(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns

    CIA-linked software firm Palantir will help the UN’s World Food Programme analyse its data in a new partnership worth $45 million, both organisations announced Tuesday, drawing immediate flak from privacy and data protection activists.


    The California-based contractor, best known for its work in intelligence and immigration enforcement, will provide software and expertise to the UN’s food relief agency over five years to help WFP pool its enormous amounts of data and find cost-saving efficiencies.

    At a press conference in Geneva, WFP’s chief information officer Enrica Porcari said the plan was to launch a data integration effort that would include records of distributions to beneficiaries but, she stressed, not personally identifiable data. “Can all the data pour into one lake?” she asked, rhetorically. The system would then, she explained, work like a bank whose algorithms flag unusual credit card activity, picking up “anomalies” in beneficiary locations and behaviour that might signal misuse.


    "WFP is jumping headlong into something they don’t understand, without thinking through the consequences, and the UN has put no frameworks in place to regulate it."

    In future, if multiple aid agencies connected to the WFP’s SCOPE beneficiary management system and used it as the basis for recording what people received, a powerful overview could be achieved, Porcari said.



    Palantir executive vice president Josh Harris said WFP’s 92 million aid recipient “customers”, its more than 30 data systems, and its difficult operating environment represented a “complex data landscape”, but something his company’s software was built for. The opportunity to provide support to WFP is a “dream combination” that fits “mission-driven” Palantir’s philanthropic goals, Harris added.


    Listen to the event

    Palantir has already worked with WFP on a pilot project on food procurement in Iraq that has produced over $26 million (or about 10 percent) in savings, the two organisations said.


    ‘This data is highly sensitive’


    Privacy and data protection activists cried foul at the new tie-up, questioning if WFP understood what it was getting itself into and if proper safeguards had been put in place.


    “The recipients of WFP aid are already in extremely vulnerable situations; they should not be put at additional risk of harm or exploitation,” a spokesperson for activist NGO Privacy International told IRIN. “This data is highly sensitive, and it is essential that proper protections are put in place, to limit the data gathered, transferred, and processed.”


    Asked for the legal basis for any data-sharing with Palantir, Porcari said: “there is no data-sharing”. She insisted that all data instead would rest under WFP’s control, with personal data being kept separate and secure.


    But Privacy International, which recently analysed the (unintended) risks of humanitarian data misuse, warned: “We've seen examples of systems that are produced in agreements such as the one between WFP and Palantir increasing risks to the people the systems are aiming to benefit. There are risks to both individuals and whole populations from the gathering and processing of data from humanitarian activities.”


    A humanitarian data analyst, who requested anonymity due to work relationships, was also alarmed at the news, saying: "WFP is jumping headlong into something they don’t understand, without thinking through the consequences, and the UN has put no frameworks in place to regulate it."


    Palantir was established with the help of seed capital from a CIA-linked investment body. Its main clients have been US security and intelligence bodies.


    Its capacity to structure and overlay vast datasets has led it to be credited with helping the US government to find Osama bin Laden. However, its work with US police and, most recently, immigration enforcement, has come under fire for secrecy, profiling bias, enabling human rights violations, and the wholesale harvesting of personal data.


    “It is the height of irony that the very company that faced direct criticism in its role facilitating US immigration authorities' human rights abuses is now promoting itself as trustworthy of working in humanitarian aid,” the Privacy International spokesperson said.


    Gaining ground in the industry


    From the 2013 Haiyan super-typhoon in the Philippines to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Palantir has often sought opportunities to deploy its technology in the humanitarian arena.


    Few analysts contacted by IRIN in this 2016 investigation doubted the software had powerful potential, but reputational concerns made a number of potential partners walk away, even when offered free access to Palantir products and software advisors.

    “It is the height of irony that the very company that faced direct criticism in its role facilitating US immigration authorities' human rights abuses is now promoting itself as trustworthy of working in humanitarian aid.”

    Nevertheless, Palantir’s pro-bono “Philanthropy Engineering” has provided support to numerous non-profits, including the Carter Center, Team Rubicon, the Enough Project, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is a paying customer.


    WFP has been working with Palantir since 2017 – a WFP spokesperson said an encounter at the World Economic Forum in 2015 kicked off the relationship. Gaining greater insight from a mountain of internal and external data with the help of Palantir’s Foundry system has already led to cost savings and efficiencies, according to the Rome-based UN agency.


    A starting point for the Palantir work inside WFP was Optimus. According to a recent update from WFP, Optimus is an internal tool to help guide purchasing and other planning decisions, for example in Ethiopia or Yemen, to assign different commodities to make up a mixed basket of food for distribution depending on funding and seasonal market prices.  


    Poncari described WFP as being on a “very aggressive digital transformation journey” and said it had a “moral imperative” to leverage technology to achieve efficiencies. “We just want to go with the best,” she told reporters.


    Listen to the full event


    New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns
    Critics say it could put ‘highly sensitive’ data about millions of food aid recipients at risk
  • Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Yemen deal in the balance

    So what about that ceasefire deal for Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, the one agreed in late December, the same one Saudi Arabia’s envoy to the country told IRIN was key to moving the peace process? It has still not been implemented. A UN-led committee to redeploy (i.e. withdraw) fighters from the city and province has only met twice so far, and each side has accused the other of multiple violations. The two sides swapped a small number of prisoners this week, but nowhere near the scale of a larger swap agreement the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is still waiting to carry out (the sticking point appears to involve lists of names). UN envoy Martin Griffiths says the Hodeidah ceasefire is “generally holding”, despite the extension of deadlines on key elements of the deal: “The initial timelines were rather ambitious,” he said this week. “We are dealing with a complex situation on the ground.”

    Mediterranean more dangerous for migrants

    The figures are in and EU leaders, through their migration policies, are “complicit in the tragedy”, according to a letter signed by dozens of NGOs. Arrivals to Europe across the Mediterranean and the overall number of deaths both fell sharply in 2018, but deaths per arrival went the other way: one in 269 in 2015 became one in 51 in 2018 (one in 14 from Libya) – and the number of deaths across the Western Mediterranean to Spain quadrupled last year. Two years since the EU-backed Italy-Libya deal sought to stem the flow by supporting the Libyan coastguard while Tripoli cracked down on smuggling operations, anger is growing as EU nations prevent rescue operations and refuse to allow migrant-carrying vessels to dock. The NGO letter sent on Wednesday to the EU contained three main demands: support search and rescue operations; adopt timely and predictable disembarkation arrangements; end returns to Libya. Renewing its criticism in a statement on Friday, Oxfam said "people are now in even more danger at sea and are being taken back by the Libyan coastguard to face human rights abuses in Libya". A double migrant boat disaster off the coast of Djibouti this week – more than 100 people dead or missing – was a reminder that this is not just a problem in the Mediterranean.


