(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Breaking the poverty trap – the power of cash grants

    A cash injection of as little as US$12 per month for an impoverished family could determine whether a child eats properly or goes to school or not. With cash transfer programmes around the world now having a profound impact on the lives of poor people, the debate is less about whether to implement them than how to do so. 

    Handing out cash rather than food or other basic survival supplies to the needy is a fairly recent phenomenon that began in several Latin American countries, including Brazil and Mexico, in the 1990s. In 1998 South Africa also introduced its own version - the child support grant. The widespread success of these programmes is now inspiring many other countries in Africa and Asia to follow suite.

    Transferring cash to those who desperately need it is proving to have more dramatic and long-lasting effects than simply keeping the wolf from the door for the poorest of the poor. Michelle Adato, who has researched the impact of cash transfers for many years, says the notion of cash handouts as unsustainable and wasteful has “increasingly been discredited. Cash grants are now being seen as part of a comprehensive development strategy as opposed to just a safety net.” Because of the impact these grants are having on human capital, they are contributing to sustainable development. 

    “When children miss that window of opportunity from zero to two years old regarding their nutritional status, or experience late school starts or early drop-out rates, the accumulative effects have long-term consequences on their economic wellbeing into adulthood,” said Adato, adding that research has shown a direct correlation between a lack of early capital investment in children and ongoing cycles of inter-generational poverty. “This is the strongest justification for cash transfer programmes - beyond the basic human rights perspective.”  

    Adds Carolyn Heinrich, professor of public affairs and economics at Texas University: “I can’t say we’ve heard counter-arguments. We’ve been doing `trickle down’ for a long time before starting cash transfers and we’ve never seen the kind of impact that we have with cash transfers.” These impacts include better nutrition and health, improved school attendance and less risky sexual behaviour. 

    A total of 20 African countries have social protection programmes like these and both the numbers of countries and size of the programmes are growing, with Kenya, Zambia, Lesotho, Mauritania, Malawi, Mali, Niger and Zimbabwe, Senegal all expanding their programmes. The child support grant in South Africa, now expanded to include 17-year-olds, reaches 11 million children. 

    The Transfer Project, a study on the impact of the grants in many of these African countries led by UNICEF, showed that the quality of life of people receiving cash transfers improved significantly. Respondents in Zambia, Ghana and Malawi all reported being happier with their lives, for example, and research showed that recipients in these countries were eating better too. 

    Benefits beyond health and education

    Significantly, cash grants have also been shown to have clear benefits beyond health and education. They also have a marked effect on adolescent behaviour, curbing high-risk sexual practices. A wide-ranging evaluation of the South African child support grant showed that adolescents who received the grant were 63 percent less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour such as having transactional sex with older men, thereby reducing their chances of teenage pregnancy, dropping out of school and contracting HIV. The study also showed a drop in alcohol and drug consumption among both male and female adolescents. Heinrich describes these results as “pretty dramatic” and a strong argument for extending grants to cover adolescents in other countries, wherever possible. 

    Two main criticisms of cash transfer programmes are that they do not create jobs and that they can be misused by those who benefit from them. John Hoddinott, a deputy director at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Unit, says while the cash transfers are certainly not a magic bullet they are indeed a vital component of any poverty alleviation strategy. “We’re not saying that by themselves they will solve all the problems in the world but they are a valuable part of a portfolio of activities designed to reduce poverty”. Not only do they provide people with the means to buy food and clothes but they “give beneficiaries a base from which to make longer term investments,” he says. 

    As to the charge that the transfers may be wasted on alcohol, drugs and cigarettes or that recipients may stop working, the evidence points to the contrary. “The research shows that in the vast majority of cases, poor people use their money well – the evidence is unambiguous,” says Hoddinott. Mostly they use the money to buy food, clothes, get their children to school, and sometimes even save some. “You will always find anecdotal stories of some people using their resources poorly but anecdotes are not data,” says Hoddinott. The other experts interviewed share the same view.

    "The data shows that the poor make the right choices. We need to stop trying to nanny them"

    Whereas clumps of ragged street children eking out a living on the streets of Johannesburg were a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape in the 1980s and 90s, the sight is far less common nowadays, thanks to the impact of the child support grant, said Dugan Fraser, who worked with the Economic Policy Research Institute on the South African child support grant’s evaluation. The extra cash is helping families feed their children and keep them at school and off the streets. Critics may assume that spending money on items such as a cell phone or the hair salon seems wasteful, he said, but “often there is a rational logic underlying these decisions”. These may be important purchases to make when trying to find work and make oneself more presentable for the job market, for example. “The data shows that the poor make the right choices. We need to stop trying to nanny them.” 

    Grants with or without conditions?

    Up for debate, however, is how to hand out the cash and whether conditions should be imposed on the grants or not. The Latin American model tends to follow the “conditional” approach while countries with less state capacity and ability to monitor whether people are complying with conditions tend to opt for non-conditional grants or those with “soft” conditions that try to nudge the recipients to use them wisely. In Mexico and Brazil, for example, grants will be dependent on a minimum number of days of school attendance, or on a parent taking his or her child for “well baby” checkups. “The problem arises if you impose conditions but the ability to check on them is not there”, said Heinrich.  

    Adato said the jury is still out on whether countries should impose conditions on cash grants. Politically, it is sometimes important to attach conditions. “You can often get more support for these programmes if voters don’t think that the poor are getting something for nothing,” she said. However, the question has to be asked: which one gets the better results? Latin American examples have shown that conditionality adds value to many programmes. For example, a grant conditional on a child attending school could strengthen the position of a woman in the household whose father would prefer the child to stay at home.

    The trend in Africa, where state capacity is usually weak, is towards non-conditional programmes. One study in Malawi showed some negative spin-offs of conditionality. While a grant conditional on attending school led to better school attendance among young girls, those who dropped out and therefore no longer received the grant were more likely to get pregnant early than the school drop-outs who continued to receive an unconditional cash grant. 

    There is no blueprint and each program must be designed according to the local socio-economic conditions, say the experts. The debate over conditionality is becoming more nuanced, adds Hoddinott, with policymakers viewing conditionality more from the perspective of whether it will help achieve their objectives or not rather than whether it is “right” or “wrong”’. 


    Because of an initial skepticism about the efficacy and value of cash transfer programmes they have been subjected to much heavier scrutiny than many other development programmes, said Hoddinott. This has proved invaluable in strengthening and improving them. “Now there is a good evidence base on where they work and where they are of more limited success.” 

    They are often cited as less vulnerable to corruption than schemes that hand over goods. “My general impression is that there is relatively little corruption in these types of programmes. In countries where corruption is endemic, you will find corruption in the social transfer as well, of course,” he says. Examples include ghost beneficiaries and bribing of officials where conditional grants are given. Sometimes corruption takes place at the interface where the money changes hands. In some Latin American examples, loan sharks and extortionists began to pop up at the depots where people claimed their cash. Now recipients of the Bolsa Familia scheme in Brazil, the largest cash transfer programme in the world that supports 12 million families (a quarter of the population) on condition their children attend school and are vaccinated, can now withdraw their cash from ATMs around the country, a move that has reduced corruption. 

    In South Africa, there has been an ongoing court case involving Net1, the US holding company managing the electronic disbursements of the child support grant. Some recipients were hapless victims of companies falsely representing themselves as legitimate operators of the South African Social Security Agency and had money deducted from their transfers. Net1 is also being subject to a class action lawsuit in the US for providing misleading information on its financial practices in South Africa.


    Breaking the poverty trap
  • New thinking needed on food aid for refugees in Africa

    The World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have launched an urgent appeal to address a funding shortfall that has already resulted in food ration cuts for a third of all African refugees. As of mid-June, nearly 800,000 refugees in 22 African countries have seen their monthly food allocations reduced, most of them by more than half. 

