(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • What effect did the US shutdown have on foreign aid?

    The US government shutdown may be over, but the uncertainty it caused for the aid and development community isn’t going anywhere.


    Humanitarian groups say the record 35-day halt to the funding of routine government activity stopped short of causing massive disruptions: NGOs including Save the Children and Mercy Corps, as well as the UN’s World Food Programme, said the shutdown hadn’t impacted their operations.


    It was a slightly different story at USAID. The US government agency responsible for administering civilian foreign aid and development assistance reported that as of January 23 (two days before the shutdown ended) just over half of non-contractor “direct hire employees” (1,706 out of 3,311) had been furloughed, meaning they were instructed not to report for work, nor were they working remotely.


    Though proportionally fewer staff were furloughed overseas, the cash freeze appeared to be felt most strongly on humanitarian and diplomatic operations outside the United States – activities budgeted at some $39 billion per year. During the shutdown, the US government said it would provide $20 million in humanitarian aid for Venezuela, but its aid delivery department was hampered by the government shutdown.

    “Funding uncertainty is the worst enemy of development practitioners… who have to deal with every other imaginable uncertainty on a daily basis.”

    “If I'm an implementer or a strategic planner at USAID, the threat of a shutdown will at the very least have a dampening effect on my ability to do the long-term planning that is so critical for USAID (and its partners) and without which appropriated funds won't be contracted out in time, thus putting sequestration back on the possibility list,” said Erol Yayboke, deputy director of the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank.


    The longer-term impact may be difficult to gauge, but US grantees and analysts say the shutdown at the very least caused delays in aid approvals and stalled ongoing dialogue. And should another shutdown occur – as the White House hasn’t ruled out – it is now more likely that projects will be disrupted and delayed, compounding backlogs and continuing to put relationships with local partners at risk.


    “Humanitarian partners are on the front lines of delivering lifesaving services to the most vulnerable around the world,” Congresswoman Nita Lowey of New York, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, told IRIN, shortly before the shutdown ended. “Disruptions in US funding compromise their ability to plan and manage operations and put at risk the lives of many.”


    Jane Gotiangco, a spokeswoman for Chemonics, a large development and humanitarian aid contractor, said that while its own operations enjoyed “some degree of flexibility” during the shutdown, it was more challenging for “small businesses and indigenous organisations… since they do not have large enough diversity of projects to ensure continuity of all their operations.”


    As of the middle of January, about a quarter of the US foreign ministry and diplomatic service staff – the State Department’s direct hire employees based overseas – were furloughed, while 42 percent of those based in the United States were sent home.


    Because of the timing of the shutdown, which began just before the Christmas holiday, effects on State Department functions like the resettlement of refugees – which is halted anyway for several weeks around the end of the calendar year – were more difficult to measure. But diplomatic work and engagement with foreign interlocutors and international organisations clearly took a hit.


    USAID does rely heavily on contractors, and the funding for some of those contractors may already be in place for months or longer.


    Tom Babington, a spokesman for USAID, said that offices affected by the shutdown would not make “new obligations or grants and contracts” except for in exceptional cases. In early January, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont provided one example in Vietnam, saying that “key employees at our embassy and USAID mission in Hanoi were furloughed,” an instance that was likely replicated across continents.


    Yayboke described funding issues resulting from the US shutdown as “essentially unforced errors or self-inflicted wounds”, adding: “funding uncertainty is the worst enemy of development practitioners… who have to deal with every other imaginable uncertainty on a daily basis.”



    What effect did the US shutdown have on foreign aid?
    “Funding uncertainty is the worst enemy of development practitioners”
  • After Davos, let’s turn talk into action

    More and more private sector leaders recognise that business can’t survive in a failing world, as demonstrated by the sessions devoted to humanitarian issues at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos last week. Eight hundred million people live in unstable environments where they are left vulnerable to poverty, food insecurity, conflict, and other upheavals – often for years.

    Humanitarians, meanwhile, recognise that their ability to respond is at risk because traditional donor funding is not keeping up with changing needs. The statistics are always sobering: UN requests to fund emergency and other aid needs have risen continuously over the last three years, to more than $25 billion for 2018. Yet donations, largely by governments, fell short in recent years to the tune of more than $10 billion.

    So how to translate well-intentioned talk in Davos and elsewhere into action? A start, say Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC, and Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian & development at Mastercard, is to look beyond emergency situations, to economically and politically fragile environments. Then tap the private sector and other stakeholders to help people rebuild sustainable livelihoods and basic services, with the goal of preventing or speeding up recovery from humanitarian crises.

    Maurer and Nathan have spent time thinking about that approach, both at Davos and as the leads of a group of professionals from diverse fields who are examining the issue as part of a World Economic Forum initiative. Below, they share some of their ideas.

    How do you define 'humanitarianism' and the role of humanitarians?

    Maurer: The traditional notion of urgent humanitarian relief no longer matches the reality on the ground. The average length of time the ICRC has been present in the countries hosting its 10 largest operations is more than 36 years. In these contexts that remain fragile, void of development activity and international interest, it is not feasible to implement responses on an emergency aid model for such protracted periods of time. The size and scale of long-term conflicts and situations of fragility compels the design and implementation of new, more sustainable multi-stakeholder approaches to humanitarian action.

    Nathan: We are all humanitarians. There is a shortfall of funding for humanitarian response, and the needs vastly outstrip the capacity to respond. There seems to be merit in enabling the humanitarians to focus on life-saving aid and engaging other partners to help fill longer term needs. We all care about humanity, we all want people to move from poverty to prosperity.

    How should the private and humanitarian sectors work together?

    Maurer: Each year, I travel to the most fragile contexts around the world, places suffering the devastating impacts of war and cycles of violence. In these emergency settings, many people assume that aid handouts are the only way to provide support because social services and economies have broken down. Yet when I speak to people affected, they so often tell me that what they most want is to be able to continue working, build their business, access finance, and provide for their families. As humanitarians, we need to do a thorough economic analysis and understand the potential to connect people to economic opportunities.

    Nathan: Aid organisations must do more with less, and the private sector needs to play a greater role. But it can’t be through traditional models of corporate philanthropy – those models cannot scale. Instead, we should seek new models of deep partnership where the private sector can leverage commercial approaches, and where they can work hand in hand with humanitarians and donors to test and scale those approaches. We need to create the tactical, legal, operational, and commercial constructs that incentivise private sector actors to engage.

    What needs to change?

    Maurer: Humanitarian actors will always be needed to provide emergency basic services in acute crises. In situations of protracted conflict or fragility, however, we need to find sustainable models for income generation. Communities inevitably restart economic activity, but their livelihoods remain precarious and without much support from the development community due to ongoing security risks. These are the situations where investment in livelihoods can have crucial impact, not only on individuals’ stability and sense of hope, but also flow-on effects on wider social and economic resilience.

    Nathan: We fundamentally need to change the way the private and public sectors partner and deliver solutions. And – perhaps most crucially – we need to overcome the misconceptions and suspicion between the sectors and build trust.

    How can the private sector help prevent or shorten humanitarian crises?

    Nathan: The private sector has pivotal assets – technologies, expertise, and unique service delivery models – that can move the needle in humanitarian response. Taking a market-based approach can be a real force for good. Through support to local markets we can: prevent the market instability that often causes political instability; build resilience of vulnerable communities; and spur the recovery of communities after crises. Failing to recognise the capabilities of the private sector is actually a disservice to the beneficiaries we all seek to serve.

    Maurer: Whether by starting new businesses, using digital technology to connect to remittance flows, or creating social units to reinforce community protection and security, affected communities are the true first responders to crisis. We need to explore how to support, enable, and scale inclusive local markets, employment, and business opportunities in fragile contexts. And we need to find ways to collaborate with others who can help to accelerate large-scale capital investment and to leverage digital solutions for humanitarian gains.

    What market-driven approaches are already in use?

    Maurer: A range of interventions already exists, including coordination platforms to connect farmers to value chains and market infrastructure, digital tools to facilitate access to financial products, capacity-building to increase production, entrepreneurship training, guidance for job-seekers in displaced populations, and more.

    Nathan: Cash-based assistance is a critical tool to generate needed efficiencies in the sector and empower affected populations by giving them choice. But it’s a first step. The Mastercard Aid Network, for example, offers an offline, digital voucher system that allows an individual to purchase goods – food, water, household items – from local businesses in a fragile context. By channeling response to local merchants, and by using a digital technology to deliver those vouchers, the programme supports more efficient, effective, and transparent delivery of aid.

    A solution like this one can bridge the humanitarian and development divide. If this beneficiary is in a rural farming community, she can use the platform to receive vouchers for agriculture subsidies to rebuild her farm and livelihood. The technology can ultimately connect her to a market of agriculture buyers, bringing price transparency and cutting out the middle men, thereby allowing her to grow her income.

    After Davos, let’s turn talk into action
    Combining humanitarian expertise, local know-how, and private sector acumen could help aid 800 million people around the world
    Maurer and Nathan are co-chairs of the <a href=https://www.weforum.org/communities/the-future-of-the-humanitarian-system">World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council for the Humanitarian System</a>. IRIN News Director Heba Aly is also a member of the council.
  • Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar

    What next in Venezuela?


    The crisis in Venezuela has bubbled away for months, demanding media attention only when protests flare or the sheer number of people fleeing the freefalling economy and increasingly authoritarian state becomes difficult to ignore. Not now. Since President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in two weeks ago for a new six-year term, things have escalated quickly. No sooner was a revolt by members of the National Guard quelled than protesters took to the streets demanding he step down. Opposition challenger Juan Guaidó on Wednesday declared himself leader and has since been recognised as such by the United States and a clutch of regional powers. No one knows what will happen next. Talk of a US military intervention seems to be just that for now, but there’s no sign either that Maduro – still backed by Venezuela’s armed forces – is prepared to accept any offer of amnesty and leave quietly. If he does go, it won’t cure Venezuela’s ills overnight, but it would provide the change in government some argue is the only long-term solution to a humanitarian crisis Maduro has long denied – one that has left his people desperate, hungry, and sick. A study published in The Lancet Global Health Journal this week indicates that infant mortality rates have risen back to 1990s levels.


    “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede”


    Around 9,000 Nigerians who say they fled armed clashes involving Boko Haram are “shuttling” back and forth in the Cameroon border area, a UN official said in Geneva. The group was pushed back after trying to take refuge in the neighbouring country, with Cameroonian officials admitting that insecurity forced the government to take exceptional measures, despite its supposed "open doors" policy. UN humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon Allegra Baiocchi told a press conference "the right of asylum is being tested". She said many of the group were women and children. Cameroon’s director of civil protection Yap Mariatou told IRIN that a recent attack on the border town of Achigashia by an armed group had put the authorities on edge. “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede,” she said. The UN is appealing for $299 million to help 2.3 million people in Cameroon, including about 100,000 refugees from Nigeria and more than 400,000 internally displaced by an ongoing separatist rebellion.


    Mediterranean crossing just got even more dangerous


    The EU’s troubled naval mission against people smuggling in the Mediterranean faced yet another setback this week as Germany announced it was suspending participation, a decision MPs said was the result of Italy’s consistent refusal to allow rescued migrants entry at its ports. The removal of Germany’s ship leaves the mission, Operation Sophia, with only two vessels. Meanwhile, migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean – 201 so far this year – including in two recent shipwrecks, one off the coast of Libya, the second between Morocco and Spain. Many of those rescued are being brought to Libya, and Médecins Sans Frontières says it has seen a “sharp increase” in the number of people held in crowded detention centres there – conditions are dire, with shortages of clean water and food. Human Rights Watch said EU policies, including the decision to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return people, are contributing to a “cycle of extreme abuse” against migrants in the country. For a forensic examination of one Mediterranean incident in 2017 in which at least 20 migrants died, check out this film, “How Europe Outsources Migrant Suffering at Sea”, from Times Insider.


    Forwarding hate


    There’s increasing scrutiny on the real-world impacts of the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media. This week, messaging app WhatsApp announced a five-recipient limit for message forwarding. WhatsApp messages – which can be rapidly distributed through group and broadcast features – have been linked to a spate of lynchings in India and a pre-election flood of false news in Brazil. Sri Lanka also temporarily shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, and others after anti-Muslim violence last March. WhatsApp recipient limits were recommended in a “human rights impact assessment” commissioned by Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. That report focused on Facebook usage in Myanmar, where UN investigators say the company was ”slow and ineffective” in stemming hate speech on its platform amid the violent 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya. But hate speech on WhatsApp could prove even tougher to contain: the company may enforce “community standards” on Facebook, but WhatsApp messages are encrypted.


