(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Humanitarian innovation faces rethink as innovators take stock

    • At a Glance: Redefining innovation

    • A global innovation unit faces closure as sector pivots
    • Analysts say it has to be about solving structural issues not ‘shiny’ tech
    • Taking promising ideas to full-scale deployment is proving hard
    • Analysts say there’s still a need to join up hundreds of isolated initiatives
    • Underlying structural issues can’t be innovated away
    • Hype and buzzwords can cause a backlash

    More than 800 research and innovation units, labs, and other initiatives have sprouted in recent years across the UN and NGO world, accelerated by a global conference on the state of the humanitarian system. But innovation strategy is changing fast, and that means some are shutting up shop, while others are having to strike out in new directions.

    Change in the sector is underlined by the fact that one of its most high-profile outfits – the UK-based Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation – is threatened with closure, due to funding cuts and donors’ “shifting priorities”.

     

    GAHI’s executive editor, Rahul Chandran, said it will soon fold unless new funding can be found. A source at the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), citing “a number of challenges”, confirmed it would not be renewing funding for GAHI, along with three other donors. Jess Camburn, director of Elrha, a UK-based NGO that houses the £1.2 million project, said the hosting arrangement would lapse at the end of May.

     

    Faced with an aging set of tools to tackle the urgent needs of more than 135 million people worldwide, relief agencies are looking for new ways to operate. The sector has tried new ideas across the spectrum of its work, from assessing needs to delivering help, from managing finance to adapting its IT toolset.

     

    According to a series of interviews with leading figures in the field, humanitarian innovation strategy has changed since the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, which led to a proliferation of new ventures. “I think we’re maturing,” said Camburn.

     

    Most interviewees said the early chapters of innovation were overly enthusiastic about “gadgets” like drones, 3D printers, and mobile apps.

     

    Marking the new chapter, at least two groups, including GAHI, are using the expression “Innovation 3.0”.

     

    Camburn, whose NGO has managed a Humanitarian Innovation Fund since 2011, said the “innovation community” was now looking at broader, more complex problems, and for ideas more relevant to people in need. The community, she explained, is moving beyond a preoccupation with technology-based “quick fixes”, solutions as “products”, and “shiny new things”.

     

    Cautionary tales

     

    GAHI was announced at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit to link up aid agencies, innovation specialists, and private sector partners.

     

    Now listing 40 members, the alliance has also been looking at how to take innovative practice and scale it up. Its latest publication researched the potential of blockchain technology.

     

    Chandran, appointed in mid-2017, said the project only really got up to speed in 2018, due to bureaucratic and hiring delays. Now it “is at significant risk of closing”, he said, although he is still fundraising. Some of GAHI’s team of about 10 full-time staff and consultants have already left and planned work on ethics in humanitarian data management may not move forward.

     

    The initiative was backed by Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the UK to a total of about $1.65 million. The UK amount was part of DFID’s £50 million innovation spending portfolio. Definitions are blurred, so total spending on innovation is hard to track.

     

    Another venture launched after the World Humanitarian Summit was the Geneva-based Global Humanitarian Lab.

     

    Like GAHI, GHL aimed to stimulate system-wide innovation in the sector. It too listed about 40 partner organisations. But the original concept came to a halt in mid-2018, barely two years in. A former employee said the project ran out of cash “very quickly”.

     

    The former employee, who insisted on anonymity due to professional relationships, described the GHL concept, backed by Australia and Switzerland, as “just fantastic” but said the venture suffered from a lack of focus, being “fixated on the latest tech”, and “over-promising and under-delivering”.

     

    Founding organisations of GHL declined to offer detailed reasons for its closure to counter this characterisation. One major backer, the International Committee of the Red Cross, said its board members dissolved it “to explore an alternative model with revised objectives”. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, another backer, said GHL had faced “difficulties inherent to any project gathering multiple partners and trying to bring new and innovative approaches.”

     

    Lower tech

     

    An innovation specialist at a large aid agency, speaking on condition of anonymity to allow for a frank assessment, confirmed the changing direction of humanitarian innovation.

    It’s now “at a bit of a crossroads” and facing up to thornier issues, including scale, the specialist said, adding: “We need to stop fetishising technology.”

     

    As innovation strategy matures, practitioners are facing up to some daunting challenges, the specialist said, listing: organisational culture, bureaucratic inertia, risk appetite, and legal and financial processes. The specialist also said the focus on technology had undervalued “backroom heroes” who come up with new ways of doing things in “prosaic spaces” like administration or human resources that may not even be recognised as “innovation”.

     

    Noting GAHI’s funding woes, and the fact that scaling takes years, many interviewees expressed sympathy: some five-year partnerships are only now coming to fruition. While insisting that GAHI was now “delivering”, Chandran said its initial donors may not have embraced “what it would take, how long it would take”, to have a system-wide influence.

     

    Innovation initiatives “struggle with anything that looks like scale,” said Helen Bushell, who, as international programmes director of Oxfam GB, manages $265 million in annual development and humanitarian spending and 150 staff.

     

    Aid innovation in specialist fields is “core” to Oxfam’s thinking, Bushell said. For example, in water and sanitation, she argued, “we have been consistently innovative”, both in improving basic water systems, but also new ideas, including a toilet that uses faeces-eating worms.

     

    “We need to stop fetishising technology.”

    Bushell divided innovation into three types: disruptive (“that’s the sexy end of it”), continuous improvement, and thirdly, strategic or fundamental changes (“how could you have 10 times the impact?”). Innovation efforts across the sector had succeeded in “forcing us to look at everything differently” but are “piecemeal”, she added.

     

    Limits

     

    A study commissioned for the World Humanitarian Summit from consultancy Deloitte suggested the humanitarian sector was ”lagging” in research and development. A DFID-funded paper in 2015 found funding for humanitarian innovation was “breathtakingly low”, with a provisional estimate of $37 million a year, or 0.27 percent of total global humanitarian spending.

     

    Despite an array of humanitarian innovation concepts and projects, some pre-dating the World Humanitarian Summit, most are working only within a single organisation, which limits their potential to affect the millions of affected people. “Collective action is the pathway to scale,” Chandran said.

     

    Camburn, of Elrha, suggested there was a gap for a “convenor” to work on shared challenges, if the membership model and agenda could be collectively agreed.

     

    Another innovation advisor said GAHI had suffered from the impression of slow delivery and a lack of results, but it may not have been given enough time to prove itself.

    Even the maturing innovation work in the sector is at a relatively superficial level, pointing to its inability to address fundamental issues or alter the wider system.

    The advisor, who requested anonymity to conserve professional relationships, said GAHI, in its defence, had tried to take a “considered approach” rather than the promotion-heavy “sequins and glitter” of some innovation labs and centres.

     

    Excessive hype has also led to a backlash. Some now “roll their eyes” even at the term “innovation” and the phenomenon of “chasing buzzwords” like AI, drones, or blockchain “makes me throw up in my mouth a little bit”, said the advisor.

     

    Moving on from “cool buzzy things” is good but innovation may not be able to tackle the structural “things we don’t talk about in aid work”, including power, rights, and agency, the advisor added.

     

    Even the maturing innovation work in the sector is at a relatively superficial level, some analysts said, pointing to its inability to address fundamental issues or alter the wider system.

     

    “It doesn’t matter how many gizmos you fund if those in power in the system don’t see real incentives for change,” said Kim Scriven, former manager of the Elrha fund.

     

    In response to questions from The New Humanitarian, an ICRC spokesperson said it was moving to a “tighter portfolio” in its “innovation journey”, and also noted the limitations. The main problems facing civilians in conflict are violations of humanitarian law, “constraints on access, unpredictable funding and multiple other challenges,” the spokesperson said. “These won't be solved with innovation.”