    For more on EU policies and how they affect migrants and refugees in Africa, read our “Destination Europe” series.

    “Speed-networking” at mass humanitarian hook-up

    A big-tent gathering of the humanitarian community kicks off Monday. The Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) offers a sprawling programme of 100 sessions across five days and 19 rooms in a Geneva conference centre. Over 2,100 relief professionals, diplomats, company representatives, NGO officials, and students have registered for the free event, backed by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and the Swiss government. Organiser Jesper Lund told IRIN the aim is the “acceleration of collaboration”. In its fifth year, HNPW prides itself on being an open forum, allowing parallel sessions of like-minded networks, and tries to avoid predictable formats. This year there will be speed-networking sessions to match up interested parties for one-on-one contacts. (The IRIN team will be around, and we’re always up for some speed-tipoffs, obvs). The range of topics for the week covers everything from airport readiness for disasters to (oh look!) humanitarian journalism (that's on Friday).

    Talking peace, losing ground

    The Afghan government’s control of its own territory continues to shrink. The government now has control or influence in about 54 percent of its districts, according to numbers released this week by SIGAR – the US-government mandated watchdog tracking reconstruction in Afghanistan. Afghan control is at its lowest since SIGAR began reporting the data in 2015 (other metrics suggest the government’s grip is even more tenuous, and that the insurgent Taliban need not directly control territory to wield influence). It’s another sign of the rocky road ahead in Afghanistan, despite recent talks of Taliban peace negotiations. In the aid sector, there’s plenty of concern about what a bargained Taliban peace might mean, particularly for the rights of women and minorities. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s Jan Egeland says “dialogue for humanitarian access and protection have been pushed off the table”. For now, Afghanistan remains mired in crisis: hundreds of thousands displaced by war and an ongoing severe drought, refugees and migrants returning to instability, and rising civilian casualties.

    Opposition arrests in Cameroon

    Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto, who maintains he won last year's presidential election, was among some 200 people arrested this week after new protests took place against the re-election of veteran leader Paul Biya. Further marches, planned for this weekend and into next week, were also banned by the government. The October vote was marred by violence, especially in the Northwest and Southwest anglophone regions, which are in the midst of a separatist rebellion against the francophone government. Last year, IRIN embedded with Cameroon’s separatist forces to get an inside look at the fledgling armed struggle.

    In case you missed it


    Democratic Republic of Congo: More than 50 mass graves have been found by a UN fact-finding mission near the western town of Yumbi, where a spate of inter-communal violence last December left almost 900 people dead in just three days.


    Indonesia: Dengue killed more than 100 people across the country in January. The mosquito-borne illness is endemic in parts of Indonesia, but health authorities are reporting a surge in cases during the current rainy season.


    Nigeria: Some 30,000 people fled the northeastern town of Rann last weekend for neighbouring Cameroon, about a week after 9,000 refugees were reported to have been forcibly returned by the Cameroonian authorities. Further violence has sent another 6,000 Nigerians fleeing into Chad.


    Syria: The UN says 23,000 people, including 10,000 in the past week, have fled so-called Islamic State’s last territory in Syria since December, most of them to al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province. The World Health Organisation says the camp is overwhelmed, with thousands of people sleeping in the open without so much as blankets. In the past eight weeks at least 29 children are reported to have died, mostly from hypothermia, on the way to the camp or just after arrival.


    USAID: The US government is reshuffling its aid portfolio, bringing the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and Food for Peace under a single humanitarian department. The new arrangement should reduce unnecessary fragmentation, according to a Twitter thread by former OFDA chief Jeremy Konyndyk.


    Weekend read

    The choices they made: Hondurans at the US-Mexico border

    As US President Donald Trump orders “several thousand” more US troops to the Mexican border, what about those on the other side? Take some time this weekend to delve into this feature from award-winning photojournalist Tomás Ayuso. A Honduran native, Ayuso wanted to better understand the motivations of countrymen and countrywomen who continue to make the long march north, even as the welcome they can expect looks increasingly hostile. What he found was not a uniform answer. From the man left for dead after being “executed” for refusing to become a drug dealer, to the woman whose husband died suddenly and felt compelled to find a better life for her and her son, the choices people made were all different. At the US border, there are choices too. One man has had enough and is heading home. The woman and son mentioned above also had enough of waiting. They headed across the border with smugglers shortly after Ayuso interviewed them and haven’t been heard from since.

    IRIN Event

    The future of the UN agency for Palestine refugees

    On Wednesday, IRIN Director Heba Aly sat down for a public conversation in Geneva with Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees. They talked about the agency’s funding ask for this year (it’s $1.2 billion), how UNRWA was only meant to be a temporary stop-gap but still exists 70 years on, and why it is frequently broke (Krähenbühl says those last two are related). The commissioner-general also addressed the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding from UNRWA, which serves some 5.4 million registered refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). Speaking of East Jerusalem, the commissioner-general said he’d had “no indication” from the Israeli government that the schools UNRWA runs there would be shut down, despite multiple statements to the contrary from the local municipality.

    And finally...

    “Australia’s loss”

    Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani is making a name for himself in Australia – but he’s not allowed to set foot in the country. Boochani is an unwitting resident of Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where he was sent in 2013 after trying to seek asylum in Australia. This week, Boochani’s book, “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison”, cleaned up at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, an annual contest in Australia. Judges called Boochani’s book, composed on a mobile phone, “a literary triumph, devastating and transcendent”, awarding it the non-fiction prize as well as the top honour – a haul worth 125,000 Australian dollars (more than 90,000 US dollars) . There are still about 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and another island, Nauru – part of Australia’s criticised asylum policy, which saw boat arrivals pushed to offshore detention camps and barred from ever entering Australia. In an opinion piece published this week, the US official who signed a deal to take in hundreds of people stuck on Nauru or Manus says resettled refugees are putting down roots in their new American homes. Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state, writes about meeting the former detainees, now working in restaurants, attending evening classes, or sending their own kids to school. “Australia’s loss,” she writes, “is America’s gain”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Abdulrahman Mohammed Jahia (33) and his family heard a loud explosion outside their house in Sana'a, Yemen. Their neighbouring building was hit by airstrikes. CREDIT: Becky Bakr Abdulla/NRC)


    Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen
  • 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.”



