(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Bye bye Jammeh: Hope and challenges in The Gambia

    Only disgraced ex-president Yahya Jammeh’s most hardcore supporters turned up to watch as he boarded a private jet at the weekend for exile in Equatorial Guinea. Some soldiers and members of his political party cried and shouted: “Daddy, Daddy”. Others aggressively jeered at supporters of The Gambia’s new coalition government.

    But once he took to the skies, most of the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.

    “This day is amazing. We didn’t see it coming. We didn’t believe that he would leave, and the fact that this has happened democratically is the greatest achievement,” said 24-year-old Aminata, part of a youth group helping Gambian refugees as they arrived back at the ferry terminal in Banjul.

    “A year ago, we thought this would be impossible. But now we are hopeful that things will change. Now, we feel that destiny is in our hands, because leaders will have to be more accountable. Now, we know the power of our vote.”

    The moment was all the more remarkable because of what was at stake if the situation had unravelled. “We are in disbelief that we have come out of this in peace. We are glad that Jammeh has gone, but in a solemn way, because we came so close to war,” added Aminata’s friend, Khadija.

    Adama Barrow, The Gambia’s new president, was sworn in last week. For his safety, the ceremony had to take place in Dakar, Senegal, and he was not planning to return home until a West African military intervention force had secured the country.

    They were poised across the border the night Barrow was sworn in, and the threat of force was crucial in buttressing mediation efforts by the West African regional bloc ECOWAS that eventually succeeded in pressuring Jammeh to accept his electoral defeat and step down.

    ECOWAS troops and military vehicles now patrol the streets of Banjul, cheered as they pass. Gambian soldiers are meanwhile being disarmed because of a concern that rogue elements, still loyal to Jammeh, could cause trouble.


    Adama Barrow - the man of the moment
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Adama Barrow - the man of the moment

    From total power to ignominy

    Jammeh, along with a group of other young officers, came to power in a coup in 1994. After 22 years of oppressive rule, in which arbitrary detention, torture, and disappearances were common, he suffered a shock electoral defeat in a 1 December ballot that most analysts assumed he would rig.

    At first, Jammeh magnanimously accepted the result, only to change tack a week later and declare the poll void. He petitioned the Supreme Court for a fresh election, but as he had sacked most of the judges 18 months previously the court could not hear the challenge before May.  

    He then declared a state of emergency that technically would have allowed him to stay in power for another three months. This desperate, last-ditch attempt to cling to power was ignored by the West African leaders who were working to resolve the crisis.

    By then, Jammeh’s grip on power was already slipping. Most of his cabinet had deserted him and his army chief, General Ousman Badjie, had conceded that his soldiers would not resist the ECOWAS intervention force.

    Barrow’s inauguration speech embraced the history-making moment. “This is a day no Gambian will ever forget,” he said. “The capacity to effect change through the ballot box has proven that power belongs to the people in The Gambia. Violent change is banished forever from the political life of our country. All Gambians are therefore winners.”

    But the fact that Barrow’s much-anticipated swearing-in couldn’t take place on Gambian soil is a bitter reminder of the regime’s far-reaching net of oppression.   

    Jammeh had ordered there to be no inauguration celebrations. In the event, nothing could stop at least several thousand young Gambians defiantly taking to the streets.

    At Westfield Junction – the symbolic location just outside Banjul where opposition activist Solo Sandeng was arrested in April last year after calling for electoral reform (he was subsequently tortured to death) – the crowd grew and grew. Above the throng was one united cry: “Gambia has decided”.

    Throughout the political impasse, activists had been peacefully campaigning to ensure Gambians’ democratic choice was upheld. #GambiaHasDecided became a social media phenomenon, also appearing on billboards and T-shirts, defying Jammeh’s attempts to silence dissent.


    Gambians that fled come home
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    Gambians that fled come home

    What now?

    Having put themselves on the line, young Gambians who voted for change are determined to see a new Gambia achieved.

    “The day the coalition was formed – that was the day the whole country smiled,” said Momodou Jallow, 28.

    But Jallow also offered a sobering reminder to the coalition not to lose sight of how they came to power. “I voted for Adama Barrow not because I liked him but because I didn’t want to vote for Jammeh,” he told IRIN.

    Jallow, who was recently arrested for posting views critical of Jammeh’s government on social media, wants to see a change in the constitution, in particular the introduction of a two-term presidential limit.

    And there are plenty of other challenges facing the new administration. After more than 22 years of Jammeh’s autocratic rule, it must start pretty much from scratch: having to install a cabinet, institute a proper rule of law, and launch much-needed military and political reforms amid a climate of both uncertainty and expectation.

    Barrow began announcing his cabinet on Monday. A notable pick was Vice President Fatoumata Tambajang, a former minister and United Nations Development Programme staffer credited as the main force in galvanising the previously fractious opposition parties.

    One of the new administration’s first tasks will be to support the return of the 46,000 refugees estimated by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to have fled to Senegal and Guinea over the past weeks, fearing impending conflict.

    An estimated 25,000 have also been internally displaced, according to the Gambian Red Cross Society. Almost everyone in the capital sent family members – mainly women, children, and the elderly – away to the sanctuary of relatives in other parts of the country.

    Extra pressure is being placed on already stretched food supplies and sanitation in the some of The Gambia’s poorest communities, according to a rapid assessment survey by United Purpose, an NGO.

    Jammeh’s stubbornness also hurt Gambia’s already ailing economy by dealing a blow to its main revenue earner – tourism. As the crisis deepened, Western governments sent charter planes to pick up holidaymakers, right in the middle of peak season.


    Watching the inauguration
    Jason Florio/IRIN
    The revolution is televised - watching the inauguration

    Tackling impunity

    But uppermost in many Gambians’ minds is how Jammeh and his accomplices will be made to pay for the wide-ranging crimes and abuses perpetrated under his regime.

    Jammeh is free to return to The Gambia in the future under the exile terms set out in a joint statement by the UN, the Afrcian Union, and ECOWAS. These state that he, his family, and his senior aides should have the same rights to dignity and safety as any former president.

    The unsigned communique implies that he will have impunity from prosecution but it doesn’t impose any legal obligations on the new Gambian administration. Barrow has since referred to it as a “resolution, not an agreement”.

    Barrow’s administration intends to establish a truth and reconciliation committee, which will gather evidence. But some people do not think this process will go far enough.

    The new government’s spokesman, Halifa Sallah, has already hinted that it may not be in the national interest to delve too deeply into the past.

    But Fatou Jagne, West Africa director of human rights NGO, Article 19, has welcomed a homegrown reconciliation process, saying: “We need to give Gambians a chance to set up a mechanism that will work for them to get to the justice and the truth.”