     

    bp/ag

    “It doesn’t matter how many gizmos you fund if those in power in the system don’t see real incentives for change”
    Humanitarian innovation faces rethink as innovators take stock
  • Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks

    Revived attempts to resolve one of the world’s least known conflicts will resume in Geneva this week as representatives from Morocco and the Polisario Front attend roundtable talks to discuss the future of Western Sahara, often referred to as the last remaining colony in Africa, and home to tens of thousands of refugees.

     

    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that more than *170,000 of Western Sahara’s indigenous Sahrawis now live as refugees in camps in Algeria’s Tindouf province, although Morocco says the number is only around 40,000. The people of Tindouf are almost entirely dependent on international aid for food, water, education, and other necessities.

     

    Many are cut off from family members by a 2,700-kilometre wall that divides the two thirds of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco – which contains most of its settlements and natural resources – from the sparsely populated desert interior held by the Polisario.

     

    The result of the talks on Thursday and Friday could spell out the future of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO, established as part of a 1991 ceasefire that promised a vote on self-determination within one year, including the option of full independence.

     

    The two parties met face to face for the first time in six years in December, sitting alongside Algeria and Mauritania in informal talks that the UN’s envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, called a “first – but important – step” to rebuilding a fragile peace process that has yielded little since it began decades ago.

     

    Appointed envoy in 2017, Köhler, the former German president, has been working to achieve the political settlement that eluded his three predecessors. Each were unable to reconcile the positions of Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario, which considers itself the liberation movement of the Sahrawi people.

     

    Morocco partly annexed Western Sahara in 1975, following the withdrawal of Spanish colonial forces. That violence pushed tens of thousands of Sahrawis to flee to refugee camps in western Algeria, from where the Polisario fought a guerrilla war backed by Algeria and Libya until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.

    img_0522_1920.jpg

    Ruairi Casey/IRIN
    Wreckage from the 1975-1991 Saharan war sits outside a museum in the camps.

    MINURSO

     

    Over a quarter-century later, MINURSO peacekeepers still have a presence in the Western Sahara, but the parties are no closer to a vote, which is often called the “final status referendum”. The conflict is mostly a cold one, although there have been occasional dust-ups, including heightened tensions when then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon referred to Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara as an “occupation”.

     

    No other country recognises its claim over Western Sahara, but Morocco considers the territory an inviolable part of its national identity and has steadfastly refused to consider anything more far-reaching than greater autonomy within the kingdom. “Self-determination, in Morocco’s view, is done by negotiation,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said after December’s talks. “A referendum is not on the agenda.”

     

    In April last year, the Security Council began to renew MINURSO’s mandate for six months, half the usual year. US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has been a key player in recent efforts to jump-start diplomatic negotiations, has taken credit for the switch to six-month mandates, saying in December the change was intended to ratchet up the pressure on both parties to talk.

     

    Bolton, who worked as an assistant for then envoy James Baker between 1997 and 2000, has maintained a keen interest in the conflict, bolstered by a career-long disdain for costly UN missions and what some observers regard as sympathy towards the Polisario.

     

    In December, Bolton told an audience at the Conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation that he was “frustrated” at the lack of progress made over the past years.

     

    “Ladies and gentlemen, 27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there?,” he said. “How can you justify that?”

     

    Future of talks

     

    The European Parliament’s approval last month of a trade deal with Morocco that included Western Sahara’s fishing waters added to the animosity between the parties, especially as it contravened a ruling by the European Court of Justice last year.

     

    The parliamentary green light infuriated the Polisario, which said the EU had violated international law and jeopardised the peace process.

    “27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there? How can you justify that?”

    But the key question in Geneva will be whether Morocco is willing to budge towards a power-sharing arrangement the Polisario might accept – from its current plan of keeping Western Sahara as part of the country, with some autonomy.

     

    Securing such movement is likely to be a challenge, Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University and an expert on the Western Sahara, told IRIN.

     

    Mundy said the current Moroccan plan “seems woefully insufficient to attract interest from Polisario, especially because it says nothing about a final status referendum”.

     

    But he added that Bolton’s shake-up could bring a welcome change of dynamic in a conflict that has changed little since the early 1990s.

     

    “The game might now be to see how much this actually works to get the parties to really discuss substantive issues on a political solution,” said Mundy.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the UNHCR figure was 90,000. This has now been updated)

    rc/as/ag

    Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks
  • Note to humanitarians in South Sudan: Strengthen the group, not just the individual

    South Sudan’s five-year civil war has killed 400,000 people and displaced more than four million others, creating the largest refugee crisis in Africa. About half the population of 12 million face severe hunger. But despite continued clashes, a peace deal between warring parties to form a transitional government later this year is cause for optimism.

    If the humanitarian community is to contribute to the healing and reconciliation the world’s youngest nation so urgently needs, it must recognise the social connections that exist within South Sudanese society and strengthen them to underpin any recovery.

    Social connections are an economic safety net in South Sudan; people's family and non-kin relationships are their primary 'go to' in normal times as well as during times of distress. This local social protection predates the current crisis and has been in place well before the arrival of external humanitarian aid.

    “Before the crisis, I could have gone to the local authorities to seek help because my cattle were raided, but now there is no system in place at all.”

    Humanitarian programmes are primarily in the economic sphere – whether in the provision of food, cash to meet basic needs, or support for livelihoods or income generation. New research from Mercy Corps and Tufts University’s Feinstein International Centre explores how these interventions impact these underlying social connections, both positively and negatively.

    While the informal connections and services may not be very visible, aid actors should seek them out. They could include the sharing of food or aid for social capital, as well as the redistribution of wealth amongst more vulnerable community members in what are known as “famine courts”.

    These informal connections may also have adapted to the changing context; for example with the move to more of a cash-based economy, people’s ‘wealth’ may be less visible than before.

    Shared humanitarian aid

    Men and women in Panyijar, in southern Liech state, explained that they belonged to various informal support groups, which earn their income from fishing, herding cattle, collecting firewood, and other activities.

     

    Their interviews revealed that households rely on each other for food, shelter, and work and many share humanitarian aid with others to reinforce or build new connections – just as they would share crops they raise or fish they’ve caught back home.

     

    In Panyijar, which hosts tens of thousands who fled some of the most intense fighting of the civil war, the social safety net is exemplified by cattle herders. Here, cows, not cash, are king, and cattle-keeping is a centuries-old tradition. Cattle farmers long ago formed their own groups organically, mobilising for protection, to share information on grazing and watering their herds and to offer financial support, including loans and goods on credit.

     

    “We share whatever we have. You do not eat alone in our group,” explained Gatkouth, 56, a leader of a group of cattle herders (called a Kwar Wich) for more than three decades in Nyal Payam, near the White Nile River.

     

    During an interview, he described how the cows of one member of the group were not lactating, severely reducing the herder’s food supply. “We cannot let him leave the group because he doesn’t have lactating cows,” he said. “Instead, we eat with him and wait until his cows produce calves and he is able to get enough milk.”

     

    Another risk the group faces are raids by cattle thieves. “Before the crisis, I could have gone to the local authorities to seek help because my cattle were raided, but now there is no system in place at all,” Gatkouth said.

     

    Instead, the group supports community members who are victims of theft by contributing their own cows to his herd.

    These kinds of connections are inherently broad in scope, going well beyond market activity and trade to touch on rites of passage, gender and youth dynamics, and other facets of life.

     

    Aid in context

     

    Social connections are essential in both the crisis and the recovery period in South Sudan, and the lessons we are learning will be crucial as humanitarians consider longer-term recovery issues, such as market-oriented private-sector investment.

