Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Climate change and conflict: it’s complicated

    Scientists may not see Mad Max-style “water wars” ahead, but they nevertheless see strong relationships between conflict and climate change.

    Whether dramatic changes in weather patterns drive conflict has long been the subject of great debate. Did a series of droughts precipitate the collapse of the Khmer Empire in the early 15th century, for example? Or was the Little Ice Age in the mid-17th century a leading cause of the rampant warfare in Europe, China and the Ottoman Empire? 

    But the complex forces shaping the world today rule out simple parallels or assumptions – let alone predictions of the future. Many scientists caution that a much hotter earth or catastrophic weather event could tip the balance in unforeseen ways. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report says there is “justifiable common concern” that climate change will increase the risk of armed conflict in some situations, even “if the strength of the effect is uncertain”. 

    Most studies currently describe climate change as a “threat multiplier” rather than a direct cause, just one of a host of interconnected factors – like poverty, exclusion of ethnic groups, government mismanagement, political instability and societal breakdown – that drive conflict. 

    “We lack the last piece of the puzzle that says that climate change causes conflict, but we know that there is a relationship between the variables,” says Koko Warner from the Institute for Environment and Human Security at United Nations University (UNU). “We don’t see people taking up guns because they lack fresh water or because sea water is pushing people into each other.”

    New tensions

    Climate change is certainly throwing up new tensions between nations, as critical resources like water in cross-boundary river basins shrink and new opportunities for exploration and development open up in places once covered in ice like the Arctic. Scientists note however that tensions over water have so far led to more agreements than conflicts. 

    But, in its 2030 global trends forecast, the US intelligence community warns that “the fact that many of the river basins in the most affected water-stressed areas are shared means that interstate conflict cannot be ruled out – especially in light of the other tensions ongoing between many of these countries.” 

    Those areas with the most water stress – northern Africa, the Middle East, central and southern Asia and northern China – will also see the greatest population growth, creating even more stress on resources. 

    A wide-ranging research project undertaken by UNU on Climate Change, Hydro Conflicts and Human Security (Clico) – looking at the intersection between climate, water, conflict and security in 11 cases in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Sahel – did not find that climate change “is an important source of violence and insecurity” either between or within countries. However, the study found that firstly, states’ responses to climate change could create or worsen conflict; and secondly, that violence makes people more vulnerable to climate hazards.

    Clico researcher Julia Kloos said one had to guard against making generic statements or drawing simplistic connections between climate change and conflict because every situation is different. “We have to look at it in a case by case way.” 

    Often, she said, adaptations by states to climate change, known as “divergent adaptation”, can negatively impact on vulnerable populations. In Niger, for example, droughts, floods and warmer temperatures have caused farmers to hold onto land and water in a way that (sometimes violently) threatens the livelihood of nomadic pastoralists. Conflicts over water have also erupted in Kenya and Ethiopia, affecting the most marginalised.

    From drought to war?

    Recent research linking the war in Syria to drought several years ago, describes the drought – and its mismanagement by the government – as a catalyst in the uprisings that led to civil war.  

    Whether the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will deepen or lessen over shrinking shared water resources is a leading question. Climate change threatens water supply in the Jordan River basin, shared by Israel, the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, and parts of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Despite soaring conflict in the area, Israel’s water desalination project has been punted as a prospect for peace and cooperation in the region.

    The IPCC report says the chances of climate change-related conflict breaking out is greatest where states are weak, where property rights are contested, or where one group dominates another. Thus adaptation to climate change in South Sudan is more likely to cause conflict than a country like Italy, for example, as Kloos points out. 

    But pro-active measures by states, such as reclaiming forests to reduce carbon emissions, chopping them down for biofuels, establishing hydropower operations for renewable energy supplies, can create conflict and aggravate existing conflicts by pushing people off their land or robbing them of their livelihoods. 

    Says Warner: “We do know the impact that climate change is having on the most vulnerable people and that is cause for concern. When people are systematically shut out of decision-making, that can escalate into conflict.” Evidence shows, she adds, that social relationships are critical for survival. When drought threatened communities in India, people at first banded together. But when the drought became extreme, they began to hoard food. “Conflict comes in when people are not cooperating and when all the risk-management strategies break down really fast.”

    Forced migration

    Conflict in various forms is also more likely when climate change forces migration, and when viable institutions to manage their settlement and integration are lacking, says the IPCC report.

    According to the Nansen Initiative, floods, earthquakes, droughts and rising sea levels forced 184 million people to leave their homes between 2008 and 2014. “Some projections suggest that a one metre rise in sea level could mean that 150 million people will have to flee unless the construction of dams, seawalls and similar measures are undertaken to protect vulnerable areas,” it says. 

    But Nansen Initiative envoy Walter Kaelin told IRIN: “I would be very careful in promoting the idea that global warming alone causes conflict. There are many areas affected by global warming and we don’t see conflict. We need other elements.” 

    However, he notes research that links drought in the Horn of Africa with a proliferation of small arms. He also points out that “conflict can exacerbate the humanitarian crises triggered by natural hazards and the cross-border flight of people,” noting that the refugees in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya fled Somalia because of drought and famine, rather than conflict. Nevertheless, they fled because the conflict in their country prevented humanitarian aid from reaching them. 

    Holes in the goals

    The Nansen Initiative notes that less than two months before the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris, “the latest version of the draft climate agreement still does not include any references to climate-related mobility. And while the Sustainable Development Goal Number 13 is about taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts, and the ethos of the SDGs is all about “leaving no one behind”, there is no plan for how the most vulnerable people will be protected from the expected ravages of climate change in the next 20 years. 

    The South Pacific Island states are described as the “canary in the coalmine” for rising sea levels and other climate threats such as storm surges, sea acidification and more intense hurricanes and cyclones, threatening the lives and livelihoods of an estimated 500,000 people on these very low-lying coastal islands. 

    Recent UNU research in the region found that some of these people were migrating – mostly to Fiji – because of declining living standards. Interviewees only related 17 percent of their reasons for migrating to climate change. However, the study pointed towards “potential conflict between migrants and host communities” in future and called for more research on “conflict and migration in the Pacific”. Pacific Islands Forum secretary General Meg Taylor also recently spoke to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about the risk of conflict from climate-related displacement of people. 

    Cosmin Corendea, a former UNU researcher on the project, says people adapt to climate change when it manifests as a slow creep, believing they can deal with it. “Those with means choose to migrate first; some pledge to die on their land. You never know how people will react. They learn to live with all kinds of threats.” He adds that this does not diminish the urgency of climate change threats: interstate conflicts could emerge over who takes in migrants, and, if migrants are seen as not contributing to host countries, tensions can fester internally.

    The draft text of the climate agreement leading up to Paris makes no mention of the role of conflict in climate change. Corendea says the policymakers tend not to tackle something if it doesn’t yet exist or require international intervention. “We are not there yet,” he says, adding: “At the same time, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider conflict as a potential outcome if we don’t address climate change in the proper way.”


    Climate change = more conflict?
  • How US is failing Syrian refugees

    The United States may be the global leader in refugee resettlement, but so far it has opened its doors to a mere 1,000 Syrians looking for a safe haven from their war-torn country.

    Human rights groups, members of Congress and city planners are among those trying to persuade President Barack Obama to allow more Syrians to settle here. However, security concerns, anti-immigration sentiment and bureaucratic hurdles all stand in the way. 

    It has taken the world a long time to acknowledge that most of the 12 million Syrians displaced – inside and outside their country – by the five-year civil war will not be going home anytime soon. Neighbours Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have absorbed nearly four million Syrians between them. Other countries have been slower to step up to the plate, particularly in terms of pledging to take some of the 88,000 Syrian refugees allocated for resettlement by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Twenty-eight countries have so far agreed to take in 62,000 of them – with Germany taking nearly half.

    The US has not committed to a specific number, but Larry Yungk, senior resettlement officer with UNHCR in Washington, said it is expected to take in only 35 percent of the 13,000 individual cases submitted for consideration by his agency. The protracted US security clearance process, which involves additional checks for Syrians, means it is likely to be at least another two years before the refugees set foot on American soil.

    “This is just too little and too slow for a country that should be a global leader,” said Eleanor Acer, from Human Rights First, which is advocating for the US to take in 65,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016.