    New Gambia has begun. It’s a place where people can now speak freely and have hope for the future, but the new administration will need to carefully manage the soaring expectations of its people, according to Abdul Aziz Bensouda, secretary-general of the Gambian Bar Association.

    “People have expectations for rapid development, but [this will be difficult] with a budget that’s just enough to pay the bills,” he said. “It is a case of trying to right the wrongs under Jammeh’s regime, and move us [forward].”


    TOP PHOTO: Gambians welcome West African ECOMIG troops to Banjul. CREDIT: Jason Florio

    Bye bye Jammeh: Hope and challenges in The Gambia
  • Ten humanitarian stories to look out for in 2017

    While 2016 taught us to expect the unexpected, IRIN’s eyes and ears on the ground have given us an idea of what to look out for in the new year. We can’t promise everyone else will be covering these stories, but here are ten we’ll be watching:

    The impact of Trump

    Since Donald Trump’s election, speculation has been rife about what his presidency will mean for the wider world. His many statements and tweets on the campaign trail suggest that he intends to prioritise domestic and security interests over foreign aid spending and will roll back efforts made during the Obama administration to combat climate change.

    But many in the humanitarian sector have been adopting a glass half full attitude, publicly at least, by pointing out that foreign aid has bipartisan support and Republicans in Congress will oppose any major cuts to foreign assistance. Others are predicting that even if the Trump administration doesn’t significantly cut overall aid spending, it will favour channelling aid through partnerships with the private sector and results-oriented initiatives like the Millennium Challenge Corporation, rather than through traditional recipients like the UN and international NGOs.

    A Trump administration seems likely to allocate less aid to reproductive health and family planning programmes, and funding for initiatives relating to climate change will almost certainly be on the chopping block too. Trump has appointed a number of climate change sceptics to his cabinet, including Rick Perry, who will head the Department of Energy and Scott Pruitt, who will lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Venezuela undone

    The oil-rich nation has been unravelling in almost every conceivable way in 2016 – from runaway inflation and empty supermarket shelves to the virtual collapse of the public health sector with the resurgence of previously eradicated diseases like malaria and diphtheria. The government closely guards data on what appear to be steep rises in maternal and infant mortality rates, poverty and malnutrition, but doctors and civil society groups have been monitoring the worrying trajectory.

    With the government of President Nicolas Maduro still in complete denial about the growing humanitarian crisis (let alone accepting some responsibility for it), the downward spiral will only continue in 2017. Vatican-mediated talks between the government and the opposition that started in October have so far failed to yield an agreement to lift the country’s ban on international aid, a change that could alleviate critical medicine shortages.

    Maduro successfully stalled a recall vote that would likely have unseated him in October 2016. Under Venezuela’s constitutional rules, should Maduro lose a referendum in 2017, he will still be able to hand over power to his vice president and keep the United Socialist Party in power. With a political solution virtually off the table, more social unrest seems inevitable in 2017. Increasingly, Venezuelans will be forced to cross borders in search of livelihoods, healthcare and affordable food. Look to Brazil and Colombia, who will likely bear the brunt of this growing forced migration.

    Yemen’s downward spiral

    A small sliver of the world is finally paying attention to Yemen. That’s in part due to activist campaigns pushing the United States and Britain to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Saudis’ grudging admission they had used British cluster bombs in the war (followed by Britain’s statement of the same).

    But the war and humanitarian catastrophe marches on. Despite assurances by the Saudi-led coalition that they take great care to avoid collateral damage – to IRIN no less – there have been attacks on markets and funerals, and now more than 4,300 civilian deaths since the war began last March. And that’s only what the decimated health system can count.


    family and tent
    Mohammed Yaseen Ahmed Ibrahim/IRIN
    3.3 million people are displaced in Yemen

    Peace talks don’t offer much hope. The UN-backed peace process – already a set of negotiations between elites that didn’t take into account the reality on the ground – is going nowhere, and Houthi rebels have set up their own government.

    And now, Yemen is at serious risk of sliding into famine. Before the war, the country relied on imports for 90 percent of its food. With the economy in tatters, importers are finding it hard to bring in what the country needs, and families simply don’t have the cash to buy food.

    The post-Aleppo future of Syria

    The final fall of the last pocket of resistance in east Aleppo, with fighters and civilians evacuated outside the city, was major victory for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But it does not signal the end of the war or the suffering. Rebels still control the province of Idlib and much of Deraa, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have Afrin in the north, while Turkey appears to have territorial ambitions. Plus there’s so-called Islamic State, resurgent in Palmyra and still in control of Raqqa.

    Aleppo also marks yet another failure for diplomacy. The last round of Geneva talks seems a distant memory, and while a new ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey appears to be holding in some parts of the country, the truce doesn’t include all rebel groups. If this deal doesn’t pave the way for planned peace talks in Kazakhstan and full-scale violence begins again, it’s not clear where al-Assad will take the fight next. But it seems likely that the siege tactics that have typified the war will lead to more local truces and evacuations.

    Once again, this year looks bleak for Syria’s civilians – those bussed from Aleppo are headed into warzones in the middle of winter, joining the 6.3 million civilians already displaced into their own country.

    Myanmar’s Rohingya – a long-running crisis and a new insurgency

    There are few groups as persecuted as the Rohingya. During decades of military rule, Myanmar’s generals gradually stripped away most of their rights, including citizenship, and imposed the apartheid system they live under today.

    About half a million Rohingya have fled across the border during attacks on their communities over the past decades, but Bangladesh doesn’t want them either and refuses to even register them as refugees. The last few months of 2016 saw a new wave of migration over the border as Myanmar’s military allegedly carried out widespread abuses of civilians in the wake of attacks by a new insurgent group.

    Myanmar’s heavy-handed approach is unlikely to crush the group, known as Harakah al-Yakin [“Faith Movement” in Arabic]. In fact, there is a good chance that by targeting the civilian population, the military will drive more youth to join the insurgency. So far, the insurgents have targeted only Myanmar security forces and their motivation seems purely local – to push the government to grant the Rohingya citizenship. But there is a danger that international Islamist groups, including IS, could capitalise on the movement, which could threaten regional stability.

    Genocide and famine warnings in South Sudan

    South Sudan’s descent continues, and it’s likely to only get worse in 2017. The civil war drove 400,000 people across the border into Uganda since a peace deal broke down in July, and there are now more than 1.8 million people internally displaced.

    Ongoing fighting has disrupted farming and made it impossible to provide humanitarian relief in many areas. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warns: “All available indicators point to an unprecedented deterioration of the food security situation across South Sudan in 2017. The risk of famine is real for thousands of people.”

