(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Cyclone Idai disaster compounds problems for Zimbabwe

    Hours after Cyclone Idai battered the coast of Mozambique last week, it made its way to Zimbabwe, bringing a wave of destruction with it.


    More than 139 people have been reported dead in Zimbabwe, but that toll could rise amid reports of nearly 200 missing persons and uncounted bodies swept away by the floods. Some areas – as in Mozambique – remain inaccessible, making it difficult to establish the exact number of people in need.


    After a cabinet briefing on Tuesday, local government minister July Moyo told journalists that lessons from this and previous disasters must be learnt.


    “A few weeks before Cyclone Idai happened, we already knew the areas that were going to be affected, but we didn’t know the intensity,” Moyo said, adding that provincial and district leaders had been warned in writing, but most people did not heed the call to move.


    But locals, in turn, accused the government of failing to issue the necessary alerts that could have helped people prepare and move to higher ground.  


    Bishop Bakare from the United Mutare Residents and Ratepayers Trust told The New Humanitarian he believed the government could have made prior arrangements to evacuate people to a place of safety before the disaster struck.  


    Cyclones have hit Southern Africa before. Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all experienced floods in 2000 from Cyclone Eline.


    The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society said flooding caused by Cyclone Idai continues to cause massive destruction, with more heavy rains reported since the initial 15 March hit.


    “Crops and livestock have been destroyed, power supply and communication continue to be disrupted in affected areas,” the society said. “The hardest-hit areas remain inaccessible as heavy rains have damaged roads and main access bridges have been washed away.”


    There is also concern over the increased risk of malaria, cholera, and other diarrhoeal diseases.


    The cyclone has compounded an already dire situation in Zimbabwe and countries in the region, as the 2018/2019 farming season has already been marked by dry spells and drought.


    Counting the cost


    At the St. Charles Lwanga Secondary School in the southeastern district of Chimanimani, a boulder rolled into the dining hall and towards the dormitory, trapping 14-year-old Donnell Mashava and two of his classmates. Only Mashava made it out alive.


    “The school head and other teachers had to use a hammer to crash the rock into pieces in a bid to rescue the trapped kids,” said Mashava’s mother, Helen Benza. She said her son’s body, legs, eyes, and face were still swollen and bruised from the crush.


    Chimanimani is the Zimbabwean district worst hit by the cyclone, which also cut off the Mozambican city of Beira and brought intense flooding to parts of Malawi. Heavy rains and flash floods saw homes, livestock, and people swept away – bridges and roads destroyed.


    Read more: The response to Cyclone Idai


    According to the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society, more than 200 people have been injured, mainly in Chimanimani, while more than 900 homes have been destroyed and some 15,000 people are affected.


    In Chipinge district, Rutendo Mushimo’s entire compound was washed away by the cyclone, while bridges and roads were completely ruined.


    “Our school-going children used to use this road to school, but now the area is inaccessible,” said Mushimo. “Our clinics have been wiped out, leaving us with nowhere to seek healthcare.”


    Sally Nyakanyanga/TNH (formerly IRIN)
    Cars destroyed by the cyclone.

    Women who used to bring their goods to be sold in the area have been left unable to get to market with no source of livelihood. “Many of us are now homeless and our source of income have been greatly affected,” Mushimo said.

    One Chipinge resident, Cephas Mushoni, said people were no longer safe there. “We are in desperate need of help,” Mushoni said. “The walls of our homes have fallen. There is nothing we can do as the fruits and vegetables we used to plant and sell were all swept away.” 


    Food crisis


    The World Food Programme says 90 percent of Chimanimani has been significantly damaged. It also estimates that 200,000 Zimbabweans are in need of urgent food assistance for the next three months.


    “This disaster compounds an already dire situation, as the hardest-hit areas were facing severe food insecurity and economic hardships prior to the cyclone,” Paolo Cernuschi, Zimbabwe country director at the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement.


    “Whatever crops that were being grown despite the drought have now been destroyed in the floods, and these districts will need the help of the international community now more than ever.”


    Zimbabwe’s agriculture minister Perence Shiri acknowledged it’s going to be a tough year for the country, but said in a statement that the government needs to prepare for such disasters and put measures in place to tackle the challenges posed by climate change.


    Read more: What the fuel protests means for Zimbabweans


    Southern Africa is facing El Niño conditions for the second time in three years. People in the region are still grappling with the impacts of a strong drought episode in 2015/16, which already weakened their capacity to produce food.


    The latest report from the Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) Network, a food security watchdog, highlights that most crops in Zimbabwe are water-stressed with some already completely written off because of the prolonged dryness this season and extremely high temperatures in arid areas in most parts of the country.


    An invasion of Fall Armyworm has worsened the situation, affecting crops – mainly maize – in all districts, and about 2.4 million Zimbabweans are said to be in need of food aid due to drought.


    Cyclone Idai disaster compounds problems for Zimbabwe
  • From the ground up: Inside the push to reshape aid

    In 2016, dozens of the world’s largest donors and humanitarian groups pledged to put more power – and funding – in the hands of local aid groups. But reforms have been slow.


    When crises hit, local aid work is often overshadowed by UN agencies and big international aid groups – who receive the bulk of donor funding and largely control how it’s used.


    But away from the spotlight, local people are already tackling crises where they live: grassroots NGOs in conflict zones that are off limits to international aid groups; village leaders preparing for disasters in remote areas where the humanitarian sector can’t reach; doctors and nurses, educators, local leaders, traditional aid workers, and everyday volunteers responding to emergencies in their own communities.


    With humanitarian needs soaring and donor funding struggling to keep pace, local aid workers believe they are the key to a more sustainable future for humanitarian response. But is the global aid sector prepared to change?


    Here’s an overview of the push to reshape aid, and stories from our continuing coverage of local humanitarian response on the front lines of crises around the world.