    WFP is appealing for US$186 million to maintain its food assistance to refugees in Africa through the end of the year, while UNHCR is asking for $39 million to fund nutritional support and food security activities to refugees in the affected countries. A joint report by WFP and UNHCR released last week warns that failure to prevent continued ration cuts will lead to high levels of malnutrition, particularly among children and the most vulnerable. 

    Worst hit have been refugees in Chad, Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan where a total of nearly half a million refugees are experiencing ration cuts of 50 to 60 percent.

    The funding shortfall is not the result of shrinking budgets for either WFP or UNHCR, but a substantial increase in the need for food assistance generated by an unprecedented number of refugee emergencies in 2014. “The amount of large-scale, simultaneous emergencies has never been so high to the best of my memory,” said Paul Spiegel, UNHCR’s deputy director of programme support and management, speaking to IRIN from Geneva. 

    Out of a global figure of 11.7 million refugees under UNHCR’s protection at the end of 2013, the highest number since 2001, 3.3 million live in Africa. 

    “There has also been a lot of earmarking [by donors] for certain situations, particularly the Syrian situation,” he added. “Some situations, particularly CAR, have been severely under-funded so there is an equity issue here that needs to be dealt with. Protracted refugee situations have also not had the same level of funding.”

    Only about a quarter of those affected by the ration cuts are new arrivals, according to Spiegel. The rest are long-term refugees who have been unable to wean themselves off food aid, usually because they are confined to remote camps where there are little or no possibilities for them to generate an income. 

    Camps or communities?

    As donors increasingly prioritize funding for the emergency phase of refugee crises over protracted situations, UNHCR has had to shift its approach in the last two years. “The big shift has been that we’re looking at saying `if we can avoid camps, let’s do so’,” explained Spiegel. “Having refugees be amongst local communities is better for so many different reasons: it allows them to be more self-reliant, reduces long-term dependence and UNHCR can use its funding to improve existing communities.”

    But while UNHCR is advocating that refugees be allowed to settle in communities rather than in camps, governments have the final say when it comes to the refugees they host. For now, few are willing to grant refugees even basic economic freedoms such as the right to work and live outside of camps. Overcoming this reluctance will mean convincing host nations that, given the chance, refugees have the capacity to boost rather than burden local economies. 

    "We're now gathering more and more information...to show that improving refugee livelihoods, if it's done in a smart way, can have a positive effect on host communities"

    “We’re now gathering more and more information in Africa and the Middle East to show that improving refugee livelihoods, if it’s done in a smart way, can have a positive effect on host communities,” Spiegel told IRIN. 

    He admitted that much of the evidence is still anecdotal and that there is a need for more studies demonstrating the potentially positive impacts of integrating refugees into local communities. 

    Where host governments insist on an encampment policy, said Spiegel, “we’re looking more at sustainability from day one, so if we have to have camps, we would look at a development plan in that area.”

    This could include the placement of camps near existing communities, reducing the need for aid agencies to develop parallel services and increasing the likelihood of markets being available should refugees be allowed to trade.

    New livelihoods strategy

    UNHCR is also attempting to reshape its livelihoods strategy to be more responsive to socio-economic realities and more inclusive of host communities. “In the past, livelihoods [interventions have] been a lot of just keeping refugees occupied without a sufficiently market-oriented approach,” Spiegel said.

    Alexander Betts of Oxford University’s Refugee and Forced Migration Studies programme agreed that “too often in the past, [UNHCR’s] livelihoods interventions have been abstracted from the market into which they’re intervening; they haven’t been based on an understanding of what already exists and how you build upon it.”

    Betts is director of the Humanitarian Innovation Project (HIP) which seeks, in part, to expand the evidence base for giving refugees greater economic freedom. Last month, Betts and his team released research from Uganda, a country that allows the 387,000 refugees it hosts to live and work outside designated refugee settlements. The study found that 78 percent of the urban refugees surveyed in Kampala did not receive any international aid while 17 percent of those living in refugee settlements received no assistance. They instead relied on farming land allocated to them in the refugee settlements or trading with fellow refugees and their Ugandan neighbours.

    “What we’ve tried to do with the research is offer data that can demonstrate that governments prepared to offer basic economic freedoms [to refugees] can in turn reap benefits,” said Betts, who admitted that far more research into the economic lives of displaced populations was needed if a major shift in host nations’ attitudes towards refugees was to occur.

    Difficult choices

    In the meantime, WFP and UNHCR are having to make hard choices about which groups of refugees are more able to withstand ration cuts. Spiegel cited the example of Chad where mainly Sudanese refugees living in the desert-like east of the country have very few possibilities to sustain themselves compared to refugees from CAR living in the south where the availability of arable land for them to farm has made them more resilient. 

    “Also in Chad, we’re doing surveys where we’re trying to look at - even within a camp - who are the most and least vulnerable,” said Spiegel. “We may even consider, based on consultations with communities and leaders, giving full rations to some and smaller rations to others.”

    According to WFP spokesperson Elisabeth Byrs, “in situations of funding constraints, WFP conducts vulnerability assessments to prioritize its assistance to the most vulnerable.”

    Prolonged ration cuts, however, inevitably lead to refugees adopting increasingly drastic coping strategies. “Refugees initially try to make do by skipping meals, taking out loans and pulling their children out of school,” said Byrs. “In the longer-term, ration cuts can lead to more risky behaviour such as crime, sexual exploitation and conflict with host communities.

    “We are urging donors to try to find innovative ways to supply badly needed funding.”


    New thinking needed on aid for refugees
  • Pledges and boycotts in Mauritania polls

    President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will face four rival candidates in Mauritania’s 21 June elections, which are being boycotted by the main opposition coalition on grounds that they are a sham and its supporters claiming that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

    Cheikh Sidi Ahmed Ould Babamine, the head of the 17-member opposition National Forum for Democracy and Unity (FNDU) has denounced the elections as a “masquerade”. Thousands of Mauritanians heeded opposition calls for a demonstration against the elections on June 4, flocking onto the streets of the capital, Nouakchott.

    “We want to see free, transparent and consensual elections to allow for a peaceful change at the top,” argued Jemli Mansour, president of the opposition Islamic Party, Tawassoul, and now the second strongest party in the country since its strong showing in the November 2013 municipal and legislative elections.

    The case for standing

    The only woman candidate, Lalla Mariam Mint Moulaye Idriss, says real transparency in the elections is not possible. “The role of the tribal chiefs and the political and social reality of this country transcend any political programmes or ideologies,” she said.

    While stressing that she understands the opposition’s rationale for boycotting, she warned that it could lead to a “breakdown even more serious than the one witnessed in Mauritania in 2008, and that is not what the country needs.”

    Mauritania descended into a long period of political infighting that led up to the August 2008 military overthrow of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi.

    Another candidate, Ibrahima Moctar Sarr, of the Alliance for Justice and Democracy/Movement for Renewal (AJD/MR), makes no apologies for standing. “We also have our doubts about the transparency of this election, because the state-backed system in place is racist, feudal and endorses slavery,” Moctar acknowledged. “But we are going to compete all the same because it is necessary to play the political game, so at least we can hammer home our message at the national level.”

    To vote or not to vote?

    “Why vote when you already know the result in advance? What credibility do you think the other candidates will have when Aziz’s triumph is announced?” argued Messaoud Ould Abderahmane, a market trader in the capital and supporter of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces (UFD).

    But others are keen to vote. Boubacar, a young salesman for a company selling electrical goods, said: “I will vote. It is the only kind of leverage that I can have on the destiny of my country even if my input is derisory on a national scale. I am simply doing my duty.”

