(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Saudi Arabia and UAE in record pledge at Yemen aid conference

    Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two Gulf donors fighting on one side of the war in Yemen, committed a record-breaking $1 billion towards UN-led humanitarian operations in the country at a pledging conference on Tuesday.


    The UN and 250 associated aid groups were asking for $4.2 billion to meet the needs of millions of the most vulnerable Yemenis in 2019. More than $2.6 billion in new money was pledged at the event, co-hosted by Switzerland and Sweden at the UN in Geneva.


    For nearly four years, a coalition of states led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been backing the internationally recognised (but mostly exiled) Yemeni government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in its fight against Houthi rebels and their allies.


    The war has caused a sharp rise in the needs of civilians, as extreme poverty, hunger, disease, and displacement threaten the daily lives of most of the country’s approximately 30 million people. Aid and trade in the divided country are frequently disrupted by logistical and military obstructions by all parties to the conflict, aid agencies say.


    The new contribution from Saudi Arabia and UAE, the largest such commitment to a UN humanitarian appeal ever, follows a joint $500 million pledge in November, most of which will also be spent in 2019. The two countries committed $930 million for last years’ appeal.


    Senior Swiss humanitarian aid official Manuel Bessler told IRIN that Yemen was “a good operation” with “actors that can deliver”, but acknowledged that the giant aid response did face challenges in terms of access and security.


    Muna Luqman, chairperson of the Yemeni NGO “Food For Humanity”, lobbying in Geneva for more support to deal with mental health and trauma, said she had ”mixed feelings” about the conference.


    “I’m happy that we’re getting more attention to Yemen, and of course more funding is needed,” she said. “However, I’m sad this is the second or third pledging conference – I hope the next event will be a peace conference.”


    “Driving seat”


    The UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and the two Gulf states are still in discussions about how the 2019 funds will be allocated, according to UN and Saudi Arabian officials.


    Mohammed Al-Jaber, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen, said talks were underway with OCHA chief Mark Lowcock to review the 2018 experience and “overcome the weaknesses of what happened last year”.


    Saudi Arabian and Emirati officials both declined to elaborate in detail on what those weaknesses were, although UN officials, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the high stakes involved, said Riyadh had expected more impact from its donations and wanted to be “seen in the driving seat” of the humanitarian effort on Yemen.


    Saudi Arabia on Tuesday publicly offered to host the 2020 Yemen humanitarian pledging conference, a proposal that observers said was a non-starter due to Saudi Arabia’s role in the conflict.


    Read more: Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts


    A block grant of $930 million from Saudi Arabia and the UAE was paid to OCHA last year, and then allocated to UN agencies and NGOs in a number of large grants.


    Lowcock said he hoped the same would happen this year. In 2018, the “exceptionally” large grant enabled a synchronised approach that helped stave off famine and save “millions of lives”, he added.


    Salary payments


    Donors and UN agencies called for salaries to be paid to Yemeni state employees, both in areas controlled by the Houthi rebels and in parts of the country run by Hadi’s government and its allies. Among those who have not been paid regularly for around two years are teachers, health workers, and civil servants. Humanitarians say the lack of these payments has contributed to the collapse of Yemen’s economy.


    The issue was a talking point for the UN and Western donors, but they are reluctant to get drawn into paying state employees indefinitely. EU humanitarian aid commissioner Christos Stylianides told IRIN that salary payments were “a precondition in order to see the economy resuming, and at the same time to give the people more dignity”.


    Saudi Arabia’s al-Jaber told IRIN he hoped some of the appeal funding could go towards paying the salaries of government workers.


    The number of unpaid civil servants is hard to pin down. In a recent interview with IRIN, al-Jaber said about 650,000 civil servants were being paid, and rejected a figure of 1.2 million unpaid civil servants that had been circulated by aid agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières.


    Bessler said donors were willing to contribute, at least to some extent, to salaries. “We have to,” he said. “Beside addressing humanitarian needs, we have to build institutions. And for this, the basic… human capacity is also needed.”


    Reem al-Hashimi, the UAE minister of state for international cooperation, agreed it was “incredibly important” that civil servants were paid, but said it wouldn’t be effective alone – if for example the central bank couldn’t also stabilise exchange rates to control the cost of imports.


    The fact that the largest country donors to the appeal, as in 2018, are also parties to the conflict was not lost on participants.


    The conduct of the war by the two biggest donors is “both driving massive humanitarian needs and obstructing the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” said Médecins Sans Frontières in a statement.


    And while some donors are engaged directly in the war, others are significant arms exporters to the warring parties, such as the United States and the UK.


    This led Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam International’s executive director, to make a tongue-in-cheek proposal. Speaking at the conference, Byanyima suggested a different pledging conference, to help arms-producing countries diversify into more peaceful industries.

    (TOP PHOTO: A woman receives assistance from the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, in Dhamar province, Yemen. CREDIT: Arwa Al Sabri/UNHCR)


    Saudi Arabia and UAE in record pledge at Yemen aid conference
    Their $1bn was the largest ever such commitment to a UN humanitarian appeal
  • Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Civilians may still be trapped in last Islamic State pocket in Syria

    A reported 2,000 people were evacuated from so-called Islamic State’s last pocket of territory in eastern Syria this week, but the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said there may still be civilians remaining in the village of Baghouz. Once screened for membership in the extremist group, many leaving the territory are taken to al-Hol camp. The UN says 61 young children have died since December on the way there or soon after arrival. The World Health Organisation’s head in Syria told IRIN recently that the security checks were delaying urgent healthcare and that local authorities had denied a request to set up a medical waystation. The SDF denied the charges, but since then UN agencies say they have set up just such a transit site “to address the high number of child deaths”. Some people who had fled Baghouz told Human Rights Watch of hunger and being trapped under heavy shelling, air strikes, and IS threats.


    “One after the other”: Tropical storms swarm the Pacific

    The cyclone season has put parts of the southwestern Pacific on high alert. Cyclone Oma threatened the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu for five days, sending over 1,000 to evacuation centres. The storm later brushed New Caledonia’s coast and was due to push towards Australia. Earlier this month, the cyclone warning system in Tonga sent out repeated alerts as four separate “extreme tropical weather systems” threatened the country. Tonga escaped severe damage, but the country’s head meteorologist said facing so many in quick succession was exceptional. Storms in the Pacific islands needn’t cause headline-grabbing death tolls to leave a lasting impact; officials in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands were expecting food shortages after Oma wiped out some smallholdings. Vast distances make repairs and recovery difficult. For more on preparing for Pacific disaster, see our recent story on women fighting for a seat at the table: Fiji’s storm-watchers.


    South Sudan rights violations may amount to war crimes

    Despite the signing of last year's peace agreement in South Sudan, ongoing violations including rape and sexual violence "may amount to international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity," according to a new UN report. Investigators with the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan noted a "confirmed pattern" in the way combatants attacked and destroyed villages, plundered homes, and took women as sexual slaves. Sexual violence has worsened markedly since the commission's last update in December 2017; those targeted included children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Many sides of the conflict, including the army, national security forces, and rebel groups, were blamed for the violence, while the commission also investigated sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers. South Sudan remains one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises: 4.5 million people are displaced, seven million are in need of aid, and nearly 60 percent of the population will face severe food insecurity this year.

    Joining up billions in development, humanitarian, and peace spending

    The “triple nexus” may sound like an ice skating move, but it’s the new orthodoxy in aid. A “recommendation” was adopted today by members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD says its donor states command over $74 billion of international funding in “fragile” situations. The new Development Assistance Committee policy says long-term development, peacemaking, and emergency relief should have complementary goals and together could “avoid the occurrence of humanitarian needs”. One aid agency nexus-watcher told IRIN that after much discussion in the aid community it was a relief to see clear definitions and terminology emerge. A source familiar with the discussions said “more must be done to prevent crises and deal with structural issues and root causes, rather than leaving the humanitarian system to pick up the pieces”. The text refers six times to continued respect for humanitarian principles: critics question how humanitarian neutrality and independence sit with politically-flavoured development and peace efforts.

    In case you missed it

    Burkina Faso: More than 100,000 people have been displaced by instability and fighting in the West African country, according to the UN. Tens of thousands have fled this year, as rising militancy and attacks by armed groups affect the North, Sahel, and Eastern regions.


    Madagascar: More than 900 people have died since a measles epidemic began in the huge island nation in September, the WHO said. Over 68,000 cases have been documented; those most at risk are infants from nine to 11 months old.


    Myanmar: Restrictions on humanitarian access in Rakhine State are affecting some 95,000 people due to ongoing clashes between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine insurgent group, according to the UN’s humanitarian coordination arm. More than 5,500 people have been displaced since December.


