(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • An ambitious plan to end statelessness

    It is now 60 years since stateless people received recognition in international law, and the UN has two conventions (1954 and 1961) dedicated to their protection and the regularization of their situation. Yet an estimated 10 million people worldwide still suffer the problems and indignities of having no nationality.

    “It may be a bit of understatement to say that these are the two least loved multilateral human rights treaties,” said Mark Manly, head of the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) statelessness unit. “For many years they were pretty much forgotten and that was in large part because they had no UN agency promoting them.” 

    Manly has responsibility for the issue of statelessness, even though most stateless people neither are, nor have ever been, refugees, and this week UNHCR launched an ambitious plan to try to end statelessness over the next 10 years. 

    The plan breaks down the issue into 10 action points, addressing the main reasons why people end up stateless. Sometimes it's because children were not registered at birth, or because discriminatory laws prevent their mothers from passing on their own nationality. Some are the victims of ethnic discrimination by countries which refuse to recognize members of their community as citizens; others, especially in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, have fallen down the cracks between countries, as it were, after boundaries were redrawn and states divided. 

    In some of the world's major situations of statelessness UNHCR is already involved. In 1989 tens of thousands of Black African Mauritanians fled to Senegal to get away from murderous ethnic persecution. A large number of the refugees who came scrambling across the river border had no papers. Their Mauritanian identity cards had been confiscated or torn up by members of the security forces or by their fellow citizens, who told them, “Tu n'est pas Maure; alors tu n'est pas Mauritanian” (You are not a Moor, an Arab, so you are not a Mauritanian).

    Senegalese nationality law is generous, and allows them to apply for citizenship after five years' residence, but many have preferred to go home to Mauritania, assisted by UNHCR which supplied them with travel documents under an agreement governing their return. But large numbers are now finding themselves effectively stateless. Manly told IRIN: “What that agreement says, if I remember correctly, is that the nationality of the refugees is 'presumed' - they are presumed to be Mauritanian. However, many people have faced real problems in getting the documentation to prove that they really are Mauritanian, so there is clearly an issue.” 

    “Some 24,000 have returned,” adds Bronwen Manby, a consultant who has worked on this issue. “But the Mauritanian organizations are telling us that only about a third have got their documents. It's the standard sort of situation,” she told IRIN, “where in principle, of course - but then documents were destroyed, and then they find that the name is Mohamed with one 'm' instead of Mohammed with two 'm's, and then it's in French and not in Arabic - there needs to be more pressure on the Mauritanian government to sort out the situation.”

    Laws discriminating against women

    In the Middle East a lot of statelessness is the result of laws discriminating against women, which only allow nationality to be passed through the father - a problem if the father is not there to register his child or is himself stateless. Laura van Waas, who runs the Statelessness Programme at Tilburg University, says it can have a devastating effect on all members of a family. 

    “It's not just the stateless child who is affected by this. It's the mother, who has nationality, who feels guilty for whom she has chosen to marry. Her children are suffering and she sees that as the result of her life choices. And it's the young men who are perhaps the worst affected. This is seen as a women's rights issue, but if you are a young women who couldn't get nationality through your mother, in most of the countries we are looking at you can acquire nationality through your husband, and your children will take his nationality. But if you are a young stateless man, you can't acquire nationality through marriage, and because your children have to acquire their nationality through you, they will also be stateless.”

    In countries like Lebanon, where ID cards were first introduced in the 1920s, but not everyone bothered to register, this kind of statelessness has persisted through several generations, resulting in whole families which, although Lebanese, are non-citizens, unable to travel, and with no access to state schooling or health care. It could be sorted out with a bit of goodwill, but as in many countries, political considerations - in this case questions of religious and ethnic balance - mean goodwill may be in short supply.

    Egypt and Kuwait provide further examples.

    In situations like that of Myanmar, where the government is so reluctant to accept the Muslim community in Rakhine State as Burmese citizens, goodwill seems totally lacking. But elsewhere a lot can be done to reduce statelessness, with improvements to nationality laws, better coordination when states and boundaries change, simpler bureaucratic procedures, and a greater effort to make sure all children get registered.

    Attitudes changing?

    Manly says he is seeing a real change of attitudes, with governments increasingly willing to ratify the conventions, enter into discussions on the issue and make the necessary changes. 

    “The taboo has now been broken,” he says. “Governments now increasingly accept that this is not purely an issue of their sovereign discretion, but that issues of statelessness are of legitimate concern for the international community... Governments have also perceived that it is not in their interests to have a very large disenfranchized and frequently undocumented population in their territories... Ministries of the interior round the world don't want to have tens or hundreds of thousands of people who are undocumented. They want to know who is in their territory, and to be able to control them.”

    “In the past four years, more countries have acceded to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness than in the four decades following its adoption,” says the new UNHCR report. 

    So the UNHCR is hopeful that their campaign can bring down the numbers of stateless people in areas like the Middle East and the Former Soviet Union. 

    But Bronwen Manby warns that in parts of Africa where she has worked, a push to regularize citizenship could actually increase numbers elsewhere. “Nigeria, for instance, has a large number of people who are absolutely undocumented, but everybody somehow gets by, because that's Nigeria. But it's of concern in the context of increasing efforts to reduce the number of undocumented people for security reasons. Once you really start being strict about ID documents, all the people who have managed to get by with a bit of cash, or a bit of magouille, as they say in French, are going to find it much more difficult to get an ID from somewhere, and I think a problem of statelessness is going to be revealed which is already there but has never been identified.”

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    An ambitious plan to end statelessness
  • Nearly 25 million food insecure in Sahel

    Food security and malnutrition rates across the Sahel are deteriorating, due in large part to ongoing conflict and instability in the Central African Republic (CAR), northern Mali, and northeast Nigeria, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

    Nearly five million more people have joined the ranks of the food insecure since the beginning of the year, bringing the estimated total to 24.7 million - more than double the number in 2013, says OCHA.

    "The dramatic rise in insecurity across the region over the last year has generated a tremendous number of people that need to be fed and housed and given health care, because they've been ripped from their livelihoods, as well as their homes," said Robert Piper, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel. "It has also, of course, had an impact on the market and some food prices."

    Negative coping mechanisms

    Some 6.5 million people have crossed the emergency threshold from being moderately food insecure to facing an acute food and livelihood crisis. This is four million more people in this category than in January.

    "There's a big difference between Phase 2 [moderately food insecure], where you are food insecure but using coping mechanisms to deal with it, and Phase 3 [acute food and livelihood crisis], where you have started to use negative coping mechanisms that have potentially very long-term negative consequences," Piper said.

    Negative coping mechanisms include taking out a loan that must be repaid from profits from the following year's harvest, eating seeds that should be saved for next year's planting season, and reducing the number of daily meals from three down to two, or even one.

    "It becomes a very slippery slide, and one that is of great concern to us," Piper said.


    Food production

    Experts say it is still too early to determine what the final crop output will look like this year, but late and erratic rains across much of the region meant many seeds were lost before they had a chance to sprout. Others never had the chance to finish their growth cycles, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

    "We are still monitoring the situation, as there are many variables [such as how long the rains will last and who managed to produce what crops] that need to be monitored to see what the future will hold in terms of harvest at the end of this agricultural season," said Patrick David, FAO's deputy coordinator for food security analysis for West Africa and the Sahel. "But the trend is worrying in some areas."