    In recent years, the US has agreed to take an annual maximum of 70,000 refugees for resettlement, more than half the total number of refugees resettled globally. But activists argue that the soaring numbers of refugees – 16.7 million according to UNHCR’s latest figures – calls for exceptional measures on the part of large, wealthy countries like the US. 

    Recently, 14 senators called on President Barack Obama to dramatically increase the number of Syrian refugees accepted for resettlement, arguing that the US has a “moral obligation” to help Syria’s neighbours, who are already hosting millions of refugees.

    However, some Republican leaders have argued that bringing in more Syrians will create security risks. 

    Security concerns

    The many security checks required by the US already screen out all but the most vulnerable – mostly women and children and victims of torture. Acer argued that the “sweeping inadmissibility aspects” of the security measures exclude large numbers of people who pose no possible risk to the US. “It is interpreted so broadly that the results are absurd,” she said. 

    The “terrorist-related inadmissibility grounds” (TRIG) exclude individuals who may have given “material support” to anyone associated with an organisation the US classifies as terrorist. In a country wracked by a civil war in which several such organisations are protagonists, this support – which can be as nominal as selling a sandwich to someone associated with a terrorist group or paying militants to get through a checkpoint – is hard to avoid. Officials are now taking this into account and reviewing many cases previously excluded by the provision, but this measure is only likely to result in a few hundred more Syrians being admitted, not the tens of thousands activists are calling for.

    Kelly Gauger, deputy director at the US State Department’s Office of Admissions, told IRIN an additional 500 Syrian refugees will arrive before September, but admitted that the US long-screening process and the fact that UNHCR only started submitting Syrian candidates last year meant, “we might not see large numbers for a couple of years.” 

    The US is committed to being a significant player but we need to be careful...that we are admitting Syrians who don't mean to do us harm.

    “The US is committed to being a significant player but we need to be careful… that we are admitting Syrians who don’t mean to do us harm,” she added. 

    A special programme allowed 120,000 Iraqis able to prove that their lives were endangered because they worked with American organisations to be resettled in the US over the last eight years.

    Daryl Grisgraber, a senior advocate with Washington DC-based NGO, Refugees International, suggested that, “the US is not feeling the same moral obligation towards the Syrians.” 

    “The humanitarian aspect has been subsumed by the security aspect,” she told IRIN, adding that a public education campaign was needed “to counter the idea that refugees are a security risk.”

    Columbia Law School professor Michael Doyle pointed out that the refugees are fleeing the very people the US is terrified of letting in. “But the spectre of ISIS, the beheadings and the rhetorical targeting of US citizens makes it a very difficult issue for the immigration services to wave aside.”

    Being responsible for opening the door to terrorist infiltration would constitute a disaster for any president, he added. 

    Support from cities 

    Despite resistance to admitting more Syrians at federal level, there is growing support at city level, particularly in those urban areas desperate for the infusion of skills and entrepreneurial energy associated with immigrants. Michigan governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, last year called for 50,000 immigrants to kick-start the city of Detroit’s ailing economy. 

    Two academics, writing in the New York Times last month, argued that it was “eminently feasible” to resettle Syrian refugees in Detroit, where there is already a sizeable Arab population. Refugees from Bosnia and Somalia, for example, had brought new energy to downtrodden areas in other cities. 

    Fadi Khankan, of the Washington DC-based Syrian Expatriates Organization, which has registered disappointment at the low resettlement numbers, supported the idea: “Syrian people have very handy skills. Lots are very educated. Wherever they go, they will really succeed.”

    He suggested also allowing some of the Syrian students currently languishing in refugee camps to come to the US on university scholarships. 

    Gauger described the Detroit proposal as “interesting,” adding that a combination of low-cost housing and jobs would be needed to make it work. “The US resettlement programme is built on a model of early self-sufficiency. Unlike other countries that provide years and years of support, refugees in the US need to go to work early.” 

    Yungk also pointed out that “resettlement has always been a solution for only a very small percentage of the [refugee] population.” Globally, less than one percent of refugees are resettled.


    How US is failing Syrian refugees
  • Beyond the body counts: Why murder rates matter to humanitarians

    Are homicide statistics just another number crunching exercise or a helpful indicator for humanitarian intervention?

    The Homicide Monitor, a new, interactive online tool that collates country-by-country statistics on homicides from a range of sources, an initiative the Brazil-based Igarape Institute launched this week, is intended to stimulate debate around homicide statistics and draw attention to the world’s hotspots. 

    “Making information available about homicide is the first step towards doing something about it,” says Igarapé Institute research director Robert Muggah. According to the Homicide Monitor, between 437,000 and 468,000 homicides occur around the world each year. While rates are very high in Latin American countries and some other parts of the world, they are in steady decline in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and Asia. 

    “Homicide rates are an interesting indicator of what’s happening in a country,” says Olivier Bangerter, Thematic Team Coordinator for the World Humanitarian Summit. He adds: “Understanding how widespread lethal violence is gives us an understanding of the challenges countries face, whether from a humanitarian, human rights or a development perspective. As a humanitarian it’s always very useful to understand who is vulnerable, and to what.” 


    See: The new buzzword in aid - and why agencies are slow to react

    Where homicide rates exceed 40 per 100,000 of a country’s population, but where there is no outright armed conflict, some humanitarian organizations may use the designation “other situations of violence” to indicate the need for involvement.

    “While not perfect, homicide is a proxy for a much wider set of insecurities,” says Muggah. “It is often the most visible instance of crime,” he adds. “Where we see high rates of homicide, we are likely also to have high rates of injuries, disappearances, and most likely other kinds of criminal violence.” 

    The fear linked to these wider insecurities can also drive displacement. See: The Price of Fear

    A wealth of data

    Enrico Bisogno, Team Leader of Crime Statistics at UN Office on Drugs and Crime (whose data the Monitor uses) agrees. Homicide statistics  “are the best possible indicator of violence in any country at any given time, because homicide is the most ultimate crime”. Homicides statistics reveal much about violence – not just about numbers killed, but about where the crime takes place, by whom and with what weapon, he says. 

    UNODC, which publishes a bi-yearly Global Study on Homicides, is lobbying to include homicide as one of the key indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals. According to the Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015: Every Body Counts, between 2007 and 2015 at least 508,000 people – including 60,000 women and girls – died by violent means, mostly not in situations of armed conflict. 

    Publishing global homicide figures is a recent phenomenon, and more countries are honing their capacity to capture the data. The Homicide Monitor is the latest contribution to the global picture, filling in the blanks with more information such as gender breakdown of victims and types of weapons used. While UNODC gathers annual statistics from 110 countries, the Homicide Monitor has compiled data from more than 219 countries and territories and is, according to Muggah, “the most comprehensive publicly available data set”.  The Monitor’s statistics are drawn from UNODC, the World Health Organization, national statistical offices, police departments and more, he says. 


    All those interviewed by IRIN said they had confidence in the steps that Muggah and the Igarapé Institute had taken to collate and present the statistics as accurately as possible. However, Muggah himself acknowledges the limitations of homicide data - starting with varying definitions of the term. For example: some countries distinguish between intentional and unintentional homicides and some only count homicides after a perpetrator has been arrested and prosecuted. And while UNODC does not include lawful deaths at the hands of the police, WHO does. 

    “Igarapé Institute researchers often triangulated multiple counts, virtually always selecting the most conservative registered figures. As a result, there is a possibility that the Homicide Monitor undercounts the total scale of homicide,” says a fact sheet on the model. 

    Bisogno says there is often criticism about the accuracy of homicide data but the fact that the data emanate from both health and criminal justice quarters “is a good way to validate the stats.”

    Muggah adds that the involvement of public health agencies in compiling statistics has taken “some of the political sting out of the debate”.

    Now that UNODC has developed international definitions for all categories of crime, including homicide, the picture is likely to get more accurate, Bisogno says. These definitions were published in March.

    Many countries, particularly in Africa, lack the capacity to report statistics, and many homicides go unreported. Other nations, fearing repercussions for tourism and investment, refuse to do so. Those that are good at collecting their data risk being victims of their own success, says Bisogno, by unwittingly advertising high rates. South Africa, for example, has very accurate crime statistics compared to most other African nations, and also has a very high homicide rate.

