Kamala BK (not her real name) is HIV positive.

Her husband died about six years ago, although she didn’t know at the time that AIDS was the cause.

After marriage the couple had worked in India, but Kamala returned periodically to the family home in Doti, a hill district in Nepal’s far west. During one of their long separations, her husband became infected with HIV and, in turn, infected his wife when they were reunited.

 Kamala’s story, sadly, is far from a being unique in Doti, which has the second-highest HIV prevalence rate of any district in Nepal.

There are common elements to the stories of all the HIV positive women I spoke to there.

Food insecurity and lack of employment opportunities. Migration to nearby India. Unavoidable periods of estrangement between husbands and wives. Lack of knowledge about HIV and how it is transmitted. Increasing periods of ill health and physical incapacity. Lack of access to affordable and reliable medical information and health care.

UMN has been supporting community work among people living with HIV and AIDS in Doti for several years now. Things like skills training, medical advice, and improved access to health care. This year, we also worked to inform local communities about their rights under Nepal’s local governance laws, and help them participate in the local government planning and budget formation process. The result was a new sense of empowerment for the women living with HIV and AIDS, and a budget allocation to support them.

On paper at least, Nepal’s local governance law (Eng. pdf) is extremely inclusive and mandates the participation of every local settlement in drawing up plans and priorities for funding from the Village Development Council (VDC) or District budget.

Of course, implementation is everything; many communities are not aware of their rights under this law and local planning is often conducted behind closed doors by a handful of administrators and politically-connected people.

This year, though, we worked intensively to raise awareness about the local government budget and how to develop and contribute community proposals for funding. None of the communities had ever participated in this way before and I was excited to see newly empowered communities engaging in the political process in a way that earned the respect and support of the local administrators and political parties.

Through this community advocacy, as well as the roads, water sources, temples, classrooms and irrigation systems that were funded, the VDC budget allocated 26,000 rupees to support women living with HIV and AIDS. It’s a relatively small amount, but Kamala was happy with the result.

I am very happy. Often we can’t work. We can’t eat. Sometimes we are too sick even to take our medication. So the funds will be very helpful to improve our livelihoods and pay for medical care. We haven’t decided yet how we will use the money, but we will take that decision together.

The Centre for Policy Development has just released a new report on Australia’s policies on refugees and asylum seekers, entitled A New Approach: Breaking the Stalemate on Refugees & Asylum Seekers (pdf).

The report has been endorsed by 34 prominent Australians (their statement is here).

The report itself is very thorough and thoughtful, and a bonanza of facts and human stories – both welcome in a policy debate that largely ignores facts, and dismisses the human dimension of “border control” or mandatory detention.

They call for change in the public and political debate in Australia, renewed regional cooperation, better post-arrival support for asylum-seekers, an end to offshore processing and a move from mandatory to risk-based detention, with firm time limits (30 days for adults and 14 days for children) on how long someone can be detained unless they are deemed a security or health risk.

From a policy angle, everything they’ve written seems pretty sensible and would be substantially more humane and cost-effective than our current policies.

My big concern, though, is that the authors really present no plausible road-map for how we get there from here. What and who needs to change and how could that change come about for Australia to achieve a facts-based, non-hysterical, compassionate set of policies towards asylum-seekers and refugees? Apart from calling for more “national leadership”, what actually do the authors think can happen that will get us from where we are to where they want us to be?

In short, it seems like great policy, but not enough politics.

For example, the two recommendations for changing the public and political debate in Australia are to develop an independent commission to facilitate informed political and public debate and also an Independent Refugee Asylum and Humanitarian Assistance Authority to administer all aspects of policy. “What we need,” the report reads,

is a small independent and professional commission to promote informed debate about refugees.

Now, informed debates faciliated by independent and professional commissions are bound to be great. And I’m sure it would be wonderful if all public policy was formed after sober debates facilitated by independent and professional commissions.

But how is that independent and professional commission supposed to get traction in the public debate when every boat arrival is breathlessly reported on by media outlets? How is its supposedly informed debate meant to trump the political advantage which is there to be seized by whoever can most relentlessly stoke fear and portray refugees and asylum-seekers as threats to national security and sovereignty?

