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Radical Drone Solution To Woeful Infrastructure In Poor Countries

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Drones – unpiloted aircraft, formally called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) – have long been used for military purposes. The U.S. military claims to have 7,500 drones – a massive growth from just 50 a decade ago – and has used them for surveillance and combat in conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq.

Drones can cost anywhere between a few thousand and millions of dollars depending on their size and sophistication. Some weigh as little as half a kilogram, and the largest can reach 18,000 kilograms (19 tons).

It is estimated 40 countries around the world are working on drones in one capacity or another.

Military drones come with ominous-sounding names such as Predator, Fire Scout, Global Hawk and Hunter. But many pioneers and innovators are setting out to prove drones can be a technology of peace and development and not just of fear and war.

YouTube provides many examples of drones being tested out as a delivery method. SF Express (http://www.sf-express.com/cn/en/product_service/product_intro/airline_delivery.html), a courier service in Dongguang, China has tried delivering parcels by drone. It is using a drone with eight rotor blades, called an octocopter (http://www.steadidrone.eu/octocopter-ei8ht/).

In Shanghai, the InCake bakery has used drones to deliver cakes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXwgwSkujOY). The service was brought to a halt after complaints from citizens, worried the drone would crash into someone.

The American pizza chain Domino’s has been testing drones for delivering pizza in the United Kingdom (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZDXuGQRpvs4). A British company has used drones to deliver sushi to restaurant tables in London (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WV0yQYXLU34).

These may prove to be novelty experiments – or the early days of a revolution. Time will tell.

But serious thinking about drones is taking place in the area of development.

One pioneering company thinks it has a solution for two big problems common to many developing countries: the chaos, congestion and crowding that clog urban areas; and the poor or non-existent infrastructure in rural areas. Both problems make it expensive and time-consuming to move goods around.

A billion people in the world do not have access to all-weather roads, says the World Bank. Some roads are being upgraded in parts of sub-Saharan Africa but many are in worse shape than they were decades ago. Modern infrastructure is expensive to build, and the funds to do it often must be borrowed.

A startup called Matternet thinks it has the solution to getting around this problem in Africa, and in rapidly growing cities of the global South. It believes drones can come to the rescue where infrastructure is poor or non-existent, and save valuable wealth that can be diverted to real improvements in human development, or used to reduce congestion in crowded urban areas.

The Matternet (http://matternet.us/) is billed as “the next paradigm for transportation.” Matternet is offering a system and a concept for deploying drones as a scalable solution to overcome the problem of poor transportation networks in developing countries.

The artist’s vision on Matternet’s website shows drones buzzing their way through an urban high-rise landscape as they go about their business.

The Matternet drone design has two wings with three fans in each wing to allow it to take off and land vertically as well as flying in a straight line. There is a 10 litre space for packages and a rechargeable battery at the bottom of the drone. The drones can fly at 40 kilometres an hour, at an altitude of up to 121 metres and are guided by GPS (Global Positioning System) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Positioning_System).

The drone moves in and out of a ground-station landing pod, where it is recharged, picks up new packages to deliver, and connects electronically to receive instructions. An entry and exit slot sits on top of the pod while there is a place at ground level for people to pop in packages for delivery.

Each vehicle costs US $1,000 and can last 10 years, the makers claim. Matternet believes the drones could transport 2 kilograms over 10 kilometres for just 24 US cents a trip.

Matternet’s Andreas Raptopoulos (https://www.solveforx.com/moonshots/physical-transport) hopes to push Africa away from simply upgrading its infrastructure along the lines of what is already in existence in developed countries. It is estimated it will take Africa another 50 years to have an infrastructure equal to North America. But why wait so long? Why not, he argues, just use drones or UAVs to knit a transport infrastructure criss-crossing the continent delivering goods and services to people?

Radical drone advocates like Matternet are very ambitious. They believe drones are to infrastructure what mobile phones have been to telecommunications: an advanced, 21st-century technology that enables countries to leapfrog ahead of old-school 20th century infrastructure and connect people up for much less cost and effort.

Imagine a city in the global South 15 years from now: canyons of high-rise buildings stretch from the central business district out to the suburbs where apartment towers replace office buildings. And whooshing through these canyons will be the drones carrying everything from takeaway food to medical supplies to the latest fashion items.

Anywhere in Africa can currently contact Matternet to arrange a trial of the technology (http://matternet.us/get-matternet/). The concept had field trials in the Dominican Republic and Haiti in the Caribbean. A large field test trial is being arranged for Lesotho, where the drones will help with delivering supplies to clinics serving patients with HIV/AIDS. The 47 clinics are spread out over a 138 square kilometre area and will be served by 50 ground stations and 150 drones at a cost of US $900,000. In comparison, building 2 kilometres of a single lane road would cost US $1 million.

