(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable

    A new US anti-terror law that has forced the majority of American-funded aid operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to grind to a halt may have even wider humanitarian consequences, leaving nonprofits around the world more vulnerable to litigation.

     

    While the 700-word bill appears to have been targeted at the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, experts say the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, or ATCA, is poorly crafted and could result in some non-governmental organisations and businesses being reluctant to take US funding or be associated with US-financed programmes.

     

    Signed in October last year and law as of 31 January, ATCA is an attempt by US lawmakers to make it easier for American courts to hear civil suits related to terrorist attacks abroad, specifically those involving authorities tied to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

     

    Under ATCA, recipients of three kinds of aid – economic support funds (ESF), international narcotics and law enforcement (INCLE) funds, and financing earmarked for nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, and demining (NADR) – become subject to US “personal jurisdiction”.

     

    This means American citizens who have demonstrably suffered injury to “person, property or business” from international acts of terrorism can sue these recipients in US civil court. American NGOs that operate abroad were already subject to personal jurisdiction for such suits, but ATCA broadens this to any recipient.

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict.”

    As a result of the law, the Palestinian Authority (PA) announced it would stop taking those forms of aid, leading the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to shut down its operations in the West Bank and Gaza in February. Other NGOs that receive funding via USAID and from the streams mentioned in ATCA followed suit.

     

    While the bill has so far only caused the shutdown of NGOs working in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no geographical limit in its wording. Experts, including Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about the law and advised aid groups on its legal ramifications, say this means ATCA could have unintended and far-reaching consequences.

     

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict,” he said.

     

    ATCA’s birth and immediate impact

     

    In 2015, a court awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to 10 families who were American victims or related to victims of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s. They argued that the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, both headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, had offered financial support to the attackers and their families, running afoul of the US Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

    The ruling was overturned, in part because even though the victims and plaintiffs held American citizenship, a higher court said the PLO and the PA couldn’t be sued in the US court system for attacks planned and carried out “entirely outside” American borders.

     

    Sponsored by Senator Chuck Grassley, ATCA, which clarifies the ATA, was largely the result of a campaign by the plaintiffs and their lawyers to allow Americans to do just that. After the bill passed, Grassley cited the case against the PA and the PLO: “Carrying out or assisting an act of international terrorism that injures or kills Americans abroad should provide sufficient justification to subject defendants to US legal sanctions,” his office said in a statement.

     

    The Palestinian Authority has received all three types of ATCA-specified aid in recent years. Unwilling to risk liability under the new law and a possible reactivation of earlier lawsuits against it, the PA told the United States in December that it would stop taking US funds from the three streams. It also ordered any NGOs using such funding to end their work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Programming carried out by USAID-funded NGOs, including a planned rehabilitation of Gaza’s water system, have been halted.

     

    Eric Garduno, senior policy and legislative specialist at Catholic Relief Services, said all USAID-funded work on his organisation’s Envision Gaza 2020 programme – through which it provided food to more than 3,000 households – ended entirely when ATCA came into force.

     

    Garduno said 3,000 households was already well below their goal – due to previous US budget cuts and administration scrutiny – and added that he didn’t know how many people Catholic Relief Services would now be able to feed.

     

    “We are in sort of a limbo right now where we think at least some of the programmes that were closed on January 31 can be restarted if there is a change to ATCA, but I don’t know how quickly a change can happen now,” said Garduno. “We do know the longer this is delayed, the less likely any of these programmes will be restarted.”

     

    All of this comes at a sensitive time for NGOs working in the Palestinian territories, after a pro-Israel activist used another US law, the False Claims Act, to seek damages – successfully in at least one case – from nonprofits on the basis that their interaction with US terrorist-designated groups may amount to material support.

     

    Wider impact

     

    Overall, ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding totalled more than $6 billion in the last financial year and was received in more than 50 countries, including fragile humanitarian situations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Yemen.

     

    The funds cover a wide range of activities, from sanitation to law enforcement. INCLE funds that have paid for security assistance in the West Bank have also been spent in countries like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Pakistan to combat the drug trade and finance other security measures.

    “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

    Courts will ultimately decide the breadth of the new law, but analysts say the lack of geographical specificity in ATCA means aid organisations or subcontractors that receive ESF, INCLE, or NADR funding – either directly or indirectly – could be left open to lawsuits if they implement programming in areas where US-designated groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or al-Qaeda affiliates like al-Shabaab operate. This may be true even if the only US funding they receive is for unconnected operations in a different country to the one where the ATCA and ATA-prohibited programming is being conducted.

     

    “There are partners that don’t have a US [base of some sort] that do get US foreign assistance on a pretty regular basis – usually subcontractors,” said Hady Amr, a former senior US diplomat who managed a $1.6 billion aid budget for the Middle East as deputy senior administrator at USAID. “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

     

    Kay Guinane, director of the Charity & Security Network, a group that coordinates nonprofits on regulatory issues, said foreign-based NGOs expressed concern in recent meetings that they may be vulnerable to lawsuits because of ATCA, and would not have the financial means to fight in court. She said the vagueness in US law over what constitutes material support for terrorist action, exacerbated by ATCA, had added to this anxiety.

     

    Few aid groups are willing to talk openly about the issue. “NGOs would be foolish to speak publicly about concerns with ATCA,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “Doing so would be the equivalent of painting a bullseye on their backs at which lawyers and potential litigants looking for targets [could] take aim.”

     

    "It's a hypothetical for now, but it's not paranoid to see [ATCA] as a very real potential threat,” Friedman said. "The potential use of this as a [legal] tool is only limited by the number of cases of US citizens injured overseas and the creativity of lawyers who in finding NGOs to sue."

     

    Neither USAID nor the US State Department responded to questions about whether they were using language in contracts – or warning partners in any other way – about the new implications of receiving ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding.

     

    “The assumption within a large part of the NGO community is that this could have a chilling effect on non-US or local NGOs who are willing to accept US assistance,” said Joel Braunold, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.

     

    Clarification

     

    While the NGO community waits to see what the full impact of ATCA will be, there have been unsuccessful attempts on the US side to adjust the law’s wording, especially since the PA stopped taking funding for security coordination with Israel, which includes aid to Palestinian security forces working with Israel on counter-terrorism measures.

     

    “We learned that no one on Capitol Hill thought ATCA would be interpreted in a way that would force NGO programmes to close,” said Garduno of Catholic Relief Services.

     

    NGOs hoped Congress would deliver a fix in the spending package President Donald Trump signed last month, but this didn’t happen and legislators have so far failed to amend the law.

     

    That doesn’t necessarily mean a change of some sort isn’t on the cards. A spokesperson for Grassley told IRIN was still willing to further “clarify” the law his office drafted, but said the senator blamed the State Department for only raising concerns about US assistance after the legislation had passed. The State Department declined to comment.

     

    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here,” said Anderson of Brookings. “The broader question is whether there is going to be a fix for the broader impact this will have outside the West Bank.”

     

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    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here”
    Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable
  • What effect did the US shutdown have on foreign aid?

    The US government shutdown may be over, but the uncertainty it caused for the aid and development community isn’t going anywhere.

     

    Humanitarian groups say the record 35-day halt to the funding of routine government activity stopped short of causing massive disruptions: NGOs including Save the Children and Mercy Corps, as well as the UN’s World Food Programme, said the shutdown hadn’t impacted their operations.

     

    It was a slightly different story at USAID. The US government agency responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance reported that as of January 23 (two days before the shutdown ended) just over half of non-contractor “direct hire employees” (1,706 out of 3,311) had been furloughed, meaning they were instructed not to report for work, nor were they working remotely.

     

    Though proportionally fewer staff were furloughed overseas, the cash freeze appeared to be felt most strongly on humanitarian and diplomatic operations outside the United States – activities budgeted at some $39 billion per year. During the shutdown, the US government said it would provide $20 million in humanitarian aid for Venezuela, but its aid delivery department was hampered by the government shutdown.

    “Funding uncertainty is the worst enemy of development practitioners… who have to deal with every other imaginable uncertainty on a daily basis.”

    “If I'm an implementer or a strategic planner at USAID, the threat of a shutdown will at the very least have a dampening effect on my ability to do the long-term planning that is so critical for USAID (and its partners) and without which appropriated funds won't be contracted out in time, thus putting sequestration back on the possibility list,” said Erol Yayboke, deputy director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank.

