New police policy to protect identity of suspects until prosection

The police have introduced a new policy which will protect the identity of persons taken into police custody until the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO) charges them in court.

Newspaper Haveeru has reported a police media official as saying that the police will no longer reveal the names of suspects arrested before they are officially charged in the court – though it was noted that this policy remains at the discretion of senior officers.

The paper noted that police had not revealed the names of suspects arrested in connection with the stabbing of former MP for Feydhoo constituency Alhan Fahmy.

Haveeru reported that the official told the paper that the new policy was made after an agreement signed between the police and PGO.

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Journalists association condemns death threats against TVM presenter

The Maldives Journalist Association (MJA) has condemned death threats against state broadcaster Television Maldives (TVM) Deputy Editor Aishath Leeza Laurella.

The presenter had been the subject of criticism from certain political groups over the past week after a series of programmes  interviewing the candidates of next month’s presidential election.

After the ‘siyaasath’ (policy) show’s inaugural interview with Jumhoree Party (JP)  candidate Ibrahim Gasim, party officials accused the presenter of attempting to “demean” its candidate.

In a statement issued today, the MJA said that giving death threats because of the questions asked by a journalist or television presenter is not acceptable and slammed it as an act to terminate press freedom in the country.

The MJA called on the police to hasten the investigation of the case and stated that the interviews with the presidential candidates represented important work done by the media.

Police media officials today told Minivan News that a case was filed with police by Maldives Broadcasting Commission (MBC) alleging that a group of people were plotting an attack on Leeza, posing a threat to her life.

The official explained that the investigation of the case was ongoing and that no arrests had yet been made. He declined to provide further information beyond this.

TVM is scheduled to televise a four-way presidential debate on September 1. Gasim’s JP yesterday confirmed that their candidate would be taking part, after suggestions he was considering a boycott of the station.

Press Freedom

In February this year, Leeza and a second TVM journalist were hospitalised after being hit by projectiles containing some kind of irritant which local media reported to be paint thinner.

On the same evening, Ibrahim ‘Aswad’  Waheed – a reporter for private broadcaster Raajje TV – was left in a critical condition after being badly beaten by two men using iron bars in Male’.

In mid-2012, controversial blogger Hilath Rasheed had his throat slashed in an alleyway on Chandhanee Magu.

Rasheed was initially given a five percent chance of survival, but later recovered. He has since fled the country. No arrests were made in the case.

The Maldives plummeted to 103rd in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Press Freedom Index for 2013, a fall of 30 places and a return to pre-2008 levels.

The Paris-based organisation included ‘extremist religious groups’ in the Maldives in its ‘Predators of Freedom of Information’ report for 2013.

The 2013 report accused “leaders and members of fanatical groups in the Maldives” of “intimidating media organisations and bloggers and threatening them with physical harm in order to force them to exercise self-censorship.”

TVM was itself the scene of violence during the chaos surrounding former President Mohamed Nasheed’s resignation on February 7, 2012. The gates of the station – known as the Maldives National Broadcasting Corporation (MNBC) prior to the transfer of power – were broken down by rampaging security forces.

“A policeman shouted that we [MNBC] have brought enough of what government wanted. Now its time for them to broadcast what they want,” recalled one staff member.

The employee said that they were then ordered to patch through the Villa Television (VTV) channel, owned by JP leader Gasim. The nation then watched VTV on the state television’s frequency before the feed was cut off and came back on, re-branded as TVM.

VTV soon became the victim of further violence as opponents of current president, Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan, attacked the station’s studios during unrest surrounding the attempted re-opening of parliament.

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Maldives Green Fund to merge “scattered” climate finance

Transparency Maldives has called for stronger anti-corruption climate finance safeguards, following the government’s declaration it would establish a ‘green fund’ that would merge all climate change, conservation, and sustainable development project trust-funds.

President Mohamed Waheed Hassan Manik’s cabinet proposed a Maldives “Green Fund” be established, which would merge all the currently established trust funds in accordance with the government’s Biosphere Reserve sustainable development policy.

The purpose for merging the funds would be to enable cost reductions and strengthen operational efficiency for foreign investments for waste management, water management and renewable energy projects.