    What is local aid?


    The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.


    Why local aid?


    The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2018, the UN asked for a record $25.2 billion to cover 33 emergencies around the world. But the funding gap continues to widen as the price tag soars.



    The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response by making it faster, less costly, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, they have local knowledge and skills, they can often access areas that international aid groups can’t reach, and they know the needs of their own communities.


    Who are local aid workers?


    Local humanitarian aid includes a broad spectrum of potential on-the-ground responders to crises and disasters: local NGOs, civil society groups and community leaders, indigenous peoples, local governments, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises, including refugees, host communities, and everyday volunteers.


    What is the aid community saying?

    The broader aid sector has struggled to define what a shift to “localisation” means in practice, and how to balance the roles of local aid responders with international donors and humanitarian groups.


    Critics of the “localisation” agenda question whether local aid organisations can always adhere to the humanitarian principles of independence and neutrality, particularly in conflict zones. Many donors have also been reluctant to directly fund local NGOs, instead opting to work through intermediaries like the major international aid groups. When funding does reach the ground, it is often earmarked for short-term projects.


    Local aid organisations say they’re in a constant struggle to survive. They’re asking for stable, longer-term funding that will allow them to grow and sustain local expertise.


    Money is important, but it’s not the only factor. Local leaders say they want a greater role in making decisions. They’re also asking for help to build skills and expertise on the ground, so that grassroots groups will be better equipped to lead in future emergencies.


  • South Sudan: The humanitarian toll of half a decade of war

    South Sudan, the world’s youngest nation, was born less than 10 years ago after a decades-long conflict and secession battle with Sudan ended in 2011. But since gaining its independence, it has barely seen two full years of peace.


    Made with Flourish

    A fragile peace deal signed in September 2018 brought a few months of relief as fighting largely subsided across the country. But since the start of 2019, violence has escalated between government forces and rebels who refuse to accept the agreement.

    Conflict began in South Sudan in December 2013 after political in-fighting between President Salva Kiir and his deputy Riek Machar escalated, soon including other opposition groups and spreading beyond the capital. The conflict has seen armed militias aligned along ethnic lines engaged in combat and attacking civilians en masse.


    In the last five years, it’s estimated that nearly 400,000 people have died: at least half from conflict, the other half from hunger and disease. At the same time 1.9 million others have been internally displaced, and more than 2.4 million live as refugees in neighbouring countries that include Uganda, Ethiopia, and Sudan; the vast majority are women and children.

    South Sudan's crisis in three maps



    Displacement Food insecurity Conflict

    Click on each to view



    Numerous ceasefires and attempts at peace have been negotiated since 2013, but most have quickly fallen apart. A peace deal was signed in 2015, but when it collapsed less than a year later, forcing Machar to flee the country, the war splintered into myriad inter- and intra-communal conflicts, incorporating previously localised disputes over land, resources, and power. Ethnic divisions have also become more pronounced – especially since 32 new states were established – and traditional front lines are changing into widespread guerrilla warfare as numerous militias are involved.


    Last year's revitalised peace agreement brought a cautious optimism for some who hope that maybe, this time, peace will hold. But on the ground, the effects of the agreement are not always visible.

    Since the start of 2019, violence has displaced thousands in Central Equatoria and thousands more across the border into neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

    Elsewhere, armed attacks, including mass rapes, have continued; many civilians are afraid to leave IDP camps and return to their villages; and many refugees in neighbouring countries are sceptical, feeling that the agreement is more about political manoeuvring than about peace.

    At the same time, half a decade of intense conflict has decimated the country’s economy; the World Food Programme says South Sudan’s meal-to-income ratio is 300 times that of industrialised countries. As a result, hundreds of thousands are in need of food aid, and parts of the country have also experienced famine.


    Overall, the UN says, seven million of the country’s 12-13 million population are in need of assistance; communities require help with food, healthcare, education, protection, water and sanitation, and other basic services that the government is unable to provide.

    As fighting continues, peace seems elusive to many South Sudanese. But the real challenge into the future, even if peace does hold, will be how to rebuild lives, livelihoods, and public services in a country where aid organisations have strained to fill the gaps for years.

    Read our coverage:

    400,000 dead, 4.5 million displaced, seven million in need of aid
  • Briefing: The response to Cyclone Idai

    Nearly a week since Cyclone Idai struck three of the most vulnerable countries in Southern Africa, needs are rising and humanitarians still don’t have a full picture of the extent of the disaster. Aid access is one of the biggest challenges and cholera is a major concern.


    More than a million people in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe have been affected by what the UN called a “massive disaster”. Its emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said “the situation is likely to deteriorate, and the number of people affected is likely to increase”.


    Mozambique was the first country hit. Some reports estimate 90 percent of Beira, the fourth largest city, with more than 500,000 residents, may be damaged or destroyed. But Médecins Sans Frontières said “it’s still too early” to have a complete overview of the situation as many areas remain cut off and inaccessible by road. Rain and heavy winds continue, so reaching certain areas by air or sea is a challenge. The storm also destroyed most of Beira’s telecoms infrastructure, making it difficult to get word out of the affected areas.


    “I am able to say that all health centres and hospitals have been affected,” said Caroline Rose, MSF’s head of mission in Mozambique, expressing concern about the growing health needs, especially the risk of waterborne diseases, including cholera. “Several health centres have lost their roofs and are in very, very bad condition.”


    In neighbouring Zimbabwe, “the situation we are seeing now isn’t fully clear,” agreed Mildred Makore, Mercy Corps director of programmes in the country. “Chimanimani, which is the worst-hit district, is still inaccessible. Evaluations are going on… and we may be overwhelmed when we have true access.”

    Here’s a round-up of what we know about the humanitarian needs and response.

    What is the scale of the disaster?