    What effect did the US shutdown have on foreign aid?
    “Funding uncertainty is the worst enemy of development practitioners”
  • From El Nino to earthquakes: A leading disaster watcher scans the horizon for 2019

    The number of earthquakes, floods, typhoons and other ‘natural disasters’ was well below the 21st-century average last year, even though 10,000 people were killed and 60 million affected. But things may well change for the worse in 2019, warns Debarati Guha-Sapir of the University of Louvain.

    Guha-Sapir and her colleagues at the Centre for the Epidemiology of Disasters, or CRED, are disaster watchers, based at the Belgian University of Louvain.

    Using a database of 18,000 disaster events that goes back to 1900, they compile an annual review in conjunction with the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. The study, focused on a wide range of natural hazards, is used by governments and UN agencies as they track losses and damage and plan disaster mitigation and adaptation in the face of climate change.

    Among the unusual events Guha-Sapir noted in a recent presentation of 281 climate and geophysical events in 2018 were wildfires in Greece that killed 126 people – the worst seen in Europe since 1900. US wildfires were also exceptional: causing over $16 billion in damages and killing 88 people. Half of 2018’s disaster-related deaths were in Indonesia, however, mainly due to earthquakes.

    Guha-Sapir took some time out during a visit to Geneva to discuss why it’s still tricky to calculate death tolls, whether storms are becoming more intense, and her predictions for 2019.

    IRIN: When we write about disasters it’s very tempting to say they're increasing, the impact is worse, and to say that climate change is the cause. How many of those three things are true?

    Debarati Guha-Sapir: Are natural disasters increasing? They probably are, but not all. So what does that mean? I don't want to complicate the story but… from what we see, some of the meteorological events, such as storms or typhoons, those kinds of events are probably on the increase... that I think is really due to climate change, it's a direct impact on the storms. Those are on the increase.

    Phenomena such as drought? These are very difficult phenomena because it's very hard to define when a drought begins and when a drought ends. But droughts have also been increasing, but not necessarily entirely driven by climate change. I think a lot of the droughts are closely associated with land use patterns, land use regulations, deforestation, some of those more proximate causes.

    Earthquakes or geophysical events – volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, dry landslides – we don't see any evidence that they are actually increasing. It's very hard to make a call on that because those are phenomena you have to see over hundreds of years… But I will make a small parenthesis on that. They may not be on the increase, but what is happening is that there is an increase in the density of population in areas that are highly seismic.

    For earthquakes, I don't think the number of events is increasing, but there is more population living on seismic areas. But for storms and meteorological events, and droughts, those are increasing, yes.

    IRIN: Are they more intense?

    Guha-Sapir: You have two characteristics that can change at the same time, and which can determine what the human impact is going to be. One is that the event is more severe, as you say: it's just a monster event and you know it will kill a lot of people and damage a lot of infrastructure, or it's not as severe but it goes through a highly-populated area.

    Now, if you ask me which of the two it is, I would rather not stick my neck out on that… I would argue that if there is any change in these phenomena, it may not be quite as much in the severity of the event, but more in the population in the areas which they pass.

    IRIN: You say there is insufficient data to measure the impact on human beings. Why is that? Given technological advances, surely we could be a lot further on than just counting bodies in morgues?

    Guha-Sapir: I don’t know. I think the technology today would allow us to be able to get a much finer and a much more accurate picture on the impact. So you have this new technology and innovative technology which are moving along like a juggernaut… those [sources] are very appetising, but we do not have the means yet to be able… to see whether we're getting the same information but from 15 different sources, and we are adding them all up. So I think there is a gap in not the reporting of data, but in being able to process it in a way that we get accurate results.

    As far as the deaths are concerned, that is more structural. That is because [with] many of the disasters today, especially the climate-related disasters, it's very hard to pinpoint a particular death, to the phenomenon… If you go into a district where there has been floods and you say how many people have died, it can vary enormously, because how do you decide which death is actually associated?

    We have to improve methodology of determining which are the deaths that are really associated to the disaster.

    Secondly, the other part of your question is why don't we do better with all this new technology? I would hope that we will do better, we need better ways of determining accuracy of this mad big data thing to be able to get reliable results

    IRIN: What are your top three predictions for 2019?

    Guha-Sapir: This is a risky affair.

    First of all, we think that 2019 is likely to see more El Niño activity than we have in 2017 and 2018.

    That will mean more meteorological activity on the South American coasts and maybe even other parts of the world, including southeast Asia and East Asia.

    Second, we think droughts are going to have... a very big impact on food security.

    This is [a] very important aspect: it's not a very spectacular aspect because [with] a little bit of hunger nobody really cares… they only care when people are actually dropping dead … So we think food security and droughts are going to be a very big issue, and in some parts like in East Africa and southern Africa it may just develop into famine-like conditions.

    Thirdly, we've had quite a long period of seismic and geophysical [and] volcanic activity, small activities, building up. So the likelihood that there is a major earthquake or a volcanic eruption is not highly unlikely.

    (This interview was edited for length and clarity)

    (TOP PHOTO: Standing in a drying dam after an El Niño enduced drought in Zimbabwe. CREDIT: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/UNICEF)

    From El Niño to earthquakes: A leading disaster watcher scans the horizon for 2019
  • WATCH LIVE: The future of the UN's agency for Palestine refugees

    Join us at the Graduate Institute in Geneva or through a livestream via the link below on Tuesday, 29 January at 18.30 CET.

    IRIN Director Heba Aly will be in discussion with Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees).

    Watch on YouTube

    WATCH LIVE: The future of the UN's agency for Palestine refugees
  • After Davos, let’s turn talk into action

    More and more private sector leaders recognise that business can’t survive in a failing world, as demonstrated by the sessions devoted to humanitarian issues at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos last week. Eight hundred million people live in unstable environments where they are left vulnerable to poverty, food insecurity, conflict, and other upheavals – often for years.

    Humanitarians, meanwhile, recognise that their ability to respond is at risk because traditional donor funding is not keeping up with changing needs. The statistics are always sobering: UN requests to fund emergency and other aid needs have risen continuously over the last three years, to more than $25 billion for 2018. Yet donations, largely by governments, fell short in recent years to the tune of more than $10 billion.

