Tag Archives: poverty

Greeks slide deeper into poverty

Retired teacher and volunteer Eva Agkisalaki clears tables at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Retired teacher and volunteer Eva Agkisalaki clears tables at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Alkis Konstantinidis, Reuters
February, 2017

An elderly woman searches through donated clothes at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis             SEARCH "POVERTY GREECE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

An elderly woman searches through donated clothes at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis.

Greek pensioner Dimitra says she never imagined a life reduced to food handouts: some rice, two bags of pasta, a packet of chickpeas, some dates and a tin of milk for the month.

At 73, Dimitra – who herself once helped the hard-up as a Red Cross food server – is among a growing number of Greeks barely getting by. After seven years of bailouts that poured billions of euros into their country, poverty isn’t getting any better; it’s getting worse like nowhere else in the EU.

“It had never even crossed my mind,” she said, declining to give her last name because of the stigma still attached to accepting handouts in Greece. “I lived frugally. I’ve never even been on holiday. Nothing, nothing, nothing.”

Now more than half of her 332 euro ($350) monthly income goes to renting a tiny Athens apartment. The rest: bills.

The global financial crisis and its fallout forced four euro zone countries to turn to international lenders. Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus all went through rescues and are back out, their economies growing again. But Greece, the first into a bailout in 2010, has needed three.

Rescue funds from the European Union and International Monetary Fund saved Greece from bankruptcy, but the austerity and reform policies the lenders attached as conditions have helped to turn recession into a depression.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose leftist-led government is lagging in opinion polls, has tried to make the plight of Greeks a rallying cry in the latest round of drawn-out negotiations with the lenders blocking the release of more aid.

“We must all be careful towards a country that has been pillaged and people who have made, and are continuing to make, so many sacrifices in the name of Europe,” he said this month.

People line up as they wait to enter a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis            SEARCH "POVERTY GREECE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

People line up as they wait to enter a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis 

Much of the vast sums in aid money has simply been in the form of new debt used to repay old borrowings. But regardless of who is to blame for the collapse in living standards, poverty figures from the EU statistics agency are startling.

Greece isn’t the poorest member of the EU; poverty rates are higher in Bulgaria and Romania. But Greece isn’t far behind in third place, with Eurostat data showing 22.2 percent of the population were “severely materially deprived” in 2015.

And whereas the figures have dropped sharply in the post-communist Balkan states – by almost a third in Romania’s case – the Greek rate has almost doubled since 2008, the year the global crisis erupted. Overall, the EU level fell from 8.5 percent to 8.1 percent over the period.

The reality of such statistics becomes clear at places like the food bank run by the Athens municipality where Dimitra collects her monthly handouts.

Here, dozens more Greeks waited solemnly with a ticket in hand to get their share. All are registered as living below the poverty line of about 370 euros a month.

“The needs are huge,” said Eleni Katsouli, a municipal official in charge of the centre.

People eat at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis            SEARCH "POVERTY GREECE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.    TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

People eat at a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church in Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis 

Figures for the food bank, which serves central Athens, show a similar trend on a local scale to the wider Eurostat data. About 11,000 families – or 26,000 people – are registered there, up from just 2,500 in 2012 and 6,000 in 2014, Katsouli said. About 5,000 are children.

Many of the shelves and refrigerators in its stock room stood empty. What they give away depends on what sponsors – themselves often struggling businesses – can donate.

“We’re worried because we don’t know if we’ll be able to meet these people’s needs,” Katsouli said. “There are families with young children and on some days we haven’t even got milk to give them.”

International organisations, including the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have urged the government to prioritise tackling poverty and inequality.

Poverty stricken area of Perama is seen near Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis             SEARCH "POVERTY GREECE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

Poverty stricken area of Perama is seen near Athens, Greece, February 15, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis 

Unemployment has slipped from a peak of 28 percent of the workforce to 23 percent but the rate remains the highest in the EU. Since the crisis began, the economy has shrunk by a quarter and thousands of businesses have closed for good.

Hopes are high the economy can pick up this year but data last week showed it contracted again from October to December after two straight quarters of growth.

Better living standards seem as far away as ever. Over 75 percent of households suffered a significant income reduction last year, a survey by business confederation GSEVEE and Marc pollsters found. A third had at least one unemployed member and 40 percent said they had to cut back on food spending.

The Greek Ombudsman says a growing number of people struggle to pay utility bills. In a no-frills Athens neighbourhood, a soup kitchen run by the Orthodox church serves 400 meals a day over four sittings in under two hours.

“Everyone is going through hard times – all of Greece is,” said Eva Agkisalaki, 61, a former teacher who volunteers there.