    Late on 14 March, Cyclone Idai made landfall off the coast of Mozambique, before continuing to Zimbabwe and Malawi, causing widespread devastation across parts of the three countries.


    The scale of damage in Mozambique is “massive and horrifying”, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said. Tens of thousands lost their homes; roads, bridges, and crops were washed away; and people remain trapped on roofs awaiting rescue as parts of Beira are still under water.


    More than 100,000 people needed emergency evacuation in Beira and surrounding areas in Buzi District. Although the official death toll is just over 200, Mozambique’s president estimated more than 1,000 people may have been killed. So far, 1,500 are injured and 17,000 displaced.


    In Zimbabwe, floods destroyed 600 homes, affecting an estimated 15,000 people. So far, more than 100 people have been reported dead, 200 are injured, and another 200 are still missing.


    Malawi has reported 57 dead and more than 500 injured. More than 94,000 people are estimated to have been displaced and some 840,000 people have been affected, according to the government.


    Although water levels have subsided a bit in Zimbabwe and Malawi, flooding continues in Mozambique and hundreds of thousands remain at risk. There are also growing concerns about the overflow of the Marowanyati Dam in Zimbabwe, which threatens to increase water levels in Mozambique.


    Heavy rain and flooding before the cyclone hit had claimed more than 120 lives and affected 1.5 million people in the region, the UN said. Malawi and Mozambique are both prone to extreme weather events, such as the floods that left hundreds dead in both countries in 2015. While parts of Zimbabwe are under water, other parts are in the midst of El Niño-induced drought, which has caused a severe food crisis.


    How were people impacted?


    The World Food Programme estimates that 1.7 million people in Mozambique alone were along the path of the cyclone when it hit.


    MSF described the scene as “destruction – and a lot of water”, saying that electricity, telecommunication lines, and main roads leading into Beira remain cut off, with houses and buildings submerged, and hospitals severely damaged.


    Search and rescue operations are continuing, but many people remain unreachable. Those who made it out of affected areas are living informally in schools, churches, or sometimes just out in the open, where they face the risk of respiratory infections and other diseases. With people exposed to the elements “all the small problems will become big problems”, MSF’s Rose said.


    In Nsanje, one of Malawi’s worst-hit districts, “houses fell down completely or partially, and a lot of toilets and kitchens went down,” said Ilse Casteels, MSF’s head of mission in the country. “Because of the floods people moved to higher areas, regrouping in churches and centres and schools. For the moment there are a lot of families staying there,” she said, even though some people have returned home to start rebuilding as the flood waters recede.


    In Malawi and Zimbabwe, people lost their homes but also their livelihoods when the floods destroyed their crops. Many of those affected in Zimbabwe’s eastern highlands are small-scale farmers, Mercy Corps’ Makore said. As a result worsening food security will be a major concern in the months ahead.


    An estimated “200,000 are in need of urgent food assistance for the next three months in Zimbabwe,” the WFP said, with Chimanimani the hardest hit.


    Who is responding?


    UN agencies, local and international aid organisations, and foreign countries have intervened or sent funds to assist the humanitarian response. Many others are in the process of raising donations.


    The WFP aims to provide food assistance to some 600,000 people in Mozambique and 650,000 people in Malawi. MSF is providing emergency medical care in affected regions and, in Mozambique and Malawi, it has prioritised continuity of care for vulnerable HIV and tuberculosis patients who were being treated before the disaster struck.


    In Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani district, where severe flooding wiped out roads and bridges and left the area accessible only by helicopter, the International Rescue Committee has set up a mobile clinic and is distributing food and specialised kits for women. Mercy Corps has been focusing on water, hygiene, and sanitation services.


    In Mozambique, the Indian Navy and the South African Air Force have been assisting the government’s search and rescue operation. Meanwhile, aid organisations are estimating a long road to recovery.


    The World Health Organization is sending three months’ of supplies for 10,000 people. CARE is working with the government of Mozambique to provide seeds and livestock to replenish farms that have been decimated by flooding.


    The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, known as CERF, has allocated $20 million to ramp up the humanitarian response across the three countries. The UK is donating almost $24 million, the EU close to $4 million, and the African Union $350,000. Tanzania said it was sending urgent relief supplies, including tonnes of medicine and food.


    What are the humanitarian needs/gaps?


    Access to potable drinking water, shelter, food, and healthcare are the priorities, aid groups say, with water, sanitation, and hygiene needs particularly urgent as the risk of waterborne diseases is the major concern across the board.


    “In Beira, we fear a huge cholera outbreak soon,” said MSF’s Rose. “The main challenges will be [getting treatment] for people who don’t understand they have cholera, and that it’s urgent, or people who are not reachable, or people who cannot reach health centres.”


    Given that areas are still cut off, this is a real concern. To mitigate the challenges, MSF will attempt a “decentralised system with small cholera centres in many zones,” Rose said. “We cannot ask people to go to big centres. We will have to be in the communities where they are.”


    Zimbabwe has been in the midst of a cholera outbreak since last year. Mercy Corps, which has been assisting with the response, is concerned that recent events will worsen the crisis.


    “Our major concern is that the water bodies have been contaminated, because the latrines have been destroyed,” Makore said. “We are concerned because there can be an ensuing disaster following that, related to the waterborne diseases,” including cholera and typhoid, as well as malaria. 


    “We have to make sure the affected population has access to clean water,” she said, adding that a lot more support is required to help those affected in Zimbabwe - from immediate lifesaving aid to longer-term support for communities who will need to rebuild.


    In Malawi, MSF’s Casteels said the most urgent need is clean, potable water, after many boreholes were affected by the flooding. She also expressed concern about cholera and malaria spreading in the coming weeks.

    “The biggest concern that you hear is about food. Access to food now, but also in the future. People are really afraid crops are affected. And because the country is so dependent on agriculture, that’s a big concern.”