    So how to translate well-intentioned talk in Davos and elsewhere into action? A start, say Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC, and Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian & development at Mastercard, is to look beyond emergency situations, to economically and politically fragile environments. Then tap the private sector and other stakeholders to help people rebuild sustainable livelihoods and basic services, with the goal of preventing or speeding up recovery from humanitarian crises.

    Maurer and Nathan have spent time thinking about that approach, both at Davos and as the leads of a group of professionals from diverse fields who are examining the issue as part of a World Economic Forum initiative. Below, they share some of their ideas.

    How do you define 'humanitarianism' and the role of humanitarians?

    Maurer: The traditional notion of urgent humanitarian relief no longer matches the reality on the ground. The average length of time the ICRC has been present in the countries hosting its 10 largest operations is more than 36 years. In these contexts that remain fragile, void of development activity and international interest, it is not feasible to implement responses on an emergency aid model for such protracted periods of time. The size and scale of long-term conflicts and situations of fragility compels the design and implementation of new, more sustainable multi-stakeholder approaches to humanitarian action.

    Nathan: We are all humanitarians. There is a shortfall of funding for humanitarian response, and the needs vastly outstrip the capacity to respond. There seems to be merit in enabling the humanitarians to focus on life-saving aid and engaging other partners to help fill longer term needs. We all care about humanity, we all want people to move from poverty to prosperity.

    How should the private and humanitarian sectors work together?

    Maurer: Each year, I travel to the most fragile contexts around the world, places suffering the devastating impacts of war and cycles of violence. In these emergency settings, many people assume that aid handouts are the only way to provide support because social services and economies have broken down. Yet when I speak to people affected, they so often tell me that what they most want is to be able to continue working, build their business, access finance, and provide for their families. As humanitarians, we need to do a thorough economic analysis and understand the potential to connect people to economic opportunities.

    Nathan: Aid organisations must do more with less, and the private sector needs to play a greater role. But it can’t be through traditional models of corporate philanthropy – those models cannot scale. Instead, we should seek new models of deep partnership where the private sector can leverage commercial approaches, and where they can work hand in hand with humanitarians and donors to test and scale those approaches. We need to create the tactical, legal, operational, and commercial constructs that incentivise private sector actors to engage.

    What needs to change?

    Maurer: Humanitarian actors will always be needed to provide emergency basic services in acute crises. In situations of protracted conflict or fragility, however, we need to find sustainable models for income generation. Communities inevitably restart economic activity, but their livelihoods remain precarious and without much support from the development community due to ongoing security risks. These are the situations where investment in livelihoods can have crucial impact, not only on individuals’ stability and sense of hope, but also flow-on effects on wider social and economic resilience.

    Nathan: We fundamentally need to change the way the private and public sectors partner and deliver solutions. And – perhaps most crucially – we need to overcome the misconceptions and suspicion between the sectors and build trust.

    How can the private sector help prevent or shorten humanitarian crises?

    Nathan: The private sector has pivotal assets – technologies, expertise, and unique service delivery models – that can move the needle in humanitarian response. Taking a market-based approach can be a real force for good. Through support to local markets we can: prevent the market instability that often causes political instability; build resilience of vulnerable communities; and spur the recovery of communities after crises. Failing to recognise the capabilities of the private sector is actually a disservice to the beneficiaries we all seek to serve.

    Maurer: Whether by starting new businesses, using digital technology to connect to remittance flows, or creating social units to reinforce community protection and security, affected communities are the true first responders to crisis. We need to explore how to support, enable, and scale inclusive local markets, employment, and business opportunities in fragile contexts. And we need to find ways to collaborate with others who can help to accelerate large-scale capital investment and to leverage digital solutions for humanitarian gains.

    What market-driven approaches are already in use?

    Maurer: A range of interventions already exists, including coordination platforms to connect farmers to value chains and market infrastructure, digital tools to facilitate access to financial products, capacity-building to increase production, entrepreneurship training, guidance for job-seekers in displaced populations, and more.

    Nathan: Cash-based assistance is a critical tool to generate needed efficiencies in the sector and empower affected populations by giving them choice. But it’s a first step. The Mastercard Aid Network, for example, offers an offline, digital voucher system that allows an individual to purchase goods – food, water, household items – from local businesses in a fragile context. By channeling response to local merchants, and by using a digital technology to deliver those vouchers, the programme supports more efficient, effective, and transparent delivery of aid.

    A solution like this one can bridge the humanitarian and development divide. If this beneficiary is in a rural farming community, she can use the platform to receive vouchers for agriculture subsidies to rebuild her farm and livelihood. The technology can ultimately connect her to a market of agriculture buyers, bringing price transparency and cutting out the middle men, thereby allowing her to grow her income.

    After Davos, let’s turn talk into action
    Combining humanitarian expertise, local know-how, and private sector acumen could help aid 800 million people around the world
    Maurer and Nathan are co-chairs of the <a href=https://www.weforum.org/communities/the-future-of-the-humanitarian-system">World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council for the Humanitarian System</a>. IRIN News Director Heba Aly is also a member of the council.
  • Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar

    What next in Venezuela?


    The crisis in Venezuela has bubbled away for months, demanding media attention only when protests flare or the sheer number of people fleeing the freefalling economy and increasingly authoritarian state becomes difficult to ignore. Not now. Since President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in two weeks ago for a new six-year term, things have escalated quickly. No sooner was a revolt by members of the National Guard quelled than protesters took to the streets demanding he step down. Opposition challenger Juan Guaidó on Wednesday declared himself leader and has since been recognised as such by the United States and a clutch of regional powers. No one knows what will happen next. Talk of a US military intervention seems to be just that for now, but there’s no sign either that Maduro – still backed by Venezuela’s armed forces – is prepared to accept any offer of amnesty and leave quietly. If he does go, it won’t cure Venezuela’s ills overnight, but it would provide the change in government some argue is the only long-term solution to a humanitarian crisis Maduro has long denied – one that has left his people desperate, hungry, and sick. A study published in The Lancet Global Health Journal this week indicates that infant mortality rates have risen back to 1990s levels.


