(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Southern Africa's food crisis - from bad to worse

    Close to 29 million people in southern Africa are already facing food shortages as a result of this season’s poor harvest, but worse could be on the way.

    “Serious concerns are mounting that Southern Africa will this coming season face another poor harvest, possibly a disastrous one,” the UN’s aid coordinating agency, OCHA, warned in a recent report

    A drought-inducing El Niño – perhaps the strongest ever recorded – is already underway. Floods are expected to hit the region early next year, and there is a 65 percent chance of a cyclone slamming into the island of Madagascar.

    This year, Southern Africa’s cereal harvest fell by almost a quarter, down to 34 million tonnes. Major food shortages are affecting Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Madagascar. In Lesotho and Namibia, whose populations are tiny, 30 percent of  rural people are classified as “food insecure,” which essentially means they lack access to food that’s sufficient to lead healthy, active lives.

    After the previous year’s good harvest, “The crisis has been to an extent mitigated by the region’s grain reserves, but they are now largely exhausted,” OCHA humanitarian officer Yolanda Cowan told IRIN.

    Their own stockpiles finished, many poor households are already having to buy their staple foods, so the current abnormally high maize prices – up between 15 and 40 percent – is causing real hardship. 

    Less cash in rural areas means markets start to close. “Once traders realize the crop is lost they will pack up and go,” taking with them the lines of credit they extend to poor farmers, said Daniel Sinnathamby, regional humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam.

    Governments will have to respond this coming year by importing commercial food from outside the region, but are facing tightening budgets. Many have economies dependent on commodity exports, and have felt the pinch of the global downturn in prices.

    Most countries in the region boast well integrated middle-income economies, and so in theory should not need humanitarian assistance year after year. Yet “Southern Africa suffers from chronic vulnerability. Very small events can send large numbers of people into humanitarian crisis,” said Sinnathamby.

    Wealth inequality is reflected in appalling rates of malnutrition-related child stunting. In Malawi and Zambia, stunting is above 47 percent – among the highest in the world. Even in economic powerhouse South Africa more than one in five children show stunting.

    Despite the key role agriculture plays in people’s livelihoods, government investment has been limited. 

    Farm plots are typically small, barely generating subsistence incomes. Farmers are dependent on rain-fed crops rather than irrigation; extension and development services are generally weak; and even in years of good rainfall, millions of people continue to require emergency aid.


    Southern Africa is expected to be hit hard by global warming, with extreme rainfall variability forecast. But the innovation and adaptation needed to contend with a changing climate is only slowly emerging.

    “I suspect governments across the region have not made the necessary infrastructural investments,” said World Food Programme spokesman David Orr. “There needs to be greater investment in all sorts of agricultural schemes, from water harvesting to conservation farming.”

    Building resilience – the ability of communities to cope with adversity - is increasingly seen as a key strategy. “What we have learnt is just responding to the immediate crisis is not effective,” said Maxwell Sibhensana, World Vision technical director.

    “Every time there is a crisis we are just alleviating the impacts. There is not enough investment in recovery, and bringing people back into robust livelihoods,” said Sinnathamby.

    There is a “regional resilience framework” prepared by humanitarian and development agencies, which emphasizes the need for climate-smart initiatives such as drought-resistant seeds and new farming techniques, alongside social protection programmes for the vulnerable.

    Cowan believes that there is a growing realization by governments in the region that the cyclical boom-and-bust agricultural model is no longer sustainable as a path to growth and development.

    World Vision has worked closely with communities on conservation farming and adaptation methods. “A lot is happening, but a lot more needs to happen in terms of climate-smart initiatives,” said Sibhensana.


    For more climate coverage, go to our COP 21 special feature




    Southern Africa's food crisis
  • Need asylum in South Africa? Pay a bribe

    In South Africa, asylum seekers and refugees in need of documentation often have no choice but to pay for it. So says a new report exposing how corruption and bribery have permeated nearly every level of the country’s asylum system: from border crossings, to queues outside refugee reception offices, to what takes place inside those offices.

    The report, carried out by the African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, together with Lawyers for Human Rights, surveyed more than 900 respondents, the majority of them asylum seekers, and found that nearly a third had experienced corruption at some stage in the process.

    “It is corruption everywhere,” said one respondent interviewed outside Marabastad Refugee Reception Office (RRO) in Pretoria, which according to the report is the most corrupt of the country’s five RROs. “They ask for money. You pay, but they don’t help you. If you can give R2,000 to R5,000 (US$162 to $404) you can get [refugee] status.”

    South Africa is a major destination for migrants and asylum seekers from all over the continent. In 2014, it received over 86,000 asylum applications, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, more than twice the number received in the UK. But just under one in 10 of those applications were approved – the lowest approval rate in the world. 