    The war and competition for scarce resources have also led to the “extreme polarization of some ethnic groups,” warned Adama Dieng, the UN’s special advisor on the prevention of genocide, in November. If that process continues, he said, “there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide.”

    Unfortunately, efforts to pressure the government and rebels to return to peace talks have failed. South Sudan enters 2017 under the shadow of looming famine and possible genocide, and the international community seems unable or unwilling to force leaders to stop fighting before they drive their country into an even deeper crisis.

    Iraq’s displacement crisis

    All eyes are on Mosul – the battle that could finally finish off IS in Iraq. Aid groups warn that as many as one million civilians are trapped inside, and more than 110,000 people have already fled the surrounding areas. But there’s another, related problem, brewing in Iraq. Overall 3 million people are displaced across the country, many from areas controlled or already liberated from IS.

    For Sunnis from Anbar province – from cities like Fallujah and Ramadi – going home is far from a sure thing. Those thought to have ties to IS can’t go home, and are stuck in camps, makeshift shelters, or elsewhere. Ignoring this problem risks radicalisation of a population that already feels scapegoated and has in the past been controlled by both al-Qaeda and IS.

    It’s not just Sunnis at risk here. Some Christians say they are too afraid to go home to liberated villages near Mosul. The Iraqi government can hardly keep the lights on and has focused its limited resources on the fighting. But this shortsightedness comes at the country’s future peril.

    In Afghanistan, more than a million people “on the move”

    It’s been a while since Afghanistan had a good year, but the last one has been especially tough – and it’s set the scene for a disastrous 2017.

    After a decade and a half of “boots on the ground” style warfare, the United States withdrew almost all of its troops. This triggered a surprisingly unexpected economic collapse that the country is still struggling to bounce back from. The past year also saw the emergence a migration crisis that will further complicate any economic recovery.

    Two of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, have been pushing Afghan refugees back over the border in massive numbers, while the European Union signed a deal that made aid contingent upon the Afghan government’s agreement to accept rejected asylum seekers. The first plane carrying Afghans deported from Germany arrived in mid-December. In addition, record numbers of people were internally displaced by conflict in 2016.                  

    Going into the new year, Afghanistan is struggling to support 583,174 people displaced by conflict over the past year, as well as 616,620 people who returned from other countries.


    Andrew Quilty/IRIN
    Outside the UN’s intake centre between the Pakistan border and the city of Jalalabad, in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province

    There’s no sign that the Taliban insurgency will ease up, and efforts at convincing them to talk peace with the government have so far been spectacularly unsuccessful. Afghanistan’s military is also battling other insurgent groups, notably IS, which has emerged as a brutal force to be reckoned with in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Meanwhile, Iran continues to push Afghans back home, Europe is likely to return more, and Pakistan says it will begin forced deportations of all Afghans who have not left the country by March.

    Kabila stays on in Congo

    The political false dawn of 2016, Hillary Clinton apart, was the electoral concession that wasn’t by the autocrat running Gambia. The announcement turned out to be just a ploy by President Yahya Jammeh to buy himself more time to work out how he might extend his 22-and-a-half years in power. But we're also shifting our attention from Africa’s smallest mainland country to its second largest – the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila appears to be engaged in similar manoeuvring that has already cost dozens of lives and led to hundreds of arrests.

    Although violent unrest in the Gambia shouldn’t be discounted, the consequences of Kabila clinging to power could be even more disastrous. At the moment, an uneasy truce of sorts seems to be holding. Opposition parties have agreed, in principle at least, to allow Kabila to remain as president until the end of next year, but discussions ahead on a transitional government and delayed elections could quickly unravel. Kabila might also try to amend the constitution again to delay elections into 2018 and beyond. With neighbouring Burundi already in extended turmoil over term limits and memories still fresh of the 1998-2003 Second Congo War that dragged in nine African nations and led to an estimated six million deaths, events in Kinshasa are worth keeping a close eye on in 2017.

    The opposition is weak and, in Kinshasa at least, unarmed, so with little international pressure being brought to bear and the media spotlight elsewhere, the received wisdom is that Kabila will quietly cement his hold on power. But if 2016 taught us anything, it’s to be ready for the unexpected.

    Famine in the Lake Chad Basin region

    In terms of sheer numbers and need, one humanitarian crisis that could overshadow all of the above next year lies in the vast Lake Chad Basin. It has had little coverage by journalists; perhaps more under-reported than any other humanitarian emergency of a similar scale. Despite military progress against Boko Haram extremists, 2016 saw conditions deteriorate fast in this troubled region, where Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria meet.

    Mausi Segun, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told IRIN that such appalling scenes, including the faces of thousands of starving children, haven’t been seen here since the 1967-70 war with secessionist Biafra. Early warning network FEWS NET says 4.7 million people need emergency food assistance in northeastern Nigeria alone and warned on 13 December that a famine is already likely to have occurred and to be ongoing in remote pockets of the region. Across the border in Chad, conditions are little better – more than 130,000 people displaced by the Boko Haram conflict are scattered around camps, competing for slender resources with vulnerable host communities.

    And it’s not just Boko Haram that is the problem: a combination of human water use and climate change has shrunk the lake itself to a 20th of its original size since the 1960s. The crisis is already enormous and only likely to deepen in 2017.


    People at a food distribution site on Lake Chad
    Ashley Hamer/IRIN
    The majority of people at this food distribution site on Lake Chad hail from the Buduma ethnic group

    (TOP PHOTO: Approaching the militarised “red zone” towards the border with Niger, displaced families in the Lake Chad Basin gather for another distribution of cash handouts. Ashley Hamer/IRIN)


    Ten humanitarian stories to look out for in 2017
  • The Grinch’s not-so-festive guide to food ration cuts

    Across much of the world, the festive season is a time of indulgence. But what if you’re too busy fleeing violence and upheaval, or stuck in a refugee camp on reduced rations?

    It’s been a hard year for the most vulnerable among us. This is partly due to tightening aid budgets, but it’s also the result of there simply being so many more people in crisis who need help.

    “It's not just a question of falling donor funding; most donors have continued to be generous, providing funds at relatively consistent levels for years,” World Food Programme spokeswoman Challiss McDonough told IRIN.  “But the number of [those in need] is much larger.”

    A prime example is Uganda, where 602,000 South Sudanese refugees are sheltering. As a result of the conflict in neighbouring South Sudan, “we are now supporting nearly twice as many refugees as we were just six months ago”, explained McDonough.

    WFP, as the global emergency food responder, is feeling the strain. “I'd say there are probably very few countries where we have not had to make some kind of adjustment to our assistance plans because of a lack of funding,” said McDonough.