    “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede”


    Around 9,000 Nigerians who say they fled armed clashes involving Boko Haram are “shuttling” back and forth in the Cameroon border area, a UN official said in Geneva. The group was pushed back after trying to take refuge in the neighbouring country, with Cameroonian officials admitting that insecurity forced the government to take exceptional measures, despite its supposed "open doors" policy. UN humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon Allegra Baiocchi told a press conference "the right of asylum is being tested". She said many of the group were women and children. Cameroon’s director of civil protection Yap Mariatou told IRIN that a recent attack on the border town of Achigashia by an armed group had put the authorities on edge. “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede,” she said. The UN is appealing for $299 million to help 2.3 million people in Cameroon, including about 100,000 refugees from Nigeria and more than 400,000 internally displaced by an ongoing separatist rebellion.


    Mediterranean crossing just got even more dangerous


    The EU’s troubled naval mission against people smuggling in the Mediterranean faced yet another setback this week as Germany announced it was suspending participation, a decision MPs said was the result of Italy’s consistent refusal to allow rescued migrants entry at its ports. The removal of Germany’s ship leaves the mission, Operation Sophia, with only two vessels. Meanwhile, migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean – 201 so far this year – including in two recent shipwrecks, one off the coast of Libya, the second between Morocco and Spain. Many of those rescued are being brought to Libya, and Médecins Sans Frontières says it has seen a “sharp increase” in the number of people held in crowded detention centres there – conditions are dire, with shortages of clean water and food. Human Rights Watch said EU policies, including the decision to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return people, are contributing to a “cycle of extreme abuse” against migrants in the country. For a forensic examination of one Mediterranean incident in 2017 in which at least 20 migrants died, check out this film, “How Europe Outsources Migrant Suffering at Sea”, from Times Insider.


    Forwarding hate


    There’s increasing scrutiny on the real-world impacts of the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media. This week, messaging app WhatsApp announced a five-recipient limit for message forwarding. WhatsApp messages – which can be rapidly distributed through group and broadcast features – have been linked to a spate of lynchings in India and a pre-election flood of false news in Brazil. Sri Lanka also temporarily shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, and others after anti-Muslim violence last March. WhatsApp recipient limits were recommended in a “human rights impact assessment” commissioned by Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. That report focused on Facebook usage in Myanmar, where UN investigators say the company was ”slow and ineffective” in stemming hate speech on its platform amid the violent 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya. But hate speech on WhatsApp could prove even tougher to contain: the company may enforce “community standards” on Facebook, but WhatsApp messages are encrypted.


    Overheard in Davos


    Sure, the mood at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was generally sombre, but there was a bright spot for some: the increasing spotlight on social issues, including humanitarian response. Humanitarian topics included sessions on private sector investment in fragile states and the use of artificial intelligence in crises. The WEF, the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an initiative to promote so-called humanitarian investing – the private sector working to boost economies in crisis-affected areas in order to help people get back on their feet and avoid becoming dependent on aid. The IKEA Foundation pledged 6.8 million euros to help create livelihoods for refugees in Jordan. Still, investors were honest about the constraints of putting capital into fragile states at scale. On the tech side, AI was front and centre with discussions on its use in crisis zones. It has huge potential – from predicting famines to chatbots that help refugees further their education to facial recognition for identifying family members separated by war. But what happens when AI-aggregated data falls into the wrong hands? Or when machines reinforce political or human biases in the data? Many agencies, one observer noted, are pushing ahead with pilot projects and thinking about due diligence later. For more from Davos, see our roundup on IRIN’s event, “Meet the new humanitarians changing the face of aid.”

    In case you missed it:


    Central African Republic: Talks aimed at ending CAR’s long-running conflict began in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, this week. Brokered by the African Union, the negotiations involve representatives of the government and 14 armed groups. Aid officials say a successful peace accord is critical to ensuring the ongoing humanitarian crisis doesn’t deepen.


    Indonesia: Dozens of people were killed after heavy rains battered Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province this week, leading to floods and landslides. Local authorities say the rains caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating homes and forcing more than 3,000 people to evacuate.


    Philippines: A majority voted to ratify a long-awaited peace deal in the conflict-torn Mindanao region, according to unofficial results from the first stage of a referendum held this week. A vote in favour will expand autonomy for Mindanao’s Muslim community.


    Yemen: After just a month on the job, the retired Dutch general overseeing the not-yet-implemented ceasefire for the port city of Hodeidah is reportedly about to step down. It’s not clear why. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen thinks the deal is make-or-break for peace negotiations: read our interview with him to find out why.


    Zimbabwe: Half-a-million government workers have gone on strike across the country, adding to uncertainty after fuel protests and a violent crackdown by security forces left several people dead and hundreds arrested. Accusations that protesters were raped by members of the military have been accompanied by warnings that social unrest and instability are spiralling out of control. Look out for our full briefing next week.


    Weekend read


    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria


    No, as we flagged in our 10 crises to watch in 2019, the war in Syria is not over. The focus towards the end of last year was on the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe if President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces moved in to retake Idlib. While this risk hasn’t gone away, especially as al-Qaeda-linked fighters cement control over parts of the northwestern province, our weekend read takes us elsewhere. In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces is trying to snuff out the last pockets of so-called Islamic State in Syria. This photo feature takes us inside their operations as they intercept a convoy of people escaping what remains of the militant group’s territory. But with IS members disguising themselves as civilians to make last-gasp attacks, how do you tell who is who? Those fleeing – nearly 5,000 in just two days this week – are hungry and exhausted. Some say there’s no food at all in areas under IS control.


    And finally…


    Top Libyan photographer dies in crossfire


    Libyan freelance journalist – and occasional IRIN contributor – Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed last Saturday while covering militia clashes in the capital city of Tripoli, prompting demonstrations by his colleagues denouncing violence against journalists. Ben Khalifa was 35, and is survived by his wife and young daughter. A well-respected photographer who covered the often violent instability that has plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Khalifa was known for his sensitive portrayals of the migrants whose bodies washed up on Libya’s shores, including this 2015 IRIN piece. His death “is a reminder of the utter lack of protection for journalists in Libya, as well as the dangers of photojournalists in the battlefield,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The week of fighting in Tripoli left 16 people dead (including Khalifa) and 65 injured, and rival militias have since agreed to a new ceasefire deal.



    Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot
  • ‘New humanitarians’ take a seat at the table

    At a time when more lives than ever are upended for longer periods and the traditional aid system is struggling to keep up, new players are unapologetically redefining what it means to be a humanitarian – and inviting others to join them.


    In an IRIN event convened in Davos on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, leaders from the private sector, philanthropy, aid organisations large and small, and civil society shared their takes on the need to shake up what one called a “smokestack industry”.