     

    The longer-term impact may be difficult to gauge, but US grantees and analysts say the shutdown at the very least caused delays in aid approvals and stalled ongoing dialogue. And should another shutdown occur – as the White House hasn’t ruled out – it is now more likely that projects will be disrupted and delayed, compounding backlogs and continuing to put relationships with local partners at risk.

     

    “Humanitarian partners are on the front lines of delivering lifesaving services to the most vulnerable around the world,” Congresswoman Nita Lowey of New York, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, told IRIN, shortly before the shutdown ended. “Disruptions in US funding compromise their ability to plan and manage operations and put at risk the lives of many.”

     

    Jane Gotiangco, a spokeswoman for Chemonics, a large development and humanitarian aid contractor, said that while its own operations enjoyed “some degree of flexibility” during the shutdown, it was more challenging for “small businesses and indigenous organisations… since they do not have large enough diversity of projects to ensure continuity of all their operations.”

     

    As of the middle of January, about a quarter of the US foreign ministry and diplomatic service staff – the State Department’s direct hire employees based overseas – were furloughed, while 42 percent of those based in the United States were sent home.

     

    Because of the timing of the shutdown, which began just before the Christmas holiday, effects on State Department functions like the resettlement of refugees – which is halted anyway for several weeks around the end of the calendar year – were more difficult to measure. But diplomatic work and engagement with foreign interlocutors and international organisations clearly took a hit.

     

    USAID does rely heavily on contractors, and the funding for some of those contractors may already be in place for months or longer.

     

    Tom Babington, a spokesman for USAID, said that offices affected by the shutdown would not make “new obligations or grants and contracts” except for in exceptional cases. In early January, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont provided one example in Vietnam, saying that “key employees at our embassy and USAID mission in Hanoi were furloughed,” an instance that was likely replicated across continents.

     

    Yayboke described funding issues resulting from the US shutdown as “essentially unforced errors or self-inflicted wounds”, adding: “funding uncertainty is the worst enemy of development practitioners… who have to deal with every other imaginable uncertainty on a daily basis.”

     

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    What effect did the US shutdown have on foreign aid?
    “Funding uncertainty is the worst enemy of development practitioners”
  • What’s at stake in Yemen peace talks

    As talks opened in Sweden today aimed at setting a framework to eventually end Yemen’s 44 months of war, a new report stopped short of declaring famine but said that 20 million Yemenis are hungry and need food aid.

     

    Lise Grande, the UN’s top humanitarian official in Yemen, told IRIN that the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) report found that of the 20 million, 238,000 people “are barely surviving. Any small change in their circumstances, any disruption in their ability to access food on a regular basis, will bring them to the brink of death.”

    Grande said these people are mostly in four provinces where “conflict is raging”: Taiz, Sadaa, Hajjah, and Hodeidah.

     

    Since March 2015, Yemen’s war has pitted Houthi rebels and their allies against the internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

     

    Their fight has had devastating consequences for civilians. Asking for a record $4 billion for humanitarian assistance next year, the UN said this week that 24 million people, some 80 percent of the population, are in need of assistance.

     

    Read more: Briefing: Yemen Peace Talks

     

    “As parties to the conflict in Yemen sit down at the table this week, we urge them to look as closely as we do at the humanitarian implications of this war,” read a statement from Mohamed Abdi, Yemen country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

     

    Here are a few of those implications for the millions of Yemenis stuck in the war – still being waged some 5,000 kilometres away from the castle outside Stockholm where the warring parties are gathered to hash it out.

     

    20 million hungry

     

    Despite recent warnings of famine from UN officials (UN aid chief Mark Lowcock said in late October that there was danger of a “great big famine engulfing” Yemen), not to mention some increased media coverage of the country featuring striking pictures of emaciated children, the IPC report means an official declaration of famine is not imminent.

     

    That doesn’t mean people aren’t going hungry or dying because they don’t have enough to eat: the threshold for declaring famine is high, and requires an amount and quality of data that may not be collectable in Yemen. In past famines, many deaths have happened before a proclamation was made.

     

    Read more: Deaths before data

     

    The IPC’s scientific methodology is intended to separate the process of declaring famine from politics by implementing uniform measures across countries. It uses a five-point scale to measure food insecurity, and Grande said 152 of Yemen’s 333 administrative districts are now classified as level 4 emergencies, adding: “this means that close to half of all districts in the country are one step away from catastrophe.”

     

    While the results of the IPC survey were presented to UN agencies and NGOs Thursday, the report itself has not yet been released. Several UN sources said it was delayed because of confusion in the implementation of new IPC protocols, but a senior food security expert following the situation said he was “baffled why they are not releasing the report”.

     

    7,000 – 57,000 dead

     

    While various numbers are floating around, we simply don’t know how many people have died as a result of Yemen’s war, be it from hunger, bombs, bullets, or disease.

     

    The UN’s human rights office keeps statistics on the number of civilians who have been killed and injured in violence and, as of today, they count 6,906 killed and 10,861 injured since the end of March 2015. The UN says these figures are a “conservative estimate”, given their strict requirements for verification and access constraints in some parts Yemen.

     

    ACLED, which collects data on political violence and utilises numbers from the Yemen Data Project, estimates that more than 57,000 people (including combatants) have died in Yemen’s war.

     

    Like the UN’s, these statistics only include violent deaths, so they don’t take into account the more than 2,500 Yemenis who died since last April in two waves of cholera, a disease that should be easy to treat.

     

    Yemenis with chronic diseases or other ailments are also likely dying at an elevated rate, uncounted: The World Health Organisation says almost half of Yemen’s health facilities and hospitals have been destroyed as a result of the war, and points out that patients with diagnoses like cancer – the WHO says that’s 35,000, with 11,000 more diagnosed every year – struggle to access treatment.

     

    For its part, Save the Children estimates that 85,000 children may have died of disease and starvation since the conflict escalated in 2015.

     

    More than 2 million displaced

     

    UNHCR, the UN’s agency for refugees, says that more than two million Yemenis are currently internally displaced, meaning they’ve had to flee their homes but remain inside Yemen’s borders.

     

    An estimated 455,000 people have been displaced (some sources put the number as high as 600,000) since a government and coalition offensive began moving up the Red Sea coast in June through Hodeidah province and into the Houthi-held port city of the same name.

     

    Some displaced people are staying with family members, or renting accomodation if they have the money. But many are sheltering in schools or other public buildings, and others are sleeping out in the open or in makeshift shelters.

     

    Leaving home doesn’t just mean the loss of a place to sleep; displaced people are likely to lose their sources of income as well as the local support networks they fall back on in hard times. They are also often at higher risk of contracting diseases like cholera because of poor conditions and difficulty obtaining clean water.

     

    Untold numbers impoverished

     

    Hunger, death, and displacement have been worsened by (and have contributed to) Yemen’s ongoing economic collapse.

     

    While some people – namely those connected with various sides in the fight – are enriching themselves in Yemen’s war economy, most Yemenis are in a downward spiral.

     

    Pretty much every economic indicator for Yemen is dire: while official statistics are no longer available, the World Bank says anecdotal evidence points to a GDP that has contracted by 40 percent since the end of 2014; foreign remittances are down; and Yemen’s currency has been in freefall for months (although it made a slight rebound last month from a record low in October).

     

    Prices of just about everything are up, and the inability to buy food, rather than the lack of it in markets or shops, is a major reason people are going hungry. The UN says fuel prices have doubled in the past two years, and the price of food basics has jumped by 60 percent in the past year.

     

    So, what to expect?

     

    The talks, which are officially called “political consultations”, are unlikely to solve any of these problems right away, or even bring an end to the war.

     

    That’s actually by design: UN envoy Martin Griffiths is first hoping to set the stage for future peace talks, as well as focus on a series of “confidence-building measures”.

     

    On Thursday, he announced that one of these measures, a prisoner swap agreement, had been signed. The deal will be overseen by the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (ICRC).

     

    Also on the list: re-opening Sana’a airport to civilian traffic; stabilising Yemen’s economy; and securing a truce in Hodeidah.

     

    The last item is of particular concern to humanitarians, who have long warned that a port closure would bring even further disaster to Yemen, which imports most of its food and has already seen a decrease in commercial ships willing to take the risk of docking at Hodeidah given the recent violence.

     

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    What’s at stake in Yemen peace talks
    "Any small change in their circumstances... will bring them to the brink of death"
  • Deaths before data

    What is happening in Yemen looks like “famine” as it is commonly understood – children, for instance, are dying of starvation. Yet the difficulty of collecting data means that an official famine, which has a technical definition and a high threshold, may still not be declared.