    What this means in the practical sense for humanitarians is that aid needs to be based on the context, rather than where it is from.

     

    South Sudan is a collective society, but currently the way much aid is delivered mirrors how Western donors think and is often modelled on their own societies. Organisations tend to work with individuals or households, but in the South Sudan context, everything is communal. Aid actors need to shift our Western notions of individual and household vulnerability to consider our response from a collective perspective.

    Donors too have an important role to play. They should provide aid actors with the flexibility to determine when and how to pivot from short-term emergency assistance to livelihoods support, as ending emergency relief before households are equipped to pursue sustainable livelihoods can undermine these local support systems.

    Before the conflict, in Nyal Payam, cattle herders moved freely, interacting beyond their clans, but now sometimes there is fighting, Gatkouth said. It is up to him to keep the peace.

     

    “If you violate any rules, I call you and others involved for a meeting. My members and I look into the case and resolve it,” he said. “I do not allow arguments in my cattle camps that might lead to fighting either between my group members or with other groups of different Kwar Wich.”

    Gatkouth’s guidance will continue to play a pivotal role in helping his community build peace, as will his relationships of trust and social connections.

     

    How we, as the humanitarian community, honour and maintain such vital relationships of trust will be crucial to building peace and stability and helping South Sudan recover.

    Note to humanitarians in South Sudan: Strengthen the group, not just the individual
    “Social connections are an economic safety net in South Sudan”
  • Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    UN warns of ‘worst humanitarian catastrophe’ in Syria

     

    The UN said it had received $6.97 billion in pledges at a Brussels donor conference for Syria this week, shy of the $8.8 billion it had asked for to aid Syrian refugees as well as those still in the country in 2019. While participants emphasised the need for a political solution to Syria’s war, now entering its ninth year, the uptick in violence in rebel-held northwestern Idlib province is a stark reminder that it is far from over. Conflict monitor Action on Armed Violence said Russian airstrikes in Idlib city killed 10 civilians and injured 45 on Wednesday; Russia said it was targeting weapons owned by the al-Qaeda linked group Tahrir al-Sham. A Russia-Turkey deal has so far been holding off a full-scale government offensive on the territory. UN relief chief Mark Lowcock warned the audience in Brussels that such an offensive would “create the worst humanitarian catastrophe the world has seen in the 21st century”.

     

    Storms, floods, and a cyclone batter southeast Africa

     

    Half a million people in Mozambique's fourth largest city of Beira were plunged into darkness when tropical Cyclone Idai made landfall late on Thursday night, knocking down trees and power lines and destroying homes. This follows a week of heavy rains and flooding across southeast Africa that has already killed at least 126 people in Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa. More than a million people have been affected in all. In Mozambique, the floods have already destroyed more than 5,700 homes, while in neighbouring Malawi, over 230,000 people are left without shelter. Both countries are prone to extreme weather events. In Mozambique, floods in 2000 claimed at least 800 lives and another 100 in 2015. In Malawi, the 2015 floods left at least 100 people dead and more than 300,000 others displaced.

     

    North Korea sanctions disrupt aid programmes

     

    Broad economic sanctions against North Korea are disrupting humanitarian work and having a detrimental impact on ordinary citizens, a UN rights watchdog says. In a report to the Human Rights Council this week, the special rapporteur for rights in North Korea, Tomas Ojea Quintana, said aid programming continues to see significant delays due to UN and government-imposed sanctions. Banks, suppliers, and transport companies are afraid of running afoul of sanctions, leading to humanitarian supply chains breaking down. The US government has also imposed travel restrictions on its citizens and blocked the delivery of essential supplies like hospital equipment, he said. The UN this month called for $120 million in aid funding. But last year’s appeal was only one-quarter funded, and humanitarian aid only reached one third of the people targeted.

     

    Uptick of violence threatens Yemen peace bid

     

    The UN-brokered ceasefire deal for Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah suffered yet another blow this week, with a group of NGOs warning that there had been a “major outbreak of violence” in the city in the last few days. As we (and plenty of others) have pointed out, the Hodeidah agreement was meant to lead to further peace talks for the whole of Yemen. Don’t hold your breath. Just to the north of Hodeidah, in Hajjah province, recent airstrikes and renewed fighting have killed and injured civilians. UNICEF reported that more than 37,000 people were forced to flee their homes inside Hajjah in March alone, and humanitarians are having trouble accessing those who need help. As Nigel Tricks, East Africa and Yemen regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, put it in a Wednesday statement: “Whilst the eyes of the world are on Hodeidah, airstrikes and shells continue to rain down on civilians in other parts of Yemen, killing with impunity.”

     

    A backtrack from the UN’s refugee agency

     

    UNHCR has reversed a decision that could have seen tens of thousands of ethnic Chin refugees from Myanmar stripped of refugee status. Last year, the UN agency controversially began a review process to determine whether the refugees, originally from Chin State and other parts of western Myanmar, still required international protection. But UNHCR said this week that a “worsening security situation” in parts of Chin State “has affirmed that Chin refugees may still have ongoing international protection needs”. The agency also announced that it would stop its protection re-evaluation process for Chin refugees. In recent months, renewed clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine militia, have displaced thousands in Rakhine and southern Chin states, including more than 3,200 in Rakhine this month. But even before the latest violence, refugee rights groups say reviewing refugee protections for ethnic Chin was clearly premature. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network says there are more than 33,000 Chin refugees living in Malaysia and India.

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Cases of deadly pneumonic plague have emerged along Uganda's border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the World Health Organisation said, including in the Congolese province of Ituri, where health teams are struggling to tackle an ongoing Ebola outbreak.

     

    Rwanda-Uganda: Tension is rising between East African neighbours. Uganda denies it harasses Rwandan citizens and backs rebels. It says Rwanda is blocking trade. Rwanda’s president says it will never be "brought to its knees". His Ugandan counterpart said a “troublemaker” (unnamed) “cannot survive”. Regional mediation efforts have begun.

     

    Sudan: Diseases including measles, dysentery, and pneumonia are spreading rapidly in Darfur's Jebel Marra area, according to a rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-AW), that controls much of the territory. It called for outside assistance, saying dozens of people had already died from a shortage of medicines and medical staff.

     

    Venezuela: Week-long power outages crippled water supplies and cut off telephone and internet services to millions of Venezuelans already struggling with shortages of food and medicines. Amid reports of chaos and looting in the second city of Maracaibo, President Nicolás Maduro blamed “sabotage” and “American imperialism”. Others pointed to a bush fire and crumbling infrastructure.

     

    Yemen: The US Senate voted for a second time on Wednesday to end US support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s war. The resolution is expected to pass the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, but President Donald Trump has vowed to veto should it reach his desk.

     

    Weekend read

     

    In South Sudan, a ‘war on civilians’ despite six months of supposed peace

     

    On 15 December, South Sudan marked five years of war – almost 400,000 people dead, millions displaced, but also signs a peace deal was taking hold, with more people returning home to rebuild shattered lives. Sceptics, embittered by too many false dawns, advised against hoping too hard. It seems they were right. Not only, according to our weekend read, has fighting resumed, but it resumed some time ago – locals in the troubled Yei region even accuse the government of covering up violence to keep up the pretence of control. Tens of thousands of people have been newly displaced, Sam Mednick reports, many of them inaccessible to aid groups. Without new ideas and renewed international engagement, more violence and displacement appear inevitable, according to the International Crisis Group. First test ahead: the formation of a unity government in May.