    A preliminary joint assessment by the World Food Programme (WFP) and FAO in late August found that record rainfall deficits, which were recorded along the Atlantic Coast - from southern Mauritania south to Guinea Bissau, as well as northern Ghana, Benin and Togo - negatively affected agricultural activities.

    In some areas, such as Côte d'Ivoire, Mali and Niger, the rain fell heavily, causing crop and flood damage.

    In others, the rains came early, lasted briefly, and then disappeared for a long time. Those farmers who had the means to reseed did, but many others, who did not, could not.

    While most crops are expected to reach full maturity across much of the region following the start of steady rains across the region at the end of July, overall production is expected to be less than the five-year average in Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania, according to WFP.

    CAR is also expected to have below-average food production this year due to ongoing civil conflict, which has interrupted agricultural activities in many areas, says the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).


    Food Prices

    Average food prices across the region, with the exception of meat, fell for the fifth consecutive month in August, according to the latest data from FAO's food price index. Cereal prices averaged 11.7 percent below the average in August 2013.

    The WFP says, however, that prices in some markets in Mali, Chad and Senegal, are higher than average due to a longer than usual lean season this year. Market prices have also risen in Niger's Diffa region, due to the continued arrival of refugees from Nigeria.

    "This [increased food prices] is certainly having an impact on many households, and can really affect the food security of the most vulnerable households," David said.

    While the Ebola outbreak has not yet directly affected food prices in the Sahel, border closings and movement restrictions have impacted trade flows, particularly along Senegal's border with Guinea, where the closure of 16 markets have reduced trade volume by up to 50 percent, WFP says.


    Pastoralists

    Due to the late onset of rains in areas such as Mauritania, northern Niger, Chad, Senegal and northern Cameroon, pastoralists had a much longer lean season than usual in 2014.

    "They were waiting for their pasture, because as soon as the rains come, of course the fodder starts to grow, and then animals get fed and there is a supply of drinking water," Piper said. "But they had to wait a very, very long time this year."

    Some of the animals died. Others never became large or healthy enough to sell for a decent profit.

    "We've now left the period of hardship for the pastoralists and this situation has improved some," David said. "But they passed a very difficult time in certain zones and it's possible that this will affect the incomes of those that were most vulnerable."

    The security situation in CAR - a key frontier for the movement of animals into and out of the Sahel and northern Nigeria, and a key market for buying and selling animals - also meant that many pastoralists were unable to follow their normal trade routes.

    Nutrition

    There are now more than 6.4 million acutely malnourished children under the age of five in the Sahel, including 1.6 million who are severely malnourished and 4.8 million who are moderately malnourished, according to OCHA.

    "Malnutrition is stubbornly high and remains high in all the countries, but has deteriorated significantly at the moderate levels in northeast Nigeria," Piper said, adding that around 1.4 million more children have become malnourished since the beginning of the year.

    The majority of this increase comes from northeastern Nigeria, where ongoing violence and conflict between Boko Haram, Nigerian security forces and civilian militias continues to displace people in considerable numbers. There are now an estimated 1.5 million displaced people in Nigeria, according to OCHA - mostly women and children.


    Funding shortfall

    More than US$1.9 billion is needed to meet humanitarian needs in the Sahel this year, up from 1.7 billion in 2013 and 1.6 billion in 2012, OCHA reports.

    As of 17 October, OCHA's Strategic Response Plan (SRP) appeal was just 39 percent funded. An additional $300 million has been pledged outside the SRP towards Sahel projects, bringing the total funded appeal to an estimated 50 percent.

    "Over a billion dollars has been committed towards the Sahel thus far, but the bottom line is, the numbers keep going up and so our budget keeps going up as result," Piper said. "It is clearly insufficient for the task this year and has forced us to make some severe cuts in some parts of some programmes," Piper said.

    This includes reducing rations to refugee groups, suspending assistance to pregnant and lactating mothers in certain countries, and making choices between urgent lifesaving measures and important, but often overlooked preventive long-term needs, such as investment in water and sanitation programmes.

    "There is a growing body of people across the region that are so acutely vulnerable, that it only takes a small push for them to go from just coping to crisis," Piper said. "This represents a humanitarian crisis but also a governance crisis and also much more profound structural development challenges. So it's these issues that need to be addressed successfully in order to start turning these trends around."

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    Nearly 25 million food insecure in Sahel
  • Exporting Ebola - who's really at risk?

    More than 50 percent of Americans report being afraid of a mass Ebola outbreak on US soil, according to a Harvard poll earlier this month, but health experts say the true risk is further spread of the virus within the West African region. 

    Unlike the US, which currently has four specialized isolation units, access to state-of-the-art laboratories, medical equipment, protective gear, and medicines, as well as doctors and nurses who have been specially trained in infection control, many West African nations remain ill-equipped to deal with the potential arrival of an Ebola case. 

    “Given that these countries have limited medical and public health resources, they may have difficulty quickly identifying and effectively responding to imported Ebola cases,” said Kamran Khan, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Division of Infectious Diseases and co-author of a new study on the likelihood of West Africa’s Ebola outbreak spreading overseas via air travel.  

    The risk of Ebola being spread through commercial air travel is real. Two cases have already been carried out of the region by airline passengers: one to Nigeria and one to the USA, and both of those travellers infected others before the outbreak could be contained. The question of how big of a risk this really is, is what was tackled by Khan and his team. 

    Their assessment, which was published this week in the London-based journal The Lancet, found that no more than three infected airline passengers a month will travel out of the affected countries between now and the end of the year, even if there were no screening at any of the points of departure.

    This estimate was based on evaluations of airline timetables, passenger traffic records and projections for the number of Ebola cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone over the coming months.

    Additionally, the authors point out that that the populations of many of these countries are small and, with the exception of Nigeria, are not frequent international air travellers.  

    Passenger numbers have been further reduced by many airlines closing their routes from Freetown, Conakry and Monrovia, and by the slowdown in business travel because of the outbreak.

    Ghana, Senegal at greatest risk

    In addition to looking at how many people are flying out of the Ebola zone, Khan and his colleagues looked at where travellers go. In 2013, only 29 percent of African travellers went to first world destinations, with London and Paris topping the list. 

    Most of the others were flying to other lower or lower-middle income countries, generally within the West African region. The favourite destination was Ghana, with 17.5 percent of passenger traffic, followed by Senegal, with 14.4 percent. Then, after London and Paris, came The Gambia, with 6.8 percent of the traffic, and Côte d'Ivoire and Morocco with just over 5 percent each. Nigeria is ninth on the list and the USA 12th - at a slightly lower risk than China.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) says they are most concerned about Ebola spreading to countries that share a land border with the affected countries, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal and Guinea Bissau, and those that have high-volume travel and trade routes with the affected countries, such as Cameroon, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Mauritania and The Gambia. 

    “We recognize that it [Ebola] could travel elsewhere, such as the US and Spain… but these countries elsewhere are already well-equipped to handle a disease like Ebola,” said Isabelle Nuttall, WHO’s director of Global Capacities, Alert and Response. “When we think about the neighbouring African countries, we have a bigger concern. They really need to be better prepared.”

    “The best approach to minimize risks to the global community is to control the epidemic at its source. While screening travellers arriving at airports outside West Africa may offer a sense of security, this would have at best marginal benefits.”

