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Bearing gifts: the camels bringing books to Pakistan’s poorest children | Global development

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Sharatoon had wanted to continue her studies, but she had to leave school and her beloved books when she got married aged 15.

Now 27, Sharatoon is happy reading again, as every Friday a camel visits her small town, his saddle panniers full of books.

She has four children, the eldest is 11, the youngest 18 months, and she reads to them all, as well as to other children in the town.

Every week, when Roshan the camel comes to her home in Mand, about 12 miles from the border with Iran, in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Sharatoon exchanges the books she borrowed for new ones.

“When the camel came to our area for the first time, the kids were very happy and excited. Schools have long been closed in our area due to Covid and we do not have any libraries, so this was welcomed by all the kids,” says Sharatoon, who uses only one name.

Camel rider Abdul Qadeer leads Chirag, laden with books to the town of Abdul Rahim Bazar, in Gwadar
Camel rider Abdul Qadeer leads Chirag, laden with books, to the town of Abdul Rahim Bazar, in Gwadar Photograph: Faisal Faiz/The Guardian

Balochistan is Pakistan’s most impoverished province, blighted by a separatist insurgency for the past two decades. With a 24% female literacy rate, one of the lowest in the world, compared with a male literacy rate of 56%, it also has the highest percentage of children out of school in the country.

Roshan visits four villages, staying in each at the home of a “mobiliser” such as Sharatoon, where all the district children aged four to 16 can come to read, borrow and exchange books with one another.

“Parents and kids are excited. It is giving hope to many that they can read, and the staff members also work on mobilisation so more outreach can be done,” says Fazul Bashir, a coordinator for the library.

When Covid closed the schools across Balochistan, two women in Mand – Zubaida Jalal, a federal minister in the Pakistan government, and her sister Rahima Jalal, headteacher of a local high school – came up with the idea of a camel.

“Actually, the idea of using camels comes from Mongolia and Ethiopia,” says Rahima. “It suits our desolate, distant and rough terrains. We have received an enormous response that we were not expecting.”

Children in Abdul Rahim Bazar read books brought brought by the camel library
Children read books brought brought by the camel library in Abdul Rahim Bazar, Balochistan. Photograph: Faisal Faiz/The Guardian

The books are donated by Alif Laila Book Bus Society in Lahore, which operates mobile ricksaw libraries in the city.

The trial of the camel library has gone well and it is about to begin its next three months of rounds.

Sharatoon says: “Kids are eagerly waiting; they want to read books and keep asking me [about it]. There should be more science-related books so our kids can learn by experimentation.”

The Jalal sisters say there has been a lot of interest in the scheme from other areas, and they have just started a library in the city district of Gwadar, Balochistan, with a camel called Chirag.

Anas Syed Mohammad is a 10-year-old 4th-grade student in the town of Abdul Rahim Bazar, about 30 miles from the city of Gwadar.

Since the camel library started visiting three weeks ago, Mohammad has read a different book each time. “I loved reading Khazane Ki Talaash (In Search of Treasure). I discuss these books with my friends,” he says.

Chirag visits five towns each week accompanied by his handler and Ismail Yaqoob, a volunteer and teacher. One day, when Yaqoob went to work in his school instead of the village, he got a call on his mobile from one of the children.

Teacher Ismail Yaqoob (left) with children in Gwadar district
Teacher Ismail Yaqoob (left) and Chirag the camel, with children in Gwadar district. Photograph: Faisal Faiz/The Guardian

“He asked me why I had not come along with the camel. They were waiting for books,” says Yaqoob. “Children are so interested in reading and in their studies, but sadly the state does not invest in education.”

Jawad Ali, 10, who has ambitions to be a teacher, has also started borrowing books from the camel library. He says: “I am learning new things from these books and reading stories, understanding photo stories. But I want to read more books. The books are written in my native language – Balochi – but in English and Urdu as well. We want more books – and libraries and schools, too.”

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Apollo Go: The Beijing neighborhood with robotaxis and driverless delivery service | International

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Book a robotaxi on a mobile app and it will pick you up in less than 10 minutes. It’s 2:00pm on a Thursday in Beijing and our ride is going smoothly with no human intervention so far. “Sometimes we have to speed up manually to avoid causing traffic jams. Bicycles and motorcycles often cause traffic congestion because they ignore traffic signals,” says the driver supervising our trip, as the steering wheel magically moves by itself.

The 37-square-mile (60 square kilometers) Beijing High-level Automated Driving Demonstration Area (BJHAD) is where the country’s first pilot project to use autonomous vehicles on public roads is happening. Located in a secluded district in the southeastern part of the city, BJHAD is the test site for a futuristic plan that envisions turning Beijing into the standard-bearer for artificial intelligence (AI). The Apollo robotaxis manufactured by Baidu and the autonomous delivery vehicles manufactured by JD.com (aka Jingdong) zip around a tranquil utopia that stands in stark contrast to the hectic jungle of downtown traffic.