    Previous studies have documented the many inefficiencies of a system that has struggled to cope with the sheer volume of applications, but until now reports of corruption were mainly anecdotal.
    Speaking to IRIN in 2013, an interpreter employed by the Department of Home Affairs at Marabastad said that asylum seekers were routinely asked for money in exchange for a positive outcome on their applications. 

    “No one gets a permit without money,” said a refugee IRIN interviewed queuing outside Marabastad in 2012.

    The ACMS report, entitled Queue Here for Corruption: Measuring Irregularities in South Africa’s Asylum System, suggests that corruption sometimes begins at border crossings – 13 percent of respondents said that border officials asked them for money – but that it is more prevalent during asylum application and renewal processes that usually require multiple visits to an RRO.  

    Report findings
     30% - experienced corruption at some stage in the asylum process
    13% - asked for money by a border official
    22% - experienced corruption queuing outside a refugee reception office
    13% - experienced corruption inside the office
    13% - denied access to office because they didn't pay a bribe
    Source: Queue Here for Corruption Report

    Twenty-two percent of respondents said they were asked for money while queuing outside an RRO, usually by security guards or brokers claiming to have connections with staff inside. At Marabastad, more than half of the respondents experienced corruption in the queue, and 31 percent reported being asked for money in exchange for being assisted once inside the office.

    Not everyone can afford to pay bribes. Some respondents, particularly those trying to access services at Marabastad, failed to even get inside and had to return several times. Asylum seekers unable to renew their permits before they expire are liable for fines, a system that opens up another opportunity for corruption, with fines often being paid directly to RRO staff, according to the report.

    “The multiple entry points of corruption increase the risk that asylum seekers will remain undocumented and at risk of arrest and detention… processes [that] themselves create multiple opportunities for corruption,” notes the report, which asserts that corruption has flourished in South Africa’s asylum system partly as a result of the government’s decision to close down several RROs in recent years despite continued demand for their services.

    New asylum applications are now only accepted at three RROs: in Pretoria, Musina (near the border with Zimbabwe) and Durban.

     “A situation in which demand exceeds capacity creates opportunities for corruption. It also risks creating an asylum system that offers protection only to those with the financial means to purchase it,” says the report.

    Very few respondents attempted to report their experiences of corruption, and those who did were sometimes told to go back to their own countries. The Department of Home Affairs’ counter-corruption unit sometimes responds to individual allegations of corruption but is dependent on asylum seekers to provide details without fear of reprisals.

    “I think the department [of home affairs] takes the view that it’s a few bad apples in the system, and it’s basically the migrants themselves who are instigating the corruption, and I think this report shows it’s more of a systemic, structural problem that they need to address,” said Roni Amit, a senior researcher with ACMS, and the author of the report.

    She told IRIN that while South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs has often characterised virtually all asylum seekers as economic migrants, its failure to root out corruption has probably resulted in more economic migrants abusing the asylum system while those in genuine need of protection are often unable to access it.

    The home affairs department couldn’t be reached for comment, but speaking to local newspaper Business Day on Wednesday, the department’s spokesperson Mayihlome Tshwete said the report’s criticisms of the counter-corruption unit were “disingenuous” as it had exposed syndicates, not just individuals.

    Tshwete pointed to the large numbers of asylum applications that South Africa receives relative to EU countries with more resources. “The context is very important,” he said, adding that the department was serious about combatting corruption.

    Amit said that attempts to arrange a meeting with the home affairs department to present the findings of the report had not received a response.


    Need asylum in South Africa? Pay a bribe
  • Burundi crisis gets serious for regional leaders

    Burundi’s political crisis is centred on a leader who is refusing to leave office after almost 10 years. The man sent in to mediate has been in power for almost 30. Apart from that irony, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s arrival in Bujumbura underlines just how high the stakes are for regional leaders.

    As the increasingly violent events in Burundi continue to unfold, its neighbours are watching ever more closely. Since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term in April, protests have killed dozens and displaced more than 145,000.

    In addition to confrontations between security forces and demonstrators, clashes between the military and armed groups have reached a new peak with a report from the army spokesperson on Monday claiming that 31 rebels had been killed in northern Kayanza province, close to the Rwandan border.

    Concern goes further than refugees spilling across borders. Several heads of state in the Great Lakes region are seeking third terms or have been in power for more than 10 years. What happens in Burundi, a member of the East African Community (EAC) since 2007, could have serious ripple effects.

    The presidential election has been postponed until 21 July, after African leaders called for a two-week delay to the original 15 July poll date.

    Local and parliamentary elections were held on 5 July. Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party overwhelmingly won, taking 77 out of a possible 100 seats. The elections were boycotted by the opposition, and the European Union and the African Union withdrew their election monitors, claiming the election could not be free or fair.