    Governments and civil society organizations can both deflate or inflate figures for their own purposes. “Anyone trying to ascertain how many people die may have a bias – this is not necessarily in bad faith, says Bangerter, adding that cross-checking several sources of data is the best way to get the most accurate results.” 

    Blurred lines

    Another problem is how to draw the line between criminal and political armed violence. As organized crime infiltrates political and government institutions, this line grows increasingly blurred. 

    Graeme Simpson, director of the US branch of Interpeace, a peacebuilding NGO, says he welcomes any contribution to the growing conversation around “the constant, seeping, underlying [criminal] violence” which claims more lives than political conflict but which nevertheless attracts much less attention from the world’s humanitarians, peacekeepers and peace builders. 

    Using homicide statistics is a reliable way to go about gathering information on this kind of violence, he adds, because it’s about counting actual bodies. The challenge, he adds, is to dig beneath the bland figures and find out what is driving the violence in the first place. “It’s important that we don’t just focus on security responses to bring down the statistics and paper over the cracks, but on social crime prevention strategies.” 

    Another important question, Muggah adds, is not just how high or low homicide rates are, but “who is being killed and who is doing the murdering. In almost all settings, young males are the most likely to kill and be killed,” he says. 

    And counting the bodies doesn’t tell us much about the individuals who have lost their lives and the circumstances surrounding their deaths. Everett Ressler, advisor to Every Casualty, an organization that lobbies for the identification, documentation and public acknowledgement of every person who dies a violent death around the world, says: “We need to know the facts. A number is only a part of the story. There is a deeper and more fundamental aspect.” 

     “Human rights are as much about death as they are about life,” he says. “The best interests of humanity are not served by people hiding the facts about death. Every effort should be made to make these facts public and non-political,” he adds. 


    Focus on Latin America

    Homicide rates in Latin America are higher than fatality rates in some of the
    world’s worst war zones.

    At 56,000, the number of homicides in Brazil in 2014 for example, is greater
    than the number of those who died in conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and
    Ukraine combined, according to Muggah.

    “These astonishing rates of murder are on top of exceedingly high levels of
    crime as well as population displacement. Yet there are still surprisingly
    large numbers of decision-makers, opinion shapers and lay people who are not
    aware of the scale of the challenge,” he says. 

    Increasingly, migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to the United
    States is being driven by soaring crime, notably gang violence and sexual

    After these countries generated more migrants to the US than Mexico for the
    first time last year President Barack Obama called the influx a “humanitarian

    A growing number of humanitarian organisations, including the International
    Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, are now implementing
    programs to assist violence-plagued communities in these countries. Others like
    “Mercy Corps, Oxfam and World Vision International are also beginning to
    rethink their approaches to community development so that they also incorporate
    violence prevention, especially in cities,” says Muggah.
    The Homicide Monitor reports that while only eight percent of the world’s
    population resides in Latin America and the Caribbean, this region accounts for
    33 percent of the world’s homicides. Homicide trends here vary widely. For now,
    those with the highest rates are Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, Belize, Colombia
    and Mexico.  

    In many cases, criminal violence is extremely localised, taking place on “just
    a few street corners, at certain times of the day, and among specific people,”
    according to Muggah. In Bogota, almost all homicides took place in less than one percent of the city’s streets.

    Using similar data-backed trend intelligence, city authorities in Medellín,
    once dubbed the murder capital of the world, were able to reduce homicides by
    almost 80 percent by focusing on hot spots to prevent outbreaks of violence.
    Connecting the slums to middle class neighborhoods via transport systems,
    rather than sealing them off, also helped reduce the numbers. 

    “We know that these countries have certain social and economic structural conditions that give rise to violence, but most importantly the rise in drug trafficking, counter-narcotics measures and access to firearms seem to be major contributing factors,” adds Muggah. 

    The rising influence of gangs, the criminalisation of police and judiciaries, easy access to guns and the impunity of those perpetrating the murders also play a part.


    While 70 percent of murders are committed with guns in both the Americas, the global figure is far lower, at 40 percent, says Bisogno.

    Just 20 to 25 percent of homicides in the Americas lead to criminal convictions, compared to 80 to 90 percent in Europe.


    Why murder rates matter
  • The new buzzword in aid – and why agencies are slow to act

    “Urban” may be the new buzzword in humanitarian circles, but aid agencies have been slow to turn it into action. 

    Conflict-ridden urban sprawl is increasingly talked about as a source of fragility that will shape humanitarian response in the years to come. A toxic mix of poverty, natural disaster, climate change and conflict is threatening the survival of the world’s most vulnerable people. And in an ever more urbanised world, emergencies will increasingly be concentrated in cities.

    But aid actors have struggled to adapt. Accustomed to working in more remote war zones or in the aftermath of natural disasters, they have been slow to develop the more complex set of skills needed to measure and respond to opaque urban emergencies. 

    Waking up late

    For the first time in history, more people live inside urban areas than outside. Statistics show an alarming overlap between rapid population growth, poverty and urban slums. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the urban population in poor and fragile countries has grown by 326 percent in the past 40 years; most future growth will take place in Asia and Africa. 

    At the same time the drivers of conflict are evolving. 

    “With the advent of global supply chains and communications technologies, we are seeing the fusion of political, criminal and extremist forms of violence,” says Robert Muggah, research director at the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank. “We’re also seeing civilians increasingly implicated as victims and perpetrators.” 

    Exacerbated by “turbo urbanisation,” he says, these trends make it increasingly difficult to distinguish between formal armed conflict and “other situations of violence," such as gang and drug violence in many Latin American cities.

    Yet, UN humanitarian agencies “have woken up to this reality rather late,” according to John De Boer, a senior policy advisor at the United Nations University (UNU) Centre for Policy Research. He attributes this to a reluctance to move away from “siloed” responses and to “paralysis” on “how to develop systems and structures to respond effectively."

    Muggah, who recently wrote a blog on the issue, says both humanitarian and development agencies have been “comparatively slow to respond." 

    As Kevin Savage, humanitarian research director at World Vision International, puts it, the aid sector is dominated by large agencies “that take a long time to change." 

    But in the lead-up to the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, debate on the issue is intensifying. The World Bank, UNU, European Commission and World Economic Forum, UNICEF, World Vision and many others are “seized of the issue,” Muggah says.

    Rules of engagement 

    But when does urban violence constitute a humanitarian crisis? 

    “The standard of living in urban slums is often lower than the minimum standards set by humanitarian practice,” argues Ronak Patel, director of the urbanisation and crises program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. 

    “In some cities, violence levels seem to exceed a threshold that would justify their classification as an armed-conflict-like situation,” says a “lesson paper” published last year by the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP) advising humanitarians on how to engage in situations of urban violence.

    “Many in the sector have problems with this because it starts to look more like development and less like aid”

    But as patterns of violence become murkier, so do the rules of engagement. Urban conflicts do not necessarily fall under the auspices of International Humanitarian Law, creating legal grey areas for humanitarian action. 

    And in an urbanised environment, the line between humanitarian response – tailored to emergencies – and a developmental approach – geared for long-term involvement in communities – is also less clear cut. 

    “We have a grand new problem to face,” says Stephanie Kayden, also of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, who predicts a “sea change” in the aid sector as humanitarian agencies contemplate engaging in longer-term violence reduction programs. “Many in the sector have problems with this because it starts to look more like development and less like aid.” 

    Nor do emergency responders have all the skills needed. 

    “[The] long-term infrastructural change required goes beyond the capacity of humanitarian actors,” says Patricia McIlreavy, senior director of humanitarian policy at the NGO consortium InterAction. “We don’t have the funding or the time-frame.”

    That said, humanitarian agencies are today mired in protracted emergencies – from Syria to South Sudan, from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Somalia – that show no signs of abating. The average length of displacement in major refugee crises is 20 years.

    Kayden sees a role for greater partnership with the development world, which can do “more of the heavy lifting."

    An existential crisis in aid 

    But where to draw the line? Where should the limits of humanitarian action lie? 

    McIlreavy acknowledges that the humanitarian sector must grapple with new urban dynamics. Refugees, for example – like those who have fled Syria for Jordan and Lebanon – are increasingly moving into urban areas. But she is less sure whether humanitarians should be tackling gang violence. 

