Biological Weapons: A poor man’s nuclear bomb

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If terrorists used biological weapons at the Sochi Olympics, hospitals and emergency wards around the world could not cope. The 1918 flu pandemic killed millions of people in a year — no infection, war or famine has killed so many in as short a time — but the risks of biological weapons are higher. Hospitals worldwide could be overwhelmed if there were a biological attack on athletes and spectators attending the Olympics who then head home on public transportation networks.

At least 12 states either possess or are pursuing offensive biological and chemical capabilities, including several hostile to Western democracies: Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Syria.

We have learned, in hindsight, about Syria’s chemical weapons, but it would have been cheaper for President Bashar al-Assad to develop biological weapons. Estimates vary from $2 billion to $10 billion for a nuclear program, to tens of millions for a chemical program, to less than $10 million for a biological program.

These huge cost differentials have been known for decades. When Assad’s father Hafez became Syria’s president in 1971, the UN estimated the cost of causing one civilian casualty per square kilometre was about $2,000 with conventional weapons, $800 with nuclear weapons, $600 with chemical weapons and $1 with biological weapons.

Unlike their more expensive counterparts, biological weapons are difficult to detect and easy to disseminate. The 2008 International Commission on Weapons of Mass Destruction concluded terrorists are more likely to use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.

The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment estimates an attack with less than 100 kilograms of aerosolized anthrax spores could cause three million casualties, rivaling the lethality of a nuclear weapon. But unlike a nuclear attack, a biological attack could go unnoticed for days. The attacker could repeat attacks to exhaust resources, such as hospitals and border patrols. Because biological weapons are hundreds to thousands of times more potent than the most lethal chemical warfare agents, a little goes a long way.

While biological weapons are inexpensive to produce, they are costly and time-consuming to counter. Transforming a pathogen can take three years, but developing a bio-defence vaccine typically takes eight to 10 years and costs hundreds of millions of dollars.

Biological agents are available in all sorts of civilian industries, such as wine and beer making, pharmaceutical research and development, and food and agriculture sectors. They also attract less suspicion than trying to somehow assemble a nuclear bomb in your basement. Since many biological agents are dual purpose, pharmaceutical companies may produce large quantities of them — like botox, which can be used as botulinum toxin. Adding to the threat is the number of trained microbiologists who overwhelmingly outnumber nuclear physicists.

North American security experts tend to agree, behind the scenes, that biological warfare is the gravest security challenge we face. In 2001, I participated in a three-day workshop in San Diego that focused on biological warfare. A prominent member of the U.S. Council of Foreign Relations explained that the U.S. government’s decision to refrain from talking publicly about the dangers of biological warfare was due to the widespread panic this would cause. A famous scientist warned that technology was developing such that terrorists could render an entire roomful of unsuspecting adults infertile without them knowing it. At NATO headquarters in 2006 and 2011, I heard about drones the size of hummingbirds that could carry biological toxins across borders.

Since 2001, NATO allies have spent billions preparing against a possible biological weapons attack. The U.S. dedicated more than $62 billion to bio-defence between 2001 and 2011.

Some argue the threat of biological terrorism is exaggerated to justify spending bio-defence and keep people in a state of fear. Certainly the 2001 anthrax attacks led to merely five deaths, while malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS together kill over five million people every year.

Yet I worry that infected individuals could become biological vectors unknowingly spreading a laboratory-created disease. An infected individual — or a suicide terrorist — could walk through an airport and the deadly weapon would cross countless borders quickly. The influx of patients to emergency rooms would compromise the health of emergency responders. Highly-communicable pathogens could incite an epidemic in which rotating health-care workers are themselves infected, compromising efforts to control the outbreak and shifting attention away from the attackers.

The 2001 anthrax attacks led some to demand gas masks and antibiotic prescriptions, creating a serious shortage in ciprofloxacin. The attackers were never discovered, although the FBI conducted 10,000 interviews and 80 searches, and collected 5,730 samples and 6,000 items.

The sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway station was also confined to a small area, yet sent approximately 5,000 individuals to emergency rooms, although only 1,000 of them showed symptoms.

Decontamination costs following these attacks were estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars and some facilities did not reopen for more than two years. About $20 million was spent on the Hart Senate Office Building after the anthrax attack, with most of that in a single office.

Effectively combatting the threat from biological weapons requires the international community to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which 170 states-parties have signed. As of this month, Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea ratified the convention. Syria has signed but not ratified. Israel remains a prominent non-signatory. We need to exert more pressure on Syria and Israel to submit their arsenals to inspection.

