(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • 2018 in Review: Migration

    This series

    In this week-long series, IRIN’s editors highlight five themes from across our reporting that will continue to inform our coverage of the humanitarian sector in the new year: local aid; women and girls; returns and rebuilding; policy and practice; and migration. Are there untold stories we should be covering in 2019 on these or other themes? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here. Happy reading.

    By-products of so many of the conflicts and natural disasters IRIN covers are thousands of families forced from their homes. But countless more people are driven from their villages, cities, or homelands by persecution, slow-burning crises, or economic necessity and want.


    More people are on the move than ever before. International migrants numbered more than 250 million in 2018, a year in which terms like refugee, asylum seeker, and economic migrant again failed to speak to complex, multi-layered issues around migration – experiences that often involve several rounds of displacement and life-threatening journeys.


    US President Donald Trump made headlines with his “travel ban” and family separations, but 85 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing nations like Turkey and Uganda, and 40 million of the 68.5 million people forcibly displaced are still in their home countries.


    In 2018, we sought to give voice to migrants and refugees wherever the road took them, especially on emerging routes and in situations where their choices became desperate, whether because of conflict, people traffickers, or foreign governments pursuing a harder line on immigration.


    Below are highlights from our reporting:


    Heading into war

    Crossroads Djibouti: The African migrants who defy Yemen’s war

    How desperate do you have to be to flee to a country at war? The International Organisation for Migration said up to 150,000 East African migrants will have reached Yemen by the year’s end, crossing deserts, lava fields, and the Gulf of Aden on their way to Gulf states.

    Men walk should to shoulder on a barren road


    Lost identity

    How tattered Rohingya IDs trace a trail towards statelessness

    For Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh camps, ID documents aren’t just reminders of what’s left behind, clung to with the distant hope they might permit a return to Myanmar, they’re also a record of the systematic stripping of their citizenship, belonging, and their very identity.

    A man holds up his ID card


    War and peace

    Eritrea-Ethiopia peace leads to a refugee surge

    More people were internally displaced in Ethiopia than in any other country in the first half of 2018, mostly due to ethnic conflict driven by scarce resources. By the second half of the year, peace and an open border with Eritrea were encouraging a new wave of Eritrean refugees.

    Portraits of two Eritreans closeup but looking away


    Economic collapse

    As Colombia tightens its border, more Venezuelan migrants brave clandestine routes

    In November, UN agencies put the number of Venezuelans to have fled the country since 2015 at three million. As Colombia, by far the biggest recipient, announced stricter enforcement at official border crossings, migrants and refugees found new, illegal routes out.

    A guard in camo with a rifle against the sky


    US border deaths

    Water in the desert

    At least 6,700 bodies have been found since 2000 on the Mexico-US border, a third of them in the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. For 12 years, a little-known humanitarian effort has been underway to try to save migrant lives, starting with water stations on the likeliest routes.

    A cross on a small hill



    Greece’s resurgent river border with Turkey

    Before 2012, and before millions of people began crossing the Mediterranean, the Evros river was the main transit point for those hoping to make it into Europe via Greece. This March, it suddenly became popular again. The region was not prepared.

    A shoe stuck in thick barbed wire


    Rights lost

    New Italian law adds to unofficial clampdown on asylum seekers

    Tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Italy have been stripped of “humanitarian protection”, losing their right to work and to free language and skills training. But an IRIN investigation found that thousands had already seen their services cut or curtailed over the past two years.

    The back of a head in the foreground with a runway and planes in the background
    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Migration
  • Crossroads Djibouti: The African migrants who defy Yemen's war

    Over the past three years, around 200,000 Yemenis have fled their country, displaced by a continuing conflict that has led to more than 6,100 civilian deaths and left 22.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance or protection.


    Yet for tens of thousands of migrants escaping economic or political distress in Somalia and Ethiopia, Yemen remains a destination of choice, or at least a key transit point en route to the Gulf states.

    Whether fleeing to or from Yemen via the Horn of Africa – more than 37,000 Yemenis travelled to Djibouti in 2017 – Yemenis and African migrants make similar treks. The Africans, though, rely on a smuggling network that takes them across some of the harshest terrain on the planet.

    Journalist and photographer Benedict Moran visited Djibouti in February, meeting migrants travelling to Yemen – and often beyond – via the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden.

    “This route is particularly dangerous; migrants on this route face human rights abuses (including sexual and physical abuse), and a high risk of being trafficked, kidnapped, and sent for ransom,”  Danielle Botti of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat told IRIN by email.

    From Ethiopia, many cross into Djibouti via the border town of Galafi, then walk for days across lava fields and arid zones where temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius.

    Once they reach Obock, migrants make a last push north across the desert to a series of beaches located just south of Khôr ‘Angar, a small town that hosts a coast guard station and tourist bungalows.  


    Under cover of night, the migrants wait for motorised boats that take them about 30 kilometres to various landing points across the Bab al-Mandab Strait. On a busy night, hundreds of people make the journey, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

    In a cycle of migration, deportation, and migration once again, many are deported en route or once in Saudi Arabia, only to repeat the journey after they get home or back in Djibouti.

    Here is a photographic snapshot of the journeys they take:


    NEAR TADJOURA, DJIBOUTI – Tens of thousands of migrants travel across Djibouti to Yemen every year, through arid landscapes like these. The journey from the Horn of Africa to or through Yemen can take as little as a couple weeks or as long as two months. Many who make it take years to raise the necessary funds – $130-$1,500, depending on the length of the trip.



    OBOCK, DJIBOUTI – After walking for two months, these men arrived in Obock from Ethiopia in late February.

    Many Ethiopians travelling to Yemen and Saudi Arabia through Djibouti come from the Oromia region, site of frequent clashes between anti-government protesters and the police.




    OBOCK, DJIBOUTI – Ibrahim Mohamad Abdulaye, 18, walked for 20 days to reach Obock from his village outside of Harar, Ethiopia. "Our shoes ripped and we continued seven days without shoes," he said. "The ground was hot, so around noon we had to stop and wait until the sun went down a bit before we continued." Only after he arrived did he realise that the Red Sea divided Djibouti from Yemen. Exhausted by his overland trek, he decided not to risk the  dangerous sea voyage. He planned to return to Ethiopia with the assistance of IOM. 



    FANTAHERO, DJIBOUTI – Fantahero, a hamlet just outside of the port town of Obock, is a gathering point for many migrants, a place of rest before the gruelling journey to the Red Sea coast and onwards to Yemen. An average of 800 migrants per day wait there in the shade of sparse acacia trees, according to NGOs that track migrant movements.



    FANTAHERO, DJIBOUTI – The vast majority of economic migrants travelling between Ethiopia and the Gulf are men. But a handful of women also make the journey every day. Alam Haile, 20, was trying to return to Saudi Arabia, where she had cleaned houses for two years before she was deported back to Ethiopia. The long journey doesn't scare her, although some 39 percent of male and 23 percent of female respondents reported being kidnapped or held against their will along the migration corridor. “We are like males. We can’t be afraid," she said. For this photo, she couldn't stop giggling.



    FANTAHERO, DJIBOUTI – In a back-and-forth cycle of deportation and migration, many migrants journey through the Horn of Africa to Yemen and beyond over and over again. Alafom Gebre Sadik, 30, reached Saudi Arabia several times and found work there as a labourer. Each time, he was deported back to Ethiopia after two years. In February, he was attempting his fourth crossing into Yemen, with plans to continue to Saudi Arabia.