    Boubacar has little enthusiasm for the candidates. “I think I will cast a blank vote because I don’t see anyone on the ballot paper that can bring about the kind of structural changes that this country needs, particularly in sorting out once and for all the question of cohabitation between Black Mauritanians and Moors.”

    Questions on ethnicity will not go away

    The complex history of race relations in Mauritania figures strongly in the programmes of at least two of the presidential candidates, who are addressing a subject often considered taboo.

    Since independence in 1960 and particularly since the 1984 coup, the military and the administrative authorities have been dominated by the Moors to the detriment of ‘Black Mauritanians’. In 1989, land ownership issues around the Senegal River Valley triggered inter-ethnic violence in both Senegal and Mauritania, with thousands of Black Mauritanians forced into exile. Veteran anti-slavery campaigner Birame Ould Abeid is amongst the candidates, his programme dwelling insistently on the historic grievances of the Haratines.

    Voters want food questions answered

    In addition to ethnic problems, many voters are focused on their daily needs, particularly food. At the SOCIM market, where most Nouakchott residents buy their main food staples, consumers lament how high prices have risen over the past five years despite constant advice from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to control inflation.

    “The problem is with the traders who are not controlled and do what they want,” argues Binta Camara, a housewife doing her weekly shopping at the market. “It is total anarchy.”

    “If I had to put a question to all the candidates it would be about just how expensive life has become here; it is more and more difficult to eat well because prices have gone through the roof”.

    Sociologist at the University of Nouakchott and writer Cheikh Sass Bouh Kamara says the city residents are suffering. “Endemic poverty is on the rise in Nouakchott. The rural exodus is becoming more and more important. In the most populated districts of Nouakchott you are now seeing an acute food crisis you would not have had seven years ago.” Kamara blames the prices hikes on what he calls “a commercial oligarchy”.

    Mauritania is among the world’s least developed food-deficit countries, ranked 155 out of 187 on the 2013 UNDP Human Development Index. Repeated droughts have slashed agricultural production. The World Food Programme estimates that between 20 and 30 percent of Mauritania’s population is severely food insecure.

    In Sélibabi, in south-eastern Mauritania, the concerns are even more straightforward.

    “Why vote when you already know the result in advance? What credibility do you think the other candidates will have when Aziz’s triumph is announced?”

    This is the lean season and food needs are severe. People here have little time for the pomp and expenditure associated with the elections. “Our children need to eat, our livestock need water,” argues Souleymane Diabira, who works for the state agricultural company SONIMEX.

    Candidates and campaign promises

    President Ould Abdel Aziz is standing for a second time. One of the main orchestrators of the 2008 coup against Abdallah, Abdel Aziz stood down as military leader to run for president in 2009. On that occasion, he used “the war against poverty” as the key campaign message. For 2014, he has switched his focus to youth and has been bringing this theme to the fore in debates and forums for several months, using the slogan: “a new impetus for Mauritania”.

    But youth unemployment remains a huge source of grievance. During his “meeting with the youth” organised several months ago, Abdel Aziz saw hundreds of young people coming in to take part in the debate, only to realize most were submitting their CVs.

    Candidate Lalla Mariam Mint Moulaye Idriss, 57, who headed the Council of Administration at the state-owned Mauritanian Information Agency (AMI) right up until declaring her candidacy warns of “the growing impoverishment of the country and the rise in prices” and seeks the establishment of a stronger national identity and defusing inter-communal and tribal divisions.

    She has also called for a more diversified economy, with more emphasis on its agricultural and livestock resources and less on mining, “whose benefits Mauritanians do not see on their plates”.

    Sixty-one year old Bodiel Ould Houmeid of the Party for Democracy and Entente says he is the one to get Mauritania out of its crisis, pointing to his experience in government and public administration.

    Known primarily as an anti-slavery campaigner and head of the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), Biram Ould Dah Ould Abeid, is championing the cause of racial equality in the run up to the polls. Slavery was criminalized in Mauritania in 2007 but the law has been difficult to enforce.

    “Equality between Mauritanian citizens is at the heart of my engagement and my candidature,” he told IRIN. “Ahead of economic or political questions is the question of survival in a country where communities do not talk to each other, where state racism is at its peak, where slavery persists, where Blacks do not have the same rights as Moors”.

    While offering a blunt critique of Abdel Aziz’s record in office, AJD/MR candidate Ibrahima Moctar Sarr also raises arguments about race relations. “The question of cohabitation between Blacks and Moors can only be solved through democracy,” he argues.

    A foregone conclusion?

    It seems highly unlikely that any of the four other candidates will pose much of a challenge to the incumbent.

    “These elections are being played out in advance,” argued Ahmed Fall, a philosophy teacher at the Al Baraka School in Nouakchott. “Look around in the streets, from Nouakchott to Sélibabi, you will only see the posters of Aziz and the loud-speakers blaring out his name. Have you ever seen a ‘transparent election’ with a ‘credible opposition’ as the authorities would say is taking place? You have the impression that the other candidates have gone for a very low profile approach”.


    Pledges and boycotts in Mauritania polls
  • Melding science and tradition to tackle climate change

    In the latest of several partnerships between tradition and modern science aimed at improving resilience to climate change, pastoralists and meteorologists in Tanzania are working together to produce weather forecasts better suited to farmers.

    The hope is that by drawing from both indigenous knowledge and contemporary weather forecasting techniques, crop yields could be increased.

    “We wanted to see if the two can complement or supplement each other,” Isaac Yonah, a senior officer coordinating community meetings employed by the Tanzania Meteorological Agency (TMA), told IRIN by phone.

    Using traditional indicators such as the movement of red ants, the flowering of mango and other trees, the migration of termites and patterns and colours in the sky, farmers in Sakala village of Ngorongoro District compare their two-weekly forecasts with those released by the TMA.

    “This is done… to validate how accurate their forecast is and to come up with a consensus [forecast]. In the last three seasons, more than 80 percent accuracy in the findings has been witnessed,” said Yonah.

    The project is a partnership between TMA, Hakikazi Catalyst (a non-profit organization), and the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).

    “Strengthening such practices could enhance the resilience of communities which are most vulnerable to climate change. Upscaling the projects will see the knowledge gap between traditional and scientific bridged,” said Yonah.

    Research published in Uganda in 2013 detailed 23 different indicators used by traditional forecasters to predict weather.

    “Farmers would profit from weather forecasts provided by governmental institutions. This [marriage of the old and new] will enable farmers to make sound decisions on how to fully exploit the seasonal distribution of rainfall to improve and stabilize crop yields,” said Joshua Okonyo, author of the study Indigenous Knowledge of Seasonal Weather Forecasting.

    The indicators cited included wind direction, cuckoo calls, and the timing of winged termites’ departure from their nests.

    Working with the Nganyi community in Kenya

    For the past five years in Kenya, government meteorologists have worked with the Nganyi community in the west of the country in a project carried out in collaboration with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Climate Prediction and Application Centre (ICPAC).

    The Nganyi observe bird migrations and other animal behaviour in their forecasts.

    “After thorough research, we have noticed that these traditional indicators have a high scientific value that could be integrated with the local climate information,” said Laban Ogallo, the project’s coordinator.

    “Since predicting weather within the tropics is a challenge to scientists, we wanted to learn how the [Nganyi] community has been doing it over the years. Their knowledge will be helpful,” Abraham Changara, chief meteorologist at the Kenya Meteorological Department, told IRIN.

    As meteorologists are waking up to the value of traditional forecasting methods in adapting to climate change, it seems climate change itself poses a threat to the sustainability of these methods.

    ''There is rapid disappearance of plants and animals due to climate variability and human activities,” according to Weather Forecasting and Indigenous Knowledge Systems, published by Great Zimbabwe University.