    Refugee resettlement 2018: UNHCR says 55,692 refugees were permanently resettled in 2018. The UN refugee agency says that’s only about five percent of those they think were eligible. Despite deep cuts in its quota, the US took in more than any other nation. IRIN explored the numbers here.


    Yemen: UN envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths told the Security Council on 19 February that the two main sides in Yemen’s war had agreed to withdraw from a small port and oil facility near the Red Sea city of Hodeidah, in a first step towards implementing a much-discussed ceasefire deal for the city.



    Weekend read

    Opinion: Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    As we write this, Venezuela is top of many media headlines as a quarter of a million people are estimated to be assembling on the border, in Colombia. The presidents of Colombia and Chile are expected – and maybe even Richard Branson. He is backing the concert they’re all there to see, Venezuela Aid Live. The event’s sponsors say it will raise $100 million to help the millions of Venezuelans living with shortages of, well, nearly everything. Branson even suggests that the performance could help persuade Venezuela’s military to defy orders and open the border – sealed tight by President Nicolás Maduro – to aid shipments; shipments that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is inviting. Meanwhile, on the Venezuelan side of the border, Maduro is hosting his own benefit concerts on Friday and Saturday. What’s a humanitarian to make of all this? Analyst and columnist Francisco Toro offers a reality check in his essay on what he calls the “increasingly blatant politicisation of aid”. $100 million for food and medicine, for instance, “is completely out of proportion” with the scale of need in Venezuela. And if you’re concerned about the politicisation of aid, you might like to check out this from The Guardian, on the politicisation of, um, bread.

    And finally

    US-armed donor proposal stirs alarm

    A new type of US government aid official could be embedded with US intelligence or military forces in insecure hotspots to work on certain tactical projects. They would be “super enablers”, according to a proposal developed by consultants hired by USAID. The proposed two-person Rapid Expeditionary Development (RED) teams would be physically fit, armed, and able to deploy where USAID can’t send civilians. The proposals met with some support in the US military and intelligence communities, and mixed views from within USAID, the 75-page report said. The concept, first reported by Devex, has been met with dismay by some in the humanitarian Twittersphere, earning reactions such as “wannabe SEALS” and “incredibly unwise”. Also, it’s been met with a humanitarian principles meme (a Ranger tab is a badge indicating completion of a very tough two-month US Army training course):

    (TOP PHOTO: Some of those fleeing besieged IS territory in Syria. CREDIT: Constantin Gouvy/IRIN)


    Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials
  • Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off

    There is suddenly a whole new level of anxiety in the humanitarian community over the plight of Venezuela.


    On top of longstanding concerns over chronic shortages of food and medicine reaching the country, there’s now real worry about the increasingly blatant politicisation of aid, as the internationally backed opposition movement puts efforts to bring humanitarian supplies into the country at the centre of its messaging strategy against the regime.


    Concerns of a humanitarian circus aren’t being helped by Richard Branson’s “Venezuela Aid” concert – a Live Aid-style extravaganza to be held in Cúcuta, just across the Colombian border on Friday. The concert, bringing together some of Latin Pop’s biggest stars, adds a bizarre touch to a complex political-military-humanitarian picture that, some worry, could easily descend into civil war.

    It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool.

    It’s clear that the opposition leaders lined up behind Juan Guaidó are using humanitarian aid chiefly as a political tool – one aimed squarely at Venezuela’s military establishment for the purpose of getting them to turn on President Nicolás Maduro’s government. Guaidó, who is now recognised as interim president by most of the western hemisphere and Europe but doesn’t control the military, wants to make it crystal clear to them that if they abandon Maduro the rest of the world is ready and able to move quickly to bring desperately needed food and medicine into the country.


    The politics here are smart: Guaidó has skillfully pushed Maduro into the hugely unpopular position of having to reject help for people in desperate need. Guaidó is calculating that the move will eventually lead to a mass military defection, and there is good reason to think that – in purely political terms at least – it might well succeed.


    However, none of this is likely to assuage concerns in the humanitarian community, which is aghast at the way aid has been turned into little more than just another weapon in the bitter and longrunning struggle for power in Caracas.


    On a fundamental level, the humanitarian community can never be seen to violate its principle of political neutrality: even if the opposition tactic does prove effective (which is a long way from a given), for the aid sector to back it would set a precedent that stores up any amount of trouble for the future. The International Committee of the Red Cross has already bowed out of the border aid operation – being led by Colombia and the United States – over these concerns. This is only natural.


    But concern about the showdown and the Cúcuta concert goes beyond a general reticence to politicise aid. The larger problem is that when aid becomes this politicised, there's no room left for a realistic assessment of Venezuela's humanitarian needs.


    On 14 February, for instance, the Organization of American States regional body held a highly politicised donors’ conference in Washington, D.C. that ended with much self-congratulatory talk of “$100 million in new pledges” of humanitarian aid to Venezuela.

    The number raised eyebrows for several reasons. First, the OAS didn’t publish a detailed breakdown of exactly who pledged what and for when, sowing seeds of doubt about how solid or serious the pledges are. Second, no monitoring, evaluation, or control mechanism of any kind was announced – which, again, can only lead the cynical to doubt how serious the whole enterprise is.


    And finally – and most seriously – the $100 million amount is completely out of proportion with even the most conservative estimates of the scale of need in Venezuela. Optimistic predictions of the impact of recent US oil sanctions alone suggest the country’s food imports will drop $120 million per month, and that is from inadequate levels that already saw three in four Venezuelans lose body weight due to hunger last year. And that’s just food, not to mention medicine, other supplies, fuel, etc.

    It could be remembered as the prelude to a catastrophe on a scale that the western hemisphere hasn’t seen in decades.

    In order to make a dent in the real humanitarian needs Venezuelans face, the OAS would have to hold that same donor conference once every three weeks or so for the foreseeable future. Even then, if the aid continued to be held up at the border, it would do no good.


    The basic message here is that aid-as-politics turns out to be incompatible with aid-as-aid in the Venezuelan context. If Guaidó’s strategy pans out and delivers a knockout blow to the Maduro regime in the near future, paving the way for large-scale relief efforts under a new government, it will be hailed as a masterstroke. But if it fails and the Maduro clique manages to entrench itself in power, it could be remembered as the prelude to a catastrophe on a scale that the western hemisphere hasn’t seen in decades.


    What is clear is that the Venezuelan opposition – alongside powerful allies in the United States, Colombia, Brazil, and Europe – has chosen an exceptionally risky approach without a credible Plan B. For Venezuelans’ sake, we can only hope it works.


    Why the Venezuelan opposition’s high-stakes aid gamble must pay off
  • South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

    Last week, UN envoy for South Sudan David Shearer said fighting had “diminished greatly” since a September peace agreement. He may have spoken too soon. It has since emerged that clashes in the Equatoria region have displaced about 8,000 people internally and sent 5,000 more fleeing across the border into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, which is in the midst of an Ebola outbreak. Most of the refugees and IDPs are women, children, and the elderly – many traumatised after they “witnessed violent incidents, including armed men reportedly murdering and raping civilians and looting villages," according to Babar Baloch, spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The clashes began last month between the army and the National Salvation Front, or NAS, one of more than 70 armed groups in South Sudan – and one that didn’t sign last year's accord. Five years of civil war have left 1.9 million South Sudanese internally displaced and 2.4 million living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

    Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

    The World Bank and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) are among those competing with the UN's World Food Programme for a €500 million European Commission grant. The project supports 1.5 million refugees with cash allowances in Turkey. It’s the largest single humanitarian grant in the world, accounting for about 31 percent of the EC’s emergency aid budget. One of the issues will be indirect costs. A recent EC audit questioned the seven percent overhead fee paid to WFP (to be reduced to 6.5%), which ran the first phase of the project. WFP told IRIN it is following the financial rules set by its board, which includes EU member states. The Emergency Social Safety Net project is largely implemented by the Turkish Red Crescent. Its chief, Kerem Kinik, in a statement to IRIN, declined to back a bidder, saying his organisation "remains in promotion of an impactful and cost-efficient programme design".

    Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

    The UN Panel of Experts on Yemen released its annual report to the public this week. It makes for grim reading on 2018, a period during which the country “continued its slide towards humanitarian and economic catastrophe”. In 224 pages, the group details “widespread violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the various parties involved in the conflict”. Tip: For the group’s look at humanitarian assistance – including the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s obstruction of civilian flights out of Sana’a, and the Houthi rebels’ arrest of aid workers and interference in the selection of aid beneficiaries – skip to page 56. In other Yemen news, the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would end the country’s support for the war. It still has to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, and President Donald Trump’s pen. If you’re confused, yes, last year a similar resolution failed in the House and passed in the Senate, but members have come and gone since then, and the resolution has changed too.

