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EU pressures seven African countries to complete trade agreements

Botswana, Namibia, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Swaziland face paying tariffs on exports to EU

Seven African countries face paying tariffs on their exports to the EU if they fail to honour trade agreements signed with Brussels in 2007.

The European parliament granted the African countries an extension until October 2014 to ratify their interim economic partnership agreements (EPAs). 17 countries of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) group have not ratified or implemented the agreements.

The EPA allows countries to export goods to the EU without tariffs or maximum quotas, under World Trade Organisation rules. The countries benefited from the agreement without delays to avoid disrupting exports, principally towards Europe. In a regulation, the European commission permitted the countries to maintain their privileged trade status, already upheld in the Cotonou agreement, which expired in 2007.

EU’s harder line

Since then, the EU executive has taken a harder line. In 2011, it proposed suspending the agreement if the countries did not ratify the EPA by January 2014. The parliament voted in a strong majority to extend the deadline to October 2014, in a second reading.

Botswana, Namibia, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya and Swaziland have not completed the agreement. They, along with the Pacific nation of Fiji, risk falling into a stricter commercial regime if they fail to meet the deadline. The others – including Haiti, Burundi and Rwanda – will be covered due to their status as least developed countries.

But some parliamentarians from the Greens and the Socialists and Democrats group felt the deadline should have been extended to January 2016 to allow more “breathing space”. The parliament had adopted that deadline in a first reading in September 2012.

WTO pressure

This time EU lawmakers voted for a compromise deal found with heads of states and government in the European council.

“Allowing unilateral and free access to certain countries is a violation of the WTO’s rules and is clearly only a temporary solution … The time has come to fix a deadline,” said British Labour MEP David Martin, who drafted parliament’s report.

“We regret that the parliament and the council of the EU did not accept our proposal to give these African countries enough breathing space in negotiations.”

Under the current agreement, the African countries benefit from very favourable terms compared with their international competitors for exports to Europe notably of certain food including bananas, tuna, beef and sugar.

Some Latin American and emerging countries have protested the exception at the WTO, labelling it as discriminatory.

Caught in the crossfire

To the secretary general of the ACP group, Alhaji Muhammad Mumuni, the deadline harms the countries involved by forcing them to ratify interim EPA agreements that are counterproductive to regional integration. “The states are encouraged to trade with the EU but not among themselves,” he said.

Launched in 2002, negotiations over parallel regional EPAs are ongoing in five African subregions. They aim to liberalise the trade in goods, as well as services, investment, and market access rules. But discussions have stalled on several points, including the suspension of free trade following human rights abuses.

Ministers will meet at the WTO in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2013 in an attempt to reignite the Doha development agenda, which has aimed since 2001 to lower trade barriers and revise trade rules for developing nations.

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Africa and Australasia to share Square Kilometre Array telescope

Ten countries across two continents will share location of world’s most powerful radio telescope

Australia and South Africa will share the location of the world’s most powerful radio telescope, a scientific consortium has announced.

The €1.5bn (£1.2bn) Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, has been hailed as one of the biggest scientific projects of the 21st century.

“We have decided on a dual site approach,” said the SKA chairman, John Womersley, at a press conference in Schiphol airport, Amsterdam.

SKA’s huge fields of antennas – equivalent to about 200 football pitches – will search the sky for answers to the major outstanding questions in astronomy.

South Africa and Australasia had put forward rival bids, and early indications indicated there would be one outright winner. Reports suggest South Africa’s was technically superior, but it was decided that both proposals should contribute to the final design of the telescope.

A source close to the talks said South Africa had emerged with the lion’s share of the project, with about 70%. There has been no official confirmation of this estimate.

Australia’s bid involves New Zealand; South Africa’s will involve dishes erected in Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

Members of the South African team had previously criticised the idea of sharing the telescope, noting that it could involve a climb in costs. However, they adopted a more upbeat tone on Friday: “It’s obvious that we would have preferred the whole thing to be in Africa, but we recognise the need for inclusivity and to maximise the investments that have already been made,” Dr Bernie Fanaroff, project director, told the Guardian.

“It’s a fantastic day … This is one of the world’s biggest scientific instruments and it’s going to be in Africa … It shows confidence in the technical competence of our people,” he added.

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HIV could spread if birth control injections increase, warn scientists

Researchers call for new guidelines for women using family planning services in Aids-hit areas

Campaigns to increase the number of women opting for long-lasting contraceptive injections in Aids-hit parts of the developing world could be helping to spread the epidemic, scientists are warning.

New research shows that women who use hormonal contraceptives may double their risk of contracting HIV and of passing it to their male partner, throwing up a new dilemma for global development.

The authors of the large-scale study, published in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases, call for urgent guidance to be drawn up andgiven to women using family planning services in HIV-endemic areas. The study showed particularly that the risk of HIV transmission was raised by the long-lasting injections that are most widely used and most popular in the sub-Saharan regions worst hit by the Aids epidemic.

The results present a significant problem for global health and development. Unwanted pregnancy is a threat to a woman’s life and can lead to greater poverty and deprivation for her family. The more children she has, the harder it will be to feed and educate them.

While family planning is still resisted in parts of the developing world, campaigns to promote injectable contraception have met with some success. Many women have sought out the injections that last for months and that they can sometimes get without their husband’s knowledge if he refuses permission.

But the study of 3,800 couples shows that there is a risk which has previously been suspected but unconfirmed. The risk was present for those who took the pill too, but it was not statistically significant because most women in the study had opted for injections.

“These findings have important implications for family planning and HIV-1 prevention programmes, especially in settings with high HIV-1 prevalence”, said Jared Baeten from the University of Washington, Seattle, one of the study’s authors.

“Recommendations regarding contraceptive use, particularly emphasising the importance of dual protection with condoms and the use of non-hormonal and low-dose hormonal methods for women with or at risk for HIV-1, are urgently needed,” said lead study author Renee Heffron, also from the University of Washington.

More than 140 million women worldwide use some form of hormonal contraception.

The study group comprised 3,790 couples where one partner had HIV (usually the woman) although the other did not. They were drawn from two existing studies of HIV incidence in seven African countries – Botswana, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

The researchers found that women who did not have HIV were twice as likely to be infected by their partner if they were using hormonal contraception. Those who had HIV themselves were twice as likely to give it to their partner. Tests showed that women with HIV using injectable contraception had raised concentrations of virus inside the cervix. Researchers are unclear why and a larger study specifically designed to look at this issue should be carried out, they say.

Meanwhile women should be told there may be an increased risk of HIV infection if they use hormonal contraception and should be counselled that condoms will give them dual protection.

In a comment published by the journal, Charles Morrison from Clinical Sciences, Durham, USA, said: “Active promotion of DMPA [injectable contraception] in areas with high HIV incidence could be contributing to the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, which would be tragic. Conversely, limiting one of the most highly used effective methods of contraception in sub-Saharan Africa would probably contribute to increased maternal mortality and morbidity and more low birth weight babies and orphans—an equally tragic result. The time to provide a more definitive answer to this critical public health question is now; the donor community should support a randomised trial of hormonal contraception and HIV acquisition.”

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