An elderly man sells chestnuts in front of the parliament during a demonstration to demand tax reductions and compensation in Athens, Greece, February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis            SEARCH "POVERTY GREECE" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.

An elderly man sells chestnuts in front of the parliament during a demonstration to demand tax reductions and compensation in Athens, Greece, February 14, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis 

Agkisalaki did not qualify for a pension because her contract ended when the retirement age was lifted to 67 under the bailout programme and she could not find work, she said. Part of her husband’s pension, cut to 600 euros from 980 also under reforms demanded by the international lenders, goes to her son and daughter’s families.

In return for volunteering, Agkisalaki receives handouts from the soup kitchen which she shares among her unemployed daughter and her son.

“We’re vegetating,” she said between setting a long wooden table for the next meal of bean soup, bread, an egg, a slice of pizza and an apple. “We just exist. Most Greeks just exist.”

Evangelia Konsta, who oversees the centre and whose business supplies the meat, said the number of people eating at the soup kitchen has more than doubled in two years and the church often also helps cover people’s electricity or water bills too.

“Things are getting worse, they’re not getting better and that’s reflected in people’s needs,” Konsta said. “There are people who haven’t even got 1 euro.”

Across Athens, the number of Greeks sleeping rough is a testament to that. Volunteers drive a van with two washing machines and two dryers to neighbourhoods where the homeless gather to help them clean up.

“You see the same faces, but also new ones,” said Fanis Tsonas, co-founder of the Ithaca mobile laundry, as destitute men and women brought bags of laundry.

Few are hopeful of better days.

“I don’t think there’s one person who’s not afraid of the future,” said Dimitra, the pensioner, clutching her plastic bag of rationed goods.

Copyright Reuters 2017

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The despair and death of America’s middle-aged women

America’s insistence that health care is a private matter and not a public responsibility has finally delivered some clear policy results. The rise in a population’s death rate shows something is wrong.

 

PENNEY KOME: OVER EASY 
April, 2016

As Donald Trump arouses humour, fear, and world skepticism about this fall’s American elections, new reports reveal a wild card in the political mix. People are dying to get out of middle America. Social supports have been so weak and wages have been so low that mortality rates for midlife rural Americans are increasing, after more than a century of decreasing. Let me say that again: while life expectancy is rising in the developed world and much of the developing world, heartland Americans are dying in their prime years, especially middle-aged white women.

“The statistics show decaying health for all white women since 2000,” wrote Joel Achenbach and Dan Keating in the Washington Post. “The trend was most dramatic for women in the more rural areas. There, for every 100,000 women in their late 40s, 228 died at the turn of this century. Today, 296 are dying. And in rural areas, the uptick in mortality was noticeable even earlier, as far back as 1990. Since then, death rates for rural white women in midlife have risen by nearly 50 per cent.”

A December 2015 report in the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America compared this contrary trend to the AIDS crisis: “If [the white mortality rate for ages 45-54] had continued to decline at its previous (1979-1998) rate, half a million deaths would have been avoided in the period 1999-2013, [a number] comparable to lives lost in the U.S. AIDS epidemic through mid-2015.”

Worse, health surveys found that fewer U.S. rural folks reported excellent health than previous generations had done. Chronic illnesses were on the rise. For every one of those half million avoidable deaths, many live on with their disease or addiction, in pain and with limitations.

You may wonder how this could be happening in America. American experts blame bad habits. The NAS report and the extended Washington Post follow-up cited many prevalent health issues, such as obesity, heavy drinking, smoking and opioid addiction.

Certainly some kind of self-destructive behaviour is going on. In 2011, “Poisoning, Drug Poisoning and Drug Poisoning Involving Opiods” overtook lung cancer as the leading cause of death among Americans 45 -54, says the NAS report, with suicide a close third. Then come chronic liver diseases and, way at the bottom, diabetes.

Just as Canada has a fentanyl crisis, the U.S. has a catastrophic opioid crisis — which many believe was created by doctors dispensing Oxycondin for pain as liberally as they once prescribed Valium for depression. When they stopped, their patients had to find other, riskier, resources. Opioids are cheaper and more available than, say, knee replacement, for folks who live paycheque to paycheque and can’t afford health insurance.

Post reporters investigated geographic areas that showed very high-mortality rates. “In Victoria County, Tex.,” says the Post article, “a rural area near the Gulf Coast, deaths among women 45 to 54 have climbed by 169 percent [between 1999 and 2013], the sharpest increase in that age group of any U.S. county. The death rate climbed from 216 per 100,000 people to 583.”