    See: Journalism in Burundi is a high-risk job

    As tensions build ahead of the presidential poll, IRIN looks at the positions of the key regional and international actors: 


    On 6 July, President Museveni was appointed lead mediator by EAC heads of state. He arrived in the Burundian capital Bujumbura on Tuesday to begin mediating a new round of talks. While he has the blessing of the president, the opposition has so far rejected his nomination as mediator.

    Museveni, who has now been president of Uganda for 29 years, is a problematic choice. In 2005, he eliminated term limits through a constitutional amendment. In 2016, he will seek his seventh term in office. At home, the Ugandan leader also frequently clamps down harshly on opposition groups and those opposed to his rule. Even since assuming his role as Burundi mediator, he has arrested two prominent opposition leaders in Uganda.

    “Domestically, Museveni does not have a track record of being conciliatory to his own opposition. And so the Burundian opposition is looking at his track record in Uganda when they think of his role as mediator,” Yolande Bouka, researcher in conflict analysis and risk prevention at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told IRIN. “I’m not quite sure that the process will go further with him at the helm.”

    However, Bouka noted that the opposition is unlikely to be able to persuade the Burundian government and the EAC to change mediator, partly because of disunity in its own ranks but also because Museveni is unlikely to be moved by their demands.

    “I would be very surprised if Museveni recused himself because of opposition pressure,” Bouka said. “I don’t think the EAC is as responsive to this kind of pressure as the United Nations.”

    Two UN-appointed mediators to the Burundi crisis have already stepped down following government pressure.


    Tanzania has historically played a large role in peace negotiations in Burundi and the country has seen an influx of nearly 77,000 refugees since the crisis in its much smaller northeastern neighbour began.

    Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete hosted the latest EAC peace talks, and Nkurunziza was in the Tanzanian city of Dar-es-Salaam for a heads of state summit on the Burundi crisis in May when army leaders staged their abortive coup.

    Analysts suggest that Tanzania crucially shifted its position on the crisis.

    “Initially Kikwete had been saying that Nkurunziza had to leave, but it is Tanzania that at that critical moment at the end of May stopped insisting on Nkurunziza’s departure,” said Devon Curtis, senior lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, speaking at a Rift Valley Institute (RVI) event in Nairobi.

    “There’s animosity of course between Tanzania and Rwanda, and I think that Tanzania thought that the coup attempt on the 13th of May was supported by Rwanda.”

    Since mid-May, Tanzania has stopped talking about the issue of term limits and instead focused on attempting to find a negotiated, political solution.

    Meanwhile, the Tanzanian ruling party appears able to change leadership smoothly – it has nominated John Magufuli as its leader for upcoming elections, replacing Kikwete after two terms in power.


    Since the crisis began, Rwanda has become increasingly vocal in its criticism of Nkurunziza. Paul Kagame, however, is quick to stress that his concern is not with term limits (indeed, he too will be seeking a third stint as president in the next general election in 2017, and parliament on Tuesday voted to support a change in the constitution to allow him to do so*). Instead, he points to the performance of the Burundi president, accusing him of being ineffective and unpopular.

    In May, he stated to China Central TV that: “If your own citizens are telling you, 'we don’t want you to do this or to lead us,' it is because they are saying you are not delivering much to us. So how do you say, 'I am staying anyway whether you want me or not?' This is a serious problem.”

    “Rwanda is saying that the Imbonerakure, the youth wing that’s tied to the ruling party, has been receiving arms from the FDLR (rebel group) in Congo,” noted Curtis. But the accusations go both ways.

    See: Who are the Imbonerakure and is Burundi unravelling?

    In recent days, Rwanda has been accused by the governor of Kayanza province of involvement in a series of attacks there. “There’s been a lot of speculation for the last couple of months about Rwanda supporting parts of the opposition,” said Bouka. “Obviously, Rwanda has a history of supporting dissident groups in places like the DRC so it’s definitely in the realm of possibility.”

    Nonetheless, Bouka cautioned that Rwanda is hosting a large number of journalists, opposition leaders and refugees, and therefore some of the support might be explained by their presence.

    “If it is true that the government is involved, it would definitely change the dynamics,” she said.


    The crisis in Burundi will undoubtedly be affected by the situation in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – where regional actors were involved in a protracted civil war.

    “Both CNDD-FDD and FNL [a Burundian opposition group that in previous years had fought in eastern Congo] parties have – in their days as anti-government militias – operated in and from rear bases around Uvira (in the eastern DRC),” Christoph Vogel, associate lecturer at the Institute for African Studies, University of Cologne, told IRIN.

    “More recently, UN reports have accused the CNDD-FDD government of organising military trainings of parts of the Imbonerakure youth wing in the Ruzizi plain (which runs along the border between Burundi and the DRC),” Vogel said.

