Category Archives: Uncategorized

The World Number One Killer: Non-communicable Diseases

Here’s my latest article published on Impakter Magazine: 

Non-communicable diseases are the major global health issue that most people have never heard of. Yet it kills nearly 40 million people every year, more than traffic accidents (1.3 million) or scary communicable disease outbreaks like Zika and Ebola that do make it in the news, but rarely exceed 10,000 deaths. For example, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed 11,310 (latest Centers for Disease Control data).

NCDs include four major diseases that you can’t catch from someone else:

  • cardio-vascular diseases (stroke and heart attacks, 48% of NCD deaths),
  • cancer (21%),
  • chronic respiratory diseases (12%),
  • diabetes (3.5%).

This is not to belittle the threat or devastation caused by communicable diseases. Currently, the massive cholera outbreak in Yemen that has infected some 800,000 people in the past year and a plague outbreak in Madagascar that has killed nearly 100 people in two months are making the news. Rightly so, these are people in urgent need of help.

But NCDs should not be underestimated: They cause 70% of deaths globally, and nearly 50% of global disability. High-income countries are more affected than low-income countries (88% vs. 37%, 2015 data). As a result, there is a misperception that NCDs are a high-income country problem, but that’s not the case.

It’s a global problem.

And as I argue in the article, it’s a global problem the World Health Organization (WHO) has been addressing over the past two decades…almost single-handedly. To find out what is being done, click here. This is an issue I feel very strongly about, and it’s high time it be given the attention it deserves. The future of our children depends on it.

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How a Film About Human Trafficking Was Made

Today there’s another one of my articles up on Impakter magazine. It’s about human trafficking and Magda Olchawska’s amazing film that brings home all the pain of modern day slavery that is affecting millions of people, as many as the population of New York and Hong Kong combined!
 
Here is the start of the article, with Paula Preston, the lead actress in the featured image.

INTERVIEW WITH MAGDA OLCHAWSKA, DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER OF ANNA & MODERN DAY SLAVERY (out in 2017)

Seven years ago, I met Magda Olchawska by chance, through our common love for literature. But Magda is not just a Polish writer living in the UK and the proud mother of an 8-year old boy, she is also a talented filmmaker. She moved to London at 19 and graduated from London College of Communication (LCC) in 2004, starting on a career in filmmaking.

At the time we met, she had written the first in what became a series of seven children’s books, and she was busy making an indie micro-budget feature film about sex and human trafficking, called Anna & Modern Day Slavery.

Anna & Modern Day Slavery official poster

Magda had always been “passionate about making films that make a difference”, as she put it, and this was a subject that deeply moved her, she wanted to do her piece to fight the scourge of modern-day slavery. Her objective was not only to raise awareness about sex and human trafficking but also raise funds to help small charities working on the ground with trafficking victims.

She did the film as an indie, writing the film script, pulling together cast and crew, including some remarkable actors like Paula Preston and Pawel Palcat, and organizing the shooting in Poland in the summer of 2012.

IN THE PHOTO: Magda Olchawska (center) on the set, directing her film in Poland  (SOURCE: M. Olchawska, Mayan Films)

 

It took four more years of “post-production” and editing to finalize the film and finally bring it into the indie film circuit. To finance her film, Magda resorted several times to crowdfunding and has become something of an expert in this form of financing.

I had a chance to talk to her about her long, tortuous journey in making this, her first feature film.

To read the interview, click here

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GLOBAL HUNGER IS ON THE RISE AGAIN: DOES ANYONE CARE?

Impakter magazine just published my latest article – I wrote this while attending the CFS (Committee on World Food Security) that runs from 9 to 13 October: It’s the biggest UN meeting on food issues, opened to the private sector and civil society – the latter totaling some 380 million people, farmers, women, youth, consumers – who are given a chance to bypass their own government and make their voice directly heard at the UN! In fact, no other UN meeting compares with the CFS and what they are discussing this week really does matter…Here’s the beginning of the article:



GLOBAL HUNGER IS ON THE RISE AGAIN: DOES ANYONE CARE?

When the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) opened its 44th session in Rome on October 9, it wasn’t just another chatty UN meeting. It came with the disturbing news that global hunger was on the rise again. This was a shock. Since 2000, we had all grown complacent, every year brought the good news that hunger was slowing even though world population continued to grow, it looked like the scourge of famine was at last a thing of the past.  From a high 926 million in 2005, global hunger hit a low of 777 million people in 2014.

Hunger: 815 million people were affected in 2016 – up from 777 million in 2014

But now we need to revise this cheerful view. According to the best estimates of five major UN agencies, FAO, World Food Programme, IFAD, UNICEF and World Health Organization, the trend has reversed, 815 million people were affected in 2016, slightly more than one in ten persons, as reported in the newly released UN document “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World”.