    What are the longer-term issues?


    Mercy Corps’ Makore said the priority should be resilience-building for affected communities.


    “Contextually, for Zimbabwe right now, we have got two natural disasters at the same time. The El Niño-induced drought and now this [flooding]... Whatever produce was available was washed away, and livestock was also washed away,” she said.


    “Right now, we need to speak about food security, which was already an issue, but now we need to think beyond that because of the potential for disease outbreaks, shelter concerns, displacement. So I think we have a huge task ahead of us as organisations.”


    In Malawi, Casteels raised similar concerns. “The biggest concern that you hear is about food,” she said. “Access to food now, but also in the future. People are really afraid crops are affected. And because the country is so dependent on agriculture, that’s a big concern.”


    Based on the aftermath of previous disasters that have affected Mozambique, MSF’s Rose said: “it will take years to rebuild the town [of Beira]”.


    “This will have the worst impact on those most vulnerable,” she said. “It’s those who have small, fragile houses that are worst impacted, as they are always the people without the means to build a new house. So it’s a vicious cycle. Those who have no means to rebuild will be left outside with no house, more at risk of disease and worse off."


    "The situation is already complicated and it will continue to be, especially for the most vulnerable,” she said.


    In Zimbabwe, already confronted by a host of humanitarian, economic, and political challenges, Cyclone Idai has only made the outlook more bleak. “The priority is to help get people back on track and restore some level of dignity and hope,” said Makore.



    “The situation is likely to deteriorate, and the number of people affected is likely to increase”
    Briefing: The response to Cyclone Idai
  • Humanitarian innovation faces rethink as innovators take stock

    • At a Glance: Redefining innovation

    • A global innovation unit faces closure as sector pivots
    • Analysts say it has to be about solving structural issues not ‘shiny’ tech
    • Taking promising ideas to full-scale deployment is proving hard
    • Analysts say there’s still a need to join up hundreds of isolated initiatives
    • Underlying structural issues can’t be innovated away
    • Hype and buzzwords can cause a backlash

    More than 800 research and innovation units, labs, and other initiatives have sprouted in recent years across the UN and NGO world, accelerated by a global conference on the state of the humanitarian system. But innovation strategy is changing fast, and that means some are shutting up shop, while others are having to strike out in new directions.

    Change in the sector is underlined by the fact that one of its most high-profile outfits – the UK-based Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation – is threatened with closure, due to funding cuts and donors’ “shifting priorities”.


    GAHI’s executive editor, Rahul Chandran, said it will soon fold unless new funding can be found. A source at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), citing “a number of challenges”, confirmed it would not be renewing funding for GAHI, along with three other donors. Jess Camburn, director of Elrha, a UK-based NGO that houses the £1.2 million project, said the hosting arrangement would lapse at the end of May.


    Faced with an aging set of tools to tackle the urgent needs of more than 135 million people worldwide, relief agencies are looking for new ways to operate. The sector has tried new ideas across the spectrum of its work, from assessing needs to delivering help, from managing finance to adapting its IT toolset.


    According to a series of interviews with leading figures in the field, humanitarian innovation strategy has changed since the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, which led to a proliferation of new ventures. “I think we’re maturing,” said Camburn.


    Most interviewees said the early chapters of innovation were overly enthusiastic about “gadgets” like drones, 3D printers, and mobile apps.


    Marking the new chapter, at least two groups, including GAHI, are using the expression “Innovation 3.0”.


    Camburn, whose NGO has managed a Humanitarian Innovation Fund since 2011, said the “innovation community” was now looking at broader, more complex problems, and for ideas more relevant to people in need. The community, she explained, is moving beyond a preoccupation with technology-based “quick fixes”, solutions as “products”, and “shiny new things”.


    Cautionary tales


    GAHI was announced at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit to link up aid agencies, innovation specialists, and private sector partners.


    Now listing 40 members, the alliance has also been looking at how to take innovative practice and scale it up. Its latest publication researched the potential of blockchain technology.


    Chandran, appointed in mid-2017, said the project only really got up to speed in 2018, due to bureaucratic and hiring delays. Now it “is at significant risk of closing”, he said, although he is still fundraising. Some of GAHI’s team of about 10 full-time staff and consultants have already left and planned work on ethics in humanitarian data management may not move forward.


    The initiative was backed by Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the UK to a total of about $1.65 million. The UK amount was part of DFID’s £50 million innovation spending portfolio. Definitions are blurred, so total spending on innovation is hard to track.


    Another venture launched after the World Humanitarian Summit was the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Lab.


    Like GAHI, GHL aimed to stimulate system-wide innovation in the sector. It too listed about 40 partner organisations. But the original concept came to a halt in mid-2018, barely two years in. A former employee said the project ran out of cash “very quickly”.


    The former employee, who insisted on anonymity due to professional relationships, described the GHL concept, backed by Australia and Switzerland, as “just fantastic” but said the venture suffered from a lack of focus, being “fixated on the latest tech”, and “over-promising and under-delivering”.


    Founding organisations of GHL declined to offer detailed reasons for its closure to counter this characterisation. One major backer, the International Committee of the Red Cross, said its board members dissolved it “to explore an alternative model with revised objectives”. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, another backer, said GHL had faced “difficulties inherent to any project gathering multiple partners and trying to bring new and innovative approaches.”


    Lower tech


    An innovation specialist at a large aid agency, speaking on condition of anonymity to allow for a frank assessment, confirmed the changing direction of humanitarian innovation.

    It’s now “at a bit of a crossroads” and facing up to thornier issues, including scale, the specialist said, adding: “We need to stop fetishising technology.”