    In Senegal, just one hospital - Hôpital Principal in Dakar’s Fann neighbourhood - has set aside an isolation unit to treat Ebola patients. This is where a Guinean student, who travelled by road to Senegal and soon after tested positive for Ebola, was treated in late August. 

    Plans are under way to open five treatment centres along Senegal’s border with Guinea, according to the Ministry of Health’s disease control unit, but work on them has not yet started. 

    In Ghana, there are three small Ebola treatment units under construction in the Tema, Kumasi and Tamale regions. In the capital, Accra, three teaching hospitals have been identified to hold suspected cases before they are referred to one of these centres. Progress, however, has been slow, according to local reporters. 

    A needle-in-a-haystack problem

    Screening is now in place for arriving and departing passengers at all three international airports in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone: all passengers are temperature-checked and must fill out a brief health survey. Had this been in place at the time, it would certainly have caught Patrick Sawyer, the man who took Ebola to Nigeria, who was ill before he got on the plane. 

    It would not, however, have caught Thomas Duncan, from Liberia, who had no symptoms until after he arrived in the US in September. 

    The US now requires passengers coming from any of the three affected countries to first go through an enhanced screening process at one of five airports, before continuing on to their final destination. 

    At both Accra and Dakar airports health workers check the temperature of all passengers arriving from regional transit hubs such as Casablanca.

    But for countries such as the UK, for instance, which has no direct flights from any of the three countries, once you start arrival screening for passengers on connecting flights you have a true needle-in-a-haystack problem. The Lancet article authors calculate that you would have to sift through more than 2,500 travellers before you found even one who had set foot in Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone during the past 21 days. 
     
    Some passengers from the Ebola-affected regions of West Africa arriving at London's Heathrow airport in the past week have been surprised to be asked whether they would like to be checked for fever. The staff administering the checks in London did not seem to regard them as urgent enough to be compulsory, perhaps reflecting the expert advice that they are of very little practical use in detecting people carrying the Ebola virus.

    “The best approach to minimize risks to the global community is to control the epidemic at its source,” said Khan. “While screening travellers arriving at airports outside West Africa may offer a sense of security, this would have at best marginal benefits.”

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    Exporting Ebola - who's really at risk?
  • Liberians in US face worsening Ebola stigma

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

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

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

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

    "You bought Ebola to the US!"

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

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

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

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

    Where's West Africa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Politics of hysteria

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

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

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

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

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    Liberians in US face Ebola stigma
  • No justice, no peace for northern Mali

    Thousands of northerners who experienced human rights abuses during the occupation of Mali’s north are struggling to find redress amidst concerns that a climate of impunity is continuing and the government’s control in many areas of the north is at best shaky. 

    People in the north were exposed to forced disappearances, torture, summary executions and sexual abuse, with most of the offences committed after March 2012 when Islamist extremists occupied large parts of territory. 

    Investigations begin, but hesitantly

    “Investigations into crimes committed during the occupation and its aftermath have just started,” said Guillaume Ngefa, head of the human rights division within MINUSMA, the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali. “While judges and prosecutors are stalled by an instable security situation in the north many victims have not been given adequate legal assistance or access to the judiciary,” Ngefa continued.
     
    The arrival of occupying forces in March 2012 triggered the exodus of thousands of people fleeing south or into neighbouring countries. Those who remained were subjected to a harsh form of Sharia, or Islamic law. Punishment for crimes like theft and adultery included arbitrary detentions, whippings, amputations and even death. Women were particularly targeted, facing beatings and arrests for not wearing a veil. The armed groups also enrolled children as fighters. 
     
    The legacy of occupation
     
    When President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came into office in September 2013, he promised to address crimes committed during the occupation and to put an end to a long culture of impunity. 

    But there is a huge backlog of cases to deal with. “We have documented more than 500 cases of violations in the north since the conflict started in January 2012”, said Saloum Traoré, head of Amnesty International (AI) in Mali. AI, the Malian Association for Human Rights (AMDH) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have between them registered hundreds of cases of sexual abuse, amputations and summary executions. 

    The caseload includes the executions of over 150 Malian government soldiers at Aguelhoc, allegedly by the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, (MNLA), in collaboration with its then ally, Ansar Dine, in January 2012. The MNLA has fiercely denied any involvement in the Aguelhok. But the MNLA’s forces are also accused of acts of sexual violence and recruiting children into armed groups. 

    Drissa Traoré, a legal officer in the AMDH’s Bamako officer referred to 50 cases of rape allegedly committed by the MNLA. Senior Islamists, including Islamist police chief in Gao, Aliou Mahamatou Touré, and his counterpart in Timbuktu ,Houka Houka have been the object of complaints.

    South of the occupied areas, AI and AMDH point to cases reported from villages in the Mopti area, which hosted large communities of displaced northerners. 

    Legal machinery still not in place
     
    While the government and specifically its Ministry of Defense acknowledges that crimes committed during the conflict need to be addressed, exactly how and when this will happen is not yet clear.
    Several families of victims have sought justice for the loss of or injury to family members, a majority with the help of local lawyers. More than 30 families have filed complaints and missing person reports with the police and gendarmerie, as well as written letters to prosecutors detailing crimes, according to AMDH. 
     
    But the legal mechanics are complicated.  Observers highlight deficiencies in the Malian legal system, which lacks sufficient numbers of judges, prosecutors and forensic experts, and is hampered by logistical and financial constraints. Cases often need testimony from witnesses delivered to official investigators, but this is not easy to obtain at present.  

    “Continued clashes and insecurity make it difficult for judges and forensic experts to travel to the north to conduct investigations”, Guillaume Ngefa said. Security conditions remain difficult. The north is stabilized by a UN peacekeeping force and around 1,000 French troops, though attacks still occur in many of the northern areas where the abuses occurred. On October 3, nine UN peacekeepers were killed and three wounded in a roadside bomb in Kidal. This brought the number of UN peacekeepers in Mali killed since MINUSMA took over from the African Union force AFISMA in July last year to 30.
     
    Where are the courts? 
     
    Mali’s Justice Ministry has deployed mobile information clinics in the north to gather victim testimony and provide some level of victim support. In principle, cases reported will be referred directly to courts in the north for prosecution, but those courts are not yet up and running. When AMDH prepared cases against members of the Islamic police in Gao and Timbuktu, witnesses had to go south to Bamako, which hosts the court assigned to handle crimes committed in the north. 

    Support to those seeking justice is available from several international and national NGOs involved in pursuing human rights violations. But there is little funding for follow up action and the bringing of court cases. Legal costs are prohibitively high for most Malians. It often falls to individuals to track cases with the local authorities. 
     
    Soldiers face questions too 
     
    Concerns on human rights violations are not confined to the north and the alleged perpetrators are not exclusively jihadist and separatist fighters. In November 2013 AMDH filed its first case representing 23 victims of violations allegedly committed by the Malian armed forces following a military coup in the capital Bamako in March 2012 which saw rival army factions pitted against each other. 

    HRW has collected testimonies implicating Malian soldiers in serious abuses. The Malian authorities have promised to take action where appropriate. But Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher with HRW, warned that only a few cases had led to further investigations, and none of those allegedly responsible for exactions brought to justice. 

    AMDH President Moctar Mariko warned of instances where civilians had either disappeared or been taken by the Malian armed forces. “Questions by family members as to the whereabouts of their relatives were ignored or left unanswered. Others were afraid to even ask,” Mariko said. 
     