    FANTAHERO, DJIBOUTI – Deste Berhe, 25, says he saw a car explode after it was hit by an aerial bomb shortly after arriving in Mokha, the coastal town in Yemen that he first travelled to in 2015. "I was very scared," he said. So why is he returning again to Yemen, and onwards to Saudi Arabia? "Because in my country, there are no jobs."



    APP. 20 KILOMETRES FROM OBOCK, DJIBOUTI – An aerial view of the road from Obock to Gahere beach, where migrants depart for Yemen. Obock marks the beginning of the last leg of the trip, to various beaches about 40 kilometres north of the town.



    NEAR GAHERRE BEACH, DJIBOUTI – The look back at the route from Obock towards the Red Sea coast, where migrants then travel by boat to Yemen and, often, onward to Saudi Arabia in search of work.





    NEAR GAHERE BEACH, DJIBOUTI – On the left, tyre tracks left from vehicles that carry migrants who have enough money to pay for the nearly two-hour drive. On the right, footprints marking the path that migrants took on the approximately 40-km walk from Obock to the Red Sea departure point.


    GAHERE BEACH, DJIBOUTI – This area where migrants board boats is crowded with an eclectic range of abandoned items: flip-flops, plastic bottles, bras, wallets, belts, backpacks, rotted yellow jerry cans, empty medicine packets, and more.




    TIIR BEACH, DJIBOUTI – This wallet was left behind at Tiir, another beach approximately 10 kilometres south of Gaherre from which migrants depart on the sea-crossing to Yemen. The area has historically been used for military exercises.



    APP. 15 KMS FROM OBOCK, DJIBOUTI – Many economic migrants cannot afford to pay for the two-hour drive from Fantahero to Gahere Beach. Instead, they walk. Here, an unmarked grave remains on the site where a migrant perished of thirst while making the journey in 2015, according to a local driver, who wished to remain anonymous. The driver added that a government crackdown on smugglers has made the trip even more dangerous. Until five years ago “there were no difficulties," the driver said. "Now they have to make the journey at midnight, secretly."



    APP. 30 KMS NORTH OF OBOCK, DJIBOUTI – Hundreds of migrants have walked across these dry desert plains from Obock to Gahere Beach. Here, a trail of footprints indicates where migrants passed through in the middle of the night.



    MARKAZI REFUGEE CAMP, DJIBOUTI – Ali Aman, 65, has been waiting for nearly three years with the hope of being resettled elsewhere. An urban planner and architect, he fled Yemen after his house and car were bombed. “I lost my job, I lost my car, I lost my house: that’s all I had," he said, displaying photos of his life in Aden long before the war.



    MARKAZI REFUGEE CAMP,  DJIBOUTI – For Yemenis who reach Djibouti (recent arrivals in February said they had paid $200 each for the trip), the Markazi refugee camp is often home. It now houses 1,300 people but is preparing for a possible influx of many thousands more if the humanitarian situation in Yemen deteriorates further. The King Solomon Foundation of Saudi Arabia recently donated 300 of these prefabricated shelters, all outfitted with air conditioning. In late February, the shelters had not yet been connected to electricity and remained unoccupied.



    OBOCK, DJIBOUTI – Zaro Hailyu, 28, walked for 15 days from his home in eastern Ethiopia to Obock, with plans to cross into Yemen and then enter Saudi Arabia, where he hoped to find work as a labourer. He paid about 4000 biir (approximately $150) for the trip to Obock but then ran out of money. While some assistance is available in Obock to those who decide to turn back, as well as to those who end up stranded in Yemen, most migrants receive little help on their journey through Djibouti. Realising that he couldn't pay for the trip across the Red Sea, Hailyu decided to return home, again by foot.



    Braving harsh terrain, kidnapping threats and a months’ long journey
    Crossroads Djibouti: The African migrants who defy Yemen's war
  • From the future of aid to viral videos: The Cheat Sheet

    Which humanitarian topics are on IRIN’s radar and should be on yours? Check out our curation of upcoming events, topical reports, opinion, and quality journalism:


    What will aid look like in 2030?


    “The Future” has been something of an obsession for humanitarians of late. Academics researching the sector produce reports called “Planning from the Future” and A Practitioner’s Guide to the Future, aid agencies are similarly pre-occupied, and one of our own commentators has caught the bug.  This week, our Director Heba Aly spoke at the launch of the latest attempt at such foresighting (yes, that’s a verb). The Future of Aid: INGOs in 2030 is the product of one year of research by the Inter-Agency Regional Analysts Network, a consortium of academic institutions and large international NGOs, with the help of futurologists, to predict what the landscape for humanitarian action will look like in 12 years’ time. From the collapse of global governance to the rise of mega-cities, it maps drivers of change and how international NGOs may have to adapt, for example, by moving from less principled to “different cultural and more pragmatic approaches” in non-conflict settings; becoming franchised partners; no longer engaging in operations directly but rather providing “on-demand” services to local and regional NGOs; or acting as a global foundation that gathers funds for a cause and uses its expertise to distribute them. For those asking whether international NGOs need exist at all in 2030, this research adds to a growing body of thought, from as far apart as design firms and the World Economic Forum, on the future of humanitarian response. We’ll keep you posted!


    North Koreans are people too


    World leaders are wringing their hands after North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, which theoretically makes it possible for Kim Jong-un to strike Alaska with a nuclear warhead. But what about the civilian population basically held captive by Kim’s totalitarian regime? North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have long overshadowed the plight of its 25 million inhabitants, but, as tensions rise, their situation is looking increasingly desperate. This report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warns that North Korea is facing its worst drought since 2001 and says food imports are urgently needed even as food aid has declined, in part due to sanctions. Look out for more in-depth analysis from IRIN soon but, in the meantime, you can check out our comprehensive backgrounder on the perpetual humanitarian crisis in North Korea.


    Djibouti says au revoir to anti-immigrant boat


    Uproar met a right-wing, anti-immigration group’s recent plans to secure a vessel and interfere with NGOs rescuing migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean. So we decided to take a look into the boat’s checquered past. It was a floating armoury, licensed in the UK for private anti-piracy security operations off the coast of Somalia, hence its registration in Djibouti. However an official with Djibouti's national Maritime Security Services told IRIN that chapter is now over: “this vessel has nothing to do with us or Djibouti, all Djibouti certificates have been deleted”. The MV Suunta, now renamed the C Star, is currently registered in land-locked Mongolia. According to activist group Hope Not Hate, the boat is detained by Egyptian authorities in the Red Sea and the chances of it ever picking up its provocative journalist passengers and white activists in Italy seem to be fading. To recap: a company based in Wales and its Swedish director are leasing a boat flagged in Mongolia to the Austria-based Defend Europe group, which wants to help Libya’s coastguard and is raising money on a Nevada-based alt-right website. Stay tuned on this surprisingly multicultural venture...