Shortly following this April 30 announcement, Transparency Maldives called for “stronger anti-corruption safeguards in climate finance” as part of the civil society recommendations presented to the Minister of Environment and Energy Dr Mariyam Shakeela during the “NGO Forum on Environment and Sustainable Development 2013” held May 5.

During the NGO forum, Transparency Maldives Chairperson Mohamed Rasheed Bari called on the government to strengthen governance mechanisms by including stronger standards of transparency, accountability and integrity.

Currently, climate funds are “scattered” because there is no consolidated national governance mechanism with a proper internationally governed governance structure in the Maldives, Transparency Maldives Climate Governance Senior Project Manager Azim Zahir told Minivan News today (May 19).

“In principle establishing a ‘green fund’ to consolidate climate change mitigation and adaptation money is ‘ok’ as long as it adheres to international best practices and good governance standards,” said Zahir.

The Environment Ministry had not responded to inquiries at time of press.

No overarching climate policy

“The government lacks an overarching climate change policy,” a civil society source familiar with the challenges facing climate governance in the Maldives, told Minivan News. “There are no specific goals, which has resulted in project-based, ad hoc and climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives.”

The source explained that conflicting ministerial mandates and unclear rules have created redundancies and left civil servants “confused”.

“The root cause of the problem is administrative – the lack of clear mandates between who is doing what,” the source said. “There are also ministerial rivalries regarding certain projects because clear mandates are lacking.”

“I find it strange the Ministry of Environment does not have a climate change department, considering they are the people in charge of the entire amount of funds,” the source added.

“One person is in charge of massive [amounts] of funds. There is a lack of human resources within the Environment Ministry. Only a couple of people have dominated [climate change projects] since the 1990’s,” claimed the source.

Some people within the ministry working on foreign aid projects write themselves in as project staff as well to in order supplement their “really low” monthly government salaries of MVR 6000 to MVR 8000 (US$ 389 to US$ 519), alleged the source.

“The same people work on each project, they don’t have new people,” the source claimed.

“These senior civil servants say the Environment Ministry lacks capacity and young people with knowledge and technical skills, however they are not providing training and opportunities [to the newer civil servants].

“They have a complete monopoly on knowledge” which is not being properly diffused, the source added.

Politics and bureaucracy

After the Foreign Ministry has signed a bilateral agreement the funds are transferred to the Finance Ministry, which then allocates the money to the applicable ministry or government agency, according to the source.

Most climate projects were handled under the Ministry of Housing and Environment during former President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration, the source explained. Additionally, the President’s Office also undertook many climate change initiatives and established the Presidential Advisory Council on Climate Change in 2009.

“The council still exists on paper and while some people within the President’s Office said the council members have been changed [following the controversial transfer of power February 7, 2012], no one has been informed if they have been fired. They have no idea what’s going on,” alleged the source.

Additionally, the National Planning Council (NPC) – chaired by the president and consisting of various ministers and civil society representatives – was formed in February 2009 to coordinate equitable sustainable development nationwide.

Currently the NPC website states: “Due to the change of the Government , the work of the National Planning Council is currently under reform. Therefore all proposals and issues submitted to Department of National Planning/ National Planning Council is on hold for the time being.”

Under President Waheed’s government the Ministry of Housing and Environment was split to form two new entities, the Ministry of Housing and Infrastructure as well as Energy and Environment.

Due to the these changes and ongoing government instability “There has been a significant change in the process of how the project [cycle] works,” explained the source.

“For various political reasons – and the delicate nature of politics since February 2012 – climate change funds have not been consolidated,” the source continued. “It takes a lot of work to channel climate funds. Even under Nasheed’s previous administration there were the same problems.”

An additional reason Waheed’s administration “differs” from Nasheed’s is the current government “has not been ‘very keen’ on cooperating with civil society,” alleged the source.

“Previously they behaved really unprofessionally toward certain NGOs, however since the latter half of 2012, the government has started to try and engage NGOs and civil society – maybe to increase the administration’s legitimacy,” the source continued.

“A positive is the Environment Ministry under Waheed’s administration has been very active. They actually try to do things,” the source noted.

“However, the government consults civil society stakeholders after they’ve already decided everything. They invite NGOs to listen to their opinions, but do not seek their input during the project planning phase,” the source added.