    As innovation strategy matures, practitioners are facing up to some daunting challenges, the specialist said, listing: organisational culture, bureaucratic inertia, risk appetite, and legal and financial processes. The specialist also said the focus on technology had undervalued “backroom heroes” who come up with new ways of doing things in “prosaic spaces” like administration or human resources that may not even be recognised as “innovation”.


    Noting GAHI’s funding woes, and the fact that scaling takes years, many interviewees expressed sympathy: some five-year partnerships are only now coming to fruition. While insisting that GAHI was now “delivering”, Chandran said its initial donors may not have embraced “what it would take, how long it would take”, to have a system-wide influence.


    Innovation initiatives “struggle with anything that looks like scale,” said Helen Bushell, who, as international programmes director of Oxfam GB, manages $265 million in annual development and humanitarian spending and 150 staff.


    Aid innovation in specialist fields is “core” to Oxfam’s thinking, Bushell said. For example, in water and sanitation, she argued, “we have been consistently innovative”, both in improving basic water systems, but also new ideas, including a toilet that uses faeces-eating worms.


    “We need to stop fetishising technology.”

    Bushell divided innovation into three types: disruptive (“that’s the sexy end of it”), continuous improvement, and thirdly, strategic or fundamental changes (“how could you have 10 times the impact?”). Innovation efforts across the sector had succeeded in “forcing us to look at everything differently” but are “piecemeal”, she added.




    A study commissioned for the World Humanitarian Summit from consultancy Deloitte suggested the humanitarian sector was ”lagging” in research and development. A DFID-funded paper in 2015 found funding for humanitarian innovation was “breathtakingly low”, with a provisional estimate of $37 million a year, or 0.27 percent of total global humanitarian spending.


    Despite an array of humanitarian innovation concepts and projects, some pre-dating the World Humanitarian Summit, most are working only within a single organisation, which limits their potential to affect the millions of affected people. “Collective action is the pathway to scale,” Chandran said.


    Camburn, of Elrha, suggested there was a gap for a “convenor” to work on shared challenges, if the membership model and agenda could be collectively agreed.


    Another innovation advisor said GAHI had suffered from the impression of slow delivery and a lack of results, but it may not have been given enough time to prove itself.

    Even the maturing innovation work in the sector is at a relatively superficial level, pointing to its inability to address fundamental issues or alter the wider system.

    The advisor, who requested anonymity to conserve professional relationships, said GAHI, in its defence, had tried to take a “considered approach” rather than the promotion-heavy “sequins and glitter” of some innovation labs and centres.


    Excessive hype has also led to a backlash. Some now “roll their eyes” even at the term “innovation” and the phenomenon of “chasing buzzwords” like AI, drones, or blockchain “makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit”, said the advisor.


    Moving on from “cool buzzy things” is good but innovation may not be able to tackle the structural “things we don’t talk about in aid work”, including power, rights, and agency, the advisor added.


    Even the maturing innovation work in the sector is at a relatively superficial level, some analysts said, pointing to its inability to address fundamental issues or alter the wider system.


    “It doesn’t matter how many gizmos you fund if those in power in the system don’t see real incentives for change,” said Kim Scriven, former manager of the Elrha fund.


    In response to questions from The New Humanitarian, an ICRC spokesperson said it was moving to a “tighter portfolio” in its “innovation journey”, and also noted the limitations. The main problems facing civilians in conflict are violations of humanitarian law, “constraints on access, unpredictable funding and multiple other challenges,” the spokesperson said. “These won't be solved with innovation.”



    “It doesn’t matter how many gizmos you fund if those in power in the system don’t see real incentives for change”
    Humanitarian innovation faces rethink as innovators take stock
  • UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity

    Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war came to a violent end a decade ago, but the conflict’s unresolved aftermath continues to reverberate through political upheaval and unchecked attacks on minority groups, warns a UN report to be discussed in Geneva today.


    Sri Lanka has made “virtually no progress” on probing allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the report, which is to be tabled at the Human Rights Council in the latest examination of the government’s stalled reconciliation promises.


    The 1983-2009 conflict largely pitted the military and political leadership, dominated by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, against insurgent fighters from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority. But rights monitors and analysts say years of impunity for civil war-era abuses are also widening cracks elsewhere in Sri Lankan society.


    “The risk of new violations increases when impunity for serious crimes continues unchecked,” the UN report warns.


    Last March, mobs of Buddhist demonstrators attacked mosques and Muslim-owned houses and businesses in the central city of Kandy, fuelled by hate speech and rumours that had spread over Facebook and other social media. The government declared a state of emergency and temporarily shut down social media networks. The violence left two dead and hundreds of homes damaged, but no one has been convicted for their roles in the riots, despite dozens of initial arrests.

    “The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities.”

    Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group, calls Buddhist-Muslim tensions “a second fault line” that threatens to explode. Today’s report before the Human Rights Council calls last year’s violence a “very dangerous pattern” moulded by the failure to prosecute past abuses.


    “The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities,” the report warns.


    Stalled promises


    The civil war ended in 2009 when the military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers. Previous UN investigations found evidence of “gross violations” of international rights laws on all sides of the conflict, including thousands of civilian deaths in the military onslaught that ended the rebellion.


    In 2015, Sri Lanka’s current government pledged to accelerate reconciliation efforts and probe war-time abuses, but rights groups say promised reforms have been slow or non-existent. For example, a government body tasked with investigating the disappearances of tens of thousands of missing people didn’t begin its work until last year, while plans for a national truth commission or to provide reparations for war-time abuses have also stalled.


    Rights groups draw a direct line between post-war impunity to continuing abuses and political crises that hamper the country today. For weeks last year, Sri Lanka was mired in political deadlock after President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the violent military offensive that ended the war in 2009, to the position of prime minister.


    After weeks of protest, the impasse was only quelled after the country’s Supreme Court reversed Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament, Rajapaksa resigned, and the current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, returned to office.