    “Roman” going viral in Lebanon


    Here’s a change of pace: this week we propose you check out the music video for Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila’s new single “Roman”. The beautifully shot clip – which is spreading quickly in Lebanon – features women in various sorts of traditional Arab and Muslim dress. As the band says, they are “styled to over-articulate their ethnic background, in a manner more typically employed by Western media to victimise them”. Indeed, we see the women and the band in situations we’ve grown accustomed to seeing refugees (who now make up about a quarter of Lebanon’s population) in: like empty buildings, pickup trucks, on a beach. A quick note on the rights of women in Lebanon: years of protest have not been successful in changing a nationality law that prevents Lebanese women from passing on their nationality to their children if their partners are not Lebanese. This can leave children stateless. Activists have also been fighting, with both politicking and dramatic street theatre, to repeal a law that allows rapists to escape punishment if they marry their victims. They’ve had some success but no final vote in parliament. However, demonstrations in general seems to be on hold in Lebanon – this week the government banned all protests as Syrian activists planned to take to the street after the deaths of four Syrians in military custody. But back to Leila’s powerful video: while the refugee tie-in is not explicit (we invite you to watch and interpret for yourself), the feminism and the great dancing are.


    Did you miss it?


    What’s become of Riek Machar?


    Held incommunicado under house arrest in South Africa and rendered virtually stateless, that’s what, according to this well-researched article by Simon Allison in the Mail & Guardian. Quite the comedown for a man who has long been a dominant figure in South Sudan and twice served as its vice president. Machar was a key player in his country’s devastating civil war and his isolation means that already moribund peace efforts have even less chance of inching forward, writes Allison. His detention is “prolonging the war”, agreed Lam Paul Gabriel, a Uganda-based spokesperson for Machar’s party. This may be true, and yet regional actors in the peace process – Uganda, South Africa, and the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development – appear loath to involve him anymore. Although Pretoria describes Machar as its “guest”, his conditions are such that even his wife cannot speak to him. The South Sudanese government, meanwhile, has revoked his passport. Machar was forced to flee his country after a bout of fighting in the capital, Juba, a year ago. His gruelling journey with hundreds of fighters across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he suffered the indignity of being rescued by UN peacekeepers, is chronicled in some detail here.


    Five lessons learned from latest Ebola outbreak


    The small Ebola outbreak that surfaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo in May was officially declared over on 2 July. But it’s a fair assumption Ebola will be back – if not in Congo, then somewhere else. Médecins Sans Frontières has released a useful five-point lessons learned guide. The first rule of fighting Ebola, it says, is to train frontline health teams: The Congo outbreak was quickly recognised by a rural nurse who rang the alarm, minimising its spread. Secondly, because the disease is now taken seriously by the international community, aid was rapidly made available. Third: Although there is the promise of new vaccines, the “basic pillars of outbreak control” cannot be neglected, while, fourthly, location remains an important determinant of how successfully Ebola can be contained – its emergence in rural Congo rather than the middle of a city was a distinct advantage. Finally, medical innovations are not a magic bullet. The latest outbreak was fought the old fashioned way, as the permission and medical protocols weren’t in place to allow the use of new experimental treatments. Perhaps next time…

    (TOP PHOTO: A screenshot taken from Mashrou' Leila's video for "Roman")


    This week’s humanitarian cheat sheet
  • Fighting hunger to fight hunger

    In the middle of a blistering June afternoon on the busy docks of the Port of Djibouti, Aouleed crouches down on his haunches in the shade of a lorry, arms outstretched resting on his knees; his head, wrapped in a wet rag, lolling. He hasn’t had anything to drink or eat since the sun rose around 6 a.m.

    Ramadan, which began on 6 June with the sighting of the new moon, is a religious obligation for all Muslims. The fast lasts a month, from dawn until dusk. It’s a testing time for all involved, but for Aouleed, a port worker in Djibouti – a major trade hub on the southern tip of the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – it’s really tough. 

    Read more

    Ethiopia survives its great drought, but a way of life may not

    Ready or not - drought tests Ethiopia

    How bad is the drought in Ethiopia?

    The work is constant: much of it to and from Djibouti’s landlocked neighbour, Ethiopia. Not only is the demand from Ethiopia’s strengthening economy never ceasing, but due to its ongoing drought – the worst in decades – ships filled with food aid also need to dock.

    “We still have a lot of ships carrying humanitarian cargo and fertiliser waiting,” says Aboubaker Omar, chairman and CEO of Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority. “The bottleneck is not because of the port, but (because of) the inland transportation,” he explained. “There aren’t enough trucks for the aid, the fertiliser, and the usual commercial cargo.”

    As of 23 June, 16 ships remained at anchorage waiting to unload about 609,000 metric tons of wheat, barley, sorghum, and fertiliser, according to the port’s website. Four ships carrying about 128,000 metric tons of wheat, sorghum and fertiliser are currently docked and being offloaded. 

    With drought-caused crop failures ranging from 50 to 90 percent in parts of the country, Ethiopia, sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest wheat consumer, has been forced to seek international tenders and drastically increase wheat purchases to alleviate its mounting food shortfall.

    In addition to the bottleneck of ships, the port authority has faced the dilemma of which ones to allow through first.

    “If you give priority to food aid, which is understandable, you are going to face a problem with the next crop if you don’t get fertilisers to farmers in time,” Omar says.

    Hot, hard work

    Once ships have berthed, however, there remains the challenge of unloading them.


    Djibouti Port offloading food
    James Jeffrey/IRIN

    “I honestly don’t know how they do it,” port official Dawit Gebre-ab says of workers toiling away in temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius, which, with humidity of 52 percent, feels more like 43 degrees. “But the work has to continue.”

    The port’s 24-hour system of three eight-hour shifts mitigates some of the hardship of Ramadan for those working outside, beyond the salvation of air conditioning: but not entirely.

    “It’s hard with Ramadan,”admits Agaby during the hottest afternoon shift, a luminous vest bound around his forehead as a sweat rag, standing out of the sun between trucks being filled from conveyor belts with bags of food aid destined for Ethiopia. “We feel pain everywhere. For sure, it’s a struggle.” 

    The occasional worker says he’s not fasting due to the pressures of working in such heat, but the vast majority of dockside labourers appear to adhere to the strictures of Ramadan. 

    “Everyone here is fasting,” says Osmah in the lee of a ship offloading wheat. His whole T-shirt is soaked through, whether with sweat or water – the one permissible use of water to help cool frying bodies during the Ramadan fast – is impossible to tell. “We just hold on until sundown, as we’re doing our fast for God.”

    Railway relief

    The new 756-kilometre railway running between Djibouti and Ethiopia was brought into service early in November 2015 – it still isn’t actually commissioned – with a daily train that can carry about 2,000 tons of food aid to alleviate pressure on the port, Omar says.

    Capacity will increase further once the railway is fully commissioned in September and becomes electrified, allowing five trains to run carrying about 3,500 tons each.

    The jam at the port has highlighted for Ethiopia, not that it needs reminding, its dependency on Djibouti. Already about 90 percent of Ethiopia’s trade goes through the port – in 2005 this amounted to two million tons and now stands at 11 million tons. During the next three years, it is set to increase to 15 million tons.

    Hence, Ethiopia has long been looking to ease its dependence on Djibouti, strengthening bilateral relations with a self-declared independent Somaliland, to the east, through various Memorandum of Understandings over the past couple of years.

    The most recent of these stipulated about 30 percent of Ethiopia’s imports would shift to Berbera Port, which this May saw Dubai-based DP World awarded the concession to manage and expand the underused and underdeveloped facility for 30 years. The project is valued at about $442 million and could transform Berbera into another major Horn of Africa trade hub.

    But even with Berbera as a docking option in the future, the problem of not enough trucks to cope with demand would lead to the same dilemma as now, Omar says.

    It’s estimated that 1,500 trucks a day leave the Port of Djibouti for Ethiopia and will increase to 8,000 a day by 2020, even with the new railway.