    “Over the past months, the security situation in South Kivu along the Burundian border has been rather calm, but bearing in mind historical spill-overs, regional escalations should not completely be ruled out.”

    However, Vogel noted that the size of Burundi, which is very small, means that it is at least for now, unlikely that the crisis could escalate to levels similar to what has been seen in eastern Congo.

    Congolese President Joseph Kabila will also be watching events in Burundi closely. He too faces the possibility of a third-term vote next year. In January, he cancelled an initiative for a country-wide census, a move that would have effectively postponed the elections, after widespread protests in the country’s capital Kinshasa.

    South Africa

    President Jacob Zuma was personally involved in the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement – which helped Burundi eventually emerge five years later from civil war. While initially strongly against Nkurunziza's third-term bid, Zuma has also softened his stance since April.

    “I think that the South Africans are leading from behind, and it’s quite unfortunate given that along with the African Union, they are guarantors of the Arusha Agreement,” said Bouka.

    “Zuma at first publicly enunciated that position [against a third-term bid]. But now his officials seem to be prevaricating, wondering if the Burundi constitutional court’s decision to validate Nkurunziza’s third-term bid should be respected, for fear of undermining Burundi’s sovereignty and rule of law,” wrote Peter Fabricius, an ISS consultant.

    “This ambiguous position of the South African government betrays more sympathies to the ruling parties than to the Arusha Agreement,” added Bouka.

    South Africa played a crucial role in the 2000 Arusha Agreement.

    “Arusha would not have happened, I think, had it not been for the South African involvement. In particular, South Africa had a protection force to protect politicians that were returning from exile to take their place in the transitional institutions after the signing of the peace agreement and then there was the very first African Union peacekeeping mission that was in Burundi from 2003-2004,” said Curtis.

    Of late, perhaps due to increased domestic concerns, there has been less focus on Burundi from the South Africans. “South Africa has to some extent disengaged from the Great Lakes region,” noted Bouka. She predicted that any solution to Burundi would contain greater engagement from Burundi’s more immediate neighbours, and the role of South Africa would be diminished.

    African Union

    By contrast to some of the regional actors, the African Union, at least through its chairperson, has remained fairly consistent in calling for respect of the Arusha Agreement and an electoral environment that is genuinely free and fair. The Arusha Agreement, most agree, is categorical in its requirement of two-term presidencies, and has come to be seen as a proxy for expressing displeasure with Nkurunziza’s decision.

    In a press statement on 26 April, the chairperson of the AU, Dlamini Zuma, “called on all stakeholders to strictly respect the 2000 Arusha Agreement, the constitution and the electoral law.” In mid-June, the African Union reiterated this position.

    The strongest indication of AU intent is that they refused to send observers to the June parliamentary and local elections, stating that there was no way they could be free or fair. The Burundian government appears to have fallen out of favour with the AU and, for now, seems unwilling to accept its mediators.

    However, not everyone within the African regional bloc is so opposed to Nkurunziza’s bid. Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, the current chair of the AU, recently dubbed the two-term limit “a rope around our own neck.”

    Therefore, at least in the short-term future, the role of the AU is likely to be more limited.

    For now, the situation seems to be at an impasse. No clear negotiator or regional leader has emerged, and Nkurunziza seems unwilling to step down. The opposition, meanwhile, is very fragmented, while some elements appear to be becoming more radicalised and violent.

    “There’s a risk of economic paralysis as a result of the suspension of aid, together with the drastic reduction of internal revenue,” Willy Nindorera, an independent consultant based in Bujumbura, Burundi, said at the RVI event in Nairobi. “We risk seeing the questioning of the Arusha accords and democracy, and the risk of return to armed conflict.”

    * This part of the story was amended to reflect the vote in the Rwandan parliament


    Regional alarm grows at Burundi crisis
  • Lawyers see detainees in South Africa ‘xenophobia’ storm

    Human rights lawyers are interviewing hundreds of migrants rounded up last week in night raids by South African police, trying to ascertain if they should be exempt from deportation.

    The raids form part of a government operation launched by an inter-ministerial task team on migration set up in the wake of a wave of xenophobic attacks last month on foreign workers. The anti-foreigner violence left at least eight people dead and drove more than 5,000 people from their homes and businesses. 

    It has already been established that 11 of those detained are asylum-seekers with claims pending, fuelling accusations that the government campaign is wrongly targeting migrants and stoking xenophobia rather than tackling it.

    See: South Africa's xenophobia problem: dispelling the myths

    Ostensibly, Operation Fiela (meaning “sweep out dirt”) is aimed at combatting crime, but the vast majority of the more than 800 people detained during the nationwide operation were arrested on suspicion of immigration violations. 