    “Humanitarians are beholden to go where others don’t go but how do we ensure that we don’t become an excuse for development actors not to address the root causes – such as lack of education and poverty?” 

    “These scenarios are becoming a reality. We need to get ready for them”

    In Muggah’s view, changing forms of violence and the move to cities is generating “an existential crisis” in the aid community at large. While the more orthodox organisations “are clinging to the idea that aid be provided by neutral, impartial and independent actors in a targeted manner," other “multi-mandate agencies are less wedded to these principles and are starting to test out new approaches to preventing violence and promoting resilience in cities.”

    Agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are forging ahead with programs in violence-plagued cities in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Brazil – places that “offer a kind of laboratory, a natural experiment, for humanitarian agencies intent on preventing violence and increasing resilience,” Muggah says. 

    MSF is working closely with the health authorities in areas like Tegucigalpa, Ixtepec, Bojay and Apaxco to boost existing healthcare provision where local services are overwhelmed by intense and protracted gang-related conflict. It plays a supervisory and supportive role, transferring knowledge rather than running the show – and plans to expand once it has a better understanding of the scale of the needs. 

    “These scenarios are becoming a reality. We need to get ready for them,” says Gustavo Fernandez, MSF program manager for Guatemala and Honduras.

    But, he says, too few international actors are responding to crises in mega cities. “The level of violence and the consequences they bring to health systems and individuals deserves greater attention from the aid community.” 

    He acknowledges that massive, prolonged crises gripping the Middle East and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, have sapped energy, attention and funds. But he adds that where needs are expressed and programs developed, funding can be found. 

    CNN effect 

    Massive disasters and all-out warfare tend to make better headlines than the slow creep of urban violence: humanitarian agencies are able to bring in more funding and “call attention to crises that development actors can’t,” Patel adds. 

    But urban crises are slowly taking their place on the agenda. “It's much more mainstream to talk about ‘urban’ than it was a few years ago,” says World Vision’s Savage. 

    For example, when people began fleeing urban violence in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico last year, US President Barack Obama declared the arrival of thousands of refugees into the US “a humanitarian crisis,” which gave it “the CNN effect,” Savage said. “When it finally hit the US media, it made a difference to us.” 



    The new buzzword in aid
  • The technology behind Syria's lights out campaign

    Dramatic satellite images of Syria’s steady loss of night-time light during its four-year civil war have been released by human rights groups pushing for both a stronger humanitarian response to the crisis and increased efforts towards a political resolution.

    The two most striking things about the images distributed by the #WithSyria coalition of rights groups are that they showed that war had led 83 percent of Syria’s lights  - 97 percent in Aleppo province - to go out, and that the data behind the research cost just $300.

    Xi Li, an assistant professor at State Key Laboratory of Information Engineering in Surveying, Mapping and Remote Sensing at Wuhana University in China, and currently a visiting scholar at Maryland University, US, conducted the night-time imagery research on Syria.

    Li has researched fluctuating light patterns in almost 160 countries, but nowhere else has he seen such a dramatic decline in night-time light, except during the genocide in Rwanda where 80 percent of lights went out in just a few months – rather than years as in Syria’s case.

    Li sees tremendous benefit in measuring night-time light, a low-budget addition to a hi-tech conflict-monitoring toolbox increasingly used by humanitarian agencies and rights groups that includes high-resolution imagery and unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones.

    “These night-time light images are very cheap, almost free, compared to the very high price of high-resolution images. They also have incredibly large cover, and they can record the earth nearly every day, unlike the higher resolutions,” said Li.

    Li’s budget does not cover humanitarian work such as this Syria project, which he said was motivated by “personal interest” and a desire “to focus on issues that can help people.”

    It involved two sets of data: the first – costing the $300 – consisted of 2.8km/pixel images from the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program’s Operational Linescan System (DMSP/OLS), whose extensive archives allowed Li to study conflict patterns in 159 countries going back to 1992.

    The second, much higher-resolution infra-red images (740m/pixel), came from the National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP), and were downloaded for free.

    Although researchers have long used night-time light imaging in studies of urbanization, population growth and the like, its use in monitoring conflict and the large-scale movement of displaced people is a relatively new trend that is only starting to gather momentum, says Frank Witmer, computer science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, US.

    Witmer, who conducted his own research on fluctuations in night-time light during the separatist conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia/South Ossetia in 2011, found that many aspects of war such as individual explosions and deaths were not detectable, but that other phenomena such as refugee movements, power grid damage and fires could show up. “Combining multiple sources of satellite imagery with the often partial and biased media reports can help provide a more accurate picture of the spatial and temporal distribution of violence, even in the “fog of war”, he concluded in his research.

    The science is far from perfect and many other components are required to corroborate the imagery evidence, including witness reports on the ground and other hi-tech information sources, Witmer explained.

    Lack of light doesn’t necessarily mean people have moved out. In very underdeveloped countries, millions live without electricity in regions that show up as vast areas of black. Usually, year-on-year images of such countries show a steady increase in electricity, in tandem with development and economic growth.

    But research Li conducted on Zimbabwe showed a steady loss of light that corresponded directly with the country’s slide into economic collapse. Light patterns there showed a decline in the agricultural industry but a boom near the South African border.

    The benefits of night-time light imaging are clear – low cost and a long-term record – and efforts are underway to digitize older, analogue night-time light imagery. But there are obstacles too: cloud cover, bright moons and summer months in the far northern hemisphere where nights are short, can all inhibit good data.

    Li has now started research on the socio-economic situation in ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq and Syria. He wants to know whether the coalition airstrikes are really having an impact on ISIS.

    “Are areas no longer controlled by ISIS now brighter than they were before? How effectively is ISIS managing the land? Some media reports say that it is not just brutal but that it is also very effective in managing land and people. I want to know what kind of access they have to electricity in these areas,” he says.


    The story of Syria's lights out campaign
  • Liberians in US face worsening Ebola stigma

    Africans living in the US from the three Ebola-affected countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, are under enormous pressure trying to help their families and ravaged communities back home. And they face an additional challenge: stigma. 

    For the residents of “Little Liberia”, one of Liberia’s biggest emigrant communities in Staten Island, New York, the path to integration has been strewn with hurdles. Many of the several thousand residents came decades ago as refugees from the civil war in Liberia. Eking out a living, attaining resident status, integrating with at times unfriendly neighbours and, in recent months, helping those families hard hit by Ebola at home, has been an uphill battle. 

    But when Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian, was diagnosed with Ebola in a Dallas hospital last month, “all hell broke loose here,” Oretha Bestman-Yates, president of the Staten Island Liberian Community, told IRIN. 

    When news that Bestman-Yates had travelled to Liberia in July reached her hospital employer she was told to put herself in quarantine. But even after the 21-day period elapsed on 5 August, she says she has still not been allowed to return to work. 

    "You bought Ebola to the US!"

    Now she spends her days trying to help residents who are not only battling with the loss of family and friends in Liberia but are struggling to make ends meet here at home.  “People try to avoid you, pull away from you. I’ve had people tell me, ‘We brought Ebola to the United States,’” she says. Many of the Staten Island Liberians are employed in hospitals and nursing homes and are being told not to touch patients. “Parents are telling their children to stay away from our children at school,” she said.

    As news broke that two of the nurses who cared for Duncan, who died on 8 October, had contracted Ebola, panic began to sweep through the American public. The news that one of the nurses, Amber Vinson, had flown on a domestic flight shortly before coming down with the disease, galvanized fears of an outbreak. 

    Now there seems a growing perception that anyone of African descent may be carrying Ebola. And whether that person visited any of the affected countries recently appears to be of little relevance. 

    Two Nigerian students were refused admission to Navarro College in Texas, because of a new college policy denying entry to students from countries affected by Ebola – even though Nigeria successfully brought its small outbreak under control. An airplane bound for Nigeria was grounded at JFK yesterday because staff refused to clean it. Furthermore, parents from a school in Jackson, Mississippi, withdrew their children from school when it was revealed that the principal had recently travelled to Zambia – in southern Africa. 

    Where's West Africa?