    However, so many additional trucks – an inefficient and environmentally damaging means of transport – might not be needed if the turnaround time for the current fleet could be improved.

    “From Djibouti City to Addis Ababa is a 36- to 48-hour journey, but it’s taking trucks 10 days to make deliveries due to customs,” says Omar. “We’re discussing with Ethiopia about how to smooth the process and minimise customs procedures.”

    Ethiopians are not famed for their alacrity when it comes to paperwork and related bureaucratic processes. Drought relief operations have been delayed by regular government assessments of who the neediest are, according to some aid agencies working in Ethiopia.


    Djibouti port
    James Jeffery

    Horn of Africa integration

    While the food aid bottleneck at the port has highlighted logistical frictions, the overall trend of increasing trade and strategic links between Ethiopia and Djibouti – which include further train lines and an oil pipeline in development – are serving to bring much-needed change to the region. 

    “Ethiopia's projection of soft power, including trade relations with its neighbours, the development of cross-border economic infrastructure and sharing of services, is helping to bind these nations more closely together and demonstrate in tangible ways the benefits of integration,” says Matt Bryden, a Horn of Africa political analyst and executive chairman of Sahan Research, a Nairobi-based think tank.

    Speak to some of the numerous Ethiopian businesspeople working in Djibouti City and they say they feel quite at home. They compare it to the eastern Ethiopian cities of Dire Dawa and Jijiga, while talking of the two countries basically operating as one.

    “There’s infrastructure integration between the two, lots of trade, and the governments are working towards a common agenda for developing, and a long-term vision,” say Samir Aden, advisor to Djibouti’s Ministry of Economy, Finance and Industry. 

    As the sun sets over Djibouti City, port workers finishing their shifts assemble outside the entrance to catch buses back to their accommodation. Across the city locals congregate on streets in groups for iftar, the breaking of the day’s fast with dates, samosas, and pieces of fruit.

    Meanwhile, beyond the city’s rooftops, arc lights dotted across the ports are turned on, continuing to blaze away as offloading continues, and throughout the night loaded Ethiopian trucks set out westward into the darkness.


    Fighting hunger to fight hunger
    How the Port of Djibouti keeps Ethiopia fed during Ramadan
  • The migrants taking on a warzone

    Newcomers don’t want to stay long in Obock. In the summer, 50°C temperatures and ferocious sandstorms sear this dusty port in Djibouti’s underdeveloped north. And yet this small town has become a haven for two very different groups. Travelling south are refugees fleeing the war in Yemen, 25 kilometres away across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait. Heading in the opposite direction: Ethiopian migrants taking smugglers’ vessels towards the very same conflict.

    Nearly 35,000 people have made the journey southwards across the strait (which translates as ‘Gate of Tears’) to the tiny authoritarian state of Djibouti since March 2015, when Houthi Shia rebels overthrew the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia responded with a relentless bombing campaign. Just over half are Yemeni. According to the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, which monitors movements between the Horn of Africa and Yemen, the rest are Somali refugees, Djiboutian returnees and other nationalities.

    The Somalis and a small number of Eritreans are transferred to two camps in the south of the country and most of the Yemenis move on to Djibouti City, the capital.

    But not all have the resources to do so. Many of the 3,000 refugees stuck at Markazi camp, a few miles outside Obock, have already endured one summer of the hot, dusty winds known locally as the khamsin. The winds are so strong they can uproot tents and the refugees are dreading their arrival again this summer.

    “We are scared [of] staying for another one, [but] what can we do about it?” asks Fawaz, who worked for an oil company in Aden before moving his wife and their four young children to Yemen’s capital Sana’a and then to Djibouti as the civil war spread. His tone is injured, close to anger. “We cannot move. So we have to suffer again.”


    Rachel Savage/IRIN
    Abdullah and his family have been at Markazi camp since last September

    The well-educated Fawaz, who teaches English to 55 students in the makeshift secondary school, is something of an oddity in the camp. Most of Markazi’s residents are from poor, fishing villages on Yemen’s Red Sea coast. Abdullah, a 50-year-old father of six, thought he and his family would only be in Djibouti for a few days when they boarded his boat in September 2015 to avoid the Saudi bombs raining down on the village of Bab-el-Mandeb. “Prison in Saudi Arabia is better than this place,” he says dryly, sparking knowing laughter amongst the other refugees sheltering from the burning sun in a tent furnished with thin sleeping mats.

    Heading into war

    More than 500 Yemenis have decided war is preferable to the bleak desert camp and have headed home in their boats, ignoring warnings from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, that the security situation is still volatile.


    Miranda Grant/IRIN

    Among the few hundred returnees heading back across the strait to Yemen are smugglers’ boats carrying migrants from Ethiopia, as well as a smattering of Somalis. More than 92,000 migrants, almost 90 percent of them Ethiopian, arrived on Yemen’s Red and Arabian Sea coasts in 2015, according to RMMS data. The pace has continued in 2016, with more than 10,000 migrants landing in Yemen in March (another 65 didn’t survive the crossing).

    Mostly men from Ethiopia’s Oromo ethnic group, they continue to make use of this centuries-old trade route, to escape oppression and discrimination back home, and in pursuit of jobs as taxi drivers and plantation labourers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

    Bram Frouws, a coordinator at RMMS, says that most know about the conflict in Yemen, which has killed at least 6,400 Yemeni people and displaced 2.8 million others from their homes, but view it as a necessary way station en route to Saudi Arabia in search of a better life. He speculates that the chaos of war may even mean that “they think it’s easier to transit through Yemen irregularly and undetected”.

    Desperate journeys

    The majority of migrants from the Horn of Africa now depart from Somaliland rather than braving the four-day walk through barren desert to reach Obock from the Ethiopian-Djiboutian border. The Djibouti route via Obock and the Red Sea has also gained a reputation for being more dangerous, with smugglers routinely assaulting, robbing and abducting their charges and holding them for ransom once they reach Yemen.

    But despite the higher risks, at least 1,300 migrants departed from beaches on the outskirts of Obock in March.

    Jamal Faraja, 31, from Ethiopia, crammed into a smuggler’s boat that departed from Obock more than four months ago.

    Dropped just offshore from Hais – a small Yemeni town about 80 kilometres to the south of the coastal city of Hodeidah – they were met by local armed men who locked them up in a walled enclosure for weeks.

    “They [the armed men] were forcing us to call our families back in Ethiopia to send money,” Faraja told IRIN from a roadside marketplace in Raboo Matwala, near the bombed-out town of Haradh.

    “Four Ethiopians were killed in front of my eyes,” he said.

    Faraja survived but was left penniless. After being released, he and nine other migrants walked for 10 days to reach Raboo Matwala, 350 kilometres away from Hais. Now they beg for food at the marketplace and sleep in a warehouse used during the day by local sellers of khat ––a mild stimulant leaf chewed by most Yemenis.


    Mohammed Ali Kalfood/IRIN
    Jamal Faraja survived his abduction by smugglers but has had to put his dream of reaching Saudi Arabia on hold

    According to Ali al-Jefri, a field officer with the International Organization for Migration in Djibouti, migrants who avoid abduction by their smugglers often end up in prison. “Houthis round up all migrants going to Saudi Arabia,” he said.