    “There are few elders aware of traditional methods of weather forecasting. This makes traditional weather forecast less reliable,'' the study added.


    Climate change, science and tradition
  • Can Islamic law be an answer for humanitarians?

    Humanitarian action today is largely taking place in Muslim-majority countries where some combatants turn to Islamic law, among other sources, to guide their military behaviour. 

    As a result, in the last decade, aid and advocacy agencies have increasingly tried to understand Islamic law in order to use its humanitarian provisions as tools of negotiation with armed groups in the Muslim world.

    This is particularly helpful in engaging Islamist armed groups, some of whom reject international humanitarian law (IHL). 

    Some aid agencies try to situate their arguments for access or protection of civilians within a religious context, sometimes using scholars, mullahs or other religious figures as liaison with Islamist armed groups. Others, like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), are trying to highlight the linkages between IHL and Islamic law by inviting religious scholars to discuss their views at conferences.

    “In order to meet the challenges of the 21st century, in particular the growing influence of religion on politics, conflict and everyday life, ICRC has stepped up its dialogue with intellectuals, academics and scholars in various parts of the Muslim world,” the organization wrote in 2006, “the aim being to lay the foundations for greater mutual understanding, dispel existing misconceptions and find common ground for protecting human dignity in armed conflict.”

    “This initiative to engage in a dialogue and to look for common features has been an exercise of overcoming misperceptions on all sides, of creating a common understanding, but very often already talking concretely on how to improve access, activities of protection, activities of assistance to victims of armed conflict,” Ronald Ofteringer, an Islamic law expert who advises the ICRC’s director of operations, told IRIN. 

    For the most part, however, this approach remains an ad hoc effort in the humanitarian sector; and while it has seen some successes; it also raises certain ethical dilemmas. 

    Benefits of using Islamic law 

    In 2006, Naz Modirzadeh, a senior fellow and head of the Counterterrorism and Humanitarian Engagement project at Harvard law School, wrote an article arguing that the international human rights movement was failing to appropriately engage with Islamic law. She urged international NGOs to develop a “new theory of engagement with Islamic law”. 

    The status quo, she argued, risked forcing Muslims to either side with human rights or to side with God. “Whatever its intrinsic appeal, international human rights law is unlikely to be favored in this ultimatum.”

    In 2007, Human Rights Watch apparently heard her call and became one of the first large international rights organizations to use Islamic principles to frame its advocacy. In addition to using traditional rights arguments, it used justifications from Islam’s holy book, the Koran, to challenge Egypt’s refusal to give followers of the Bahai faith identity cards, on the basis that they were apostates. (Egyptian courts ultimately ruled that Bahais were entitled to an Egyptian identity). 

    "Some of it is very instrumentalist. 'Tell me verses of the Koran I can use if I get kidnapped'.

    But this approach was used by pioneering humanitarians long before that. For instance, some aid workers who negotiated access into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan before the 2001 US invasion did so using the Islamic concept of aman, or safe passage. The ICRC first reached out to Islamic seminaries in Pakistan in the late 1990s when the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan.

    More recently, when the Taliban banned one aid agency from using female staff in their medical clinic in southern Afghanistan, the agency responded by citing, among other things, the importance of women in the Koran.

    “Some agencies under similar circumstances packed up and left,” said Ashley Jackson, who spent two years studying engagement with armed groups in Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan for the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group. “But in these instances where people were persistent and used Islam as at least one of the pillars of their argument, they prevailed.” 

    “Speaking the local language” is nothing new, but aid agencies were initially - and to some extent remain - hesitant to use this approach extensively, according to Modirzadeh. 

    Now, however, some agencies are looking to hire Islamic law experts onto their staff; ICRC, for example, has a small team in Geneva dedicated to this, as well as a network of delegates who have knowledge of the issue. Others are tapping into a renewed effort among Muslim scholars to revive Islamic jurisprudence by translating texts in classical Islamic thought into English. Universities have started research initiatives on Islam and IHL. 

    “Some of it is very instrumentalist,” Modirzadeh says, citing a journalist who once asked her: “Tell me verses of the Koran I can use if I get kidnapped.”  

    The most dangerous countries for aid workers today are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and Syria. 

    “Some of the most volatile operating environments are predominantly Muslim,” says Jackson. “There’s a need to gain greater acceptance in those environments. A lot of people are looking to local culture and values to distance themselves from the negative perceptions of the West. That’s got to be where a lot of this is coming from.” This became particularly important in the post 9/11 so-called “global war on terror”. 

    But increased security for humanitarian staff in the Muslim world is just one of the perceived benefits. Others are an improved and more open dialogue on humanitarian norms across cultures; a realization among armed groups that IHL is rooted in Islamic norms; and more success in aid operations on the ground. 

    “The greater understanding of Islamic law or even direct engagement with Islamic law might increase the ability of humanitarian organizations to negotiate access or effectiveness for their projects,” Modirzadeh, says.

    Limitations of this approach 

    But the use of Islamic law as a negotiation tool with militants remains largely a quiet effort, because of the many concerns this raises among international aid workers over operations and resources, let alone principles and effectiveness. 

    “Alas, at least thus far,” Modirzadeh cautioned in a 2012 article in the European Journal of International Law, “Islamic legal texts do not function as a ‘cryptex’ that will activate certain outcomes in the Muslim world.”

    "It can work, at a very tactical level, but it is profoundly dishonest and conceptually dangerous. Once we start that debate, we have essentially accepted that IHL is not enough in itself."

    One of the most commonly cited obstacles is a lack of knowledge among fighters themselves about Islamic rules of war. 

    Jackson said she realized the limitations of using Islamic law to engage with groups when she spoke to a local mullah in Afghanistan, who told her: “They think they’re fighting for Islam. It’s absolutely ridiculous. They’re not even true Muslims. They can’t read. They’ve never read the Koran. How can you debate these principles with them?”

    One Palestinian IHL expert who has trained armed groups in the Middle East for years says many of the fighters in Syria are new to Islam. “They know nothing about Islam except what they were told…. [Free Syrian Army] fighters smoke and tell me about their wild experiences on [downtown Beirut’s] Hamra Street,” he told IRIN. 

    As such, the expert said, many of them act upon misinterpretations or partial adoptions of the Koran. In training fighters on IHL, he reminds them Islamic law goes far beyond IHL in the protection it provides civilians. “‘If you’re following Islamic law properly, you’re already satisfying requirements of IHL’,” he tells them. “They come to the conclusion that they don’t even know Shariah [Islamic law].” 

    For Francoise Bouchet-Saulnier, legal director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), certain aspects of the religion are clear: “Nothing in the Koran authorizes or requests violations of medical ethics or humanitarian principles.” 

    Where combatants use religious arguments to justify violations of humanitarian principles, “we will sit with people and discuss our counter-arguments. In case of disagreement, we can also submit our case [for] proper legal advice from Koranic courts. This is what we’ve done in northern Syria.” 

    She said MSF has negotiated the respect of its hospitals in Islamist-controlled areas of northern Syria and argued a number of cases related to the treatment of wounded with Islamist armed groups and Shariah courts, during which it referenced humanitarian principles alongside Koranic guidance of mercy and care to the vulnerable. 

    Ethical dilemmas 

    But MSF is careful not to go too far. Like other agencies, it is wary of the risks of engaging in too detailed a legal debate on Islamic or any other law, or as one aid worker put it, arguing with “one trillion interpretations” and “one-man shows”. 

    “You can find some convergence, if you look in the right texts [and] quote the more progressive among authorities, but you can find lots of stuff that does not conform with IHL,” said one international aid worker in a Muslim country who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his work. “Who are we to tell Muslims which bits are to be interpreted how?”