    Alou Namfe, a government prosecutor assigned to handle crimes committed during the occupation of the north criticised the inaction shown by both the courts and the gendarmerie in grappling with offences. “Judicial officers requesting the gendarmerie to investigate certain conflict-related crimes have been ignored and complaints filed with the courts so far have not been acted upon,” Namfe warned.
     
    Arrest does not mean prosecution
                   
    However, some action has been taken, albeit with mixed results. According to figures from the Malian authorities, since January 2013 at least 495 men believed to be members of the armed groups have been arrested; but up to 300 of the same men have since been released. In some cases, investigators were unable to confirm their identity or affiliation with the fighting factions. Others were release in prisoner exchanges between the armed groups and the Bamako government. Former Timbuktu police boss Houka Houka was amongst those let go. There are reports of many other involved in the Islamist occupation simply leaving the country. 

    Alou Namfe is frustrated by the lack of justice.  “There are cases where witnesses and victims have testified and the prosecutor has opened a case, and still the offender is released,” Namfe pointed out.
    Guillaume Ngefa saw hope for change. “The problem of impunity dates back to the independence from France over 60 years ago”, Ngefa explained. “Previous peace agreements have struggled to look into the question of human rights; in some cases the offenders were never tried. This time I believe there is a political will to deal with crimes committed during the armed conflict.” 

    Moctar Mariko said the guilty should not evade justice. “We are worried that the big fish, the commanders responsible for these actions, will be released while others remain in jail.” Mariko stressed the courts had a job to do. “Prisoners should not be released before the judiciary has had time to finish their investigations.”
     
    The north remains vulnerable
     
    There is concern too about a new chapter of violence in the north. Complaints of human rights violations and the systematic victimisation of Tuareg and Arabs helped fuel the rebellion that broke out in January 2012. Human rights activists warn that the actions of small groups of Jihadists, staging attacks and ambushes in the north, will lead to new waves of reprisals from the Malian military, with Tuaregs and Arabs again targeted indiscriminately.  On 24 September a group of Tuareg men were detained by members of AQMI, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in the region of Kidal. The men were accused of being informers to the French forces. A couple of days later villagers found the head of one of the men at a stall in the local market. 

    “In many cases… the population and the justice know where the offenders are but are reluctant to give them up, especially if they are from the same ethnic group. If there is no justice, others might seek revenge,” said Mariko. 
     
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  • West Africa gears up to contain Ebola spread

    As the Ebola caseload rises to over 5,350, aid agencies and governments in countries not yet affected by the deadly virus are gearing up for its potential spread across new borders by pre-positioning supplies, training health workers, identifying isolation centres, and disseminating prevention campaign messages, among other activities.

    Countries that share a land border with the affected countries, including Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea Bissau, and Mali, are considered to be most at risk.

    "It is vitally important that, countries - especially surrounding countries that don't have Ebola cases as of yet - are prepared for a worst case scenario," said Pieter Desloovere, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO).

    In August, WHO issued an Ebola Response Roadmap to help countries across the region limit the spread of the virus. One of its three objectives is to strengthen the ability of all countries to detect and deal with any potential cases.

    "The reason that Ebola started in Guinea and has since spread to Liberia and other countries is that no one was paying attention," said Grev Hunt, the UN Children's Fund's (UNICEF's) sub-regional coordinator for the Ebola outbreak. "We were caught unaware. But now, we are paying very close attention to what is going on and making sure the same thing won't happen again."

    Unlike in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where response plans and training materials had to be created from scratch, UNICEF is now replicating those resources and giving them to neighbouring countries, saving time and effort.

    The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) says they have put in place Ebola preparedness and response activities in 11 countries across West Africa, and many local and international NGOs have been pre-positioning medical supplies, training health workers and educating the public.

    "Failing to plan is actually planning to fail," said Unni Krishnan, the head of disaster preparedness and response for Plan International. "And we know from previous disasters that a dollar you put towards preparedness... tends to save thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of lives."

    Preparedness funds

    Key to prevention and preparedness in at-risk countries is having access to timely funding, said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Senegal currently has US$5.7 million at the ready to use towards Ebola preparation and prevention.

    Mali has around $3.6 million and Côte d'Ivoire $2.9 million. In Guinea Bissau, where the health system is extremely weak, only $800,000 is currently available for Ebola-related activities. "It's quite a fragile situation right now," said Daniel Sanha, a communication officers for the Guinea Bissau Red Cross. "We have a contingency plan in place, but the Red Cross still has no funds to implement any Ebola intervention activities. At the same time, the government doesn't have enough funds or equipment to take all the necessary precautions."

    Mass public education campaigns

    National media campaigns, including radio shows, TV programmes and other on-air broadcasts, are now under way in all sub-regional countries to educate people about Ebola and give them enough information to protect themselves, as well as to prevent rumours and misunderstandings from spreading.

    "This is the first time we have had an Ebola outbreak in West Africa and part of the challenge we are facing is that people have no idea what the disease actually is or how it is spread," Desloovere said.

    Volunteers in Senegal, Mali, Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea-Bissau are handing out pamphlets and flyers door to door, as well as posting them in public areas. Social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, along with text messages to mobile phone subscribers, are being used by Health Ministries and aid agencies to transmit information and to remind people to practise safe hygiene measures, and to go to a clinic if they detect symptoms.

    UNICEF says the messages, which have all been approved by the Ministries of Health, are transmitted in local languages and in culturally appropriate ways. Rather than urging families not to bury their dead in the traditional way, for instance, aid agencies work with communities to find a safer burial procedure that both are comfortable with.

    "Our message is very simple," said Buba Darbo, the head of disaster management for the Gambian Red Cross. "Don't touch a sick person, don't touch a dead body. If everyone follows this advice they will prevent themselves from getting Ebola."

    Some messaging specifies that people should avoid shaking hands as a gesture of greeting.

    Aid agencies have also begun working with religious leaders and local community leaders to spread messages about what to do, and not do, in case of possible Ebola infections.

    Health worker training

    Doctors and nurses across the region are being trained to spot possible cases, as well as to follow protocol for reporting suspected cases, how to prevent any further contamination and how to protect themselves.

    "Educating and protecting our health workers is a top priority," said Ibrahima Sy, a grants manager and health expert with the Open Society Initiative of West Africa (OSIWA). "We need to put at their disposal all the materials they need to avoid contamination, and arm them with the information they need to avoid further spread of this virus."

    In Côte d'Ivoire, for example, the Red Cross has been conducting staged simulations of Ebola cases, so that health workers know exactly what to do if they encounter a suspected case.

    "We hope Ebola never comes here, but if a case were to be declared today, with the emergency health system we have in place, we are ready to take charge of it," said Franck Kodjo, the communications officer for Côte d'Ivoire's Red Cross. "All the actors, from the Ministry of Health to the local volunteers, we are prepared to take it on."

    Other countries, such as The Gambia, have been training healthcare workers on how to handle the dead bodies of suspected cases.

    Thus far over 300 health workers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have contracted Ebola, according to WHO.

    Specialized prevention and response teams

    To help coordinate prevention efforts and put such measures in place, many countries have created multi-sectorial committees to implement the measures. Senegal's National Crisis Committee, for example, now has a 10-committee unit dedicated to Ebola prevention and containment. They have been working with the Ministry of Health and other key partners, including the Senegalese Red Cross and WHO, to engage in activities such as resource mobilization, media and communication, surveillance, logistics, security and clinical care. The Gambia has a similar seven-committee Ebola response unit, which works alongside the government and various health partners and NGOs to implement prevention measures.