“Ultimately, most [climate finance] problems apply to both administrations, under Nasheed and Waheed,” the source added.

Existing trust funds

“There are three umbrellas – the Maldives Environmental Management Project (MEMP), the Climate Change Trust Fund (CCTF), the Sustainable Renewable Energy Project (SREP) – under each there are different components,” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Environment and Social Safeguards Coordinator Ibrahim Mohamed told Minivan News earlier this month.

“The idea is that these projects be developed in such a way that the entire nation becomes a biosphere reserve, that’s the overall goal,” he added.

The MEMP umbrella is a US$ 13.88 million World Bank loan, approved in 2008 and set to close in 2014.

“The MEMP is a soft loan in the sense the interest is very less, and this project also has several components,” said Mohamed.

“Only one component is solid waste management, focused in Ari Atoll. Other areas include environmental monitoring, training and capacity building, and a bachelor of environmental science was established at the Maldives National University (MNU),” he continued.

“There is also a renewable energy component to install solar roofing of public buildings on Thinadhoo [Island in Huvadhoo Atoll], so at least 25 percent of their energy will come from solar. That component also has awareness and training on energy efficiency and conservation of energy.

The US$ 9.5 million CCTF picks up where MEMP left off, according to Mohamed.

“Under the CCTF umbrella we have three components: clean energy for climate mitigation, wetland conservation and coral reef monitoring, as well as solid waste management,” Mohamed explained.

“The World Bank is managing the donor money from the CCTF. They don’t finance directly to the government, because they want it to be managed by a reliable, transparent, international fiduciary system.

“The CCTF idea is that the project(s) we develop becomes an exemplary example for other small island states,” he added.

The CCTF was established in 2010 after the signing of an MOU between the Maldives government, the World Bank Group and the European Union with the aim of targeting solid waste management, capacity building for environmental management, and technical assistance for monitoring and managing key natural assets.

The US$138 million SREP was established in 2012 to generate 16 megawatts of renewable energy on 50 islands in the next five years.

The SREP scheme was directly related to the Scaling-up Renewable Energy Program (SREP) originally planned to be submitted to the World Bank in February 2012, but was not due to the political upheaval that resulted from Nasheed’s controversial resignation February 7, 2012.

Additionally, the Maldives has received Global Environment Facility (GEF) grants totaling US$14,443,426 – that leveraged US$35,176,820 in co-financing resources – for 10 national projects, four regional projects, and eight small grants. The project areas focus on climate change, biodiversity, international waters, land degradation, persistent organic pollutants, and the ozone layer.

The GEF is an independently operating financial organisation that supports national sustainable development initiatives and addresses global environmental issues by working in partnership with the United Nations, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and Asian Development Bank (ADB) as well as civil society organisations and the private sector.

The GEF “unites” 183 countries with these actors and claims to be the largest public funder of projects to improve the global environment.

“The EU has suggested that the Maldives’ government look at one atoll with the potential for populations to move and to live and do more projects there – such as waste management, clean energy, protection, preservation, adaptation – all things in one big area, so that these things will be more visible,” said Mohamed.

“If all the components go into one atoll they will become more climate resilient,” he added.

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No US base says Blake, as US, UN diplomats visit Male

The US has reiterated that it has no intention to establish a base or military presence in the Maldives, after a leaked Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the two countries’ militaries sparked local speculation in April.

Former US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, now Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake, told the Press Trust of India that the agreement referred to joint military exercises and not a future base-building endeavor.

“We do not have any plans to have a military presence in Maldives,” Blake said, echoing an earlier statement from the US Embassy in Colombo.

“As I said, we have exercise programs very frequently and we anticipate that those would continue. But we do not anticipate any permanent military presence. Absolutely no bases of any kind,” Blake said.

“I want to reassure everybody that this SOFA does not imply some new uptick in military co-operation or certainly does not apply any new military presence. It would just be to support our ongoing activities,” he said.

A recently leaked draft of the SOFA, obtained by Maldivian current affairs blog DhivehiSitee, extensively outlines  provisions and immunities for US personnel and contractors in the Maldives, and mentions both ‘Agreed Facilities and Areas’ – detailed in a separate and unreleased ‘annex A’ – and all rights “that are necessary for their use, operation, defense or control, including the right to undertake new construction works and make alterations and improvements.”