     

    Even before the battle for Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Hodeidah intensified in the past week, threatening to cut off one of the country’s key lifelines, millions of Yemenis did not have enough to eat.

     

    Last month, the UN’s humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock delivered the latest in a series of dire warnings about the food situation in Yemen – a country that has been at war for more than three and a half years and heavily reliant on food imports for decades. The number of people facing “pre-famine” conditions, Lowcock said, had reached 14 million – half the country. That meant there was “a clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine.”

     

    As the fight for Hodeidah puts an increasing number of civilians in the line of fire, the UN may have a strategic interest in making such strong statements. Declarations of famine, or even the threat of them, often lead to greater leverage, increased funding, and more media attention.

     

    But the UN cannot declare a famine simply because large numbers of people are going hungry, or even dying. It adheres to the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system – a method of analysing food insecurity designed to pull the process of declaring famine away from politics by using uniform measures that can be reliably compared across countries.

     

    This is fine in principle, but in practice can be problematic.

     

    “Data collection in Yemen has been horribly difficult since the start of the conflict,” said Michael Neuman, director of studies at MSF-Crash, an affiliate of the medical charity that conducts analysis of MSF’s work.

    “By the time we get to famine, a response is almost already too late.”

    The last time famine was declared was in South Sudan in 2017, in two counties. By the time the UN made it official, it is estimated most of the hunger-related deaths had already happened, and many more died in areas where there was never, technically, a famine.

     

    As Peter Thomas, an analyst at Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), a US-funded food security monitor, put it: “By the time we get to famine, a response is almost already too late.”

     

    Crossing a threshold in the IPC system and making a declaration may make no immediate difference on the ground, where children still die and parents mourn, but it can have longer-term ramifications. One Security Council diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, told IRIN that it would at least push diplomats, who this year passed a Security Council resolution on food security and conflict, to further action. The resolution raises the possibility of sanctions against “individuals or entities” who obstruct the delivery of, access to, or distribution of humanitarian assistance.

     

    A famine declaration would likely be a major PR hit for the government of internationally recognised President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Saudi Arabia-led coalition that backs it. Despite their own interference in relief efforts, for the Houthi rebels, it could be an image win, as they have long argued that the coalition and its allies are to blame for the humanitarian crisis.

     

    A declaration would be especially politically charged given the international spotlight on Saudi Arabia – and its US and UK ties – since the killing last month of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khasshogi in its Istanbul consulate.

     

    Is famine likely to be declared?

     

    Lowcock told the Security Council that a current round of food security assessments would conclude in November, warning that it could result in an official declaration of famine in at least some parts of Yemen.

     

    José López, IPC global programme manager at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, confirmed to IRIN that analysis was taking place in northern and southern districts. He said final results were expected by the middle of the month. “However, this schedule is subject to change given the evolving situation in Yemen,” he cautioned.

     

    The IPC has five “phases” of food insecurity, and for a country to reach the “catastrophic” phase 5 – famine – the following criteria must be met: at least 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages; more than 30 percent of children younger than five suffer from acute malnutrition (measured by weight and height); and at least two out of every 10,000 people are dying every day.

     

    Reliable data has proven notoriously difficult to obtain in Yemen, where war has split the country between Houthi rebel-controlled regions and areas dominated by the UAE and Saudi Arabia-backed government of Hadi and their allies.

     

    Once data is compiled, a technical working group made up of staff of the UN, NGOs working in the country, and government agencies should arrive at findings through consensus. If the group suspects famine at the end of that process, a team of experts appointed by the IPC is brought in to further consider the data. Finally, any declaration is made either by the UN, the national government, or both. This process, however, is still evolving, and a new IPC manual – as yet unpublished – is being tried out for the first time in Yemen.

     

    In recent conversations with more than half a dozen aid workers and food security experts, some, including technical staff with access to UN figures on hunger in Yemen, said they believed the threshold for famine had already been crossed in certain parts of the country.

     

    Others were less sure and said famine “could” be present, or predicted that it would not be declared at all – possibly because the required data remains unavailable. In a grim irony, famine may prove impossible to declare because humanitarians are unable to count the dead in pockets of the country from that very famine.

     

    So what now?

     

    Last year’s annual assessment on hunger in Yemen found that at least two of the thresholds for phase 5 “were either already exceeded or dangerously close” in about a third of Yemen’s 333 districts, according to Lowcock.

     

    But the final indicator, the death rate, was particularly difficult to ascertain.

     

    An ideal data collection process would include collating the results of multiple surveys: aid or health workers going door to door filling out surveys that ask questions about deaths in the family and what the family ate recently, for example. It could also collect a range of data from public hospitals and clinics. This is not available in all parts of Yemen, however.

     

    As international agencies have limited freedom of movement, much of the data for the IPC process has been gathered by Yemeni civil servants conducting UN-funded surveys, a source familiar with the current IPC process told IRIN. A Ministry of Health official, for example, will run families through a structured questionnaire. In Yemen, these surveys on food availability and nutrition make up the bulk of the data under consideration. Gathering reliable mortality information can be particularly hard, the source added, as it runs into both political and cultural sensitivities.


    Part of a survey used to measure malnutrition in Hajjah province.


     

    “The IPC is hugely important, but like any methodology its applicability depends on conditions on the ground,” said the UN’s head in Yemen, Lise Grande. “Given the complete breakdown in the health system, and the total inability to realistically collect mortality figures, we will almost certainly never know concretely what is going on with the mortality indicator.”

     

    An aid expert who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to speak to the media while assessments in Yemen were ongoing said it seemed the IPC system “is designed not for conflict settings, in the sense that – as per Lowcock's statement – it's very hard to get the data if there are a lot of locations that are inaccessible.”

     

    Some aid groups, including Médecins Sans Frontières, have been sceptical of the most alarming warnings coming from Lowcock and others, cautioning against getting too far ahead of hard figures. “There is no quality data available to declare that a famine is imminent,” MSF said in response. The group said its centres in five regions did not indicate the likelihood of famine. However, it also said NGOs and UN agencies were unable to mount the kind of broad surveys that would provide the true picture. Access restrictions were “political and administrative” as well as security-related, it said.

     

    “What we are relatively comfortable in stating right now is a general state of famine in Yemen is not what’s happening,” Neuman of MSF-Crash said. “This is not underestimating the difficulties that Yemenis are going through.”

     

    Do declarations come too late?

     

    The lack of data doesn’t make the suffering less immense, as past famines and near-famines have shown.

     

    “Even in phase 4, before reaching phase 5, there is an association with high levels of increased malnutrition,” said Thomas of FEWS NET, which uses the same methodology as the IPC but conducts its own research.

    “A million people could die without a famine being declared.”

    The fact is that the data often follows the deaths. Thomas pointed out that in Somalia, where famine struck in 2011, more than half the starvation-related deaths were adjudged to have occured prior to the UN’s phase 5 declaration.

     

    The same happened in South Sudan. By the time two counties were briefly under IPC phase 5 there in 2017, most of the deaths had already happened. A small portion – 1,500 or so – of those who ultimately perished from starvation-related causes died in those two counties during the period, said Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, and author of several books on famine.

     

    “It may be that we are going to have a non-famine declaration [in Yemen], but an indication that hundreds of thousands may have died,” de Waal said. “A million people could die without a [phase] 5 famine being declared.”

     

    An alert from FEWS NET late last month listed trigger after trigger – fighting near the port of Hodeidah, ongoing currency depreciation or trade disruptions – that could hurl large segments of Yemen’s population into phase 5. “Although high quality data on current outcomes is limited, awaiting improvements in data availability and quality may only confirm the severity of outcomes after they occur,” it warned.

    The monitoring group said that if imports through Hodeidah and a nearby port were to halt, the places most likely to fall into famine first were those that depend heavily on their trade, have ongoing conflict, and a large number of displaced people. These include the provinces of Hodeidah, Taiz, Sana’a, Hajjah, and Saada.

     

    Political interference?

     

    The IPC structure was developed in part because field analysts looking at hunger in Somalia were receiving pressure, including death threats, intended to impact their analysis. After the data is collected, it ultimately relies on a consensus process involving numerous actors, leaving it potentially vulnerable to influence.

     

    Political considerations are especially pressing in Yemen, as the UN hopes peace talks – already delayed – will start at the end of the year and the groups fighting on the ground are keen to use the humanitarian situation to bolster their positions.

     

    “Different stakeholders have different reasons that they want it to be declared or not declared,” said Christopher Mzembe, head of programmes for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sana’a.