    The following is a not-so-festive guide to where WFP has been forced to make cuts to already minimal food rations in Africa. It includes some non-refugee national programmes, which have also been impacted by funding shortfalls.

    Burkina Faso

    Rations have been reduced and cash assistance suspended for the 31,000 Malian refugees in Burkina Faso. As a result, about a quarter of refugees do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs.

    “Most refugees in the camps depend solely on humanitarian assistance to survive,” said WFP country director Jean-Charles Dei. “When assistance is interrupted or insufficient, the food security and nutrition situation dramatically deteriorate, especially for women, children, and elderly people.”


    Lack of funding has impacted a range of activities targeting vulnerable communities. Food-for-training for Congolese refugees and Burundian migrants expelled from Tanzania and Rwanda has been suspended. The number of children reached through an anti-stunting campaign has been reduced by 70 percent, with the programme halted entirely in Ruramvya and Rutana provinces.


    Monthly food rations for Central African Republic refugees in Cameroon was cut by 50 percent in November and December. The 150,000 refugees are entirely dependent on international aid.

    In May, WFP also halted its meals programme to 16 primary schools in northern Cameroon due to a lack of funding.

    Central African Republic

    WFP has been unable to assist more than 500,000 people in urgent need of aid and has been forced to halve the amount of food it has provided to those it can reach. Emergency school meals have been suspended in the capital, Bangui, and rations to displaced people in the violence-hit central town of Kaga Bandoro have been slashed by 75 percent. “WFP needs to urgently mobilise flexible contributions to cover for distributions from January onwards,” the agency has warned.


    For the past two years, refugees in Chad have survived on monthly rations well below the minimum requirement. For some, the cuts have been by as much as 60 percent. A joint assessment released in November by WFP and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, found more than 40 percent of the 400,000 refugees in Chad are malnourished and the majority of children are anaemic.


    Since November 2015, ration cuts have affected more than 760,000 refugees, the bulk of them from South Sudan and Somalia. Although there was an improvement in general food rations from June this year, UNHCR has warned that households still face difficulties. The cuts have, in particular, affected children aged under the age of five, with global acute malnutrition above the 15 percent emergency threshold in 10 out of 22 assessed refugee camps.


    All nutrition and livelihood related activities have been suspended due to a lack of funding.


    In December, WFP cut monthly rations by half for the 400,000 refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab and Kakuma camps. It warned that unless urgent new funding is received, it will completely run out of food by February. Most refugees in Dadaab have already had their rations cut down to 70 percent of June 2015 levels, and UNHCR has warned of a likely increase in malnutrition as a result of the new squeeze.

    Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “Given Kenya’s threat to deport Somalis has already triggered illegal forced refugee return, the UN ([World] Food Programme’s decision to further reduce refugee food rations could not have come at a worse time.”


    Ration cuts to 27,000 refugees meant that at the beginning of 2016 they were only receiving 40 percent of the recommended minimum number of daily kilocalories. Those shortages began six months earlier. By March, only three out of seven food items – maize, beans, and cooking oil – were being supplied. The Dzaleka camp hosts people mainly from the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions, with new arrivals escaping unrest across the border in Mozambique.


    In November, WFP halved food rations to 42,500 Malian refugees. Without fresh funding, it says it will be forced to suspend general food distributions, including cash transfers, from next month. A school meals programme for vulnerable Mauritanian children has also been put on hold and will only partially resume in January.


    A nationwide prevention of stunting programme for children aged six-23 months, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers has been discontinued due to limited funding.


    WFP will “significantly scale down” its livelihoods programmes in December 2016. If no additional resources are confirmed, it will only be able to continue with minimal programmes (mainly nutrition) from February 2017. WFP is targeting 1.4 million vulnerable Somalis in food-insecure areas.


    Rations have been cut by 50 percent for some 200,000 refugees who arrived in Uganda prior to July 2015. Low levels of funding, together with the large numbers of new arrivals fleeing fighting in South Sudan has left WFP workers “with no choice but to re-prioritise their focus on those refugees in greatest need.” The humanitarian response to South Sudanese refugees in Uganda was already severely underfunded even before the latest outbreak of violence in Juba in July.

    (TOP PHOTO: Residents of an IDP camp in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo receive food rations distributed by WFP. WFP)


    The Grinch’s not-so-festive guide to food ration cuts
  • The challenge of building “New Gambia”

    Last Friday, the unbelievable happened in Gambia: after 22 years of autocratic rule, Yahya Jammeh peacefully conceded defeat in a historic presidential election. By Monday, 19 political prisoners, including former opposition leader Ousainou Darboe, had been released from jail.

    It has been a head-spinning few days for the nation as it breaks free from oppression to rebuild what the incoming coalition government, headed by Adama Barrow, has branded “New Gambia”.

    The challenges ahead are daunting. Ensuring a safe transfer of power and reassuring the country that the new government has a strong reform plan are the immediate tasks.

    But after more than two decades of misrule, Gambians are also impatient for change and the list of problems is long: a prostrate and undiversified economy, a high rate of outmigration, heavily politicised state institutions – including a military and a criminal justice system used to operating by fear.

    Expectations are sky-high as so much already seems to have happened so quickly.

    Coalition 2016, officially formed only one month before the election, swept to victory on Friday with 46 percent of the vote, to Jammeh’s 37 percent. Independent candidate Mama Kandeh trailed on 18 percent.

    Soon after the announcement that Jammeh was to stand down, delivered by the reportedly trembling chair of the Independent Electoral Commission, Gambians began pouring onto the streets, shouting for joy and dancing as car horns wailed.


    The jubilant scenes shared through social media were a collective release. “It was like we had been under a magician’s spell and the spell had just broken,” said Alieu Bah, a 24-year-old activist and writer.

    “Twenty four hours earlier we were in the polar opposite situation. It was like a dream. No one saw this coming, even the most optimistic of people.”


    Gambia celebrates
    Steve Cockburn/Amnesty International
    Gambia celebrates

    The coalition’s popularity was no surprise. Its two weeks of electoral campaigning had culminated in youthful and energised crowds packing streets for several kilometres in the rallies held in the urban coastal areas. But nobody expected Jammeh, who had vowed that only God could remove him from power, to accept defeat without a fight.

    “People were ready for change, but knowing the type of person Jammeh is, they did not believe that he would concede defeat without contesting the results,” said exiled journalist Alhagie Jobe, reporting from Dakar, Senegal. “Hopes were not high for a peaceful transfer of power.”

    Gambians were bracing for the worst after Jammeh, without warning, imposed a total internet and telecommunications ban at 8pm on the eve of the election. “We thought there would be Ivory Coast-style electoral violence,” said Jobe, referring to a 2010-11 crisis that led to civilian massacres.