    Finding the missing


    Sri Lanka’s missing persons may be the most visceral example of the country’s lingering post-war trauma. It’s also one of the only instances of progress when it comes to the government’s reconciliation efforts.


    Rights groups say tens of thousands of Sri Lankans are missing since the 1980s. The government created the Office on Missing Persons in 2016, but it didn’t appoint commissioners or finance its budget until last year. The office’s role includes tracing missing relatives, investigating disappearances, and making recommendations on reforms and reparations to the government.


    But the office itself says it faces “distrust and scepticism” among the families it’s trying to help, fuelled by the “failure of successive state institutions to provide families with truth, justice and reparations”.


    Finding answers for families with missing relatives, the office said in its first report last year, “is taking place in a polarised context where even the need to address the issue of the missing and the disappeared is questioned by segments of society.”


    Transitional justice


    Four years after Sri Lanka’s promised reforms, the UN says the fledgling Office on Missing Persons is effectively the “only functioning transitional justice mechanism” in the country.


    The government has passed legislation to set up an office for reparations, but rights groups say it will be hampered by excessive government oversight and funding restrictions, leaving the body prone to political interference. A promised truth-finding commission has also seen years of delays.


    There has been even less progress on one of the most important – and contentious – measures: holding people accused of war crimes to account. Successive Sri Lankan governments have resisted pressure for an international or hybrid court to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.


    But there has also been little appetite to investigate such crimes in the country’s domestic courts. Instead, the UN report cites “worrying instances of political interference in the judicial or investigative process”, which raises questions about the justice system’s ability or willingness to investigate complex cases.


    Alleged crimes committed by Tamil Tiger fighters have also gone unaddressed. The rebel group is accused of civilian massacres, using suicide bombers, and recruiting child soldiers, but, like the broader reconciliation promises, Amnesty International says the government has also made “no progress” to address these abuses.


    “We have nothing to atone for”


    When President Sirisena was elected in 2015, he was seen as a reformist who promised to accelerate reconciliation between his country’s divided communities.

    "The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka... are weak minority voices in all communities.”

    But analysts say most reconciliation issues are intensely political, with nationalist Sinhalese forces, chief among them the would-be prime minister Rajapaksa, linking reparations and prosecutions to Sinhalese nationalist identity.


    “The sense among many Sinhalese among the military and among a lot of the political leadership is: ‘We beat the terrorists. Perhaps a few people suffered in the process, but we have nothing to atone for,’” said the Crisis Group’s Keenan.


    Even seemingly simple measures like vacating military-occupied land in former conflict areas, or releasing political prisoners, has been “grudging and slow”.


    Keenan says what’s missing is a government committed to changing long-held nationalist beliefs in both Sinhalese and Tamil communities.


    “The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka where all communities are equal and respected, where minority rights are enshrined in the constitution – those are weak minority voices in all communities,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, right, speaks with former president and current opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa after the presentation of the 2019 budget to the parliament by Sri Lankan Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, in Colombo on 5 March 2019. CREDIT: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)


    UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity
  • Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks

    Revived attempts to resolve one of the world’s least known conflicts will resume in Geneva this week as representatives from Morocco and the Polisario Front attend roundtable talks to discuss the future of Western Sahara, often referred to as the last remaining colony in Africa, and home to tens of thousands of refugees.


    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that more than *170,000 of Western Sahara’s indigenous Sahrawis now live as refugees in camps in Algeria’s Tindouf province, although Morocco says the number is only around 40,000. The people of Tindouf are almost entirely dependent on international aid for food, water, education, and other necessities.


    Many are cut off from family members by a 2,700-kilometre wall that divides the two thirds of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco – which contains most of its settlements and natural resources – from the sparsely populated desert interior held by the Polisario.


    The result of the talks on Thursday and Friday could spell out the future of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO, established as part of a 1991 ceasefire that promised a vote on self-determination within one year, including the option of full independence.


    The two parties met face to face for the first time in six years in December, sitting alongside Algeria and Mauritania in informal talks that the UN’s envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, called a “first – but important – step” to rebuilding a fragile peace process that has yielded little since it began decades ago.


    Appointed envoy in 2017, Köhler, the former German president, has been working to achieve the political settlement that eluded his three predecessors. Each were unable to reconcile the positions of Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario, which considers itself the liberation movement of the Sahrawi people.


    Morocco partly annexed Western Sahara in 1975, following the withdrawal of Spanish colonial forces. That violence pushed tens of thousands of Sahrawis to flee to refugee camps in western Algeria, from where the Polisario fought a guerrilla war backed by Algeria and Libya until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.


    Ruairi Casey/IRIN
    Wreckage from the 1975-1991 Saharan war sits outside a museum in the camps.



    Over a quarter-century later, MINURSO peacekeepers still have a presence in the Western Sahara, but the parties are no closer to a vote, which is often called the “final status referendum”. The conflict is mostly a cold one, although there have been occasional dust-ups, including heightened tensions when then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon referred to Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara as an “occupation”.


    No other country recognises its claim over Western Sahara, but Morocco considers the territory an inviolable part of its national identity and has steadfastly refused to consider anything more far-reaching than greater autonomy within the kingdom. “Self-determination, in Morocco’s view, is done by negotiation,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said after December’s talks. “A referendum is not on the agenda.”


    In April last year, the Security Council began to renew MINURSO’s mandate for six months, half the usual year. US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has been a key player in recent efforts to jump-start diplomatic negotiations, has taken credit for the switch to six-month mandates, saying in December the change was intended to ratchet up the pressure on both parties to talk.


    Bolton, who worked as an assistant for then envoy James Baker between 1997 and 2000, has maintained a keen interest in the conflict, bolstered by a career-long disdain for costly UN missions and what some observers regard as sympathy towards the Polisario.


    In December, Bolton told an audience at the Conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation that he was “frustrated” at the lack of progress made over the past years.