     

    And finally…

     

    ‘Toothless’ UN migration document becomes far-right rallying cry

     

    Propaganda scrawled by a gunman involved in killing at least 49 people in New Zealand today referred to the Global Compact for Migration. A non-binding international agreement that one expert called “toothless” has become a rallying cry for the far-right and white supremacists worldwide. The three-year UN negotiation process aimed to agree “safe and orderly” migration after arrivals to Europe increased in 2015. It also hoped to stem xenophobia in wealthy countries and reassure developing nations that the walls were not going up entirely. But nationalist politicians pulled out of the process, led by President Trump, claiming the document would pave the way to more immigration. The compact sparked fierce political debate in New Zealand, even though it commits no member state to do anything. One analyst told IRIN it “doesn’t actually do much”. Well, you’d be forgiven for asking now whether it does, but in all the wrong ways.

    (TOP PHOTO: Families have taken shelter in a new makeshift camp north of Idlib, fleeing violence in southern rural Idlib. CREDIT: Aaref Watad/UNICEF)

    bp-il-as-si/ag

    Mozambique storm; North Korea aid; and conflict spikes in South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen
  • Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable

    A new US anti-terror law that has forced the majority of American-funded aid operations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to grind to a halt may have even wider humanitarian consequences, leaving nonprofits around the world more vulnerable to litigation.

     

    While the 700-word bill appears to have been targeted at the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, experts say the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, or ATCA, is poorly crafted and could result in some non-governmental organisations and businesses being reluctant to take US funding or be associated with US-financed programmes.

     

    Signed in October last year and law as of 31 January, ATCA is an attempt by US lawmakers to make it easier for American courts to hear civil suits related to terrorist attacks abroad, specifically those involving authorities tied to the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

     

    Under ATCA, recipients of three kinds of aid – economic support funds (ESF), international narcotics and law enforcement (INCLE) funds, and financing earmarked for nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, and demining (NADR) – become subject to US “personal jurisdiction”.

     

    This means American citizens who have demonstrably suffered injury to “person, property or business” from international acts of terrorism can sue these recipients in US civil court. American NGOs that operate abroad were already subject to personal jurisdiction for such suits, but ATCA broadens this to any recipient.

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict.”

    As a result of the law, the Palestinian Authority (PA) announced it would stop taking those forms of aid, leading the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to shut down its operations in the West Bank and Gaza in February. Other NGOs that receive funding via USAID and from the streams mentioned in ATCA followed suit.

     

    While the bill has so far only caused the shutdown of NGOs working in the West Bank and Gaza, there is no geographical limit in its wording. Experts, including Scott Anderson, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about the law and advised aid groups on its legal ramifications, say this means ATCA could have unintended and far-reaching consequences.

     

    “There is a real risk that this could really cripple the US’ ability to find reliable foreign assistance partners in a lot of parts of the world where we really need them, particularly areas of conflict,” he said.

     

    ATCA’s birth and immediate impact

     

    In 2015, a court awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to 10 families who were American victims or related to victims of terrorist attacks in the early 2000s. They argued that the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, both headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, had offered financial support to the attackers and their families, running afoul of the US Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

    The ruling was overturned, in part because even though the victims and plaintiffs held American citizenship, a higher court said the PLO and the PA couldn’t be sued in the US court system for attacks planned and carried out “entirely outside” American borders.

     

    Sponsored by Senator Chuck Grassley, ATCA, which clarifies the ATA, was largely the result of a campaign by the plaintiffs and their lawyers to allow Americans to do just that. After the bill passed, Grassley cited the case against the PA and the PLO: “Carrying out or assisting an act of international terrorism that injures or kills Americans abroad should provide sufficient justification to subject defendants to US legal sanctions,” his office said in a statement.

     

    The Palestinian Authority has received all three types of ATCA-specified aid in recent years. Unwilling to risk liability under the new law and a possible reactivation of earlier lawsuits against it, the PA told the United States in December that it would stop taking US funds from the three streams. It also ordered any NGOs using such funding to end their work in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Programming carried out by USAID-funded NGOs, including a planned rehabilitation of Gaza’s water system, have been halted.

     

    Eric Garduno, senior policy and legislative specialist at Catholic Relief Services, said all USAID-funded work on his organisation’s Envision Gaza 2020 programme – through which it provided food to more than 3,000 households – ended entirely when ATCA came into force.

     

    Garduno said 3,000 households was already well below their goal – due to previous US budget cuts and administration scrutiny – and added that he didn’t know how many people Catholic Relief Services would now be able to feed.

     

    “We are in sort of a limbo right now where we think at least some of the programmes that were closed on January 31 can be restarted if there is a change to ATCA, but I don’t know how quickly a change can happen now,” said Garduno. “We do know the longer this is delayed, the less likely any of these programmes will be restarted.”

     

    All of this comes at a sensitive time for NGOs working in the Palestinian territories, after a pro-Israel activist used another US law, the False Claims Act, to seek damages – successfully in at least one case – from nonprofits on the basis that their interaction with US terrorist-designated groups may amount to material support.

     

    Wider impact

     

    Overall, ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding totalled more than $6 billion in the last financial year and was received in more than 50 countries, including fragile humanitarian situations such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and Yemen.

     

    The funds cover a wide range of activities, from sanitation to law enforcement. INCLE funds that have paid for security assistance in the West Bank have also been spent in countries like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Pakistan to combat the drug trade and finance other security measures.

    “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

    Courts will ultimately decide the breadth of the new law, but analysts say the lack of geographical specificity in ATCA means aid organisations or subcontractors that receive ESF, INCLE, or NADR funding – either directly or indirectly – could be left open to lawsuits if they implement programming in areas where US-designated groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or al-Qaeda affiliates like al-Shabaab operate. This may be true even if the only US funding they receive is for unconnected operations in a different country to the one where the ATCA and ATA-prohibited programming is being conducted.

     

    “There are partners that don’t have a US [base of some sort] that do get US foreign assistance on a pretty regular basis – usually subcontractors,” said Hady Amr, a former senior US diplomat who managed a $1.6 billion aid budget for the Middle East as deputy senior administrator at USAID. “Once people become aware of this, either they won’t want the US money, or they won’t want to do work in the rough and tumble neighbourhoods where we want them.”

     

    Kay Guinane, director of the Charity & Security Network, a group that coordinates nonprofits on regulatory issues, said foreign-based NGOs expressed concern in recent meetings that they may be vulnerable to lawsuits because of ATCA, and would not have the financial means to fight in court. She said the vagueness in US law over what constitutes material support for terrorist action, exacerbated by ATCA, had added to this anxiety.

     

    Few aid groups are willing to talk openly about the issue. “NGOs would be foolish to speak publicly about concerns with ATCA,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. “Doing so would be the equivalent of painting a bullseye on their backs at which lawyers and potential litigants looking for targets [could] take aim.”

     

    "It's a hypothetical for now, but it's not paranoid to see [ATCA] as a very real potential threat,” Friedman said. "The potential use of this as a [legal] tool is only limited by the number of cases of US citizens injured overseas and the creativity of lawyers who in finding NGOs to sue."

     

    Neither USAID nor the US State Department responded to questions about whether they were using language in contracts – or warning partners in any other way – about the new implications of receiving ESF, INCLE, and NADR funding.

     

    “The assumption within a large part of the NGO community is that this could have a chilling effect on non-US or local NGOs who are willing to accept US assistance,” said Joel Braunold, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace.

     

    Clarification

     

    While the NGO community waits to see what the full impact of ATCA will be, there have been unsuccessful attempts on the US side to adjust the law’s wording, especially since the PA stopped taking funding for security coordination with Israel, which includes aid to Palestinian security forces working with Israel on counter-terrorism measures.