    But the communications blackout ultimately failed to intimidate voters, and activists and journalists within the country published rolling results via SMS and on satellite phones, in a victory for transparency.

    “Jammeh was not happy,” said Jobe, who had been tortured and imprisoned for 18 months by the regime. “He fought behind the scenes. He did all he could to hold on to power, but because there was such a strong atmosphere for change he knew he couldn’t stop it: the people had spoken.”

    What next?

    There are now great hopes – and pressures – on the coalition to deliver their promise of a New Gambia, especially among youths who voted for change in unprecedented numbers.

    “Youths came out and voted in this election and their voices have been heard,” said Dakar-based rapper Jerreh Badjie (stage name Retsam).

    Youth activist Mariama Saine said she hoped that once the new government took back all the industries owned by Jammeh, including farms and factories, there would be more employment opportunities that would provide an alternative to high-risk migration.

    “Jammeh has monopolised any sector youths could fit into, now these will be areas the new government can develop for youths.”

    For Bah, a new referendum should be held on the constitution to guarantee the secular nature of the country, introduce term limits, and guarantee human rights, and freedom of movement.

    “Jammeh also needs to be held to account,” he said. “He should face justice through a fair trial."


    Jammeh concedes
    Steve Cockburn/Amnesty International
    Jammeh concedes in a phone call to Adama Barrow

    Bintou Kamara, a Paris-based Gambian who founded an organisation to disseminate information about migration, said: “Now, there is a new window of hope for the entire population.

    “Some migrants I have spoken to who are in a deplorable situation in Europe are thinking of going home. They will be empty-handed but they will be coming back to hope. There will be lots of returnees.”

    Freedom of speech

    The most immediate change for Gambians is the ability to speak freely. Over the weekend, the scenes from former businessman Barrow’s victory parade showed partying crowds and people tearing down and stamping on Jammeh’s paternally smiling election banners.

    Bah, one of the few activists to criticise the government through social media while living in Gambia, told IRIN that before the election he could have been arrested at any time. “People really feared for my life, but I survived. This is what it means to triumph over a dictatorship. Gambia has become a beacon of hope. This is what we want to be remembered for.”

    Photojournalist Alhagie Manka also needs no reminder of the brutal regime the country has just broken free from.

    He was one of three journalists detained by the security forces at the start of the electoral campaign in a bid to intimidate the press and the electorate. “I was held for seven days, but they did not tell me why. They just kept asking me who I work for in the diaspora.”

    Commenting on what the outcome means for him, Manka said: “I am overjoyed, knowing that I have witnessed history. We have been living in hell under Yahya Jammeh, and we thank God he is leaving now, and I hope he will leave in peace.”

    Who’s in charge?

    Behind the grins, people are understandably nervous about the transfer of power.

    With Barrow’s inauguration not taking place until mid-January and a large military presence remaining on the streets, it’s clearly a highly sensitive security matter.

    Human rights organisations Amnesty International and Article 19 have called for a “safe transfer of power”, but said they cannot comment further.  

    Sheriff Bojang, a Gambian journalist at West Africa Democracy Radio in Dakar, said there was still uncertainty about who is in charge of the military.

    “It worries many people that the military hasn’t said anything so far to assure the population that there is no need for concern and that the country is safe and that the will of the people will continue to prevail,” he said.

    President-elect Barrow is due to meet outgoing Jammeh at State House soon, and address the nation. In the meantime, the release on bail of Darboe and the 18 other political prisoners arrested during protests in April is a “positive step”, according to Amnesty International.

    Fatoumatta Sandeng, whose father Solo Sandeng was allegedly tortured to death by the regime for protesting in April, told IRIN the new government is “a dream come true. It means freedom for the Sandeng family. It means justice.

    “We are glad that my father didn’t die in vain, and his efforts – and that of all those who have contributed their part in making sure the Jammeh regime ends – have paid [off].”


    TOP PHOTO: Celebrating a historic election victory CREDIT: Steve Cockburn/Amnesty International

    The challenge of building “New Gambia”
  • Will a united opposition finally unseat Gambia’s strongman?

    There has been unprecedented popular protest this year against the regime of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. But as the country heads to elections this week, hope for change is giving way to trepidation he will win and extend his 22-year stay in power.

    Human rights organisations have warned that the conditions leading up to Thursday’s vote are not conducive to a free and fair election. There has been a spate of arrests of journalists and opposition activists in a country in which disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture is commonplace.

    The Sandeng family is all too aware of those dangers. In April, they were forced to flee, crossing the border with Senegal at night, at a point they hoped would be unguarded.

    A week before, on 14 April, the head of the family, opposition activist Solo Sandeng, had allegedly been tortured to death by Gambia’s security forces for leading a peaceful protest near the capital, Banjul.


    The family, five adults and five children, spent a week in hiding, knowing their home was under constant surveillance. Then, realising they had no choice but to leave, they sought refuge in Senegal.

    It is a well-trodden escape route for the many Gambians who find themselves on the run from political persecution. “I was told to walk across the border and not look back,” said 22-year-old Fatoumatta Sandeng.

    In their new home in exile, the Sandeng family crammed onto sponge mattresses on the floor as Fatoumatta related how her father, a leading member of the opposition United Democratic Party, had been marching with youth activists against new rules introduced by Jammeh to scupper his opponents’ chances in this election.

    It was the first opposition demonstration since 14 students were gunned down by the army in 2000.

    “People were protesting for electoral reforms so that there could be a change of government. Because if the elections were free and fair, which is very rare in the Gambia, people would be at least hopeful that it could bring a better Gambia for its citizens,” Fatoumatta explained.

    Exiled Gambians pin hope of return on a new president-elect

    Jason Florio and Louise Hunt/IRIN
    Exiled Gambians pin hope of return on a new president-elect


    Jammeh’s regime has a long history of hounding dissenters, but due to the government’s tight control over the media Gambians are often unaware of the scale of human rights violations. The very public nature of Sandeng’s arrest was a wake-up call.

    “In Gambia, we know there wouldn’t be any protests without the government trying to stop them,” said Fatoumatta. “But to the extent of arresting, torturing and killing someone: that was shocking to the Gambian people.”

    Over April and May, Sandeng’s death ignited an unprecedented public outcry against the government’s brutality.

    “Before, you didn’t see people protesting on the streets. People didn’t dare hold a banner that insults the president. Now, it’s happening,” noted Alhagie Jobe, a journalist who was tortured by the secret police and spent 18 months in prison before being acquitted of sedition charges. He now lives in exile in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

    “It’s changing gradually. He [Jammeh] himself knows he is coming to the end of his administration. What people weren’t doing before for the past 20 years; it’s happening now. So that’s the signal that he’s losing power, gradually.”