     

    It is rare for a government – in this case Hadi’s administration and the coalition it works with – to want a famine declared on its watch. This may be doubly true given that the coalition has been accused of delaying vital imports, especially after it temporarily closed all Yemen’s borders after a Houthi rocket attack. The Emiratis and Saudis, along with other coalition members like Kuwait and their US and British backers, have provided the majority of the funding for the UN’s 2018 response plan for Yemen – money that would have failed to avert famine.

     

    The Houthis have also been accused of extorting incoming ships for money and diverting aid to their own people, but despite this fact a declaration of famine may still play into the rebels’ hands.

     

    “In the northern [Houthi-controlled] governorates, the local authorities are very keen for [famine] to be declared because they want to show how bad the coalition is,” explained Mzembe. “On the other side you have this big UN structure and other donors who have put a lot of resources in Yemen, and they would like also to demonstrate that the resources are making a difference, so they would be more cautious in terms of admitting the extent to which famine might be present right now.”

     

    There is precedent for government interference. According to several food security experts IRIN spoke with, the government of South Sudan has actively interfered with assessments in that country. The question of what role a government – in Yemen’s case, there are two – would play in officially declaring famine in Yemen remains unclear.  According to the last published IPC manual, the technical working group should be chaired by a government representative.

     

    So while new November assessments should come in soon – and fighting continues to escalate in Hodeidah and other parts of Yemen – aid agencies, warring parties, and the UN bodies may not come to a consensus agreement on famine any time soon.

     

    The IPC system may not be perfect for conflict situations like Yemen, but there is no real alternative. “The politics around declaring phase 5 are deeply problematic, but it is still useful,” argued de Waal, describing the system as “the best we have for now”.

    (TOP PHOTO: A doctor measures the arm of Ali Mohammed Ahmed Jamal, 12, as he is treated for malnutrition at a hospital in Sana'a, Yemen, on 2 November 2018. CREDIT: Mohammed Huwais/UNICEF)

    so/bp/as/ag

    How war, politics, and a lack of reliable information are complicating a famine declaration in Yemen
    Deaths before data
  • As Trump runs low on targets, aid sector asks: are we next?

    At the second UN General Assembly of Donald Trump’s US presidency – and of António Guterres’ tenure – the sense of novelty and apprehension that marked 2017 has given way to concern that revanchist forces are pushing back on human rights and in other areas.

     

    Several leading participants this week in New York spoke of their disappointment that diplomacy and multilateralism are on the retreat, making it harder to disentangle some of the world’s most intractable problems and conflicts – from Syria and Yemen to refugee resettlement and climate change.

     

    And with the Trump administration running low on multilateral punching bags, relief officials and UN observers are now worried that the political weaponisation of aid might become the next frontier, with the US reducing vital funding for assistance programmes overseas that don’t fit its agenda.

    “US foreign assistance is not the president’s personal charity.”

    “Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends,” Trump threatened during his keynote speech at the General Assembly.

     

    Many in his administration, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, are said to have limited appetite for pulling back too far on overseas assistance, and White House attempts to sharply reduce foreign aid overall have been repeatedly torpedoed by Congress.

     

    However, the president’s statement isn’t complete bluster. In recent weeks a senior White House official has undertaken a review of foreign assistance. The aim is reportedly both the kind of quid pro quo arrangements described by Trump and an effort to neutralise China’s growing “soft power”.

     

     

    Such moves have the sector worried that the world’s largest aid donor by volume could be about to withhold assistance – or at least make sure there are more strings attached – just at a time when donor funds are failing to keep pace with soaring humanitarian needs.

     

    “US foreign assistance is not the president’s personal charity,” Abby Maxman, president of Oxfam America, reacted in a statement following Trump’s speech. “Such vindictive antics might be intended to score short-term political points, but they will cost dearly for the most vulnerable among us.”

     

    Mind the gap

     

    Trump’s appearances this week, and their stark attacks on multilateralism, capped a year of building resignation about the limits of global partnership to solve humanitarian problems.

     

    Over the past 12 months, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has – with Russia’s help – all but decided the fate of Syria’s seven-year war; anti-refugee politics have won over larger voting blocs in the West; the conflict in Yemen continues unabated; and Myanmar’s military stands accused of perpetrating a genocidal campaign in full view of the UN.

     

    “[Trump] seemed a bit listless in the General Assembly and he really did look notably isolated in the Security Council,” Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University’s Center for Policy Research, told IRIN. “So this adds to a sense of American drift at the UN.”

     

    US withdrawal has fed speculation – centred mostly on China’s Xi Jinping – about who might attempt to fill the vacuum in global leadership, but going by the speeches at the UN General Assembly it looked as if countries were not so much moving in as moving on.

     

    “It’s not as if the Russians or the Chinese or any other powers have been actively doing things this week to undercut the US, but I think sort of by default they benefit from this perception of American isolation,” said Gowan.

    “Russia and China are trying to destroy human rights pillars, with the US enabling them across the board.”

    Some world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron at the UNGA and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at an event in Berlin during General Assembly week, did offer purposeful defenses of multilateralism, human rights, and sustainable development. But the gap left by the abnegation of US global leadership is yawning – wider still if the Trump administration actively works to spite cooperation among UN member states.

    Human rights advocates in particular have been sounding the alarm about how easily hard-won gains could be unwound without protection. “Russia and China are trying to destroy human rights pillars, with the US enabling them across the board,” Louis Charbonneau, the UN director of Human Rights Watch, told IRIN.

     

    Fears of America First, the vulnerable last

     

    Of late, the United States appears to be running out of targets. It has already pulled out of UNESCO, cut funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) over abortion rules, and left a global migration pact overseen by the UN.

     

    In the run-up to the General Assembly, Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton promised to undermine the International Criminal Court and sanction its judges. On what grounds that could take place is unclear, and in any event the US isn’t a member of the court.

     

    Arguably the most significant development came in June, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and UN ambassador Nikki Haley announced the US would leave the Human Rights Council.

     

    Foreign aid hasn’t been spared either.

     

    The administration has hacked particularly viciously at humanitarian assistance for Palestinians. Last month it completely defunded the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, and in September it zeroed out everything else, including $25 million in planned financing for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network.

     

    And IRIN revealed in August how the Trump administration had put new limits on foreign assistance funded through the UN. A critical report published this week by USAID’s inspector general may offer more ammunition to those in the administration who seek to cut or redirect UN funding.

     

    Yet it's far from decided how damaging the administration’s slashes and withdrawals will ultimately prove for the UN and the humanitarian aid it provides.

     

    “There is obviously scepticism of whether multilateral action will deliver for US interests, and certainly USAID folks will be sensitive to that and aware of that,” Tony Pipa, the former chief strategy officer at the agency, told IRIN.

     

    “The larger policy conversation that Secretary of State Pompeo is going to be leading is likely to be looking at UN votes and what does that mean to providing budgets and assistance to countries themselves,” he explained. “They are a little different, but they are both connected to a scepticism about the effectiveness of aid and specifically the effectiveness of aid going through multilateral organisations.”

    Though never immune from political considerations, development goals swapped for overtly political ones could render a significantly altered aid environment.

    Other former officials said it was difficult to tell how serious the latest threats should be taken. “There’s no order in the administration’s foreign policy, so it’s hard to know,” said Dave Harden, a former USAID assistant administrator.

     

    Weaponisation, and the future of aid

     

    According to a report in the Washington Post, part of the White House plans consider using aid in a targeted battle with China, which in recent years has spread its largesse – and loans – across much of the developing world.

     

    Though never immune from political considerations, development goals swapped for overtly political ones could render a significantly altered aid environment, aimed less at meeting urgency, and more susceptible to corruption as leaders battle to curry favour rather than demonstrate need.

     

    “China and Western donors have a very different view of aid,” said Gowan. “If the US redefines development as being purely a tool of national interest and very much in an effort to contest China’s rise, then this idea of aid being a universal good is not guaranteed.”

     

    One didn’t need to look far this week to see a similarly questionable dynamic playing out.

     

    At a high-level humanitarian meeting on Yemen held Monday, speakers included the UN’s relief chief Mark Lowcock and Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in the country. The crisis in Yemen, stated Grande, is the worst in the world, and worsening. “At least one child is dying every 10 minutes from causes linked to the war,” she said.