    “We tend to discredit when people come with a different background,” said Jérôme Jarre, a Snapchat and Vine celebrity turned humanitarian. “In fact, that's exactly what the space needs. We came [from] outside of the box. We didn't know the process, what it means to be humanitarian.”


    As he told IRIN Director Heba Aly, who moderated the discussion before an audience that included entrepreneurs, aid workers, and others from the private and public sectors: “We didn't know the rules, so it was easy to break them. And we basically had a white canvas, which is the best place to start when you want to create change and innovation.”


    In 2017, Jarre and other social media influencers raised $2 million in 48 hours to respond to the pending famine in Somalia. He went on to found Love Army, a collection of celebrities and social media influencers who have raised $9 million from their followers for humanitarian projects around the world.


    Listen to Jérôme Jarre on the value of outsiders

    The urgency to make room for new players and new ideas is clear, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said: “The gap between what is needed today and what we are able to provide by the traditional model of doing is just enormous, and we have to recognise that we are failing millions of people whom we are not able to service.”


    ‘New’ and ‘old’ models of aid

    Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian and development at Mastercard, said she had seen a “positive trajectory” in the relationship between the private and humanitarian sectors, with a growing discussion around engaging the private sector, especially at the senior level. However, turning those high-level discussions into action on the ground will remain difficult until “that cultural message of trust between public and private permeates throughout the ranks of the organisations,” she noted.

    “We collaborate very well at panels,” she added. “How can we bring that collaboration down into the field, where we're actually side-by-side implementing solutions, addressing refugee needs, addressing the needs of the local communities?”

    Listen to Tara Nathan on partnerships between the private and humanitarian sectors

    For some, tension around ‘old’ and ‘new’ is rooted in finding the balance between passion and professionalism. It also arises, Maurer suggested, from a misunderstanding around the idea of collaboration. Rather than doing things together, humanitarian actors both old and new should be “trying to combine things that are complementary to each other”.


    Listen to Peter Maurer on 'collaboration'

    The key is to allow both traditional and newer players to use their strengths. Tapping the expertise of the private sector through market-based initiatives that stabilise fragile situations – restarting economies and rebuilding healthcare, education, and other basic services to stave off future crises or move out of existing ones – is one place to start, several panelists and commentators from the audience suggested.


    Another is to look at the humanitarian sector’s push toward ‘localisation’ as more than a mantra and to begin listening to the people on the ground. Local responders like Mayuri Bhattacharjee often reach people in need first and understand cultural and social norms. Yet, she said, they are not always seen or listened to by larger international players. “We do find a seat at the table,” she said, “but that seat is sometimes very low…. What we ask for is more visibility.”

    Listen to Mayuri Bhattacharjee on localisation and women

    Jarre also emphasised the need to listen to the people on the ground. Not coming from traditional humanitarian backgrounds, he said he and his team spent time in Somalia and in Bangladesh familiarising themselves with the situations there, “always asking the same questions: “‘How can we help you? Is this good enough? Do you have better ideas? How should we do it?'” The traditional aid sector needs to learn to re-ask those questions, he suggested, if it hopes to deliver the most useful aid most efficiently and empower aid recipients.

    Changing with the times

    Peter Laugharn of the Conrad Hilton Foundation noted that the traditional aid sector is “a bit of a smokestack industry” and needs to update its approach. “We're working in a system that was not set up to deal with the situation we've got now,” he said.

    He added that foundations, too, need to retool to be able to fund new humanitarian realities, such as complex emergencies and needs in fragile states; his foundation is taking a longer and wider view when determining what kinds of humanitarian efforts to fund. “Grant-making was set up mostly in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” he noted. “You make a big annual grant, you ask for reporting a year later, and things move really slowly.”

    Listen to Peter Laugharn on the roles foundations can play

    One private-sector company, Salesforce.com, looks to technology as a way to bridge old and new approaches. It encourages employees to donate their time and technical expertise to the humanitarian sector and elsewhere. Rob Acker, CEO of Salesforce.org, acknowledged that there “are questions on how do we collaborate in a multi-sector way.” But, he said, “we work with humanitarian-sector organisations like Peter’s [Maurer] to tap into that employee engagement talent and that technology, and work together better.”

    So are those employees and other citizen volunteers humanitarians? In the future, there may be no need to ask that question. As Nathan said: “I would love to see a world in which we all just consider ourselves humanitarians.”

    Highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, are below. Watch the full event here.


    • Rob Acker, CEO, Salesforce.org
    • Mayuri Bhattacharjee, founder, Sikun Relief Foundation, Assam, India
    • Jérôme Jarre, founder, Love Army, and social media activist
    • Peter Laugharn, president and CEO, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation
    • Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
    • Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian and development, Mastercard

    This event was organized in partnership with Mastercard and the International Committee of the Red Cross.


    Peter Hans Ward/Hub Culture

    Tensions between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ humanitarians


    Jérôme Jarre: It doesn't take 20 years of humanitarianism to know how to help someone.… If your mom is starving, are you going to figure it out? What are you going to bring her, are you going to bring her a bag of rice? Are you going to bring her a restricted car? … Or are you going to ask her what she wants and really, really empower her?

    Listen to Jérôme Jarre on aid agency branding

    Peter Maurer: I'm deeply convinced that we need a new movement, which of course can come also from traditional organisations reflecting on what they have learned in the past and where the limits are, and are trying to reach out to new forms of investing and engaging in the humanitarian context.


    Tara Nathan: Neither side is right or wrong. … We need to bring the dialogue from one of who's right and who's wrong down to practical, tactical means to collaborate. And collaborate cannot be a concept.… If we really think that we can leverage the private sector, it's not saying, “Is it private? Is it millennials or is it traditional?” It's saying, “What are the core competencies of the respective actors? And how do you bring them together in a tactical way?”


    Corporate volunteers

    Rob Acker: Employees are the new humanitarians.… The number one attribute that millennials look for in their job is to have purpose. And companies need to give them that outlet for purpose.… Our employees volunteer. They did about a million hours last year alone. They're helping the humanitarian space with technology skills, and technology has changed. We can connect, organise, scale. If you look at the 68 million displaced people in the world right now, you can create highly personalised outcomes for each and every one of those individuals.