     

    “We learned that no one on Capitol Hill thought ATCA would be interpreted in a way that would force NGO programmes to close,” said Garduno of Catholic Relief Services.

     

    NGOs hoped Congress would deliver a fix in the spending package President Donald Trump signed last month, but this didn’t happen and legislators have so far failed to amend the law.

     

    That doesn’t necessarily mean a change of some sort isn’t on the cards. A spokesperson for Grassley told IRIN was still willing to further “clarify” the law his office drafted, but said the senator blamed the State Department for only raising concerns about US assistance after the legislation had passed. The State Department declined to comment.

     

    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here,” said Anderson of Brookings. “The broader question is whether there is going to be a fix for the broader impact this will have outside the West Bank.”

     

    so/bp/as/ag

    “A lot of people, including the Trump administration, recognise the real problems here”
    Aid groups worry new US anti-terror law could leave them liable
  • Dozens of aid workers, peacekeepers among Ethiopia air crash victims

    At least 45 aid workers, peacekeepers, or staff of international organisations are among the 149 passengers who died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash – the deadliest commercial airline accident involving UN staff in decades.

     

    All 157 passengers and crew from more than 30 countries died when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa to Nairobi early on Sunday morning. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

     

    The UN initially confirmed at least 19 staff and consultants were on board, but the total may be higher. A spokesperson for the African Union told IRIN that four staff or associates working with the continental body had died, but again there could be further AU casualties. US-based Catholic Relief Services announced four staff were killed.

     

    Among the fatalities are a Ugandan police commissioner working in the AU mission in Somalia, and the founder of the International Committee for the Development of Peoples, an Italian charity known by its acronym CISP.

     

    Significant numbers of international development and civil service staff work in the region, and the routing from Addis Ababa to Nairobi linked two large East African hubs on the eve of an environmental conference held at the UN office in Nairobi.

     

    Aid workers and observers commenting on the crash recalled other aviation accidents involving aid workers and UN officials, including the following:

     

    1998: Nine UN workers died on SwissAir Flight 111 from New York to Geneva

    1999: In Kosovo, 24 people died in a crash of a UN-chartered plane

    2008: Seven UN and four NGO staff were among 17 passengers and crew who died in a chartered aid flight near Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo

    2011: UN staff made up 24 of 32 fatalities on a UN peacekeeping charter that crash landed at Kinshasa airport

    IRIN has gathered public statements, links, and announcements to draw up the following provisional list.

    Last update: 12:00 GMT 12 March 2019

    (TOP PHOTO: Onlookers near collected debris at the crash site of Ethiopia Airlines Flight 302 near Bishoftu, a town some 60 kilometres southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 11 March 2019. CREDIT: Michael Tewelde/AFP)

    bp/ag

    Dozens of aid workers, peacekeepers among Ethiopia air crash victims
  • Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

    Sahel violence displaces another million people

    Rising conflict and insecurity are accelerating forced displacement across the Sahel, and a new upsurge of violence along the Mali-Niger border has left 10,000 people in "appalling conditions" in improvised camps in Niger's Tillabéri region. The UN says IDP numbers in Mali have tripled to around 120,000. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, or CERF, has allocated $4 million to assist 70,000 people who have fled their homes in just two months in Burkina Faso. Around 4.2 million people – a million more than a year ago – are currently displaced across the Sahel due to a combination of armed attacks by extremist militants, retaliation by regional militaries, and inter-communal violence.

    All NGOs are not equal, especially when it comes to risk

    When it comes to safety, security, and risk, power differences between local and international NGOs can lead to “perverse incentives”, according to the summary of a new report. Local NGOs often do the last mile of humanitarian work, especially in insecure situations. They are funded by much bigger INGOs that act as donors. But while INGOs have sophisticated risk management (10 cooperated with this study by US-based NGO alliance InterAction), their downstream “partners” are not treated the same. The physical safety of local NGO staff, for example, gets much less attention than compliance with financial and counter-terrorism regulations. The report spells it out: INGOs “put a far greater emphasis on the risks of their local partners as opposed to the risks to them.” The study includes case studies from Nigeria and South Sudan, as well as recommendations based on examples of improved practice found during the research.

    First drought, now floods

    Flash floods and landslides have killed more than 70 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, with numbers expected to rise as on-the-ground assessments trickle in. Parts of Afghanistan are particularly hard hit, with nine provinces reporting displacement or damage to homes and agriculture. Some 21,000 people need aid in the southern province of Kandahar alone, according to the UN. Aid groups worry the situation could worsen with continued rain and snowfall expected. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran have been grappling with severe drought over the last several months, and heavy rainfall can increase the threat of floods on degraded land. An El Niño weather pattern could also bring more rainfall, combining with the drought impacts to make floods “more ruinous” this year, according to the UN. Which makes this a good time to read more on the complications of responding to emergencies in conflict-hit Afghanistan.

    Algeria rising

    Mass protests triggered by Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for re-election in April were not quelled by the announcement that he “would not be a candidate” in future elections (after next month’s, that is). Bouteflika has been in power since 1999, was paralysed by a stroke in 2013, and does not speak in public. Demonstrators are speaking out about corruption, poverty, and poor social services – all issues causing young Algerians to attempt the journey to Europe, according to Omar Belchouchet, editor of an independent Algerian newspaper. “They are fed up with this authoritarian regime which is stifling people, which is pushing its own citizens to die in the Mediterranean,” he said. According to the UN, 7,300 Algerians arrived on Europe’s shores in 2018, up from 5,900 in 2017.

    An international treaty to protect women?

    Today is International Women’s Day, with events taking place across the globe. But this week also saw the launch of the campaign for an Every Woman Treaty, which would seek to limit violence against women the same way existing international agreements limit landmines and smoking. It’s a bold step, but systemic gender inequalities mean it’s more than just direct violence – like rape as a weapon of war – that the humanitarian sector needs to worry about. Women are disproportionately affected, whether they’re subsistence farmers most acutely feeling the effects of climate change, people displaced during conflict, or those abused by the very aid workers who are supposed to be helping them in times of crisis. Although women are also often on the front lines of disasters, leading the response in their communities, they still face barriers to inclusion. Explore our recent reporting to learn more about some of the key humanitarian issues facing women and girls today.

    A guide to ‘White Saviour’ media debates

    British TV audiences have a week’s blizzard of jokey fundraising to come, as Comic Relief gears up for a “Red Nose Nose Day” telethon. Almost as predictable as the line-up of UK comedians is controversy about its video packages from projects abroad. The use of famous Britons to frame field-based segments is accused of being sentimental, simplistic, and disrespectful. This year, early critics included online activists No White Saviours and British member of parliament David Lammy. Comic Relief responded by saying that “people working with or supported by Comic Relief projects tell their own stories in their own words.” The accusations and counter-arguments have a familiar feel: last year, Comic Relief’s segment with musician Ed Sheeran came under fire. Thinking you’d like someone to explain the cycle of critique and outrage from all sides? Take a look at  this blog, from communication academic Tobias Denskus of Malmö University: “White saviour communication rituals in 10 easy steps.”

    In case you missed it

    Central African Republic: Four of the 14 rebel groups that signed a peace deal with the government have reportedly withdrawn in protest of a newly formed government, which they believe is not representative. The fragile agreement was forged after negotiations in the Sudanese capital last month. For an inside look at efforts to keep the peace in CAR, check out our three-part special report.

     

    Iraq: Rather than considering children affiliated with so-called Islamic State as victims in need of rehabilitation, authorities in Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government have charged hundreds of young people with terrorism offenses because of affiliation with the group, according to Human Rights Watch. In a report released on Thursday, it said confessions are often obtained through torture.