    Counting the cost of internal displacement

    People displaced within their own borders could be costing the global economy nearly $13 billion a year, according to new research by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Researchers assessed costs for eight countries experiencing conflicts or disasters, including Central African Republic, Libya, the Philippines, South Sudan, and Yemen. CAR was found to have the highest financial impact for each displaced person – about $230 million, or 11 percent of the country's GDP, per year. The research found that the highest burdens come from lost income, support for housing, and healthcare. People in low-income countries were also impacted worse than those in lower-middle or upper-middle income countries. Internal displacement "places a heavy burden on the economy," said Alexandra Bilak, director of the IDMC, "generating specific needs that must be paid for by those affected, their hosts, governments or aid providers". For more on how IDPs need greater protection, read this opinion we published earlier in the week.

    Examining aid partnerships

    Major donors and aid groups have made broad promises to “localise” aid – putting more power and funding in the hands of locals when crises hit. But change has been slow on the ground, to the frustration of many local NGOs, as we’ve documented in our continuing reporting on locally driven aid. So how can local and international groups make this all work? New research examines aid partnerships in four countries – Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, and South Sudan – to look at what kinds of practices might contribute to “localising” aid. There are the positives (locals participating in project design and budgeting), and the negatives (internationals taking credit for local work). But, unsurprisingly, most of the local humanitarians interviewed in the studies said existing partnerships between international and local organisations are not equitable – closer to the subcontracting that characterises many aid relationships. Yet genuine, long-term partnerships are seen as the most likely to accelerate “localisation” reforms. The ongoing research, which you can read here, comes from a consortium of NGOs including Action Aid, CAFOD, CARE, Christian Aid, Oxfam, and Tearfund.

    ‘I am free from the conflict, but I do not feel free’

    The number of child soldiers around the world has more than doubled since 2012, according to Child Soldiers International’s analysis of six years of UN reports on children and armed conflict. The latest report verified 8,185 cases of child recruitment in 15 countries – a 159 percent rise on the 3,159 cases verified in 2012.

    Co-produced by a former child soldier, a new project brings to life the voices of 27 children who were recruited into conflict in northern Uganda. There’s a taster below, but you can view the full comic here.


    © YOLRED and courtesy of Jassi Sandhar (University of Bristol)

    In case you missed it

    Germany: The German authorities have arrested two former officers of Bashar al-Assad’s secret service alleged to have tortured critics of the Syrian president. A third man is reported to have been arrested in France. Germany accepts the principle of universal jurisdiction, allowing its courts to try individuals accused of international crimes committed elsewhere – including war crimes, crimes against humanity, even genocide.

    Haiti: After more than a week of protests over corruption amid soaring prices and inflation, President Jovenel Moïse finally broke his silence on Thursday, refusing to step down and urging patience. At least seven people have been killed during demonstrations sparked by anger at the government and the business elite over a $2 billion development aid scandal. More protests and street gunfire was reported in the capital, Port-au-Prince, after Moïse’s speech.

    Kashmir: The deadliest militant attack to hit Indian-administered Kashmir in three decades killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary troops this week, raising tensions in a disputed region that has seen frequent civilian demonstrations against military abuses. The bomb blast was claimed by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e Mohammad, a banned Islamist group.

    Myanmar: The military is shelling villages and blocking humanitarian access in Rakhine State, according to Amnesty International. Rights groups say some of the same army divisions involved in the violent 2017 ouster of 700,000 Rohingya – labelled as a likely genocide by UN investigators – are now being deployed in a crackdown on the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army.

    Sudan: Sudanese government forces have used "extreme violence and shocking abuses" against largely peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch said, urging the UN to conduct an independent investigation into the violations. Activists estimate that more than 50 people have died since anti-government demonstrations began in mid-December, while at least 79 journalists have reportedly been arrested.


    Weekend read

    International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    The new D-Day for Venezuela is 23 February. This is when opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó has said humanitarian aid will enter the country to alleviate the suffering of Venezuelans gripped by widespread shortages of food and medicine. Guaidó has urged the armed forces, who remain loyal to President Nicolás Maduro, to allow the aid in. But there’s no indication Maduro, whose presidency Guaidó denounces as illegitimate, intends to do any such thing. In our weekend read, journalist Paula Dupraz-Dobias unpicks the different strands of what has become an international aid stand-off, with aid agencies caught in the middle and uncertain what to do next. This briefing is essential reading as the showdown continues to obscure a humanitarian crisis that may be denied by Maduro, but shows no sign of letting up.

    And finally

    We recommend you check out this entry to the New York Times’ Lens blog, which features the work of photographer Wesaam al-Badry. Al-Badry and his family fled Iraq just before the Gulf War for Nebraska, and his photos beautifully document their life in the United States, warts and all. There are weddings, a prison release ankle monitor, and an Arabic-language American newspaper. “My family are not one dimensional characters in a refugee story,” al-Badry says. “They have multiple layers, they have their own personalities, their own agency and ways of manoeuvring through life.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A child holds up a map in the Protection of Civilians site in Bor, South Sudan. CREDIT: JC McIlwaine​/UN Photo)


    South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant
  • Briefing: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

    Humanitarian aid to millions of hungry and sick Venezuelans has become an international political football, with President Nicolás Maduro equating the prospect of outside assistance entering his country to a foreign military intervention.


    National Assembly leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó says Maduro’s election win last year was illegitimate. In calling for the president to step aside and allow fresh elections, the opposition leader has secured the support of dozens of countries – including the United States, Canada, and most of Latin America and Europe.


    But the Venezuelan military – along with Russia, China, Turkey, and leftist regional governments in Cuba and Bolivia – is still backing Maduro, who was sworn in for a new six-year term in January, precipitating mass protests in the capital, Caracas, and other cities.


    Trucks carrying US relief supplies have rolled into the Colombian border town of Cúcuta only to have their entry into Venezuela blocked by the Venezuelan military, with Maduro describing it as a “show of fake humanitarian aid”.


    Meanwhile, the UN says it cannot deliver humanitarian assistance to Venezuela unless requested to do so by the government.


    As the showdown intensifies, here’s what we know.


    What’s the current situation?


    Last week, 50 metric tonnes of aid provided by the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, was delivered in a convoy of trucks with the help of the Colombian government to Cúcuta. Colombian and US officials say it includes basic food items such as flour, rice, lentils, and cooking oil, as well as personal hygiene items.


    The United States has pledged $20 million in assistance to Venezuela. “This is a downpayment. This is just the beginning,” US Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker told reporters in Cúcuta on Friday.


    The Venezuelan military continues to block the Tienditas international bridge between Cúcuta and the neighbouring Venezuelan town of Tachira, preventing the USAID supplies from being delivered.


    President Maduro denies that Venezuela faces a humanitarian crisis, and maintains that economic difficulties are a result of sanctions imposed by Washington.


    Read more:  A humanitarian crisis denied


    Some 10 percent of the population – more than three million Venezuelans – have left their country since 2015 as the economy has collapsed and it has become increasingly difficult to find basic and affordable food and medicine.


    Read more:  Worries grow as more Venezuelans look to Peru


    Tens of thousands of Venezuelans continue to cross every day into Cúcuta over the Simón Bolívar bridge, which has effectively become a pedestrian-only artery due to the large number of people fleeing in search of medicine or food, or to start new lives.


    What plans are there to get aid in?


    Guaidó has vowed to open routes into the country for the US aid and has called on Venezuelans to get ready to help distribute it. He says distribution plans – through various points along the border – will be made clear in the coming days.


    The opposition is appealing to the military to allow the supplies through. Up until now the military has supported Maduro, although a rebellion by the national guard was quashed last month.


    At a press conference in Cúcuta on Friday, Lester Toledo, Guaidó’s spokesperson in Colombia, said: “Dear military personnel, this aid is also for you... here comes food for your children, here comes medicine for the people who are suffering.”


    Along the border with Brazil, the indigenous Pemón community, whose lands straddle the international boundary, has said it will allow assistance to pass through its territory to be distributed in Venezuela. The area, known as La Gran Sabana, includes the only paved road crossing between Brazil and Venezuela.


    What are the main needs?


    Organisations operating within Venezuela have remained discrete about the humanitarian situation within the country due to the government’s sensitivity toward the issue and official stance that it needs no assistance.


    However, academic studies, as well as numerous media reports and stories recounted by fleeing migrants, indicate that living conditions have deteriorated sharply for most of the population and that there are dire shortages of food and medicine.