    Overheard in Davos


    Sure, the mood at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was generally sombre, but there was a bright spot for some: the increasing spotlight on social issues, including humanitarian response. Humanitarian topics included sessions on private sector investment in fragile states and the use of artificial intelligence in crises. The WEF, the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an initiative to promote so-called humanitarian investing – the private sector working to boost economies in crisis-affected areas in order to help people get back on their feet and avoid becoming dependent on aid. The IKEA Foundation pledged 6.8 million euros to help create livelihoods for refugees in Jordan. Still, investors were honest about the constraints of putting capital into fragile states at scale. On the tech side, AI was front and centre with discussions on its use in crisis zones. It has huge potential – from predicting famines to chatbots that help refugees further their education to facial recognition for identifying family members separated by war. But what happens when AI-aggregated data falls into the wrong hands? Or when machines reinforce political or human biases in the data? Many agencies, one observer noted, are pushing ahead with pilot projects and thinking about due diligence later. For more from Davos, see our roundup on IRIN’s event, “Meet the new humanitarians changing the face of aid.”

    In case you missed it:


    Central African Republic: Talks aimed at ending CAR’s long-running conflict began in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, this week. Brokered by the African Union, the negotiations involve representatives of the government and 14 armed groups. Aid officials say a successful peace accord is critical to ensuring the ongoing humanitarian crisis doesn’t deepen.


    Indonesia: Dozens of people were killed after heavy rains battered Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province this week, leading to floods and landslides. Local authorities say the rains caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating homes and forcing more than 3,000 people to evacuate.


    Philippines: A majority voted to ratify a long-awaited peace deal in the conflict-torn Mindanao region, according to unofficial results from the first stage of a referendum held this week. A vote in favour will expand autonomy for Mindanao’s Muslim community.


    Yemen: After just a month on the job, the retired Dutch general overseeing the not-yet-implemented ceasefire for the port city of Hodeidah is reportedly about to step down. It’s not clear why. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen thinks the deal is make-or-break for peace negotiations: read our interview with him to find out why.


    Zimbabwe: Half-a-million government workers have gone on strike across the country, adding to uncertainty after fuel protests and a violent crackdown by security forces left several people dead and hundreds arrested. Accusations that protesters were raped by members of the military have been accompanied by warnings that social unrest and instability are spiralling out of control. Look out for our full briefing next week.


    Weekend read


    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria


    No, as we flagged in our 10 crises to watch in 2019, the war in Syria is not over. The focus towards the end of last year was on the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe if President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces moved in to retake Idlib. While this risk hasn’t gone away, especially as al-Qaeda-linked fighters cement control over parts of the northwestern province, our weekend read takes us elsewhere. In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces is trying to snuff out the last pockets of so-called Islamic State in Syria. This photo feature takes us inside their operations as they intercept a convoy of people escaping what remains of the militant group’s territory. But with IS members disguising themselves as civilians to make last-gasp attacks, how do you tell who is who? Those fleeing – nearly 5,000 in just two days this week – are hungry and exhausted. Some say there’s no food at all in areas under IS control.


    And finally…


    Top Libyan photographer dies in crossfire


    Libyan freelance journalist – and occasional IRIN contributor – Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed last Saturday while covering militia clashes in the capital city of Tripoli, prompting demonstrations by his colleagues denouncing violence against journalists. Ben Khalifa was 35, and is survived by his wife and young daughter. A well-respected photographer who covered the often violent instability that has plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Khalifa was known for his sensitive portrayals of the migrants whose bodies washed up on Libya’s shores, including this 2015 IRIN piece. His death “is a reminder of the utter lack of protection for journalists in Libya, as well as the dangers of photojournalists in the battlefield,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The week of fighting in Tripoli left 16 people dead (including Khalifa) and 65 injured, and rival militias have since agreed to a new ceasefire deal.



    Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot
  • ‘New humanitarians’ take a seat at the table

    At a time when more lives than ever are upended for longer periods and the traditional aid system is struggling to keep up, new players are unapologetically redefining what it means to be a humanitarian – and inviting others to join them.


    In an IRIN event convened in Davos on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, leaders from the private sector, philanthropy, aid organisations large and small, and civil society shared their takes on the need to shake up what one called a “smokestack industry”.


    “We tend to discredit when people come with a different background,” said Jérôme Jarre, a Snapchat and Vine celebrity turned humanitarian. “In fact, that's exactly what the space needs. We came [from] outside of the box. We didn't know the process, what it means to be humanitarian.”


    As he told IRIN Director Heba Aly, who moderated the discussion before an audience that included entrepreneurs, aid workers, and others from the private and public sectors: “We didn't know the rules, so it was easy to break them. And we basically had a white canvas, which is the best place to start when you want to create change and innovation.”


    In 2017, Jarre and other social media influencers raised $2 million in 48 hours to respond to the pending famine in Somalia. He went on to found Love Army, a collection of celebrities and social media influencers who have raised $9 million from their followers for humanitarian projects around the world.


    Listen to Jérôme Jarre on the value of outsiders

    The urgency to make room for new players and new ideas is clear, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said: “The gap between what is needed today and what we are able to provide by the traditional model of doing is just enormous, and we have to recognise that we are failing millions of people whom we are not able to service.”


    ‘New’ and ‘old’ models of aid

    Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian and development at Mastercard, said she had seen a “positive trajectory” in the relationship between the private and humanitarian sectors, with a growing discussion around engaging the private sector, especially at the senior level. However, turning those high-level discussions into action on the ground will remain difficult until “that cultural message of trust between public and private permeates throughout the ranks of the organisations,” she noted.

    “We collaborate very well at panels,” she added. “How can we bring that collaboration down into the field, where we're actually side-by-side implementing solutions, addressing refugee needs, addressing the needs of the local communities?”

    Listen to Tara Nathan on partnerships between the private and humanitarian sectors

    For some, tension around ‘old’ and ‘new’ is rooted in finding the balance between passion and professionalism. It also arises, Maurer suggested, from a misunderstanding around the idea of collaboration. Rather than doing things together, humanitarian actors both old and new should be “trying to combine things that are complementary to each other”.


    Listen to Peter Maurer on 'collaboration'

    The key is to allow both traditional and newer players to use their strengths. Tapping the expertise of the private sector through market-based initiatives that stabilise fragile situations – restarting economies and rebuilding healthcare, education, and other basic services to stave off future crises or move out of existing ones – is one place to start, several panelists and commentators from the audience suggested.


    Another is to look at the humanitarian sector’s push toward ‘localisation’ as more than a mantra and to begin listening to the people on the ground. Local responders like Mayuri Bhattacharjee often reach people in need first and understand cultural and social norms. Yet, she said, they are not always seen or listened to by larger international players. “We do find a seat at the table,” she said, “but that seat is sometimes very low…. What we ask for is more visibility.”

    Listen to Mayuri Bhattacharjee on localisation and women

    Jarre also emphasised the need to listen to the people on the ground. Not coming from traditional humanitarian backgrounds, he said he and his team spent time in Somalia and in Bangladesh familiarising themselves with the situations there, “always asking the same questions: “‘How can we help you? Is this good enough? Do you have better ideas? How should we do it?'” The traditional aid sector needs to learn to re-ask those questions, he suggested, if it hopes to deliver the most useful aid most efficiently and empower aid recipients.

    Changing with the times

    Peter Laugharn of the Conrad Hilton Foundation noted that the traditional aid sector is “a bit of a smokestack industry” and needs to update its approach. “We're working in a system that was not set up to deal with the situation we've got now,” he said.

    He added that foundations, too, need to retool to be able to fund new humanitarian realities, such as complex emergencies and needs in fragile states; his foundation is taking a longer and wider view when determining what kinds of humanitarian efforts to fund. “Grant-making was set up mostly in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” he noted. “You make a big annual grant, you ask for reporting a year later, and things move really slowly.”

    Listen to Peter Laugharn on the roles foundations can play

    One private-sector company, Salesforce.com, looks to technology as a way to bridge old and new approaches. It encourages employees to donate their time and technical expertise to the humanitarian sector and elsewhere. Rob Acker, CEO of Salesforce.org, acknowledged that there “are questions on how do we collaborate in a multi-sector way.” But, he said, “we work with humanitarian-sector organisations like Peter’s [Maurer] to tap into that employee engagement talent and that technology, and work together better.”

    So are those employees and other citizen volunteers humanitarians? In the future, there may be no need to ask that question. As Nathan said: “I would love to see a world in which we all just consider ourselves humanitarians.”

    Highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, are below. Watch the full event here.


    • Rob Acker, CEO, Salesforce.org
    • Mayuri Bhattacharjee, founder, Sikun Relief Foundation, Assam, India
    • Jérôme Jarre, founder, Love Army, and social media activist
    • Peter Laugharn, president and CEO, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation
    • Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
    • Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian and development, Mastercard

    This event was organized in partnership with Mastercard and the International Committee of the Red Cross.


    Peter Hans Ward/Hub Culture

    Tensions between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ humanitarians


    Jérôme Jarre: It doesn't take 20 years of humanitarianism to know how to help someone.… If your mom is starving, are you going to figure it out? What are you going to bring her, are you going to bring her a bag of rice? Are you going to bring her a restricted car? … Or are you going to ask her what she wants and really, really empower her?

    Listen to Jérôme Jarre on aid agency branding

    Peter Maurer: I'm deeply convinced that we need a new movement, which of course can come also from traditional organisations reflecting on what they have learned in the past and where the limits are, and are trying to reach out to new forms of investing and engaging in the humanitarian context.


    Tara Nathan: Neither side is right or wrong. … We need to bring the dialogue from one of who's right and who's wrong down to practical, tactical means to collaborate. And collaborate cannot be a concept.… If we really think that we can leverage the private sector, it's not saying, “Is it private? Is it millennials or is it traditional?” It's saying, “What are the core competencies of the respective actors? And how do you bring them together in a tactical way?”


    Corporate volunteers

    Rob Acker: Employees are the new humanitarians.… The number one attribute that millennials look for in their job is to have purpose. And companies need to give them that outlet for purpose.… Our employees volunteer. They did about a million hours last year alone. They're helping the humanitarian space with technology skills, and technology has changed. We can connect, organise, scale. If you look at the 68 million displaced people in the world right now, you can create highly personalised outcomes for each and every one of those individuals.

    Listen to Rob Acker on corporate volunteers creating purpose-built technology for the humanitarian sector


    The role of the private sector

    Nathan: There's a general acknowledgement that when you think about humanitarian, we need to think about development. We need to think about the journey, if you will, from humanitarian response through to development.… If you really want to address humanitarian needs, you have to go to the causes and conditions of what caused these situations to rise.

    So how can we focus on building local market capacity in fragile markets as a means to obviate all sorts of crises in the first place, but then also to build resilience? When you start to talk about building local markets as a prevention, if you will, going into the causes of humanitarian crisis, that's when you start to think, “Well, that's a key role where the private sector can play a meaningful role.”

    Maurer: I'm coming from the Red Cross movement, and I am always reminded of the creation of this movement, which was not Henry Dunant [often considered the founder of modern humanitarianism]. It was the women of Solferino and Castiglione who, when confronted with 40,000 dying soldiers, mobilised themselves and created a humanitarian movement. …Civil society has to reclaim the humanitarian space. Then we can discuss good ways of moving forward.


    The future

    Mayuri Bhattacharjee: We suffer from something called the tyranny of distance: Every year floods happen, and every year citizens of Assam and people who were affected complain there's not enough media attention. I would like to change the future. I want media and also the local actors to respond… to at least be sensitive to this crisis which happens every year. Every year, 1.5 million people are affected in floods in Assam. And yet, we sometimes cry for attention.

    Peter Laugharn: I would like to see innovation at the legacy level, if you like, and strengthening and deepening at the new entry-level.… We know what the overall mandate is and what we all need to rise to work on it together.

    Maurer: We are out of balance. We need to find a rebalancing of the system, which gives a better deal for people. At the end of the day, it's not about the system. It’s about whether we managed to service people in need and suffering from natural disaster and conflict. Whether we are able to serve them, that's the threshold of whether we are in a better balance in five, 10, 15, or 20 years.

    A conversation from Davos
    ‘New humanitarians’ take a seat at the table
  • First Person: Returning to Dadaab

    Three main camps – Ifo, Dagahaley, and Hagadera – make up the Dadaab refugee complex; the no man’s land lost in between Kenya and Somalia where I spent most of my childhood.

    I was just 10 years old when my family fled the civil war in Somalia and settled there in 1999. What was meant to be a temporary move turned out to be permanent. Dadaab became my home-away-from-home.


    Then, six years ago, I left, returning to Somalia to take a job.


    In the years since, the Somali-based militant group al-Shabab became a bigger threat to regional security; US President Donald Trump launched a travel ban preventing Somali refugees (and others) from entering the United States; Kenya announced plans to close Dadaab; some aid groups began to withdraw – and life for people inside Dadaab has not been the same.


    Located about 100 kilometres from the border with Somalia, Dadaab was set up in 1991 to host some 90,000 Somali refugees fleeing the civil war. But with an influx of new arrivals escaping famine in Somalia in 2011, the sprawling settlement became, for a while, the largest refugee complex in the world, hosting more than half a million people. Best estimates for the size of the current population are around half that number.