    Pre-positioning materials

    Items such as soap, chlorine, gloves, disinfectant materials, medicines, medical equipment, and hygiene kits are being stocked in countries across the region. In Mali, protection kits have also been given to some of the volunteers who are involved in contact tracing and mass education campaigns.

    Identifying isolation and treatment centres

    Some treatment centres and isolation units in at-risk countries have been pre-identified, but not in sufficient numbers, say aid agency staff.

    Cameroon now has isolation centres and laboratories in selected hospitals throughout the country, as well as a quarantine zone in the Southwest Region of the country, near the Nigerian border. The Gambia has also established three Ebola treatment centres: one in the greater Banjul area, the second in the country's "middle belt", and the third in the far east. Senegal has established an isolation unit and has testing facilities at its Institute Pasteur, as do the Institute Pasteur in Côte d'Ivoire and laboratories in Mali. Guinea-Bissau has not yet identified isolation units.

    Border closings and surveillance measures

    Despite strong recommendations by WHO not to close borders, or to restrict travel to or from the affected countries, seven African countries have decided not to allow anyone from an Ebola-affected country in or out. Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire, for example, have shut all land, sea and air borders with Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Guinea Bissau has closed its land borders with Guinea, and Guinea, in an attempt to contain the outbreak, has shut its land borders with Sierra Leone and Liberia. Cameroon has also closed its land and air borders with Nigeria though refugees fleeing Boko Haram attacks have been crossing the border.

    All countries in the sub-region now have health workers posted at all main border crossings and points of entry, including the airports, where incoming travellers are screened for Ebola-like symptoms.

    In Nigeria, where 21 cases have been confirmed, health workers are also going around communities to check people's temperatures and seek out the sick. Many schools, shops and restaurants now have handwashing stations set up outside their doors.

    "It has become an everyday sight to see temperature-taking devices both at major border crossings, as well as hospitals and offices," said O. Nwakpa, of the Nigerian Red Cross. "They take our temperature and give you hand sanitizer each time you enter a building."

    In Mauritania, not only do incoming travellers go through health checks, but outgoing travellers do as well, as the capital, Nouakchott, is considered a "last stop" before Europe.

    Many communities in border areas most at risk have also created neighborhood watch programmes, in which people are encouraged to report anyone who shows Ebola-like symptoms.

    Countries, such as Burkina Faso and Senegal, have set up toll-free numbers for people to call and report suspected cases.

    Restricting public gatherings

    To avoid potential bodily contact, many countries, such as The Gambia, have restricted or prohibited large public gatherings.

    In Burkina Faso, the government has cancelled important high-level meetings, including the African Union Employment and Poverty Reeducation conference, which was scheduled to be held in the first week of September.

    NGOs and health volunteers across the region say they have stopped performing educational theatre sketches on Ebola for fear of encouraging crowds to gather.

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  • Côte d'Ivoire refugees stuck in Liberia due to Ebola crisis

    Halted for several months, the voluntary repatriation of Ivoirian refugees in Liberia was to have resumed in July. However, the Ebola outbreak in neighbouring Liberia has led the Ivoirian authorities to close the country's borders to prevent the disease from spreading, suspending refugee returns until further notice.

    According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 12,000 refugees have returned to Côte d'Ivoire since the beginning of January 2014 and 38,600 refugees are waiting for the Ivoirian government to reopen the border to allow them to return home.

    On 11 July 2014, some 392 Ivoirian refugees in Liberia who had arrived during the post-election crisis in 2010-2011, were turned back at the border by the Ivoirian authorities, as they prepared to return home in a convoy.

    "Before the repatriation was suspended, UNHCR ensured that every refugee had a medical screening both in the country of asylum [Liberia] and in the receiving country through its various medical partners," said Nora Sturm, a public information officer with UNHCR.

    Unfortunately, she felt this precaution had been unable to gain the confidence of the Côte d'Ivoire authorities - a situation that forced many refugees to return to the camps, while others continued to live in host communities near the border.

    "We left our country because of the war. Now that we want to go home Ebola is stopping us. We just don't know what to do," Alphonse Toé, a refugee originally from Nidrou in western Côte d'Ivoire, said over the phone. "We need our leaders to take up our case quickly," he told IRIN.

    He said refugees were getting more and more worried as the media reported new figures on the spread of the disease. "We are hearing every time that the disease is spreading. This is really scary. UNHCR also informs us of the situation and reassures us, but we are concerned. Our government must not abandon us," Toé told IRIN.

    As of 14 September Liberia has reported 2,710 Ebola cases and 1,459 deaths. Half of the cases were reported in the past three weeks.

    Government spokesperson Bruno Koné said the government was aware of the desire of some refugees to return home but "there are some health and safety issues that have forced us to close the borders. Things will fall into place once the situation improves."

    Awareness-raising among refugees

    Sturm said UNHCR understands the decisions taken by the Ivoirian government and is contributing to its efforts by implementing Ebola prevention and awareness-raising measures. The organization regularly holds meetings with national and local authorities, refugees and partners involved in the protection of refugees.

    "We explain that these measures will help overcome the epidemic in currently affected countries like Liberia, and also strengthen prevention in countries not yet affected but at high risk, such as Côte d'Ivoire," said Sturm.

    She said if these measures were not implemented, the epidemic would probably spread to Ivoirian territory.

    "The borders will be open again as soon as this epidemic is under control. Refugees are also reminded that the border closure is for all entries. and is not aimed only at the refugees," Sturm told IRIN.

    WHO has strongly advised against border closures in at-risk and affected countries as this can cause mounting distrust and fear of authorities which can help further promote the spread of Ebola.

    Cote d'Ivoire "not immune"

    Ivoirian Health Minister Raymonde Goudou said: "Inter-connections and traditional customs shared by the border populations mean that Côte d'Ivoire is not immune.. Everyone is aware that this serious situation requires strong measures. They are not directed against anyone, but are to protect the entire population."

    He revealed that about 100 Liberians had been sent home after they tried to enter Côte d'Ivoire illegally.

    To date, no case of Ebola has been reported in Côte d'Ivoire. The authorities, religious leaders, media and mobile companies are spreading awareness messages through the radio, posters and SMS.

    The Pasteur Institute in the capital, Abidjan, has the capacity to analyse and detect Ebola samples.

    According to the Ministry of Health, several rumours of suspected cases have been reported in Côte d'Ivoire, but only one was isolated - in early September. That was an Ivoirian photographer, aged 43, who was returning from Freetown (Sierra Leone) and had Ebola-type symptoms. He was quarantined in Yamoussoukro general hospital, but the case was negative.

    "It's a miracle to see that Côte d'Ivoire is still untouched. The country shares borders with two centres of Ebola [Liberia and Guinea] and above all it has seen significant migration flows with Liberia, where there are thousands of refugees. This means that the government authorities have taken appropriate action to safeguard the country," said Bernard Malan, an analyst with NGO Rights and Democracy, in Abidjan.

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  • How to boost food production in Africa

    Smallholder farmers, who hold over 80 percent of all farms in sub-Saharan Africa, are struggling to adapt to rapidly rising temperature and erratic rains, according to the 2014 Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR), released on 3 September in Addis Ababa.