    Listen to Rob Acker on corporate volunteers creating purpose-built technology for the humanitarian sector


    The role of the private sector

    Nathan: There's a general acknowledgement that when you think about humanitarian, we need to think about development. We need to think about the journey, if you will, from humanitarian response through to development.… If you really want to address humanitarian needs, you have to go to the causes and conditions of what caused these situations to rise.

    So how can we focus on building local market capacity in fragile markets as a means to obviate all sorts of crises in the first place, but then also to build resilience? When you start to talk about building local markets as a prevention, if you will, going into the causes of humanitarian crisis, that's when you start to think, “Well, that's a key role where the private sector can play a meaningful role.”

    Maurer: I'm coming from the Red Cross movement, and I am always reminded of the creation of this movement, which was not Henry Dunant [often considered the founder of modern humanitarianism]. It was the women of Solferino and Castiglione who, when confronted with 40,000 dying soldiers, mobilised themselves and created a humanitarian movement. …Civil society has to reclaim the humanitarian space. Then we can discuss good ways of moving forward.


    The future

    Mayuri Bhattacharjee: We suffer from something called the tyranny of distance: Every year floods happen, and every year citizens of Assam and people who were affected complain there's not enough media attention. I would like to change the future. I want media and also the local actors to respond… to at least be sensitive to this crisis which happens every year. Every year, 1.5 million people are affected in floods in Assam. And yet, we sometimes cry for attention.

    Peter Laugharn: I would like to see innovation at the legacy level, if you like, and strengthening and deepening at the new entry-level.… We know what the overall mandate is and what we all need to rise to work on it together.

    Maurer: We are out of balance. We need to find a rebalancing of the system, which gives a better deal for people. At the end of the day, it's not about the system. It’s about whether we managed to service people in need and suffering from natural disaster and conflict. Whether we are able to serve them, that's the threshold of whether we are in a better balance in five, 10, 15, or 20 years.

    A conversation from Davos
    ‘New humanitarians’ take a seat at the table
  • Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar


    Al-Shabab attacks civilians in Kenya and Somalia

    It has been a tragic week in East Africa, as militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack in Kenya and was accused of kidnapping 60 schoolchildren in the Bakol region of southern Somalia. The commissioner of Tiyeglow district said the children were taken on Monday in a raid on a village and most likely recruited as fighters – a common al-Shabab tactic. On Tuesday, the al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a 19-hour siege on an upmarket Nairobi hotel, which left 21 civilians dead. Al-Shabab said the attack was in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It could also be retaliation for Kenyan and US military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia. The hotel attack took place on the eve of a verdict in the trial of men alleged to have been involved in the 2013 siege on Nairobi's Westgate mall, which left 67 people dead. Militancy is an ongoing threat across Africa, a trend we continue to watch in 2019.


    Swine fever threatens food security

    A highly contagious disease with a near-100 percent fatality rate for pigs and wild boars could have “devastating consequences” for food security over large swathes of Asia, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned in a report this week. The FAO says African swine fever threatens to spread from China, where the virus has hit at least 24 provinces since it was detected there in August. The disease is not transmissible to humans, but pork is a key source of animal protein in China, the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia, while China produces half the world’s pigs. The FAO says the risk of the virus spreading beyond China’s borders represents “an imminent threat for the pig population in this region” and could damage livelihoods and food security. There is no vaccine. This week, Chinese agriculture officials announced the culling of more than 916,000 pigs, Mongolia reported its first outbreak, and Australia said it had found traces of African swine fever in six pork products seized at its airports. Since the virus was first discovered nearly a century ago in Kenya, there have been outbreaks in parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil, including ongoing cases in parts of eastern Europe.


    IS reminds US it still exists in Syria

    Days after President Trump said he had begun withdrawing troops from Syria, in part because so-called Islamic State had been defeated, the group claimed a suicide bombing in the northeastern city of Manbij that killed 19 people, including four Americans (two soldiers, a contractor, and a civilian defense department employee). The pullout was already controversial, not to mention confusing – nobody seems to know how or when it is happening – and Wednesday’s attack raised further questions about the wisdom of the move. In northeastern Syria, where some 2,000 US troops plus civilian contractors offer support to Kurdish fighters taking on IS, humanitarians are concerned about the  uncertainty (A Turkish invasion? New alliances? Shifting front lines?) and how it will impact their ability to deliver aid. Read Aron Lund’s latest timely analysis for an understanding of the many possibilities, and what they mean for the estimated two million Syrians in areas under Kurdish control.


    Voting on peace in the Philippines

    On 21 January, parts of conflict-hit Mindanao in the Philippines will begin voting on a long-awaited peace deal that will grant more autonomy and a new homeland for the southern island’s Muslim population. The proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law is the culmination of years of negotiations between Philippine authorities and multiple iterations of Muslim armed groups on Mindanao. Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a peace agreement with the largest Muslim armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The upcoming referendum, which continues on 6 February, is the next step to putting the law into effect. Recent polling suggests large parts of existing Muslim-majority areas on Mindanao support the law, which would create a new territory, known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with greater control of resources and taxation. But it’s uncertain whether adjoining areas like Cotabato City, wedged in the middle of an existing region, will vote to join. If the referendum passes, Mindanao still faces a challenge building peace. Authorities must oversee the decommissioning of thousands of armed fighters. But other armed groups continue to clash, including extremist fighters that have in the past drawn from the ranks of disaffected MILF members.


    Sexual harassment at the UN

    One in three UN workers has been sexually harassed in the past two years, according to survey results published this week. More than 30,000 UN agency staff and contractors took part in the online survey conducted in November by business advisory firm Deloitte. UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed disappointment, not just at the results but also at the low participation – only 17 percent of those polled responded. He said it showed how far the UN has to go before it can “fully and openly” discuss sexual harassment and counter ongoing “mistrust, perceptions of inaction, and lack of accountability”. Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reportedly ordered an internal investigation after a string of anonymous emails containing allegations of racism, sexism, and corruption were sent to top managers at the UN health agency last year. Both reports follow hot on the heels of the announcement last month that the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, will step down six months early, in June, after a panel found that he tolerated “a culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.” A preliminary report this week into the Oxfam scandal, which precipitated the #AidToo movement, called for a stronger system of safeguarding, for empowering and creating the space for staff to challenge negative power dynamics, and for investing in ways to more generally improve the culture of such organisations.