However Blake and the US Embassy in Colombo maintained that the SOFA was a standard agreement for joint military exercises of which the US had signed more than 100 with countries around the world.

“I haven’t seen the draft agreement. So I can’t comment. But we are in the process of negotiating one now. These are standard text round the world, nothing very secret about them,” Blake told PTI.

We have status of forces agreements with more than 100 nations around the world. And these are basically agreements we have with partners where we have significant military activities, typically exercises,” he said.

“So for example, with Maldives we have Coconut Grove, which is an annual marine exercise. So the status of forces agreement helps to provides framework for those kinds of cooperative activities. They are desirable things to have. But it does not in any way signify an expansion of our military presence or some major new development in US-Maldivian military co-operation. It’s simply more of a framework to provide for [ongoing] co-operation,” Blake said.

He also revealed the US would be announcing a “quite substantial program” to help provide for free and fair elections in September.

“For example, we will be implementing civic and broader education program in several of the voter areas, we would helping with the dispute resolution, training for community leaders, we would be training staff at the election complaint bureaus, we will be doing training on social media and how to do social media to encourage voter registration,” Blake said.
“We would be doing some training for the Maldivian police service on election law and we would be doing capacity building for community based organizations, particularly about voter education and voter registration,” he added.

US, UN diplomats visit Male

US Ambassador Michele Sison and UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Oscar Fernandez Taranco are currently visiting the Maldives and have met with key political and civil society leaders ahead of the September 7 elections.

Speaking at an opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) rally, former President Mohamed Nasheed declared that he had met with both, who “agreed that foregoing an investigation of the senior officers among the police and military who were involved in the events of February 7, 2012 would not be a good thing either for Maldivian democracy, rule of law or the upcoming election,” Nasheed told the crowd of MDP supporters.

He added that progress towards stability and fair elections would be forestalled by the lack of such an investigation.

“We are not asking for an investigation of all police and army officers. We are talking about a few people. About 10 or 12 people,” he said.

Nasheed expressed confidence that “criminal investigations” would take place into unlawful acts or criminal offences committed by mutinying police and military officers on February 7, 2012.

A US Embassy Spokesperson confirmed to Minivan News that Ambassador Sison was visit the Maldives and had met with Nasheed “as part of our normal bilateral relationship, to meet with government and civil society leaders as well as visit US Embassy initiatives such as our Access English language microscholarship program. She arrived yesterday and will depart today.”

During her meeting with Nasheed, “Ambassador Sison reiterated her support for the implementation of the Commission of National Inquiry (CNI) report and its recommendations, including investigations into allegations of abuse.”

Nasheed informed a previous US delegation on January 31, consisting of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State James Moore, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Vikram Singh and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jane Zimmerman, that the government had made no move towards acting on the recommendations made in the report, which included holding police accountable for widely videoed brutality surrounding what it termed a legitimate transfer of power in February 2012.

Meanwhile yesterday (May 8, 2013) the Prosecutor General filed the first charges against two police officers for allegedly assaulting MDP MPs ‘Reeko’ Moosa Manik and Mariya Ahmed Didi on February 8, 2012 during the brutal police crackdown.

Local media identified the accused as Mohamed Waheed from the island of Thinadhoo in Gaafu Dhaalu Atoll and Ibrahim Faisal from Machangolhi Rausha of Male’.

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Budget deficit “substantially” underestimated while spending still unaddressed: IMF

The Maldives has “substantially understated” its budget deficit, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned, by underestimating its spending and “probably” overestimating tax revenues.

“Moreover, not all of the financing for even the approved budget has been identified, and additional risks exist as well – including the need to clear reported unpaid bills carried over from 2011 and the possible loss of lease extension payments (Rf 700 million, or US$42.4 million) assumed in the budget,” the IMF’s mission chief for Maldives, Jonathan Dunn, told Minivan News.

While the 2012 budget put the deficit at less than 10 percent of GDP, “the IMF team sees the figure as more likely to be 17.5 percent of GDP, and perhaps larger than this,” Dunn said.