    Opposition re-set

    Jammeh, who came to power in a military coup, responded to the bout of protests by arresting most of the UDP hierarchy, including party leader Ousainou Darboe. They were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for unlawful assembly, destabilising the party in the lead-up to the election.

    Out of this adversity, the previously fractious opposition parties realised their only chance was to unite and form Gambia’s first opposition coalition. But one leader, Mamma Kandeh, refused to join, and there is concern he may split the opposition vote.

    The “Coalition for Change 2016”, headed by the relatively unknown Adama Barrow, is nevertheless giving some Gambians hope that this time around there could be an upset at the ballot box, after four straight electoral wins by Jammeh.

    “Gambians need big changes,” said 31-year-old Abdoulie Touray*, speaking quietly over Skype from his home near Banjul.

    Touray left his rural village to study for a qualification in IT but could only find low-paid work as a watchman in a residential compound.

    “In the early years, Jammeh did good work in developing the country, but now he is overstaying,” Touray told IRIN. “We need a new president who will move the country forward. A lot of people are not working and the economy is falling down.”

    Gambia’s failure

    The Gambia is one of the world’s poorest countries, ranked 175 out of 188 in the Human Development Index. Children and young people under 30 make up the majority of the population and youth unemployment stands at 38 percent.


    Gambia police station
    D. Piris/Flickr
    The opposition rarely gets such a welcome

    In recent years, Jammeh’s autocratic decisions have increasingly isolated the country. In 2013, he withdrew Gambia from the Commonwealth; last year, he changed the title of the moderate Muslim-majority country to the Islamic Republic; and, in October, he opted to exit the International Criminal Court, on the grounds that it was biased against African countries.

    Touray hopes that if the new seven-party opposition coalition wins on Thursday, it will have a better relationship with the outside world.

    “We need people who can stabilise the country and bring in foreign investors. If people have jobs, they won’t go the backway,” he said, a reference to the illegal migration route to Europe.

    Last year, Touray’s two brothers undertook the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean. The Gambia, with a population of two million, is currently the fifth largest contributor of migrants arriving by sea in Italy.

    Exiles rally

    In Dakar, political activist rappers Jerreh Badjie (stage name Retsam) and Ali Cham (Killa Ace) both have a strong following among Gambian youths. They are part of a tight circle of recently exiled young Gambians driving a social media movement to inform and motivate their peers back home to push for change.

    “People are starting to see that if they don’t express themselves now, their lives and their children’s lives are at risk. They have to face the situation and talk now,” said Badjie, 27.

    Cham believes the lack of freedom of expression is inhibiting young people’s potential and contributes to the “backway” mentality.

    “It’s not that the backway is the only option, but to them it’s the easiest route [to improving their lives],” he told IRIN from his home recording studio, which is decorated with posters of revolutionaries and the Gambian flag.

    Combatting apathy

    Cham and Badjie accept that a lot of young people feel apathetic towards politics and want to boycott the election as a stand against what happened to the protesters in April and May.

    But Cham insists inaction won’t help: “The only thing youths can do is vote against the system, even if they’re disgruntled. There’s not much else they can do.”

    Meanwhile, in Gambia, locals report an edgy calm as the election approaches. “Everything is normal right now, but we are scared of what will happen if Jammeh gets voted out but refuses to leave,” said Touray. “We think there could be a lot of violence.”

    Lamin Manneh*, a young writer, is taking a philosophical view: “My gut feeling is that the guy [Jammeh] will triumph. But the coalition is really unsettling the whole system; people are not as gullible as before. For me, this is bigger than politics. It’s about creating a mass movement for democracy.

    “Even if it all ends as the year that something could have happened, but didn’t, I believe the seeds for democracy have been sown and are starting to take root.”


    * Not their real names

    TOP PHOTO: President Yahya Jammeh, by Erin Siegal

    Yahya Jammeh looks to extend his 22 years in power in elections this week
    Will a united opposition finally unseat Gambia’s strongman?
  • Bye bye dreams

    In July 2015, Mohammed Lamin*, a 26-year-old Gambian, was pulled from a stricken smuggler’s boat in the Mediterranean. On board the rescue vessel, he spoke to IRIN about his hopes that Europe would change his fortunes for the better. We also talked to his family back in Gambia about their expectations that Lamin would find work in Europe and not only repay the cost of his passage but lift them all out of poverty. Louise Hunt met up with Lamin in northern Italy to find out what actually happened.

    It is a bone chilling, drizzly day in February, but Lamin is sitting on a park bench. It is one of the few places in this wealthy town where he can spend time outside his hostel without spending money he doesn’t have.

    All the benches around the grand circular lawns and fountains are occupied by sub-Saharan Africans. He approaches a group huddled on a neighbouring bench to get a light for his cigarette and chats with them a while. “They’re my boys from the hotel,” he explains.

    After a short stay at a reception centre in Pozzallo, Sicily, where he disembarked from the Migrant Offshore Aid Station boat that rescued him, Lamin was registered as an asylum seeker in Milan and sent to this town near Venice (he asked that the town not be named in case his asylum application fails).

    His home for now is a budget-end hotel recently converted into a hostel for asylum seekers, on the outskirts of the medieval town centre. Many similarly unusual reception centres have sprung up around Italy over the last two years as the number of asylum seekers arriving has doubled.

    Dressed neatly in donated jeans and jacket, Lamin says he is one of the longest staying residents at the hostel. “Most of the people that arrived with me have been moved into apartments, but I wanted to stay.”

    His industrious, affable nature quickly made a good impression and he was asked to work in the hostel kitchen with a fellow Gambian who serves as chef. For this work, Lamin says he receives 35 euros a month and the possibility of future fully-paid work if he secures legal status in Italy.

    “They said if I’m serious about my Italian lessons and get my documents, they want to give me a job.”

    Related stories:

    Taking 'the back way' out - The Gambia to Italy

    Since you've been gone - The families migrants leave behind

    Why deportations are hard to do

    Hotspot solution deepens refugee crisis

    In the mornings, Lamin and the other residents attend a two-hour class in basic Italian that forms part of the government’s integration strategy for asylum seekers.

    Afterwards, he starts work in the kitchen, helping to prepare the food and serving it to the 100-plus residents. He often works two shifts a day, even on weekends. In return, he says, his line manager “is good to me”, buying him cigarettes and slipping him some extra euros. “They always say ‘Lamin, go and take a break,’ but I would rather work, I don’t want to think too much.”

    His new life in Italy is not what he imagined it would be. “You cannot know until you come here,” he says. “This park is full of people doing nothing; everybody is waiting for their documents. Some people regret coming here and cannot go back.”