    Somalis aren’t alone; other refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda were also there with me – all displaced by war. Today, it is also home to South Sudanese, Rwandans, Burundians, and Eritreans.


    Last summer, while training young refugee journalists on digital storytelling in Dadaab, I had the privilege of interacting with the community – my former friends and schoolmates.


    Dadaab doesn’t feel like a collection of camps anymore. It has evolved into a vibrant city with markets, hospitals, cinemas, and private schools. New communities have formed; to outsiders, they may just be refugees, but to me these are people with dreams and talents.


    But many things that have happened, have also made life harder. Almost every family in Dadaab, I soon realised, had been affected, directly or indirectly, by the US travel ban. The United States is the main destination for refugees from Dadaab, including those with critical medical conditions who cannot get treatment in the camps. Remittances sent back by those resettled in the United States are also a lifeline for families and businesses in Dadaab.


    In earlier years, refugees would do their pre-travel shopping in the camps, spending money that would, in turn, support the local economy; but that doesn’t happen any longer. Now, no one is certain when they might travel; people shop less, and this has slowed down local businesses that rely on the movement of refugees.


    Refugees here have to pass through an exhaustive UN identification and screening process even before similar screenings and interviews in resettlement countries. Some wait almost 10 years before getting resettled, and most lose hope along the way, including some of the most vulnerable – survivors of sexual violence, and others with special protection needs.


    As a result of the desperation, I was told that smugglers are now taking advantage of the situation and attracting young people to embark on the dangerous journey to Europe through Libya. While some succeed, more end up in captivity. I met the mother of a 19-year-old man who is now being held in a detention centre in Libya. She is fundraising to try to come up with the $10,000 being demanded for his release.


    Uncertain future


    The Kenyan government and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, manage Dadaab with support from international NGOs, including Save the Children, the Danish Refugee Council, the International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, and others.


    In May 2016 – a year after al-Shabab attacked Garissa University College and killed 148 people – the Kenyan government announced the closure of the complex, accusing refugees of harbouring terrorists amid concerns over Dadaab’s large Somali population and proximity to the porous border.


    Before Dadaab was unfairly scapegoated, business was booming, goods were flowing from all parts of the country, and both refugees and the host community enjoyed a smooth economic relationship. But due to the uncertainty of its future, many Kenyan traders stopped sending goods to shopkeepers in Dadaab. As a result, refugees have lost a lot of money and are now facing pressure to pay whatever credit they owe to Kenyan traders.

    It was more than just escaping the camps; it was a journey to reclaim my lost identity.


    Mama Amina, a Somali refugee, runs a clothes shop in Dadaab and used to purchase goods from not only Nairobi but as far away as Dubai using Hawala and M-Pesa money transfer services.


    “It has become extremely difficult to convince my business partners to lend me anything now. I have lost a lot since the news of the closure broke out,” she told me. “This means I can no longer buy extra food and pay for my children’s private school. I don’t want to just depend on food handouts from the UN.”

    Even though a Kenyan High Court blocked the closure of Dadaab, and repatriation to Somalia remains only voluntary, refugees still feel pressure from the government. To make sure refugees return with safety and dignity, UNHCR is overseeing a voluntary repatriation programme. More than 80,000 Somali refugees have returned home since it began in December 2014.


    Many others, like me, return home spontaneously without going through any formal repatriation programme.


    I went back to Somalia in 2013 after I completed distance learning through a college in Nairobi. I had received an offer to work with the ministry of education in Mogadishu – a rare chance to escape the open prison I grew up in and return to my motherland for the first time in 15 years.


    It was a turning point in my life. I knew I was taking a risk, but staying in the camp was not a good option either. It was more than just escaping the camps; it was a journey to reclaim my lost identity.


    Third generation refugees


    At the beginning, everything in the camps was improvised, including my schooling. The walls of the classrooms were made from flattened oil tins and the perimeter was fenced with thorny branches cut from the nearby bush. Now, the schools are made up of concrete blocks.


    Although we had our own languages and cultures growing up, all children in Dadaab were taught in the Kenyan curriculum and had to study the history and politics of our host country.


    However, they wouldn’t allow us to leave the camps and actually see the country we were being forced to learn about. Many of us did not know where we belonged.


    At least I knew I was born in Somalia. But what of the tens of thousands born in Dadaab by parents who were also born there? These third generation refugees have no identity or permanent home.


    Still, Dadaab was relatively peaceful, and at night we played under the moonlight without any fear.


    But all that changed dramatically in 2011 when Kenyan forces invaded Somalia to fight al-Shabab. The extremists retaliated, with Kenyan security forces at Dadaab among the first targets. Innocent refugees were also scapegoated by the Kenyan authorities as police cracked down on the camps in an attempt to flush out “bad elements”.


    As a young journalist with little resources, I started reporting on the security situation and the plight of fellow refugees.


    But I felt threatened because of my work. On the one hand, I was afraid of the Kenyan police who treated refugees suspiciously and, on the other, I was afraid of al-Shabab who were also targeting community leaders. I had to find a way out of Dadaab, which, two years later, I did.


    Freedom and dignity


    In 2011, Dadaab was a humanitarian hub. But after the kidnapping of two MSF staff in October 2011 and a string of al-Shabab attacks, some aid agencies withdrew completely from the camps while others scaled down their services because of shrinking humanitarian funding.


    During my time in Dadaab, we used to receive food rations every two weeks from the World Food Programme, but now refugees say they have to wait a whole month until they get some.


    In recent years food rations have been reduced dramatically due to other crises, including South Sudan and Syria. Now, some families miss meals and children go to school hungry.


    In Dadaab’s early years, the Kenyan authorities didn’t have a big presence in the camps. Now, the ministry of interior has a permanent office, the Refugee Affairs Secretariat, or RAS, tasked with managing the complex.


    The Kenyan government isn’t currently registering new arrivals, which has left over 10,000 undocumented people waiting in limbo. These refugees depend on the generosity of others who share the little they have, including space in overcrowded shelters.

    The donor community is tired of feeding more refugees, and the refugees themselves are tired of waiting for handouts.

    Some of the undocumented refugees were repatriated to Somalia but had to flee again after getting caught up in violence. Idil, a mother of five, returned to Mogadishu in 2017, but was forced back to Dadaab.


    “I was in the market when the October 14 truck bomb explosion happened,” she told me, referring to the 2017 Mogadishu attack by al-Shabab that claimed 587 lives. “I took cover in a stranger’s house, but my friend [who was also from Dadaab] died in the attack. I decided that day to just go back to the camp for the safety of my children.”


    Refugees here need freedom and dignity to earn a decent living, but most feel abandoned and forgotten. Even after living in Kenya for almost three decades, the law doesn’t allow them to work or live outside the camps.


    The camp model is expensive to sustain. The donor community is tired of feeding more refugees, and the refugees themselves are tired of waiting for handouts. But people continue arriving to this day.


    First Person: Returning to Dadaab
    "Refugees here need freedom and dignity to earn a decent living, but most feel abandoned and forgotten"
  • Transcript of interview with Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen

    This transcript has been edited for clarity


    Q: You were in Stockholm… There was a lot of optimism after the negotiations, after the agreement about Hodeidah, and now it seems [to be receding]. How do you see things playing out on the ground?


    A: Actually I think [retired Dutch] General Patrick [Cammaert] is starting to do his job. I think the UN and General Patrick should start to implement the agreement. They did a good job, to start. Yes, there is a delay. And we hope this delay is just to build… the relationship with the two parties, and also to re-organise themselves, or even start to organise themselves, because there is no entity there [at the port], with Mr Patrick. I think what I heard from [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths is that they will start this week to implement the ports, then they will go to phase two, to prepare withdrawal from the city.


    Q: Does that mean there is now agreement between the parties on what “local security forces” means? That has been a point of contention.


    A: There are still discussions between the Yemeni government, the Houthis, and General Patrick. But I think they will solve it.


    Q: Is there agreement on who should do security in the port?


    A: I think this is clear, but there is a difference on who the people should be. There are security units, and police units, and also Red Sea port authorities, and they will be responsible for the ports. But it is about the names - who they will be. I think they will depend on [who was in the port authority] before September 2014, before the Houthis controlled the ports.


    Q: But are most or many of those people, from the Red Sea port authority, not gone?


    A: No… I think the military and security people, part of them left. But the Red Sea Port Authority, maybe 95 percent of the people are still there. Because they are civilians, they are doing their job, the Houthis brought new supervisors and they appointed a new director. So the change will not affect the port’s operations.


    Q: So at this point you would be comfortable with the Red Sea Port Authority running the port, but it’s a question of who is on the list?


    A: I am not in the negotiations. I am just following the negotiations. [The talks on implementing Hodeidah] are between General Saghir Aziz from the Yemeni government, and General [Ali al-] Mushki from the Houthi side. I will be be honest with you: Mushki was a general before he joined the Houthi side. And that’s good… Yes, he’s working with a militia. But his background, he’s not a militia guy. And that’s the difference. Yes, he’s working with the Houthis because they’re paying his salary and they’re taking care of his family. He has his reasons to work with them, but actually he is a general.


    Q: You have been at various attempts at talks, including Stockholm. Does negotiating with the Houthis legitimise their role… in Yemen?


    A: It’s clear to everyone. The Houthis are still a militia. And we do not deal with them as a party, because they are not a party… and they do not call themselves a party… They say “we are Houthis, we are Ansar Allah.” But who is Ansar Allah? Are they a political party? No. They are a militia. Now, I think if they start to negotiate with the Yemeni government and the other political components, they will find themselves among the other Yemeni components and they can participate in any government in the future like any other party. But [right now] the Houthis are still a militia. They themselves believe they will continue as a militia. And this is not acceptable.


    Q: So you feel it is ok to negotiate with them at this point, but at some point you would like to see them transition into a party?


    A: Do you mean Saudi Arabia or the Yemeni government? Because Saudi Arabia will not negotiate with a militia. We negotiate and work with governments. And our main goal is to restore the legitimate government. It is about the state, rebuilding the legitimate state. And our program here at the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, one of our main goals is to rebuild the state.


    Q: One criticism of how the UN has structured the talks is that there are only two sides: the Yemeni government, and the Houthis. As you know well, Yemen is much more complicated than that, with various other groups including the southerners, Islah, and others. What do you think of the two-sided approach?


    A: Yemen is complicated. If you look at the south, there is a complicated issue in the south [with a long history], what they call the southern issue. They discussed it in the Yemen National Dialogue [Conference]... Yes, the issue isn’t solved 100 percent, but they agreed on the outcomes... Also the Saada issue was solved, they have 35 representatives [in the NDC]. The Houthi side participated in the Yemeni national dialogue…. The Houthis destroyed all this. They destroyed the national dialogue outcomes, they destroyed the state, they destroyed institutions, they destroyed the army, the security, even hopes. Now we should solve the main problem… It’s not easy to solve in one day, and in one day sign an agreement. But [the UN talks] have opened the way to a roadmap to solve all Yemeni problems. And they will not be solved in a military way. They will solve it by talks, by discussing the issues at the table. I think we should start with the main problem, which is the key to solving the other problems. That is that the Houthi militia controls the state, they control the institutions. You will not find in history a militia that controls a ballistic missile or fighter jet. Please, give me an example.


    Q: Hezbollah?


    A: No. They bring it from outside but they cannot control the Lebanese jets. They bring them from Iran and build them.


    Q: So you do think that the two track approach is right for now to solve the main war?


    A: Yes, and then the Yemenis should be at the table in Sana’a, talk to each other, about their future. South, north, if you look at the Yemenis who have suffered from the Houthis, they will not accept this happening again. If you are in Taiz, if you are from Hodeidah, or even from Saada or Marib you will think about your future or your kids’ future. You will say, “look, how can we stop anybody from repeating this.”


    Q: But there are many different groups part of your alliance - they don’t necessarily take orders from who they are supposed to and they don’t have the following of the local population. So if the big war ends, is there a possibility that Yemen will become a series of smaller wars?


    A: Don’t try to imagine more and more. Make it simple, because we know Yemen before [President] Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Let’s talk about Ali Abdullah Saleh’s time [as president]. He just controlled three cities: Sana’a, Taiz, and Hodeidah. And sometimes Aden. The other cities, he didn’t control. The local authorities, the local tribes...  that’s what controlled these provinces. We know 100% Ali Abdullah Saleh did not have a strong government. He just controlled by establishing fighting between the tribes. And trying to cause differences between the people. After the war, yes, the situation will not be good. But it will open doors for everybody to speak out about his issues. And then we will start, all of us - the Yemeni government, GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, and the international community - to support this government to build their capacity, to expand to control all of Yemen. And that will take time.