     

    North Korea: The UN this week called for $120 million in funding for North Korea, warning of potential food shortages and the unintended impacts of sanctions blocking humanitarian aid. Nearly 11 million people in the country are considered undernourished – the root of health problems for many North Koreans. New reports suggest North Korea’s sanctions-hit economy has been imploding, with huge declines in exports in 2018.

    Syria: The UN says that as of 3 March, 90 people had died either en route or shortly after arrival to al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, two thirds of them children under five. The camp’s population has swollen to more than 62,000 – 90 percent of them women and children – as thousands of people flee the last IS territory in the country. More than 5,200 new arrivals were reported by the UN between Tuesday and Thursday.

    US-Mexico: US officials say February was the busiest month for apprehensions at its southern border with Mexico in more than a decade – more than 76,100 people in total. The vast majority were families and unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The rise is unusual, but still well below the highs of the 1990s and 2000s when as many as 1.6 million people were apprehended annually.

     

    Weekend read

     

    How dire climate change warnings are becoming a reality in Bangladesh

     

    The extent to which specific extreme weather events – and related humanitarian disasters – can be attributed to climate change can be a contentious subject and remains a matter of some debate. But try telling that to rice farmers in Bangladesh’s northeast. They have been left bewildered by a succession of warmer winters, drier summers, and more erratic rains. Our weekend read offers a real-time glimpse of how dire climate displacement warnings can become a reality: village by depleted village; family by displaced family. Scientists in December published research that showed that human-induced climate change “doubled the likelihood of extreme pre-monsoon rainfall” in Bangladesh during March and April 2017. Farmers like Shites Das in the northeastern village of Daiyya are in no doubt. "We have no fertility of land like in the past,” Das says. “This has happened because of climate change.”

    And finally

     

    Somali Night Fever

     

    Check out this film for a different take on Somali refugees and for a rare glimpse into a Mogadishu of the 1970s and 1980s, when trendy nightclubs were graced by “musicians rocking afros and bell-bottom trousers”. When civil war erupted in Somalia in the 1990s, it separated friends and families, and destroyed a once cosmopolitan way of life. As people fled, they took their culture and music with them. As Somalia changed, so the sounds of funk, disco, soul, and reggae that once filled the airwaves also fell silent. Decades later, many Somalis still live in exile – some resettled in other countries, others in refugee camps. Meet Habib, now in Sweden, and Abdulkadir, living in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya: two former band mates and best friends. Separated by the war, they remain wonderfully united by their love of music, and by their memories of a bygone era.

    (TOP PHOTO: An informal refugee settlement of Garin-Wazam in Diffa region, Niger. CREDIT: Vincent Tremeau/UNICEF)

    bp-il-si-as-ve/ag

    Local NGO risks, White Saviours, and the Sahel’s million new displaced
  • Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter: The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors give their weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

    On our radar

     

    New term, old problems for Nigeria’s Buhari

     

    Nigeria's Muhammadu Buhari, who won a second presidential term this week, faces a variety of security challenges: a decade-long and resurgent Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast; endemic insecurity in the oil-producing Niger Delta south, and – less reported but often the most deadly – spiralling violence between pastoralist Fulani herders and local farmers in the northwest. Despite Buhari's 2015 claim that Boko Haram was "technically defeated", jihadists continue gaining ground across Lake Chad and West Africa, where the humanitarian fallout is, if anything, worsening. For a comprehensive look at the causes and the consequences of militancy in the Sahel region, check out this curation of our long-term reporting. And for a personal and graphic account of covering Boko Haram over the course of several years, this reporter’s diary from Chika Oduah is a must-read.

     

    Headaches in the ‘cash revolution’?

     

    Humanitarian cash aid programmes in Kenya’s drought-prone northeast are plagued with problems, according to this recent article by Kenyan journalist Anthony Langat published by Devex. Beneficiaries describe them as confusing, unreliable, and wide open to corruption. Families report not receiving what they think they’re due and/or not knowing what they ought to get, and they say there’s no effective system to address complaints. Local leaders are accused of manipulating lists of entitled families, and money transfer agents allegedly skim off unauthorised transfer fees. The Kenyan government and the UN’s World Food Programme – who run different cash initiatives in the area – say some problems are simply clerical, such as wrongly registered mobile phone numbers or ID cards. Earlier research from NGO Ground Truth Solutions showed that 62 percent of a sample of Kenyans enrolled in cash aid projects said they were satisfied with the service. However, 88 percent “did not know “how aid agencies decide who gets cash support”.

     

    UN peers into a dark Myanmar mirror

     

    The UN is launching an inquiry into its actions in Myanmar, where critics accuse it of inaction and “complicity” in the face of widespread rights abuses that led to the violent exodus of more than 700,000 Rohingya. The UN this week confirmed the appointment of Gert Rosenthal, a Guatemalan diplomat, to lead an internal review of UN operations in Myanmar. The news, first reported by The Guardian, follows a Human Rights Council resolution urging a probe into whether the UN did “everything possible to prevent or mitigate the unfolding crises”, including the military’s Rohingya purge and abuses against minorities elsewhere in the country. Critics say the UN mission in Myanmar was “glaringly dysfunctional”, marred by infighting over how to engage with the government. A UN-mandated fact-finding mission has warned that problems continue and said that some UN entities refused to cooperate with its own investigation. In a statement, UN spokesman in Myanmar Stanislav Saling said the review will look at how the UN “works on the ground and possible lessons learned for the future”. It’s unclear whether Rosenthal’s findings will be made public.

     

    Growing recognition for mental health

     

    In humanitarian terms, psycho-social support is often treated as the poor cousin to aid like food and shelter, with few mental health services available in crisis settings, as we recently reported from South Sudan. But just as the economic cost and importance of mental health is increasingly being recognised in society at large, so the issue is picking up steam in humanitarian contexts too. On the sidelines of this week’s UN pledging conference for Yemen, Dutch Development Cooperation Minister Sigrid Kaag urged humanitarian donors to invest more in mental health (“second line” healthcare, which includes mental health, makes up only $72 million of the $4.2 billion appeal for Yemen). The Netherlands is funding the development of tools to help aid agencies integrate mental health services into their work and will host a conference later this year to mobilise commitments from others. Psychiatrists argue that mental health support is not just a human right; it also strengthens people’s ability to benefit from other aid, such as education or livelihood programmes.  

     

    Bond-holders in pandemic finance scheme untouched by Ebola outbreak

     

    On Thursday, the World Bank announced it was to provide up to $80 million of new funding to combat Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Of that sum, $20 million is from its Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, or PEF, set up after the 2013-2016 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. PEF is a leading example of harnessing private capital and donor resources in humanitarian response. Private investors in PEF bonds can lose their investment if a major epidemic happens. Otherwise they get interest (paid by conventional donors) at a rate described last month as “chunky” by the Financial Times. The catch? PEF investors haven’t paid out a penny in Congo. That’s because the outbreak hasn’t spread to a second country, one of the conditions for a payout. IRIN asked a disaster insurance expert about PEF last year; he said it was “quite expensive”.

      

    In case you missed it:

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: Médecins Sans Frontières has suspended work at two Ebola treatment centres after the facilities in Butembo and Katwa were partially destroyed in two separate attacks in the space of four days this week. The caretaker of one patient was reported to have died trying to flee. The motivation of the unidentified assailants remains unclear. The outbreak, which began seven months ago, continues, with 555 deaths and counting.

     

    Gaza: A UN commission of inquiry said in a report released Thursday that Israeli soldiers may have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity in shooting unarmed civilians during mass Palestinian protests at the Gaza border last year.

