Revealed: USAID’s Twitter-like attempt to ferment unrest in Cuba | 

Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Students in Cuba gather behind a business looking for a Internet signal for their smart phones in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

A report by the AP today reveals that a US-backed program attempted to develop a Twitter-like service with the goal that it would help spark political unrest in Cuba.

Most surprising is that it was backed by the humanitarian arm of the US government, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). By channeling funds through offshore accounts and working with US and Spain-based contractors, USAID helped to establish ZunZuneo (a slang term for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet). At its peak, the text-message based application had more than 40,000 users.

There are already concerns that the revelation will cause harm to US foreign policy and future US humanitarian work.

ZunZuneo was built on the back of the state-owned mobile phone company Cubacel. The contract between USAID and Creative Associates International, was to build a system where people could connection on issues related to news, sports and entertainment. Data was to be collected about the users so that more political messaging could be shared, at the direction of USAID.

Taking a page out of Iran and other places where social media aided civil unrest, the hope was ZunZuneo would lead to “smart mobs” and other actions that may “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society,” as a USAID document obtained by the AP, states.

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The shortcomings of celebrities as humanitarian heroes | 

Secretary-General Meets Actor and Humanitarian Sean Penn at Haiti IDP Camp
Secretary-General Meets Actor and Humanitarian Sean Penn at Haiti IDP Camp

Actor Sean Penn transformed into heroic aid worker Sean Penn in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. His brash style and celebrity persona conspired to give him quick access to big players and media. In some cases it worked well. The Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization (J/P HRO) set up shop quickly in the aftermath, Penn declared he was not leaving, he won the respect of many in the aid community and he assumed leadership of a displacement camp.

The same things that worked for Penn worked against him, says Jonathan Katz in Gawker. He is an AP reporter who was in Haiti at the time of the earthquake and stuck around after to track the response.

A doctor at a J/P HRO-run clinic above the Pétionville Club golf course diagnosed a young boy with diphtheria. The fifteen year old, Oriel, arrived at a time when Penn was visiting. The actor sprung into action to save the boy’s life and respond to a potential outbreak.  He set out to get a dose of diphtheria antitoxin (DAT) from a warehouse run by the WHO and the Haitian ministry of health. He was able to get the DAT, despite the warehouse having been already closed.
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Vaccinophobia: World’s most powerful disease preventing tool, the vaccine, still a hard sell | 

A shot at life


A shot at life

The benefit of expanding the use of vaccines worldwide seems like a no-brainer: A cheap and easy way to stop disease dead in its tracks.

Yet polio persists despite a massive global campaign. The crippling disease is back in the Horn of Africa and new violence against vaccinators in Pakistan prompted the World Health Organization to again suspend its polio immunization work there.

The ups and downs of the polio campaign is a cause for concern to those seeking to eradicate this disease. But it isn’t just polio vaccines, or vaccinators, in poor countries that are targeted. There’s a disturbing synchronicity among vaccine opponents – whether it’s the Pakistani Taliban, Nigerian Islamists or Seattle granola heads. Seattle, in addition to being an epicenter for global health, is also known for having the lowest rate of child vaccination for any US city.

Part of the problem may be that a vaccine’s benefit is invisible on the individual level – lack of death and disease. Perhaps another reason vaccines are so frequently targeted for boycotts is the contagion of scientific illiteracy. Continue reading

Cholera Concerns Mounting in Sierra Leone | 

A cholera outbreak in Sierra Leone that made its way to the capital city of Freetown is spreading at an alarming rate. MSF reported an estimated 1,500 cases and 17 deaths in a July 31 press release. The WHO released new numbers yesterday that cholera has infected 5,706 people since the start of August. They single out Western Aread and Tonkolili as areas with the greatest burden.

Right now, the response is being led by major players such as the Sierra Leonean Ministry of Health, MSF, UNICEF and the WHO.  At the same time, neighboring Guinea is dealing with its own cholera outbreak.  According to MSF, the shared resivor  near the coast is a ‘breeding ground for the disease.’

“This ‘coastal cholera’ has already killed some 250 people,” says MSF epidemiologist Michel Van Herp. “The water reservoir allows the Vibrio cholerae bacteria to survive and go on to infect the population.” To respond, organizations are turning their focus onto improving hygiene.

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Catching Up on Cholera in Haiti | 

When cholera broke out in Haiti in October 2010, reporter Jonathan Katz* was the first to break the story connecting UN peacekeepers from Nepal to the outbreak. Nearly two years later, Haiti is still struggling to address the issue of cholera and the UN has yet to admit that it was to blame for the outbreak.

I caught up with Jonathan to discuss his original reporting, the outbreak and the UN’s response. Continue reading

Battle of perception between Global Fund and AP continues | 

I can’t quite tell what’s going on here, so I will merely report the two polar opposite viewpoints.

The Associated Press is reporting in an “exclusive” (which so far has seemed to indicate a perspective on this story shared by few others) that the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is considering not telling us anymore when it discovers bad things happening.

As you can read here and here, the Global Fund has repeatedly been accused of incompetence or malfeasance by the AP, based on anonymous sources, on a number of occasions — apparently, after the Global Fund itself identified the fraud or theft and began investigating these problems.

Now, according to the AP:

A global health fund championed by celebrities and world leaders is considering scaling back its groundbreaking philosophy of full transparency about how it spends billions of dollars in health care in poor countries.

But according to the Global Fund, it has no such intentions and remains committed to making public all of its problems based on its a policy of “full transparency and zero tolerance of corruption.” From a recent press release:

“By nature of its mandate, and in order to reach some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, the Global Fund works in countries with weak institutional and control environments. In tackling mismanagement and corruption, it is driven by two core principles – full transparency and zero tolerance of fraud,” said the Board’s outgoing chairman, Tedros Ghebreyesus on the eve of the meeting.

This is all very odd, since usually the difference between a media report of wrongdoing and the organization’s response differ just by matter of degree and nuance.

These two are just saying completely different things.

What’s different in this latest AP report is they are attributing the allegations to a person this time, the fund’s Inspector General John Parsons. This is at least more credible than simply attributing the accusations to unknown persons and documents.

We’ll just have to wait and see as the investigation proceeds. The Global Fund board did decide, by the way, to continue their policy to report publicly its losses due to theft or fraud.