“The financing gap for 2012 is thus at least 7.5 percent of GDP, or about US$160 million, and possibly substantially larger than this,” he added.

As a result, economic growth and stability in the Maldives were unlikely to be maintained “in the medium term” unless the government substantially cuts spending.

Meanwhile, government revenue for the first quarter of 2012 has fallen 15.5 percent below projections, the Maldives Inland Revenue Authority (MIRA) has reported.

Revenue from tourism land rents fell 18.6 percent on the previous quarter, however the largest contributor to the drop were the new government’s changes to resort lease extension payments, which saw a 76.1 percent drop in revenue below projected figures.

Inflation meanwhile spiked 13.4 percent in February, with the price of food increasing 28 percent.

Government revenues for the quarter has nevertheless increased 76.2 percent compared to the same period in 2011, “mainly because of the significant increase in Business Profit Tax (BPT) and Goods and Services Tax (GST) collections”, MIRA noted: Rf 361.7 million (US$23.4 million) and Rf 721.9 million (US$46.8 million) respectively.

However, Dunn warned that revenue collection by MIRA “does not provide a full picture of total revenue performance in the country.”

“Revenue from import duties – previously the single largest revenue – collected by Customs and is not reported by MIRA. Due to implementation of the 9th Amendment to the Maldives Export Import Act, revenue collection from import duties is expected to decline substantially in 2012, fully offsetting the increase in tax revenues from GST and BPT.”

Solutions?

Dunn observed that printing money would only facilitate the much-larger-than-expected 2012 fiscal deficit.

“This, in turn, would imply that national imports would be substantially larger than expected, because in the Maldives, where most goods are imported, almost any spending by either the government or the private sector turns, directly or indirectly, into import demand,” he noted.

As a result, the imbalance between the demand for dollars and the supply would become even larger, “and the MMA would likely have to supply dollars from its own reserves to meet the shortfall.”

“Usable reserves at the MMA are low, so if the fiscal gap this year is financed via money creation, it is likely that the MMA’s usable reserves would soon dry up,” he said.

Another option, Dunn suggested, was for the Maldives to borrow more money. However borrowing from domestic sources “will be difficult to achieve, as it is unclear whether the banks have much more appetite for buying treasury bills.”

Obtaining foreign grants “would be helpful but is probably not realistic.” Foreign loans, meanwhile, “would have to be considered carefully, given that Maldives already has a very high debt-GDP ratio, but they may be needed in the short run to avoid the consequences of printing money.”

Dunn emphasised that the only sustainable solution was for relevant parties to rationalise the budget by boosting revenues and cutting expenditure, despite the political difficulties.

“These may be politically difficult measures, but the consequences of not reducing the budget deficit are likely to be even more difficult,” he warned.

Furthermore, ongoing dollar shortage would not be resolved while the Maldives continued to substantially increase spending, Dunn added.

The foreign currency crisis – the bane of many of the country’s importers, who are forced to use unofficial channels outside the banking system to obtain currency necessary to purchase overseas – was exacerbated by the number of unrestricted foreign exchange licenses issued to resorts and other private businesses, “without the requirement that they hold substantial capital to back up that business.”

This practice allowed such nonfinancial businesses to conduct large-value foreign exchange operations outside the banking system, “an unusual arrangement and sustains the parallel foreign exchange market,” Dunn noted.

“In a more typical situation, nonfinancial businesses [such as resorts] would have licenses only for the exchange of small-value cash transactions and would be required to channel large-value foreign exchange transactions through the banking system. In the case of Maldives, this would substantially increase liquidity in the official foreign exchange market,” he suggested.

However, “as long as the government continues to inject substantial amounts of new spending into the economy, the foreign exchange situation in the country will not be resolved.”

Growing expenditure

Dunn emphasised that “fiscal imbalances in the Maldives have been present for many years and that fiscal adjustment remains necessary”.

Faced with increasing pressure from the IMF to lower expenditure after failed attempts in 2010 to cut the salaries of civil servants – a maneuver blocked by the Civil Services Commission (CSC) and backed the then opposition – former President Mohamed Nasheed’s administration insisted that increased revenue from the new taxes would match expenditure, and boasted that the 2012 budget was the first in many years to balance income and expenditure.