Because I think we have two rival views at work here. On the one hand we have a view (perfectly encapsulated in the slogan, “Stopping the boats”) which places “border protection” and “national sovereignty” higher than any other value. The appeal to national security and border protection, and its rhetoric exploits notions of boundaries and the prevention of bodily contamination or defilement (in this case, the defilement of the body politic by the unwanted, and potentially threatening, other).

Like an airborne virus or an invasive parasite attacking the body, asylum-seekers have transgressed certain physical and metaphorical boundaries and our response, or at least the response of many, is revulsion. I think the (at least partially) metaphorical nature of Australia’s borders is readily seen in the ease with which vast swathes of Australia can be legislatively removed from our “migration zone”.

And when asylum-seekers are viewed in this light, it is inevitable that they will also be subject to negative moral judgements. “Queue-jumpers.” “Illegals”. The kind of people who would throw their children overboard (except they didn’t).

It is also inevitable that our revulsion will be used to justify harsh responses (mandatory detention, removal of family reunion rights, towing boats back to sea, and so on).

The other view, that taken by the report’s authors, is that asylum-seekers are people. People who, because of certain traumas, have undertaken difficult and dangerous journeys to reach a place where they hope they might find safety and security. People who should be treated with, at a minimum, respect and, perhaps, even with a modicum of compassion and hospitality.

I’m completely with the report’s authors on this. And the facts, of course, are on their side. The tiny numbers of boat arrivals poses no meaningful threat to Australia’s “sovereignty”. Most people who arrive by boat are found to be refugees who are genuinely in need of a safe haven in Australia. Very few pose any kind of health or security threat to Australia, and a short period of detention for the purposes of security and health checks is entirely justifiable.

But my question is, how do we make it politically possible for Australia’s politicians and immigration system to treat asylum seekers differently?

How can we shape the national conversation and responses so that human rights and values trump abstractions of “border security” and “sending messages to people smugglers”?

How will we ensure that politicians flourish electorally by standing on principles of compassion and inclusion, rather than fear and exclusion?

How will we ensure that mercy wins out over sacrifice?

For a take on the politics of this, David Marr’s article is good.

If you haven’t heard the guitar-driven, expansive, ululating, call-and-response Tuareg rock of Tinariwen then you should download their new live album for free!

If you haven’t fallen in love with Malian music by the end of the album, I recommend Rokia Traore (who is at least 18 different kinds of awesome, and one of 3 women I would bind myself into eternal slavery for on the strength of their voices), Amadou and Mariam (my favourite ever blind, husband-and-wife musical duo), and Toumani Diabate (sublime master of the kora: prepare to be transdimensionally transported).

Australia’s policy of mandatory detention (imprisonment for an indefinite period without judicial review) for asylum seekers arriving by boat is wrong on just about every level. It is immoral: degrading people’s dignity and harming their physical and mental health. It is expensive and inefficient. It is likely to breach Australia’s obligations to uphold human rights. And it is highly questionable whether it achieves any valid policy goal anyway.

But, none of that matters. Since the policy was first developed by the Labor Government in 1992, asylum seekers who arrive by boat (but not by plane) have been locked up sometimes for years on end. Often in remote locations with limited access to health care, legal advice, or educational and recreational opportunities for children and adults. And in the iterations of Australia’s “border protection” policies since the arrival of the MV Tampa in 2001, they have been carted to other countries (Papua New Guinea, Nauru, and – possibly soon – Malaysia) to be processed or warehoused.

The human cost doesn’t matter: stress-related physical health problems, self-harm, depression, suicide attempts and suicides. In fact, when the Australian Medical Association made the obvious point, that

the system of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers is inherently harmful to the physical and mental health of detainees. The harm is especially acute in the case of children.

their considered opinion was swiftly rejected as mere politicking.

The ridiculous financial waste doesn’t matter. Regarding the cost of keeping people in mandatory immigration detention, Bernard Keane’s back-of-the-envelope estimate of $113,000 per asylum seeker is probably not too wide of the mark.