     

    Sat on either side of the humanitarian officials were the main donors to the UN’s relief effort in Yemen; the closest being representatives from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Both countries are principal belligerents in the three-and-a-half-year war and argue that their military intervention is defending the internationally recognised government. But their coalition is also responsible for thousands of deaths and mass displacement.

    Critics of the Saudi Arabian-led intervention see the coalition playing such a large aid role as a contradiction, but Guterres has argued that a country’s military actions and humanitarian commitments should be viewed separately.

    “None of the work [the UN has] done… would have been possible without the generous support of the donors, and I’m proud that my country is on the top of the list along with our brothers the United Arab Emirates,” Saudi ambassador Abdullah al-Mouallimi told the meeting in New York. “We must always remember that.”

     

    so/js/ag

    As Trump runs low on targets, aid sector asks: are we next?
  • An insider’s guide to humanitarian events at the UN General Assembly

    As world leaders gather for this week’s 73rd UN General Assembly, dozens of events fill the UN’s official calendar and several times as many are scattered around the sidelines in New York. Here are the main humanitarian crises we'll be watching for progress on, and why.

    ☰ CALENDAR OF EVENTS


    Monday 11:00-12:15 Ministerial Meeting on Libya
      13:15-14:30 The Humanitarian Response in Yemen
    Tuesday 9:00-11:00 Building sustainable pathways to end cholera in Haiti
      11-12:30 High-Level Humanitarian Event on South Sudan
      17:00 Regional conference on the mixed migratory flows from Venezuela
    Wednesday 8:00-9:30 Safe and Respected: Preventing Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in the Humanitarian Sector
      8:30-10:00 Civilians under fire: humanitarian protection and respect for International Humanitarian Law
      10:30-12:30 High-Level Meeting on Syria
      11:00 Meeting of the UN Secretary-General on Climate (closed to press)
      14:00 One Planet Summit
    Thursday 10:00-13:00 High Level Event on the Issue of Rohingya
      11:00-13:00 High-Level Meeting on Somalia
      16:00-18:15 Ministerial Level Meeting on the Central African Republic
    Friday (no time set) High-Level Meeting on the Democratic Republic of Congo

     

     

     

    We're watching: Yemen

    Monday from 13:15 to 14:30

     

    Why: The vital port city of Hodeidah is under attack, 22 million Yemenis now need humanitarian assistance, and a renewed cholera epidemic is feared; will the sessions at the UN be anything more than political theatre?

     

    Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir apparent to the Saudi throne, is expected to deliver his country’s speech on Thursday as his Emirati coalition partners move ahead with leading an assault on Houthi rebel-held Hodeidah. Earlier this month, peace talks in Geneva failed, a breakdown that comes after aid group Oxfam reported that August was the bloodiest month in the three years and half years since the Saudi and UAE-led coalition intervened. Hodeidah has been hit particularly hard; more than 500,000 people have fled fighting in the wider province.

     

    On the eve of the UNGA, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock issued a stark warning that the fight against famine in Yemen was being lost. "The position has deteriorated in an alarming way in recent weeks,” he said. “We may now be approaching a tipping point, beyond which it will be impossible to prevent massive loss of life as a result of widespread famine across the country."

     

    In addition to several private meetings on Yemen on the sidelines of the UNGA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, is hosting a session on Monday on the humanitarian response. A funding event in New York in April was criticised by NGOs for giving a platform to the Gulf states that are also belligerents in the conflict. “The last event on Yemen turned into a PR exercise for one side, but we're hoping that this time it will be a more balanced account of the response and the challenges agencies like ours face in responding,” Kathryn Achilles, senior humanitarian policy advisor at Oxfam, told IRIN.

     

    It’s a tricky spot for the UN. There’s no getting around the Gulf countries’ aid largesse, nor the UN’s reliance on it. Nearly two thirds of donations to the UN’s current funding appeal for Yemen has been met by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait – all active parties to the conflict (the United States, which also supports the coalition, has pledged $203.4 million or 10.6 percent of all donations to the UN plan). The Saudis and Emiratis argue they are fighting to bring peace to Yemen and support the internationally recognised (but deposed) government, and say they do their best to avoid killing innocent people, but a UN group of experts said last month that coalition airstrikes are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties.

     

    There’s no expectation of any high-level diplomatic breakthroughs to end the assault on Hodeidah, but we’ll be keeping an eye out for any progress on the sidelines; such work recently led to the announcement of a humanitarian air bridge, which should allow critically ill Yemenis to be treated outside the country.

     

    We're watching: Syria

    Wednesday from 10:30 to 12:30

     

    Why: Diplomatic efforts at the UNGA offer a chance to avert what is already developing into a massive humanitarian crisis, in the northwestern province of Idlib.

     

    The Syrian government and Russia had begun to intensify attacks on the rebel groups who control the area, but a tentative deal last week overseen by Russia and Turkey has staved off a full offensive – for now. The discussion is already shifting to what happens after the war. How will Syria be rebuilt, and who will pay for it? Some donors have balked at promising funding for the monumental task of reconstruction. To what degree will Western countries be prepared to work with a government accused of innumerable war crimes? More pressingly, will diplomacy avoid bloodshed – or merely forestall it? A high-level meeting convened by the EU will be held on Wednesday. On the table are “humanitarian, resilience, [refugee-] hosting and emerging issues.” On the same day, the EU, Belgium, and OCHA host a separate event on civilians and violations of international humanitarian law in conflict.

     

    We're watching: Myanmar

    Thursday from 10:00 to 13:00

     

    Why: Critics have called for the UN to get tougher with the Myanmar government over its treatment of the Rohingya. A brutal crackdown a year ago by its security forces in Rakhine State drove more than 700,000 Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh. There they remain, living in squalid camps, while negotiations on their return have stalled. Two UN agencies signed a fresh agreement in May that could lead to closer cooperation with the Myanmar government on returns. Rights groups say such plans are premature.

     

    The Saudi Arabian government, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, and the EU are sponsoring an event on Thursday on the plight of the Rohingya. A UN fact-finding mission late last month recommended that top members of Myanmar’s military face genocide charges before an international court. The panel did not shy away from calling out the UN’s own failures to act. Tensions brewed for years as some UN staff pushed internally for more action while other senior officials privileged development and access. Myanmar has repeatedly denied nearly all allegations of violence against the Rohingya, but de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi won’t be there to argue the case in person – Myanmar officials said she plans to skip this year’s summit.

     

    We’re watching: South Sudan

    Tuesday from 11:00 to 12:30

     

    Why: President Salva Kiir and rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar signed a peace agreement last month, but there’s little faith it will hold or bring an end to an almost five-year conflict and humanitarian crisis that has claimed anywhere between 50,000 and 300,000 lives, and displaced 3.5 million people internally and to neighbouring countries.

     

    Last week, Amnesty International reported on the “staggering brutality” of government operations in South Sudan this year. Civilians in Leer and Mayendit counties were “deliberately shot dead, burnt alive, hanged in trees and run over with armoured vehicles in opposition-held areas,” the report said. A high-level humanitarian event on South Sudan is scheduled for Tuesday. According to OCHA, the event will highlight difficulties in delivering humanitarian assistance, risks taken by humanitarian organisations, and peacebuilding – all longstanding issues.

     

    We’re watching: Refugees and migrants

    Monday

     

    Why: This September marks two years since the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, agreed to by the General Assembly. Two non-binding compacts – for migrants and refugees – are expected to be adopted by the end of the year.

     

    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, will host a high-level event on Monday to promote the final draft of the refugee compact. A December adoption is planned, but no date and location has been set. The adopting of the migration compact is expected to take place in Marrakech, Morocco during an intergovernmental conference held 10-11 December. Look out for a full IRIN briefing on the compacts soon.

     

    We're watching: Trump

    Monday

     

    Why: In the 20 months since US President Donald Trump took office, his administration has slashed and threatened – but not extinguished – US support for the UN and other international bodies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this month that the United States would further slash the number of refugees it allows in during the 2019 fiscal year to only 30,000, from a high of over 231,000 when limits were first introduced in 1981.

     

    Trump kicks off so-called “high-level” UNGA week with a US-sponsored event on Monday entitled the “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem”. Heads of delegation were told to sign a non-negotiable text to appear at the photo-op with Trump. At least 124 agreed, but several high-profile holdouts refused, and the EU has drawn up its own, duelling, letter. Trump will also preside over a Security Council meeting on Wednesday – a spectacle sure to suck the air out of Turtle Bay for half a day.