“[A robotaxi] can handle an average of 15 daily bookings, most of which are trips between a subway stop and an office,” said the cab driver. In November 2021, Baidu and Pony.ai became the first companies authorized to operate a fleet of 100 robotaxis in BJHAD. As of April 2022, humans are no longer required to sit in the driver’s seat of the robotaxi, which is allowed to travel at a maximum speed of 37 miles per hour (60 kph). The service is free for now, although the two companies are commercially licensed.

Baidu, China’s leading search engine, is diversifying its business by commercializing its AI and intelligent transportation technology. Its Apollo Go program is currently operating in seven cities, and the company plans to expand to 65 cities by 2025, and 100 cities by 2030. Unlike the Waymo robotaxis that Google began operating in 2020 in the US, Baidu’s vehicles circulate during the day, enabling them to collect more data.

Although Baidu has topped the list of Chinese companies with the most patents for AI applications over the last four years, e-commerce giant JD.com is the leader in the autonomous delivery vehicle space. In 2016, Jingdong established its headquarters in BJHAD, and its delivery robots now dominate the streets. These vehicles mainly transport orders from the 7FRESH smart supermarket chain operated by JD that combines e-commerce and traditional commerce. “Instead of people going out to buy products, we deliver them,” said Yang Han. Who works in Jingdong’s communications department.

JD’s applies big data analytical methods to the information collected from more than 400 million annual users, and utilizes it to tailor inventories to the specific needs of each 7FRESH physical stores location. The entire 7FRESH inventory is available in the app. The delivery robots, which travel at nine miles per hour (15 kph) and can carry 220-440 pounds (100-200 kilos), deliver orders in less than an hour within a three-mile (five kilometer) range.

JD employees rely on smaller robots to send documents and other items between offices in 10 minutes or less. “They speed up the work and saves us from having to run around from one place to another,” said Yang Han. The robots are able to operate elevators and open doors by themselves as they follow their delivery routes.

The robots can recognize their surroundings and avoid obstacles with a 98% accuracy rate for small objects. Information streams in through cameras and other sensors, while the navigation algorithm pinpoints their location and plans routes. JD’s cloud-based simulation platform accumulates data from every trip to continuously improve the robots’ capabilities.

The Covid pandemic spurred JD to accelerate its autonomous delivery program, enabling it to deploy small and large delivery vehicles to the Chinese cities most affected by the pandemic over the last two and a half years. In early 2020, during the peak of the pandemic in Wuhan, these delivery vehicles traveled a total of 4,225 miles (6,800 kilometers) and delivered more than 13,000 packages.

In a country where low unemployment is one of the main pillars of its social stability goals, the move to autonomous vehicles may prove to be risky in the long run. However, Yang Han insists that the objective is to “achieve a synergy between humans and machines… The goal is to take the pressure off delivery drivers and allow them to focus on customer service and vehicle maintenance. The couriers don’t need to transport the goods. Instead, they wait by the curb for the robots to arrive, and then walk the goods to the customer’s door. “

BJHAD is part of the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Area, the first place in China specifically geared to AI research. The country aspires to become the world leader in AI by 2030 and to leave the “factory for the world” image behind for good.

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Afghan embassy staff remain in hiding despite being eligible for UK relocation | Global development

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More than 170 people who worked for the British embassy in Kabul remain in hiding in Afghanistan in fear for their lives, almost a year after the Taliban retook the country.

A list of Afghans currently in hiding, seen by the Guardian, shows almost 200 former interpreters, security guards and local staff waiting for a response from the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office, the departments responsible for relocating people at risk. All of those on the list are eligible for transfer to the UK under the Afghan relocations and assistance policy (Arap), intended to bring those formerly employed by the UK government, and their family members, to safety in Britain.

Aarash* was employed by GardaWorld, a security subcontractor for the MoD, and worked at the British embassy for more than 10 years. He and his children have fled their home and live hidden in a basement in a village outside the city, surviving on one meal of boiled rice a day.

“The Taliban, they have access to the details of all the guards and their ID cards,” Aarash said, speaking by secure connection. “Two times, they came to search our house, so we had to escape. They say that we are criminals, that we are not true Muslims, that we worked for foreigners. If they find us, they will kill us – this is for sure.”

In August 2021, as the Taliban took Kabul, Aarash was on a coach with his family, due to be evacuated. A suicide bomb inside the airport forced the bus to turn back. He has been in hiding since.

“Every time we receive a message from the MoD, they say to wait. More than 10 months we are waiting. We hoped the British government would help us but they have done nothing – they have left us alone here to die.”