    It says these farmers are now facing the risk of being overwhelmed by the pace and severity of climate change.

    Farmers are already contending with an increase in average temperatures, with further increases of between 1.5 and 2.5 degrees centigrade expected by 2050.

    Despite a decade of pro-growth and food security policies and programmes such as the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), 200 million Africans are chronically malnourished and 5 million die of hunger annually, says report by AGRA.

    “As climate change turns up the heat, the continent’s food security and its ability to generate economic growth that benefits poor Africans - most of whom are farmers - depends on our ability to adapt to more stressful conditions,” said Jane Karuku, president of AGRA.

    The report’s authors also predict severe drying across southern Africa, while other parts of sub-Saharan Africa are likely to become wetter, but with farmers facing more violent storms and frequent flooding

    During the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) in Addis Ababa last week, participants said countries need to adopt technologies and “climate-smart agriculture” that will help make crops more resilient to future extreme weather events.

    Here is a roundup of some key issues aired at the forum:

    Forget “blanket” advice about soil health

    Erratic farming practices (such as the failure to apply mineral or organic fertilizers), and soil erosion, are depriving croplands across sub-Saharan Africa of 30-80kg per hectare of essential plant nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen.

    Soil Scientist James Mutegi of the International Plant Nutrition Institute said African countries should not only engage to reverse the current trend of low crop productivity and land degradation, but also forget blanket recommendations regarding fertilizer applications to their soils.

    Fertilizer promotion programmes in Africa are often unsuccessful because they are designed with a “one-size-fits-all” philosophy - failing to recognize the diversity of production systems and the range of farmers’ needs, according to the World Bank.

    To keep African soil healthy, Mutegi said farmers “should apply the right fertilizer at the right time, and in the right way at the right time” as the soil types on the continent, or even within a given country, are not the same. “We need to lose the usual blanket recommendations,” he said.

    Africans, he said, need to map their soil and, in the case of some countries, should update their maps. Mapping would be “crucial” to know exactly where fertilizers should be applied or not. “In cases where there is no deficiency of some nutrients, farmers should not end up losing investments in fertilizers,” he said.

    Ethiopia’s recent move to map out its soil and build in-country blended fertilizer production facilities near farmers is seen as a good approach for other Africa countries. Ethiopia’s fertilizer initiative to introduce customized fertilizers would greatly increase crop yields, said Mutegi.

    Ease fertilizer access

    Fertilizer use in Africa remains low compared to other regions, with average use at around 10kg per hectare, while the global average is over 100kg per hectare. According to Namanga Ngongi, chairman of NGO African Fertilizer Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP), African countries need to work on two areas to improve the current situation.

    “First [is] to improve the logistics around fertilizer distribution,” said Namanga, adding that about 40 percent of the cost of fertilizer in Africa is due to transport from ports of entry to the farmer.

    “Secondly, we need to have the farmers improve their financial access to fertilizer,” said the Cameroonian agronomist. Namanga said the private sector’s increasing participation in fertilizer programmes in Malawi, from procurement to transportation of fertilizers to various outlets, was a “courageous effort” to change smallholder farming.

    A decade ago Malawi introduced a large-scale national programme to subsidize agricultural inputs (mainly fertilizers for maize production), targeting more than 1.5 million farming families. The result was increased maize production and real incomes.

    Introduce new crop varieties

    The stagnant state of commercial seed production is often cited as a key reason why yields per hectare in Africa for staple crops like maize are up to 80 percent below what farmers outside Africa achieve.

    According to Associate Director of the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) of AGRA, George Bigirwa, more work is needed to improve seed systems in Africa, through encouraging local research institutes and locally-owned African seed companies, and installing mechanisms to reach farmers with the “improved” seeds.

    After attempting to tweak their seed system, nine African countries have seen positive results in identifying and breeding seeds that are suitable for planting in a particular environment. Conducted by AGRA in 2013, a survey, planting the Seeds of a Green Revolution in Africa, found that most farmers who invested in improved crop varieties achieved yields 50 to 100 percent above local varieties.

    The same survey indicates that 69 percent of farmers in Kenya, 74 percent in Nigeria, and 79 percent in Mozambique said improved maize varieties had doubled harvests per hectare.

    Get the youth involved

    The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) says agriculture contributes one-quarter to one-third of African GDP but employs 65 to 75 percent of the labour force, according to IFPRI.

    The worrying factor is, according to a new report released last week in Addis Ababa by the Montpellier Panel entitled Small and Growing - Entrepreneurship in African agriculture, African youth see agriculture as an “outdated, unprofitable” profession.

    The report said more investment is needed in rural and food sector entrepreneurship, particularly among Africa’s growing youth population, for the continent to achieve food security.

    The sector may seem more appealing, when one considers the amount of money African countries invest in food imports. “When I hear US$35 billion food [imports to Africa annually], as an entrepreneur I say ‘what an opportunity’,” said Strive Masiyiwa, an African telecoms mogul.

    In the report, the Montpellier Panel, comprising African and European experts, said youth should be informed more about the benefits of this opportunity.

    They said this can be achieved through vocational and business management training for the youth, adequate and affordable financing for starting and growing enterprises, and by creating enabling environments for entrepreneurship on an individual and collective basis.

    Make use of the “brilliance of women”

    Female small scale farmers dominate the agricultural landscape in most production environments in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet they constitute the majority of rural actors locked in socio-cultural structures that limit their agricultural productivity, efficiency and effectiveness at all points across the value chain.

    According to the director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, the issues of equity should be embedded in all aspects of agricultural production.

    She said women are too often left out of decision-making processes and that the Green Revolution will not be successful if “we continue to deny ourselves the talent and brilliance of the women who comprise 50 percent of our population.”

    Only 45 percent of women in Africa are literate, compared to 70 percent of men; about 1.5 percent of women achieve higher education.

    “By focusing on building the capacity of young people and women in particular, African governments will be able to increase the productivity of a large proportion of their labour forces,” says the Montpellier Panel report.

    It argues that Africa should encourage initiatives such as AWARD, a career-development programme that equips top women agricultural scientists across sub-Saharan Africa to accelerate agricultural gains by strengthening their research and leadership skills through tailored fellowships. To date, 325 scientists from 11 countries have benefited from the programme.

    Manage more water, irrigate more land

    Only 4 percent of African cropland is irrigated, according to AGRA. The rest depends on increasingly erratic rainfall. But water management can mean much more than irrigation.

    According to AASR 2014, water productivity in African agriculture will be affected by climate change as more active storm systems emerge, especially in the tropics.

    Greater variability in rainfall is expected, which will increase the risks of dry-land farming.

    “The demand for irrigation will grow [in terms of area] and irrigation water use on existing crop areas will increase due to greater evaporative demand. The water resources available for irrigation will become more variable, and could decline in areas with low rainfall,” the report says.

    Total agriculture land increased by some 8 percent in the last decade, while the irrigated areas remained stable, after a steady increase from 2 to 5 million hectares from 1960 to 2000.

    The authors of AASR said agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa can be greatly increased through integrated watershed management that takes into account the full water budget for an area, as well as its use, output, and cost/benefit ratio.

    According to AASR, collecting rain in ponds or barrels, and other “rain harvesting” techniques, offers a simple but underused low-technology approach to climate change. The report also said harvesting only 15 percent of the region’s rain would more than meet the water needs of the continent.