FIGURE 1: THE NUMBER OF UNDERNOURISHED PEOPLE HAS BEEN ON THE RISE SINCE 2014, REACHING AN ESTIMATED 815 MILLION IN 2016. CREDIT: FAO-CFS

Undernourishment and malnutrition is clearly on the rise again. Worse, for the first time this century, outright famine was declared in South Sudan on 20 February 2017, and three more countries, Yemen, Somalia and Northern Nigeria are at serious risk, unless international aid comes to the rescue.

Unfortunately, the usual delays caused by donor fatigue have been recently compounded by the fear that the United States might choose to withdraw from the international community, with Donald Trump announcing plans in March to slash the US foreign aid budget by 31 percent. This would directly hit UN agencies, the World Bank and other international institutions, in particular WFP as it proposed to eliminate most US international food assistance.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here. Besides the threat of famine and what to do about it, other issues are also discussed, like obesity.

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If We Were Gods, Would We Be Happy?

My latest article published on Impakter:

If We Were Gods by Adam Karni Cohen, published by The Endeavour Press, July 2017 Book Review and Interview 

When I started reading If We Were Gods, I was wondering how Adam Karni Cohen, the author of this remarkable and bizarre love story-cum-family saga, could ever pull off the heavy referencing to the ancient world of Greek and Roman mythology. I was ready to be bored and expecting to classify this debut novel as yet another pretentious failure from an aspiring writer.

I was wrong, of course. This is the work of a master story-teller. Don’t be put off by the Roman gods roaming around in this book, they are not a bore or a waste of time. There’s nothing academic or pretentious about them. The gods you encounter here don’t slow down the storytelling, what they do is add a new dimension to it, refreshing and amplifying a common tale in our times. A love story between two university students from different countries and different cultures, in this case, Italy and the UK. We have Claudio Collina, son of a Verona industrialist, who came to study engineering in the UK and Jennifer who is an English med student. Claudio is a pivotal character, loaded with an intellectual baggage shaped by ancient Rome, he is the one living the ancient myths.  He befriends Chris, another British med student, and soon this becomes a “classic” love triangle.

Adam Karni Cohen took literally the classic element in this love triangle and elevated it to the main theme of his novel – thus turning it into something entirely new.

You don’t need to know anything about the triangle of love between Vulcan (the god of fire), Venus (his wife) and Mars (her lover) to enjoy the book. And as you read on, you discover that the author has woven more than a love story, this is the saga of two families, one in England, the other in Italy, and it spans decades and generations, as the story turns on Jennifer’s children, Anna, eighteen and her brother Sam, fourteen.

Sam is a particularly endearing character who, to alleviate the boredom of a summer vacation, plays at being a “detective”. He delves deep into his mother’s personal papers and there are times you feel like telling him to stop. But his relentless curiosity moves the plot forward and you come to enjoy the way the author delicately draws this teenage boy, with all his flaws, misguided ambitions and yearning to be loved.

This is an ambitious novel, finely structured and with multiple points of views. Remarkably, one key character central to the plot is one we never meet but only hear about: Claudio’s father, Federico Collina, who sounds like a ruthless startup entrepreneur (not an entirely lovable character but very real).  He has an outsize effect on his children, Claudio and Melissa, shaping their destinies.

If this all sounds complicated, it isn’t. The author pulls it off brilliantly, aided by a real talent for both story-telling and mastery of language. The reader is drawn in, the pace is relentless, this is a page-turner and a deep plunge into the human condition.

After reading it, I wanted to talk to the author and he kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Question: Literary agent Donald Maass wrote in his famous guidebook “the Breakout Novel” that a “truly BIG book is a perfect blend of inspired premise, larger-than-life characters, high-stakes story, deeply-felt themes, vivid setting and much more”. Your book checks all the boxes. Can you tell me how you came to your “inspired premise” and “larger-than-life characters” – in other words, why the mythology, why Claudio?

To read his answers on Impakter, click here.

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Filed under Book review, interviews, Literature, Uncategorized

Cocaine: The Hidden Cost

My latest article, just published on Impakter:

A TRAIL OF BLOOD (PART ONE)

This is the first of a two-part article investigating cocaine. Part One surveys the cost in human terms, focusing on Colombia, the world’s top coca producer, while Part Two investigates the environmental destruction caused by cocaine.

On August 10, President Trump told reporters he was getting ready to “declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency”, in response to a chilling report from the White House commission on the opioid crisis, that said “142 Americans die every day from a drug overdose”, a death toll “equal to September 11th every three weeks”. Trump promised “a lot” would be done to stop drug flows into the US and ensuring young people never use drugs but he didn’t mention access to treatment. And it is not clear exactly how he would proceed, particularly now that natural disasters wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma demand attention.