    If you look at Iraq as an example, the USA was there. The USA spent billions of dollars [on reconstruction], but also Iraq has a lot of resources - the government has oil, rivers, and agriculture. But because nobody supported the government in political competence, they lost it [control of the country]. We will not [let this happen] to Yemen. All Yemeni parties - Houthis, southerners, Taiz - should participate in the government, and should work together on a roadmap. They will need time. They need two, three or four years to start bringing their country back.


    Q: Speaking of time, we’ve heard the next round of talks will be in January… There is a very limited agreement for Hodeidah, the Taiz part is not going anywhere, do you really think there is a prospect for a political solution at this point?


    A: I think the UN and some other countries would like to have a round two tomorrow, not at the end of January… but I think the most important thing is the implementation in Hodeidah. If there is implementation in Hodeidah, from two sides, especially from the Houthis, as they are controlling the ports and city… if they withdraw and start to implement the agreement, that will open a big door to a comprehensive political solution.


    Because Yemen does not belong to Hadi or the Houthis. There are a lot of Yemenis [parties] [lists GPC, southerners, Islah, others in the government alliance]... Some of them don’t care about Hadi himself. They care about the project of Hadi, which means the legitimacy of Hadi, the legitimacy of the state. If you have a president, you should keep him until you transfer to another president in a peaceful way. This is what Yemenis are looking for. Even if they are with Hadi now, they are not [all] with Hadi himself, they are with this project. In Yemen there are two main projects. One is the state project, which still now is in the hands of Hadi. And there is the militia project, which is mainly in the hands of the Houthis.


    If you can convince the Houthis to accept engaging with the state project in a roadmap: to handover their weapons, to stop using military means… then we will have a new government with all Yemeni components to control Yemen. Then everybody can support this state, which is still fragile. And we will work to support them, to unite them, to build security.


    I think there is no effective round of talks between Yemenis if Hodeidah is not implemented. Maybe they say “ok, we will go to Jordan, or Kuwait, or Germany, or wherever [for further talks].” But they will not do any good. And [UN envoy] Martin Griffiths will find himself at a wall. Because everybody will blame him because he did not do anything at Hodeidah. That is the negative. The positive is, if I am Yemeni, a Yemeni political figure, if I saw with my eyes that Hodeidah was implemented, I would put pressure on Hadi to accept the framework, to accept a comprehensive political solution which sometimes might even hurt Hadi’s authority. That means, if the Houthis implement Hodeidah, everybody will pressure all parties to come to the table and make it succeed.


    Q: Speaking of pressure, before the Stockholm talks there were warnings Yemen was about to fall into famine, the killing of [dissident Saudi journalist Jamal] Khashoggi, there was a lot of pressure on Saudi Arabia and a lot of press attention on Saudi Arabia’s role in the war in Yemen. How did that affect the negotiations?


    A: Look. Everybody repeats that, you are not alone. But I will explain it to you in a different way. Let’s talk about Kuwait [in 2016]. We were there, and we supported the Houthis engaging in good faith. We invited them to come to the south of Saudi Arabia in a city they call Dahran al-Janoub. We spent two weeks there with them. We sent ten convoys to Saada to support them. We released Houthi prisoners and they released Saudi soldiers. And also we met with [Houthi negotiator] Mohammed Abdelsalam Faleitah, myself I traveled with him five times to Kuwait. And also I engaged myself to talk to the Houthis, to convince them to engage with Yemeni parties.


    And at the end of these talks Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the ex UN envoy to Yemen, introduced what they called his initiative. It consisted of two parts: a security arrangement, and the a arrangement. He said we should first sign on the security arrangement and then we can go on to sign another one. The security arrangement [talked about withdrawal from “Zone A.” The  Houthis were to withdraw from [that zone, which was] Taiz, Sana’a, and Hodeidah - just the cities, not the provinces. There was a High Yemeni Committee for Military and Economy, which was going to be responsible for Hodeidah. In the beginning the Houthis accepted. But before the talks finished on the 17 of Ramadan 2016, Mohammed Abdelsalam Faleitah traveled to another country for two days and he came back, and he said no. And Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, in front of the Security Council, said clearly that in Kuwait we succeeded until the last days. And the Houthis refused. And you can review what he said in the Security Council exactly.


    If you look at what happened in Stockholm, it’s the same thing. The Houthis will withdraw from the ports, and will open the siege on Taiz... In this agreement in Stockholm, in Taiz they will open corridors, and they will have a ceasefire for the city and they will demine there. Now if you look at the situation now it is the same as Kuwait, it is the same goal.


    Yes, it’s talk time... but what we asked for at [previous rounds of negotiations in] Kuwait is happening now, because of [pressure on] the Houthis, not because of us. Everybody says maybe because of those pressures [we are ready to deal], they make connections with the timing. That’s not true. The truth is we succeeded in our diplomatic efforts. We used political means to satisfy our goals to restore legitimate institutions and government to Yemen.


    If we finish in Hodeidah and Taiz, we have just Sana’a [to negotiate]. And that will be easy for the Houthis and for us.


    Q: To make an agreement on? Why would the Houthis want to withdraw from Sana’a, when that would basically leave them with just Saada?


    A: There are different kinds of withdrawal and it is a complicated issue... If they would like to stay in Sana’a without weapons, this is possible.


    Q: So you still consider UNSC Resolution 2216 the framework?


    A: Yes, we [can] apply it in a different way. Let’s say if we are out of Hodeidah, 100 kilometres away, because in Kuwait [the plan] was 150 kilometres… We were surrounding the Houthis from three sides. The Houthis were under pressure. They knew in the next days we would take over the ports and city [of Hodeidah].


    Q: So you are saying there was more pressure on the Houthis than on you?


    A: Sure. The Houthis would not agree to come to the table without military pressures.


    Q: But was there not pressure from your allies?


    A: Yes, there was pressure on us. But even with this pressure, we satisfied what we are asking for.


    Q: Surely your allies, like the Americans, must have given you a push.


    A: No, it’s not a push. Think about it. If we attacked the port, if we attacked the city, and we… destroyed the city, what would happen to the US government, UK, our allies there? It is clear. They would find themselves in a bad position. So they had two choices: to listen to their people, and that means they would hurt us. Or they hurt themselves, and they would lose their authority [with their own people]. So they would go with the first option, to hurt us, which would hurt our relationship between the governments. So that meant wanted to help them, and they wanted to help us [by making a deal in Hodeidah].


    And they have given us good advice from the first day of the war. And we discuss it, we… discuss and debate. It’s not about orders, it’s about their interests, and our interests.


    Q: You brought up public concern about the war, and I think there is a growing awareness in the US and other countries about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Was this part of the pressure, or as you say, discussions with your allies?


    A: No. The humanitarian situation is a pressure on everybody. Because nobody, even us, we don’t want to see kids in Yemen in a bad situation. We do not just say that for you or for the media. They [Yemenis] are our brothers. And we are fighting there to restore hopes, not to kill Yemenis. We spent billions of dollars to support the war, the economy, the humanitarian situation. And we will continue to support Yemen. We don’t want Yemenis to hate us or to see us as their enemy. We are not their enemy. Yes, maybe the Houthis and some people under the Houthi control or some people who don’t understand the situation, but most Yemenis know that Saudi Arabia is there to support them.


    And yes, we’ve made mistakes, like other countries do, during the war. But we did a lot of things for the Yemeni people. For the humanitarian [side] we spent [billions of dollars]… And we are also very upset by the humanitarian situation…. We have our YCHO [Yemen Comprehensive Humanitarian Operations] plan. We did that. It’s not about pressure. It’s about the situation in Yemen. We are there to help them, to bring hope...The Houthis are very aggressive and they use the humanitarian situation and try to escalate the situation by different means.


    Q: How do they do that?


    A: They continue to violate the humanitarian convoys, they take the convoys sometimes. They steal relief and humanitarian staff… But we have a lot of evidence of this, and we’ve sent it it to the UN organisations... The Houthis put pressure on [aid workers], and if you are there in Sana’a, and you are with UNICEF or WHO, who will protect you? Nobody will protect you. Yes, your organisation will be very upset. Your organisation will try to save you. But nobody will protect you if they kill or hurt your friend. But if somebody in Saudi Arabia or the coalition hurts someone in the UN organisation, we are responsible state. We will be responsible to respond to these people, to the courts, to the states. But in Yemen, nobody will hold them accountable.


    Q: What about your accountability to civilians? Coalition airstrikes are considered to have caused the majority of civilian deaths on the ground. JIAT has investigated and said it will pay compensation in some cases, has this been paid?


    A: Yes, they started.


    Q: How many people have been compensated?


    A: I don’t know exactly but I know they started with the Yemeni government, who as a part of the coalition, are responsible for its people. They sent us a list and there is a fund responsible for that. And they started to do it. I think we are trying to accelerate this mechanism, and it will work more and more, because it just started a couple of months ago.


    Q: On the humanitarian situation, the coalition has been blamed for delaying ships coming in, particularly to Hodeidah.


    A: This is all a story, and it has been solved. There was misunderstanding and miscommunication between the UN, the special envoy, and the coalition. As YCHO we met with different UN organisations like UNVIM, WFP, and OCHA. And we have a good mechanism to ensure clearance in less than 24 hours, 24 hours maximum. And… if you look at any statement it doesn’t mention anything about the clearance, even [UN resident coordinator in Yemen] Lise Grande and [UN relief chief] Mark Lowcock, when we talked to them, they said “thank you for that. Thank you for your mechanism for the ships going to Hodeidah.” I am sure about that.


    Q: In the war at large, airstrikes have hit civilians, healthcare facilities and infrastructure in Yemen and contributed to the humanitarian crisis. What’s your answer that Saudi aid and reconstruction efforts are just a PR effort, trying to fix your image?


    A: It’s not PR. And anybody who says that wants to hurt us. But if someone is neutral, he should study and see with his eyes and research how much Saudi Arabia did for the UN organisations, King Salman [Humanitarian Aid and Relief] Center, Saudi Development and Reconstruction Plan for Yemen, and for the economy.


    I will give you an example. When we deposited 2.2 billion dollars to the Central Bank, is it PR? No. It is 2.2, just for the Central Bank. When we provided $60 million US dollars in oil derivatives for electricity power stations, is it PR? When we issued $350 [letters of credit for] businessmen to import basic food to the Yemeni people, is it PR ? They are our permanent brothers, and we are there to support Yemeni government and Yemeni people also.


    But… they still say it is PR.


    About the damage that you mention. I am sure 100 percent the coalition is implementing IHL [international humanitarian law]. And we are responsible countries - we are twelve countries [in the coalition] - and we implement NATO standards. And also we investigate in each accident and sometimes they say yes [we were wrong], and sometimes no, they clarify their position. And they continue to investigate… This is war and some things happen because of the war. I think the coalition did a good job. It is a clean war for us. Because we are aware of what we are doing there in Yemen. We are there to reinstate their state.


    Q: You talked about reinstating the state, and you have talked about reconstruction. How do you plan to reconstruct a country during a war? How can you plan for what people need when a war is still going on?


    A: First of all, this connects to your previous connections about existing in Yemen. This war is for two main things: to restore the legitimate government of Yemen, and to secure our national security. Yemen is a poor country. Before the war, Yemen’s rank in terms of poverty was 138. The Yemeni government budget is less than around $10 billion. It’s nothing for a big country like Yemen with 26 million people.


    Our strategy in Yemen is to develop and reconstruct, and these are two different things. Development - there was no development in Yemen before the war and we are trying to develop now areas that are out of the war, like Mahrah, Hadhramaut, Socotra, Marib, Jawf [provinces]. They are safe, so we can start there. Because we spent time to push, to convince, to urge the Houthis to come to the table and accept a deal... so we will start where there is security and stability and there is no war there... And we have convinced the Yemeni government to work with us. And I think in 2019, we will have a lot of projects in Yemen, in different provinces in Yemen, from Saudi Arabia, from Emirates, from Kuwait, and also from the Yemeni government. And I am sure America will engage, and Europe will engage, because they will not wait for the Houthis to engage. Yemenis are dying. Yemenis are in a bad situation. Not because of the humanitarian cases, because of the economy.


    Q: But I think it’s the same thing. The economy is so bad that you can’t buy food.


    A: So we can start. Now in Saada, Amran, Hajjah, how do the people live there? In all Yemen, 70 percent of Yemenis depend on agriculture, and fishing. This is a big field, we can work on the agriculture, we can work with the fisherman to give them a chance to live. To grow food, sell it in the markets, also to export it to Saudi Arabia. We will have a mechanism to support all Yemenis everywhere, through different access. We are not in Saada, we are not in Amran, we cannot go to Sana’a, but we can work with institutions, private and semi-governmental like the social fund, workers’ fund, villagers’ fund, and private sector. And also we can work easily in some areas controlled by the Yemeni government.


    Q: What specifically are you doing to revitalise the economy. I know you deposited money in the Central Bank, but it is not for use, it is for shoring up the currency. What else are you doing?