    Trapped in a foreign war

    Those who survive the sea crossing and manage to evade arrest make the long trek on foot from the narrow coastal plain of Tehama in Hodeida Province to Haradh in the north, just 10 kilometres from the al-Tuwal border crossing.

    But the anarchy in Yemen has made even approaching Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled border virtually impossible. Not only has the border area been subjected to semi-daily airstrikes and artillery barrages, but Houthis are manning checkpoints on the road to Haradh, preventing migrants from passing or getting anywhere near the border.

    IOM used to run a centre to assist African migrants stranded in Haradh, but last May the facility was struck by an airstrike, killing five Ethiopians inside. IOM shut down its operations in Haradh, and the few aid agencies still operating in the area are struggling to respond to the needs of thousands of people displaced by the conflict, let alone the needs of the migrants.

    IOM has managed to evacuate 3,500 Ethiopian migrants from Yemen since June 2015, the majority of them from prisons in the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah. Among them was 25-year-old Ali Ahmed Ibrahim, from Ethiopia’s Oromia Region. His family sold cows to fund his “very exhausting and dangerous” journey to find work in Saudi Arabia.

    “I really don’t know,” Ibrhaim tells IRIN, when asked about his hopes for the future. “Maybe I will try to go another time when things are better in Yemen, but I don’t see a future in Ethiopia.”

    Faraja, who has a wife and young son waiting for him back home in Alitena in Ethiopia’s northernmost Tigray Region, says he plans to wait out the war in Yemen, possibly even to find work on one of the khat farms in the central province of al-Baydha, and then attempt the crossing into Saudi Arabia.

    Others are desperate to get back home.

    Ibrahim Ali Youssif, a 40-year-old from Ethiopia’s Amhara Region who crossed the Red Sea over six months ago, hopes to find a way to return to his hometown of Dessie. He has been unable to make contact with any organisation that can help him, including the Ethiopian embassy in Sana’a.

    “We feel that we’re trapped here,” Youssif says.


    The migrants taking on a warzone
    Ethiopians head into Yemen while refugees flee the other way
  • An unwanted guest: El Niño and Africa in 2016

    El Niño is the largely unwanted Christmas gift – a warming of the tropical Pacific causing drought and floods that will peak at the end of this month, but will impact weather systems around the globe into 2016.

    This year’s El Niño has been steadily gaining strength since March. It’s likely to be one of the most extreme events of this nature yet seen, with the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, warning that “millions will be impacted”.

    El Niño’s links with drought in southern Africa and the Horn, and with heavy rains in East Africa, are well-established. Across the rest of the continent the climate connection is less clear. Other factors come into play, such as temperatures in the North Atlantic for West Africa’s weather, according to Richard Choularton, the World Food Programme’s chief of climate resilience for food.

    What makes El Niño particularly bad news in 2016 is that it will be a second tough year in a row for farmers and pastoralists in Southern Africa and the Horn – and to a lesser extent East Africa. Eighty percent of their populations are dependent on agriculture. Their ability to cope with adversity has been stretched. Now they will be facing potentially an even sterner test.  

    So what does that really mean for these vulnerable regions in the coming year? With the perils of weather forecasting acknowledged, here’s a snapshot.

    Southern Africa:

    More than 30 million people are already “food insecure” – lacking access to enough food to lead healthy lives as result of a poor harvest earlier this year. South Africa’s maize production has traditionally been the hedge against regional shortfalls. But this year drought was declared in five provinces and output dropped by 30 percent.

    The fear is that the region will experience another El Niño-induced poor harvest, “possibly a disastrous one”, according to OCHA. Emergency maize stocks are depleted, and maize prices are climbing. Governments hard hit by the global fall in commodity prices, on which their economies depend, will need to find the money to buy maize on the international market. South Africa alone is expecting to import 750,000 tonnes to meet its needs.

    Despite Southern Africa being a largely middle-income region, its rural populations historically have some of the world’s worst poverty indicators. Even in economic powerhouse South Africa, almost a quarter of all children under five are stunted. That level of deprivation limits people’s ability to bounce back after a shock. 

    See: Southern Africa’s food crisis – from bad to worse

    The worst-affected countries in 2016 will be Angola, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique. “Everyone is preparing for drought,” said Choularton. WFP, for example, is putting money and programmes in place in Zimbabwe, in anticipation of worse trouble to come, part of its new FoodSECuRE policy approach.

    Further north, in the Horn and East Africa, which have more complicated climate and agricultural systems, the El Niño picture is less clear.

    The Horn:

    Poor rains have hit parts of Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia – but international media coverage has tended to focus on Ethiopia. In part that’s because a lazy connection gets drawn with the 1984 famine, but also because the numbers in need are so large. 

    See: How bad is the drought in Ethiopia?

    With the failure of both the Belg rains and the usually reliable Kiremt summer rains, “the worst drought in Ethiopia for 50 years is happening right now,” Save the Children said in a statement. The hardest-hit regions are in the north and east of the country. The UN believes 15 million people will face food shortages in 2016, with the next harvest not expected until June. Ethiopia has a population of close to 100 million. 

    See: Ready or not – drought tests Ethiopia

    Nearly eight million people are already under the national welfare Productive Safety Net Programme*. The government has committed $192 million to help combat the crisis, “but more help is urgently needed from donors and the international community to support the government to stop the situation from deteriorating further,” said Save the Children.

    Meanwhile, heavy rains and flooding are predicted for Ethiopia’s low lying south and east. The Shebelle river basin and the easternmost Somali region are particular areas of concern, with flooding projected to affect 315,000 people. Flooding not only displaces people, but destroys infrastructure – washing away roads and bridges, affecting market access, and inundating schools and clinics.

    Somalia experiences the same dual risks of drought and flooding – in a country characterised by some of the worst humanitarian and human development indicators in the world. Drought has singed the northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland, while heavy rains in the south and centre of the country have caused floods that OCHA estimates could affect some 900,000 people.

    Even without El Niño about 3.2 million Somalis are in need of life-saving and livelihood support, while over 1.1 million people are internally displaced. 

    East Africa:

    Short rains, in the right amount and at the right time – from October to December – allow the regeneration of pasture, improve crop conditions and boost casual agricultural labour opportunities for poor households. 

    Too much – if the rains run into January and February – then animals that are already weak from the long dry season will succumb to exposure. Heavy rains can also trigger waterborne diseases like cholera and typhoid. Livestock become susceptible to Rift Valley Fever (RVF) – a viral mosquito-borne disease.  

    El Niño conditions coupled with the warming of the Indian Ocean along the East African coastline is generating “highly enhanced rainfall”, according to the Kenya Metrological Department. The government’s contingency plan anticipated one million people at risk from flooding. The plan calls for the provision of relief seeds for replanting and subsidised fertilizer, as well as large-scale vaccination against RVF.

    In Uganda, the government has called on 800,000 people regarded as at risk from landslides in mountainous regions to relocate to safer areas, where they will be supported with relief supplies. A 2,000-strong "Civil-Military Disaster Response Group" has been deployed to the Mount Elgon and Mount Rwenzori regions, as well as flood-prone areas in eastern, southwestern and western Uganda.

    * An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Productive Safety Net Programme as the Protective Safety Net Programme
    Unwanted: El Niño and Africa in 2016
  • Killing us softly

    A recent public outcry in China, sparked by a damning documentary about air pollution, was based on well-founded fear:

    Of the 100 million people who viewed the film on the first day of its online release, 172,000 are likely to die each year from air pollution-related diseases, according to regional trends.* 

    Worldwide, pollution kills twice as many people each year as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined,** but aid policy has consistently neglected it as a health risk, donors and experts say. 