    “There is a real concern for many organizations… that this is a door that once opened can’t be closed,” says Modirzadeh, who advises aid agencies on issues of IHL and counter-terrorism. “This is such a rich and complex body of law that easily your organization could be pulled into a debate you don’t want to have.”

    For example, does using Shariah law in your argumentation mean that you condone all of what Shariah says, including for example, the permissibility of killing prisoners of war? Given every group has its own interpretation of Islamic law, could you inadvertently legitimize a fringe interpretation of Islam? If you accept Islamic law, why not accept local customs? Is it a slippery slope?  And most importantly, would you be detracting from the universality of IHL? This last question, Modirzadeh says, “causes people to get very nervous at the headquarters and management levels.” 

    According to Ofteringer of ICRC, the fact that many international aid workers still feel uncomfortable dealing with religious matters may be an added psychological or ideological barrier that must be overcome. 

    “If we want to do humanitarian work in these critical contexts, we have to go beyond our usual approaches, the way we see things and have to learn to see things through the eyes of the others, and then on that basis establish commonalities that are clearly based on the basic tenets of humanitarian principles, without deviating from it,” he says. 

    But for others, the approach is morally and strategically risky. 

    “You can find anything you want in religious concepts so if you accept that law has to be divinely inspired, you're on dangerous turf,” the international aid worker said. “It can work, at a very tactical level, but it is profoundly dishonest, in my view, and conceptually dangerous… Once we start that debate, we have essentially accepted that IHL is not enough in itself.” 

    MSF came face to face with these dilemmas when it was asked to participate in the application of corporal punishment in northern Mali. Under Islamic law, the punishment for theft is the amputation of the hand. When asked to sanitize the wound and providing an ambulance, MSF refused, accepting only to treat the wounded person once in hospital. 

    Best strategies

    Rather than citing specific verses of the Koran, experts suggest making a nod to broad Islamic notions or principles, by referring to a general principle of IHL – for example: not attacking civilians - and adding that the principle is also in accordance with Islamic Shariah or the principles found in the holy Koran. 

    They also suggest engagement with lower-level religious leaders like Friday prayer leaders and religious advisers to tribal councils; as well as those who may be open to different interpretations of Islamic law, like fatwa councils and shuras of ulama (consultations between legal scholars). Instead of trying to determine what Shariah says, they advise simply referring to jurists who have already interpreted the law. 

    However, Ofteringer cautions that groups may not succeed in using this approach if they are not seen to be neutral.

    Another approach is to help combatants in the Muslim world feel more ownership of IHL.

    MSF’s guidebook on humanitarian law, which has been translated into Arabic and includes a section on Islamic law, explains to field staff that humanitarian principles have their roots in religious principles, whether Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or otherwise.  

    One aid worker in Afghanistan says the message he tries to send is: “IHL is yours. It’s not different. It’s not something new.”

    In one sign of success, after dialogue with Geneva Call and ICRC, respectively, the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO) in southern Thailand and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in southern Philippines, two nationalist movements, published codes of conduct for their troops, in which they cited both relevant international humanitarian law and the corresponding Islamic teaching for each principle. 

    In another example, when Islamist rebel groups took control of northern Mali in 2011, limiting access for many aid agencies, ICRC had already established a relationship with Muslim scholars there, in particular the High Islamic Council. Through that dialogue, the two groups discussed access, humanitarian ethics and protection issues, and the ICRC was able to work with the Council at times as a go-between with the armed groups. Ultimately, the Council issued a position paper on the rules of engagement in jihad and the application of Shariah law, in which it advised against the use of corporal punishment. According to Ofteringer, this succeeded in influencing rebel behaviour. 

    “This dialogue is really about a journey together in which both sides - humanitarians and scholars - are faced with certain challenges and - via dialogue - identify means how to address these challenges,” he told IRIN. 

    Whom to educate? Sheikhs, rebels or civil society 

    But it is also important to understand who you are engaging with. 

    “Some people, when they approach Islam, they do so in a very philosophical manner, which complicates things,” says the Palestinian IHL expert. “You do that with the scholars, the sheikhs, but not with these guys on the ground.”

    ICRC, HRW and MSF have all organized conferences on Islam and IHL in Islamabad, Sana’a, Fes, Alexandria and other predominantly Muslim cities, in which they inform scholars from places as diverse as Sudan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia about IHL and invite the scholars to share their understandings of humanitarian norms in Islam.  

    “It’s not about Islamic law, but we are sharing what IHL is about,” said the aid worker in Afghanistan, who organized such forums there. “They [Muslim scholars] usually say, ‘Oh, it’s the same; it’s not much different! ... Then when they’re back home, in Friday prayer, they talk about it.” 

    From 2005-2009, HRW similarly tried to create a groundswell of support for protection of civilians on the Middle Eastern street through its Civilian Protection Initiative, in which it engaged civil society activists in discussions about civilian immunity, in part by highlighting the commonalities between IHL and Islamic law.

    “In the process of promoting respect for core international humanitarian law principles and effective accountability mechanisms in Arab societies, there is clearly a role for persons who are able to articulate those principles in language that will persuade other Muslims, including Islamists and nationalists who use primarily Islamic idioms and doctrinal references,” Joe Stork, deputy director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division, wrote in a 2010 essay. “The underlying element in both [Islamic ethics and IHL] systems is the understanding that, in warfare, there are limits as to the means and methods that warring parties may employ.” He went on to reference elements of Islamic tradition that prohibit treachery and mutilation, and specify categories of enemy persons who are immune from attack in Islam, including children, slaves, women, and the lame and blind.

    However, targeting Muslim thinkers - or even members of civil society - has its limitations too. 

    “These scholars are not carrying arms,” says the Palestinian IHL expert. “They can give you a fatwa [ruling], but they are not the ones running the show nowadays.” 

    Rule versus rules 

    But at the end of the day, it is important not to overemphasize the role that Islamic law plays in governing even Islamist militants’ behaviour. In many instances, the bottom line is power, not constraint linked to religious ideals or ethical codes. 

    “Even today, armed groups’ attitudes to IHL depend in large part on whether they see the norms within that regime as reinforcing their rule and less on whether the conduct in question is sanctioned by Islam,” says James Cockayne, who studied engagement with armed group as a senior associate with the International Peace Institute before taking a position with the United Nations University in New York.   

    In Syria, jihadists with largely similar theological views are fighting each other for control of territory. Some became more “moderate” when they realized their excesses were counter-productive. 

    According to the Geneva Academy of International Law and Human Rights, this leaves negotiations with Islamist armed groups in a tough spot. Diverse interpretations of Islam make a purely Islamic legal approach challenging, while an approach that pushes IHL alone is also unlikely to prevail. 

    Where armed groups “assert the primacy of divine over man-made law,”, the Academy wrote in a January 2014 policy brief, “it is evidently difficult to persuade such groups to change their behaviour via theological arguments or by simply affirming the authority of IHL.”  Still, the briefing says, such groups are not immune to public pressure. 


    Previously in this series: 
    Part 1: Islamic law and the rules of war
    Part 2: Jihadist jurisprudence? Militant interpretations of Islamic rules of war

    Next in this series: 
    Part 4: Rough guide to Islamic law


    Islamic law an answer for humanitarians?
    This article is the third in a series on the intersection between Islamic law, jihadists and humanitarian norms.
  • Rough guide to Islamic rules of war

    There is a renewed interest in translating classical texts about Islamic rules of war into English, adding to the increasing body of work on the intersections between Islam, international humanitarian law (IHL) and the protection of civilians. IRIN provides this study guide to get you started.