    In 2015, 144,000 migrants arrived by sea to Lampedusa or Sicily, of which 8,500 were identified as Gambian, according to the International Organization for Migration. Most were fleeing grinding poverty rather than persecution or conflict, but an asylum application extends the time they can legally remain in the country. It’s an option that may soon be eliminated as Italy implements the EU’s hotspot system to screen out so-called economic migrants as soon as they arrive and before they have the opportunity to apply for asylum.

    For those like Lamin, who managed to register as asylum seekers before the new system came into effect late last year, Italy’s backlog of asylum cases means a prolonged state of limbo. While asylum seekers are normally issued with a temporary residence permit allowing them to undertake paid work two months after registering a claim, their chances of finding work are very slim.

    Italy has a national unemployment rate of 11 percent and 38 percent for youths. “Even if you have a residence permit, it is very difficult to find work,” attests Lamin. The language barrier is the main problem, he says, but migrants also face open hostility and complain of racism.

    After everything young men like Lamin risked to reach Europe, many struggle to accept that their only reward is this bleak jobless existence.


    Jason Florio/MOAS/IRIN
    Mohammed Lamin aboard the boat that rescued him from the Mediterranean in July 2015

    Lamin left behind a wife and baby son in Senegal, where he had been working, and a large family in Gambia. He can only afford to speak to them once a month. “If I have my documents I can work and try to go back to see my family. All I want to do is see them – I miss them so much,” he says.

    At first, he says, he regretted making the journey to Italy. “I wished to go back, but now I have to try to get my papers. I want to learn Italian and work here so that I can support my family.”

    He saves as much of his monthly 75-euro asylum seeker allowance as he can and wires it to his parents one month and his wife the next. 

    “I don’t want my children to have the same hardship. I want my son to have an education. So I decided, ‘let me sacrifice myself for them, I have to try’.”

    “I don’t want my children to have the same hardship. I want my son to have an education. So I decided, ‘let me sacrifice myself for them, I have to try’.”

    Lamin is now waiting for his interview with the territorial commission for international protection – a regional panel that will either grant him refugee status (or the more temporary status of subsidiary or humanitarian protection) or reject his claim as unfounded. Negative decisions can then be appealed at the national courts. Lamin has not yet received any legal advice, but his employer, the hotel manager, has promised to help him put his case together.

    By Italian law, first decisions on asylum status should be made within 35 days, but the backlog of cases means it can take up to a year, according to Valentina Fabbri, director of Rome-based social enterprise Programma Integra, which provides support to asylum seekers.     

    Even after a long wait, the odds of Lamin receiving refugee status in Italy are not good. Out of 8,775 decisions on applications from Gambians made in Italy in 2015, 66 percent were rejected, according to Eurostat figures.

    Mohammed Lamin

    Lamin walks through the cobbled streets of his new home town
    Louise Hunt/IRIN
    Lamin walks through the cobbled streets of his new home town

    In theory, failed asylum seekers are given five days to leave the country or risk being detained and deported. But Eurostat figures show that in 2014, out of 270 Gambians ordered to leave Italy, only five were forcibly returned.

    Italy is taking steps to improve its cooperation with Gambia to increase returns of failed asylum seekers (in December, Gambian authorities sent an official to help identify Gambian nationals arriving in Sicily). But most of those rejected for asylum disappear into the shadowy informal economy where they often work for low wages and in poor conditions, says Fabbri.

    Walking in the drizzle, across piazzas and through cobbled streets where luxury shops gleam from ornately carved sandstone villas, Lamin, with his slight frame and borrowed umbrella, appears dwarfed and lost.

    We cross the park again. “I want to pray,” he says, heading for a money transfer shop. “Sometimes they let me pray here at the back.” But today there are no mats available.

    Sheltering from the rain in the bus station, he shakes his head when asked whether he would have made the journey, knowing what he knows now. “No, I would not have come,” he says.

    *Not his real name



    Bye bye dreams
    A migrant’s quest for a better life in Europe turns to disillusionment
  • IRIN's Top Picks: Overhauling aid, ending poverty and 'philanthrocapitalism'

    Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of recent must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs, and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates.

    Five to read:

    Overhauling aid & aiding overhaul

    Next week, representatives of the UN, NGOs, governments, the private sector, academia, and local communities meet in Geneva to explore how to improve crisis response. The Global Consultation – known as “GloCon” – is the last in a series of gatherings held over the last 18 months with some 23,000 people in 151 countries in the lead-up to the World Humanitarian Summit next year. A 189-page synthesis report of the process, released last week, repeats the call we have been hearing over and over: to put the people affected by crises at the heart of humanitarian action. The five core strands are: empowering people to cope with more dignity; placing more emphasis on protecting civilians from violence (in places like Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Syria); strengthening people’s resilience to crises; building better partnerships, particularly with local actors; and finding more efficient financing models.

    If you don’t have time to get through it before the big meet-up, there is a short synopsis here, or the recently released 2015 edition of ALNAP’s flagship State of the Humanitarian System report is accompanied by an easy-to-browse infographic summary that basically says the same thing: the aid sector is broken. “The system is still applying a one-size-fits-all response that currently doesn’t work”. Among the recommendations: mapping out which responders are best placed in which circumstances; and creating a more unified emergency system within the UN. To support the proposals you think most critical, click here.

    An end to poverty?

    Could we be moving closer to ending worldwide poverty by 2030? A briefing from the World Bank certainly gives hope: the number of people living in extreme poverty is forecast to fall to less than 10 percent of the global population by the end of the year. An updated international poverty line, now defined as those surviving on $1.90 or less a day, and new country-level data on living standards mean a projected 700 million people will be in extreme poverty in 2015 – down from around 900 million, according to the same standard, in 2012. But concerns that poverty is falling too slowly in sub-Saharan Africa and “unevenness in shared prosperity” across South Asia leave a “large unfinished agenda”, the World Bank says.

    Keeping order among chaos

    “In a city, one broken pipe can deprive 100,000 people of water.” Maintaining basic systems of infrastructure in conflict-struck cities is no easy feat for aid agencies. The International Committee of the Red Cross says radical change is needed if humanitarians want to continue helping civilians in urban areas gain access to essential public services, such as water, electricity, and sanitation. In its new report, it highlights how organisations must plan better for long-term knock-on effects of armed violence. For example, if an electrical transformer goes down after being shelled, it can shut down water supplies to nearby hospitals, thereby impacting public health. Evaluating the scale and duration of what needs to be fixed or restored in such scenarios is crucial to providing the most effective humanitarian response.