    In a navel-gazing society, where West Africa is a vague and homogenous region and where the whole continent is usually spoken about as if it is one country, there is little nuanced understanding in the general population about exactly where the disease is located – not to mention how it is spread. Said Bobby Digi, a local activist from Staten Island. “There is not a lot of knowledge in the US about Africa – let alone West Africa. They are painting the whole area with a very broad brush.” 

    Digi says Liberians have struggled for decades to be accepted on Staten Island where there have been long-standing tensions with the community, including with local African Americans, who fear losing their jobs. Liberians feel a sense of shame, he said, that Duncan died in the country where they now live. Although the NYC health department is conducting awareness campaigns to educate the public and eradicate stigma, Digi slated the department for not knowing how to access the Liberian population. “They didn’t have basic statistics. They were picking my brain. I was floored by that,” he said.  

    In Dallas, where Duncan died and where there is also a large Liberian community, stigma against Liberians is clearly on the increase. Alben Tarty, communications director for the Liberian Community Association of Dallas-Fort Worth, told IRIN he had minutes ago spoken to relatives of Duncan’s fiancée, Louise Troh, who had just been given clearance to join the community again. “When they came out of the house they were referred to as the Ebola people, children must keep away from them, someone literally ran from them. They are fearful of going back to work next week,” he said. 

    Tarty, who has been living in the US for 12 years and whose doctor friend died in Monrovia last week, says there are strong perceptions in the Liberian community that Duncan was mistreated by the hospital there to discourage other Liberians from travelling to the US to seek treatment. 

    "This is not a West African problem. It’s a global problem and we have to fight it with education.” 

    A man with no health insurance or social security number, Duncan was given second-rate treatment in a country with one of the world’s best health care systems, Tarty said, adding: “There are so many things happening that are making the Liberian community very angry.” 

    However, Tarty described the Liberian community in Dallas as “formidable”. “We are a very strong community.” Enormous resources had been raised to help affected families and healthcare workers back home, he said. 

    Tarty said he hoped stigma was unique to individuals and not organizations and employers. Lots of people – including Liberians – “don’t understand how the virus is transmitted,” he said, adding that Liberians were stigmatizing each other too. “We can’t blame those who don’t understand how the virus is transmitted. If Liberians are still confused then we can expect the greater community to be even more confused.”

    Anecdotally, the evidence of stigma in other parts of New York City - not just Staten Island - is mounting. From elevators, to subways to school playgrounds, comments are being made. When a person of African descent sneezes, the retort is, “I hope you don’t have Ebola,” said Charles Cooper, chairman of the Bronx African Council, which looks after the interests of the roughly 80,000 Bronx residents originally from the three affected countries and around 200,000 immigrants from the continent as a whole.  

    Cooper, who last visited family and friends in Liberia a year ago, says the community is already struggling to get finances for affected families back home. Furthermore, those making a living here from products sourced there, are no longer able to get the supplies, given closed borders and the collapsing economies of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Another stress they don’t need is a new form of discrimination from their neighbours. 

    Politics of hysteria

    “It plays into existing stigma,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s not something that’s going to be short-lived. It will continue for a while since the Ebola virus is not going to be eradicated any time soon.”  But “there is a level of hysteria that needs to be counter-acted,” he said. “Ever since the inception of Ebola we’ve been working together and focusing on the African community and prevention countrywide.” 

    On the political stage, the same hysteria is playing out, with Republicans accusing President Barack Obama of mishandling the crisis and calling for travel bans to and from the three affected countries. Right-wing commentators are also having a field day. Said prominent conservative pundit Phyllis Schlafly: “The idea that anybody can just walk in and carry this disease with them is an outrage, and it is Obama’s fault because he’s responsible for doing it.” 

    She said Obama didn’t want America to “believe that we’re exceptional. He wants us to be just like everybody else, and if Africa is suffering from Ebola we ought to join the group and be suffering from it too.” 

    Bestman-Yates said that although stigma on Staten Island was “getting worse, we are trying our best to educate people”. Asked whether she believed things could turn violent, she said, “I hope not,” adding however that a man screamed at her when she was being interviewed recently by a TV crew. Situations like this make her worry about the “Stop Ebola” pin she wears, though she continues to wear it. “We want people to know about it. This is not a West African problem. It’s a global problem and we have to fight it with education.” 


    Liberians in US face Ebola stigma
  • Rethinking global drug policy

    What would the world look like if governments - instead of crime syndicates - controlled drug markets and drug use was decriminalized?

    A new report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy, released by Commission members including former presidents and other heavyweights in New York last week, attempts to vizualize a post “war on drugs” landscape in an era where the 50-year-old policy is widely regarded as a failure and where experimentation is gathering momentum.

    With opposition to global reform from countries like Russia, China and many other Asian countries where drug possession is still a crime punishable by death, it is unlikely that the UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem (UNGASS 2016) will see a major policy overhaul in two years’ time.

    But the Commission, along with other pressure groups, is nevertheless pushing hard for it, noting a rapidly-evolving spirit of change in the air. As influential players like the US, and several other countries - including New Zealand, Canada, Portugal, Switzerland and Uruguay - experiment with new policies, the disconnect between an international policy framework and what is happening on the ground is growing.

    As Commission chair Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former president of Brazil, said, “We are saying that the umbrella policy sustained by the UN is not adequate in reflecting what is going on in other parts of the world.”

    The straight-talking report, Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work, documents the casualties of 50 years of failed policies - from threatening public health and safety, to fuelling organized crime, to undermining development and human rights, to wasting billions of dollars.

    It charts a way forward with several key proposals, calling for drug policy to be viewed through a health - rather than a crime prevention - lens. As commission member and former Colombian president Cesar Gaviria put it: “We have a public health imperative to regulate drugs - not because they are safe but because they are dangerous and pose serious risks.”

    Casualties of the war on drugs

    According to UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates, the number of users worldwide increased from 203 million in 2008 to 243 million in 2012. Global illicit opium production has increased four fold since 1980.

    The rapid development of Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS) continues to stymie efforts to prohibit them, as new drug formulas defying classification are constantly concocted. In 2013, says the Commission, the number of NPS “exceeded the number of drugs prohibited under the international drug control framework”.

    Blackmarket production of drugs, often involving their dilution with toxic chemicals, continues to claim scores of lives. One third of Russia’s drug users, denied access to needle exchange services, are now infected with HIV. Restrictions on opiates for pain control means that more than 5.5 billion people cannot get the drugs they need, according to the report.

    The report cites some alarming statistics on the casualties of the war on drugs. Although international law prohibits the death sentence for drug offences, “around 1,000 people are executed every year”, while almost a quarter of a million are held in drug detention centres in China and South East Asia. Around the globe “more women are imprisoned for drug offences than for any other crime” - as many as two-thirds of the female prison population in several Latin American countries.

    Criminalizing the drug trade has led to soaring profits for traffickers, with the wholesale worldwide drug market worth more than that for “cereals, wine, beer, coffee and tobacco combined” - a retail value of US$332 billion, according to UNODC. In some instances, paramilitary groups have gained access to this lucrative market, says the report, citing the $500 million that armed groups on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border make every year from opium. “The corruption, violence, and instability generated by unregulated drug markets are widely recognized as a threat to both security and development,” says the report, citing as many as 100,000 deaths in Mexico since the war on drugs was ramped up in 2006.

    New regulatory models

    Listing the litany of failures is the easy part. The more difficult question is how to go about walking the tightrope between what the commission describes as an “unregulated criminal market” on the one hand, and an “unregulated legal market” on the other. As the report notes, “there are no easy answers.”

    In pushing strongly for a health-oriented approach, the commission is critical of UNODC for acknowledging the “unintended consequences” of the current global drug policy - such as the growth of a criminal black market, depleted health budgets in favour of law and order spending, the balloon effect where the illegal drug trade is simply displaced to another region, and the discrimination of drug users - but stopping short of calling for a policy overhaul.

    Panelist Louise Arbour, former UN high commissioner for human rights, quipped, “UNODC should be called “UN Office on Drugs and Health, not Drugs and Crime”. The commission argues that better models for drug policy have emerged in other sectors of the UN, including the World Health Organization’s global tobacco and alcohol policy, which it describes as “a useful template for how international drug policy evaluation could function better”, adding that WHO should lead the way in developing a regulatory framework for other drugs.