Matternet is based in Palo Alto, California and founded by partners Andreas Raptopoulos, Paola Santana, Dimitar Pachlov and Darlene Damm.

It was conceived at the Singularity University (http://singularityu.org/) whose mission is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: October 2013

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

Other stories from Development Challenges, South-South Solutions:

African Digital Laser Breakthrough Promises Future Innovation

China Looking to Lead on Robot Innovation

Digital Mapping to put Slums on the Map

New Weapon Against Crime in the South

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U.S. Elections Update: Clinton is using Canada to keep control of Haiti

By David South

Id Magazine (Canada), October 31 to November 13, 1996

Canadian troops are not only on the frontline of peacekeeping in Haiti but also the frontline of U.S. foreign policy – a policy that is unravelling during the run-up to the November 5 presidential election. While the living standards of Haitians in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere continue to decline despite free elections, Canadian troops are charged with keeping the island nation peaceful. It’s a task that is proving more and more difficult as Haiti suffers a crime wave and violent political unrest. 

While American president Bill Clinton tries to snatch another victory from a grumpy U.S. electorate, his advisors are desperately trying to keep the lid on his foreign policy “victories” in Bosnia and Haiti. 

Things are so bad, Clinton sent his secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, and his national security advisor, Anthony Lake, to Haiti on August 30 in response to high-profile assassinations of right-wing leaders. 

“The administration are hoping, with fingers crossed, nothing will happen before November 5,” says Larry Birn of the Washington-based Centre for Hemispheric Affairs. “What the United States would like to do is cryogenically freeze all its foreign policy engagements so they don’t produce any problems. But we are losing very valuable time in Haiti because of Washington’s paralysis over negative developments occurring there. 

“Washington didn’t realize an economic success story had to be bred there in a couple of years. The USAID programme is a scandal waiting for an investigation.”

There is also another election-year factor: Republicans are not fond of anything that whiffs of a humanitarian approach to Haiti. Since they dominate Congress, this is also Clinton’s problem. 

Given the history of American support for dictatorships in Haiti, the Clinton administration has chosen a low-key approach. After the 1994 invasion, the Americans pulled out the vast majority of their troops within a year, handing over responsibility for internal security to a UN peacekeeping force. But the U.S. never fully cut itself off from interfering in Haiti, keeping a military base operating in the country’s only industrial park in Port-au-Prince. 

And Canada is key to U.S. plans because of that sour legacy. Canadians are seen as free from the burden of colonialism, and as a plus, our 700 mostly French-speaking troops can communicate better with the local population. 

This policy has gone as far as hiring a Canadian public relations company to promote structural adjustment programmes that are conditional upon Haiti receiving any foreign aid from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both based in Washington. 

Gilles Morin is co-ordinating manager for Montreal firm Gervais-Gagnon-Covington Associates, who won the contract. Morin says, while his company did win the contract, like many other things to do with Haiti, they have heard nothing since Fall 1995 because of disorganization.  

“On a personal basis there was a strong anti-American feeling among the population because of the past,” says Morin. “A lot of the financial institutions are based in Washington and they needed international support because banks in Washington are seen as American.”

But there is a risk that a switch in U.S. priorities during the heat of an election will endanger Canadian troops.

“If the president feels he has political risk in Haiti, he’s not going to take Canadian concerns into consideration,” warns Birns. “The UN mission gets caught up in the wake of U.S. efforts and it’s not able to define an independent course. Right now, the problem really is the USAID mission in Haiti is a total failure. The international donor function, you couldn’t exaggerate how disappointing it’s been in terms of almost no relief. The unemployment rate of 80 per cent is exactly what the unemployment rate was when the UN arrived.”

On August 28, American troops from the 82nd Airborne plopped down on the streets of Port-au-Prince to spend a week patrolling. Many observers questioned the motives for this intervention. Was it to say to Haitians the UN isn’t the real deal, and if they get out of line, the Americans will kick their butts? Why doesn’t Canada protest the U.S. undermining the credibility of our peacekeeping mission?

To Birn, sending in the 82nd was the foreign-policy equivalent of fast-food. “Sending in the 82nd Airborne merely aimed at getting a one-day headline,” he says. “The administration’s position has been staked on the fact there has been a number of foreign policy wins. But each of these victories is held together by corn starch and could unravel at any moment.”