    Detainees are being held at police stations and at the Lindela Repatriation Centre on the outskirts of Johannesburg. A holding centre for irregular migrants awaiting deportation to their home countries, Lindela has been embroiled in controversy since opening in 1996. 

    Detainees complain of overcrowding, staff brutality and a lack of access to legal representation. Until Thursday, they had been denied access to legal representation, “a clear violation” of their constitutional rights, according to Wayne Ncube of NGO, Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR).

    “Everyone has a right to legal representation,” said Ncube. “It is also a violation of the internal remedies available in the Immigration Act to ensure that the way immigration detention takes place is lawful.” 

    Among the buildings in Johannesburg raided in the early hours of Friday morning was the Central Methodist Church, a well-known sanctuary for migrants and asylum seekers with no other shelter.

    According to Lizzy Mambu, who has lived at the church since fleeing political violence in Zimbabwe several years ago, gun-toting police entered the church at 4am shouting obscenities such as "kwekwerere" – a derogatory term for foreigner.

    “Some people didn't have time to take their money, their documents, their medicine,” said Mambu, who managed to evade arrest despite having out-dated asylum papers. 

     LHR has described Operation Fiela as “a show of institutionalised xenophobia” and on Tuesday secured a court order deferring deportations of those arrested during the raids that took place across Johannesburg’s city centre on 8 May, including the one on the Central Methodist Church. 

    LHR’s lawyers now have two weeks to consult with the detainees to determine if they have asylum claims pending that would exempt them from deportation. 

    Under South Africa’s Refugee Act, a person who has applied for asylum cannot be deported until a final determination of their refugee status is made. In South Africa, this is a process that can take several years as the Department of Home Affairs has a significant backlog of applications. 

    Sending genuine asylum-seekers home without due care could result in them facing persecution or torture, said Ncube. 

    During a media briefing on 12 May, the People’s Coalition Against Xenophobia, comprising of a number of civil society groups including LHR, demanded an immediate end to Operation Fiela.

    Migrant communities are being compared to rubbish at the same time as the government is declaring itself as tackling xenophobia.

    “Migrant communities are being compared to rubbish at the same time as the government is declaring itself as tackling xenophobia,” said Stephen Faulkner, spokesperson for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which forms part of the coalition. 

    “To equate crime with the presence of undocumented people in our country is not tackling xenophobia; it's legitimising it,” he added.

    The government has denied claims that the massive operation –involving the police, the army and the Department of Home Affairs – is targeting foreigners and insists its aim is to tackle criminality.

    "If you are in the country without documents, it's a crime and you are a criminal," said Mayihlome Tshwete, a spokesman for Home Affairs.

    Bishop Paul Verryn, who was in charge of the Central Methodist Church until December 2014 and was instrumental in turning it into a sanctuary for destitute foreigners and South Africans, also condemned Operation Fiela. “It's part of a very specific political strategy and sends a very clear message to the entire nation that these people are illegitimate if not criminal cases,” he said. 

    April’s attacks on foreigners – mainly Zimbabweans, Somalis, Malawians, Mozambicans and Nigerians – erupted in Durban following comments by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini suggesting that African migrants in South Africa were criminals who should go back to their countries and stop stealing jobs and opportunities from locals.

    Guateng Premier David Makhura has agreed to facilitate a meeting between the People’s Coalition Against Xenophobia and the government’s inter-ministerial committee on xenophobic violence next week.


    Lawyers see ‘xenophobia’ detainees
  • Tough homecoming for Zimbabwean migrants fleeing xenophobia

    More than 2,000 Zimbabweans displaced by xenophobic attacks in South Africa have packed their bags for home. But Zimbabwe, a country teetering on the verge of economic collapse, is unlikely to offer them the means to restart their lives.

    The attacks on foreigners - mainly Zimbabweans, Somalis, Malawians, Mozambicans and Nigerians - started in Durban more than two weeks ago following comments by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, suggesting that African migrants in South Africa were criminals who should go back to their countries and stop stealing jobs and opportunities from locals.

    Machete- and gun-wielding South Africans burned foreigners’ businesses and homes, looting goods, and forcing their inhabitants to flee. Six foreign nationals died in the attacks, which spread from Durban to other parts of the country, including Johannesburg. The worst of the violence has, for the most part, subsided, but African migrants are well aware that they could re-surface at any time.

    Several countries, including Malawi, Mozambique and Nigeria, have tried to evacuate their citizens from affected areas, but Zimbabwe, which has by far the largest number of nationals living in South Africa, is faced with the biggest challenge. Over years of political and economic upheaval in Zimbabwe, some 1.5 million Zimbabweans are thought to have made the trek south in search of safety and better opportunities. Zimbabwe has set up an inter-ministerial rescue taskforce to repatriate several thousand of them.