So far, Congress has done little except pass the 21st Century Cures Act that was signed into law by President Obama in 2016. It added US$ 1 billion over two years for drug treatment and disbursement has just started.  Yet Trump talks up the role of the border wall and law enforcement while his proposed budget and congressional efforts to take down Obamacare are going in the wrong direction, preventing access to insurance to pay for treatment.

At state level, the move away from a criminal justice fix to the drug problem has been patchy at best. One reporter from Vox found that at least fifteen states followed Kentucky’s example of tightening penalties for low-level drug offenders, increasing mass incarceration rather than offering treatment.

Yet treatment is key.

The rest of the world, if not the US, has moved on past the obvious failure of the “War on Drugs” to focus on non-military, non-police, non-legal measures as possible solutions. That’s where improved access to treatment comes in. It is part of the UN Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goal 3, specifically target 3.5 which reads: “Strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol .”

Unfortunately, even within the United Nations, the political discourse is largely focused on other issues, like eradicating poverty as evidenced by the latest “outcome report” of the high-level “political forum” (10-19 July 2017), a ministerial meeting that reviews progress on the SDGs every year. Only one sentence addressed the drug problem: “We reiterate the need to strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse.” Surely stronger statements are required, more needs to be done.

Yet the US-waged “War on Drugs”, started some 60 years ago, and costing an estimated US$ one trillion should have taught us a lesson. It began when President Lyndon Johnson first proposed a toughening of penalties for drug trafficking in 1968; it ballooned with President Nixon in 1971, coming to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Whatever improvement America was able to achieve at home, it quickly vanished: Since 2009 there are more deaths from drug poisoning every year in the US than from firearms, motor vehicle crashes, suicide and murders, said a recent US DEA report.

Meanwhile, in the Andean countries, the war left a devastating legacy, clearly traceable to US aerial fumigation programs to stop coca cultivation and anti-narcotics policing that quickly spiraled into full-scale civil war, particularly ferocious in Colombia, pitting Marxist-inspired guerillas against the central government. The war in Colombia lasted until 2016 when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARCs) agreed to a peace deal with the government, but not before there were some 200,000 dead and five million people forced out of their home.

The lesson from History is clear:  fighting drug trafficking through military or police means solves nothing.

The US is the World’s Largest Cocaine User

The latest report (March 2017) from the Office of National Drug Control Policy on global cocaine trafficking confirms that the US is the largest cocaine user, consuming one third of world production.

Cocaine is known as a “rich man’s drug”, though one form, “crack cocaine” (smoked, not snorted) being much cheaper, is widely used in inner cities and by black communities, ensuring that the drug is prevalent in all social strata.

Cocaine is the second most popular illegal recreational drug in both Europe and the United States behind marijuana. More people use cocaine than heroin, and the number of cocaine users keeps rising (26 percent more in 2015 compared to the previous year, according to the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health).

The street value of cocaine gives an idea of its importance as a recreational drug.  One calculation, often cited, is based on a model developed in 2005 by the UN drug agency (UNODC) which estimated that the US cocaine market exceeds some US$70 billion in street value per year. This is likely to be a conservative estimate but still true today considering that cocaine prices have been (slightly) dropping over the past decade.

US$70 billion spent on cocaine is a lot, as much as Americans spend on playing the lottery, more than on books, video games, movies and sporting events combined (2015 data) – none of which have the devastating impact on health that cocaine has, particularly from chronic use.

PHOTO CREDIT: HÄGGSTRÖM, MIKAEL (2014). “MEDICAL GALLERY OF MIKAEL HÄGGSTRÖM 2014“. WIKIJOURNAL OF MEDICINE 

Coca Production on the Increase

Increased drug supplies mean more deaths: cocaine-related deaths in the United States have increased by about 60 percent since 2010, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What makes the situation increasingly dangerous, is that production of cocaine in Colombia is higher than ever: according to the UN, it reached 866 metric tons in 2016, a 34 percent increase over 2015 when the war was still on-going. And that’s 200 million tons more than the average annual production of cocaine a decade ago (it stood around 650 million tons).

But some believe the UN data is too conservative.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here

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Filed under Economics, Health, politics, Sociology, Uncategorized

The American Dream is Dead, Long Live the American Dream!

My latest article on Impakter that I wanted to share with you:

THE AMERICAN DREAM IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE AMERICAN DREAM!