Birn sees an escalation in political violence just around the corner. He fears the current economic crisis will help the formation of a violent left-wing guerrilla movement to rival existing right-wing paramilitaries. 

“Without former president Jean Bertrand Aristide,” he explains, “there is growing apprehension that president Rene Preval will not be able to project a sufficient leadership to keep the average Haitian, who is sacrificing with no expectation of an improved standard of living, happy.”

While it has been almost two years since Haiti was the media’s darling, observers point out the cycle of violence has returned to the country’s streets despite the presence of UN peacekeepers and American troops. 

When id reported from the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in July (id July 11 to 24, Number 18), it was obvious no progress had been made to improve the standard of living or rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure. 

In an ironic twist, attempts to step up deportations of Haitian-Americans convicted of crimes in the U.S. has led to an increase in killings in Haiti according to the October 22 issue of New York weekly, The Village Voice

More and more, the UN troops are propping up an increasingly unpopular government. A government that is seen by many Haitians to be getting its orders from Washington, not Port-au-Prince. Canadian troops lead the UN mission in Haiti and make up 700 of the 1500 soldiers stationed there (the rest are from Pakistan and Bangladesh).

There is a serious danger Canadian troops will be caught in the crossfire of any uprising or coup attempt, since Canadian troops shadow president Rene Preval 24 hours a day and also guard the National Palace, which was attacked August 20, killing two Haitians.

“U.S. Elections Update: Clinton is using Canada to control Haiti”.

Read a 1996 report on the UN mission in Haiti here: State Of Decay: Haiti Turns To Free-Market Economics And The UN To Save Itself 

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Peaceniks Questioning Air-Raid Strategy In Bosnia

Muslims say peaceful alternatives will aid cleansing

By David South

Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), May 13-19, 1993

While Bosnian Muslims continue to demand either airstrikes against the Serbians or weapons to defend themselves, there is little consensus among Canadian peace groups and political parties that these measures are the key to a long-lasting peace.

The differences are as graphic as those between Washington and Ottawa. While president Bill Clinton is asking European nations to support air strikes, prime minister Brian Mulroney has publicly opposed such bombing raids as an answer to the brutal ethnic cleansing of Muslims being carried out by the Serbs.

“We are still developing our position in terms of support for military intervention,” says Roxanne Dube, assistant to Liberal foreign policy critic Lloyd Axworthy.

Dube says, “We need something more comprehensive than just airstrikes, which alone could jeopardize our troops.”

NDP foreign affairs critic Svend Robinson is more willing to consider military action under UN auspices. But first he wants “a vice-like embargo on Serbia and the establishment of safe havens and humanitarian corridors.

“If the slaughter continues, I personally would not exclude the posibility of further military action,” he says.

“The response of the United Nations, and NATO in particular, has been appallingly inadequate. It has allowed the Bosnian Serbs to consolidate their territorial position. And their latest sabotage of the Vance/Owen proposal has left the international community with no alternative but to isolate Serbia.

“The Bosnian Serbs are just continuing their widespread rape of Muslim women, ethnic cleansing, torture – the world has got to say, stop.”

Among peace groups there is a feeling that military intervention is not a longterm solution.

“We don’t have a position,” says Tamara Storic of Greenpeace Canada, a response echoed by the Toronto Disarmament Network. “We’re in much the same situation as the UN. Nobody knows what to do.”

No position

The Canadian Peace Alliance’s Gideon Forman understands the frustration that fuels calls for bombing, but doesn’t believe it is a longterm solution.

“Those who say go in there and bomb are not all crazy,” he says. “They hear about ethnic cleansing, they hear about rape camps – and they see bombing as a way to stop that. But our position is that a little more restraint has to be shown.”

He advocates a combination of sanctions and diplomacy for a longterm peaceful solution.

Maggie Helwig of ACT for Disarmament says she has little to offer in the short term, pointing out, “Maybe at this point there is little anyone can do.” She is also sympathetic to those who want to arm Bosnian Muslims, but feels it wouldn’t help the situation.

She says, “I believe they are the legitimate government. But providing weapons is not going to contribute to a lasting peace.”

Helwig favours targeted sanctions that would allow opposition organizations in Serbia to receive supplies while the government wouldn’t, combined with international support for peace and opposition groups.

“The only way we can end the Serbian aggression to to support the opposition in Serbia, the peace movement and the women’s movement. The reason they aren’t having much influence is that they aren’t getting any international support.”

Fatima Basic, spokesperson for the Canadian Bosnian refugee groups, says that while she supports Helwig’s plans for helping opposition and women’s groups, she is angry that it is being put out as an alternative to military intervention and air strikes. She says the West “should have done something before we lost half a million people.”