    A: For the Central Bank we are working with the governor - not just Saudi Arabia, the quad - US, UK, Saudi Arabia, Emirates, and with IFC [International Finance Corporation] and also the World Bank to build and support the Central Bank in Aden. We deposited the $2.2 billion, and we are urging other countries like the Emirates to also deposit another billion to the Central Bank. That will help the economy, and it will help the rial. Also if you look at the $60 million dollars [in oil derivatives] that we gave to the Yemeni government to operate power stations, we cut that from the Yemeni budget. So now they have in their hands $60 million they can use to, say, bring services. We urged them to do it. And that will help people. Any amount in Yemen, it makes a difference.


    Q: What about encouraging the Central Bank to issue more letters of credit to importers?


    A: We are doing it. Saudi Arabia has issued more than $350 million letters of credit and they will continue to do so. Last week we issued more than $50 million letters of credit from Saudi Arabia’s central bank. We received the orders from them [Yemen’s Central Bank], because there is a mechanism [for letters of credit to go through Saudi Arabia] - the Houthis and previous Central Bank governor spent our [previous deposits] for nothing. We have to be sure the Yemeni government or Central Bank will be used to help Yemeni people.


    Q: So the letters of credit that were issued just now are to Yemeni importers?


    A: Yes, to Yemeni importers only.


    Q: One of the biggest issues in Yemen is poverty. It’s not necessarily there isn’t enough food in Yemen, it’s that people don’t have money to buy it. What else are you doing for that?


    A: All UN organisations are trying to ignore Aden. They are ignoring Aden port, I don’t know why. Maybe I can guess. They would like to save Hodeidah, they are afraid to mention Aden port and say it’s a good port, they are afraid somebody will attack Hodeidah port.


    If you look at Aden, it is the biggest port in Yemen. We can give you the numbers to clarify our position. Last week we provided two cranes to Aden port and we helped Aden port authority to govern and try to increase the capacity of the procedures, of importing. Also we provided one crane to Mukalla. And we will open another port from al-Khadra in Najran, so there will be two land ports [from Saudi Arabia into Yemen].


    Q: But international organisations say Aden is at capacity and doesn’t have the capacity to store and mill grain like Hodeidah. Is that something you would look into in your reconstruction plans?


    A: That’s not true. Aden is the biggest port and can receive millions of tons from different kinds of food or commercial shipments. It is about the location of Hodeidah. They are trying to hurt Aden port to save Hodeidah. Hodeidah is the second port of Yemen, and we know the figures before the war.


    But I agree with them if they close Hodeidah, there is seventy percent of the people of Yemen in the north and it is not easy to bring the food from Aden to the north.


    Q: It is very expensive to do this if you consider…


    A: It is very expensive, it is very risky, there are a lot of issues… and because of that they say a lot of false, wrong information. In 2016 [former UN Relief Chief] Stephen O’Brien said in of the Security Council said Hodeidah port is receiving 80 percent of the imports to Yemen. We have 21 ports to Yemen. This guy is crazy.


    Q: Could he have made a mistake?


    A: No he meant it. I will give you know another number and you can check it yourself. The UN and other international organisations now repeat the number that there are 1.2 million government workers who do not receive their salary workers. Did you see that before?


    Q: I’m familiar with the issue of the salaries.


    A: How many people?


    Q: I don’t have an exact number in front of me.


    A: The last tweet from the ICRC two weeks ago, they made it emotional. It’s PR…[They said] that in Yemen there are 1.2 million government workers who do not receive their salaries for more than two years.” That’s not true.


    Q: Ok, so what is true?


    A: The truth is that 650,000 [government employees] receive their salaries.


    Q: Every month?


    A: Every month.


    Q: Paid by whom?


    A: Paid by the Yemeni government, through the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance.


    Q: Is that only people in government controlled areas?


    A: Yes and also civilian workers everywhere. If he works in Sana’a and goes to Aden to do his job there he will take his salary.


    Q: And what about a teacher who lives in Sana’a?


    A: They do not receive anything. That’s true. But when you repeat the number 1.2 million just to convince the people to give you money, it’s just not true.


    Q: You mentioned the UN and international organisations several times. Do they back your reconstruction plans? Are they involved?


    A: No, we talked to WFP, we talked to the World Bank, we talked to Islamic Bank, and also we talked to Mark Lowock and Lise Grande, we briefed them and invited them to come and participate any time.


    Q: So they are not involved?


    A: World Bank yes, we will work with them. Islamic Bank would like to engage and work with us. USAID, DIFD, are engaging and would like to work with us. And also the French visited.


    Q: So this support is still in discussion?


    A: Yes, because we started only five months ago.


    Q: I understand it is early days. I saw the presentation [on the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen al-Jaber heads] but a lot of it appears to be what is going to be built in the future. Is there an actual plan now?


    A: We hit the ground, we are there.


    Q: In some places, yes. But is there a larger plan other than the PowerPoint, are there more than feasibility studies?


    A: Yes.


    Q: The Wall Street Journal recently published an article about [the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen’s] projects in Mahra in which locals objected to the Saudi presence there. What’s your response to the argument that redevelopment and reconstruction is just part of the military effort, that it is a continuation of the war and and effort to keep Saudi Arabia’s power in Yemen?


    A: Mahra is the gate for smuggling. Before the war, during the war, and after the war. And we have a strategy in Yemen: secure, stable Yemen.


    And our goal won’t end if the Houthis come into the government. We should keep supporting the Yemeni government with or without the Houthis. If the Houthis participate in the government, we will support this government. Even if the prime minister is a Houthi, we will support this government. Because it is not just about Yemen. It’s about our national security. When they smuggle drugs from the Arabian Sea [from Mahra] they don’t want to bring them to Yemen, they want to bring them to Saudi Arabia. If they smuggle weapons [they are headed to Saudi Arabia]. Because the price in Saudi Arabia is different. A [handgun] gun in yemen is $500. If you smuggle it to Saudi Arabia you can sell it for $5,000 dollars.


    Another example: drugs. Nobody in Yemen uses drugs, except for qat. But in Saudi Arabia there are a lot of people… kids… they will use it. And that has a high cost. Now in Mahra the coast is 50 kilometres. There were no coast guard soldiers there. Zero. Nobody was protecting this area.


    Also from Omani territory there are some smuggling networks that are continuing to do their jobs from before the war, using the weakness of the Yemeni side... We talked to our brothers in Oman, and they are now doing a good job to protect their side. But from the other side there was nothing, from the coast or from the land. What we are doing there is training the security and the coast guard. And we are also doing development and reconstruction for the people of Mahra. Because if I am a Mahra citizen and you said, “Ok, I will bring the coast guard and I will bring the border guards and there will be no security and new arrangements,” but there is no income, how will I work? But if we develop, and provide the security… and also education and also schools - we started to build eight or nine schools - and hospitals, [school] busses, agriculture, fisheries, and boats and airports that means Mahra will be strong enough to continue to work. Even if we withdraw from Mahra after the war, it will be a strong province.


    And look, Mahra and Hadhramaut...We already transferred the power from the Saudis and Emiratis to the Yemeni side.


    Q: How is that working?


    A: It’s working. Because we are still there to supervise and train. They need somebody to lead them… it’s complicated. If they work, let’s say, we will decrease the smuggling… unless those people work with the smugglers, as a mafia. Those people in Mahra and Hadhramaut are good people. They don’t want to work with the smugglers, they are ashamed to work in smuggling… now we finished in Hadhramaut and Mahra we will continue to support the Yemeni government in places like Abyan and Lahj [provinces]… also with terrorism - al-Qaeda and Da’esh [so-called Islamic State], after Syria, they might decide to go to Yemen. If we are not ready to fight them in Yemen before they enter we will find ourselves after this war fighting al-Qaeda and Da’esh.

    Q: So you do see development as part of a security strategy?


    A: Yes. We built also an anti-terrorism center there.


    Q: What does that mean?


    A: That means there is no center to fight al-Qaeda. If we build this center in Mahra airport that means all countries, all allies who are fighting al-Qaeda, they can find themselves in a good place to support the Yemeni government in fighting al-Qaeda or Da’esh… It’s preemptive… we are trying to prevent Yemen from falling into the hands of Da’esh or al-Qaeda after this war.


    Q: Is [the presence of Da’esh or al-Qaeda] something you are worried about?


    A: Yes, we are very worried. Because after this war, some people in Yemen would like to have Da’esh and al-Qaeda, especially the Houthis, they are very happy to have Da’esh and al-Qaeda, to continue fighting, saying “I am here to fight al-Qaeda and Da’esh.” They said that in 2014 when they controlled the north of Sana’a and Amran... They said “we are here to fight al-Qaeda.” And they will continue to repeat that. And that means some people, some tribes in the middle and the south also say they will engage with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis.


    Q: As you suggested, people and groups officially allied with the coalition are working with al-Qaeda because they want to fight the Houthis. Is this a concern?


    A: We are afraid of that. We have a lot of Zaidis [the sect the Houthis belong to] fighting with the Yemeni Hadi government: military leadership, tribal leadership, political leadership, half of the people fighting the Houthis are Zaidi. Because it is not about Zaidi or Sunni or Shafi’i[the Sunni majority in Yemen]; it’s about security and stability.


    Q: I’m going to ask you about another media report, the New York Times report that there are child soldiers from Sudan fighting with the coalition. What is your response? Are there child soldiers fighting with the coalition?


    A: It is false. How did this guy go to this Sudan, make a report, find some kids and say let’s make a story about Saudi Arabia and the kids. Why not come to Aden, Jezzan, Saada, Hajjah, or anywhere…


    Q: Well, it’s not easy to go there.


    A: You can go. A lot of journalists visit... i think some people are working for some countries or organisations that would like to hurt Saudi Arabia and [they] say “let’s keep Saudi Arabia in a bad situation” because of Khashoggi’s case. They would like to use different cases to make Saudi Arabia out as a bad country. We are clear: There are no kids fighting with us, from any country, from Yemen, from Sudan, from any country. And anybody who would like to be sure, who would like to… report, he is welcome to come, meet, and go there... but don’t try to play games [and write] bad things that are not accurate.


    Q: In your opinion, what responsibility does Saudi Arabia have for the current humanitarian crisis in Yemen?


    A: Actually are the ones who make it lower. The Houthis are increasing the humanitarian situation. We are the ones who are trying to facilitate humanitarian and commercial shipments to Yemen, through Jeddah and Jizan through our land, through Wadiyah, from everywhere.


    At the same time we are the ones who support the UN organisations with money to fund them, from 2015. From 2015 we are the ones who covered the UN pledge. Yes, there is a war. But that doesn’t mean that this war, we can stop it, because the Houthis want to control the country. We are trying to make a balance between security, stability, and restoring the legitimate government. At the same time we are trying to avoid Yemenis from the humanitarian situation.


    If we look at this war Saudi has a main strategy, the main track is the political track, which did not start now, it started in 2011. If the analysts would like to be fair they should think about that. Saudi Arabia started the political process in 2011 when we introduced the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] initiative. Which is a Saudi initiative, although we call it the GCC initiative because our brothers participated in it.


    From 2011-2014 we spent $7 billion to support the Yemeni government: $3.2 billion in oil derivatives; $1 billion to central bank $450 million for the social fund; $3 billion for infrastructure and social service projects.* Electricity in the north of yemen, 80 percent of the electricity power stations there are Saudi-funded, it’s not Yemeni or international, it’s Saudi funded. [Look at] Marib 1 and Marib 2 [power stations], and we are ready start with Marib 3, which will increase the capacity of the power stations.


    In 2014 when the Houthis took over Sana’a, we did not engage, nobody engaged, because the Yemenis found themselves with a partnership agreement that gave Houthis six seats in the government, and when it changed from Saleh to Hadi government, we did not engage in a war. We tried to take the Yemenis from civil war to the political track. Then the Houthis continued to attack, and Hadi himself escaped to Aden, and when he escaped to Aden, we did not bring our troops there. We were waiting and trying to convince the Houthis and other parties to stop fighting. And Hadi, his first statement, when he arrived to Aden, said “please, Houthis stop the war, we are ready to engage back and talk at the table.” The Houthis and Saleh refused. Then the war came, and then it was a war of necessity not a war of our choice. We supported the talks in Geneva in 2015, we supported the Kuwait talks in 2016, and we are the ones who supported the talks in Stockholm and that is what Mr Martin Griffiths said clearly to the media and the Security Council. And we will continue to support Mr Martin Griffiths to find a solution… we will support the political process. This is the main track.


    We have another two tracks. The military track: the main aim of the military track is to support the political track to force the Houthis to come to the table. And also to restore the legitimate [government], to restore the state… We will not accept Yemen to become a Somalia, and we will not accept another Hezbollah in the south of Saudi Arabia. We are not Israel, and they are not Hezbollah. They are Yemeni, they are our brothers, we have the same culture, the same traditions and we help them and will continue to do so.