     

    We're watching: Climate change

    Wednesday at 11:00, One Planet Summit at 14:00

     

    Why: The US pulled out of the Paris accords in 2017, but it's Climate Week in New York and public and private groups are joining forces in a renewed push to keep climate change at bay.

     

    It’s not all doom and gloom this year for climate activists. Cities, including many in the United States, have moved on with their own measures to staunch carbon emissions, and in some urban areas they appear to have already peaked. “While governments and elected officials are not doing enough, ordinary people around the world are rising up to demand bold and sweeping action on climate change,” Lindsay Meiman, a spokesperson for the climate group 350, told IRIN. “Across the US and around the world, communities are rising up to demand climate justice be taken seriously, and that politicians, especially at the local and state level, go further and faster.”

     

    UN Secretary-General António Guterres will host a high-level meeting on climate change on Wednesday. The One Planet Summit on the same day will unite public and private representatives from 150 countries behind 12 key commitments aimed at ensuring the objectives of the Paris accords are achieved on schedule. Looking ahead, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, is due to release its latest findings in a new report entitled “Global Warming of 1.5C” at meetings in South Korea in early October.

     

    We're watching: Haiti and cholera

    Tuesday from 9:00 to 11:00

     

    Why: More than 800,000 people have been infected and nearly 10,000 have died from a disease accidentally re-introduced by UN peacekeepers to the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

     

    Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and UN Special Envoy for Haiti Josette Sheeran will hold an event on Tuesday on “building sustainable pathways to end cholera in Haiti”. It’s difficult to overstate how disastrous the disease has been for the Caribbean nation. Cholera struck just as Haiti was trying to build back from the devastating 2010 earthquake. In 2016, outgoing UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon announced a “new approach” to tackle the outbreak and, belatedly, to address the UN’s role in the crisis. But only a fraction of promised UN funds have materialised and advocates worry that the UN is still not taking enough responsibility. Among their fears is that the second track of the 2016 plan – “material assistance” for those affected – will be subsumed into more general development projects.  “The bigger issue is you are losing the whole promise of providing justice to victims,” Beatrice Lindstrom, staff attorney at the Institute for Justice & Democracy, told IRIN. “This was supposed to be a new approach, responding to people who have suffered.”

     

    Some good news. Last week, Guterres’ office released its latest report, showing a marked decrease in transmissions during the first quarter of 2018.

     

    We're watching: Sexual abuse and aid

    Wednesday from 8:00 to 9:30

     

    Why: Seven months after the Oxfam scandal spawned revelations of serious misconduct among staff at NGOs, the Red Cross, and UN agencies, what progress has been made to implement new procedures and what remains to be done?

     

    These issues will be up for discussion on Wednesday at an event organised by OCHA and the British government: “Preventing Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in the Humanitarian Sector.” Oxfam’s executive director Winnie Byanyima is expected to speak, along with UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi and several UN, UK government, and NGO representatives. According to a UK-OCHA concept note, the meeting will allow attendees to “share good practices and highlight their contributions in preventing and responding to sexual exploitation and abuse, to increase support for joint efforts in this area and highlight tangible actions that will be taken in the future.” A larger summit will be held by the UK government in London on 18 October.

     

    We’re also keeping an eye on:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: There’s only one event on the official UN calendar centering on Congo and it’s organised by the UN’s peacekeeping department, not humanitarian agencies. It will take place on Friday and is expected to focus heavily on security for the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for 23 December. A high-level meeting on Somalia is slated for Thursday, sponsored by the government in Mogadishu and those of Britain, Ethiopia, and Italy. A ministerial-level meeting on CAR is planned for the same day.

     

     

    Venezuela: Colombia will host an event on Tuesday on “migratory flows” from Venezuela. More than 1.6 million people have left Venezuela since 2015 amid a catastrophic economic collapse and political dysfunction. Look out for IRIN’s special series soon from inside Venezuela, where those staying behind face crippling hyperinflation, disease epidemics, and dire shortages of food and medicine.

     

    Libya: France has organised a ministerial-level meeting on Libya for Monday and it couldn’t be more timely. Worsening violence has reportedly claimed upwards of 100 lives in Tripoli this month alone, and despite EU and UN efforts to repatriate, evacuate, or resettle migrants and asylum seekers, the country hosts up to a million people on the move, on this dangerous route to Europe.

     

    Somalia: A high-level meeting on Somalia is slated for Thursday, sponsored by the government in Mogadishu and those of Britain, Ethiopia, and Italy. Insecurity linked to the al-Shabab jihadist insurgency, coupled with prolonged drought have left some 5.4 million people in Somalia in need of food assistance and 2.6 million internally displaced. The overall security situation remains “volatile and unpredictable,” according to Guterres’ latest report on the country.

     

    Central African Republic: A ministerial-level meeting on CAR is planned, also for Thursday. An array of armed groups hold sway across most of the country, with a weak central government controlling little more than the capital. Some 2.5 million people, about half the total population, require humanitarian assistance. For more, read our recent special report: “Little peace to keep, but 4.7 million lives to live”.

     

    What we wish we could watch for:

     

    Other large displacement crises – such as in Ethiopia, the Lake Chad Basin, and Burundi – have no official, dedicated events.

     

    so/ag

     

    An insider’s guide to humanitarian events at the UN General Assembly
  • US puts new limits on foreign aid funded through the UN

    US President Donald Trump’s administration has introduced new conditions on billions of dollars in foreign aid spent through the UN and other multinational agencies, according to official documents examined by IRIN.

     

    The rule change, previously unreported, takes aim at USAID’s funding for Public International Organizations (PIOs), a category that includes UN agencies like UNICEF as well as the World Bank and the African Union.

     

    According to the new rules, any PIO grant over $5 million must now be vetted at the very top, in the office of USAID Administrator Mark Green. The threshold for Green to have to vet any other types of grant is $40 million. Former USAID officials say the low limit for PIOs will slow approval of UN financing, could create backlogs, and may leave funding more vulnerable to political interference.

     

    The move comes as Trump’s administration is cutting UN funding in Iraq to redirect it to Christians and other minorities, and as it announces a new religious freedom initiative. Green has been directed by US Vice-President Mike Pence to prioritise earmarking for such causes.

     

    An internal USAID manual (section 300 of the automated directives system, or ADS) was updated, effective from 27 June, to require all PIO funding decisions to meet the range of new policy criteria. USAID contends that it is just bringing PIOs in line with other recipients, but development sector analysts say the move means UN funding could be diverted elsewhere or dry up considerably. 

     

    In a statement to IRIN, a USAID official, who asked not to be named due to agency policy, said the change is to “ensure senior leaders examine high-dollar-value acquisitions and assistance and PIO proposals prior to solicitation to encourage more rigorous competition, creativity, and innovation.”

     

    How much is at stake?

     

    USAID did not provide exact figures on what percentage of funding, nor which projects, would be affected. IRIN attempted to calculate the implications of the change using historical records. 

     

    PIOs get about a quarter of USAID’s billions of aid dollars annually. The new rulebook could add a significant administrative burden: for example, in financial year 2017 about 24 percent of USAID’s spending went, in 815 grants, to “multilateral” organisations, (a category broadly equivalent to PIOs). Of those $3.2 billion in allocations, 125 agreements were over $5 million and so now could require extra oversight.

    “I don’t see a way that this does not result in the UN getting less money,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior policy fellow at the Center For Global Development think tank and the former director of USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance.

     

    Konyndyk argues that the involvement of Green’s office shifts the decision further from technical experts and those in the field. “What’s so weird about this,” he added, “is it takes what is basically a programmatic and technical decision and elevates it to the highest level of political leadership.” 

     

    Other former officials were more blunt. “They want to review grants over $5 million? That’s insane,” said one ex-employee of the agency who is familiar with contracting regulations and expected reduced grants for the UN as a result of the change.

     

    According to the 2017 data, UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, and the UN Development Programme have the most to lose among UN agencies. (The UN’s World Food Programme gets the most funding allocations but would likely fall under an exemption for emergency humanitarian funding).

     

    A UNDP official told IRIN that the agency continues to have “a very robust partnership with USAID,” but did not offer clarity on how the oversight change could affect their funding.

     

    Taking back the reins

     

    Though the White House has moved to cut the foreign aid budget, the USAID official said that was not the intent of the PIO move.

     

    In a statement, the official said: “The close attention of senior leaders will be critical to ensure we integrate the principles of self-reliance, leverage new resources, co-collaboration/co-design, and broadening our partner base into all of our mechanisms including grants, contracts and awards with PIOs.” 