    Air pollution alone killed seven million people in 2012, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures released last year, most of them in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) in the Asia Pacific region.*** 

    In a self-critical report released late last month the World Bank acknowledged that it had treated air pollution as an afterthought, resulting in a dearth of analysis of the problem and spending on solutions. 

    “We now need to step up our game and adopt a more comprehensive approach to fixing air quality,” the authors wrote in Clean Air and Healthy Lungs. “If left unaddressed, these problems are expected to grow worse over time, as the world continues to urbanise at an unprecedented and challenging speed.”

    A second report released last month by several organisations – including the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution, an international consortium of UN organisations, governments, development banks, NGOs and academics – also called for more funding towards reducing pollution. 

    “Rich countries, multilateral agencies and organisations have forgotten the crippling impacts of pollution and fail to make it a priority in their foreign assistance,” the authors wrote. 

    Housebound in China 

    A dense haze obstructs visibility more often than not across China’s northern Hua Bei plain and two of its major river deltas. Less than one percent of the 500 largest cities in China meet WHO’s air quality guidelines. Anger over air pollution is a hot topic among China’s increasingly outspoken citizenry.  

    “Half of the days in 2014, I had to confine my daughter to my home like a prisoner because the air quality in Beijing was so poor,” China’s well-known journalist Chai Jing said in Under the Dome, the independent documentary she released last month, which investigated the causes of China’s air pollution.

    The film was shared on the Chinese social media portal Weibo more than 580,000 times before officials ordered websites to delete it

    Beyond the silo

    Traditionally left to environmental experts to tackle, the fight against pollution is increasingly recognised as requiring attention from health and development specialists too. 

    “Air pollution is the top environmental health risk and among the top modifiable health risks in the world,” said Professor Michael Brauer, a public health expert at the University of British Columbia in Canada and a member of the scientific advisory panel for the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a consortium of governments and the UN Environment Programme. “Air pollution has been under-funded and its health impacts under-appreciated.”

    Pollution – especially outdoor or “ambient” air pollution – is also a major drag on economic performance and limits the opportunities of the poor, according to Ilmi Granoff, an environmental policy expert at the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank. It causes premature death, illness, lost earnings and medical costs – all of which take their toll on both individual and national productivity.

    “Donors need to get out of the siloed thinking of pollution as an environmental problem distinct from economic development and poverty reduction,” Granoff said. 

    Pollution cleanup is indeed underfunded, he added, but pollution prevention is even more poorly prioritised: “It’s underfunded in much of the developed world, in aid, and in developing country priorities, so this isn’t just an aid problem.”

    Mounting evidence 

    Pollution kills in a variety of ways, according to relatively recent studies; air pollution is by far the most lethal form compared to soil and water pollution. 

    Microscopic particulate matter (PM) suspended in polluted air is the chief culprit in these deaths: the smaller the particles’ size, the deeper they are able to penetrate into the lungs.  Particles of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) are small enough to reach the alveoli, the deepest part of the lungs, and to enter the blood stream.  

    From there, PM2.5 causes inflammation and changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and blood clotting processes - the precursors to fatal stroke and heart disease.  PM2.5 irritates and corrodes the alveoli, which impairs lung function - a major precursor to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It also acts as a carcinogen.

    Most research looks at long-term exposure to PM2.5 but even studies looking at the hours immediately following bursts of especially high ambient PM2.5 (in developed countries) show a corresponding spike in life-threatening heart attacks, heart arrhythmias and stroke.

    Asia worst affected

    The overwhelming majority - 70 percent - of global air pollution deaths occur in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia regions.  South Asia has eight of the top 10 and 33 of the top 50 cities with the worst PM concentrations in the world.  


    WHO says a city’s average annual PM levels should be 20 micrograms per cubic meter.  But cities such as Karachi, Gaborone, and Delhi have yearly PM averages above 200 micrograms per cubic meter. 

    The main source of PM2.5 in indoor air, or household air, is burning solid fuels for cooking and heating, using wood, coal, dung or crop leftovers - a common practice in rural areas of low and middle-income countries that lack electricity.  

    Almost three billion people live this way, the majority in the densely populated Asia Pacific region: India and China each hold about one quarter of all people who rely on solid fuels. For these people, the daily average dose of PM2.5 is often in the hundreds of micrograms per cubic meter. 

    Filling the gaps

    Unlike many other health risks air pollution is very cost-effective to address, Brauer said. Analysis of air quality interventions in the US suggests a return on investment of up to $30 for every dollar spent. 

    “We already know how to reduce these risks, as we have done exactly that in high income countries, so this is not a matter of searching for a cure - we know what works,” he said.

    But the World Bank report said that unless it starts gathering better data on local air quality in LMICs, the amounts and sources of air pollution and the full gamut of its health impacts, “it is not possible to appropriately target interventions in a cost-effective manner.”

    Granoff said there are also gaps in government capacity to monitor, regulate and enforce pollution policy. 

    Beijing hopes to bring PM2.5 concentrations down to safe levels by 2030, and has said it will fine big polluters. 

    The World Bank report said China is also charging all enterprises fees for the pollutants they discharge; establishing a nationwide PM2.5 monitoring network; instituting pollution control measures on motor vehicles; and controlling urban dust pollution.

    But enforcing environmental protections has been a longstanding problem in China.

    “Pollution policy will only succeed if citizens are aware of the harm, able to organise their concern [through advocacy campaigns], and have a responsive government that prioritises public welfare over the narrower interests of polluting sectors,” Granoff said. 

    While more people die from household air pollution than from ambient air pollution, the latter – through vehicles, smokestacks and open burning – still accounted for 3.7 million deaths in 2012, according to the WHO. 

    A change in the air

    Kaye Patdu, an air quality expert at Clean Air Asia, a Manila-based think tank - and the secretariat for the UN-backed Clean Air Asia Partnership, comprising more than 250 government, civil, academic, business and development organisations - said the aid community is finally starting to recognise the importance of tackling air pollution.  

    Last year’s inaugural UN Environment Assembly adopted a resolution calling for strengthened action on air pollution.  
    WHO Member States are planning to adopt a resolution on health and air quality at the upcoming World Health Assembly in May. 
    The proposed Sustainable Development Goals, which will set the post-2015 international development agenda, address city air quality and air, soil and water pollution. 

    None of the experts IRIN contacted could provide a breakdown of total aid spending on all forms of toxic pollution (air, water and soil pollution that is harmful to human health).  So IRIN asked each of the major global donors for their figures.  

    Three responded.  

    A back-of-envelope calculation of all reported spending on toxic pollution by USAID, the European Commission and the World Bank suggests that between them they committed about US$10 billion over 10 years. This does not include aid spending on the diseases that pollution causes. The World Bank’s spending figures eclipsed those of other the other donors. 

    By very rough comparison, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, with half the death toll of air pollution, received $28 billion via public sector commitments to the Global Fund – the world’s largest financier of programs that tackle these diseases – over the same period, a fraction of total spending on these diseases. 


    *Based on WHO statistics for per capita mortality rates in the Western Pacific region in 2012. 

    **The mortality figures for air pollution come from 2012 statistics and were released by WHO in 2014, while the figures for the infectious diseases come from 2013 statistics and were released by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in 2014 (the Global Burden of Disease study).