British and US soldiers help evacuate British nationals and former British staff eligible for relocation, Kabul Airport, 21 August 2021
British and US soldiers help evacuate British nationals and former British staff eligible for relocation, Kabul Airport, 21 August 2021. Photograph: MoD/AFP/Getty Images

Another man, speaking through a translator, said: “The Taliban came to our house, they broke everything and we had to leave very quickly. Now we are in very bad conditions. Our children cannot go to school, we cannot walk in the streets or go to the market [for food]. Every day, we are at risk. They will come for us and they will kill all of us, including the children. We are in a humanitarian crisis.”

He added: “The British government, they know everything about us. They know we are eligible [to come to the UK] because we worked for them for many years. We did good work for them. We respectfully ask the British government to help us and begin our transfer as soon as possible.”

Sarah Magill, a director of the charity Azadi, said eligible Afghans were in their tens of thousands. “They are scattered in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, in hiding and terrified. We would like more diplomatic energy and investment going into establishing pathways for them, including through Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Relying solely on Pakistan, a country in political turmoil, has caused a bottleneck.”

Sara de Jong, co-founder of the Sulha Alliance, which supports Afghans who worked for the British government to resettle in the UK, said: “The Arap team’s slowness and unresponsiveness leaves applicants in limbo, while fearing for their lives. The processing of applications needs to be expedited, and applicants should be given clear timelines, which will also help reduce duplicate applications from Afghans simply desperate to get a response.”

It is the latest criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis, with a damning report from the foreign affairs committee in May saying there has been a “total absence of plans to evacuate Afghans who supported the UK mission without being directly employed, which has put lives at risk”.

In response to a written question last week, armed forces minister James Heappey said one Arap case dating from when the scheme opened remains unresolved. He added that it “relates to an individual we have contacted three times, requesting further information relating to their eligibility”.

However, earlier this month, in response to a parliamentary question, Heappey said decisions on only two of the 3,226 Arap applications received since April 2022 had been processed. Heappey told MPs that 9,500 Afghans have been relocated to the UK under Arap but added: “We think we’ve got about the same to go in terms of the number of people who are eligible.”

Passengers evacuated from Afghanistan disembark at RAF Brize Norton station in southern England, 24 August 2021.
Passengers evacuated from Afghanistan disembark at RAF Brize Norton in southern England, 24 August 2021. Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office this month launched an online system, where those eligible can send an “expression of interest” in being transferred to the UK as part of its Afghan citizens resettlement scheme (ACRS), which is separate to Arap. The ACRS is designed to support those who assisted UK efforts in Afghanistan and members of minority groups based, for example, on ethnicity, religion or sexuality. Former GardaWorld and British Council employees will be considered, but it is not possible to apply for the scheme.

An MoD spokesperson said: “Between April and the beginning of June, 683 eligible Afghan civilians along with their families and dependants were relocated to the UK under Arap.

“In total, the Ministry of Defence has relocated over 9,500 Arap principals and their families since the beginning of the scheme. We know there is still a way to go to bring all those who are eligible to safety in the UK; the government is continuing to work with third countries to facilitate the relocation of those who are eligible under Arap.

“We continue to process applications in the order in which they are received, which has meant that some of the newer applications are still being worked through. We recognise there are too many individuals waiting for an answer, and this is not acceptable. This is why we are putting more resource into a dedicated team for processing Arap applications.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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Ukraine war: Biden pledges more aid for Ukraine at close of ‘transformative’ NATO summit | Spain

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At the close of a NATO summit in Madrid that world leaders have described as “transformative,” US President Joe Biden announced a new $800 million package of military aid for Ukraine, including air defense systems, artillery, ammunition and counter-battery radar.

The announcement came a day after the US leader pledged to boost America’s defense and deterrence capabilities on the European continent. “The US is doing exactly what I said we would do if Putin invaded, enhance our force posture in Europe,” said Biden. “Putin thought he could break the transatlantic alliance […] but he’s getting exactly what he did not want.”

At the two-day gathering, which brought together around 40 heads of state and government, leaders agreed on long-term support for Ukraine and on a new Strategic Concept, a document that describes how the Alliance will address threats and challenges in its security environment in the coming years.

Both Biden and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underscored one of the main achievements of the two-day gathering, getting Turkey to lift its opposition to Sweden and Finland’s request to join the alliance following decades of non-alignment.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, during a news conference following the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, during a news conference following the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid.Valeria Mongelli (Bloomberg)

Formal invitations are being extended, but the process is not over and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cautioned on Thursday that both Nordic countries will have to keep their promises in connection with their stance on Kurdish groups that Turkey considers terrorists. This includes a pledge by Sweden to extradite 73 individuals.

On Tuesday, Stoltenberg had said the goal of the summit was to chart a blueprint for NATO “in a more dangerous and unpredictable world” marked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has sparked a “fundamental shift” in NATO’s approach to defense.

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