    “Finding new regulatory models does not mean all drugs should be legally available or that all restrictions should be the same, just as those for beer and spirits are not the same. Prohibitions of harmful drugs such as crack cocaine or krokadil (homemade opium injectable drug) would need to be kept in place”

    The report emphasizes that legalization need not imply free markets or free access. “Regulation is about taking control, so that governments, not criminals, make decisions on the availability and non-availability of different substances, in different environments.” Finding new regulatory models does not mean all drugs should be legally available or that all restrictions should be the same, just as those for beer and spirits are not the same. Prohibitions of harmful drugs such as crack cocaine or krokadil (homemade opium injectable drug) would need to be kept in place, recommends the report.

    The Commission argues that important lessons from experiences with alcohol and tobacco regulation must be drawn and that a key challenge will be to put the brakes on “runaway commercialization and limiting profit-motivated marketing that aims to initiate or increase consumption”. Even if deregulation does lead to greater drug use, the mountain of social and health problems that exist under the current system would still be reduced, the Commission argues.

    It also notes that many developing countries are currently unable to regulate their alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries and will most likely struggle to enforce new regulations around drugs.


    Although the current drug policy doesn't allow nations to experiment with legalization, this is in fact what is already happening in many countries with regard to cannabis and - in the case of New Zealand - NPS. That country is allowing low-risk NPS to be produced and sold under strict regulations, putting the onus on the manufacturers to determine the risks. The New Zealand government said it had taken this step “because the current situation is untenable. Current legislation is ineffective in dealing with the rapid growth in synthetic psychoactive substances, which can be tweaked to be one step ahead of controls.”

    As more and more countries begin to experiment with new drug regulations, the current drug policy risks becoming “ineffectual and redundant”, says the Commission.

    UK billionaire and commission member Richard Branson joked that he would be in need of serious psychiatric treatment if he continued to insist that a business would improve after it continued to fail for 50 years. He urged countries to follow the lead of “shining examples” of decriminalization policies like Switzerland and Portugal.

    Arbour added that it was important for other countries “to take the risk of experimenting so that we know what works and what doesn’t” and whether this reduces or increases drug consumption. She added: “We are under no illusion that we are on the eve of a complete reversal of the current regime but we have seen mobilization of the public and a move from ideological to evidence-based policies. All this is moving in the right direction,” she said.


    Rethinking global drug policy
  • Data to the people!

    Protests against poor delivery of services such as water, toilets, health and education, have become such a ubiquitous part of the South African landscape they barely make the news: as the delivery problems continue, so do the protests, and the vicious cycle of creeping poverty and mounting frustration continues.

    But “social auditing” - a new kind of civil society activism that helps empower communities to gather the financial information they need to pressure for real change - may turn these protests into more than hot air, and ultimately help bring about tangible lifestyle improvements for the communities themselves. Around the world social auditing is being seen as a way to empower people to monitor the delivery of programmes aimed at them and to help ensure that these programmes are not corrupted, stalled or mismanaged, and that they deliver what is actually required.

    In Khayelitsha township in Cape Town, for example, a social audit of portable toilets conducted by a triumvirate of NGOs and affected communities, has found the toilet contractors wanting in a myriad of ways and the group has the detailed, documented evidence to prove it.

    Pioneered by the Social Justice Coalition working alongside Ndifuna Ukwazi (Dare to Know) and assisted by the Washington-based International Budget Partnership (IBP), the group conducted several auditing campaigns to show how the community was not getting access to proper sanitation. Although the city signed strict contracts with tenders to supply portable toilet solutions, the community’s own research showed that: there were not enough toilets, they were broken, not cleaned adequately, and posed “life threatening risks to the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the city”.

    They also revealed that the city had no viable long-term plan to provide sanitation - a basic human right - to all its residents. Involving court actions and demonstrations, the campaign is ongoing, but the city of Cape Town has acknowledged that its sanitation plans needs to be improved and monitored better.

    Holding government accountable

    Ndifuna Ukwazi deputy director Jared Rossouw told IRIN that ultimately the goal is to “build a social audit movement in South Africa. We want to be able to engage with local governments around service delivery. We want them to provide us with data, to see this as a legitimate form of community oversight. It’s about educating communities to understand the data so that they know what’s being paid for, so they can use that information to conduct audits and hold government accountable.” Rossouw says there is interest from some quarters in national government to promote this form of “citizen-based monitoring of service delivery”.

    In India, the government is more involved in social auditing, with mixed results. An NGO called Samarthan has pioneered social auditing in that country, with its attempts to make the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (legislation passed in 2005 by the government to grant families the right to 100 days of paid labour per year) a reality. The right-to-work programme, the biggest in the world, was from the outset beset with bureaucratic problems and large-scale corruption. This led to Samarthan, which operates in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, to conduct social audits at the village level, “to follow the paperwork up and the money down”.

    The social audits bought to light mismanagement and corruption at every turn: local elites were embezzling money and people were being denied jobs. The problems were exacerbated by a culture of corruption among officials and a culture of subservience among poor and illiterate farmworkers, who feared asking questions or challenging local authorities, says Samarthan executive director Yogesh Kumar.

    Despite a backlash by local officials who tried to subvert Samarthan’s work, media attention eventually made the government more open to trying to sort out the problems and these audits are now conducted in partnership with it. However, Kumar says many audits are simply “happening on paper”, are not widespread enough and are of uneven quality. But gradually, he says, a “social auditing culture of transparency and accountability is building”. “Once we do a good social audit, the villagers realize the value of it. The larger push will come when there is a strong political will for this, when the senior politicians take it up.”

    Fraud risk

    Similar programmes in Ghana and Mexico have exposed the weaknesses of government programmes to help the poor by means of civil society audits and involvement in the budgeting process.

    In Mexico, Fundar’s Subsidios al Campo campaign showed how the government programme to give cash payments to farmers in need ultimately only benefited the wealthiest of them. This led to the government setting down new rules to make the process more transparent and reduce the risk of fraud.

    In Ghana, advocacy organization Social Enterprise Development Foundation (SEND-Ghana) found that a school feeding programme was not being implemented properly. Partly through their efforts, local communities got involved in monitoring the programme. Also, basic services such as water supplies, toilet facilities, health and education services, were improved as a result.

    South Africa’s other notable example of social auditing involves the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), founded in 1998. It was partly the TAC’s budget analysis that led to the government being compelled to provide ARV drugs to pregnant women to prevent them passing on the HIV virus to their unborn babies. TAC was able to show that the health department could in fact afford to pay for the drugs. As a result, hundreds of thousands of deaths were prevented and the country now has a massive antiretroviral treatment programme that targets more than 1.2 million people.

    Towards more transparent budgets

    While civil society can play a key role in monitoring how budgets are spent, governments have to play their part by opening their books, involving citizens in spending decisions and doing their own audits on how effectively the money is being spent. IBP publishes a bi-annual index, ranking 100 countries it surveys, according to how open their budgets are.

    One of the reasons why governments have not achieved the Millennium Development Goals is because they are not spending public money properly, says Vivek Ramkumar, IBP’s director of International Advocacy and Open Budget Initiative. Part of the problem, he says, is that in many countries, the allocation and spending of budgets is still shrouded in mystery. With the global recession putting the squeeze on aid from donor countries, governments in developing countries are under growing pressure to meet the demands of service delivery themselves. “What we are seeing is that if this is done in an open way and if information is shared with the public, the priorities are set in a way that truly reflects national needs.”

    “What we are seeing is that if this is done in an open way and if information is shared with the public, the priorities are set in a way that truly reflects national needs.”

    The budgetary process involves many macro and micro decisions that take place throughout the year. “While some of these decisions require a sophisticated understanding of global financing… this is not all that budgeting is about,” says Ramkumar. There are many political decisions that require citizen buy-in. He points out that sales tax, for example, is being paid by poor and marginalized populations themselves. “They bear the brunt of decisions that are being discussed and implemented at a higher level”. There will be more buy-in, along with a “culture of trust”, when citizens are consulted along the way, he says. “At the micro level, citizens do not need to be highly educated to know whether resources are being used properly in their areas,” he adds.