     

    Outside experts and former USAID staff who spoke with IRIN questioned the agency’s explanation and criticised the new $5 million threshold as being too low. 

     

    “This is an administration that has made explicitly clear that they look very sceptically at foreign aid spending,” said a senior NGO official familiar with the foreign aid budget and who speaks regularly with US and UN officials. The new review process, this person said, “by definition will slow the process.”

     

    While the changes to the rulebook alarm supporters of the UN, they also appear to reinforce centralised control over funding from Washington and limit what staff closer to the projects themselves are charged with. 

     

    “I am concerned that the thresholds have been lowered and that this would appear to conflict with the alleged move to greater programming in the field,” said George Ingram, a former deputy assistant administrator at USAID and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The whole requirement goes counter to what they are trying to do at [US]AID, which is push programming out to the missions.”

     

    The largest proportion of UN grants from USAID will be untouched: for example, most emergency funding should be exempt from the extra scrutiny. According to the detailed changes to USAID’s policy, the extra review step is not required for “...Food for Peace emergency food aid, urgently needed humanitarian assistance, or urgent activities of the Office of Transition Initiatives.”

     

    Nevertheless, that leaves many other sectors, such as education and agriculture, potentially facing unwelcome changes. The non-emergency grants allowed USAID to contribute to longer-term development projects. Funding through PIOs conventionally allowed the United States to be one of many donors for a programme, rather than providing the entire outlay. “Ironically, that’s something this administration talks about a lot – that they want to see more burden-sharing,” said Konyndyk. 

     

    Other international bodies, such as development banks, research bodies, and international institutions like the IMF are also classified as PIOs.

     

    Religious undertones?

     

    One area where the United States may prefer to go it alone is in Iraq. The Trump administration has brushed aside the UN in pursuing programmes for minority religious groups victimised by so-called Islamic State.

     

    “We will no longer rely on the United Nations alone to assist persecuted Christians and minorities in the wake of genocide and the atrocities of terrorist groups,” Pence said last October at a dinner with religious groups. “Our fellow Christians and all who are persecuted in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly.”

     

    Pence’s influence has already led to the withholding of UN funding. In January, USAID held back most of a $75 million tranche previously agreed with UNDP for stabilisation projects in Iraq, preferring to funnel millions to groups that specifically support Christian and Yazidi communities.

    The administration's support for targeting foreign aid at minority groups was on full display during the first ever US Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, held in Washington during late July. Headlined by Pence, the event also featured speeches by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley. 

     

    This focus may backfire. Last year, Kori Schake, a former White House and State Department official during the second Bush administration, travelled to Iraq with the UN and reviewed recovery efforts. Schalke noted that Christian communities were already disproportionately benefiting from additional assistance. Their homes and churches were reconstructed faster and with more resources than those of Muslims. 

     

    “It is breeding resentment,” Schake, now deputy director-general at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote in December. “Targeting assistance and attention to Christian communities to the exclusion of their Muslim fellow citizens is ultimately bad for Christian communities and bad for American interests in the Middle East.”

     

    so/bp/ag

    US puts new limits on foreign aid funded through the UN
  • EXCLUSIVE: UN evacuation bid fails ahead of battle for key Yemen port

    The United Nations made a failed attempt to evacuate more than 5,000 Yemenis from near the country’s largest port of Hodeidah, which is facing an imminent assault, according to a UN operational plan obtained by IRIN and discussions with aid officials.

     

    The attempt on 27 April to move civilians to safer areas where they could receive assistance flopped. In the end, only a handful of locals showed up and the rest refused to move. “The whole thing was a failure,” said one humanitarian official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

     

    For the past three years Houthi rebels and their allies have been fighting forces allied with internationally recognised (but deposed) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and a Saudi Arabian-led coalition.

     

    The battle for Houthi rebel-held Hodeidah appears to be inching ever closer, threatening to displace many in the city of 600,000 and further slow activity at the Red Sea port, which has historically brought in over two thirds of Yemen’s imports. On 14 May, the United Arab Emirates – the most active coalition member on the west coast – announced a new amphibious assault south of the port.

     

    “It’s pretty clear that this is the real deal,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They are actually making legitimate momentum towards Hodeidah.”

     

    Despite the initial failure, UN officials and aid workers suggest such evacuations could become a significant new relief tactic in Yemen, where 22 million people need aid, more than eight million are severely short of food, and the looming battle at Hodeidah threatens to take the crisis to another level.

     

    Moving civilians out of harm’s way is a “last resort” in the humanitarian toolbox – and the plan in Yemen would have been risky, analysts say.

     

    “Any sort of movement of civilians has to be voluntary,” said Sahr Muhammedally, Middle East and North Africa director at CIVIC. “It has to be a consultative process in these areas, with local communities, local NGOs, to see whether people will leave as they will want to know where they will go, when they can return, and what happens to their homes left behind.” 

    Others in the humanitarian community believe the UN and aid agencies were getting ahead of themselves by planning evacuations, and said more pressure should be applied to avoid a battle for the city.

    “The onus is very much on the parties to conflict to avoid causing displacement to the civilian population,” said Jenny McAvoy, director of protection at US NGO alliance InterAction. “It seems to be putting the cart way before the horse to talk about evacuation when the conversation and the issues that humanitarians should be raising must be about the parties to conflict avoiding displacement.”

    Relocation bid unravels

     

    The UN operational plan, obtained exclusively by IRIN, states that the relocation effort was coordinated by the UN after a request from the Houthi-controlled National Authority for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (NAMCHA) to help 1,600 households “trapped between front lines” as of 14 April.

     

    It says that by 20 April violence had intensified in several areas in southern Hodeidah province, which runs along the Red Sea, prompting the action.

     

     

    After some civilians were able to flee under their own steam, the UN planned to assist another 800 households that remained stuck in Hays district, near battle lines south of the port (the UN estimates an average of seven people per household, hence the 5,000+ figure).

     

    Trapped civilians were to be taken from a “mustering point” to a “humanitarian service point” around 40 kilometres from the front lines where emergency aid – including food, blankets, kitchen supplies, and medical assistance – would be provided. They were also to be given rental subsidies and money for transportation, although where they were to go after is unclear.

     

    Several aid agency officials, speaking to IRIN on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the route was also to be “deconflicted”, meaning discussed and agreed with the Saudi-led coalition so they could put it on a no-strike list.

     

    The UN was supposed to be joined by by partner agencies including Save the Children, Oxfam, and Action Against Hunger (ACF), IRIN understands. The Norwegian Refugee Council, which has a 64-page policy on if and how to do wartime evacuations “did not commit to a role”, according to an official.

     

    The Geneva Conventions include the possibility of civilian evacuations, but the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which acts as the guarantor of the conventions and would typically assist in such cases, said it had not been involved.

     

    Why it failed

     

    Several UN and aid officials told IRIN the plan fell flat because locals were not consulted and because no one made a clear case to the residents to explain why they should leave their only source of livelihood – their land.

     

    “Some families refused to leave, basically because they don’t know what’s happening tomorrow, and they don’t want to leave their homes and everything they have in this life,” said Anas Shahari, a spokesman for Save the Children in Yemen.

     

    The planning document does not mention consultations with locals ahead of the evacuation. It concludes that evacuees would move on to unspecified “final destination sites”, although they were to receive money towards rent and transport.

     

    The evacuation would have been the first of its kind by the UN in Yemen, but the world body has performed them elsewhere.

     

    In Syria, the UN’s involvement in a hasty and flawed “evacuation” in 2014 from Homs' Old City fell below acceptable standards, even tolerating the screening of evacuees by internal security agencies, a review found.

     

    In sharp contrast to the Yemen situation, plans for evacuations in Central African Republic the same year involved broad consultations with armed groups and took into account the views of the people at risk, but delays in actually carrying them out meant they came too late, although they likely saved lives.

     

    Those critical of evacuations point to studies saying they run the risk of making aid agencies auxiliaries to the warring parties, or worsen vulnerability in the long-term and can ultimately put people at even more at risk.

    "If people do decide to leave, it still does not negate the obligation of parties of the conflict should fighting erupt to take all precautionary measures to minimize harm as there may be some who did not leave,” Muhammedally added. “One cannot automatically assume a combatant status of those who decide not to leave.”

     

    Ethical concerns

     

    In Yemen, the plan created unease both inside the UN and among its humanitarian partners, according to several high level sources.

     

    Some humanitarians feared moving civilians from the path of coalition and allied forces could be seen as clearing battle space, or give the appearance of benefiting the Saudi-led coalition.