We could also build more hospital rooms and expanded emergency wards to prepare against the eventuality of terrorists resorting to using the “poor man’s nuclear bomb”. And we need to work closely with tour NATO allies on new methods of rapid bio-defence.

Erika Simpson is the author of NATO and the Bomb and an associate professor of political science who teaches about international security and global violence at Western University.


How Investments in Agriculture can ease Uganda’s unemployment

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Owachgiu Dennis

Most countries lag behind economically because they fail to exploit their competitive advantages. Massive Youth Unemployment in Uganda today correlates directly with the country’s inability to create opportunities in sectors where they have competitive advantages. In Uganda, agriculture is a key competitive advantage because of the large tracks of fertile arable land available countrywide. Uganda’s land can record high yield even without fertilizers.

Since it employs nearly 80% of the population, Agriculture is the sector that can be relied to ignited an increase in household incomes for the greatest number of people. Investment in Agriculture can positively impact on many sectors of the economy simultaneously. Great and mighty economic powers such as the United States of America owes their economic growth to Agriculture.

Farming in Uganda is still largely subsistence

Uganda certainly has numerous untapped opportunities. It is noteworthy that the handful of small holder coffee farmers in Uganda have already made Uganda Africa’s leading coffer exporter and brought in considerable income. Uganda’s production level and earning can still grow up significantly for coffee, just as for other agricultural products. Investments towards processing such products locally could further allow Uganda to export finished products rather than raw materials. Exporting finished products would earn even more money for the country and create many new jobs at the processing plants.

The growth of agro-processing industries to process agricultural products will itself create jobs for multitudes in other related industries. By-products in other manufacturing cycles are automatic raw materials for other products. Other business will emerge to handle Packaging, transporting finished goods etc. When the goods are exported the country will earn the much needed foreign exchange for the economy and improve the balance of payment position.

The fact that countries that are not as endowed as Uganda are doing well means the sky is the limit for Uganda. Arid Egypt grows and exports agricultural products all year round using water from rive Nile, and Uganda has the source of river Nile right here. Israel products several tones of fresh water fish in tanks, and Uganda has the largest fresh water body right here. Botswana exports more tones of beef products globally, yet Uganda has more cows than Botswana. Israel exports more Diary products yet Uganda has more dairy cows than Israel.

It’s time to take advantages of these competitive advantages to uplift the economy. With the bulk of our population being youthful, availability of labour force is in itself another competitive advantage at our disposal. The kind of agriculture that will create enormous opportunities will have to be commercialized intensive agriculture, not the traditional hand-to-mouth subsistence agriculture. This requires real investments and the national budget should reflect agriculture as a priority area.

The huge amounts of money the country can potentially earn from agriculture will automatically spur the growth of other sectors, notably the service sector. Uganda already has a vibrant service sector, but since most people – about 67% live on a 2$ a day- the service sector can’t continually grow in an economy where the majority have a low purchasing power. Agriculture is that one sector that can unlock the purchasing power of the largest portion of the population since it employs the majority. The increase in purchasing power would then increase revenues in the service sector.

Agriculture can thus accelerate economic growth, which will create several new opportunities for citizens.  Most prosperous people who will earn a decent income from agriculture will reinvest the money in other new ventures. It is these new ventures that will create more employments opportunities for our young people. It is on that premise that agriculture must be embraced and allocated up to 10% of the budget annually. As a productive sector, the more money invested in agriculture, the more money government will earn back in tax and non tax revenues. The increased revenues can then be allocated to other crucial budgetary sectors.

The next logical question is where do we get the extra money to invest in agriculture? In my opinion we have three clear feasible ways. One would be to temporarily cut down the state’s administrative costs and use the money to invest in agriculture. Office automation would cut down the required number of personnel, thus saving some money. Reducing on the number of political appointees, by trimming down some non-essential and redundant personnel such as the “senior advisors” who offer no advice at all.

Another strategy is by implementing agricultural and economic zoning in different regions. Zoning will encourage bulk production with the additional advantage of economies of scale. It becomes easy to attract foreign direct investments for agro-processing industries to areas with enough raw materials.

The third strategy would be to formation of individually owned agricultural cooperatives through which many smallholder farmers can pool money together to either carryout farming together or to process agricultural products. The government can set up a cooperative bank or a Bank that is agriculture-friendly to provide financing to the agricultural cooperatives. Alternatively, the government can channel cheaper credit in form of Agricultural loan facilities through existing networks of commercial banks.



The Politics behind the closure of Bridge international Schools in Uganda

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By Owachgiu Dennis

Right in the middle of the year in August, parents of Bridge International schools’ pupils woke up to the shocking news that their schools had been closed by authorities.The High court in November upheld the directive to close the schools. The high court ruling prompted wailing pupils to petition the speaker parliament over the fate of their school.