    According to the IBP’s 2012 index, the countries that are most open in their budgeting processes are New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, Sweden, Norway and France, while at the bottom are the oil-rich countries of Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Myanmar and Qatar. The results show that richer and more democratic countries have higher scores, while “oil-dependent autocracies” tend to have lower scores. Ramkumar points to the “oil curse” for these countries, as well as others dependent on extractive resources, which do not require a tax base from the population and are therefore less accountable to them. But others, like Afghanistan (dependent on aid), Mexico (hydrocarbon) and countries in the Middle East, like Jordan and sub-Saharan countries like Uganda and South Africa, also have high scores in comparison to their peers. Also, emerging economies in the global south such as Brazil, India, South Africa and Indonesia, are doing better than their counterparts in the north like Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, which proves the point, says the IBP, that “any government that has the political will to advance reforms can make its budget appropriately transparent”.

    The trend is definitely towards openness rather than secrecy. Fifteen years ago most governments kept their budgets close to their chests for fear of disrupting markets. But “the myth that budgeting needs to be done in a secret manner by a small number of elite individuals from the Finance Ministry has now been exploded,” says Ramkumar.

    Despite slow progress, however, the 2012 survey findings nevertheless still “provide a grim picture of budget transparency, participation and accountability. The majority of countries surveyed provide insufficient budget information and few opportunities for public engagement with the budget.” Unless the pace of change picks up, it will take at least a generation for most countries to achieve budget transparency. “This could mean a generation of wasted opportunities and wasted resources.”


    Empowerment through “social auditing”
  • Breaking the poverty trap – the power of cash grants

    A cash injection of as little as US$12 per month for an impoverished family could determine whether a child eats properly or goes to school or not. With cash transfer programmes around the world now having a profound impact on the lives of poor people, the debate is less about whether to implement them than how to do so. 

    Handing out cash rather than food or other basic survival supplies to the needy is a fairly recent phenomenon that began in several Latin American countries, including Brazil and Mexico, in the 1990s. In 1998 South Africa also introduced its own version - the child support grant. The widespread success of these programmes is now inspiring many other countries in Africa and Asia to follow suite.

    Transferring cash to those who desperately need it is proving to have more dramatic and long-lasting effects than simply keeping the wolf from the door for the poorest of the poor. Michelle Adato, who has researched the impact of cash transfers for many years, says the notion of cash handouts as unsustainable and wasteful has “increasingly been discredited. Cash grants are now being seen as part of a comprehensive development strategy as opposed to just a safety net.” Because of the impact these grants are having on human capital, they are contributing to sustainable development. 

    “When children miss that window of opportunity from zero to two years old regarding their nutritional status, or experience late school starts or early drop-out rates, the accumulative effects have long-term consequences on their economic wellbeing into adulthood,” said Adato, adding that research has shown a direct correlation between a lack of early capital investment in children and ongoing cycles of inter-generational poverty. “This is the strongest justification for cash transfer programmes - beyond the basic human rights perspective.”  

    Adds Carolyn Heinrich, professor of public affairs and economics at Texas University: “I can’t say we’ve heard counter-arguments. We’ve been doing `trickle down’ for a long time before starting cash transfers and we’ve never seen the kind of impact that we have with cash transfers.” These impacts include better nutrition and health, improved school attendance and less risky sexual behaviour. 

    A total of 20 African countries have social protection programmes like these and both the numbers of countries and size of the programmes are growing, with Kenya, Zambia, Lesotho, Mauritania, Malawi, Mali, Niger and Zimbabwe, Senegal all expanding their programmes. The child support grant in South Africa, now expanded to include 17-year-olds, reaches 11 million children. 

    The Transfer Project, a study on the impact of the grants in many of these African countries led by UNICEF, showed that the quality of life of people receiving cash transfers improved significantly. Respondents in Zambia, Ghana and Malawi all reported being happier with their lives, for example, and research showed that recipients in these countries were eating better too. 

    Benefits beyond health and education

    Significantly, cash grants have also been shown to have clear benefits beyond health and education. They also have a marked effect on adolescent behaviour, curbing high-risk sexual practices. A wide-ranging evaluation of the South African child support grant showed that adolescents who received the grant were 63 percent less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour such as having transactional sex with older men, thereby reducing their chances of teenage pregnancy, dropping out of school and contracting HIV. The study also showed a drop in alcohol and drug consumption among both male and female adolescents. Heinrich describes these results as “pretty dramatic” and a strong argument for extending grants to cover adolescents in other countries, wherever possible. 

    Two main criticisms of cash transfer programmes are that they do not create jobs and that they can be misused by those who benefit from them. John Hoddinott, a deputy director at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Unit, says while the cash transfers are certainly not a magic bullet they are indeed a vital component of any poverty alleviation strategy. “We’re not saying that by themselves they will solve all the problems in the world but they are a valuable part of a portfolio of activities designed to reduce poverty”. Not only do they provide people with the means to buy food and clothes but they “give beneficiaries a base from which to make longer term investments,” he says. 

    As to the charge that the transfers may be wasted on alcohol, drugs and cigarettes or that recipients may stop working, the evidence points to the contrary. “The research shows that in the vast majority of cases, poor people use their money well – the evidence is unambiguous,” says Hoddinott. Mostly they use the money to buy food, clothes, get their children to school, and sometimes even save some. “You will always find anecdotal stories of some people using their resources poorly but anecdotes are not data,” says Hoddinott. The other experts interviewed share the same view.

    "The data shows that the poor make the right choices. We need to stop trying to nanny them"

    Whereas clumps of ragged street children eking out a living on the streets of Johannesburg were a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape in the 1980s and 90s, the sight is far less common nowadays, thanks to the impact of the child support grant, said Dugan Fraser, who worked with the Economic Policy Research Institute on the South African child support grant’s evaluation. The extra cash is helping families feed their children and keep them at school and off the streets. Critics may assume that spending money on items such as a cell phone or the hair salon seems wasteful, he said, but “often there is a rational logic underlying these decisions”. These may be important purchases to make when trying to find work and make oneself more presentable for the job market, for example. “The data shows that the poor make the right choices. We need to stop trying to nanny them.” 

    Grants with or without conditions?

    Up for debate, however, is how to hand out the cash and whether conditions should be imposed on the grants or not. The Latin American model tends to follow the “conditional” approach while countries with less state capacity and ability to monitor whether people are complying with conditions tend to opt for non-conditional grants or those with “soft” conditions that try to nudge the recipients to use them wisely. In Mexico and Brazil, for example, grants will be dependent on a minimum number of days of school attendance, or on a parent taking his or her child for “well baby” checkups. “The problem arises if you impose conditions but the ability to check on them is not there”, said Heinrich.  

    Adato said the jury is still out on whether countries should impose conditions on cash grants. Politically, it is sometimes important to attach conditions. “You can often get more support for these programmes if voters don’t think that the poor are getting something for nothing,” she said. However, the question has to be asked: which one gets the better results? Latin American examples have shown that conditionality adds value to many programmes. For example, a grant conditional on a child attending school could strengthen the position of a woman in the household whose father would prefer the child to stay at home.

    The trend in Africa, where state capacity is usually weak, is towards non-conditional programmes. One study in Malawi showed some negative spin-offs of conditionality. While a grant conditional on attending school led to better school attendance among young girls, those who dropped out and therefore no longer received the grant were more likely to get pregnant early than the school drop-outs who continued to receive an unconditional cash grant. 

    There is no blueprint and each program must be designed according to the local socio-economic conditions, say the experts. The debate over conditionality is becoming more nuanced, adds Hoddinott, with policymakers viewing conditionality more from the perspective of whether it will help achieve their objectives or not rather than whether it is “right” or “wrong”’. 


    Because of an initial skepticism about the efficacy and value of cash transfer programmes they have been subjected to much heavier scrutiny than many other development programmes, said Hoddinott. This has proved invaluable in strengthening and improving them. “Now there is a good evidence base on where they work and where they are of more limited success.” 

    They are often cited as less vulnerable to corruption than schemes that hand over goods. “My general impression is that there is relatively little corruption in these types of programmes. In countries where corruption is endemic, you will find corruption in the social transfer as well, of course,” he says. Examples include ghost beneficiaries and bribing of officials where conditional grants are given. Sometimes corruption takes place at the interface where the money changes hands. In some Latin American examples, loan sharks and extortionists began to pop up at the depots where people claimed their cash. Now recipients of the Bolsa Familia scheme in Brazil, the largest cash transfer programme in the world that supports 12 million families (a quarter of the population) on condition their children attend school and are vaccinated, can now withdraw their cash from ATMs around the country, a move that has reduced corruption. 