    Labour and Social Welfare Secretary Ngoni Masoka told IRIN that the Zimbabwean government expected to receive some 2,400 returnees who had opted to return home following the attacks, but added the actual numbers returning could be higher.

    “We are getting constant updates from our embassy in South Africa. There could be Zimbabweans who might have decided not to approach us for help for various reasons, so it is difficult to know how many are coming back exactly,” he said.

    The first batch of 433 returnees arrived last week in government-provided buses at Beitbridge border post from a Durban transit camp where they were being housed following the attacks. According to Masoka, the taskforce is determining their needs, qualifications and destinations so they can be referred to provincial and district welfare officers for help with reintegration. The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are providing returnees with food and other essentials, while specialists are offering counselling and medical attention.

    Masoka declined to say whether the government had set aside a budget for the returnees.

    Jairos Mangwanya, 36, is under no illusions that life back at home will be easy. He was among the first batch of returnees last week, but decided to hitchhike to Harare, the capital, after becoming impatient with delays getting on a government bus. He left his pregnant wife and two other children to follow on the government-provided transport and went ahead to organise them some temporary accommodation.

    Mangwanya had worked in Durban as a teacher for the past eight years. He fled with his family when Zimbabweans at a neighbouring house were attacked and their belongings looted.

    “We didn’t have the time to pack our belongings because the attackers were coming to our house. We only took some blankets and clothes and fled to the police station. We left our passports, educational certificates, money and other vital belongings behind,” Mangwanya told IRIN.

    “That means we have virtually nowhere to start from. I can’t look for another job without my certificates and I know it will be a long time before the examinations authorities and birth registration officials here can replace my documents.”

    Finding a place for him and his family to stay in Harare will be tough. Space at his two brothers’ homes is already limited.

    “My brothers say my wife and the two children will go to one of the houses and I to the other. That must be for a short period, though, because they also have large families and dependants from the extended family,” said Mangwanya.

    The other option is to take the family to their rural home in Mount Darwin, some 200km away from Harare. But going there will greatly reduce his chances of being able to provide for his family or of his two children being able to attend school.

    Mangwanya left South Africa before receiving his April salary and is likely to forfeit his pension and other employment benefits.

    Trynos Musumba, 41, who was travelling from Beitbridge with Mangwanda, had been working as a plumber in Durban and sending part of his earnings to his 70-year-old mother and unemployed sisters in Zimbabwe. He left his South African wife and four-year-old child behind in Durban.

    “With my return, it means no one will be able to fend for my family here. My wife is not employed and she will find life tough. I might have to look at ways of going back to a safe city in South Africa and looking for another job,” he told IRIN.

    His mother, who is diabetic, and the rest of the family live in rural Mhondoro, some 50km west of Harare. The area is one of many in the country to have suffered crop failure this year following poor rains.

    They fled Zimbabwe to look for better opportunities and are returning home to the very economic crisis they tried to run away from.

    “This is a very bad situation being made worse for the migrants,” said John Robertson, an independent economic analyst. “They fled Zimbabwe to look for better opportunities and are returning home to the very economic crisis they tried to run away from. The situation could actually be worse than when these people went away.”

    He added that unofficially, unemployment in Zimbabwe is close to 80 percent, despite official figures putting it at 11 percent.

    Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), told IRIN: “Most of the companies have closed down and the few that remain are struggling. Worse still, government cannot absorb [those being laid off] because it doesn’t have the money to employ more people.”

    Robertson said it was unlikely that the social welfare department would help the returnees in any meaningful way. “Our government has never had an unemployment benefit scheme or social security policy and is too broke to fund any intervention to help the returning Zimbabweans re-integrate. It will thus leave everything to the extended family, hoping that relatives will cushion the returnees.”

    Musumba said that on the bus he took home with other returnees “many said they will never return to South Africa to look for jobs, but I know as soon as there is peace, they will go back because the situation in our country is so bad.”

    Gabriel Shumba, a South Africa-based human rights lawyer who heads the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF), said some 2,000 Zimbabweans remained in camps near Durban. Although churches, NGOs and the South African government are providing some aid, many are still in need of food, clothing, counselling and medical attention.

    “The situation remains precarious. There is need for the humanitarian community to scale up support for the people in camps,” he told IRIN.

    Shumba said his organisation was working to provide legal assistance to those who had been attacked or their property looted in an effort to ensure perpetrators could be arrested and brought to justice. South African authorities have a poor record of prosecuting perpetrators of past attacks.

    He added that he did not believe repatriating victims to Zimbabwe was the answer, arguing that it “would embolden the attackers and encourage more attacks”.