    Rainwater harvesting for underground storage in Ethiopia, for instance, the report says, could be “used for supplemental irrigation of high value crops”.

    Follow climate-smart mechanization

    Motorized equipment in Africa contributes only 10 percent of farm energy, said AASR, compared to 50 percent in other regions.

    Mechanization can improve productivity and nutrient use efficiency, reduce waste and add value to food products.

    But progress in this area, scientists note, should be based on energy efficient innovations, including the use of alternative energy like solar-powered irrigation pumps, and supported by better training and repair services and by strong farmers’ organizations.

    Gordon Conway, director of Agriculture for Impact and chair of the Montpellier Panel, said mechanization “isn’t all about great big machines, but small machines that smallholders can use”.

    He highlighted a small company in Kampala, Uganda, that makes maize hulling machines which are sold or rented to farmers’ associations.

    “But the point is that they need to be made, and that often requires young workers; they need to be repaired and that creates jobs; and in this case the machines go from farm to farm, which involves yet another service,” he said.

    Reduce post-harvest losses

    Anne Mbaabu, director of AGRA’s Market Access Program, says post-harvest loss is “the most unanswered and ignored challenge” to food insecurity in Africa, with losses exceeding 30 percent of total crop production and representing more than US$4 billion every year. “That does not include fruits and vegetables, the loss of which is very difficult to track,” said the director.

    According to Mbaabu, simple solutions such as training farmers on post-harvest handling, food management training on appropriate pre-and post-harvest handling operations and improving market access and knowledge of market requirements would significantly reduce losses.

    She said famers need to have “better access to storage facilities” and access to new technologies to reduce losses, which exceed the total amount of international food aid provided to sub-Saharan countries annually.

    AGRA’s initiative and training for 5,610 farmers in post-harvest handling through farmer cooperatives has had “positive results” in reducing losses, says an AGRA official.

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  • War and peace in northern Mali

    Continued violence in northern Mali which saw three separatist rebel groups retake control of much of the north, has put peace talks set for August, and the July roadmap to peace signed by rebel groups and the Malian government, on shaky ground.

    After fighting broke out between rebel groups and government troops in Kidal town in May, Malian forces withdrew, paving the way for the three separatist groups to gain control of much of Kidal Region and parts of Gao and Timbuktu regions in the north, including from Kidal town to Ménaka close to the border with Niger in the southeast.

    Ongoing clashes

    Clashes have continued in the small town of Tabankort (near Kidal town), between armed elements of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA – allegedly fighting on behalf of the government), since a May ceasefire was agreed between the MNLA, MAA and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), alongside the UN, the African Union, the European Union, and the Economic Community of West African States.

    Attacks have also been carried out against peacekeeping staff, French forces and humanitarian organizations. In May, two Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) staff were killed as the vehicle they were travelling in hit a landmine, while in February a rebel group kidnapped four staff members with the International Committee of the Red Cross while they were travelling from Kidal to Gao, releasing them shortly after.

    Troops thin on the ground

    The presence of 8,300 UN peacekeeping troops (MINUSMA) in the three northern regions has failed to keep the peace since French forces withdrew from some areas. The withdrawal of French forces, combined with fighting in Kidal, made May a difficult month for MINUSMA, said David Gressly, acting special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Mali and head of MINUSMA. However, in fact the number of attacks targeting MINSUMA has dropped. “Following the pull-out of French and Malian forces in some areas, MINUSMA are now alone in the field - that is why there seems to be an increase of attacks against them,” said Gressly. “In fact, we have seen a decrease in the number of attacks against MINUSMA peacekeepers since the ceasefire agreements were signed in May,” he added.

    MINUSMA numbers are too low to secure such a vast desert territory, say security analysts. MINUSMA says nine of its force members have been killed thus far, with four Chadian peacekeepers killed in a June suicide attack in Aguelhoc and one killed when a MINSUMA vehicle hit a landmine in Timbuktu Region.

    In July French soldiers in Operation Serval in the Gao Region were attacked; one soldier was killed and six injured.

    Malian forces are still present in Gao and Timbuktu where they man checkpoints, patrol and work alongside MINSUMA forces.

    The Malian government estimates that no more than 600 or so individuals in the north who have links to Al Qaeda, and other Jihadist or terrorist networks, remain, and they are weaker than they were, but stifling them for good in this terrain “is not easy”, said Malian Minister of National Reconcilation and Development of the North, Zahabi Ould Sidi Mohamed. “These groups [militants, terrorists] are still there, but they were weakened after the French pushed them out of the northeast,” said a security analyst in Bamako who preferred anonymity. “They can no longer travel in convoys of 4x4s and are forced to move around on foot or motorbike. Others have gone into hiding or simply left Mali,” said the analyst. They are believed to have fled to Niger, Algeria and Libya.

    Meanwhile, the French force is down to 1,700, and soon to diminish further to 1,000 as France launches a counter-terrorism operation, Operation Barkhane, in partnership with Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Some of these partners will deploy troops.

    Surveillance drones in use by Operation Barkhane and MINUSMA, are going some way to make up for low troop numbers, but they also need to be backed up by ground forces, according to security analysts in Bamako.

    “Following the pull-out of French and Malian forces in some areas, MINUSMA are now alone in the field - that is why there seems to be an increase of attacks against peacekeepers,” said Gressly. “But in fact we have seen a decrease in the number of attacks on MINUSMA since the May ceasefire agreement was signed.”

    During a visit to Mali last month, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Hervé Ladsous expressed concern over the deteriorating security situation and stressed the need to push talks forward in order to find a stable solution to Mali’s troubles, calling the current security situation “intolerable” at a press conference.

    Fears for August peace talks

    Some fear peace talks set for August will not work amid ongoing instability. As well as the status of Mali’s north, on the agenda for the talks are reintegration of armed groups into the army, human rights issues, reconciliation, and the return of refugees and internally displaced people to the north.

    In past rebel uprisings in northern Mali, peace talks have resulted in some Tuaregs being integrated into the army and promises of more government positions for northerners. Persistent calls for improved development infrastructure, such as schools, health clinics, and better roads have been piecemeal, causing long-term frustration among northern groups.

    Peace talks were set to start 60 days after elections were held in August 2013, but the government is flagging, said Mohamed Diery Maiga, a political researcher in Bamako. “The government has lost any momentum it might have had,” he told IRIN.

    This time, rebel groups are more fragmented and their demands are unclear, said Boukary Daou, a Bamako-based journalist and editor of newspaper Le Republicain. As such, “the government has been very reluctant to engage in talks with the rebels. It’s also not clear what they want - autonomy or decentralization. With several armed groups, which are not united, participating in the talks, I don’t see how they can reach a long-term solution,” he told IRIN.

    However, Gressly, who recently travelled to Gao and Kidal and met groups participating in negotiations, said he was hopeful of the outcome of the peace talks, stressing the May ceasefire was crucial. “I’m optimistic about the fact that everyone wants an agreement in Algiers,” he said.

    MNLA, which originally demanded full independence, has asked for autonomy without specifying what this would look like. Officials in Bamako are reluctant to start talks with any groups that might have ties to Islamists. Gao mayor Sadou Diallo warned of Islamist extremists within the Tuareg rebel groups. “The fact is we don’t know who we are dealing with, it’s all a mix,” he told IRIN.