    Read more: Hunger and survival in Venezuela


    An annual study by three major Venezuelan universities on living conditions in Venezuela (known as Encovi) estimated in its latest survey, in 2017, that 87 percent of the population was living under the poverty line and 61 percent in extreme poverty (a near 10 percent rise on the previous year).


    Hyperinflation, linked to a severe contraction of the oil sale-dependent economy, was estimated at around 1.7 million percent in 2018, according to the National Assembly’s National Price Index. Venezuela’s Central Bank stopped publishing inflation figures in 2016.


    Families are often unable to feed themselves more than once a day, with Encovi reporting significant average weight losses, even by 2017.


    The health ministry stopped publishing national health data in 2017, after an official report highlighted a large increase in infant and maternal mortality rates, which led to the immediate sacking of the health minister.


    Since 2016, outbreaks of diphtheria and measles, two vaccine-preventable diseases that had all but been eradicated in Venezuela, have once again been on the rise. In 2018, the number of tuberculosis cases reported at two TB centres in Caracas rose by 40 percent. Other reports say AIDS-related deaths have tripled and malaria cases are up by more than 200 percent.


    As doctors and nurses, along with other trained professionals, have joined the exodus, hospitals have become overwhelmed and unable to cope with patients seeking help, especially as people can’t afford medicines and shortages drive up black market prices.


    A survey of more than 130 hospitals and clinics by the National Assembly and Médicos por la Salud, a local NGO, found shortages of basic drugs increased to 88 percent last year. It also found that only one in 10 hospitals – most of them private clinics – had functioning operating rooms. Shortages of running water were commonplace.


    US sanctions imposed in January on Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA may also be contributing to the suffering. The economy has shrunk by half since Maduro assumed power in 2013, and further contraction is expected as PDVSA accounts for 90 percent of the country’s hard currency inflows.


    Is it just the US offering aid?


    A number of other countries have pledged funds for humanitarian assistance to Venezuela.


    Some $2.5 million out of the $53 million Canada pledged at last week’s meeting of the Lima Group – a regional alliance seeking a peaceful agreement to the crisis – is expected to go to organisations already in Venezuela providing healthcare services.


    “We’re working with trusted humanitarian partners to try to get money to flow into Venezuela,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, Canada’s international development minister.


    Bibeau said it was too early for funds to go directly to Guaidó, even though Canada – along with several other countries – has recognised the 35-year-old member of the centrist social-democratic Popular Will party as interim president.


    Germany has promised five million euros of humanitarian assistance to Venezuela “as soon as the political condition in the country allow this,” Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, said last week.


    Is any international aid being provided within Venezuela?


    Although Maduro is refusing to allow in emergency humanitarian aid, he hasn’t stopped some existing programmes within the country from being ramped up.


    “UN agencies have been scaling up existing activities inside Venezuela to meet urgent health nutrition and protection needs,” Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said on Friday.


    Laerke explained to IRIN that international organizations in Venezuela  “have an agreement with the government that (scaling-up) can happen”.


    Funding shortfalls nonetheless may affect the extent of those operations. Less than half of the $109.5 million required for OCHA’s emergency plan to help 3.6 million Venezuelans, including two million children, has so far been received.


    UN agencies working in Venezuela include UNICEF, the Pan American Health Organization (a regional agency of WHO), UNAIDS, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Development Programme. Currently, the UN employs than 300 national and international staff in the country.


    Laerke said the UN is delivering 100,000 treatments for severe or acute malnutrition and six temporary shelters have been set up in border areas in western Venezuela to accommodate 1,600 people and provide them with food and clothing.


    WHO and PAHO are cooperating with the Venezuelan health ministry on healthcare management programmes. WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević said 50 tonnes of medicine and supplies were delivered to the country in 2018.


     PAHO also provided Venezuela with some 13 million doses of measles and rubella vaccines and 5.4 million doses of tetanus and diphtheria vaccines following outbreaks of the illnesses.


    In November, a $9.2 million UN health and nutrition aid package was announced, making it the first emergency funding approved by the government. The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) supports programmes that offer nutritional help to children and pregnant women and breast-feeding at risk mothers.


    Local and international aid groups inside Venezuela have also been adapting their services to provide essential food and services to people in need.


    Read more: As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics


    As the crisis has unfolded, the Catholic relief agency Caritas says it has increasingly been gearing its efforts towards essential humanitarian assistance, away from its traditional focus on pastoral care for prisoners and human rights advocacy.


    What next?


    One of many organisations providing assistance to migrants fleeing Venezuela is the World Food Programme, which says it isn’t talking to political parties in Venezuela and is only working with Maduro’s government and aid partners outside the country.

    “Any potential political use of humanitarian aid can generate risks, in particular for those the aid is intended to support."

    However, Hervé Verhoosel, the WFP’s senior spokesperson in Geneva, said the UN agency has begun to “pre-position food” at the Colombia-Venezuela border so it “will be ready when we have the authorisation to go (into Venezuela)”.


    An international NGO forum in Colombia, which includes Oxfam, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Médecins du Monde, Terre des Hommes and others, has expressed concern about the plans to send humanitarian aid to Venezuela from Colombia following tensions surrounding the delivery of US aid to Cúcuta.


    “Any potential political use of humanitarian aid can generate risks, in particular for those the aid is intended to support, if this use is not based on technical and objective criteria,” it warned.

    Christian Visnes, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN from Cúcuta that it was “key to differentiate governments’ aid from humanitarian aid.”


    The International Committee of the Red Cross, which operates independently and in support of the Venezuelan Red Cross, was critical of the “highly politicised environment”, which it said makes it “challenging for humanitarian organisations to operate in”.


    Calls for dialogue to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis – and by association, to improve the humanitarian situation in Venezuela – are yet to bear fruit.


    A request from Maduro to allow the Vatican to mediate talks was initially welcomed by Guaidó, but he insisted any negotiations must begin with Maduro’s exit.

    (TOP PHOTO: A Venezuelan migrant feeds her baby at the Divina Providencia migrant shelter in Cúcuta​, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, on 7 February 2019. CREDIT: Schneyder Mendoza/AFP)


    Briefing: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela
  • Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    MSF rejects claims it didn’t follow plans to avoid Yemen bombing

    An investigation into the bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières cholera treatment centre in Yemen in June 2018 has “dismayed” the NGO. A panel appointed by the Saudi Arabia-led alliance found that the new and still-empty building had been bombed by the coalition in “an unintended error”. The investigators, however, disputed details of how the location’s coordinates were supplied to Riyadh and whether there were markings on the roof of the building identifying it as a humanitarian site. At a Riyadh press conference in mid-January, the official spokesman for the investigators said the coalition was acting on intelligence the building was used for arms and ammunition storage. MSF said the findings were “unacceptable and contradictory”, noting that under international law, “It is the sole responsibility of armed parties to the conflict to proactively take all necessary measures to ensure that protected facilities are not attacked.” For more on notifications and coordinates, read our IRIN explainer on “deconfliction”.

    Measles kills more than 300 in Madagascar

    Madagascar is suffering its worst measles outbreak in decades. More than 50,000 people have been infected and at least 300 killed, most of them children, according to health officials. Cases have been reported in all major towns and cities, as well as in rural areas. Supported by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, the government has initiated fresh vaccination campaigns. Deaths from measles are avoidable if such campaigns are thorough enough. The virus gained ground in Madagascar as immunisation rates fell below 50 percent (from the recommended 90 percent), mostly due to access difficulties. This IRIN story from the archives is evidence that this is not a new problem: health experts were expressing concerns about falling rates (then from 81 percent to 64 percent) as far back as 2011. Although worst hit, Madagascar is not alone in having to tackle the virus. Measles has also struck parts of the United States and Europe, where cases tripled last year. Health authorities in the Philippines are also urging immunisations following an outbreak in Manila and nearby regions that has left 1,500 people infected and caused at least 25 deaths.

    Atrocities feared amid rising militancy in Burkina Faso

    Attacks and counter-attacks between militants and security forces in Burkina Faso are taking a heavy toll on civilians. This week, jihadists attacked the northern village of Kain near the Malian border, killing 14 people. Security forces retaliated, launching ground and air assaults that left 146 militants dead. Soon after, another attack in Oursi in the Sahel Region left 21 militants and five gendarmes dead. Human Rights Watch has called out atrocities on both sides, saying the army "executed" some suspected militants in front of their own families. The UN says persistent armed attacks and violence displaced 36,000 people in January alone, as insecurity risks impeded access to aid. For three years, Burkina Faso has been battling an escalating wave of attacks, while regional Sahel neighbours Mali and Niger face similar threats. Rising militancy across Africa is a trend we’re  watching in 2019.