The damage to Australia’s international reputation and the functioning of international human rights regimes doesn’t matter. The United Nations Refugee agency regularly asks Australia to live up to its international obligations. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights referred to our “hardline and unsustainable immigration detention policies” in her address(pdf) to the 17th session of the UN Human Rights Council last May.

Policy incoherence and ineffectiveness also doesn’t matter. After almost 20 years of mandatory detention, there is no evidence that it has deterred boat arrivals. There is no evidence that it has made processing people’s cases easier than it would otherwise have been (and given the remoteness of many of the detention centres, there’s no reason to see why it would be). There’s no evidence that it makes removing unsuccessful asylum applicants easier and none that it makes integrating successful applicants into the community easier. And, given everything we know about the impact of extended imprisonment on asylum seekers, it’s easy to intuit that mandatory detention probably makes successful integration harder. Which is a real problem, given that around 80% of people who arrive by boat are found to be refugees.

When even the Secretary of the Department is trying to feed politicians the questions they should be asking at a parliamentary inquiry (pdf), you know there is a serious deficiency in the rationale for the policy of mandatory detention.

Is immigration detention a deterrent? Does immigration detention facilitate case resolution? What range of facilities should be utilised? For how long is an immigrant arrival and status determination process in a detention centre environment required?

Why does none of this matter?

Because it’s what our Government and the Opposition want. The Minister for Immigration says that mandatory detention is “an essential component of border control.” The Shadow Minister agrees.

And because it’s what we want. According to this poll from October 2010, 53% of respondents would rather have children in detention centres, than to allow them to live in the community while their claims are being processed.

We want the costly and ineffective policy of mandatory detention for boat arrivals. We don’t mind that this policy fails to meet basic standards of human rights. We are happy to have a policy that has self-harm and suicide as its inevitable byproduct. And, when asked, we want to ensure that children are caught up in the policy drag-net too.

If you are not already reading Byron Smith’s blog, then do.

And then go and read this gem in Eternity magazine by John Cook, committed Christian and author of the completely brilliant skeptical science.

For the church to turn a blind eye to the injustice of climate change is to turn our back on God’s heart for the poor.

Cutting down our fossil fuel pollution has become part of the mandate to love our neighbours. We must pray and campaign for justice in a changing climate. We need to support action on climate change and look to reduce our carbon footprint.

this country
thrust up in spines and knuckles
folded aslant and again folded over:
ankylosing rock and soil
into shark’s-tooth ridges, sheer cliffs torn whole
from a world entirely the wrong way up
and hills that must be stepped and terraced
ropani by aching ropani
for grain and all human things to stand

and worn through – sawn through and scoured
to the marrow of rock
by fine threads of water
making their way from sky to sea
bearing millennial torrents of stone
to litter river-beds like long-forgotten toys
and spearing through sky and soil
in annual deluge –
a dacoit carrying off people and cattle
crops and belongings
whole hillsides

the scars still visible in exposed earth
and haunted eye

(with apologies to my friends on the terai who know there is
more to Nepal than pahad and himal)

I chanced upon my physician as I was walking along the way. He proceeded to upbraid me and spoke exceedingly boldly,

“You really must give up fast food, you know. It’s terribly bad for your health and you’re storing up worse health problems for the future the longer you keep eating it.”

“My fine doctor,” I replied, in good humour, “I will most assuredly reduce my consumption of these foods of swiftness just as soon as all others have done so.”

“Sooner is better than later,” he remonstrated. “The food you eat today will contribute to health problems you may develop in coming months. And it could take years of abstinence and exercise to bring you back to good health.”

O’ercome with wrath, I thundered, “Do you mean to say, sir, that nothing I do will make the slightest bit of difference for years?

And, cursing him for a fool and a blaggard and a supporter of godless political philosophies, I made my way to the nearest local outlet of a certain Scottish eatery.

Two years ago I wrote about a Kumal community that had been denied water for irrigation by a higher-caste community. This higher-caste community had illegally diverted water away from the Kumals’ irrigation channel about 30 years ago, and the community had been without water for all that time. The original post is here.