    A strong motivation to gain power will likely be to access state resources and to profit from the lucrative trafficking of arms, people and drugs across the Sahara, said WHO. A long history of corruption and criminality in the north implicating all groups, including government officials at very high levels, is also a complicating factor. “Many of the rebels and armed groups are essentially criminal gangs,” said Issa N’Diaye, an analyst at the University of Bamako.

    “They have very different agendas and not all of them are interested in independence or self-governance. Many just want to profit from drug and arms trafficking and government resources,” said N’Diaye.

    Plagued by internal factionalism, it is not clear if those representing the MNLA, MAA and the HCUA in talks will be able to stick to promises made, given their limited power over parts of their membership. “It will be very difficult to restrain them based on a peace agreement,” he concluded.

    Social cohesion

    Ganda Koy and Ganda Izo, two movements representing the Songhai ethnic group who were present in Algiers but not directly involved in the talks. Ami Idrissa, a social worker in Gao and an ethnic Songhai told IRIN inclusivity was vital. “To create long-lasting peace we need the representation of all ethnic groups at the negotiation table.”

    The conflict has weakened community cohesion in the north. In a December 2013 Afrobarometer survey, 56 percent of respondents said their views towards other ethnic groups had become less favourable since the latest round of armed conflict in 2012. Without restoring trust between ethnic groups, peace is unlikely to hold, say residents.

    But any peace package, as well as fostering inter-ethnic ties, must also deliver concrete dividends, including the restoration of basic services which were already weak pre-conflict and have been further eroded since, say northerners. “We need the authorities to resume their work, because right now we are suffering,” concluded Idrissa.

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    War and peace in northern Mali
  • Donor support to Sahel "anaemic"

    More donor support is needed to help close the US$1.5 billion funding gap in the Sahel this year and protect the livelihoods of the estimated 20.2 million people who are at risk of food insecurity. Only 30 percent of the $2.2 billion appeal to fight hunger and malnutrition, and build resilience in the region has been met by donors as of July, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

    "The funding for the whole effort is what I would characterize as pretty anaemic," said Robert Piper, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel. "We are well short of what we require, and to make the task even more difficult, the budget has increased since the beginning of the year."

    Due to the influx of refugees from the ongoing crisis in the Central African Republic into neighbouring Sahel countries, an additional $200 million was added to the initial appeal to provide life-saving assistance to the more than 2.4 million refugees, internally displaced people and returnees now living in the region, as well as the host communities taking them in.

    Needs increasing

    "Outside the usual recurring situations in the Sahel, the conflict in CAR and northern Nigeria is quite worrisome this year, as are the collateral effects in neighbouring Chad and Cameroon," said Stephane Doyon, a regional emergency response representative for Médecins Sans Frontières. "The refugees have lots of needs, which are additional needs to be met. "

    Since the beginning of the year, the number of people who have crossed the threshold from food insecure to severely food insecure, also rose, jumping from 2.5 million in January, to 5 or 6 million now, as the lean season begins.

    "So we started the year with some big numbers, and the trend, sadly, is on the increase and not the decrease," Piper said.

    This has put even more of Sahel's already vulnerable households at risk of developing negative coping strategies, such as migrating, begging, selling livestock or assets, and reducing their number of daily meals.

    Stubbornly high malnutrition rates

    Moderate and severe acute malnutrition rates among children under five remain "stubbornly high", at around 3.5 million and 1.5 million, respectively.

    While experts say it is too early to make any definitive predictions about crop production this year, there is concern about certain parts of the Sahel, including the coastal areas of Senegal, Mauritania and the Gambia, and the area around Lake Chad, where, more than a month into the normal wet season, there still has been little to no rain. In other parts of these countries, rains started on time, but have since stopped, or come with long gaps in between, and the seeds that were planted have died.

    A delayed rainy season has also meant a longer than usual lean season for pastoralists, who rely on rainfall for vegetation to feed their animals.

    "The current situation in the Sahel is quite difficult, and we are now entering a period of further hardship," said Patrick David, a food security analyst for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) Regional Resilience, Emergency and Rehabilitation Office for West Africa and the Sahel.

    He said many households have already used up last year's food stocks and been forced to buy from the market, where rising food prices further strain already limited resources.

    FAO says it is working to build resilience in the Sahel through activities such as supporting animal husbandry, agriculture, cereal banks, access to credit and other social protection programmes.

    However, only $7.5 million, or 14 percent, of FAO's $116 million appeal (included in the inter-agency Sahel appeal) has been met. While this is nearly on a par with last year's July funding gap of 14.8 percent, it is much lower than 25 percent that was met at this time in 2012.

    "We really need to continue to be vigilant about hunger in the Sahel and donors need to continue to aid response efforts, because for those vulnerable households who are currently moderately food insecure, who don't have support or who are maybe at their limit for food security, they could become severely food insecure over the coming year," David said.

    The World Food Programme (WFP) says it has been experiencing similar difficulties. While they have tried to keep all their programmes running, many have been scaled down due to a $230 million shortfall of funds across all the countries they work in.

    "It's really difficult for us to continue implementing these programmes without adequate funding," said Benoit Thiry, WFP's country director in Niger.

    He said that in Niger, for example, WFP planned to target close to 2 million people in 2014, but has so far only been able to assist 500,000 because of budget constraints.

    Competition for funds

    One of the reasons for this year's gap could be that the Sahel is competing for funds among increasing needs around the world.

    Globally, humanitarian funding needs increased from $12.8 billion in 2013, of which $8.3 billion was funded, to $16.9 billion in 2014. A large reason for this increase is the crisis in Syria, the needs for which jumped more than $4 billion in a year.

    "This has put tremendous pressure on donor budgets," Piper said. "And it's not very obvious who to turn to, because the biggest donors [the European Union, USA, Japan and UK] have already put their resources on the table," he said.

    To help meet some of the unmet needs, the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) released $30.5 million on 23 July to help with relief efforts in seven countries in the Sahel.

    There remains, however, "fatigue" among other donors.

    "Donors keep watching these numbers go up and desperately want reassurance that their funds are being used properly, but even more fundamentally, that there is a way out of this suffering for all their financial investment," Piper said.

    Given the recurrent funding gaps, governments need to start playing more of a role in combating food insecurity and building up resilience.

    Stop the crisis cycle

    "Year after year, we are returning to the same regions, to the same communities, even to the same households and so governments really need to put more long-term, predictable safety nets in place to support these people," said Piper.

    This means addressing some of the key underlying issues that are making it difficult for people to break out of the cycle of crisis, including extending people's access to basic services, such as health, education and sanitation, investing in climate change adaptation strategies, such as flood mitigation and seed research, and investing in water management projects, like irrigation systems.

    Governments also need to start putting aside more money for emergency response efforts, and policymakers need to make their most vulnerable members of society a priority. Financially, this is difficult, however, in light of increasing security budget needs.

    "Even though many countries are now putting food security and nutrition high on their priority list," Thiry said, "they still lack the money and often the capacity to put such projects in motion. So if we really want to build up this idea of resilience, and take the heads of people out of the water, we need to invest more than what we are doing now."

    While there is evidence of more government involvement happening in some countries, such as  Burkina Faso, which is funding for the first time the inputs for an acute malnutrition programme, it just is not enough.

    "So we really need donors to stay their course," Piper said. "They've been generous to date, but they need to stay with this region, which is still facing enormous issues. and continue to support this effort to transform the region away from this cycle of crisis."

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    Donor support to Sahel "anaemic"

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