    The third track is the humanitarian track, and please go back to 2013 and look for the UN HRP [Humanitarian Response Plan] 2013, it is 10.2 million people in Yemen need help. You can read it again.


    This is the fourth track: it is economy, development, and reconstruction. We are the ones who support the economy. Nobody [else] supports the Yemeni economy. We saved the rial, we saved the Central Bank, we saved the electricity power stations, we saved the private sectors and we are trying to support everybody. This, my friend, is the Saudi strategy to support Yemen.


    When the Yemenis agree on a comprehensive political solution, we will stop the military track which supports the legitimate Yemeni government and we will support their security, economy, the political process, and work with Yemenis to finish the political process, to build their economy and develop and reconstruct their country.


    *IRIN could not independently verify these or other figures

    Transcript of interview with Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Yemen
    9 January 2019
  • Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts

    A political solution to nearly four years of war in Yemen is possible as long as the shaky ceasefire deal for the northern port city of Hodeidah takes hold, Saudi Arabia’s influential ambassador to Yemen has told IRIN.


    Mohammed al-Jaber, who is the public face of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and is said to have a direct line to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, suggested the Hodeidah deal could lead to further fruitful UN-backed peace talks if it succeeds but might be their undoing if it doesn’t.


    “I think there is no [next] effective round of talks between Yemenis if Hodeidah is not implemented,” al-Jaber told IRIN in an interview in his Riyadh office. “If the Houthis implement Hodeidah, everybody will pressure all parties to come to the table and make it succeed.”


    The next round of what the UN officially calls “political consultations” are expected later this month, but warring sides are still at odds over the finer details of the Hodeidah deal and there are fears it might soon collapse. Aid groups warn of a spiral towards famine if fighting restarts around the city – a key entry point for commercial imports and humanitarian aid, especially for parts of the country under Houthi control.


    Hashed out at December negotiations near Stockholm but still to come into effect, the ceasefire deal is supposed to see both Saudi-led coalition forces and Houthi rebels withdraw from Hodeidah city and eventually Hodeidah province, with “local security forces” taking over and the UN playing some role in managing the port.


    While the ambassador was quick to emphasise that he is not an official party to the negotiations – Saudi Arabia’s position is not to negotiate with the Houthis and the UN process is two-sided, between the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels – he was in Stockholm and recounted locations, attendees, and results (or lack of) past talks in detail.


    ‘A clean war’

    IRIN sat down with al-Jaber at a pivotal point in the 46-month war. The conflict has left tens of thousands dead and millions without enough to eat, while decimating a health system that has been unable to cope with two waves of cholera and destroying the country’s already weak economy.


    Away from the debate over Hodeidah, the broader war is ongoing: a Houthi drone hit a Yemeni military parade the day after IRIN spoke with the ambassador, fighting in the southern city of Taiz continues, and the coalition has been pounding the capital city of Sana’a with airstrikes.


    In a wide-ranging interview in his Riyadh office, al-Jaber said his country is waging a “clean war” in Yemen, is doing all it can to lessen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, and is already planning for its redevelopment and reconstruction despite ongoing fighting.


    A military strategist by training who heads up two bodies that focus on humanitarian, development, and restronstruction aid to Yemen, the ambassador strongly dismissed the idea that any of this assistance was an attempt to polish his country’s tarnished public image.


    “It’s not PR. And anybody who says that wants to hurt us,” al-Jaber said. “But if someone is neutral, he should study and see with his eyes and research how much Saudi Arabia did for [funding] the UN organisations, [with its own relief projects], and for the economy….[Yemenis] are our permanent brothers, and we are there to support [the] Yemeni government and Yemeni people.”


    The view in Riyadh


    Saudi Arabia’s public position on Yemen has been fairly consistent since March 2015, when it began airstrikes along with a multi-country coalition to support the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee the country by Houthi rebels and their allies, including fighters who sided with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.


    Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as an Iranian proxy and a threat to its borders and says its mission in Yemen is to restore Hadi’s government.


    Few expected the war to drag on this long – in fact, the coalition said it was ending the initial military operation a month into its bombing, officially swapping it out for “Operation Restoring Hope” – a peacebuilding effort aimed at forging a political solution in Yemen and shoring up Saudi Arabia’s national security.


    Al-Jaber, appointed to his job in late 2014, also used the word “hope” when discussing the Saudi role in the war.


    “We are fighting there to restore hopes, not to kill Yemenis,” he said. “We spent billions of dollars to support the war, the economy, the humanitarian situation, and we will continue to support Yemen. We don’t want Yemenis to hate us or to see us as their enemy. We are not their enemy.”


    He said he remained “100 percent sure” that the coalition was waging the war in line with international humanitarian law.


    “We are responsible countries,” he said. “We are 12 countries [in the coalition] and we implement NATO standards… I think the coalition did a good job. It is a clean war for us, because we are aware of what we are doing there in Yemen. We are there to reinstate their state.”


    Saudi Arabia’s air campaign has been blamed for the majority of the nearly 7,000 violent civilian deaths the UN has been able to count in the war.


    In August, an airstrike hit a bus full of children in a rebel-held northern part of the country, killing a reported 40 children and 51 people total – one of several civilian atrocities that rights groups say violate international law. A UN group of experts has said it believes individuals on all sides of Yemen’s conflict may have committed war crimes.


    In response to questions about such strikes, as well as hits on civilian infrastructure like hospitals, al-Jaber admitted that Saudi Arabia had “made mistakes”, much as “other countries do, during war.”


    “We investigate each accident,” he said, referring to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, or JIAT – a body set up to look into “claims and accidents” in coalition operations but whose members are not disclosed to the public.


    Findings are usually only released in summary press releases and can be hard to track, but an August report by Human Rights Watch said JIAT investigations were inadequate and that the watchdog was “unaware of any concrete steps the coalition has taken to implement a compensation process or to hold individuals accountable for possible war crimes.”


    Al-Jaber said the coalition began the compensation process “a couple of months ago” but that he didn’t know how many people had been compensated so far. “I know they started,” he said. “The Yemeni government… sent us a list [of names] and there is a fund responsible for that… we are trying to accelerate this mechanism.”


    Aden, Hodeidah, or both?


    The international community says there’s no alternative to Hodeidah for avoiding mass hunger in the country, not only because of the port’s overall capacity – including to store and mill flour – but also because it is in the north of the country where 70 percent of the population lives (and Houthis are in control).


    In November 2018, the Saudi-led coalition closed most air, sea, and land entries to Yemen for two weeks after a Houthi rocket was fired at Riyadh, causing aid agencies to warn of imminent catastrophe. Even before that, aid groups said the coalition had delayed and diverted the entry of crucial supplies, including fuel.


    Al-Jaber said the “humanitarian situation was pressure on everybody”, but that he believed the importance of Hodeidah had been exaggerated and that “UN organisations are trying to ignore Aden port”.


    The Saudi-led coalition has been pushing for increased use of Aden, but UN relief chief Mark Lowcock said earlier this month that the southern port has a “severe congestion” problem. Trucking supplies from Aden to the north adds cost and can be risky, which al-Jaber admitted.


    In a briefing on 9 January at the UN Security Council, Lowcock said that fuel imports are now rising and more ships are trying to get to Yemen’s ports, but commercial food imports were still at their lowest since the UN began monitoring in 2016.


    Al-Jaber said the coalition had been unfairly accused of deepening the humanitarian crisis through delays in allowing shipping to reach Yemen, particularly Hodeidah. What he called a “misunderstanding” is now resolved and the UN and the coalition have a mechanism to ensure ship clearance at Hodeidah in “24 hours maximum”, he added.


    If anything, al-Jaber said, Saudi Arabia is lessening the humanitarian crisis. It has contributed $901 million to UN-led humanitarian appeals for Yemen between 2015 and 2018, according to UN funding data, and he also mentioned the $2.2 billion Saudi Arabia had deposited in Yemen’s Central Bank and $350 million in letters of credit to Yemeni importers he said had recently been issued (a number IRIN could not independently verify).


    Looking forward


    While all eyes remain on Hodeidah, al-Jaber was also keen to talk about development and reconstruction – an approach he said feeds into the two main aims of the war: “to restore the legitimate government of Yemen, and to secure our national security”.


    Al-Jaber said the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, which he has been working on for the past few months, is already being rolled out in parts of the country the government controls.


    IRIN wasn’t shown the overall plan but was given a PowerPoint presentation on projects that have begun – new school buses, textbooks, and beefing up power stations by shipping $60 million in oil derivatives each month – as well as some that are still in the works, like new hospitals and an airport.


    But how do you reconstruct a country you don’t completely control, in the midst of a war?


    Al-Jaber, who said he had briefed the UN about his plans and invited them to collaborate, anticipated support from other organisations, including the World Bank, and said it’s best to start in areas the coalition controls as “they are safe”.


    His strategy also involves beefing up borders to clamp down on smuggling, and making sure al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State (Da’esh in its Arabic acronym) do not take hold in the country.


    He said he was “very worried about” this, both because the Houthis could use their presence as an excuse to continue fighting and because “some people, some tribes in the middle and the south, also say they will engage with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis.”


    The disparate nature of the coalition Saudi Arabia heads, and the loose and often tense alliances that support Hadi’s government, mean Yemen’s war could yet fracture into a collection of disastrous smaller conflicts.


    Al-Jaber was candid that several parties currently on side with the government, including southern separatists and the powerful Islamist Islah party, may not fully back Hadi. Rather, he explained, they agree with the “Hadi project” – that is, the legitimacy of his government.


    “When the Yemenis agree on a comprehensive political solution, we will stop the military track which supports the legitimate Yemeni government,” the ambassador said. “And [then] we will support their security, economy, the political process, and work with Yemenis to finish the political process, to build their economy and develop and reconstruct their country.”


    For the full interview, read the transcript here.



    Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts
  • Q&A: Why new peace talks on CAR really matter

    As a new round of peace talks between armed groups and the government of Central African Republic is scheduled to begin this week, the UN’s top humanitarian official in CAR warns that continued violence could push the country closer to famine.


    Around 2.9 million people in CAR, or 63 percent of the population, need humanitarian assistance and protection – an increase of 16 percent in 2018. Of those in need, 1.9 million require acute and immediate aid, according to OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body. Food security and protection are among the main concerns.


    In Cameroon to attend a press conference on the latest situation on the ground in the Central African Republic, Najat Rochdi, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the country, told IRIN that increasing levels of violence are driving the ongoing crisis.


    CAR has seen near-constant conflict since fighting broke out between the mostly Christian anti-Balaka militia and mainly Muslim Séléka rebels in 2012. While a peace agreement was reached in January 2013, rebels seized the capital that March, forcing then President François Bozizé to flee. Rival militias have been battling each other since, and much of the country is overrun with armed groups despite the 2016 election of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra.


    Despite relative calm in some areas last year, which allowed more than 240,000 people to return, forced displacement continued in several regions. And the UN has said that attacks against civilians and aid workers rose in 2018.


    The new peace talks, this time organised under the auspices of the African Union, are the latest attempt to broker peace. Rochdi spoke with IRIN about the most pressing humanitarian needs, her hopes for a new peace agreement, and where the talks, due to start in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, on Thursday, may lead.


    IRIN: The UN says the number of people displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance in CAR is at levels unseen since the height of the crisis in 2013-2014. Why is this happening now?


    "For me as humanitarian coordinator, this is hope – a hope that there will be a lasting peace agreement and that everybody is going to respect it."

    Najat Rochdi: One in four is displaced, whether within the country as an internally displaced person (IDP) or outside as a refugee. And 63 percent of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance. The reason why we have this increase in terms of humanitarian needs is because of the violence, and the upsurge of violence in 2018.

    We ended the year 2018 with two IDP sites [housing] more than 90,000 people that were completely torched by the armed groups. And obviously we had different hotspots which are new hotspots, including in areas where we didn’t use to have any violence before, which were really stable to the point where we started facilitating the voluntary returns. Unfortunately, we had to stop that because of this upsurge in violence… But [the humanitarian needs are] not only because of that.


    The violence and insecurity in some areas prevented farmers from going to the fields, and working their fields, and therefore this impacted directly and immediately on food security.


    Read more: Central African Republic: Little peace to keep, but more than 4.7 million lives to live

    This is the first time ever, actually, where the Central African Republic will reach level four in IPC, which is the level just before famine.


    (The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system has five worsening degrees – level five means famine. For more, read our primer.)


    Thirteen percent of the population in the Central African Republic today is in level four. We have never seen that before. And as long as people cannot go back to their fields and work their fields, the [food] production is not going be there and, therefore, the needs on food will become more and more and more acute.

    In a country where you just throw a seed and it grows up without anything, it is really... a tragedy.

    IRIN: Armed attacks and violence seem to be rising. What do you hope the new peace talks will achieve?