     

    At the same time, the Houthis could potentially take advantage of the operation to position civilians in strategic locations, or use deconflicted zones to their own advantage.

     

    “We know evacuations have taken place in Iraq and other conflict-affected countries with lessons from which we can learn, but this won’t necessarily mean the evacuations model can or should be replicated in Yemen,” said Suze Van Meegan, an adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council based in Yemen.

     

    “Humanitarian actors in Yemen are very conscious of the ethical maze involved and will continue to assess situations on a case-by-case basis.”

     

    The UN’s humanitarian efforts in Yemen are heavily funded by the coalition itself – most recently a one billion dollar infusion from Riyadh and the UAE received in March. At the same time, the UN’s human rights office says more than 60 percent of nearly 16,500 civilian deaths and injuries monitored since March 2015 were due to coalition airstrikes.

     

    The battle for Hodeidah

     

    UN and other aid agency officials were loathe to speak about the evacuation on the record. The UN’s humanitarian coordinator, Lise Grande, did not respond to IRIN’s request for comment. In March, Grande officially moved to Yemen from Iraq, where she had held the same position during the fight against so-called Islamic State and as millions were displaced from cities like Fallujah and Mosul.

     

    A spokesperson for OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, told IRIN they were “not in a position to confirm or deny” information about the attempted evacuation in Hodeidah.

     

    Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a UN official did tell IRIN they were preparing for the possibilities of a battle at Hodeidah.

     

    “If the conduct of hostilities on the west [Red Sea] coast continues, what I can tell you, the humanitarian community has plans… as humanitarians we are ready to respond to every eventuality.”

     

    A battle for Hodeidah has been a possibility for years, and aid agencies have warned that a fight for the city will lead to catastrophic consequences, not only for the civilians who live nearby, but for millions of Yemenis who rely on the goods its port provides.

     

    Now, thousands of coalition fighters are reportedly advancing towards Hodeidah from the south.

     

    While Yemeni military officials opposing the Houthis have said the advance will avoid entering densely populated areas, the province is home to nearly three million people.

     

    Late last year, the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, told IRIN that an intensification of conflict in Hodeidah could lead to large-scale displacement of anywhere between 100,000 to half a million people. Some two million people are already displaced in Yemen.

    (TOP PHOTO: Yemenis gather next to a water tank to collect water in an impoverished coastal village on the outskirts of the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, on 12 May 2018. CREDIT: Abdo Hyder/AFP)

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    UN evacuation bid fails ahead of battle for key Yemen port
  • Food aid 2018: the never-ending crisis

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    A landscape view of uniform refugee camp dwellings
    Panos Moumtzis/UNHCR
    Dadaab refugee camp in 1992

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    A cooperative farm storage filled with corn from an early harvest in Hamhung, North Korea
    Swithun Goodbody/FAO
    A cooperative farm storage filled with corn from an early harvest in Hamhung, North Korea

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    Andrew McConnell/UNHCR
    Hasina, 35, and her son, Shahid, 5, who is suffering from severe malnutrition, pictured in the Red Crescent Field Hospital in Kutupalong Refugee Camp

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    Mohammed Hamoud/UNHCR
    Khulood Khaled, 7, sits alone near her family's tent at the Dharawan settlement.
    A rise in man-made and protracted emergencies over the past decade means millions are at risk of starving around the globe this year
    Food aid 2018: the never-ending crisis
    Part of an in-depth series looking at the enormous scale and range of food crises around the globe heading into 2018
  • What one of the deadliest ever attacks on UN peacekeepers means for Congo

    At least 14 UN peacekeepers were killed and more than 50 wounded when armed men attacked their base in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN mission, known as MONUSCO, said on Friday.

     

    The attack on the troops in Semuliki, in North Kivu’s Beni region, began at dusk on Thursday and lasted several hours.

     

    At least 12 of the peacekeepers killed were Tanzanian soldiers. Five Congolese soldiers were also killed, and the Congolese army put the number of rebel deaths at 72. UN officials said the toll could still rise as some peacekeepers were still missing and others gravely injured.

     

    UN officials said it was likely that the attack was perpetrated by members of the shadowy Allied Democratic Forces, which has been active in the area for years. The ADF, which originated in Uganda, has not claimed responsibility.

     

    Peacekeeping chief Jean-Pierre Lacroix said the UN would “get to the bottom of this”.

     

    The Tanzanian troops were part of the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade – the specialised contingent authorised in 2013 by the Security Council to target and disarm rebel groups in the country.

     

    Lacroix said the incident was a response “to our increasingly robust posture in that region”. The Tanzanian unit is believed to be among the UN’s most effective troops in the region.

     

    Ian Sinclair, director of the United Nations Operations and Crisis Centre, said the attack was the third aimed at Tanzanian soldiers in the same area over the past several months.

     

    Who did it?

     

    Sinclair said the base is situated on the “fringes” of the forest and positioned to obstruct routes used by groups, including the ADF, into the Beni area.

     

    But analyst Christoph Vogel believes it is too early to draw firm conclusions that the ADF, an Islamist rebel group, was responsible for this attack.

     

    Over the past 15 years, the ADF’s main military camps have been in the Rwenzori Mountains and in the Semuliki Valley. It is a highly secretive organisation with strong historical ties to other armed groups in the area and local customary chiefs.

     

    They are known to cooperate with other local militia and there is also enough evidence to suggest that some attacks attributed to the ADF in the past were in fact conducted by the Congolese army.

     

    “It's quite possible that the ADF is involved but there is no proof,” concluded Vogel. “It’s absolutely possible that the ADF teamed up with other militia or more mysterious actors.”

     

    Attacks in the region are often attributed to “suspected ADF rebels” with little in the way of proof.

     

    Recent incidents include the killing of 26 civilians a few weeks ago, which led to the closure of the main road back to the city of Beni. In late October, the Congolese commander in Beni survived an ambush when a rocket hit his jeep, killing another soldier.

     

    The shock of this attack, though, is the scale of it, involving scores of heavily armed attackers and lasting several hours.

     

    It will have significant humanitarian repercussions in a region where mounting violence involving several armed groups and the Congolese army has displaced a million people in the first half of this year, on top of 922,000 in 2016.

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    Force/MONUSCO
    MONUSCO troops in support of Congolese army conducting operations to neutralize armed groups and ensure protection of civilians in Beni region

    As a result of the ongoing fighting, Congo was declared a Level 3 emergency by the UN in October, its highest level of crisis.

     

    “The immediate impact [of this attack] is that MONUSCO will turn inwards,” said Vogel. “There will be less patrolling, and less armed escorts available to humanitarians who rely on them to help provide access.”

    The attack is likely the second deadliest ever on UN blue helmets — the highest toll since 26 Pakistani peacekeepers were killed in Somalia in 1993. Last year, that many peacekeepers were killed across all UN operations.

     

    “This is the worst attack on UN peacekeepers in the organisation’s recent history,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “These deliberate attacks against UN peacekeepers are unacceptable and constitute a war crime.”

     

    There is a perception that the changing nature of peacekeeping, epitomised by the offensive-minded Force Intervention Brigade, has increased the risks for blue helmets.

     

    They are increasingly deployed in situations where there is no peace to keep, serving in areas where violent extremist groups operate, and where they are expected to “take sides”. UN peacekeepers are also mandated to execute more ambitious tasks, including the protection of civilians.

    Are operations becoming deadlier?

     

    But the evidence suggests that overall UN fatalities are not substantively on the rise.

     

    Between 1948 and 2015, 3,561 peacekeepers lost their lives – although combat accounted for just 923 of those fatalities: accident and illness both being the more likely cause of death.

     

    Before this incident, since the beginning of this year, 67 peacekeepers had died.

     

    Historically, the heaviest death tolls as a result of combat action had been the 1960 UN Operation in Congo, the UN’s mission in Somalia, and the 39-year-long UN’s deployment in Lebanon.

     

    But in recent times, Mali stands out. There have been 140 deaths since the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, MINUSMA, was established in 2013 – by far the UN’s riskiest current deployment.

     

    MONUSCO, however, is the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, both in terms of personnel and cost. In March, the Security Council voted to drop the mission’s troop ceiling from 19,815 to 16,215 soldiers.

     

    (Addditional reporting by IRIN Africa Editor Obi Anyadike in Nairobi)

     

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    UN chief calls it a “war crime” after at least 14 “blue helmets” killed
    What one of the deadliest ever attacks on UN peacekeepers means for Congo

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