     

    Indonesia: The country has recorded its first polio case since 2006. The World Health Organisation says a strain of vaccine-derived polio was confirmed this month in a child in a remote village of Papua province, one of Indonesia’s poorest regions. The WHO says the case is not linked to a polio outbreak in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

     

    Iraq: Human Rights Watch says authorities in Mosul and other parts of the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh are harassing, threatening, and arresting aid workers, sometimes accusing them of ties to so-called Islamic State in an effort to change lists of people eligible for humanitarian assistance.

     

    Pakistan: Shortages of nutritional food and safe water could be leading to “alarmingly high” rates of disease and malnutrition in drought-hit Pakistan, especially for women and children, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

     

    Somalia: Al-Shabab militants set off two deadly blasts outside a hotel in Mogadishu on Thursday, before seizing a nearby building. Soldiers battled through the night to try to dislodge them. As conflict and insecurity continue across the country, a new report revealed that 320,000 Somalis fled their homes in 2018 – a 58 percent rise on 2017. Some 2.6 million Somalis are now internally displaced.

     

    Weekend read

     

    UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

    The difficulty with this story, to steal from Donald Rumsfeld, are the known unknowns. The World Food Programme purchased 50,000 tonnes of porridge mix for mothers and malnourished children, and a proportion of it was lacking key nutrition-enhancing ingredients. It was sent to crisis zones around the world. It likely came from one of two producers who have a duopoly over the market. The deficiencies should have been picked up by third-party inspectors before the food aid was dispatched. But let’s look at what we don’t know – not for a lack of digging by IRIN’s Ben Parker or contributor Lorenzo D’Agostino in Rome. Where exactly did the faulty food aid go? What effect did the lack of protein and fat have on breastfeeding mothers, babies, and children? Which company produced the substandard porridge mix and why? How come the inspectors failed to find fault with the product? Who was told what, and when? Is operational error, negligence, or fraud, or a combination to blame? We await the findings of the investigation with interest.

     

    And finally...

    Life resumes on Vanuatu’s volcanic Ambae Island

     

    The most explosive volcanic eruption anywhere in the world last year came courtesy of Manaro Voui on Ambae Island, part of the Pacific nation of Vanuatu. The volcano spewed more than 540,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the air, according to NASA. Volcanologists may be fascinated by Manaro Voui’s rumblings, but for 11,000 Ambae residents, the eruptions have been life-changing. They covered parts of the island with volcanic ash, which destroyed crops and homes and polluted drinking water. Residents have repeatedly been forced to evacuate, and at one point the government declared the entire island uninhabitable. For now, the volcano continues to be a in a state of “major unrest”, but some residents are moving back, and the government is preparing to begin a new school term for some returning students.

    (TOP PHOTO: Destroyed cars by the side of the road after a suicide bomber detonated their vest in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, in 2017. CREDIT: Ashley Gilbertson/VII Photo)

    bp-il-as-si-ha/ag

    Nigerian challenges, cash aid headaches, and making mental health matter
  • Key donors freeze Uganda refugee aid after UN mismanagement scandal

    Uganda’s refugee sector may run into trouble after two major European donor countries froze funds to the UN refugee agency as a result of fraud, corruption, and mismanagement unearthed in an internal UN audit last year.

     

    Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting nation in Africa, catering to more than 1.2 million refugees, the vast majority of whom have fled conflict in the neighbouring countries of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

     

    Germany and the UK’s Department for International Development, or DFID, both confirmed to IRIN that they have frozen funding to UNHCR Uganda, following issues raised in last November’s audit report by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS.

     

    The report found that the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, critically mismanaged donor funds in Uganda in 2016-2017.

     

    Uganda’s state minister for relief, disaster preparedness, and refugees, Musa Ecweru, called for continued and increased support from the international community, saying refugee hosting was a “shared responsibility”.

     

    “We have kept our doors open to refugees,” Ecweru told IRIN. “More refugees are coming despite the peace accord in South Sudan and elections in Democratic Republic of Congo. This is putting a strain on us.”

     

    The move by the UK and Germany – two of UNHCR Uganda’s top four country donors last year – could cause disruptions to essential life-saving assistance for refugees, the UN refugee agency says.

     

    Cécile Pouilly, a Geneva-based UNHCR spokeswoman, confirmed the aid freeze without naming the donors. Pouilly said education, water, and mental health support were among the services most at risk, and that negotiations with donors were ongoing.

     

    Read more: Audit finds UN refugee agency critically mismanaged donor funds in Uganda

     

    The November audit revealed that UNHCR Uganda wasted tens of millions of dollars, overpaying for goods and services, awarding major contracts improperly, and failing to avoid fraud, corruption, and waste.

     

    The European Anti-Fraud Office in December confirmed to IRIN that it was “investigating allegations of fraud and irregularities regarding specific projects funded by the European Union to support refugee settlements in Uganda.”

    “It's high time to hold individuals involved in corruption scandals accountable and find ways to continue to support refugees while minimising the risk of financial mismanagement.”

    Four Ugandan officials who were forcefully asked to step aside in February 2018, pending investigations – including the commissioner for refugees in the Office of the Prime Minister, Apollo Kazungu, and three of his staff – are yet to be arraigned and charged in court. UNHCR has not provided any information about disciplinary action, if any, taken against its employees.

     

    “It's high time to hold individuals involved in corruption scandals accountable and find ways to continue to support refugees while minimising the risk of financial mismanagement,” said Thijs Van Laer, programme director at the International Refugee Rights Initiative.

     

    Frozen funds

     

    With the exception of emergency funding to help prevent an Ebola outbreak, “DFID has released no further funds to UNHCR in Uganda since the allegations of corruption emerged,” a spokesperson for DFID in London told IRIN. The statement listed funding in 2016 and 2017, suggesting that DFID has not provided funding since January 2018.

     

    “We will only provide further funding when we are confident that UNHCR has properly addressed the issues raised in the recent audit,” the DFID spokesperson said. “We have asked UNHCR to provide detailed information on whether any UK funding has been lost due to issues raised in the audit.”

     

    DFID provided £20.1 million (about $25.9 million) in funding to UNHCR in Uganda during 2016 and 2017, according to the DFID spokesperson.

     

    “DFID has a zero-tolerance approach to fraud and corruption of any kind,” the spokesperson said, adding, “where British taxpayers’ money is misused, we expect our partners to take firm and immediate action.”

     

    In an emailed statement, German diplomats told IRIN their government’s money was “contingent on the implementation of stringent integrity measures”, and said Germany “will continue its funding in Uganda once the necessary measures have been adequately implemented.”

    Germany, UNHCR Uganda’s second largest donor last year with funding of over $15 million, continues to support the refugee agency’s other projects worldwide, the diplomats said, emphasising that funds allocated for humanitarian assistance must be used in the “most effective and efficient way”.

     

    UNHCR’s Pouilly said four of 12 critical issues identified in the audit had been resolved, including: strengthening partner selection and procurement; improving reception and registration or refugees; and bolstering management and oversight capacity.

     

    “While there have not been any funding cuts per se, two donors have decided to freeze funds until they receive additional information on the strengthening of our operational response in Uganda and our efforts to mitigate risks in a sustainable manner,” she said. “We are closely working with these donors to ensure that they receive the information and assurances they need to be able to restart funding our operations in Uganda.”

     

    Risks for the response

     

    UNHCR said the fund freeze threatened to disrupt humanitarian aid programmes and would put further strain on Uganda’s already limited public services. A drastic reduction in resources for UNHCR and its partners in Uganda will impact the range, the quality, and the management of life-saving services we are providing on the ground,” according to Pouilly.