    Majid Khadduri’s translation (with explanation) of the Islamic Law of Nations, the first codification of Islamic rules of war by jurist Mohammad Ibn al-Hassan al-Shaybani, is a good place to start. 

    Sahih Muslim is one of the main references for authenticated hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the sources of Islamic law. Here is a translation of those hadiths that address jihad and military expeditions.

    Yusuf Qaradawi’s Fiqh al-Jihad (the Jurisprudence of War) is another foundational text giving modern interpretations of the Islamic laws of war from a conservative perspective. The book itself is not online, but you can find reviews.

    Khaled Abou El Fadl, of the University  of California, Los Angeles, is one of the leading academics studying Islamic laws of war. You can find his reading of the classical sources in this 1999 article in The Muslim World.

    But there are a plethora of other academics studying the humanitarian provisions in Islamic rules of war. Among them: Nesrine Badawi at the American University in Cairo; Mohammad Fadel at the University of Toronto; Muhammad Munir at the International Islamic University in Islamabad; Andrew March at Yale University; and Joel Hayward of Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi. 

    The reading list  for the Islamic Law and the Protection of Civilians workshop offered by Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) is an excellent resource with plenty of references, from primary sources to jihadi doctrine and analysis.  

    It includes this web seminar from the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University, which gives a good overview of the issues raised in our series.

    Similarly, you’ll find a whole series of articles on this forum at Syracuse University, which has an initiative on Islam and IHL. 

    There are endless studies on the subject, including this examination by Malaysian professors of what constitutes Direct Participation in Hostilities (DPH) in the Islamic context and this article by Mohamed Elewa Badar analyzing the role of Islam in shaping modern European laws of war

    The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has published a fair bit on the issue, including in Arabic here, here and here

    Harvard lawyer Naz Modirzadeh has published a number of journal articles on the practical relevance of all this for humanitarian and human rights practitioners. This one in the Harvard Human Rights Journal critiques international NGOs for failing to truly engage with Islamic law; while the final segment of this one in the European Journal of International Law delves into why there is so much interest in Islamic law and war. 

    For more on militant interpretations and application of Islamic law, the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human rights recently published a policy brief rife with examples and insights into Islamist armed groups’ behaviour. A 2010 essay by Human Rights Watch’s Joe Stork is another window into some of the intra-Islamist debate on acceptable behavior in times of war.  

    Finally, this handbook to refuting jihadism by the Henry Jackson Society is a fascinating attempt to challenge the theological authenticity of militant arguments.

    Happy reading!

    Rough guide to Islamic rules of war
  • Remittance rip-offs

    All over the world migrant workers are sending money home to their families. The money pays hospital bills and school fees, buys land, builds houses and sets up small businesses. The cash goes from the US back to Mexico, from the Gulf back to India, from the UK back to Somalia, and from South Africa back to Malawi, Zimbabwe and the rest of southern Africa. 

    But what these workers probably do not realize, since they usually only ever send to one country, is that the cost of sending money varies greatly. Now a study of the cost of remittances, carried out by London's Overseas Development Institute with support from the fund-raising charity Comic Relief, has revealed that transfers to African countries cost around half as much again as the global average, and twice as much as transfers to Latin America. 

    The ODI estimates that if remittance charges were brought down to the world average, the money saved could educate an extra 14 million primary school children, half of all those currently out of school on the continent.

    The bulk of this money goes through money transfer companies rather than banks, since the recipients are unlikely to have bank accounts, and transfer companies are quick, efficient and have a wide network of agents. But just two big international players dominate the business in Africa, Moneygram and Western Union, and participants in a meeting to launch the research were highly critical of the way they seemed to be abusing their market dominance.

    Rwanda's High Commissioner in London, Williams Nkurunziza, said he was shocked at what the report revealed. “If you look at the remittances, 30 or 40 percent of the money that goes to Africa goes to rural areas,” he said. “This money goes to the people who are most needy, and you are allowing a multinational corporation to take bread out of the mouth of hungry children. This is not what I would call responsible capitalism!”

    Glenys Kinnock, opposition spokesman on International Development in the upper house of the UK parliament, who chaired the meeting, called on the country's financial regulatory authority to intervene over the issue of excessive charges. “It is not a technocratic issue,” she said, “although it may sound like one. It is also about people's lives and the future of their children... These things have to change. We can't put up any longer with the prospect of its making things so difficult, very often impossible, for people who have such needs.”

    At the end of last year, when the ODI did its research, the fees and charges to send money to most of Africa were around 12 percent - a bit less to Zambia or Tanzania, a bit more to Uganda, Malawi and the Gambia - against a world average of just over 8 percent. Even that is quite expensive; the governments of the G8 and G20 countries have pledged themselves to working towards reducing this to 5 percent.

    It found that in more than 30 countries the two big players had more than 50 percent of the market; and in 10 countries they had more than 90 percent. Sometimes either Moneygram or Western Union had an effective monopoly, but even where both companies were present it did not necessarily mean that customers had much choice; one company could still have a monopoly of outlets in a particular area, and the companies habitually make their paying-out agents sign contracts promising not to also act as agents for their rivals. 

    Somalia different

    Significantly, the one country where the big two are absent - Somalia - has far lower remittance charges; transfers go through a number of smaller, competing companies.

    Competition has been limited by the fallout from the US “war on terror”, with the banks who do bulk international transfers citing money-laundering and anti-terrorism regulations as the reason they are reluctant to extend facilities to smaller companies. Now only the biggest of the Somali companies, Dahabshiil, still has an account with a major British bank (Barclays) and even that concession was forced by a court case and is only until other arrangements can be put in place.

    Inter-Africa transfers cost most

    But if charges to send money to Africa from outside are steep, the cost of sending money from one African country to another can be eye-watering. 

    Dilip Ratha, who works on these issues for the World Bank says exchange controls are one of the reasons the rates are so high; in some places sending money out of the country is illegal. “So if you are sending money,” he says, “let's say from Benin to Ghana, it is actually allowed (in some countries it's not even allowed) but first the CFA has to be passed through into euros or sterling or dollars, and then it has to be transferred back into the local cedi, and in both cases you pay commission. Some sort of regional currency market really needs to be created.” 

    "So if you are sending money, let's say from Benin to Ghana, it is actually allowed (in some countries it's not even allowed) but first the CFA has to be passed through into euros or sterling or dollars, and then it has to be transferred back into the local cedi, and in both cases you pay commission. Some sort of regional currency market really needs to be created"  

    The report found 10 routes with bank transfer charges over 20 percent. Charges from Nigeria to Ghana were 22 percent. To send from Tanzania to the rest of East Africa, or from South Africa to its near neighbours is particularly expensive, peaking at 25 percent for bank transfers between South African and Malawi. Some of the fees charged by money transfer companies are even higher; if you send money that way from Ghana to Nigeria you may have to pay a staggering 39 percent.

    In some places mobile phone based systems like M-Pesa have made in-country transfers much easier and cheaper, but they haven't really taken off internationally, largely because conservative, inflexible regulatory systems insist that all international transfers must go through conventional banks. And African banks tend to have very high charges, often because they are forced by governments to finance government projects or make uncommercial loans. 

    Chukwuemeka Chikezie of the Up Africa consultancy told IRIN a lot of the responsibility lay with African governments. “One of the reasons M-Pesa took off in Kenya was because the authorities nurtured and enabled innovation. If you look at other countries the regulators have tended to stifle innovation. They are very risk-averse and they don't enable even limited experiments to prove that the markets can absorb technical innovation.”

    In addition, money-laundering regulations are putting impossible demands on systems designed to serve the poor, requiring, for instance, “know your customer” procedures like taking copies of ID documents for anyone receiving an international payout. Selma Ribica of M-Pesa points out this is an impossibility for agents in rural areas with no power supply. She told IRIN she would like to see a more realistic, tiered approach with much lighter regulation for small international transfers (under, say, US$200-300) which are most unlikely to have anything to do with money laundering.