    Aid stuck on Venezuela border

    As a former Venezuelan diplomat now working with the opposition as a go-between with international aid groups in Geneva told IRIN  this week, the current situation is “something that doesn’t make any sense”. The Venezuelan people are desperately short of food and medicine, some three to four million people have fled the country since 2015, and their president, Nicolás Maduro, is refusing to allow humanitarian aid in. That’s not to say the offers of assistance, from the United States in particular, might not be something of a Trojan Horse. Maduro says, “no one will enter, not one invading soldier”, and the United States has a chequered past of military intervention and regime change in Latin America. For now, the aid arriving in the Colombian border town of Cúcuta is going nowhere. Maduro’s forces have blocked the bridge into Venezuela and seem to have no intention of allowing it in. Opposition leader and self-declared president-in-waiting Juan Guaidó has suggested stockpiling it in three locations at the border in the hope this will change. More from on this unfolding story next week.

    Mixed picture in South Sudan as refugees return

    Political violence has “dropped dramatically" since the signing of September's peace deal, David Shearer, the UN envoy in South Sudan, said in the same week that nine people were killed in clashes between rebel factions in the Western Equatoria region. More than 20,000 South Sudanese refugees have so far voluntarily returned from neighbouring Uganda, according to Joel Boutroue, the UN refugee agency's representative in Uganda. However, in December, UNHCR said that despite reduced violence in some areas, South Sudan was not yet "conducive” for the safe return of refugees. Although Shearer praised some of the "positive" developments in recent months, including rebel leader Riek Machar's plan to return to Juba in May, he also flagged concerns about ongoing conflict and a loss of momentum in the peace process, with recent meetings reportedly lacking substance or real outcomes.

    One to listen to:

    In this week’s story on Yemen’s shaky ceasefire deal, we mentioned that Yemeni rights watchdog Mwatana for Human Rights had documented 624 civilian cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture in 2018. Here’s your chance to find out more about where that number came from: Radya al-Mutawakel, the organisation’s co-founder, is interviewed at length on the latest episode of the International Rescue Committee’s podcast, “Displaced”. She talks about the challenges of independently verifying information on human rights violations in the midst of a divisive war, including airstrikes, torture, disappearances, and detention, and explains why she thinks it is important to build what she calls a “human rights memory” in Yemen. Al-Mutawakel and Mwatana’s latest challenge? Figuring out how to document starvation as a  violation, as the link between victim and perpetrator is not always clear cut.

    In case you missed it

    Ethiopia: In 2009, Ethiopia banned local NGOs from raising more than 10 percent of income from abroad. The provision in the law governing civil society was criticised as a means to stifle dissent. Local media report that new rules lifting the limit have passed the Ethiopian parliament this week, part of wide-ranging reforms under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.


    Syria: A joint UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid convoy arrived on Thursday at Rukban, an informal camp located in a no man’s land near the Syria-Jordan border. The last delivery of aid to more than 40,000 people sheltering in the area known as “the berm” was in November.


    Tonga: Authorities in the Pacific Island nation are warning of gale-force winds, floods, and damaging waves as a tropical depression brushes past the country over the weekend. Last year, Cyclone Gita landed a direct hit on parts of Tonga, including its main island, Tongatapu.


    Yemen: This week’s Amman talks on a Yemen prisoner swap have not yet resulted in agreement on the lists of names to be exchanged, but a UN spokesman said separate talks on a UN boat had yielded a “preliminary compromise” on withdrawing forces from Hodeidah. For background, read this.


    Weekend read

    New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns

    Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you’ll be aware of our weekend read: CIA-funded data-mining company Palantir signs a $45 million five-year deal to help the UN’s World Food Programme pool its data and find cost-saving efficiencies. To say data privacy and protection activists are unamused is an understatement: this is a company that provided software to US customs officials to help them deport migrants. “The recipients of WFP aid are already in extremely vulnerable situations; they should not be put at additional risk of harm or exploitation,” Privacy International told IRIN’s Ben Parker. But WFP insists there will be no “data-sharing”, and hit back with a statement outlining its thinking and the safeguards it feels are in place. This wasn’t enough, however, to assuage critics, who penned an open letter to WFP urging them to reconsider the agreement and be more transparent. As Centre for Innovation protection experts suggest here, this isn’t a new conundrum, and the Palantir furore might jolt the humanitarian sector into some belated engagement on data privacy and protection concerns.


    And finally...

    Hot in here

    The last four years have been the four warmest years on record, according to separate analyses released this week by organisations including NASA and the WMO, the UN’s meteorological agency. Analysts say it’s a “clear sign” of long-term climate change, along with “extreme and high-impact weather” that affected millions. The WMO says the average global temperature in 2018 was 1.0° Celsius above pre-industrial levels – climate scientists say temperature rise must be limited to less than 2.0° to stave off the worst impacts.


    Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal
  • Director’s Dispatch: Aid and the elite

    Over the last three years of attending the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, I have watched as people and themes not traditionally associated with that high-profile gathering of business and political elites move into the spotlight.

    Official sessions this year ranged from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals to investing in fragile states. A simulation of a day in the life of a refugee allowed CEOs and government ministers to experience what it’s like to be held up at gunpoint or taken away to be raped. An entire day of programming was devoted to the oceans. Advertisements plastered on the town’s streets sported corporate slogans like this one from Salesforce: “Because making the world better is everyone’s business.”

    I walked past a media scrum, expecting the mass of journalists to be waiting for a head of state or Fortune 500 CEO; they were crowded around for 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist who put the corporate elite in their place when she told them they had caused many of the world’s problems.

    From Amnesty International to the Rockefeller Foundation, from a small Indian relief organisation to the International Committee of the Red Cross – whose president sits on WEF’s board – many non-profit types attend Davos because they believe that only by having a seat at the table can they affect those with power and influence.

    Are they right?


    Heba Aly/IRIN
    At an evening reception called “Innovation with Purpose”, will.i.am presents a new app to help people take ownership of their personal data.

    Self-doubt and tough questions

    That question troubles many in the non-profit sector, for whom the real concern with Davos goes beyond the hypocrisy of eating canapés while discussing hunger or paying thousands of dollars for a mattress on a floor in a shared room.

    They are aware of the well-trodden critique: that for all the willingness of today’s titans of technology and finance to put climate change and income disparity centre stage, their eagerness to solve the world’s problems lasts only as long as the solutions don't threaten their own wealth and power.

    Those fears can run deeper “on the inside”, for instance that even the presence of civil society at gatherings like Davos risks legitimising an approach that avoids real transformation of the system – a system that underpinned the rise of the elite and caused most of the world’s problems in the first place.  

    As one person working for social change told me: “So we’re talking about migration and climate change, great. But are we really tackling the fundamental issues? Us being here – isn’t it hiding the real issues?”

    I asked Mohammed Hassan Mohamud, a Somali refugee and a co-chair of the meeting, for his take. His appointment to that post – a position usually reserved for the likes of Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft – itself signalled a shift at Davos.

    I had met Mohamud about six months earlier, at his home in the Kakuma refugee camps of Kenya during a WEF-organised trip for its network of young leaders, of which I am one.

    When he spoke to our group at Davos, he told us bluntly: “Next Saturday, I’m going [back] to the camp… Let’s be really honest and tangible about what we can do.”

    Co-chair of the World Economic Forum 2019 in Davos

    This year, the World Economic Forum asked a refugee to co-chair its annual meeting in Davos.

    At the end of the week, I caught up with Mohamud again.

    “I am grateful for the platform to get my message across,” he said. “But people [at Davos] want quick solutions,” he added, “like building a library in the camp. We shouldn’t normalise the camp.”

    I heard similar frustrations at the lack of attention to addressing more deep-rooted change.

    At a session about the Sahel, for instance, leaders in government, the private sector, and aid talked about the need for development and investment – but they didn’t tackle the geopolitics and foreign interference causing the instability in Africa.

    The world has seen massive progress in recent decades, true, but have the underlying structures of power changed?

    ‘The definition of insanity'

    WEF is a non-profit foundation and its mission, according to its latest statutes, is to bring together “leaders from business, governments, academia and society at large into a global community committed to improving the state of the world.”

    Around a decade ago, WEF began inviting civil society into its meetings at scale*.

    Critics saw the move as a smart response to protests against the forum’s exclusivity. But those close to WEF’s founder and contentious leader, Klaus Schwab, see his motivation as genuine. They say he recognised that the policy-making of the 1950s – governed by business people and political leaders – was not the policy-making of the future. In transforming WEF into a multi-stakeholder platform, his supporters argue, he created a unique, neutral, and impartial platform for discussions badly needed in today’s world.

    There are certainly signs this orientation has caught on – though WEF is by no means the only reason why.  