    Being super-rich and Superman

    Paying homage to business elites for their charitable work has led to the rise of "philanthrocapitalism" – but are these activist billionaires escaping much-needed criticism? Writing in The Nation, David Reiff talks of the "richesse oblige" – entrepreneurs, or organisations like the Gates Foundation, whose work in development aid seems to “skirt the essential issue of accountability in the name of efficiency” due to lack of regulation and vast amounts of political influence. Yet somehow, it has become “entrusted with the welfare and fate of the powerless and the hungry”. Reiff concludes that unless systemic aid criticism is accepted and implemented, these philanthrocapitalists may be doing more harm than good.

    Humanitarian broadcasting in emergencies

    Evaluating impact has become a necessary obsession for the humanitarian industry. Donors demand it, but more importantly, it improves accountability on behalf of the people humanitarians are trying to help. But the impact of information in a crisis is much harder to measure. This BBC Media Action report attempts to lay the foundations for future research in this emerging area. At an event last week, the report’s editor, James Deane, argued that public service media has never been more important, as commercial media are increasingly co-opted in crises, not only by governments, but also by factional, religious and ethnic interests. Yet in what he called a “ridiculous” oversight, the international development community has “no clear, coherent response” to this market failure. The report makes the case for investment in media development based on evaluations of four BBC Media Action programmes – in response to the Nepal earthquake earlier this year, the Ebola outbreak, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the 2014 conflict in Gaza.

    One to listen to:

    Generation War

    In the latest Global Thinkers podcast from Foreign Policy, Lauren Wolfe, director of the Women Under Siege project, joins Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), an organisation pairing unaccompanied minors crossing the US border with pro bono lawyers, to discuss the challenges facing children fleeing conflict. Wolfe highlights the appalling conditions for children held in detention centres across Europe and stresses that locking them up at such a young age, especially after the trauma of making dangerous trips from places like Syria, can have serious long-term mental health consequences. Young sees “stark” parallels with those escaping violence in Central and Southern America, many of whom suffer weight loss and illness in detention. The overriding message: there will be big problems down the road if children, many of them unaccompanied, are left to languish and their needs are not addressed.

    Coming up:

    Disaster risk reduction in action: live Nepal case study, 14 October 2015 11:00 - 12:30 (GMT+01 (BST))

    In the aftermath of the two devastating earthquakes that hit Nepal
    earlier this year, experts are still debating how the country’s disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategies could have prevented further destruction and loss of life. This event hosted by the Overseas Development Institute examines preparedness and governance in relation to DRR and launches the revised Good Practice Review 9, a how-to guide on the issue for humanitarians.

    From IRIN:

    Since you’ve been gone

    As more and more refugees and migrants escape their homelands, our special feature looks at the families two economic migrants left behind. With maps, videos and on-the-ground reportage, we first chart the journeys of the two migrants, one from Nigeria, the other from the Gambia, bringing to light the challenges they face as they seek a better life. But then we also tell the lesser-known side of the story, exploring how their loved ones back home also carry an enormous burden – both financially and emotionally. So why do they still go? One of the men, Lucky, sums it up: “Because today I may suffer, but tomorrow, if I happen to make it, I know my family will lead a better life.”


    IRIN's Top Picks: 9 October, 2015
  • Since you've been gone: the families migrants leave behind

    Every migrant who sets out on a journey leaves behind a family.

    Our natural focus is on the odyssey, and the crisis that drives people from their homes. But migration is much more than just about people fleeing conflict or seeking asylum. It affects many more people than those actually on the move and navigating hostile borders. Those left behind, out of the media spotlight, also carry a burden – both financial and emotional – in supporting loved ones on their journey.

    This special feature focuses on two such families.

    Special feature: since you've been gone
  • 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
  • Working to keep the peace: The impact of job schemes on ex-rebels

    Job-creation schemes are the traditional way to tackle the post-conflict problem of unemployed ex-fighters and to reduce the threat they can pose to peace and stability in fragile states.

    The theory - encapsulated in most demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programmes - is that jobs can be generated through training and capital inputs; that employment decreases the risks of re-recruitment; and once armed with a pay cheque, ex-combatants settle down and reintegrate more easily into society.

    Those assumptions were tested in a recent study exploring whether employment could reduce lawlessness and rebellion among high-risk men in Liberia. Of those who took part in the training scheme that was studied, 74 percent had fought in Liberia’s traumatic 14-year civil war.  The study concluded that training and cash incentives did encourage lawful employment, and as a result the men resisted being signed up by mercenary recruiters during a neigbouring conflict.  But there was no evidence employment improved their societal reintegration – they remained violent and anti-social.

    The NGO Action on Armed Violence (AoAV) works with ex-fighters and other troubled young men, typically involved in illegal mining and logging in remote “hotspots”, providing agricultural training and farm inputs. The income-generating scheme gave the researchers - Christopher Blattman of Columbia University and Jeannie Annan, of the International Rescue Committee - what they described as a unique opportunity to study employment-led rehabilitation.

    Their study found that even the highest risk men where “overwhelmingly interested in farming” as a result of the AoAV training. But although they spent 20 percent more time on farming, they didn’t abandon their illicit activities. Instead, they adjusted “their portfolio of occupations”, and saw a modest rise of $12 a month in earnings. Crucially the men reported “24 percent less engagement” with mercenary recruiters when Cote d’Ivoire’s short war erupted in 2011 – and none went to fight.

    The study’s findings were published in the Social Science Research Network.

    DDR employment programmes generally have a low success rate: Often the primary goal is to get a peace agreement signed, not sustained economic reintegration – a failing witnessed from the Central African Republic to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

    The study suggests that the single-trade focus of most DDR programmes fails to appreciate how, in the real world, the poor use multiple streams of income to mitigate risk. Liquid capital is key. The AoAV scheme demonstrated, almost accidentally, the power of cash incentives. As a result of a supply problem, roughly a third of the men expecting a second farm input installment were told to expect instead a cash payment – conditional on them not taking up mining or mercenary work. This financial inducement worked. 

    “The potential policy implication is that one-time transfers will not fully deter future criminal or mercenary opportunities. Ongoing incentives, such as cash-for-work programmes or other conditional transfers, could be important compliments,” the study noted.

    Despite the men’s relative economic success, the programme had “little effect on aggression, participation in community life and politics, or attitudes to violence and democracy” – in other words, little progress in terms of social integration. Furthermore, although AoAV’s intervention had a positive impact, an additional $12 a month earned was “not a high return” on the investment. 

    “Cost-effectiveness thus hinges on the hard-to-quantify social returns to lower crime and violence,” the study noted. In a fragile country recovering from conflict, that may well be a price worth paying.

    For further reading on DDR see:


    How to help ex-rebels adjust to peace

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