    Rochdi: Those peace talks have been prepared for a while, and the government has taken the lead, which is really translating a real political will to come up with a sustainable peace agreement.


    For me as humanitarian coordinator, this is hope – a hope that there will be a lasting peace agreement and that everybody is going to respect it. And hopefully the return of IDPs and refugees will be at the centre of those peace talks and negotiations, because the Central African Republic needs all its daughters and its sons to feel that they are part of the country and also to be able to go back to their houses, to their lands, and to get back their properties.

    IRIN: What does it look like on the ground when 63 percent of a country's population is in need of humanitarian assistance?


    Rochdi: Well, it is about needs in terms of shelter, needs in terms of access to water, it is needs in terms of health support and health services, it is needs in terms of food assistance, obviously. But it is also the need for protection, the need for schools, hospitals, health centres and, above all, the need for recovery actions because humanitarian assistance alone cannot be the answer.


    This is why we already started and initiated in 2018 a specific programme nationwide regarding the humanitarian development nexus where, yes, it is important to provide emergency humanitarian assistance, but immediately it is also important to have the recovery actors and development actors, including the national and local authorities to provide alternatives to the youth, to women, and to men, to help them and support them so that they can come up with income-generation activities.

    IRIN: What is the biggest gap in assistance in CAR, and why isn’t it being filled?

    Rochdi: The biggest gap is that we are not getting 100 percent funding. If we had 100 percent funding [in 2018] then we would have addressed all the gaps. And since we got only 50 percent, obviously we could not address all the gaps. That is the reason we have focused mainly on critical humanitarian assistance, which is actually very close to life-saving [support].

    "The Central African Republic needs all its daughters and its sons to feel that they are part of the country and also to be able to go back to their houses, to their lands, and to get back their properties."

    This year it will actually be the same scenario if we do not get all the funding. When we are issuing an appeal, and when we put that we need $430 million... and if we don’t get $430 million, it means that a lot of things that we have planned are not going to be achieved. And therefore, this is adding to the vulnerability of the people who are already very vulnerable.


    So the gaps are really translated in all the sectors. In the health sector, we have a lot of outbreaks for example; in terms of child mortality, in terms of maternal mortality, in terms of malnutrition. If we do not have enough funding to distribute food and also to distribute vitamins, of course there will be malnutrition. If we don’t have enough shelters, it means that protection is at stake, and it means also that IDPs are very vulnerable to attacks. If we don’t have recovery actions, it means that the people will depend 100 percent on humanitarian assistance.

    Read more: In Central African Republic, war crime survivors dare to hope for justice


    Besides humanitarian assistance, it is very important also that the basic social services are improved, and this is much more on the side of the government and development actors. It is also important that we all work together.


    Obviously, above all of that, we need more security, hence the importance of the peace talks.


    IRIN: What is the worst-case scenario for this year? How will the humanitarian situation change?

    Rochdi: I love saying that we plan for the worst but we hope for the best. Hoping for the best is that the peace talks that are going to happen in Khartoum will lead to a sustainable peace agreement. Therefore, we will have a more conducive environment to help people come back and to have people also go and work their fields. And therefore the [food] production would be much better; hence, less need in food distribution, which will be great news for all of us.

    The worst-case scenario would be that violence will continue and therefore the need for humanitarian assistance would become bigger and bigger and bigger.


    My fear is that people will keep suffering. It is very difficult; there is a certain level of suffering that [people] cannot take anymore. I have to express all my admiration for the women, men, and people I have met in the field. They have amazing resilience, an amazing belief that there is a future, and I share that belief with them.


    (This interview was edited for length and clarity)

    Q&A: Why new peace talks on CAR really matter
    “My fear is that people will keep suffering. There is a certain level of suffering that people cannot take anymore."
  • Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar


    Al-Shabab attacks civilians in Kenya and Somalia

    It has been a tragic week in East Africa, as militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack in Kenya and was accused of kidnapping 60 schoolchildren in the Bakol region of southern Somalia. The commissioner of Tiyeglow district said the children were taken on Monday in a raid on a village and most likely recruited as fighters – a common al-Shabab tactic. On Tuesday, the al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a 19-hour siege on an upmarket Nairobi hotel, which left 21 civilians dead. Al-Shabab said the attack was in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It could also be retaliation for Kenyan and US military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia. The hotel attack took place on the eve of a verdict in the trial of men alleged to have been involved in the 2013 siege on Nairobi's Westgate mall, which left 67 people dead. Militancy is an ongoing threat across Africa, a trend we continue to watch in 2019.


    Swine fever threatens food security

    A highly contagious disease with a near-100 percent fatality rate for pigs and wild boars could have “devastating consequences” for food security over large swathes of Asia, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned in a report this week. The FAO says African swine fever threatens to spread from China, where the virus has hit at least 24 provinces since it was detected there in August. The disease is not transmissible to humans, but pork is a key source of animal protein in China, the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia, while China produces half the world’s pigs. The FAO says the risk of the virus spreading beyond China’s borders represents “an imminent threat for the pig population in this region” and could damage livelihoods and food security. There is no vaccine. This week, Chinese agriculture officials announced the culling of more than 916,000 pigs, Mongolia reported its first outbreak, and Australia said it had found traces of African swine fever in six pork products seized at its airports. Since the virus was first discovered nearly a century ago in Kenya, there have been outbreaks in parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil, including ongoing cases in parts of eastern Europe.


    IS reminds US it still exists in Syria

    Days after President Trump said he had begun withdrawing troops from Syria, in part because so-called Islamic State had been defeated, the group claimed a suicide bombing in the northeastern city of Manbij that killed 19 people, including four Americans (two soldiers, a contractor, and a civilian defense department employee). The pullout was already controversial, not to mention confusing – nobody seems to know how or when it is happening – and Wednesday’s attack raised further questions about the wisdom of the move. In northeastern Syria, where some 2,000 US troops plus civilian contractors offer support to Kurdish fighters taking on IS, humanitarians are concerned about the  uncertainty (A Turkish invasion? New alliances? Shifting front lines?) and how it will impact their ability to deliver aid. Read Aron Lund’s latest timely analysis for an understanding of the many possibilities, and what they mean for the estimated two million Syrians in areas under Kurdish control.


    Voting on peace in the Philippines

    On 21 January, parts of conflict-hit Mindanao in the Philippines will begin voting on a long-awaited peace deal that will grant more autonomy and a new homeland for the southern island’s Muslim population. The proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law is the culmination of years of negotiations between Philippine authorities and multiple iterations of Muslim armed groups on Mindanao. Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a peace agreement with the largest Muslim armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The upcoming referendum, which continues on 6 February, is the next step to putting the law into effect. Recent polling suggests large parts of existing Muslim-majority areas on Mindanao support the law, which would create a new territory, known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with greater control of resources and taxation. But it’s uncertain whether adjoining areas like Cotabato City, wedged in the middle of an existing region, will vote to join. If the referendum passes, Mindanao still faces a challenge building peace. Authorities must oversee the decommissioning of thousands of armed fighters. But other armed groups continue to clash, including extremist fighters that have in the past drawn from the ranks of disaffected MILF members.


    Sexual harassment at the UN

    One in three UN workers has been sexually harassed in the past two years, according to survey results published this week. More than 30,000 UN agency staff and contractors took part in the online survey conducted in November by business advisory firm Deloitte. UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed disappointment, not just at the results but also at the low participation – only 17 percent of those polled responded. He said it showed how far the UN has to go before it can “fully and openly” discuss sexual harassment and counter ongoing “mistrust, perceptions of inaction, and lack of accountability”. Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reportedly ordered an internal investigation after a string of anonymous emails containing allegations of racism, sexism, and corruption were sent to top managers at the UN health agency last year. Both reports follow hot on the heels of the announcement last month that the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, will step down six months early, in June, after a panel found that he tolerated “a culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.” A preliminary report this week into the Oxfam scandal, which precipitated the #AidToo movement, called for a stronger system of safeguarding, for empowering and creating the space for staff to challenge negative power dynamics, and for investing in ways to more generally improve the culture of such organisations.

    In case you missed it:

    Democratic Republic of Congo: While global attention has been focused on Congo's disputed elections and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern regions, almost 900 people were killed in inter-communal clashes in western Mai-Ndombe province last month, the UN said. The fighting between Banunu and Batende communities took place in Yumbi, one of the towns excluded from the 30 December polls due to insecurity.


    The Hague: The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity, calling the case against him "exceptionally weak". Gbagbo spent more than seven years in custody, and was tried for allegations including involvement in election-related violence in 2010 and 2011, during which thousands of people were killed. Prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict and, initially at least, he remained behind bars.


    Syria: UNICEF reports that eight children, most under four months, have died in the past month at the makeshift camp on the Jordan-Syria border where some 40,000 Syrians have taken shelter. People at the camp, Rukban, are exposed to harsh winter conditions and are short on medical supplies and care; the last humanitarian convoy was in November.


    United States: Four humanitarian volunteers went on trial this week in Tucson, Arizona, facing misdemeanour charges for leaving water and other supplies in the desert for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Since 2017, at least 43 sets of human remains have reportedly been found in the wildlife refuge where the volunteers had left the provisions.


    Yemen: Days after the UN Security Council voted to send 75 observers to monitor a faltering ceasefire in Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah, bullets hit an armoured car carrying the mission’s head, retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. No one was injured, and the warring sides blamed each other for the incident.


    Zimbabwe: The UN has condemned Zimbabwe's “excessive use of force” in cracking down on protests, which were sparked by a dramatic fuel price hike last weekend. Five people have been killed, hundreds detained, and the government has imposed a total internet shutdown. There is concern that a prolonged crisis could lead to mass displacement and create a new humanitarian challenge for neighbouring countries.

    Weekend read


    Venezuela’s new humanitarians

    Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting pressure at home and abroad as his disputed second term in office begins. Opposition politician Juan Guaidó is challenging Maduro’s rule, while some foreign governments, including the United States, are calling the Maduro regime “illegitimate”. Venezuela is mired in economic freefall and its citizens face severe food and healthcare shortages. The crisis has pushed some three million to flee the country, spilling the humanitarian emergency across the region. For our weekend read, journalist Susan Schulman has the latest from our reporting on local aid in crises. The story profiles Venezuela’s local NGOs, which have been forced to make drastic changes to respond to a humanitarian crisis the government denies. Local organisations that once focused on rights or development find themselves thrust into unfamiliar new roles: an education NGO that abandoned its training programmes because teachers were too busy queuing for food; a rights group that diverted its resources to feed hungry children. “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” says one local activist. “We didn’t know until now.”

    And finally...

    IRIN at Davos

    Look out for IRIN’s participation at next week’s annual World Economic Forum gathering of top business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Join us on Tuesday 22 January at 7:30am local time (0630 GMT), for a live stream of “Meet the New Humanitarians”, our headline event aimed at showcasing emerging actors in the humanitarian landscape, not to mention our new name and brand (In case you missed our big announcement).


    And if you don’t mind a quick 10-second sign-in form (or are already signed on), check out the Humanitarian Action entry on Transformation Maps, the WEF’s new attempt to harness technology and collaboration to tackle complex global issues and better inform decision-makers. IRIN’s Ben Parker was the key contributor.



    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN
  • As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics

    Roberto Patiño never intended to become a humanitarian. But today the 30-year-old heads an NGO that helps feed thousands of children a week as Venezuela’s economic crisis spirals.


    More than three million Venezuelans have left the country – the majority since 2015, according to the UN. They are fleeing an economic collapse that has triggered severe food and medicine shortages. Patiño’s organisation, Mi Convive, is among a handful of local NGOs in Venezuela that have stepped into the breach.


    Across the country, cash-strapped local organisations like Mi Convive are making drastic changes to their operations in response to a humanitarian emergency the government denies. Civil society groups that once concentrated on rights or development in Venezuela, an upper-middle income country, are transforming their operations to focus on more urgent needs as basic necessities become scarce.


    Patiño founded Mi Convive in the capital, Caracas, in 2013. It was originally built to promote human rights with a mandate for violence prevention. He worked in communities with high crime rates, holding town hall-style meetings intended to increase political engagement.


    But in early 2016, a child in a Caracas community where Mi Convive worked asked Patiño for food.


    “She said she was starving,” he recalls.  


    Patiño was stunned.


    “This is so urgent,” he remembers thinking. “We had to adapt and we had to change.”


    LISTEN: Roberto Patiño, founder of Venezuelan NGO Mi Convive, which has changed its operations to focus on the country’s humanitarian crisis.

    By May 2016, Mi Convive had refocused on child nutrition, launching an organisation called Alimenta La Solidaridad, which opened its first community kitchen, or comedor, in the La Vega neighbourhood perched high over Caracas.


    By 2018, the food programme was running 18 community kitchens in Caracas and 35 more across the country, feeding 4,500 children a week. It’s still not enough. The public kitchens have waiting lists and Alimenta La Solidaridad is trying to open more, Patiño says.