BOOK REVIEWS: REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM: THE 10 PRINCIPLES OF CONCENTRATION OF WEALTH AND POWERBY NOAM CHOMSKY, PUBLISHED BY SEVEN STORIES PRESS (MARCH 2017); THE VANISHING MIDDLE CLASS: PREJUDICE AND POWER IN A DUAL ECONOMY BY PETER TEMIN, PUBLISHED BY MIT PRESS (MARCH 2017)

In a raft of bestselling books this year, our thinking elite has announced the demise of the middle class and the “American Dream”. At the heart of that “dream” is the idea that every generation, through hard work, would come out better off than the previous one. Of course, the 2008 Great Recession put a serious dent in the notion and Occupy Wall Street in 2011 pointed the finger at income inequality (it’s the One Percent!). In 2014, French economist Thomas Piketty’s magnum opus, Capital in the 21st Century, provided definitive scientific confirmation to every man’s perception that middle class income had been stagnant for decades, that the ultrarich was getting richer at the expense of everyone else.

Two important books from MIT luminaries addressing this issue came out in the same month (March 2017): Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream and Peter Temin’s The Vanishing Middle Class. They both caused waves, loudly proclaiming that the American Dream is dead.

But can we really declare the American Dream dead? Both authors make suggestions though perhaps neither offer definitive solutions. That might require something more than a new set of policies and some people are beginning to talk about it. Recently New York Times journalist David Brooks suggested in an Op-Ed that “Trump is not just a parenthesis.” He is “the farcical culmination of a lot of dying old orders — demographic, political, even moral — and what comes after will be a reaction against rather than a continuing from.”

A lot of “dying orders” and one of them is the American Dream. It is essentially what kept the lights on in the “city on the hill”, the beacon that famously attracted the tired, poor and huddled masses to America – to paraphrase the American poet Emma Lazarus.

REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM

At the outset, it is striking how different Noam Chomsky’s Requiem is from all the other books he has written. It is far more accessible than the academic fare he has accustomed us to. Chomsky has taught at MIT for fifty years and he is one of America’s foremost thinkers, the most famous voice of dissent on the left. He is also an innovative linguist, credited with revolutionizing the field and as a political philosopher, the author of several seminal books, notably 9/11: Was There an Alternative?   considered the most influential post 9/11 book both at home and abroad.

The reason for Requiem’s greater accessibility probably derives from the fact that it is, bottom line, a movie tie-in. Based on the documentary of the same name released in April 2015, it encapsulates and builds on the main ideas presented in the film.

To read the rest, including about Peter Temin’s book and a possible solution suggested by Courtney E.Martin in a famous TED talk, click here 

Enjoy! These books are seriously good summer reading…

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Filed under Book review, Economics, non-fiction, politics, Sociology, Uncategorized

The Collapse of Democracy in Poland: Another Exit from the EU?

My latest article on Impakter magazine:
Democracy in Poland is under threat ever since the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in 2015. If it collapses, it could lead to another Brexit episode with Poland forced out of the EU. Or choosing to leave.   

The villain in the story? For many, it is Jaroslav Kasczynski, the strongman who leads the party. He is a strange man who (so far) has refused to enter the government, he is a simple Member of Parliament yet he effectively pulls the reins. The current President of Poland, Andrzej Duda, is said to be in his pocket, and the Prime Minister too.  And a key player in taking over the judicial system, Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro is at his beck and call.

Who exactly is Jaroslav Kasczynski?


Born in 1949, unmarried and a Warsaw resident, he is a lawyer and the co-founder in 2001 of PiS, along with his identical twin brother, Lech, also a lawyer.  The PiS came first to power from 2005 to 2007 and it distinguished itself with fighting the remnants of Communism in the country and with having tense relations with Russia and Germany: In short, a clear nationalist agenda was already emerging.

Jaroslav’s brother was Mayor of Warsaw from 2002 to 2005 and then President of Poland until his death in 2010. Jaroslav, as the sole survivor of the so-called “terrible twins” that ruled Poland tried to succeed his brother as President but lost out to the incumbent.

Lech’s death in a plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, left Jaroslav convinced it was murder. A believer in conspiracy theories, he blames the Civic Platform leaders who governed after his brother’s death, in particular Donald Tusk, then Prime Minister, today President of the European Council. Others he has taken aim at are Tusk’s chief of staff at the time, Tomasz Arabski and the former foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski.

So, people say, that is why he is attacking the judiciary. But that’s too simple a theory.

The PiS Grab for Power

It is a fact that the PiS is trying to take over control of the judiciary and in its first year in power it had packed the Constitutional Court, politicized the appointment of prosecutors and abolished court consent for state access to private internet accounts – a direct threat to people’s privacy.

But it didn’t stop with the judicial system. It worked on another front too.

To read the rest, click here.

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