While the ministry was literally enforcing its regulatory mandate by demanding a private institution to adhere to the minimum prerequisite standards for licensing, most people conversant with Uganda Education systems wondered whether there wasn’t any other ulterior motive rather than standards per se. To begin with, each parent who took their Children to a Bridge school had ditched a supposedly “free” Universal Primary Education (UPE) school in their neighborhood. That alone implies parents perceive Bridge schools to be superior to UPE schools. In fact even the officials at Ministry of Education cant allow their children to go to UPE schools, because they are know how mediocre it is.

Many parents perceive UPE is a colossal failure, and have been looking for alternatives, as most of the other private schools are expensive for most parents.  In Uganda nearly 67% of the population are subsistence farmers who just live hand to mouth. Such parents certainly cant afford the expensive private schools. To such parents, Bridge was an welcome solution to their problem; providing quality education at affordable rates.

To any astute observer, one wonders how the Uganda’s Ministry of Education gets the audacity to close a private school on grounds of inferior education standards, considering the dilapidated and continuously deteriorating standards of Ministry of Education’s own UPE Schools. Performance standards and literacy and numeracy skills of pupils in UPE schools portrays an education system in an incessant downward spiral in terms of quality.

Another surprising  premise for the closure was that the curriculum at Bridge International schools doesn’t meet the right standards. UPE’s standards itself leaves a lot to be desired. A survey done by Twaweza found that pupils have the minimal literacy and numeracy skills.

The Ministry also hinted that Bridge International Schools utilized unqualified teachers. That draws attention to Ministry of Education’s own quality of teachers. As if their incompetence is not enough, teacher absenteeism is worryingly high in most rural government schools. One wonders if inspectors of schools and Education Standards Agency are doing their work. With all these, not a single UPE is on record as having been closed for failure to meet the minimum standards.

Granted, Bridge might have its weaknesses worth correcting, but from the above, it appears that Bridge international schools greatly exposed the weaknesses of UPE schools. For instance, whereas UPE schools are supposedly free, the fact that parents ditched UPE schools and took their children to Bride schools it itself a vote of no confidence in the quality of Education of UPE schools.

It’s hypocritical that the Officials at Ministry of Education are so fast at detecting faults by private sectors yet they are snail-slow at rectifying the numerous well-known flaws with Uganda’s own deteriorating education standards.

Rather than mudslinging Bridge International Schools, Ministry of Education officials should instead emulate the innovations by Bridge. While teacher absenteeism in UPE schools hovers at a whopping 29% at UPE schools, Bridge devised a smart solution that enables teachers to login when they report to school and log out when they are going home. It’s such an innovative approach that government should consider relocating.

Above all, Bridge International schools has demystified the notion that improvement of education standards requires a ridiculously huge amounts of money. Bridge has deliberately tied limited resources to construction of classrooms, but has instead invested massively in developing systems that fosters learning process. Bridge makes use of technologies such as tablets, which simplifies lesson planning for teachers and offers teachers a platform to access reference learning materials.

Bridge schools may be closed, but merely closing schools can’t improve education standards at school in Uganda. Uganda currently has less than 300 inspectors for all schools public and private schools in the country. Even the few inspectors at the Education agency are underfunded, with a minuscule budget of not more than 4 billion.

Of Uganda’s budget of 1 trillion, over 900billions goes for teacher salary alone, leaving limited resources for other function such as curriculum development, inspection, infrastructure etc. In the vocational Education sector, a new curriculum has been unveiled with a resultant surge in the cost of running public vocational schools, yet the Ministry hasn’t set aside appropriate budget to augment the implementation of the new curriculum.  ICT is an examinable subject at both O and A level, yet most government seed schools do not even have computers, let alone electricity connection.  These are some of the more pressing issues Ministry of Education should delve into.

Known for their cost-effectiveness, private sector actors can be partners towards improvement of Education standards. Bridge has a proactive approach to curriculum development with their own curriculum writers. This is a far cry from the National Curriculum Development Center whose under-funding has stifled their ability to regularly update the curriculum.

Education is one of the most crucial pillars of sustainable development, and investment in the highest quality of education is the entry point for human capital development. It’s these human resource pool emanating from education system who will augment the economic transformation process.

It’s time for different stakeholders in the education Ministry to lead by example by improving standards in UPE Schools. They should also refrain from escapist mentality that has kept Uganda’s education in its current pathetic standards. In any case, donors who are backing Bridge would have committed their resources to other sectors if Uganda’s primary education was deemed to be of adequate standards.

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