Following the police mutiny and controversial change of government in what the MDP contends was a coup d’état, spending by President Dr Mohamed Waheed’s administration has escalated as it seeks to shore up support in a fractious political environment.

Newly-announced expenditure in the last few months includes:

  • The promotion of 1000 police officers – approximately a third of the force – and plans to both recruit 200 new officers in 2012 and appoint four new Assistant Commissioners;
  • Lump sum payment of two years of allowances to military personnel;
  • An unspecified amount for an international public relations firm, to combat negative publicity and “rally an alliance of support” in the international media following the controversial change of power and coverage of police crackdowns;
  • Rf 100 million (US$6.5 million) in fishing subsidies;
  • A proposal to create two new ministries, including the Ministry of Gender, Family and Human Rights, and the Ministry of Environment and Energy;
  • The reimbursement of Rf 443.7 million (US$28.8 million) in civil servant salaries from July 1, following cuts by Nasheed’s administration in 2010. In addition, civil servant working hours have been reduced to 8am-3pm;
  • The doubling of the budget for the Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Corporation (MMPRC) to US$S4.5 million.

Lost income has also increased, with MIRA warning in March of unrealised revenue from the new government’s recent decision to accept resort island’s lease extension payments in installments, an amendment that former Tourism Minister Dr Mariyam Zulfa contends was pushed through by several local resort owners with vested interests, that immediately cost the treasury US$135 million.

In March, MIRA anticipated receiving a total of Rf375 million (US$ 24 million) for lease extensions, however the income received dropped to Rf23 million (US$1.5 million) as a result of the decision.

Meanwhile today the publicly-owned State Trading Organisation (STO) dropped legal attempts to reclaim a US$1.2 million debt owed by the Meridian Services owned by MP Abdulla Riyaz of the new ruling coalition. The STO justified the decision in a letter to the court, by stating that it did not have enough board members to meet quorum and make decisions.

In a bid to address spiralling costs, the government is reviewing the Aasandha universal health scheme introduced by Nasheed’s administration on January 1 this year, which “is and will always be completely financially unsustainable in a country such as the Maldives”, according to President Waheed’s Special Advisor, Dr Hassan Saeed, in an article for newspaper Haveeru.

“The introduction of unrestricted, universal free healthcare with no agreed regulation or management was an act of folly, recklessness and irresponsible political immaturity that rivals any of the actions of Mr Nasheed’s administration,” Dr Saeed contended.

“And what’s more he knew this but still went ahead with it. And the consequence is that we now have the IMF breathing down our necks and a budget deficit that threatens to derail all government social programmes,” Dr Saeed wrote.

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Fewer expatriate detainments post-visa reform

Fewer expatriates have been detained for unpaid visa fees before leaving the country since Immigration Control adapted its policy to “international standard procedure,” Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid has said.

Previously, expatriate workers have been allowed to leave the Maldives without paying outstanding visa fees, Haveeru reports. The policy allegedly cost the Maldivian government Rf 120 million (US$7.8 million) last year.

Shahid told Haveeru that the Maldives’ former policy allowing expatriate workers to leave with outstanding visa fees was a rare case within the international community.

Immigration recently required recruitment agencies to pay visa fees for expatriate workers for a minimum of three months in a lump sum.

Shahid said that fees are non-refundable if a worker does not stay for a visa’s entire duration.

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Comment: Winning the war on Dengue

The news that dengue is hitting the Maldives hard has reached the Netherlands, along with other parts of the world from which your beautiful country attracts large numbers of tourists.

That Maldivian children are dying of dengue is distressing and of course a horrific experience for the families affected, but there will surely be broader ramifications for the country. The blame culture that followed these deaths, fuelled by emotional debates in the press is affecting your country badly. Negative press will influence the tourism sector and may have a major economic impact.

When the Indian Ocean island La Reunion was struck by an outbreak of Chikungunya virus – also transmitted by dengue mosquitoes – in 2005/6, it suffered losses of tourism income amounting to €225 million (US$325 million). The French government had to inject €76 million to keep the tourism industry alive. With 1.2 million tourists per year, surely the Maldives cannot afford to wait for such a thing to happen.

So how can the war against dengue be won and can it be done quickly? In my opinion this is possible by doing just one thing well: learning from the past.