    ***Includes deaths from both household air pollution (4.3 million) and ambient air pollution (3.7 million): the combined death toll is less than the sum of the parts because many people are exposed to both. 

    For more: 

    The relationship between household air pollution and disease

    Ambient air pollution and the risk of acute ischemic stroke 

    Cardiovascular effects of exposure to ambient air pollution 

    Particulate air pollution and lung function  

    Long-term exposure to ambient air pollution and incidence of cerebrovascular events: Results from 11 European cohorts within the ESCAPE Project  

    OECD's The Cost of Air Pollution report

    Killing us softly
  • Three words of advice for WHO Africa's new chief

    The World Health Organization says the number of new Ebola cases per week rose twice this month for the first time since December.

    This rise in incidence of new cases - if proven to be a trend - will be just one of the challenges facing WHO’s new regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti, as she attempts to overcome the multitude of criticism launched against WHO in recent months for its failure to act earlier and more competently during West Africa’s ongoing Ebola outbreak.

    “This is a critical moment for the WHO,” said Michael Merson, director of Duke University’s Global Health Institute. “It’s a real crossroads as to whether or not they’ll be able to reform and become an effective and efficient organization, particularly at the regional level.”

    Moeti, who officially took office 1 February, has vowed to make fighting Ebola WHO’s “highest priority,” while supporting countries to develop strategies to build up their health care systems, and reduce maternal and child mortality, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and non-communicable diseases.

    Many international observers say they have high hopes for Moeti, a medical doctor who has more than 35 years of experience working in the national and global public health sector. But she has a tough road ahead – particularly as the number of Ebola cases continues to rise, nearly a year after the outbreak was first declared.

    Here’s some advice from a few experts as Moeti begins her five-year term:

    1. Think Local

    Having competent and qualified staff on the ground, whose skills and expertise are matched to the needs of the country, is key to effectively implementing WHO policies and recommendations.

    “Everyone tends to discuss WHO at the global level and the regional level, but I don’t think this is where the problem lies,” said Fatou Francesca Mbow, an independent health consultant in West Africa. “It really lies in what the WHO is meant to be doing at country level. It is of no use to have very technical people sitting in Washington [D.C.] or Geneva, and then, where things are actually happening, [they become] politicians.”

    Mbow said that despite a wealth of technical documents being produced at headquarters, very often the staff from the field offices are appointed based on political motives. Country and field-level office meetings are often dominated by talk that, while politically correct, says “nothing of real meaning”.

    Staff reform at the local level will require both investing in employee development, including recruiting new and existing talent to the field offices, as well as making posts in “hardship” countries more attractive to the most qualified experts.

    “What often happens is that when people in-country are seen as being quite effective, they tend to get headhunted by the headquarters of the institutions that represent them,” said Sophie Harman, a senior lecturer in international politics at Queen Mary University of London. “So we see a type of brain-drain among people working in these sectors.”

    She said that improving salaries and offering more benefits, as well as taking into account what these people have to offer, could go a long way in incentivising them to stay at their field-level posts.

    “Good documents are interesting,” Mbow said. “But unless you have people at country level who understand them, who participate in writing them, who are able to implement them, who are passionate and committed to doing so, they’re just going to be reports.”

    2. Strengthen health systems

    There were many factors that contributed to the unprecedented spread of the Ebola outbreak, but inherently weak local health systems in the three most-affected countries meant that local clinics did not have the capacity, resources or expertise to handle even the smallest of caseloads.

    WHO must now work with local governments, partners and other on-the-ground agencies in all African countries to train and employ more doctors and nurses, implement universal health care coverage, and invest in better vigilance and surveillance measures.

    “I think the real test will be… how the WHO turns this outbreak into an opportunity to use our energy and thoughts and actions to build health systems that will not only help people [day-to-day], but will be able to respond to health crises like this in the future,” said Chikwe Ihekweazu, a managing partner of the health consulting firm EpiAfric.

    Increasing the number of health workers will be particularly important post-outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where more than 400 health workers have died from Ebola, including some of the countries’ top doctors and nurses.

    “The WHO also needs to help minimise the knock-on effect that the Ebola outbreak is having on other health priorities in the region, such as HIV/AIDS and maternal health,” Harman said. “What we are seeing is that because of Ebola, people are afraid and so they are not accessing health facilities, which might actually reverse some of the many gains we’ve seen in the MDGs [Millennium Development Goals].”

    3. Rebuild credibility

    Despite WHO having, admittedly, acted much too late, both in terms of identifying the Ebola outbreak and then mobilizing resources to contain it – and losing much of its credibility in the process – experts agree that WHO remains a much-needed and relevant global health body, particularly when it comes to technical expertise.

    “We all recognize that the WHO has had a fairly good history in the past,” Ihekweazu said. “And while it was certainly criticized for its slow response at the beginning of the outbreak…the WHO is seen as the leading organisation that provides guidance for countries and I think…we are at a stage where [Africa] needs the WHO as a mutual partner who provides leadership for the continent going forward.”

    Mbow agreed: “What I would say is that when you are criticised, take the blame fairly, but don’t lose sight. And don’t lose confidence in the resources you do have to offer.”

    Restoring donor confidence in WHO will be particularly important, as the regional office for Africa has the largest budgetary needs, the most countries, and, in many ways, the most challenging health problems to deal with.

    “No one wants harm done to the WHO,” Merson said. “We will be a much better, healthier planet, if the WHO is strong and effective… But it is never going to have a huge budget and so I think its strengths should be in standard-setting, norm-setting and providing the best technical sound advice in health that countries need.”


    3 tips for WHO's new director for Africa
  • Who celebrity advocates are really targeting. And it’s not you.

    This week was a fanfare for celebrity humanitarians: Forest Whitaker appealed for peace in South Sudan alongside UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos; Angelina Jolie opened an academic centre on sexual violence in conflict with British Member of Parliament William Hague; and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham launched an initiative for children. 

    In recent years, aid agencies have increasingly used celebrity advocates to raise awareness and money for their causes. There’s just one snag: 

    It doesn’t actually work. At least not as much or in the ways we think. 

    According to research by Dan Brockington, a professor at the University of Manchester, public responses to celebrity activism are surprisingly muted. His work is the first quantitative research on the subject. 

    “Using celebrities for broader outreach, for reaching mass publics and attracting media attention is absolutely not the silver bullet it appears to be,” he told IRIN on the sidelines of a 6-8 February conference at the University of Sussex, where he presented research recently published in the book Celebrity Advocacy and International Development.


    In a survey he conducted with 2,000 British people, 95 percent of respondents recognized five or more of 12 charities listed to them, including the British Red Cross, Save the Children UK and Oxfam UK. But two-thirds of the respondents did not know a single “high-profile” advocate of any of the NGOs (In this case, music executive Simon Cowell and singers Victoria Beckham and Elton John respectively, among many others). 

    The realpolitik might not be that pleasant. But you'll achieve your goals. 

    Focus groups and interviews with more than 100 “celebrity liaison officers” and other media staff at NGOs further reinforced his findings. 

    What’s more, Brockington says, those who pay attention to celebrities do not necessarily know which causes they support. 

    “People who follow celebrities often do so because they are not political,” he said during the interview. “They are fun, light. You want to live their lives…[People] don’t engage with [celebrities] for the more worthy things.”  