    “Ladies and gentlemen, 27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there?,” he said. “How can you justify that?”


    Future of talks


    The European Parliament’s approval last month of a trade deal with Morocco that included Western Sahara’s fishing waters added to the animosity between the parties, especially as it contravened a ruling by the European Court of Justice last year.


    The parliamentary green light infuriated the Polisario, which said the EU had violated international law and jeopardised the peace process.

    “27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there? How can you justify that?”

    But the key question in Geneva will be whether Morocco is willing to budge towards a power-sharing arrangement the Polisario might accept – from its current plan of keeping Western Sahara as part of the country, with some autonomy.


    Securing such movement is likely to be a challenge, Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University and an expert on the Western Sahara, told IRIN.


    Mundy said the current Moroccan plan “seems woefully insufficient to attract interest from Polisario, especially because it says nothing about a final status referendum”.


    But he added that Bolton’s shake-up could bring a welcome change of dynamic in a conflict that has changed little since the early 1990s.


    “The game might now be to see how much this actually works to get the parties to really discuss substantive issues on a political solution,” said Mundy.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the UNHCR figure was 90,000. This has now been updated)


    Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks
  • Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad

    Venezuela has the largest proven oil reserves in the world and is not engulfed in conflict. Yet its people have been fleeing on a scale and at a rate comparable in recent memory only to South Sudanese or Syrians at the height of their civil wars and the Rohingya from Myanmar.


    As chronicled by much of our reporting collected below, some three to four million people have escaped the economic meltdown since 2015 and tried to start afresh in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. This exodus has placed enormous pressure on the region; several governments have started making it tougher for migrants to enter and find jobs.

    The many millions more who have stayed in Venezuela face an acute humanitarian crisis denied by their own government: pervasive hunger, the resurgence of disease, an absence of basic medicines, and, in March, an electrical blackout that led to water shortages and the mass looting of the second city of Maracaibo.

    Amid ongoing political upheaval, President Nicolás Maduro has cast aside outside offers of aid, framing them as preludes to a foreign invasion and presenting accusations that the United States is once again interfering in Latin America.

    Meanwhile, the opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, the president of the National Assembly, has invited in assistance, from the United States and elsewhere.

    As aid becomes increasingly politicised, some international aid agencies have chosen to sit on the sidelines rather than risk their neutrality. Others run secretive and limited operations inside Venezuela that fly under the media radar.

    Local aid agencies, and others, have had to learn to adapt fast and fill the gaps as the Venezuelan people grow hungrier and sicker.

    A collection of our recent reporting from and about Venezuela is below.

    The crisis inside Venezuela


    • Hunger and survival in Venezuela

      Millions have fled Venezuela’s economic meltdown, but for millions more who remain no part of life remains untouched by the crisis, even death.

    Across the border and beyond

    Aid and politics

    A collection of our recent reporting
    Venezuela: Millions at risk, at home and abroad
  • Afghans battle with flood aftermath

    Besieged by months of drought and long-term conflict, rural communities in large swathes of Afghanistan are facing yet another emergency: widespread flooding that will leave some rebuilding their lives for years.


    Sudden heavy rainfall this month triggered flash floods that swept away thousands of homes and killed dozens in nine Afghan provinces.


    More than 112,000 people are affected, with numbers rising as humanitarian assessments trickle in from insecure areas, according to tallies by UN agencies and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


    Afghanistan is seeing unusually heavy rainfall due to the El Niño weather phenomenon declared in February, which can bring extreme weather across the globe. Forecasts predict there could be warmer temperatures and 40 to 50 percent more rain than usual into May, according to the Red Cross. Months of severe drought also make it harder for soil to absorb excess water, raising the risk of sudden floods.


    In hard-hit Nawa-i-Barakzai district in the southern province of Helmand, communities were still waiting for help – and fearing a fresh onslaught of rain – amid destroyed mud homes and dead livestock.



    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Ali Mohammed searches for the remains of his animals, which were crushed when his stable’s roof collapsed during heavy rains this month. Many residents in the area lost everything during the floods.


    In one flattened village, Ali Mohammed, 42, stood on his collapsed roof, the smell of rotting flesh seeping through the mud that used to form the walls of his house.


    “It’s my sheep,” he said, pointing to a crack that exposed parts of the dead animals, killed in the floods.


    The rains started at night. Mohammed said he and his neighbours rushed to wake their families as the waters from a nearby river rapidly rose and heavy downpours started to tear apart rooftops.


    They scrambled to higher ground. But when the waters receded hours later the entire village had been washed away – along with a lifetime of hard work and savings.


    The rains came and went quickly, but the aftermath is likely to last years for farmers like Mohammed. He said his personal losses, including dozens of sheep and his entire food supply, totalled a steep 900,000 Afghani, or $12,000. His wife packed a few remaining belongings and took the family’s children to the relative safety of the provincial capital, Lashkargah.


    “We didn’t think it could be this bad,” he said.


    A man walks among destroyed homes
    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Locals say the floods affected some 3,000 families in Nawa-i-Barakzai district, and many of the worst-hit farming families had little to begin with.

    Afghanistan’s neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, have also been hit by floods. In Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, which shares a border with Helmand, aid agencies are warning of disease outbreaks due to damaged health clinics, low vaccination rates, and health conditions already worsened by drought.


    Here in Helmand, traditionally a Taliban heartland, the latest disaster is exacerbated by widespread poverty and active conflict. Government-controlled Nawa-i-Barakzai borders one of the war’s front lines, and the district has seen a rise in clashes and killings in recent weeks.



    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    A boy watches his family’s remaining sheep after most were killed in the flood. Blue tarps offer temporary shelter to the family.

    The district governor, Ayub Omar Omari, believes the floods are evidence of a changing climate.