    In 2011, less than 20 percent of S&P 500 companies (the largest and most influential listed in the United States) reported on corporate social responsibility programmes. By 2017, that percentage had jumped to 85, according to the Governance and Accountability Institute.

    Dozens of companies – from Microsoft to Mastercard, from DHL to Accenture – now support the UN and NGOs with technology and know-how, at reduced costs.  

    Investors are backing social impact bonds for refugees and humanitarian relief.

    In Davos, I heard stories of CEOs pledging to hire refugees after experiencing “A Day in the Life”, or investing millions of dollars in social causes as a result of exposure to new ideas.  

    And, as IRIN heard in an event we hosted at Davos, many in the private sector see themselves as having the skills, the will, and the responsibility to be part of the solution in an ever chaotic world where traditional aid is no longer enough.

    "Is public-private partnership really what’s needed when they’re the ones who got us in this mess to begin with?”

    Yet as Matthew Bishop, who leads the Rockefeller Foundation's thought leadership centre, Bellagio, told me:  “There has still not been anywhere near enough soul-searching or deep thinking among the Davos crowd about what has gone wrong since [the financial crisis of] 2008 and why the decades of dominant liberal policy that preceded the crash didn’t deliver real progress for enough people.”

    In short, he added, “Today, there still doesn’t seem to be any clear strategy coming from Davos to make life better for the average person.”

    The sceptical activist I cited above described coming back year after year in the hope of influencing the Davos crowd as “the definition of insanity”.

    “Are we really going to shift the needle like this?” they asked. “Is there any evidence that it has worked? Is public-private partnership really what’s needed when they’re the ones who got us in this mess to begin with?”

    These doubts exist even at the highest levels. When António Guterres, now UN secretary-general, was head of the UN refugee agency, he was never an enthusiastic participant at Davos, according to one of his former senior staffers. “He thought: ‘These people are not really interested in our issues’,” Nick van Praag, now head of an organisation that seeks the views of people affected by crises, told me.

    “I tried to convince him otherwise,” said van Praag. “I thought Davos was a great opportunity. Now, more than 10 years later, I think Guterres might have been right.”

    For van Praag, the Davos crowd has indeed adopted “our issues”, but conversations are more likely to veer towards “titillating technology” than try to address the real issues the aid sector is grappling with. “For instance,” he offered, “why not put that energy into the issues the humanitarian sector has already identified as priorities rather than having a completely separate conversation?”

    As examples, he pointed to more predictable financing, localising aid, and giving affected people more of a say in the assistance they receive. That said, WEF’s council on the future of the humanitarian system, of which I am a member, has focused its discussions on how to encourage private sector investment into fragile states to reduce dependency on aid – indeed a priority of the humanitarian sector.

    In any case, the social change types keep coming. And I understand why.

    Signs of change

    I was similarly sceptical when I accepted invitations to join WEF’s Young Global Leaders network and its Global Future Council for the Humanitarian System, a brain trust of sorts.  

    But in attending meeting after meeting, I am realising that these opportunities are what you make of them. It’s up to those of us who have a seat at the table to ensure our presence isn’t just window dressing.

    As a media organisation, for instance, it is up to us to effectively use this platform to bring the stories of those affected by crises to the so-called elite. We have an opportunity to provide newer players in this space access to the critical debate around ideas that can inform their behaviours, and to inform all those seeking to better understand the issues – regardless of their motivations.

    My scepticism has also been tempered by the realisation that change is slow: IRIN is soon to mark 25 years, for instance, and sadly we continue to cover many of the same crises year after year. Does that mean we shouldn’t bother? Of course not.  

    It’s up to those of us who have a seat at the table to ensure our presence isn’t just window dressing.

    And there are signs that change is afoot. Newer private-sector players are beginning to recognise that throwing money at problems won’t fix them. While philanthropists such as Bill Gates may still see market-based solutions as the only way forward, they have evolved from promoting one-drop vaccines and plug-and-play laptops to taking a longer-term view that embraces the complexity of development. In one of the discussions I chaired at Davos, the CEO of Syngenta argued that new technologies his company is developing to help prevent food crises around the world will have little effect without better public governance.

    And within WEF there’s also more openness to voices of dissent and critical thinking. Its recent reports on global risk have called for “fundamental reforms to market capitalism”.

    The Davos edition of Time magazine, which lined the shelves of the Congress Centre where the official proceedings took place, included a short message from Anand Giridharadas, author of The Elite Charade of Changing the World, to the “1 percent elite”:

    “You plutocrats are gathering above the rest of us, convinced that you hold the key to solving problems you’ve caused…

    “But,” he wrote, “the hunt for answers to the present mess is not yours to lead. Your moral duty now is to refrain from thwarting those who are working to bury this gilded age and usher in vital reforms… Your task is simple: Stay out of their way.”

    Schwab pushes back against what he calls "the blame game”.

    “What we have to do is address the root causes. We have to work together in a constructive way,” he told CNN.

    I see a similar message in the fact that so many of those trying to usher in vital reforms spend time (and money) at Davos each year: even they believe that the 1% need to be part of the solution.

    * An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that WEF started inviting civil society to its annual meeting around 10 years ago. According to WEF, civil society representatives have attended since its inception in 1970, although the forum has significantly scaled their presence in recent years. 

    The UN and civil society now flock to the annual World Economic Forum gathering in Davos. But not without asking themselves tough questions
    Director’s Dispatch: Aid and the elite
  • Whatever happened to the ceasefire deal in Yemen?

    Yemen’s warring parties agreed a UN-brokered ceasefire for the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah back in December but, seven weeks on, deadlines have come and gone and much of the accord has still not taken hold.


    The deal prompted hope that the parties might keep meeting and eventually find a negotiated way out of the war, providing respite to Yemenis, who the UN now says are “more vulnerable and hungrier than at any time” in a conflict marked by repeated warnings of famine.


    That there was a deal at all represented progress. There hadn’t been much expectation that the Houthi rebels and the internationally recognised (but mostly exiled) government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi would find common ground at the talks at a castle outside Stockholm, if their representatives showed up at all.


    In the end they did shake hands on – although not sign – a deal that has become known as the Stockholm Agreement. It included a ceasefire in Hodeidah, a “mechanism” for a prisoner exchange, and a “statement of understanding” on Taiz – a city and province that has seen some of the most sustained fighting in a war that has gone on for 46 months and killed tens of thousands of people.


    The Hodeidah deal has garnered the most attention, largely because humanitarians have been warning that a battle in the city would be catastrophic for a country that is so dependent on imports – especially as the port is in the north, where some 70 percent of Yemenis live.

    The wording of the Stockholm Agreement is vague. That lack of clarity is either a design flaw or a feature, depending who you ask: it has allowed the parties to haggle over details and delay the process, but it may also have been the best that the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths, could get out of two sides who have been fighting each other for years.


    Griffiths defended the Hodeidah agreement last week as “generally holding”, saying “initial timelines were rather ambitious” given the “complex situation on the ground”. But with headlines describing the accord as “shaky”, “fragile”, even as “failing”, here’s a deeper look at what was agreed, what has happened since, and what to expect.


    An agreement in stages


    The first step outlined in the Hodeidah agreement was an immediate ceasefire in the city and around the port of Hodeidah, as well as around two other nearby ports and oil terminals.


    While there has been a decrease in fighting – and an all-out assault on Hodeidah has been put on pause – both sides have accused the other of multiple violations of the ceasefire. A monitoring mission the UN Security Council approved on 16 January is still not fully in place to verify these claims.


    Humanitarian sources on the ground told IRIN that while airstrikes on the city have stopped, fighting hasn’t decreased enough to allow aid delivery to take place unhindered or to make Hodeidah safe for aid workers or civilians.


    “So far the agreement hasn’t translated to the level of access and impact that we would want in terms of addressing the massive needs, not just in Hodeidah, but across other parts of the country.”

    The World Food Programme says it hasn’t been able to assess the damage to grain silos reportedly hit by shelling at the port earlier this month – or to get to the location of those stores since September.


    Karl Schembri, regional media advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN from Hodeidah that services in the city are still very limited and that the main hospital is damaged and inaccessible because it is on a front line. “Electricity is only commercially available and very expensive,” he said. “Medical facilities are basic; some hospitals can deal with minor surgeries.”


    The next step in the agreement is a “mutual redeployment of forces” from the area, with security in the city becoming the responsibility of “local security forces”.


    However, the sides disagree on who those “local security forces” should be. Griffiths and his team have been shuttling between countries and capitals since the December handshake trying to find common ground on this and other points of contention.


    The withdrawal, which hasn’t happened yet, has been overseen by a UN-chaired Redeployment Coordination Committee set up by Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. The committee has so far met only three times, most recently on Sunday on a ship moored off the Red Sea – neutral territory.