    In South Africa, there has been an ongoing court case involving Net1, the US holding company managing the electronic disbursements of the child support grant. Some recipients were hapless victims of companies falsely representing themselves as legitimate operators of the South African Social Security Agency and had money deducted from their transfers. Net1 is also being subject to a class action lawsuit in the US for providing misleading information on its financial practices in South Africa.


    Breaking the poverty trap
  • Understanding organized crime in Africa

    Growing concern about the extent to which organized crime is undermining stability and prosperity on the African continent is galvanizing a search for analytical tools and a clamour for more research to understand the contextual forces at play and how best to undermine them.

    Whereas debates on organized crime primarily centered on the developed world, and then on Latin America and Central Asia, the focus has shifted to Africa. “Where analysts once questioned the relevance of organized crime as an issue in Africa, it is now increasingly being perceived as a quintessentially African concern,” reads a report, Unholy Alliances: Organized Crime in Southern Africa, put out by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime and Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, based on discussions by a panel of experts earlier this year. The report notes that of the growing number of mentions and resolutions made by the UN Security Council over the past eight years, 80 percent related to Africa.

    Experts at the panel noted that there should be no “finger pointing” at the continent or its states and that “the most developed states in the world have roots in corruption and organized crime”. Furthermore, when trying to find solutions, “the role of Western countries and companies as exploiters and consumers in Africa must sit in the foreground.”

    The focus on Africa has largely coincided with the accompanying realization over the last decade that not only does organized crime threaten development but that development-orientated solutions are necessary to combat it.

    Organized crime on the continent is part of the “narrative of independence and statehood” reads the report. The end of the Cold War and reductions in development aid opened the space for criminal financing of state structures. Furthermore, “multi-party democracy and the need to finance electoral processes have presented a particularly vulnerable point for networks to gain influence and legitimacy.”

    Growing demand in Asia and the Middle East for both licit and illicit goods has fuelled trade in Africa. “The burgeoning market for recreational drugs and wildlife products has caused criminal networks in Africa to grow and become increasingly professional and militarized. At the same time, demand for recreational drugs in the Gulf, coupled with instability across North Africa, has pulled trafficking flows eastwards,” reads the report. The rise in amphetamine use in emerging markets in the Gulf and Asia means that drug production is no longer confined to specific geographical areas. In southern Africa, weapons smuggling routes from the liberation wars are now being used to traffic wildlife products and other illicit goods.

    Director of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime Mark Shaw says beyond a few examples such as the gangs of the Western Cape in South Africa, or patterns of organized crime in Nigeria, classic definitions of organized crime do not in his view apply to Africa. “It’s not something you can confine to a box that occurs separately from the state and commercial institutions. On the continent, organized crime is much more clearly linked to these institutions.”

    “Protection economy”

    Shaw invokes the notion of a “protection economy” to illustrate how the various players intersect in countries where the state’s capacity is weak. He identifies three key components that comprise a protection economy: firstly, provision of violence or “the people with guns” to secure the movement of contraband, which can vary from elements in the security forces themselves to militia, to gangs, to private security companies; secondly, corruption - involving payment to key government officials; thirdly, criminal investment in the communities themselves to ensure legitimacy and smooth operation, such as payment to political parties, or financing of local facilities.

    “This is a better way to understand organized crime in a particular context where the state is weak or unable to offer protection. It allows you to look at the whole range of state, business, criminal and community actors and understand how they are interrelated,” adds Shaw, who believes that every major criminal network operating on the continent contains these three elements in varying degrees. Where the state is particularly weak “the protection economy is most pronounced,” he says.

    While the protection economy phenomenon is hardly unique to Africa it is in evidence in many of its countries. The extent to which the state is involved varies across the spectrum. Guinea Bissau has seen full state involvement in the protection economy, while in Mali local players in organized crime have had links to the state. In Libya, where there are large swathes of ungoverned territory “protection is sold by private brokers, often with ties to certain militia.”

    Where such overlaps between crime, state and politics occur, traditional law and order responses - such as seizure of contraband and locking up culprits (usually those at the lower levels) - won’t solve the problems, comments Stephen Ellis, researcher at the African Studies Center in Leiden, the Netherlands.

    Blurring of frontiers between legitimate and illegitimate enterprise

    He cites failed efforts to combat the drug trade in West Africa, as an example. There is a widespread sense among law and order contingents, he says, that they cannot adequately address organized crime because “they don’t have the right tools. The nature of the problem has changed but in ways that are not easy to understand,” he adds, noting a blurring of the frontiers between legitimate and illegitimate enterprise, particularly in so-called failed or failing states. “The notion of a ‘failed state’ is not a term I like,” adds Ellis, “because it does not necessarily correspond to what is happening on the ground.” However, it is a useful tool to identify those countries where the state does not have a monopoly on violence, he says. According to Foreign Policy’s index of 50 failed states, 32 are located in Africa.

    “The work of traffickers … is facilitated by a wide range of people, which can include business executives, politicians, members of the security forces and the judiciary, clergymen, traditional leaders and youth”

    “Many people involved in activities that are illegal may have a high level of legitimacy locally,” says Ellis. “They may be people who have played a formal role in politics, particularly in an era of one-party states.”

    A recent report by the West African Commission on Drugs notes that “the work of traffickers in the region is facilitated by a wide range of people, which can include business executives, politicians, members of the security forces and the judiciary, clergymen, traditional leaders and youth.” Because elections are privately funded in most parts of this region, they are easily co-opted by drug money.

    Examples of the involvement of the state and political actors in organized crime across the continent abound - from elephant poaching and ivory trade that implicates many countries, including Zimbabwe, Sudan, DRC, Tanzania, Mozambique; to diamond mining in Zimbabwe; to the arms deal in South Africa; to rhino horn trafficking (South Africa and Mozambique); to smuggling, arms and drugs trafficking in Libya and the Sahel; to trafficking of drugs and logging in Guinea Bissau; to trafficking of ivory, gold and diamonds in the Central African Republic. The list goes on.

    Shaw believes that the “protection economy” tool allows one to “cost protection economies and to measure progress against them”. According to the Global Initiative report, “consideration of the protection economy and how it operates is an analytical tool that prompts the consideration of a broader spectrum of issues and actors, and thus arguably can increase the likelihood of improved interventions.” One can increase the protection costs of engaging in organized crime by making the risk of exposure greater through dogged media investigation, for example, says Shaw, or by helping communities become more resilient to penetration by crime groups through successful development initiatives.

    A dangerous area for journalists

    Investigating organized crime is easier said than done. Research by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that 35 percent of all journalists killed since 1992 were covering organized crime and corruption, often more dangerous beats for journalists than covering conflict. Furthermore, when the “the lines between political and criminal groups are blurred in many nations” the risk for reporters goes up.

    According to the CPJ, “criminal groups are operating increasingly like armed political forces, and armed political groups are operating increasingly as for-profit, criminal bands. Journalists have been attacked while reporting on collusion between crime figures and government officials, and they have been targeted while pursuing crime or corruption stories during times of both peace and war.”

    Increasingly, development actors are being forced to engage with the phenomenon of organized crime as they recognize the extent to which it is enmeshed in all levels of society and feeds off poor communities, subverting development agendas. In the Sahel, for example, communities rely on the proceeds of organized crime, in the same way as those in Somalia came to depend on the proceeds of piracy, or the villagers in Mozambique on the money from rhino horn poaching. Without alternatives, poor communities will continue to be the foot soldiers of organized crime.

    A recent Safer World report, Identifying approaches and measuring impacts of programs focused on Transnational Organized Crime describes transnational organized crime (TOC) as fast becoming a key development issue and notes an increase in developmental approaches to tackling it. “TOC is largely driven by the demand for illicit goods in rich, developed nations. However, the impacts are felt most keenly by communities in poorer countries with weak institutions.” According to the report, the “existence of linkages between the various levels of the system within which TOC operates also suggest that holistic strategies which draw on different approaches are likely to have a higher impact.”


    Understanding organized crime in Africa

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