    “We’ve had a bad drought, followed by the worst floods I’ve seen here in decades,” he said. “People’s entire livelihoods have been swept away.”


    Few structures are left standing in areas far from the bigger markets and paved roads, where fragile mud homes are prevalent. Most families have fled, finding refuge with relatives in nearby towns. Those who stayed behind continue to sort through debris, hoping to recover what remains of their belongings.


    Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
    Haji Badar sorts through what’s left of his home and belongings. He estimates his total losses, including 13 sheep, to be the equivalent of about $4,000 – a substantial sum in rural Afghanistan.


    “It’s not safe for my family to stay outside, but we have little option,” said Haji Badar, 75. He stood surrounded by his daughters on a muddy plateau – his house has literally melted away.


    “We’re hoping for help, but none has come yet,” he said, two weeks after the initial rains.


    The sky is blue for now, but Badar fears what will come: “Our wettest season has just started.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A boy sits on his bed in Nawa-i-Barakzai district in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Heavy rains and floods destroyed his home, forcing his entire family to sleep outside. CREDIT: Stefanie Glinski/IRIN)


    “People’s entire livelihoods have been swept away”
    Afghans battle with flood aftermath
  • Note to humanitarians in South Sudan: Strengthen the group, not just the individual

    South Sudan’s five-year civil war has killed 400,000 people and displaced more than four million others, creating the largest refugee crisis in Africa. About half the population of 12 million face severe hunger. But despite continued clashes, a peace deal between warring parties to form a transitional government later this year is cause for optimism.

    If the humanitarian community is to contribute to the healing and reconciliation the world’s youngest nation so urgently needs, it must recognise the social connections that exist within South Sudanese society and strengthen them to underpin any recovery.

    Social connections are an economic safety net in South Sudan; people's family and non-kin relationships are their primary 'go to' in normal times as well as during times of distress. This local social protection predates the current crisis and has been in place well before the arrival of external humanitarian aid.

    “Before the crisis, I could have gone to the local authorities to seek help because my cattle were raided, but now there is no system in place at all.”

    Humanitarian programmes are primarily in the economic sphere – whether in the provision of food, cash to meet basic needs, or support for livelihoods or income generation. New research from Mercy Corps and Tufts University’s Feinstein International Centre explores how these interventions impact these underlying social connections, both positively and negatively.

    While the informal connections and services may not be very visible, aid actors should seek them out. They could include the sharing of food or aid for social capital, as well as the redistribution of wealth amongst more vulnerable community members in what are known as “famine courts”.

    These informal connections may also have adapted to the changing context; for example with the move to more of a cash-based economy, people’s ‘wealth’ may be less visible than before.

    Shared humanitarian aid

    Men and women in Panyijar, in southern Liech state, explained that they belonged to various informal support groups, which earn their income from fishing, herding cattle, collecting firewood, and other activities.


    Their interviews revealed that households rely on each other for food, shelter, and work and many share humanitarian aid with others to reinforce or build new connections – just as they would share crops they raise or fish they’ve caught back home.


    In Panyijar, which hosts tens of thousands who fled some of the most intense fighting of the civil war, the social safety net is exemplified by cattle herders. Here, cows, not cash, are king, and cattle-keeping is a centuries-old tradition. Cattle farmers long ago formed their own groups organically, mobilising for protection, to share information on grazing and watering their herds and to offer financial support, including loans and goods on credit.


    “We share whatever we have. You do not eat alone in our group,” explained Gatkouth, 56, a leader of a group of cattle herders (called a Kwar Wich) for more than three decades in Nyal Payam, near the White Nile River.


    During an interview, he described how the cows of one member of the group were not lactating, severely reducing the herder’s food supply. “We cannot let him leave the group because he doesn’t have lactating cows,” he said. “Instead, we eat with him and wait until his cows produce calves and he is able to get enough milk.”


    Another risk the group faces are raids by cattle thieves. “Before the crisis, I could have gone to the local authorities to seek help because my cattle were raided, but now there is no system in place at all,” Gatkouth said.


    Instead, the group supports community members who are victims of theft by contributing their own cows to his herd.

    These kinds of connections are inherently broad in scope, going well beyond market activity and trade to touch on rites of passage, gender and youth dynamics, and other facets of life.


    Aid in context


    Social connections are essential in both the crisis and the recovery period in South Sudan, and the lessons we are learning will be crucial as humanitarians consider longer-term recovery issues, such as market-oriented private-sector investment.

    What this means in the practical sense for humanitarians is that aid needs to be based on the context, rather than where it is from.


    South Sudan is a collective society, but currently the way much aid is delivered mirrors how Western donors think and is often modelled on their own societies. Organisations tend to work with individuals or households, but in the South Sudan context, everything is communal. Aid actors need to shift our Western notions of individual and household vulnerability to consider our response from a collective perspective.

    Donors too have an important role to play. They should provide aid actors with the flexibility to determine when and how to pivot from short-term emergency assistance to livelihoods support, as ending emergency relief before households are equipped to pursue sustainable livelihoods can undermine these local support systems.

    Before the conflict, in Nyal Payam, cattle herders moved freely, interacting beyond their clans, but now sometimes there is fighting, Gatkouth said. It is up to him to keep the peace.


    “If you violate any rules, I call you and others involved for a meeting. My members and I look into the case and resolve it,” he said. “I do not allow arguments in my cattle camps that might lead to fighting either between my group members or with other groups of different Kwar Wich.”

    Gatkouth’s guidance will continue to play a pivotal role in helping his community build peace, as will his relationships of trust and social connections.


    How we, as the humanitarian community, honour and maintain such vital relationships of trust will be crucial to building peace and stability and helping South Sudan recover.

    Note to humanitarians in South Sudan: Strengthen the group, not just the individual
    “Social connections are an economic safety net in South Sudan”

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