I wrote an update to that post about a year later describing the efforts the Kumals had taken to mediate, to organise and to advocate for their right to water. That update is here. I came to the hopeful – but less than totally upbeat – conclusion that,

The Kumals hope that this information will be used to determine a fair allocation of water to each community and guide the engineers when they come to rebuild the two channels. Let’s hope that’s how it works. There are several ways that the Kumals could still be denied justice. The land tallies might be inaccurate or misrepresented. The work on the channels might be delayed. Or it might be done without proper regard to the communities’ needs.

But by continuing to speak up the Kumals are paving the way for change. Not only a change in the irrigation infrastructure available in the village. Nor only the nutrition and health benefits that will come when the water is available. Also a change in the Kumals’ own self-understanding and perception of their place in the world.

So, a year later what news can I share? The Kumals have water flowing through their irrigation channel, and are working on restoring and improving the channel itself. I’m a little bit happy.

I hope to visit the community next month, so will post further news then.

I was extremely glad to be able to vote online, even from Nepal. ivote is brilliant and made me wonder why I had to spend 3 hours at the Australian Embassy voting for a hung parliament before the Federal Election last year.

While I normally love the festival atmosphere of elections, and take great delight in teasing the how-to-vote-card distributors by making as if to accept their offerings, only to snatch my hand away at the last minute, this election seems much more like a divorce, or an execution, or the regrettable putting down of a terminally ill animal, than any kind of political contest.

But the most annoying thing about the NSW Labor Party – I know, I know, how do you choose? – is that thanks to their utter repugnance to the voting public, the Liberal Party will be able to spend the next four years claiming whatever policy they like as part of their “mandate”. The most egregious example being Barry O’Farrell’s campaign against the federal move to implement a price on carbon emissions. (And this despite the fact that a majority of voters support the move when it’s clear that there will be compensation for low and middle income earners.)

But the truth of the matter is the Coalition will not be elected for any particular policy – I’m sure most people would be hard-pressed to name any specific policy they have put forward. They are not, in fact, being elected with a mandate to do any particular thing, whatever they might say.

They are being elected specifically and only to not be the NSW Labor Party.

It looks like AusAID may well be making the most of the golden opportunity it’s been handed if this story is anything to go by.

From the title, Australian aid school deters poverty and inspires dreams, to the very last word, Australia’s program to support school building and management in parts of Indonesia is presented in an overwhelmingly positive light.

From the personal:

Parhin, who is in year 8, says she is ‘‘approximately 14’’ but has no birth certificate.

Her parents married young, quickly divorced and left her in the care of her grandmother. The two live in a one-room shack next to a cow pen, relying on the generosity of neighbours and Parhin’s odd jobs to get by.

This is not atypical. Just 10 of the junior high school’s 104 students live with their parents, says Zainuddin.

Parhin’s teachers say she is smart enough to do anything, given the opportunity. ‘‘My ambition is to be a doctor,’’ she says.

What if she had left after primary school? ‘‘I would probably be married, more than once,’’ she said. ‘‘But [marrying so young] is just wrong.’’

To the political:

Jacqui DeLacy, head of AusAID in Indonesia, says the program, introduced by the Howard government in 2005, has ‘‘transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian children’’.

‘‘Education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty. It gives people the possibility of a productive life. It increases incomes, makes people healthier, reduces early marriage,’’ said Ms DeLacy. ‘‘It’s been a great investment in the stability and prosperity of Indonesia and generated enormous goodwill between our two countries.’’

How often do international aid stories make headlines in the Australian media? AusAID should probably crack open a bottle and raise a quick toast to Tony Abbott if they haven’t already. And all because the Coalition blockheadedly decided to announce “cuts” it will never make – being in Opposition and all. And to an aid program initially begun under the Howard Government.

If reports are to be believed, Julie Bishop, Shadow Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, is not happy about how this has made the Coalition in general, and herself in particular, appear. I think she’s right to be annoyed.

The Coalition certainly won’t have won any friends in the aid and development sector by proposing the cuts. They appear to be pandering to a base selfishness that exists in the some parts of the Australian community. And they’ve done it all in the cause of trying to stop the Government raising a levy to help Queenslanders who’ve been hit by flood and cyclone.

Not a good look.