    Danish general Michael Anker Lollesgaard is now set to take over from Cammaert, who the UN says only planned to be in the post for one month. Further steps are envisaged under the Hodeidah agreement, but full redeployment – which was supposed to happen within 21 days – is the hurdle that needs to be crossed first.


    Sultana Begum, advocacy manager for the NRC in Yemen, said there needed to be a lot more progress on the ground despite a “glimmer of hope in the past few days”, including the meeting on the boat.


    “The political talks have yet to deliver,” Begum said. “So far the agreement hasn’t translated to the level of access and impact that we would want in terms of addressing the massive needs, not just in Hodeidah, but across other parts of the country.”


    Prisoner exchange ‘hanging in the balance’


    There was talk of a prisoner swap before Stockholm – Griffiths told the UN Security Council he was “about to conclude” an agreement on the matter in November, before the talks were even a sure thing. Then the prisoner swap became part of the Stockholm accord, which says the parties agreed an “executive mechanism on activating the prisoner exchange agreement”.


    While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said it is ready to facilitate the swap, which it originally expected to be completed by the end of January, the parties have disagreed since Stockholm on the lists of names.


    On 29 and 30 January, one Saudi prisoner was returned from Sana’a to Riyadh and seven Yemenis were sent in the opposite direction (A Saudi Arabia-led coalition, which includes the United Arab Emirates, is fighting on the side of Hadi’s government).


    But the hoped-for main trade, which ICRC director of operations Dominik Stillhart described on Monday as “hanging in the balance”, is much larger. Each side currently has a list of up to 8,000 names, but Stillhart said some of those people cannot be accounted for. “What we now see on both sides [is that] they don't have [all the prisoners] because a lot of them, they probably died during the conflict,” he said.


    The two sides began meetings about the swap on Tuesday in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Griffiths said the discussions were to finalise the lists, adding that “success in this regard is not only of huge importance for those who will be released and returned to their families, but also for the broader political process in which we are engaged together.”


    Osama al-Fakih of Mwatana for Human Rights – a Yemeni rights watchdog that documented at least 624 civilian cases of arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and torture in 2018 – noted that civilians, including journalists, are expected to be included in the exchange.


    “The prisoner exchange deal matters a lot to Yemenis,” he told IRIN. “A large number of families have suffered very much from losing their loved ones as arbitrary detainees or forcibly disappeared, let alone those who were tortured or died due to torture.”


    Future risks


    If the Stockholm Agreement – particularly the Hodeidah deal – falls apart, it could precipitate the sort of large-scale battle humanitarians have warned could lead to massive civilian casualties, including a possible siege on the city and the destruction of Hodeidah’s vital port.

    "The prisoner exchange deal matters a lot to Yemenis. A large number of families have suffered very much from losing their loved ones."

    IRIN could not independently confirm reports from several sources that Houthi rebels are taking advantage of the current lull in fighting to mine parts of the city, but elsewhere in Hodeidah province the rebels have left behind landmines as coalition troops advanced.


    Médecins Sans Frontières says one in every three emergency surgeries it performs in a Taiz hospital set up for treating landmine victims is on a child. “The principal victims of these lethal hazards have been civilians, many of whom have been killed or maimed for life after unwittingly stepping on an explosive device,” the organisation said in a January statement.


    Away from Hodeidah, fighting, shelling, and airstrikes continue, including in the provinces of Saada and Taiz, where the “statement of understanding” appears to have yielded nothing. There has also been an uptick in fighting just north of Hodeidah in Hajjah province, where eight people were killed and 30 wounded on 26 January in the shelling of a displacement camp – Saudi Arabia’s aid body blamed the attack on Houthis.


    In a sign that patience could be wearing thin with alleged Houthi violations, Emirati Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted last week that the coalition had struck 10 Houthi training camps outside the province and was “prepared to use more calibrated force to prod Houthi compliance with [the] Stockholm Agreement”.


    Whether or not the offensive on Hodeidah resumes, aid workers stress that the deal was meant to be a first step towards eventual peace in Yemen. Humanitarian needs endure, in and outside of Hodeidah. At the end of this month, donors will convene in Geneva as the UN asks for $4 billion to aid Yemen in 2019, a record amount for one country.


    “The needs are going up, not down,” said the NRC’s Begum. “And the Hodeidah agreement hasn’t had any significant effect on the overall humanitarian situation in Yemen. Hodeidah is one piece of the puzzle – we need the agreement to stick – but so far, even there, it will take much more to transform a very dire humanitarian situation.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A displaced Yemeni girl sits next to an armoured military vehicle at a camp in the Khokha district of the western province of Hodeidah, on 21 January 2019. CREDIT: Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP)


    Whatever happened to the ceasefire deal in Yemen?
    “The needs are going up, not down”
  • New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns

    CIA-linked software firm Palantir will help the UN’s World Food Programme analyse its data in a new partnership worth $45 million, both organisations announced Tuesday, drawing immediate flak from privacy and data protection activists.


    The California-based contractor, best known for its work in intelligence and immigration enforcement, will provide software and expertise to the UN’s food relief agency over five years to help WFP pool its enormous amounts of data and find cost-saving efficiencies.

    At a press conference in Geneva, WFP’s chief information officer Enrica Porcari said the plan was to launch a data integration effort that would include records of distributions to beneficiaries but, she stressed, not personally identifiable data. “Can all the data pour into one lake?” she asked, rhetorically. The system would then, she explained, work like a bank whose algorithms flag unusual credit card activity, picking up “anomalies” in beneficiary locations and behaviour that might signal misuse.


    "WFP is jumping headlong into something they don’t understand, without thinking through the consequences, and the UN has put no frameworks in place to regulate it."

    In future, if multiple aid agencies connected to the WFP’s SCOPE beneficiary management system and used it as the basis for recording what people received, a powerful overview could be achieved, Porcari said.



    Palantir executive vice president Josh Harris said WFP’s 92 million aid recipient “customers”, its more than 30 data systems, and its difficult operating environment represented a “complex data landscape”, but something his company’s software was built for. The opportunity to provide support to WFP is a “dream combination” that fits “mission-driven” Palantir’s philanthropic goals, Harris added.


    Listen to the event

    Palantir has already worked with WFP on a pilot project on food procurement in Iraq that has produced over $26 million (or about 10 percent) in savings, the two organisations said.


    ‘This data is highly sensitive’


    Privacy and data protection activists cried foul at the new tie-up, questioning if WFP understood what it was getting itself into and if proper safeguards had been put in place.


    “The recipients of WFP aid are already in extremely vulnerable situations; they should not be put at additional risk of harm or exploitation,” a spokesperson for activist NGO Privacy International told IRIN. “This data is highly sensitive, and it is essential that proper protections are put in place, to limit the data gathered, transferred, and processed.”


    Asked for the legal basis for any data-sharing with Palantir, Porcari said: “there is no data-sharing”. She insisted that all data instead would rest under WFP’s control, with personal data being kept separate and secure.


    But Privacy International, which recently analysed the (unintended) risks of humanitarian data misuse, warned: “We've seen examples of systems that are produced in agreements such as the one between WFP and Palantir increasing risks to the people the systems are aiming to benefit. There are risks to both individuals and whole populations from the gathering and processing of data from humanitarian activities.”


    A humanitarian data analyst, who requested anonymity due to work relationships, was also alarmed at the news, saying: "WFP is jumping headlong into something they don’t understand, without thinking through the consequences, and the UN has put no frameworks in place to regulate it."


    Palantir was established with the help of seed capital from a CIA-linked investment body. Its main clients have been US security and intelligence bodies.


    Its capacity to structure and overlay vast datasets has led it to be credited with helping the US government to find Osama bin Laden. However, its work with US police and, most recently, immigration enforcement, has come under fire for secrecy, profiling bias, enabling human rights violations, and the wholesale harvesting of personal data.


    “It is the height of irony that the very company that faced direct criticism in its role facilitating US immigration authorities' human rights abuses is now promoting itself as trustworthy of working in humanitarian aid,” the Privacy International spokesperson said.


    Gaining ground in the industry


    From the 2013 Haiyan super-typhoon in the Philippines to the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, Palantir has often sought opportunities to deploy its technology in the humanitarian arena.


    Few analysts contacted by IRIN in this 2016 investigation doubted the software had powerful potential, but reputational concerns made a number of potential partners walk away, even when offered free access to Palantir products and software advisors.

    “It is the height of irony that the very company that faced direct criticism in its role facilitating US immigration authorities' human rights abuses is now promoting itself as trustworthy of working in humanitarian aid.”