    Tough homecoming for Zimbabwean migrants
  • South Africa’s xenophobia problem: dispelling the myths

    Xenophobia doesn’t exist in isolation. It needs social problems and economic hardship to flourish. After an upsurge in violence in Durban and Johannesburg that has claimed seven lives and forced more than 5,000 people to flee their homes, here’s a look at South Africa’s long history of xenophobia and some of the misconceptions that have been allowed to take root.

    All about the numbers

    Xenophobia feeds on perceptions, and one of the most enduring is that South Africa is flooded with “foreigners” – code for non-white migrants, more specifically other Africans. Migration though has a long history, with the region providing labour to the country’s mines from the 1870s, and leadership to the early labour movement. But xenophobia is linked to the end of apartheid in 1994 and the arrival of migrants from more distant lands.

    In 1997, Home Affairs Minister Manogosuthu Buthelezi claimed – without providing any supporting evidence – there was an “illegal population” of between 2.5 million and five million people in the country. He called on citizens to aid the authorities in their “detection, prosecution and removal." That year, 30 asylum-seekers were killed in unprovoked attacks. 

    Estimating the number of migrants (formal and undocumented) is never easy. But the gulf in the figures cited is extremely wide - from 1.6 million to six million - out of a South African population of 54 million.  What is not in doubt, as surveys regularly reveal, is that migrants are viewed generally negatively. 

    But there is selectivity in the prejudice. Migrants from culturally akin Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland are regarded more positively than those from neighbouring Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Migrants from further afield, especially Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia scored the worst in a 2010 “favourability” index by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP). 

    Taking our jobs

    An official unemployment rate of 26 percent (37 percent when longer-term job-seekers are included), yawning inequality, and sclerotic social service delivery are seen as the wider context for xenophobia. In the seeming competition for scarce resources, South Africa’s poor view foreigners as rivals for jobs, houses, and the amenities anticipated with the end of apartheid.

    There is little evidence that foreigners are the problem. According to Hama Tamukomoyo of the Institute of Security Studies, “research by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory showed that rather than causing unemployment, international migrants contribute to the economy by renting shops from South Africans, providing jobs to locals and paying value added tax. Foreigners that run businesses employ more South Africans than South African-run businesses do.” 

    A 2014 Migrating for Work Research Consortium (MiWORK) report noted that while African migrants do better in the job market than local South Africans, “they are more likely to be employed in the informal sector and in precarious employment, both characterised by lower levels of earnings.”

    Drawing on official labour data, MiWORK found that “international migrants” account for just 4 percent of the overall South African working population.

    “We don’t believe that the xenophobic violence is about foreign nationals ‘stealing jobs’. It’s about deep economic inequality and the government’s failure to implement policies that create jobs and grow the South African economy. It’s about dire socio-economic circumstances for the majority of South Africans,” Mienke Mari Steytler, spokesperson for the Institute of Race Relations, told IRIN.

    Crime and punishment

    When President Jacob Zuma’s son, Edward, mused last month that foreigners were not only drug dealers but a “security threat” and must go, he was reflecting an entrenched idea linking migrants to criminality, held by 55 percent of South Africans, according to a SAMP survey. 

    While not all migrants are law abiding, the stereotyped image of West African criminal kingpins corrupting society – once a staple of the media - is factually incorrect. According to a 2014 report by the National Institute for Crime Prevention and the Reintegration of Offenders, foreign nationals make up just four percent of the total sentenced population. 

    “We are not dealing with hard facts, we’re dealing with perceptions,” David Cote, at Lawyers for Human Rights, told IRIN.

    Is the violence spontaneous or directed?

    Historically it has been a bit of both, according to Cote. At the local ward level, foreigners are easy scapegoats for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party’s service delivery failures - and are the victims of violence in nearly every protest against the government’s performance. “Local businesses are also trying to rid themselves of competition” from foreign-owned informal “spaza” shops, and are accused of stoking the attacks, said Cote.

    Local authorities have adopted “a ‘protectionist’ position, which leads to various regulatory and policing responses that seek to disadvantage, if not entirely eliminate, migrant entrepreneurship,” according to SAMP researchers Jonathan Crush and Sujata Ramachandran.

    There is a widespread perception that migrant-owned spaza shops somehow disadvantage South Africans, and the ANC has tapped into the resentment that newly-arrived foreigners seem able to set-up shops and make money. Speaking in a climate of mounting tension in January, Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu said migrant entrepreneurs must share their trade secrets. 

    The way forward

    Violence against migrants and their property is a constant threat, with the worst eruption in 2008 when 70 people died. But as the latest unrest has spread, many South Africans have rallied to support their foreign-born neighbours and, shocked and dismayed, have condemned the attacks. 