    Beware Facebook, Walmart

    M-Pesa depends on moving money between different customers' mobile phone accounts. Now people are beginning to think of other kinds of electronic “purses” which might be linked in the same way. 

    Facebook has just proposed allowing transfers between customers who have accounts with the company which they normally use to make payments for online games. So far this is only proposed for payments within the European Union, but Facebook has a huge geographical spread and has said it is keen to extend its reach in Africa. 

    And the big profits made by the transfer companies are tempting other players into the market. The latest to announce it is starting money transfers is the US supermarket chain Walmart, with recipients being able to pick up their cash from any shop in the chain. To start with this will only work within the United States and Puerto Rico, but Walmart is an international group with nearly 350 stores in South Africa, and it also has a presence in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Malawi and Mozambique, opening up the tempting prospect of a new, and cheaper way for workers to send money home.

    All these new ways of sending money aim to undercut Moneygram and Western Union. Now Western Union has responded by offering so-called “zero-fee” transfers to Africa if the money is sent from a bank account rather by credit card or cash. This would mean a saving of just under £5 ($8.40) for someone sending $100 from the UK to Liberia. The company would still make money (nearly $4) by using a favourable exchange rate, but it would bring the cost down to just below the G8/G20 target. 

    For African's hard-pressed and hard-working migrants and their families back home, change may - finally - be on the way.


    Remittance rip-offs
  • What future for IRIN?

    Dear reader:

    You may have seen some public discussion recently about IRIN’s future, arising most recently from this online petition, an independent initiative launched by a US-based reader last week. In the interest of clarity we are taking this opportunity to let you know ourselves what is happening.

    The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has taken measures to ensure we are fully resourced this year but beyond 31 December there are no budgetary provisions. With the encouragement of OCHA, which has hosted IRIN since our inception in 1995, we are now taking steps to spin off as an autonomous humanitarian news and analysis service.

    In our envisaged new incarnation we believe we will be even better placed to address the complexities of the $18 billion-a-year humanitarian industry. Informed by your responses to recent surveys we are already restructuring our organization to be more nimble, relevant and responsive.

    This evolution is the keynote of a transition business plan that also sets out the potential funding and partnership structure of the new IRIN, as well as the support needed to prevent an abrupt shutdown on 31 December. It is currently being studied by OCHA management.

    We are excited by the idea of a re-launched IRIN; however, time is short, and the funding climate challenging, and while we are investing every effort in this endeavour there are no guarantees that we can succeed.

    Much has changed since the days when we were sending out daily faxes on the Great Lakes crisis. What has not changed is our commitment to sustained coverage of emergencies, especially in parts of the world often overlooked by the international mainstream media.

    Mark Bidder
    Acting Chief and Head of Operations

    (We welcome your comments and ideas: [email protected])

    What future for IRIN?
  • Trading away West Africa’s hunger

    Severe food shortages in the Sahel and West Africa are often the result of droughts and poor harvests. But inefficient intra-regional trade also places significant strain on food availability, exacerbating hunger.

    Poor roads and railways, high transaction costs, lack of sufficient market information, incoherent trade policies by governments and bureaucratic hurdles are among limitations to free trade in West Africa. Import and export procedures are more costly and more time consuming in West Africa than any region of the world, experts say.

    For instance, according to a 2010 study by the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), there were 47 checkpoints on the 500km road between Douala and Bertua in Cameroon, 19 on the 910km road between Ouagadougou and Bamako, and 34 on the 1,036km-long Cotonou-Niamey highway, resulting in losses of time and money - in bribes - as well as revenue.

    In addition, lack of reliable bank-based transactions means that trade within West Africa mostly depends on personal relationships that have been built over time. “Such informal networks of traders lack the flexibility to diversify traded commodities [and] do [not] have the flexibility to move larger amounts of commodities to meet changing and evolving market demand and conditions,” said Aziz Elbehri, a senior economist with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

    “Consequently, the prevailing informal, relationship-based transactions are inefficient, rigid and ensure that much smaller trade actually takes place than is possible given the trade potential, as reflected indirectly by the often huge price gap between centres of production and large urban centres of consumption,” he told IRIN.

    Elbehri pointed out that the demand for maize in deficit areas, such as Mali and Burkina Faso, is poorly met due to these trade constrains. Sorghum and millet, mainly grown in the Sahel belt countries, are also not efficiently supplied to food processors within the region. Therefore, prices and productivity remain low.

    “Expanding intra-regional trade can have a substantial positive impact on food security for the region given the similarity in the types of food consumed by the population.”

    Hunger and harvest

    This year, some 20 million people in the Sahel face food shortages, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates.

    The region is only emerging from the 2011-2012 food crisis that affected around 18 million people. That drought caused a 26 percent slump in cereal production compared to the preceding season.

    Yields were better in the 2012-2013 season. Maize production in the Sahel and West Africa was 30 percent higher than the average output over the previous five years, and 16 percent above the preceding season. Nonetheless, millions still face food shortages, having depleted their seed stocks. Widespread poverty and the 2012 Mali conflict, which forced millions from their homes, worsened the food crisis. In any case, it will take more than one good harvest to turn around food deficits and cut malnutrition.

    Between 2005 and 2009, only 3 percent of the maize produced in West Africa was traded within the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), according to a book by Elbehri and others that assesses West Africa’s staple food systems.

    “Even within a country, despite availability of food, food security remains a problem. Transportation is already difficult from a surplus area to an area of deficit within a country, and much worse on a regional level,” said Al Hassan Cissé of Oxfam’s West African bureau.

    Not only does ample production in one area fail to compensate for underproduction elsewhere, it can also cause problems at home. In 2012, Niger experienced an overproduction of onions, its second highest export earner after uranium, causing prices to slump by 60 to 80 percent. “If intra-regional trade was working well, this surplus could have been sold on other West Africa markets and contributed to food security by raising the revenues of the producers,” Cissé said.

    Trade flows and policy

    ECOWAS exports 68.6 percent of produce outside the economic zone and just 9.2 percent to member states. Imports are equally in favour of external markets.

    “For a customs union that is almost becoming a common market, this volume is still very low to allow member states to withstand external shocks,” said UNECA’s West Africa bureau in an email response to IRIN.

    The ECOWAS free trade policy works on two levels. It enables the free movement of raw and artisanal products and the progressive dismantling of custom duties and taxes for industrial products from within the community.

    The elimination of custom duties for industrial products should go hand-in-hand with the total removal of non-tariff barriers and other administrative hurdles to the free exchange of products manufactured within the economic community, experts say.

    “In reality, however, administrative hurdles to the entry of the agreed products seem to persist. Moreover, lack of clear directives at the national level, in certain member countries, for their customs department to implement free trade remains an obstacle to intra-regional trade,” UNECA said.

    In 2005, ECOWAS members agreed to an agricultural policy to boost investment in agriculture at the national and regional level. But Oxfam’s Cissé said that little progress has been achieved.

    “Agricultural policies are strategic guidelines. They lack legal backing. What needs to be done is that a legal framework that countries must respect should be set up, which they must follow while crafting common agricultural policies,” he told IRIN.

    “We are seeing more and more crises of accessibility than availability because many poor people are depending more and more on markets for food than their own production. This is where trade becomes more important in food security”

    Cissé noted, for instance, that because many West Africa and Sahel countries have between 10,000 and 100,000 tons of food in reserve, they do not have proper policies for the regulation and redistribution of surplus harvests.

