European discussions are complicated. Last year the European Commission proposed a cap of 5% in the amount of food that can be used to meet the overall EU 10% target for renewable energy in transport by 2020.

In September the European Parliament voted to raise the cap to 6%. Currently the Lithuanian Presidency is proposing a 7% cap and this was what the EU ambassadors were discussing. According to ActionAid research, the difference between the 5% and 7% cap could feed over 68 million people for a year.

Meanwhile in Parliament yesterday Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that the UK is pushing for a 5% cap.

"We are absolutely clear that the production of biofuels should not undermine food security, and on some occasions in some countries it clearly does," he said.

"A 5% cap on biofuels made from crops was one of the key asks of the IF campaign. I support the IF campaign and pay tribute to what it did. That is exactly what we are pushing for in current EU negotiations, and I hope we will be successful."

This is really great news for the one in eight people around the world who go hungry every day.

Google want to “extend life” with new project Calico – but maybe they should just stop using tax havens.

Richard Grange's picture Posted by Richard GrangeSenior Media Officer (News and Current Affairs)
 

Last month Google - perhaps in an attempt to move on from all the bad headlines about tax -  announced that they have an extraordinary new ambition.

In addition to being the world’s biggest search engine they now want to use their considerable resources to help “extend life”.

They have joined forces with Apple chairman Arthur Levinson to set up a new company called Calico which they hope will use bio-technology to tackle major illnesses and diseases possibly including cancer.

As Google chief executive Larry Page said: “Illness and ageing affects all our families. With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives."

This is undeniably laudable stuff and “moonshot thinking” ... well, it sounds super-cool.

But here’s the thing.

If Google are really serious about extending life and wanted to do it in a pretty-much-guaranteed way, shouldn’t they simultaneously be paying more tax? And shouldn't they stop basing themselves in tax havens which helps them legally avoid their tax obligatons?

Tax, lest we forget, pays for things like a health service, hospital beds, nurses, doctors, ambulances, access to drugs. All things that we definitely know extend life.

But in the UK it was revealed that last year Google paid only £11.6 million in tax after generating revenue of £506 million, slighty more than 2 percent of its revenues. So not a lot of Google’s money went to caring for patients.

Now, let’s extend this argument to developing countries. We don’t know what Google does or does not pay in terms of tax in poor countries. But we do know that companies legally avoid tax to the tune of £300 billion a year, according to a new ActionAid statistic.

Now think of all the things that that money could pay for like food programmes, sanitation, hospitals, maternity care and clean drinking water.

Again, these are all things which are guaranteed to extend life.

If Google was really ambitious about improving peoples lifespans perhaps they should first sort out their own tax arrangements to ensure that they pay a fair share?

Corporations like Google have huge potential to do good in the developing world. They could leave a lasting legacy on the lives of some of the poorest people in the world.

But maybe tax isn’t as sexy as “moonshot thinking”.

Cyclone Phailin hits east India coastline

Jane Moyo's picture Posted by Jane MoyoHead of Media Relations
 

For the past 48 hours India has been gearing up to cope for what is being called its worst storm in two decades. Whilst super cyclone Phailin batters the coastlines of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, ActionAid in India has galvanised response teams to assist local authorities and coordinate with other aid agencies.

Nearly half a million people have been evacuated from affected districts in the face of driving rain, 100 MPH winds and a storm surge of three metres. My colleagues in India tell me that despite the appalling nature of the storm and the difficulties in communications - mobiles have now gone down - they remain in constant touch with the state and local administration and other non governmental organisations, both local and international.

Amongst the aid agencies, ActionAid has been nominated to take the lead response role for Ganjam district and a strong supporting role in Jagatsinghpur and Nayagarh districts. These are the areas that are expected to be worst affected.

So what does being the lead agency mean? Essentially it's about collaboration and coordination. Making sure that relief efforts get to those who need them most, that duplication is minimised and that people in need don't miss out.

Speaking from Bhubaneswar - in the eye of the storm - local ActionAid manager Ghasiram Panda said this afternoon that ActionAid has already authorised  the purchase of food, bottled water and other essential items such as soap and sanitary products for evacuees. Scarcities of food and a lack of clean drinking water are being reported and with the storm not expected to be over until midday Sunday, protection of children, pregnant women, the disabled and the elderly is a priority.

More will come to light as the cyclone develops, but our teams - in collaboration with others - will be doing their best to minimise the impact on the local population.

In the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Phailin, our teams in Odisha and Andhra Pradesh are already working across the two Indian states to reach families who have lost everything. They were able to do so because of our Emergency Action Fund. It means we can respond quickly and help transform lives torn apart by disaster.

Please donate now to support our emergencies work.

Six months after Bangladesh factory collapse, survivors are still awaiting compensation

Natalie Curtis's picture Posted by Natalie CurtisJournalist - Emergencies and Content
 
21-year-old Naznin Akhter Nazma (pictured left) was pregnant when she was pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.
21-year-old Naznin Akhter Nazma (pictured left) was pregnant when she was pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.
Photo: Nusrat Amin/ActionAid

As compensation negotiations for the survivors and families of those who died in the Rana Plaza factory disaster continue, 21-year-old Naznin Akhter Nazma tells ActionAid her story.

Nazma was pregnant when she was pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh.

“I heaved a sigh of relief when the doctor said my unborn baby was OK, but now I am worried that I can’t provide for my child. I haven’t had any compensation. My rent is five months overdue and soon shopkeepers will stop giving me credit for food", Nazma says.

While she cannot wait to see her new baby, the agony of the event remains with Nazma. Her husband, Jewel, did not survive the disaster, and six months on she has little means to feed and care for her child.

The Bangladesh government, along with the global alliance of trade unions is still in lengthy negotiations with multinational companies over compensation. But for Nazma and thousands like her, results are not coming fast enough.

ActionAid is calling on companies to:

  • Negotiate a fair compensation package for the survivors and families of those who died in the Rana Plaza factory collapse
  • Sign up to The Bangladesh Safety Accord, a five-year legally binding agreement between international labour organisations, non-governmental organisations and retailers to maintain minimum safety standards in the Bangladesh textile industry.