Imam Tajib Pasanbegovic, religious leader of Canadian Bosnian Muslims, says of Helwig’s thoughts, “It’s a ridiculous idea by itself. It will take several years, and by then there will be no Bosnian Muslims left. There is not time. Imagine if we gave this chance to Hitler in the second world war – another 5 million Jews would have disappeared.”

Both he and Basic are bitter that while Clinton seeks European support for bombing, “Prime minister Brian Mulroney is going behind his back telling the world not to interfere.”

Life embargo

Pasanbegovic says if the West will not intervene with at least half the bombing if did in the Gulf War, “They should life the arms embargo and return things to a starting point. If the West is not going to defend us, at least let us defend ourselves.”

However, Carolyn Langdon of Voice of Women, a peace group working with peace and women’s organizations in the former Yugoslav republics, says, “Our position is against intervention, including limited military strikes. We are supporting the civil society groups, the opposition against the nationalism and war policies of their governments.”

Her group sets up rape crisis centres and sponsors women to come to Canada to raise awareness.

David Isenverg, a senior research analyst at the left-leaning Washington-based Center for Defense Information, says sources tell him that the Clinton administration believes air strikes are only a means of levelling the playing field for the Muslims.

He says a Pentagon report released this Wednesday will discredit the claims of air strikes’ accuracy, citing failures during the Gulf War. Clinton will decide on air strikes after Saturday’s referendum in Bosnia, when Serbs will vote on whether to accept a Western peace plan.

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Somali Killings Reveal Ugly Side Of Elite Regiment

By David South

Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), May 6-12, 1993

Canada is touted around the world for its commitment to the ideals of peacekeeping. But something went seriously wrong with the Canadian Airborne Regiment at Belet Huen in Somalia.

Since the revelation of the March 16 shooting death of Somali civilian Shidane Omar Aroni at the hands of members of the regiment, three more killings of civilians by Canadian troops have come to light. Two of the deaths, including Aroni’s, are being investigated internally by the military, while others are subject to a government-ordered inquiry.

Military watchers say the problem permeating the Canadian Armed Forces’ approach to peacekeeping goes beyond the inappropriate behaviour of a few gung-ho members of the airborne.

Warning ignored

They say the department of national defence has ignored the warnings of the United Nations and its own internal papers regarding the ever more complex duties of international peacemaking and peacekeeping. The Canadian forces and other coaltion partners, they say, are playing with fire in Somalia by neglecting to prepare troops with the skills they need in negotiation, conflict resolution and cultural sensitivity.

And they point out that the assigning of peacekeeping duties to the Canadian airborne – an elite force with a fearsome reputation – illuminates everything that is wrong with the current approach.

“The opposition is calling for the airborne to be dismantled, but they are prepared for high-intensity combat,” says defence consultant Peter Langille. “It’s just a dumb decision – somebody used them for the wrong thing.”

If Canadian personnel were properly trained, the incidents at Belet Huen would not have happened, says Gideon Forman of the Canadian Peace Alliance.

“Peacekeeping is a special skill that requires courses in non-violent conflict resolution and negotiation. A peacekeeping training centre – which the Canadian Forces pooh-pooh – would be very useful.”

Indeed, the unfolding of the horrifying drama in Belet Huen posed acutely difficult problems for army personnel. It took a small-town journalist on a press junket intended to show off the work of the airborne to force the army to go public with the death of Aroni.

Jim Day of the Pembroke Observer, located near the airborne’s home base at CFB Petawawa, spotted a commotion over the attempted suicide of master corporal Clayton Matchee, one of the soldiers arrested in the death.

It wasn’t until March 31, two weeks after an internal military investigation had begun, that the military admitted to the investigation.

Day says watching the troops in Somalia made it clear there was a mismatch between the personnel and the mission.

“They are trained for a combative role. They’re considered the cream of the crop, very tough physically. They want to use their training, as opposed to being trained for combat in rugged exercises and then ending up handing out water.

“What hit me quite strongly down in the camp was how they spent their leisure time. I watched them set up a spider fight. They had such intensity – they were watching these two spiders devour each other for 20 or 25 minutes, coaching them along, pumping their arms in the air and rooting and screaming.”

Creates aggression

Observers who know the regiment say the training is meant to create extremely aggressive behaviour while reinforcing elite status. Through “jump school” – three weeks of punishing training where subjects drop from planes – soldiers experience exhilarating highs and terrifying lows.

Anecdotes abound about the secretive and violent behaviour of the regiment.