    In case you missed it:

    Democratic Republic of Congo: While global attention has been focused on Congo's disputed elections and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern regions, almost 900 people were killed in inter-communal clashes in western Mai-Ndombe province last month, the UN said. The fighting between Banunu and Batende communities took place in Yumbi, one of the towns excluded from the 30 December polls due to insecurity.


    The Hague: The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity, calling the case against him "exceptionally weak". Gbagbo spent more than seven years in custody, and was tried for allegations including involvement in election-related violence in 2010 and 2011, during which thousands of people were killed. Prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict and, initially at least, he remained behind bars.


    Syria: UNICEF reports that eight children, most under four months, have died in the past month at the makeshift camp on the Jordan-Syria border where some 40,000 Syrians have taken shelter. People at the camp, Rukban, are exposed to harsh winter conditions and are short on medical supplies and care; the last humanitarian convoy was in November.


    United States: Four humanitarian volunteers went on trial this week in Tucson, Arizona, facing misdemeanour charges for leaving water and other supplies in the desert for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Since 2017, at least 43 sets of human remains have reportedly been found in the wildlife refuge where the volunteers had left the provisions.


    Yemen: Days after the UN Security Council voted to send 75 observers to monitor a faltering ceasefire in Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah, bullets hit an armoured car carrying the mission’s head, retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. No one was injured, and the warring sides blamed each other for the incident.


    Zimbabwe: The UN has condemned Zimbabwe's “excessive use of force” in cracking down on protests, which were sparked by a dramatic fuel price hike last weekend. Five people have been killed, hundreds detained, and the government has imposed a total internet shutdown. There is concern that a prolonged crisis could lead to mass displacement and create a new humanitarian challenge for neighbouring countries.

    Weekend read


    Venezuela’s new humanitarians

    Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting pressure at home and abroad as his disputed second term in office begins. Opposition politician Juan Guaidó is challenging Maduro’s rule, while some foreign governments, including the United States, are calling the Maduro regime “illegitimate”. Venezuela is mired in economic freefall and its citizens face severe food and healthcare shortages. The crisis has pushed some three million to flee the country, spilling the humanitarian emergency across the region. For our weekend read, journalist Susan Schulman has the latest from our reporting on local aid in crises. The story profiles Venezuela’s local NGOs, which have been forced to make drastic changes to respond to a humanitarian crisis the government denies. Local organisations that once focused on rights or development find themselves thrust into unfamiliar new roles: an education NGO that abandoned its training programmes because teachers were too busy queuing for food; a rights group that diverted its resources to feed hungry children. “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” says one local activist. “We didn’t know until now.”

    And finally...

    IRIN at Davos

    Look out for IRIN’s participation at next week’s annual World Economic Forum gathering of top business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Join us on Tuesday 22 January at 7:30am local time (0630 GMT), for a live stream of “Meet the New Humanitarians”, our headline event aimed at showcasing emerging actors in the humanitarian landscape, not to mention our new name and brand (In case you missed our big announcement).


    And if you don’t mind a quick 10-second sign-in form (or are already signed on), check out the Humanitarian Action entry on Transformation Maps, the WEF’s new attempt to harness technology and collaboration to tackle complex global issues and better inform decision-makers. IRIN’s Ben Parker was the key contributor.



    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN
  • Exciting news from IRIN

    Dear readers,

    We’re starting off the new year with some big news to share. 

    (Drumroll, please…)

    At the end of March, IRIN will officially become The New Humanitarian.

    Because you’re our valued readers and supporters, we wanted you to be the first to know.

    Plans to change our name have been a long time in the making – since we left the UN to become independent in 2015.

    I know many of you have a fondness for “IRIN”, awkward as the acronym may be, but our new identity signals a shift we have been developing for years. 

    As regular readers of our coverage, you know the world around us is moving fast. 

    The drivers of humanitarian needs are changing, thanks to new threats like climate change, decentralised and longer-lasting conflicts, and a geopolitical landscape that makes the resolution of crises at the international level more challenging. 

    The impacts of humanitarian crises are changing too, becoming more global in their repercussions. The exodus of refugees from Syria is one of many examples.  

    And finally, the humanitarian response to crises is changing, with new players emerging to fill an increasing gap between needs and response, including the private sector, development actors, citizen volunteers, and social media activists. 

    For all these reasons, humanitarian crises are on on the radar as never before. 

    And while fear and prejudice have sometimes been the response to these new challenges, especially as rabble-rousers and nationalists gain a voice in more countries, this is not the whole story. Ordinary citizens are demonstrating solidarity with those in need. People have taken to the streets to march for refugee rights, action on climate, and more accountability for those who abuse their power. And communities around the world are not only declaring themselves havens for refugees and migrants, but in many cases offering concrete support and assistance as well.

    In many ways, humanitarianism has been democratised. It is no longer the exclusive domain of governments and the UN – nor is it only about disaster relief and aid delivery. Today, a generation of new humanitarians is emerging – demanding a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation.

    And we need to speak to this wider audience. 

    As journalists, we have an important role to play in serving globally-minded people who want to understand and engage with the world around them by explaining complex issues and encouraging conversation and debate – especially as populist governments gain more power, and the message of isolationism gets stronger. 

    And yet quality, fact-based journalism about international affairs is becoming rarer and harder to discern amidst the noise of fake news, even as it is more needed. 

    The New Humanitarian seeks to fill this gap. 

    In a nutshell: we produce news for an upended world (and those who want to improve it). 

    Our mission remains the same: to inform the prevention of and response to humanitarian crises. But we seek to build on our historical audience of decision-makers and practitioners in the humanitarian sector by taking the urgency and importance of these issues to a much wider audience.  

    As part of this transition, we also hope to serve you better. We will be redesigning our web platform to be more user-friendly, revamping our newsletters, and producing more of the investigative journalism you have said you value so much. You can also look out for new content partnerships – including with the Fragile States Index and the World Economic Forum – as well as more events for you to participate in, mirroring our online conversations offline and giving you a chance to get to know the people behind The New Humanitarian.  

    We will be publicly launching our new name and visual identity at the end of March. Make sure you follow us on social media or subscribe to our newsletters to get the latest updates.

    In the meantime, we are humbled to be your trusted source of news, insight and analysis on humanitarian crises in times of ever-greater complexity, and to give you the information you need to make the change you want to see in the world.

    The countdown to The New Humanitarian starts now. Stay tuned! 

    Heba Aly, Director

    What else is new at IRIN?

    Exciting news from IRIN
    We will have a new name and brand in 2019!

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