    Celebrity stardom flat-lining 

    Despite the rise in the use of celebrity advocates (which, by the way, dates back to at least Victorian times), the mention of charities in broadsheet and tabloid articles about celebrities only increased ever so slightly between 1985 and 2010, according to a separate study by Brockington. “There has also been a decline in the proportion of newspaper articles mentioning development and humanitarian NGOs at all,” the study found. 

    The perception that celebrities engage the public in the first place may itself be overstated. 

    After a steady rise in coverage of celebrities in the British press over two decades, the percentage of articles mentioning the word celebrity (only a fraction of total articles about celebrities) stopped increasing around 2006 and is now hovering at about four percent of all articles studied, the research found, validating the findings of earlier studies on the same subject (The study looked at The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, Daily Mail, The Mirror and The Sun). 

    The magazine industry’s own statistics show a tapering off of readership in recent years after steady growth.

    Celebrities can be successful in engaging the public – Miley Cyrus made waves last year when she sent a homeless man to pick up her MTV Video Music Awards; Bob Geldof’s charity single on Ebola quickly rose to the top of the charts; and celebrity-driven telethons like the UK’s Comic Relief are generally quite successful. Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech at the opening of the Climate Summit 2014 garnered nearly 2 million views on YouTube – far more than many of the heads of state who also spoke at the summit.

    And the effectiveness of celebrity advocacy in non-Western contexts, which is much less studied, could well be higher. UNICEF, for example, uses more national than global celebrity ambassadors because they often resonate better with local audiences. Social media campaigns can also be extremely successful in some instances, though “not a game-changer”, according to Brockington (For a cold shower on this topic, see Paul Currion’s column on why KONY 2012 may have engaged the public, but ultimately failed).

    Influence without accountability 

    But on the whole, at least in the UK, public interest in celebrity appears to be lower than most people think, Brockington says. But the belief in star power - inaccurate as it may be - lingers: In his survey, 74 percent of respondents said they thought other people paid more attention to celebrities than they did. Statistically, this cannot actually be true, but it proves an important point: If people think that other people care about celebrities, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Brockington found that while celebrities may not be as successful as we think in engaging the public, they are still successful at engaging politicians and decision-makers. 


    Because politicians - like most people - like being around celebrities. But also because politicians – also like most people - believe that celebrities express populist sentiment, even though, in fact, they often don’t. So they grant them access and influence. 

    Ben Affleck, for example, has briefed US Congress about the Democratic Republic of Congo and George Clooney has addressed the UN Security Council about Darfur.   


    For the small but growing number of academics studying the subject, the gap between celebrity advocacy and public engagement raises a major ethical question: If celebrities wield all this power and influence, yet do not represent popular sentiment, who are they accountable to?  

    “The celebrity is not beholden to his or her public in the same manner as the elected official,” writes Alexandra Cosima Budabin, of the University of Dayton, in an upcoming book: Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations. “Misguided proposals and ineffective interventions will not endanger a celebrity, whose position is assured by both financial and political elites.”  

    Celebrities’ increasingly powerful voices on issues of humanitarian aid, poverty reduction and famine has allowed them to “often decide for the suffering receivers” and eliminate public scrutiny and debate, according to Ilan Kapoor, a professor at York University in Canada and author of Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity. 

    “…Mostly unelected, private individuals and organizations have, for all intents and purposes, taken over what should primarily be state/public functions,” he writes

    A Machiavellian approach?

    Perhaps even more interestingly, Brockington found in his interviews with staff of NGOs with celebrity advocates that liaison officers know the impact on the public is limited, but use celebrities anyway because they can access and influence not the general public but decision-makers. 

    “The realpolitik might not be that pleasant,” he told the University of Sussex conference, “but you’ll achieve your goals.”

    UNICEF’s announcement of a new initiative for children by its Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham may reflect a clear understanding of this precise point. It reads: “David will use his powerful global voice, influence and connections to raise vital funds and encourage world leaders to create lasting positive change for children,” the statement said. 

    Malene Kamp Jensen, of UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador Program – one of the first and largest of its kind, acknowledges that sending a message to policy-makers is a “very, very important role” of celebrity ambassadors: “They do have certain access and platforms.” 

    But she says it is important to engage all segments of society: “You communicate to as many people as possible… I don’t think you can just say: ‘Forget the public; let’s lean on the policy makers. It’s very much a collective effort.” 

    For Jeffrey Brez, of the UN’s Messenger of Peace Programme, the target audience depends on the specific goal in that instance. 

    “Is there a treaty about to be ratified and you need a few extra votes? Is it a humanitarian crisis and you need a bump of visibility to help Congress push through appropriations for humanitarian aid? There are so many moments when they can come in and give you a little boost. It depends … what you’re trying to achieve.”


    Celebrity advocacy "industry" 

    Brez and Jensen both challenge the suggestion that celebrities are seen to be a silver bullet to public engagement, insisting they are just one tool in the toolbox. 

    “We’re always looking just to incrementally move the needle,” Brez says. But he complains that he and his colleagues lack real research to assess just how much impact their outreach has. 

    When Project Runway All Stars shot its Season Finale at UN Headquarters, 2 million fashion fans – not the UN’s traditional audience – were exposed to its work in a positive light. But how much did they retain? Did their perceptions of the UN change? 

    Brockington cautions not to read too much into his findings: celebrity advocacy can work, he says, but must be used strategically, for example to influence elites or fundraise among existing supporters. 

    But he says celebrity liaison officers are themselves frustrated by their NGO colleagues’ expectations that if they just throw a celebrity at something, the organisation will be instantly successful at captivating the public imagination. 

    Could the bubble eventually burst if more people become aware of the limits of celebrity advocacy? Unlikely, Brockington says, given what has now become a celebrity advocacy “industry”, in to which NGOs invest a lot of time and resources.  

    “There is a fair bit of smoke and mirrors in this… [but] a lot of people are vested in this. They want it to work. There’s all sorts of strong collective interests in sustaining it.”


    Does celebrity advocacy actually work?
  • Nice and dirty – the importance of soil

    Be it laterite, loam, peat or clay, soil is life. It's the foundation of food security, and so the UN has declared 2015 as the year to draw attention to the stuff.

    As much as 95 percent of our food comes from the soil, but 33 percent of global soils are degraded, and experts say we may only have 60 years of nutrient-rich top soil left - it is not a renewable resource. 

    Africa is especially hard hit. Land degradation denudes the top soil, shrinking yields and the ability of the earth to absorb harmful greenhouse gases. In sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 65 percent of agricultural land is degraded. That costs the continent US$68 billion a year, and affects 180 million people - mainly the rural poor, already struggling to eke out a living.  But better land management practices could deliver up to $1.4 trillion globally in increased crop production. 

    So how to implement sustainable policies that protect the food security of future generations? The uptake of sound soil management approaches is currently low. Farmers are under pressure to abandon effective traditional methods in favour of practices that deliver quicker, short-term, returns. 

    Further reading on the issue
     2015 – International Year of Soils
     FAO Soils Portal
     Agriculture for Impact
     The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme
     United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
     Africa Soil Information Service

    But a report - No Ordinary Matter: Conserving, Restoring, and Enhancing Africa’s Soils - released in December 2014, points to potential pathways. These include combining targeted and selected use of fertilisers alongside traditional methods such as application of livestock manure, intercropping with nitrogen-fixing legumes or covering farmland with crop residues. The goal is an ambitious - if contradictory sounding - “Sustainable Intensification” of agriculture.


    Nice and dirty – the importance of soil

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