“There’s a good deal of resentment,” says Dave Henderson, who puts together a weekly news infomercial called Base Petawawa Journal for Ottawa’s CHRO TV. “A lot of the other soldiers on the base shun them. Their nickname in some quarters is ‘stillborne.’

“I know from people in other military outfits that when you go up against the airborne, there is a fear factor,” says Langille, whose company Common Security Consultants, has lobbied the government to change peacekeeping training.

“In exercises where the airborne take over a base or something, if they catch you, they bet the shit out of you. It’s not surprising they got carried away in an ugly environment.”

Frustrating pace

Nor is it strange that the regiment chafed at the pace of the Somalian daily round. “The soldiers believe the Somalis are very slow in their ways,” says Day. “They’re used to ‘boom, boom.’ Whatever it is they do, even if it’s building a trench or putting up a fence, they are very quick about it.”

But the military argues that the best preparation for peacemaking and peacekeeping duties is the general combat training every soldier receives.

“The best peacekeeper is a well-trained soldier,” says veteran peacekeeper colonel Sean Henry of the Conference of Defence Associations.

“When you look at the make-up of the coalition force in Somalia, you find that just about every other nation has contributed either airborne troops or special troops, simply because they wanted a well-trained unit at short notice.”

Henry thinks those who argue for peacekeeping training are missing the essence of the armed forces’ mandate. “It’s counter-productive. You might as well forget about the armed forces and sign up a bunch of social workers.”

Does the UN know what it’s doing?

Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), July 22-28, 1993. This incident was the basis of the 2001 film Black Hawk Down. 

By David South

Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), July 22-28, 1993

The United Nations’ bloody hunt for elusive Mogadishu warlord general Mohamed Farah Aideed has many observers wondering whether the world body is making up the rules as it goes along.

Some critics, such as George Cram of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, an influential umbrella group for Canadian non-governmental organizations of NGOs, question if the obsession with Aideed isn’t just burying the UN in a deeper image problem with the Third World.

Critics point to the fallout of growing resentment from the July 12 attack on Aideed’s compound – killing more than 70 civilians – boding ill for a peaceful reconstruction of Somali society.

The fact that among those killed within the compound were clan elders who were negotiating a peace has upset Somalis even more, says Cram, a Horn of Africa researcher.

“The UN has lost its credibility, its moral authority, lost its blue-beret neutrality,” says Cram bluntly.

The degree to which Aideed should be the main focus of current UN actions has some relief agencies scratching their heads. Aideed has become Somalian bogey man number one with UNOSOM’s (United Nations Operations in Somalia) head, US Admiral Johnathon Howe. He has placed a $25,000 price on Aideed for an arrest.

“I don’t recall the UN ever going out and actually attempting to arrest individuals – they certainly haven’t  done it in other conflict zones,” says reverend David Hardy of Saskatoon-based Lutheran Relief, who has organized relief flights into Somalia.

Cambodian example

He cites the example of Cambodia, where the UN brokered a controversial peace with those purveyors of the genocidal killing fields, the Khmer Rouge, in order to secure free elections.

David Isenverg of the Center for Defense Information, a liberal Washington-based think tank, worries that doggedly going after Aideed while ignoring the other factions will paint the UN as siding with one faction over another.

“The protracted effect is to turn the US and UN into partisans to the conflict.”

Hardy believes Aideed, who is adept at seeing which way the wind blows, has inflated his stature as an opponent of the UN as foreign invader.

Then there are other criticisms. Some observers wonder whether the UN is too proud or too blind, or simple oblivious when it comes to seeking advice from the locals it went in to protect.

Even Canada, while supporting the UN’s military effort since Aideed “is obstructing relief supplies,” believes that national reconciliation should be a main focus, says external affairs spokesperson Rodney Moore.

He says Canada continues to urge the UN to move quickly on national reconciliation, bringing together women’s groups, clan elders and other non-warlord groups.

“One of the areas where the UN operation went wrong is the tendency to deal with the ‘superpowers’ of Somalia while ignoring groups like women’s collectives,” says World Visions’ Philip Maher, who has just returned from Somalia.

“Part of the problem is misunderstanding,” Maher says. “The UN hasn’t done a great job of telling Somalis what they are doing.”

Many point to the peaceful north, where the as yet internationally unrecognized Somaliland offers a successful model, combining women’s groups and elders to wrest control.

Update: War crimes: former minister reveals why Canada disbanded its special airborne force after scandal: The drastic step was judged the best way to fix systemic problems after an affair similar to allegations against Australian forces in Afghanistan (Wed 2 Dec 2020)