Likewise, “A 2013 study at the University of Wisconsin looked at the geography of death and discovered that mortality for women of all races had risen in 43 per cent of U.S. counties between 1992 and 2006. Men’s mortality had risen in only 3 per cent of counties.”

Investigators found that about one-third of Victoria County’s population is obese, and one-fifth smoke cigarettes. The article quotes the health department medical director saying that she personally knows many, many white women with cancer. “It’s kind of weird,” she said.

The Post cited stress caused by women’s changing roles as causing obesity, smoking, and of course, heavy alcohol use. The NAS study cites these typical rural women’s health issues and allows that the 2008 financial crash might have played a role.

Apart from those mentions, I keep searching the reports in vain for some mention of social, economic and environmental factors. For example, Victoria County, Texas, is a major coastal crossroads that lies on a bay off the Gulf of Mexico, adjacent to a Texas county that received compensation for the BP Horizon underwater oil gusher. A cancer cluster might signal environmental contamination.

Let’s suggest a few other reasons that might expose poor women to potentially lethal risk of  poor health:

  • Before the Affordable Care Act was recently introduced, the U.S. was the only world power without universal health care coverage. If NAS repeats this study in five years, some findings may be different.
  • Contrariwise, the US is the only country with nearly universal access to guns. One report found that, “Someone with access to firearms is three times more likely to commit suicide and nearly twice as likely to be the victim of a homicide as someone who does not have access.”
  • The Republican party’s “War on Women” particularly attacked women’s ability to control pregnancy. Multiple pregnancies plus poverty plus insufficient health care equal poor prognoses for mother as well as child. The Post notes that the women who are dying are “of reproductive age,” (45 – 54), which is mostly true, although pregnancy and childbirth are riskier for women in their 40s.
  • Republican governments also instituted “workfare” programs that require welfare recipients (a majority of whom are white) to hold jobs or to perform community service — and that contain lifetime limits on single parents’ eligibility for benefits. Trapped in workfare jobs, single mothers had barely time to spend with their children, much less improve their education or prospects. They’re the ones who were hurt first by these welfare “reforms.”
  • Between the internet and international trade agreements, whole industries are disappearing from local job markets. People may re-train two or three times as their jobs are outsourced, and still never find a stable career.

In a sense, America’s insistence that health care is a private matter and not a public responsibility has finally delivered some clear policy results. I believe there’s consensus that when a population’s death rate rises, something is wrong. Here are my conclusions:

1) For-profit medical care fails massively. In other countries, people who get sick seek out medical help. They present themselves to the doctor, the nurse practitioner, the walk-in clinic, the ER, or the urgent care clinic, and they ask for help. There’s no shame and no expense.  When people have to worry about whether they can pay the doctor – especially for intractable chronic conditions like strained backs – they tend to avoid the effort and instead self medicate, as they get sicker and sicker.

2) Separation makes people vulnerable. U.S. policy emphasizes individualism as opposed to community strength.  People are expected to follow their work or their dreams, and not to settle down next to their parents. In countries that stress community rather than individuality, mortality rates are still holding steady or dropping.

3) Americans urgently need research to count up how many women were pregnant or post-pregnant when they died, in the states that passed regressive anti-abortion measures. Argentina has strict anti-abortion laws, which Human Rights Watch says “are the leading cause of maternal mortality in this country” for as long as Argentina has had statistics.  If women are dying in mid-life because of initiatives supposedly for “the sanctity of all life,” voters should know it.

4) Finally, women cannot carry the extra weight. The perennial policy of relying on women’s unpaid work to make up for scarcer and scarcer resources is totally bankrupt. Weak flesh can only take so much. America would be alarmed if middle-aged women were robbing banks or blowing up legislatures. But women dying? The response is, “What else is new?” With welfare payments restricted, the only safety valve seems to be disability payments, already attracting swelling numbers of people.

America’s heartland is in despair. The people there have been failed by the economy and the medical system. Desperate people will believe anything and do anything – maybe even vote for Donald Trump. They’re living in a tempest. The world will reap the whirlwind.

Copyright Penney Kome 2016

Contact:  komeca AT yahoo.com
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Penney KomePenney Kome is co-editor of Peace: A Dream Unfolding (Sierra Club Books 1986), with a foreward by the Nobel-winning presidents of International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War.

Read her bio on Facts and Opinions.