    Beyond free trade

    Breaking down trade barriers alone will not open the way for robust economic growth. Countries must also make efforts to diversify and add value to their produce.

    Improving infrastructure and the skills of workers, encouraging entrepreneurship, and boosting industrial output for a larger market are some of the strategies that complement open commerce, the UN Conference on Trade and Development said in a 2013 report.

    But barriers along the value chain widen the gap between producer and consumer prices. In landlocked African countries, transport costs average about 14 percent of the value of exports, compared to 8.6 percent for all developing countries, according to UNECA.

    “We are seeing more and more crises of accessibility than availability because many poor people are depending more and more on markets for food than their own production. This is where trade becomes more important in food security,” said Oxfam’s Cissé.

    “Expanding trade between production-surplus zones and consumer-deficit zones should be a top priority for food policy in the region, as it allows smoothing out of supply-demand balances, evening out prices across regions [therefore lowering price volatility]… [This will] create a much larger demand-pull for stimulating supply, develop agro-processing, and improve the food quality overall,” Elbehri explained.


    Trading away West Africa’s hunger
  • West Africa scores high in disaster risk

    Researchers at the Madrid-based humanitarian research non-profit DARA have developed a new methodology, the risk reduction index, that they say could help more countries assess and reduce the risk of natural hazards and disasters. But an assessment using the index, carried out in six West African countries, found pervasive risks and limited capacity to reduce vulnerability.

    The index assesses the capacities and conditions - such as human resources, laws and social norms - available for disaster risk reduction (DRR), according to DARA. “Basically, the risk reduction index looks at local community perceptions related to underlying risk,” said Belen Paley, advocacy manager at DARA. “It takes into account natural hazards that the area is vulnerable or exposed to, as well other aspects of that community’s infrastructure, socioeconomic development, governance and other factors.”

    The index was used to create a risk map for different parts of West Africa. Guinea, Mauritania, Nigeria and Sierra Leone all scored below 4.0, indicating they are unprepared to handle natural hazard risks. Cape Verde, Ghana and Senegal scored between 5 and 5.9, meaning they have made some progress on DRR. Senegal, for instance, has set up a civil protection department to work on DRR and a DRR national platform, but coordination between these groups is poor, particularly at the local level, and funding remains inadequate, says DARA.

    No countries in the region scored above 6.0, which would indicate that governments are not sufficiently prioritizing DRR activities.

    These scores are backed by statistics. The number of people affected by flooding in West and Central Africa has steadily increased between 2007 and 2012, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In 2012, more than 3 million people in the region were affected by flooding, almost half of them in Nigeria. At the same time, droughts in the Sahel have become chronic, and this year 18 million people are estimated to be at risk of hunger across the region, says OCHA.

    Climatological hazards, such as drought and flooding, affected more than 34 million Africans in 2012, and caused more than US$1.3 billion in economic losses, between 2011 and 2012, according to the latest data from UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). These are numbers are likely to increase as climate change causes more extreme weather events.

    “If people are ready and they are prepared, there is evidence that lives can be saved,” said Sarah Lumsdon, a humanitarian specialist at the NGO Oxfam. “So not only do you use weather systems to warn people, but you build certain structures and places where people can go to for safety.”

    But the ability to manage and reduce risk remains low, particularly in developing countries, say DARA and UNISDR. Many African countries have few or no resources available to dedicate to risk management, and in countries where risk interventions are attempted, efforts often remain uncoordinated or misguided.

    Plans not implemented

    In 2005, 168 countries signed on to the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), agreeing to establish action plans to reduce the risk of natural disasters by 2015. While more than half of African countries have established frameworks, very few of them have implemented risk reduction policies and plans, says UNISDR.

    “In general, DRR requires a certain level of development on the part of the national government, especially in terms of governance,” said Paley.

    Many factors, such as environmental conditions, economic resources and organizational structures, can also affect a country’s ability to carry out effective risk management, she said.

    To reduce the risk of natural hazards, experts say countries need to first address underlying risk factors, such as land management and health threats, and then develop more comprehensive risk-reduction strategies. But identifying and effectively addressing these underlying risk factors can be a complicated task for national governments.

    The risk reduction index was first introduced in Central America in 2009, during a year-long pilot study. In 2011, DARA launched the risk reduction index in West Africa, partnering with Economic Community of West African States, local governments, donors, NGOs, civil society organizations and UN agencies.

    Researchers assessed community perceptions of risk in Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Niger and Senegal, and presented their findings at national workshops, proposing ways to promote and improve DRR strategies and interventions. Some 60 risk factors were discussed, including air pollution, deforestation, water scarcity, disease prevalence, access to health services, poverty, food insecurity, gender inequality, housing quality, media censorship, conflict and corruption.

    Looking at Governance

    In assessing countries’ readiness to manage risk, researchers found that governance risk drivers - such as perceived levels of democracy, government effectiveness and rule of law - were important factors.

    “It’s not an accident that the governance systems and levels of socioeconomic development [in high-scoring countries] have also been making a lot of progress in transparency and accountability in recent years,” said Paley.

    Guinea scored low on the governance scale. People perceived high levels of corruption, inefficient bureaucracy, high poverty and unemployment, and low literacy levels in the country. This combination decreases citizens’ ability to cope with natural hazards and can exclude them from decision-making processes, as well as reduce the ability of their government to respond to crises.

    More than 25,000 people were affected by a cholera outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone in 2012. The number of cases was highest in the capitals’ slum areas.

    Countries in the Sahel band - Mali, Mauritania, Niger and northern Senegal - scored low on ability to handle risks relating to the environment and natural resources, mainly because water scarcity and desertification are rife.

    Rains have changed in the Sahel zone, said Malo Niang, a 55-year-old farmer from Thiedy, in northern Senegal. “The rains are bizarre now,” he said. “They start late. They end early. They aren’t consistent like in the past, and so our crops just cannot grow.”

    In coastal countries, such as Guinea and Sierra Leone, soil erosion and land degradation were the priority perceived threats.

    Urban-rural divide

    Another key finding in West Africa was the stark contrast in perceptions of risk between people living in urban areas and those living in rural areas, said Paley.

    “For example, in urban areas, land use and the built environment were pressing concerns, because people living in urban areas viewed those issues [as] much more directly related to increasing their vulnerability to natural hazards.”

    This includes infrastructure issues (such as sewage systems), where housing is being built and road conditions.

    By contrast, people living in rural areas were much more concerned about matters such as changes in rainfall patterns, soil degradation and deforestation.

    Risks relating to urbanization must drive policy decisions in the future, say aid workers with expertise in urban areas.

    “West African cities, both the large and the small, are expanding rapidly and face specific challenges related to infrastructure, zoning and spatial planning, which directly contributes to an increased risk from flooding,” said Paley.

    With the West Africa population expected to reach more 400 million by 2020 (from 305 million in 2010), such risks will only increase. More than half of Africa’s population is expected to be living in urban environments by 2050, according to a UN-Habitat report [link?].

    Nearly 70 percent of people who migrate from rural to urban areas end up living in slums, where building codes and standards are rarely enforced.

    Room for hope

    But instead of accepting disasters as inevitable, governments and communities can use these findings to prioritize and take action, said Paley.

    By making DRR a national and local priority, countries can improve early warning systems, build resilience and strengthen disaster preparedness, reducing economic losses and loss of life.

    Countries must also have accountability and transparency systems in place to bring the policies to life, said Paley.

    At this stage, the risk reduction index is as much a tool for advocacy as for practice.

    “We really just hope that they [the international community and donors] will consider where a country is in terms of its engagement in DRR and how high up DRR is on the development agenda, as well as encourage them to promote and to integrate it more… in its development planning [and poverty reduction strategies],” Paley said.


    West Africa scores high in disaster risk

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