    Nevertheless, Palantir’s pro-bono “Philanthropy Engineering” has provided support to numerous non-profits, including the Carter Center, Team Rubicon, the Enough Project, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is a paying customer.


    WFP has been working with Palantir since 2017 – a WFP spokesperson said an encounter at the World Economic Forum in 2015 kicked off the relationship. Gaining greater insight from a mountain of internal and external data with the help of Palantir’s Foundry system has already led to cost savings and efficiencies, according to the Rome-based UN agency.


    A starting point for the Palantir work inside WFP was Optimus. According to a recent update from WFP, Optimus is an internal tool to help guide purchasing and other planning decisions, for example in Ethiopia or Yemen, to assign different commodities to make up a mixed basket of food for distribution depending on funding and seasonal market prices.  


    Poncari described WFP as being on a “very aggressive digital transformation journey” and said it had a “moral imperative” to leverage technology to achieve efficiencies. “We just want to go with the best,” she told reporters.


    Listen to the full event


    New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns
    Critics say it could put ‘highly sensitive’ data about millions of food aid recipients at risk
  • Q&A: Top US aid fraud investigator defends tough counter-terror stance

    The USAID Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is a watchdog that has launched multiple investigations into aid diversion in Syria and Iraq, and banned at least 20 individuals and companies connected with an elaborate fraud involving Turkish suppliers and four NGOs.


    Recently, it has focused on aid skimmed off by extremist groups in Syria: not just fraud, but potentially cases of financing terrorism. Despite its successes in clamping down on corruption, critics say its rigid attitude is preventing aid from getting through to people in need.


    IRIN interviewed the OIG’s head of investigations, Dan Altman, by phone in late December. He disclosed new details about the diversion of over $8 million worth of food aid to a Syrian armed group – a case first reported by IRIN.


    Altman said several other Syria diversion investigations are still underway. He also rejected accusations of over-aggressive enforcement and spelled out what he believes NGOs need to do to respond to allegations of material support to terrorists.


    Extracts of the interview follow, edited for length and clarity.


    IRIN: Are the OIG’s expectations of ‘zero tolerance’ for fraud or diversion realistic?


    Dan Altman: This is a really, really critical point. The type of issues we investigate is when we have an organised and systemic effort to penetrate and take control of an implementer. We're not talking about a one-off, like a staff member that maybe took a couple bags of flour and threw it in their trunk, or one little distribution team maybe giving a couple things to cousins. We're talking about organised crime, where they've completely infiltrated and taken control of the procurement or logistics systems of USAID implementers. That's the type of issue that we’re investigating.


    [For example], the implementer at their headquarters… believes there's one reality going on inside of Syria, but the actual reality is that their office in Syria and their staff in Syria are in some way under the control of HTS [the sanctioned Islamist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham], which is resulting in a systemic manipulation of the programme.


    IRIN: What do you say to allegations of an aggressive attitude from OIG agents in the field?


    Altman: The reality is that the US government is the only bilateral donor that sends criminal investigators out into the field. Basically, we have the right to have reasonable access to all of their records and documents, and to their people to ask questions.

    So if the allegation is that we’re aggressive and that we're forward-leaning, then ‘guilty as charged’.

    In the cases that we've run in [Syria’s northwestern province of] Idlib, we have directly confronted people who have later admitted to intentionally diverting tens of thousands of food kits, and potentially millions of dollars worth of resources, to HTS, knowingly. We're sitting in the room talking to them. In other instances, we've encountered NGO staff that actually have some direct relationship with HTS.


    And, in fact, I've noticed that there are many NGOs that appear to have strong opinions about our work. But I have also noted that the NGOs that are most affected by this... they're not complaining, and it's because they took on a very difficult job in a difficult place, and through our investigative work they determined there was an issue. They put things on hold for long enough to satisfy themselves and USAID that issues were addressed and they got back to work.


    IRIN: How serious are the cases currently being investigated?


    Altman: I'm not going to identify the name of the organisation. But we have an instance in Idlib where we had a diversion of almost 400,000 food kits that are worth about eight and a half million dollars. [IRIN believes he is referring to a previously reported food diversion case involving Catholic Relief Services. A CRS spokesperson declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.]


    Anybody stealing eight and a half or nine million dollars worth of humanitarian commodities: we would investigate that. We’d do our best to collect the information and facts necessary to make sure that the organisation… was made ineligible to work for the US government and, if appropriate, try to put the people in jail.

    Whether or not those items were stolen by people and sold in the market so they could enrich themselves and buy boats or houses, or whether those kits were diverted to be given to the family of fighters and armed groups in lieu of salary, that's sort of a side point.


    I don't think that anyone reasonable would say that, as the oversight body for USAID, that we should do anything other than aggressively investigate that; notwithstanding the fact that the stuff is going to an armed group, that eight million dollars is not going to intended beneficiaries.


    IRIN: Is the OIG demanding an excessive amount of conditions and requirements?


    Altman: OIG doesn’t set any requirements for the [foreign aid] projects. USAID sets the requirements… [and] has put more stringent requirements in place [on Syria] when they perceive there is a risk or a problem. In the environments where USAID is operating and the implementers are operating, perfection is not only impossible but it might be said that any organisation that claims to be working in that area and never had a problem, that would be something that would raise our eyebrows. So in no way are we expecting perfection.


    These are really, really complicated environments. And so as soon as we think of a good system or control, the bad guys will think of a way to exploit it. It does mean that we should constantly be vigilant and creative about ways to keep trying to outsmart them.


    IRIN: What are some examples of the kind of fraud uncovered in Syria?


    Altman: A family of five is supposed to get X amount of food, but they only get 60 percent of it because someone is diverting the other 40 percent; they make the families sign for the whole amount… We [US aid programmes] paid for parkas and lined insulated boots for children, but what they got were rubber rain boots and a sweatshirt of a such poor quality that you could stick your finger through it. We have given women burlap underwear… we have given expired and unsanitary medical commodities [to some medical facilities].

    Where the staff of an NGO is providing basically the salaries for fighters in an armed group [using diverted aid resources], not only is it an obscenity, in the sense that it's a loss of resources that are meant to go to hungry Syrians, we are actually funding the conflict.


    And so those are the reasons why we take these cases seriously. While we’re an oversight body, I don't think that any of the work that we're doing is inconsistent with the humanitarian principles.


    So if the allegation is that we’re aggressive and that we're forward-leaning, then ‘guilty as charged’, but we're doing it primarily because we want the programmes to be effective and reach the intended beneficiaries.


    IRIN: Which criticisms of the OIG investigations bother you?


    Altman: OIG has no problem with being challenged. Our IG [Inspector General], Ann Calvaresi Barr, when she came in, wanted to raise the level of the work that we do to point out when there are systemic and strategic problems. So when we're identifying issues like this, and it's causing disruptions and it's causing people to really reflect on the work they're doing, I'm perfectly fine with them being upset with us.


    We’re having a conversation; the conversation is resulting in information getting out, it’s raising awareness, and hopefully will help tighten up the systems and controls.


    And that's why we keep gathering the whole industry together. But like when we had those 54 organisations [in an OIG “roundtable” meeting] in July, it wasn't a love-fest… but we were having a good, open dialogue.


    IRIN: One activist’s campaign has led to heavy fines for one or two NGOs that didn’t reveal to USAID their connections with sanctioned groups. Legal cases relied in part on the NGOs’ public web postings. How do you view these cases under the False Claims Act?


    Altman: We get, over the course of a year, 1,500 to 2,000 complaints that come in from all over the world. And we get complaints that are true and complaints that aren't true. We get complaints from people that are doing it with a positive motivation. We get complaints from people that have an axe to grind with somebody.


    Our job is to assess whether or not there's a violation of rule, regulation, or law; and then to determine whether something is of a sufficient priority that we think that we need to look into it or whether it could be handled by somebody else. We don't spend a whole lot of time worrying about who's bringing the complaint.


    I read in one of your articles, somebody at the workshop commented that we were being heavy-handed or threatening or whatever.


    The point of that event in July was to say to people, ‘this is something you need to pay attention to’, and that if you have questions or concerns on previous engagements [with sanctioned groups], discuss that with USAID directly, don't lie [when applying for US government funds]..


    This is the thing that's important for the NGOs to understand: that because of the way the law is set up, anybody has the ability to bring these things forward, and the US government's required to respond to it. Therefore, don't lie.


    It would be far more productive to understand the regulations, to comply with the regulations, to be honest and to negotiate, versus to be dishonest and then have to deal with the consequences of it.


    I think, as a general principle, being honest is a good idea, and not lying when you're applying for awards.

    Q&A: Top US aid fraud investigator defends tough counter-terror stance
    The OIG chief of investigations reveals $8.5 million of food aid diversion in Syria

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