Contact:  komeca AT yahoo.com

 

 

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UN: World’s poorest need $160 per year

A woman carrying her baby walks past fallen trees in Tanna March 18, 2015. International aid agencies ramped up appeals for cyclone-hit Vanuatu, warning that the powerful storm which affected more than two-thirds of the South Pacific island nation had wiped out crops and destroyed fishing fleets, raising the risk of hunger and disease.  Residents of the southern island of Tanna said food and basic supplies were running low while relief workers were still battling to reach many islands pummelled by Cyclone Pam's gusts of more than 300 kph (185 mph) on Friday and Saturday.  REUTERS/Edgar Su

A woman carrying her baby walks past fallen trees in Tanna March 18, 2015. International aid agencies ramped up appeals for cyclone-hit Vanuatu, warning that the powerful storm which affected more than two-thirds of the South Pacific island nation had wiped out crops and destroyed fishing fleets, raising the risk of hunger and disease. Residents of the southern island of Tanna said food and basic supplies were running low while relief workers were still battling to reach many islands pummelled by Cyclone Pam’s gusts of more than 300 kph (185 mph) on Friday and Saturday. REUTERS/Edgar Su

By Joseph D’Urso
July, 2015

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Just $160 per year for each person living in extreme poverty would eradicate world hunger by 2030, the United Nations said on Friday, recommending the money should be delivered through both cash transfers and “pro-poor” investments.

Eliminating hunger is one of the U.N.’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), new objectives set to replace the eight expiring U.N. Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The SDGs will be finalised in September, but U.N. officials say member states have identified 17 goals and 169 targets. The second goal targets hunger, malnutrition and food insecurity.

“If we adopt a ‘business as usual’ approach, by 2030, we would still have more than 650 million people suffering from hunger,” said José Graziano da Silva, director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

The new report, prepared by FAO, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), comes ahead of a major international conference on financing for development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia next week.

The U.N. wants cash transfers to “eliminate hunger immediately” by bringing people up to the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.25 per day. It estimates this would cost $116 billion per year, $75 billion of which would go to rural areas.

To ensure the drop in hunger is sustainable, “pro-poor” investments of $151 billion per year are needed in areas such as irrigation, infrastructure and credit facilities on top of cash transfers, the U.N. said.

The total sum the U.N. says is needed each year is $267 billion. “Given that this is more or less equivalent to 0.3 percent of the global GDP, I personally think it is a relatively small price to pay to end hunger,” Graziano da Silva said in a statement.

Though much progress has been made in recent years, nearly 800 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat. Most live outside cities.

“We cannot allow them to be left behind,” said Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Programme.

Copyright Reuters 2015

(Reporting By Joseph D’Urso; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

 

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There are terrible forces at work in Nepal

Photo by CAFOD, Creative Commons

Collapsed building in the town centre, Kathmandu. Photo: CAFOD, Creative Commons

By Renee Comesotti
April/May 2015

KATHMANDU, Nepal — The world media is awash in images of death and devastation in Nepal. It’s an oddly schizophrenic experience to be ‘watching’ the current crisis from the dual perspectives of participant and observer — both on the ground and over the Internet. That’s life in a disaster zone in the Information Age.

We live in Dhobighat, a relatively new neighbourhood of Kathmandu, and our street is tiny but always busy: an overgrown, badly-paved footpath travelled every day by noisy schoolchildren, motorcycles, vegetable carts, honking taxis, young women arm in arm, gleefully reckless children on bicycles, and old people out for a walk because their daughters remind them that it’s good for them. It’s a middle-class neighbourhood, congested and chatty, and at sundown everybody goes to the dhobi — the communal well after which the area is named — to gossip and watch the boys play a little football, and to fill up their water containers for the night.

We live here because we work at the local international school, teaching the kids of ex-pat families and local folk who want an international education for their children. It’s a nice school, and our students are great — creative, thoughtful young people who have seen something of the world and who are building the skills (we hope) to act on their plans for a better world. It’s an immediate community of more than six hundred people, and all us survived the quake — the students and their immediate families, workers and support staff, teachers and all.

Dhobighat is a mess right now, but we know we’ve been very lucky. Houses have collapsed. A small child was killed nearby. We’re worried about our students, of course; many of them have been sleeping in the streets or in parks since the earthquake hit Saturday, and they’re all far too young to deal with this emotionally. But we’re getting something organized at the school for those who can make it in, and online for those who have Internet but can’t travel. People in Dhobighat have lost much. Some have lost everything. But this is a relatively wealthy and well-built part of town. Most people in our neighbourhood survived. We’ve already started cleaning up.

 in the countryside, and in the poorer parts of town. Many of our friends’ villages were devastated. Others are just … gone, wiped out, their families with them. Earthquake survivors wait for IOM and ACTED do distribute tarpaulins donated by USAID. Photo: ACTED 2015

In Nepal’s countryside and in the poorer parts of urban areas villages were devastated, or just gone, wiped out, their families with them, writes Renee Comesotti. Above, rural earthquake survivors wait for aid workers to  distribute tarpaulins donated by USAID. Photo ACTED 2015, Creative Commons

It’s a different story out in the countryside, and in the poorer parts of town. Many of our friends’ villages were devastated. Others are just … gone, wiped out, their families with them.