    President Zuma and his ministers’ belated move to reassure migrants and contain the violence has lacked a similar ring of sincerity and urgency. Past initiatives to roll back xenophobia have lapsed – undermined by official denials of the existence of the problem, the violence explained as simple criminality. 

    “The country’s leadership – from the highest level to the local level – must speak in a unified voice to dispel the myths about foreign nationals,” wrote Tamukomoyo. “The state’s intelligence agencies must direct their efforts to better understanding the dynamics behind the violent attacks, to better predict where they may occur and to what extent they are organised."

    According to Cote, unlike in the past where perpetrators of violence have often escaped justice, “I hope the question of impunity is addressed this time around, that prosecutions take place and people are sentenced appropriately.”


    South Africa’s xenophobia problem
  • 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
  • Ebola and HIV: how to change behaviour for the long term

    There have been no new Ebola infections in Liberia in the past three weeks, but it’s still far too early to say the virus has been defeated – Liberia’s borders are porous and its neighbours have been less successful in taming their outbreaks.

    [After this article was published an Ebola case was confirmed in Liberia on 20 March]

    For Liberia to be deemed Ebola-free, there must be no new cases over 42 consecutive days. But even with that goal achieved, the World Health Organization (WHO) is unlikely to immediately declare the crisis over, said WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris.

    “We have good surveillance, we’re pretty convinced we don’t have cases at the moment in Liberia, but they are so at risk from the outbreaks still going on along the borders,” she told IRIN.

    Guinea and Sierra Leone have suffered setbacks in their fight against Ebola, with a recent spate of cases in both countries. And compliance by Liberians with Ebola advice has not been total; high-risk activities such as the transportation of the dead for funerals is still occurring, said Harris.

    But when the day does come and the crisis is declared over, how can prevention lessons be made to stick? Are there models to emulate from the global HIV campaign?

    The other epidemic

    Antiretroviral (ARV) treatment has reduced the fear of AIDS, but there were 2.1 million new HIV infections globally in 2013. South Africa bears the bulk of the burden with a prevalence rate of 12 percent. Data from South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) indicates that 469,000 new HIV infections occurred in 2012.

    Despite more than 25 years of HIV awareness campaigns, the HSRC survey found only 27 percent of South Africans had accurate knowledge about sexual transmission and prevention of HIV in 2012, and condom use had fallen to just over one-third of sexually active men and women.

    The HIV prevention mantra was the simple ABC – abstain, be faithful and use condoms. But “the ball game has changed with the widespread availability of treatment”, Leickness Simbayi, a lead investigator at HSRC, told IRIN. “You hardly see any [prevention] billboards or posters, let alone media-based HIV/AIDS campaigns which were abundant over a decade ago.

    “This is partly because of the over-emphasis on biomedical solutions, including the belief that we can treat ourselves out of the epidemic,” he said. “I’d like to see us go back to the basics and highlight ABC.”

    Both the HIV and Ebola public health campaigns have had to make the complex science of infection and disease control accessible, tackle stigma and counter rumour and misinformation. 

    “People need clear, accurate information in their own language, delivered by people who they trust and believe in; then they can act on advice given if basic resources are provided. Just as with HIV, people need to know how Ebola is transmitted, how it is not transmitted and how they can protect themselves. Education is the best vaccine to stop the spread of Ebola,” wrote Breda Gahan, global HIV/AIDS programme adviser with Concern Worldwide.

    Better understanding

    But health authorities in West Africa struggled with the messaging at the beginning of the emergency – which undermined their credibility. Essentially the approach has focused on changing risky behaviour related to “traditional” practices, and in so doing has ignored the social context and belief systems of the communities they are trying to persuade, according to an article in the medical journal The Lancet by the Ebola Response Anthropology Platform.

    “WHO is going to have to get a lot better at understanding the decisions people make, and that’s really the hard part,” said Harris. “We are actively recruiting people with these skills so we can understand the message to action better.”

    Behaviour change “requires buy-in from the community” and recognising “people’s priorities”, said Simbayi - a far cry from old “top-down” approaches that treated the audience as passive recipients of information.

    “We found that for the majority of the population, HIV was not their number one concern. Getting food on the table and a roof over their heads was. Out of the top 10, HIV was fifth or sixth,” Simbayi noted. Some of the drivers of HIV could therefore be addressed “simultaneously with other structural interventions, such as social grants, or keeping girls in school”, tackling the roots of vulnerability.

    That creativity could be applied to the Ebola prevention campaign, to keep it relevant and avoid message fatigue. “Those tasked with asking people to change practices and activities associated with Ebola transmission should be allowed the time and flexibility to negotiate mutually agreed changes that are locally practical, socially acceptable, as well as epidemiologically appropriate,” the Lancet article argued.


    Ebola and HIV - making prevention work
  • 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?

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