     

    UNHCR had set a target of $448 million to raise for 2019 Uganda operations – for it and its 30 partner organisations. It only raised $173 million of its target in 2018 and currently has $130 million on hand.

    “The last thing refugees in Uganda need is a reduction in the means to support."

    “In addition to the $130 million I have authority to spend, we need 30 to 40 million now to be able to retain this minimum level access to services,” UNHCR country representative Joel Boutroue told journalists in the capital, Kampala. “The lack of funding directly translates into more hardships for the refugees, more hardships to the host communities and more tensions.”

     

    In December last year, South Sudanese refugees in Bidi Bidi, until recently the world’s largest refugee settlement, staged a violent protest over lack of food, destroying NGO vehicles and looting property. Similar protests have occurred in Uganda’s Arua and Adjumani districts.

     

    “Uganda can’t handle this crisis alone,” Ecweru said. “We continue to remind our donors, partners and friends [in the international community] that this is a shared responsibility. They should communicate to their capitals and government so that more support continues to come.”

     

    Pouilly said that without additional funding, reception facilities for new arrivals would remain inadequate – a particular concern given the risk of Ebola spreading from Congo.

     

    Read more: Inside efforts to prevent a regional Ebola crisis in Africa

     

    “The last thing refugees in Uganda need is a reduction in the means to support them,”  said Van Laer, from the International Refugee Rights Initiative. “The refugee response is already seriously underfunded and 2019 risks becoming a challenging year.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A South Sudanese woman walks back to her home in the Bidi Bidi refugee settlement in northwestern Uganda. CREDIT: Edward Echwalu/ECHO)

    so/si/bp/ag

    Key donors freeze Uganda refugee aid after UN mismanagement scandal
    “The lack of funding directly translates into more hardships for the refugees”
  • UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

    The World Food Programme is investigating how up to 50,000 tonnes of nutrition-boosting porridge mix it purchased for distribution to nursing mothers and malnourished children in Somalia, Yemen, Bangladesh, and elsewhere was of substandard quality, despite its quality inspection process.

     

    The UN agency said it became aware of concerns over quality when one sample was tested in June 2018 for unrelated reasons, according to a statement issued on 11 February.

     

    WFP then initiated laboratory tests across other shipments of the porridge mix, branded as 'Super Cereal', which it “suspected of being below optimal standard”, a spokesperson for the agency said. The product was found to be low in protein and fat, with one batch containing 27 percent less protein than required. The product is safe to eat, the WFP noted.

     

    Independent nutritionists confirmed to IRIN the product would be safe to eat but said lower protein content – likely the result of an insufficient amount of soybeans – meant the supplement wouldn’t have the intended curative or preventative effects.

    Super Cereal can support the nutritional needs of nursing and pregnant women and can be used in school feeding programmes. It is also used to help prevent or reduce moderate acute malnutrition among under-fives, according to Patrick Webb, a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University, and former head of nutrition at WFP.

     

    These are “important food items that need to be produced to the highest standards in order to achieve intended impacts,” Webb said.

     

    The agency declined to confirm which of its suppliers is under investigation by its Office of the Inspector General. A spokesperson said investigators are determining if “operational error, negligence, or fraudulent behaviour” are at fault.

     

    WFP noted that it continues to issue millions of dollars in new contracts to the firm in question because there is a “limited pool” of suppliers of the product.

     

    In an emailed statement, the agency said it had put in place special measures: “WFP has issued contracts to the company for Super Cereal Plus under a new regime with intensified compliance and monitoring measures including more checks during the process, and daily reports from the company and from the inspection company.” Super Cereal Plus is an enriched version of Super Cereal and made up one third of the suspect 50,000 tonnes, according to WFP.

     

    Exacting quality standards, unpredictable contracts, and slim profit margins lead to little competition and incentives amongst manufacturers of the product, Webb noted. This means that “substandard practice rarely gets punished,” he said, as “there’s no one else to go to”.

     

    He said the market for such supplements “had a history of challenges, in large part because these are not run-of-the-mill items. They are specially designed nutritionally enhanced food products.”

     

    In addition to stringent production guidelines, Super Cereal requires careful storage and handling, is prone to damage from moisture, and has a relatively short shelf life, according to several aid officials. One said it’s “quite hard to handle in the field”. WFP reported less than one percent of post-delivery losses for any reason.

     

    Distribution and investigation

     

    In 2017, WFP purchased 247,000 tonnes of Super Cereal, out of three million metric tonnes of food it bought overall. WFP declined to give a costing of the 50,000 tonnes now under investigation. But based on estimates from another purchaser, who asked to remain anonymous, IRIN estimates the cost to be more than $30 million (excluding transport and shipping).

     

    Since the product was safe for consumption, WFP said it had revised distribution plans to make some use of it, for example in “general food distributions rather than in malnutrition treatment programmes”.

     

    The porridge mix was distributed to “many countries”, WFP noted, refraining from citing specific countries because of the ongoing investigation.

    The investigation is not without precedent. In 2017 WFP’s inspector general investigated fraud involving “submission of inaccurate or forged inspection certificates” by suppliers in Turkey.

     

    Webb said quality control issues were often caused by a problem in the manufacturing process, not bad intentions. “Something accidentally ends up in the wrong hopper,” he explained.

     

    Only a handful of other aid agencies purchase Super Cereal; most international NGOs that distribute the product get it as a donation in kind from WFP’s donor-funded supply or from USAID.

    22419025790_0d5201d20a_o.jpg

    US Mission to the UN Rome
    'Super Cereal' is one of a range of specialised nutritious foods used in humanitarian programmes to combat malnutrition.

    A food aid expert, who requested anonymity due to work relationships, said WFP’s quality control systems were now “quite robust”.

     

    WFP relies on third-party inspectors to take samples from every purchase order at the manufacturer, which are then examined and sent to laboratories for testing.

     

    According to WFP’s procurement web pages, the agency “appoints an independent third-party inspection company to verify that consignments conform to contractual terms.”

     

    A niche market

    Two European producers dominate the market for supplying WFP with Super Cereal: Belgium-based Michiels Fabrieken and CER.FAR SaS of Italy. Public documents show that each was awarded Super Cereal contracts worth about $60 million in 2018, and together they commanded about 80 percent of the value of WFP contracts for the product.

     

    A spokesperson for Michiels Fabrieken denied the company was under investigation by WFP when asked by IRIN. The CEO of the other, CER.FAR SaS of Italy, declined to comment.

     

    According to a businessperson familiar with the sector, the two manufacturers have “wiped out all other competition.”

     

    In January 2019 alone, the Italian firm won a further $8 million in new Super Cereal contracts.

     

    The businessperson, who spoke anonymously due to the sensitive business relationships involved, said other producers have been unable to maintain the quality standards and price points demanded by WFP.

     

    WFP is actively trying to diversify its suppliers and has contracted smaller batches of Super Cereal from companies, including in South Africa and Turkey, according to WFP’s public records.

     

    While WFP issued a public statement on 11 February, the issue was not raised in a working group devoted specifically to the use of food mixes and supplements last year, according to minutes of its September meeting. WFP told IRIN on 4 February that it had contacted “partners and stakeholders where this is operationally relevant”.  

     

    (Additional reporting by Lorenzo D’Agostino in Rome)

    (TOP PHOTO: In Ethiopia, Teshome Kalelew has come to collect WFP Super Cereal Plus for his wife, who’s just delivered twins. CREDIT: Michael Tewelde/WFP)

    bp/ag

    Investigators determining if “operational error, negligence, or fraudulent behaviour” to blame
    UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children

Support our work

Donate now

advertisement

advertisement