There are no words to describe this. The dhobi is full of people today — they’ve been sleeping there, under tarpaulins — but nobody’s talking much. Everyone knows everyone, which means everyone knows where everyone else’s family was when the quake struck — the parents, the little nieces and nephews, the old aunties and uncles, the friends, their villages, their farms. Everyone knows, so there’s no need to ask and not much to say.

The children mostly seem as riotous as ever, kicking old soccer balls around.

Most of the people who died were already living in desperate poverty. Their homes were ancient and picturesque because they couldn’t afford to build newer, safer ones. All Nepalis know how dangerous those old buildings are; they talk about it all the time. These close-knit families watch their grown children leave Nepal by the thousands, every year, to work in dangerous, underpaid jobs abroad so that they can send money back to Nepal to build better homes. It’s never enough.

Some other time, I’ll write about the many acts of generosity, friendliness, solidarity and resolute cheerfulness that we see here every day, even now. I am moved more than I can say by the uncomplaining courage and dignity of my neighbours and the people of Nepal. The man at little shop — who lost everything and whose name I don’t even know — asking me if my daughter was okay. My little friend Felix, age five, telling me pointedly that he’d like to help with those dishes — but not until I put my helmet on for protection. The kids camped in the field next door, sharing their rice with a street dog. The women laughing as they lurch toward a makeshift laundry line, staggering under the weight of rain-soaked bedding.

But right now all I can think is this: Nepal deserves better. These are hardworking, capable people who are probably more stoic than is good for them. Their suffering was caused not by the earth shifting but by the constant, grinding movement of resources away from those who have not, toward those who already have.

An event of this magnitude does things to your head. Here at our house everybody’s coping, but nobody’s finishing sentences. We’re moving slowly and having a difficult time staying focused. Questions get asked, nobody answers and no one notices. Decisions are made and we forget to act on them.

It all feels strangely familiar. There are terrible forces at work here — and I’m not talking about earthquakes.

Since Saturday I have received an embarrassing number of concerned emails, from our friends all over the world, and from many people I’ve never even met, and they’re all worried and sad, and they all want to know what they can do to help. Sometimes people are cynical about that sort of thing; the phrase ‘disaster porn’ has been floating around town, and we all recognize that ugly phenomenon when we see it.

But this is different. People should want to help out, and they do. Our empathy — the thing that drives us to communicate, to reach out to one another and be part of another’s experience — is what our overgrown frontal lobes are all about. It’s why we have social media in the first place.

For the many good people who have something to spare and who want to help, my best advice is to first look around and find some locally-based organization with roots in the community, here in Nepal. Be as sure as you can be that they’ll use the money here on the ground, first to provide emergency services and then to rebuild — and to make it safer this time. I’ve heard of people pledging support for a family for a year, during the rebuilding. That seems like a good idea to me.

In the longer term, what we can all do is stop getting caught up in systems that leave us disempowered and smother our better instincts. We can elect governments that will ensure a more equitable world, in which countries like Nepal are not impoverished by unjust economic structures. We can demand change.

The problem here isn’t earthquakes. It’s poverty. And that isn’t really news.

Copyright Renee Comesotti 2015

Renee Comesotti is from Vancouver. She and her partner, Brad Waugh, work at the Lincoln School in Kathmandu; she teaches literature and he’s the secondary principal. They’ve taught abroad for nearly fourteen years.

This essay was first published by iPolitics.ca. It is published here with Renee Comesotti’s permission. 

Related reading:

Nepal Then: a doctor’s journey, by Christine Gibson

Earthquake postpones Nepal’s bright dawn, by Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)

Nepal’s Predictable Agony, by Deborah Jones

The science behind the Nepal earthquake, by Mike Sanford, CP Rajendra, Kristin Moreell 

 

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America’s military’s biggest security threat

“Say what you will about the United States military, no organization on earth is more focused on maintaining its capabilities no matter what,” writes Natural Security columnist Chris Wood. “As a result, its upper echelons spend a fair amount of time considering what that ‘what’ might actually look like.”

Wood examines recent statements by United States Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the biggest looming threats to America’s security — and the reaction to the threats by America’s neighbours, Canada and Mexico. Men with guns don’t even make Hagel’s list. Only Natural Security does. Read Wood’s column here.*

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