In the absence of a vaccine and specific medicines, the sole option to contain or eliminate dengue is through controlling the mosquito that transmits it. It is this option where many countries are failing miserably. Whereas in the middle of the last century, the responsibility for mosquito control remained in strong government hands and was rigorously organised and meticulously executed, a gradual shift of responsibility to the general population in recent decades has yielded disastrous outcomes.

Community awareness and engagement in controlling potential mosquito breeding sites has at best been partially effective, but remains hopeless in most countries with endemic dengue. The result at present: 2,5 billion people at risk, and an estimated 100 million cases of infection per year. These numbers keep growing steadily.

By 1947, the same mosquito that is causing havoc in the Maldives today had invaded 11 million square kilometres of Central and South America. The Pan-American Sanitary Bureau then took the decision to eliminate it. By 1962, these efforts had succeeded in 21 countries, an area encompassing 8.5 million square kilometres. I repeat, 8.5 million square kilometres. Compare that to the size of Male’, or even the Maldives at large, and one wonders why we have forgotten past successes and not simply repeated these.

Back then, these huge successes were based on intensive campaigns to search for breeding sites and either remove or treat them with insecticides to kill mosquito larvae. Large teams of inspectors moved from house to house, and all they did was that. Clean up trash and kill mosquito larvae. These teams were well organised, well funded, well trained, motivated, and well paid.  Much of that has changed, and with the shift of responsibility away from governments, so has the capacity and know-how to deal with outbreaks waned.

Pro-activism to control dengue mosquitoes is gone. Instead, waiting for things to go wrong and then act has become the norm for policy. Why is that?

First, it’s a money issue, and the lack of willingness of governments to put money on the table when prevention is the issue. Politicians like to solve problems that are visible but shy away from spending money on something that may strike one day. Further complicating chronic underfunding are five other factors that contribute to the failure of dengue vector control programmes.

These factors are:

  • The desire to find easy solutions
  • Degradation of technical and managerial skills
  • The increasing scope of the problem
  • The shortness of human memory
  • Expectation of failure

I emphasize that the most important factor in achieving successful control of dengue mosquitoes is a programme led by a high calibre administration and staffed by well-trained, supervised and motivated personnel. Most countries suffering from dengue lack precisely these things and call upon experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) when disaster strikes. Beyond the WHO’s advisory role, which mostly emphasizes strategies based on community participation of which we know that they don’t really work, there isn’t much it can do.

When the experts fly home, you remain with the problem and responsibility to execute their well-meant advice. They will not do it for you. Setting up a high-level response team is certainly a good thing, but meetings do not control epidemics.

What is needed are highly competent control staffs that know how to systematically cover areas and reduce vector breeding; staff that go out into the country and are capable of containing transmission of the virus and to prevent further misery. Although this should be done in a military style, this is not the same as mobilising the military as is now being done in the Maldives.

We have taken a different approach to the persistent problem of dengue by building on the hugely successful campaigns of the past, and augmenting the old strategies with the latest scientific knowledge and modern tools. The successes of the past were accomplished without computers, mobile telephony, satellite imagery, modern monitoring and surveillance tools, and so on.

We have these now, and should use them to the full. Not just to control outbreaks, but solve the problem permanently, in a sustainable and green manner.

We are discussing this approach with various islands in the Caribbean at present, and consider the Maldives as another great example of where dengue mosquitoes can be eliminated for good.

Now you are facing bad press, political turmoil, and deaths. A public-private partnership holds the key towards avoiding this from happening every few years, and if given an opportunity we are ready to lend a helping hand with our team that holds some of the world’s leading mosquito and dengue experts.

Maldivians should not worry about keeping their kids from going to school. Instead, the country should be planning a dengue mosquito elimination campaign. Good for the public, good for tourism.

Prof. Dr. Bart G.J Knols of the University of Amsterdam is a medical entomologist and CEO of the private firm Soper Strategies, which aims to provide comprehensive mosquito-borne disease elimination programmes.

(http://www.soperstrategies.com)

All comment pieces are the sole view of the author and do not reflect the editorial policy of Minivan News. If you would like to write an opinion piece, please send proposals to [email protected]sarchive.com

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