Conor Foley

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Many Brazilians watched the closing ceremony of the London Olympics with trepidation. "Do you think we will be able to manage anything more than a couple of carnival floats, some football and traffic jams?" mused one of my friends.

It is a few years since I have heard such expressions of national self-doubt. When I first arrived in Brazil, almost 10 years ago, the country had just elected its first leftwing president, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva. Both the currency and stock exchange were in freefall as investors took fright. There had been an attempted coup against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela the previous year and the pride of my Brazilian friends – who were mainly members of Lula's Workers' party – was mixed with some anxiety.…  Seguir leyendo »

José Serra, the former governor of São Paulo and current candidate for the Brazilian presidency, can probably empathise with his disgraced national football team. Like them, he has watched a steady advantage against a far weaker opponent gradually dissipate and then suffered a virtual implosion in his own campaign. Unless he can turn this around quickly he could even suffer a humiliating exit at the first round of voting in October.

Brazilian politics are difficult for non-Brazilians to follow, and foreign observers often reduce the political arena to a simple left-right divide. In reality, though, it would be difficult to squeeze a credit card between the politics of Serra and his opponent, Dilma Rousseff, and one of the frustrations for many Brazilians is how little choice they are being offered by the two main blocks.…  Seguir leyendo »

The humanitarian aid industry is big business. According to the Overseas Development Institute it was worth about $18bn (£12bn) in 2008 and employed over 300,000 people – a huge increase in recent years. Aid agencies also have growing political clout, playing a leading role in shaping foreign policies of western governments towards humanitarian crises – sometimes even helping to trigger foreign military interventions.

Yet the industry is subject to very little external scrutiny, lacks accountability and is widely believed to often do more harm than good.

There is a real need for serious discussion of the politics and ethics of humanitarian aid, but unfortunately you won't find it in Linda Polman's new book, War Games.…  Seguir leyendo »

The world must engage, not isolate Iran, in the push for Middle East peace, said Brazil's President Lula after a three-hour private meeting with his Iranian counterpart, President Ahmadinejad, on Monday.

Lula also said that Brazil supports Iran's rights to enjoy what he called "the benefits of fuel and technology". But he said Iran should negotiate with western nations for a "just and balanced" solution to concerns over its nuclear programme. The two leaders also issued a joint call for reform of the United Nations.

Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian head of state to visit Brazil in 44 years and the trip was widely viewed as controversial.…  Seguir leyendo »

The announcement that the United Nations has a record $4.8bn funding gap for its 2009 aid programmes may not strike some observers as news. For the last two decades, in particular, the UN has lurched from one financial crisis to another. Although the size of the latest shortfall is unprecedented, the basic problem is that the world's politicians have consistently failed to stump up the resources that the UN needs to fulfil the tasks that they demand of it or to set up a system of effective managerial oversight and planning in the organisation.

The current global recession has clearly put pressure on the aid budgets of all donor countries and the UN's humanitarian assistance budget has faced two recent unexpected calls on its resources.…  Seguir leyendo »

The murder of Gayle Williams in Kabul on Monday follows a string of attacks on humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan this year. The first seven months have seen more than 120 attacks and the murder of 30 aid workers. A further 92 aid workers have been kidnapped. In August the Taliban murdered three foreign women and their Afghan driver in an ambush just outside Kabul, which was the bloodiest single attack on an international organisation in Afghanistan in recent years. The four were working for the US-based International Rescue Committee, which I worked for when I lived in the country.

The Taliban justify their attacks by claiming that the aid organisations are attempting to proselytise for Christianity, which is illegal in Afghanistan.…  Seguir leyendo »

Even before the devastating cyclone hit Burma at the weekend, the country was in desperate need of help. The government now says 22,000 people have died and 41,000 are missing, figures far higher than it originally admitted. The biggest problem will be obtaining access to affected areas. Burma's government has long been suspicious of international aid agencies, and although it has accepted help from UN agencies already working there, their activities are tightly controlled.

Burma only receives around $3 per capita of international aid, far less than its neighbours: Vietnam receives $33 per capita, Cambodia $47 and Laos $63. This is a result of the international sanctions in place since the mid-90s.…  Seguir leyendo »

The contrasting fates of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh and Abdul Rashid Dostum say a lot about what is wrong in Afghanistan at the moment. Kambakhsh is a young journalism student at the University of Balkh in northern Afghanistan. A few weeks ago he was sentenced to death for blasphemy after a summary trial in which he had no legal representation and no opportunity to defend himself. His alleged offence is to have downloaded and distributed an article from the internet questioning why men can have four wives but women cannot have multiple husbands.

The sentence was passed in closed session at which he was again denied the right to speak in his defence.…  Seguir leyendo »

One of the problems with discussing humanitarian intervention is that the term itself means different things to different people. For legal scholars it describes military intervention to come to the aid of people facing acute danger, for humanitarian aid workers it is the impartial distribution of emergency relief.During the 1990s the two activities became increasingly intertwined as military convoys were used to open "humanitarian corridors" to civilians trapped in conflict zones. Aid workers also felt increasingly compelled to speak out about the atrocities that they witnessed. "One cannot stop a genocide with medicines," proclaimed Médecins sans Frontières during the Rwandan crisis of 1994, and a year later others mourned the "well-fed dead" of Srebrenica.…  Seguir leyendo »