    As his contested second term in office begins, Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting opposition at home and abroad. In November, the country quietly agreed to receive assistance from the UN’s emergency response fund for the first time. But analysts say the $9.2 million in funding for existing UN programmes is a drop in the bucket compared to a humanitarian emergency that has left households without stable food supplies and medicine. Facing glaringly inadequate government services and a lack of official aid, struggling local NGOs have found themselves trying to fill the gap.


    ☰ Read more: What to call a crisis


    Venezuela agreed to accept $9.2 million in funding from the UN’s emergency aid coffers in November, but it continues to deny the existence of a humanitarian crisis within its borders.


    The money, drawn from the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, will be used to scale up existing programmes by agencies already operating in the country, including UNICEF, IOM, UNHCR, WHO, and UNFPA.


    The infusion of funding is a welcome step for some – but observers say it represents only a fraction of the humanitarian need.


    “Nine million dollars is a drop in the ocean. It is a colossal humanitarian crisis,” says Richard Lapper, a Latin America specialist at the Chatham House think tank.


    By comparison, a 2018 plan formulated by the WHO, UNAIDS, and the Venezuelan health ministry to respond to HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria was budgeted at $122 million over three years.


    Tamara Taraciuk of Human Rights Watch says the government has made a subtle shift in recent months away from total denial. “They are recognising an economic crisis,” she says. “They still do not talk about a humanitarian crisis.”


    An effective and sustainable aid response would require a comprehensive assessment of the problems – which would inevitably involve admitting the scale of humanitarian needs.


    “Without a proper diagnosis there is no way this crisis is going to be solved, and for a proper diagnosis you need the government’s cooperation and statistics,” she says. “Or at least access to the country – full access to the country – to come up with an independent diagnosis.”


    “The real problem is that the state is not working,” activist and former diplomat Luisa Kislinger says. “There is no way a number of NGOs or one NGO can replace the state.”


    “The role of local groups is so important,” says Tamara Taraciuk, senior Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has tracked the humanitarian impact of the crisis within Venezuela’s borders and around the region. She says local NGOs have been compelled to shift their operations toward something they had never foreseen: humanitarian work.


    “They are helping people who would otherwise not receive any aid,” Taraciuk says.


    This would be a challenge anywhere, but oil-rich Venezuela was uniquely unprepared: civil society was small; NGOs like Mi Convive largely focused on human rights or development. And, says Luisa Kislinger, a women’s rights activist and a former Venezuelan diplomat, the country had rarely seen humanitarian emergencies within its own borders.


    When the economy imploded, precious few organisations had experience doing humanitarian work.


    “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” Kislinger says. “We didn’t know until now.”


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elderly people queue for food at a public kitchen in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

    Local groups morph


    The barren food supplies and run-down hospitals of today are a stark contrast with a few short years ago. Venezuela, a verdant country of 30 million with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, was riding high oil prices, which papered over underlying weaknesses in the economy. But by 2016 the country was in an economic tailspin created by a perfect storm of fiscal mismanagement and plummeting oil prices.


    Today, skyrocketing inflation has left many unable to afford food, and malnutrition is soaring. Daily departures rose to an estimated 5,500 people by the end of 2018, many citing hunger. The UN estimates the number of Venezuelans living outside their homeland could reach 5.3 million by the end of this year. Aid agencies say they need $738 million to tackle the humanitarian emergency in 16 countries now home to large numbers of Venezuelans.


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ennio Prince, 70, sits in a home for elderly people in Carúpano. Malnutrition rates are rising across Venezuela. Local humanitarian groups say impoverished elderly people often do not have enough food to eat: “I am always hungry,” Prince says.

    But within the country, the Maduro government denies the existence of a humanitarian crisis, instead blaming his country’s economic freefall on foreign powers, sanctions, and political sabotage.


    ☰ Read more: Roadblocks for local aid


    Venezuela’s economic crisis has also claimed NGOs among its victims. Some organisations have been forced to close their doors as hyper-inflation made operations unsustainable or as staff and volunteers also fled the country.  


    But dozens of tiny local foundations have also emerged. They are often self-funded or supported by donations from abroad.


    Controls on foreign currency also make it tough for NGOs to operate. Staff at local organisations say it is difficult for NGOs to legally bring money into Venezuela.


    Like Patiño’s Mi Convive, the Caracas-based Fundación Educando Ninó Felices has been forced to switch its operations to address basic humanitarian needs.


    The organisation was first founded in 2016 as an education NGO, introducing new technology and teaching methods to schools.


    Within a year, however, it soon became clear that there were more pressing problems.


    “The teachers started to say that they couldn’t go to the school because they had to queue up to get food,” says former staff member Claudia Cova.


    Training teachers, Cova says, “suddenly became ridiculously unnecessary” compared to essentials like food and clothing.


    “We had to abandon these things and look after more basic needs such as ensuring that the children had shoes, that they had food, and making sure that they could continue attending their classes and that the teachers didn’t leave the school,” Cova says.


    The humanitarian emergency has also forced change on other organisations with long track records in Venezuela.


    A portrait of bearded man's face
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Jesus Villarroel, a priest and director for Caritas in the eastern Venezuelan city of Carúpano, says the country’s economic crisis has forced the Catholic charity to take on more humanitarian work.

    When the Catholic charity Caritas opened operations in Venezuela in 1997, its work was focused on pastoral care for prisoners, support for the sick, and human rights advocacy. But seeing hunger and malnutrition rising, the organisation started prioritising humanitarian work in 2016, says Jesus Villarroel, a priest and the director of Caritas in Carúpano, site of one of the largest churches in the eastern state of Sucre.


    Caritas has opened community kitchens across the country and expanded alliances with local organisations to strengthen its humanitarian response on food and healthcare.


    “We are absolutely playing a more important role now than before the crisis,” Villarroel says. ‘‘We don’t pretend to be a substitute for the state. Because of the indifference of the state, we are seeking to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the country, to make dignity from little.”


    The Caritas Carúpano headquarters is buzzing. Food for the 90 people who come here every day is prepared in the kitchen while a dozen people wait for medical clinics run by small local foundations working with Caritas.


    It is a godsend for Erimas Milagro Machado Rodriguez, 28. Her children, Sirian, one, and Damian, four, suffer frequent diarrhoea. Doctors tell her they are severely malnourished.


    ‘‘The children cry every day because they are hungry,” Rodriguez says, her shoulders slumping and eyes sinking into a gaunt face. “When I can’t find any food, I try to make juice from fruit and give them a lot of liquid to fill them up.”  


    Rodriguez has also come to the kitchen to try to get treatment for Damian. The child was diagnosed with a psychological disability, but unable to get him any help, she is desperate. “I don’t know what to do or where to go to get the children what they need,” she says biting her lip, her eyes glassy. “It makes me feel so bad as a mother.”


    Around the city of Machiques, on the opposite side of the country near the Colombian border, the local Caritas office has recently increased the frequency of free meals it provides to five days a week.


    “Years ago, only the homeless went,” says Dr. Ingrid Graterol, director of the Machiques Caritas office. “But today everyone goes.”  


    Caritas is planning on setting up a medical clinic in Tucoco, a small village nestled under the foothills about 16 kilometres from the Colombian border.


    A doctor checks on a child in a woman's arms
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ingrid Graterol, a doctor who works with Caritas, checks on a child in Tucoco, a village near the Colombian border in western Venezuela.

    Graterol says malaria, malnutrition, diarrhoea, and pneumonia have claimed lives in Tucuco over the past three years, but a particularly severe bout of malaria ravaged the village last year.


    The organisation partnered with a local friar to bring medicine to the remote village. But it was too late for Lisbeth Alehandra Fernandez, who was born last May.


    The baby had arrived with a healthy scream, a shock of black hair, and an immediate curiosity about the world. Twenty-three days later, she was dead.  


    A grieving woman wipes a tear from her eyes
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Ludi Fernandez is dependent on local NGOs when she needs healthcare.

    Lisbeth didn’t die of the pneumonia written on her death certificate. She didn’t even die from the malaria she had contracted.


    She died because there were no medicines to treat her malaria in the local hospital and none in the private clinic two hours away. Left untreated, her condition worsened. By the time her parents managed to find the drugs on the black market and raise the money to pay for them, it was too late.  


    “We didn’t have anything and then there was a total lack of medicines,” says the baby’s mother, 32-year-old school administrator Ludi Mar Yakusa Fernandez.


    Threats and intimidation


    In Venezuela, undertaking humanitarian work in a crisis the government refuses to acknowledge comes with its own set of challenges.  


    When local NGOs try to set up new comedors, they face threats, false accusations, and intimidation from chavistas – a term used to describe militant supporters of the late president, Hugo Chávez, and his successor Maduro.


    Elizabeth Tarrio, who works for Alimenta La Solidaridad, says bureaucrats of the Maduro government and communal councils – the neighbourhood bodies set up in 2006 by Chávez to administer policies locally – have tried to boycott and obstruct their efforts.


    “Communal councils don’t want to show weakness so they prevent us doing things to improve things,” she says. “They are supposed to provide food, but they don’t so they don’t want us to bring food.”


    Mi Convive’s Patiño says chavistas may threaten to withhold government-subsidised food boxes from communities where the NGO is trying to start new aid programmes.


    The NGO workers have found that the solution is to slowly build a relationship with the community first.


    “The community leaders – the real community leaders, the mothers – are the ones who put a stop to it,” says Patiño. “For mothers and grandmothers, their first priority is children, regardless of political affiliation.”


    Even Caritas faces headwinds, despite its long history in Venezuela. In October 2017, Caritas Venezuela warned that some 280,000 children could die from malnutrition. Two weeks later, Maduro attacked the Catholic church in the country, saying that everything linked to it "is contaminated, poisoned by a counter-revolutionary vision and permanent conspiracy".


    Hunger reaches young and old


    The deprivations in Venezuela extend from its outer reaches to its capital, Caracas – the nerve centre of Alimenta La Solidaridad’s operations.


    The colonial Hacienda La Vega sits amid lush grounds in the centre of the city. Built in 1590, it has been home to a succession of aristocratic families. Today, though, it hosts the warehouse, kitchen, and headquarters of Alimenta La Solidaridad. Mountains of leeks and bananas lie on the grounds; hundreds of tins of nutritional supplements – donated mostly by Venezuelans abroad – share space with 19th-century leather-bound books, elaborate engravings of family trees, and portraits of nobility.


    A woman stands in a commercial sized kitchen area with notes written directly on the wall
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elizabeth Tarrio, 59, works with Alimenta La Solidaridad, which runs more than 50 public kitchens around Venezuela, feeding more than 4,500 children a week.

    Elizabeth Tarrio, 59, is bustling around, checking on progress as volunteers sort and weigh food supplies and organise them for delivery to 18 communities in Caracas.


    “We have seen a huge rise in malnourished kids. Huge. That’s why we are trying to open more comedors,” she says.


    Throughout the country, however, needs continue to outstrip supply. Local NGOs are a stop-gap measure, not a replacement for basic government services. In addition to the food and medicine shortages, Venezuelans see frequent blackouts and water cuts, and soaring prices are a problem for groups trying to help.


    Tarrio opens a deep freeze. There’s a large fish but no meat.   


    A couple of days earlier, the government imposed price controls on meat, regulating prices at such low rates that many distributors refused to sell.


    A steep set of stairs winds up the hill, past a mural of the angel San Miguel, the namesake of this Caracas neighbourhood, past a sign advertising light bulb repair, past a stream of children, all clutching spoons, who form a long queue around a narrow staircase that rises to a small home. Inside, two dozen children sit at white plastic tables, their heads bowed in prayer. Vitamins are spooned into open mouths, bowls of food are gobbled down, and the next round of children comes in and takes their places.  


    This newest comedor was opened by Alimenta La Solidaridad in San Miguel last year. The number of children who come here doubled in its first three months; there are 18 more children on the waiting list.


    The hunger reaches both young and old.


    In another part of Caracas, the people waiting to take their places at a separate kitchen are the elderly. Some lean on walking frames, others on canes, anxiety scoring deeply lined faces.


    This public kitchen is run by Fundación Nacional Amigos de la Tercera Edad, an organisation started in 1977 – part social club, part social help. It too has been changed by Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis; it now focuses on feeding the elderly.


    Elderly people sit eating in front of a mural of the last supper in similar positions accidentally
    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Elderly Venezuelans eat at a public kitchen run by Fundación Nacional Amigos de la Tercera Edad, a local NGO. The organisation says it doesn’t have enough resources to feed the growing number of elderly who need free food.

    Carmen Senovia Tovar, 77, is overseeing the second sitting of the day. She has worked at the foundation for 23 years; she says the situation has radically deteriorated over the last five years.  


    “We have people only eating one meal a day and sometimes none,” she says. “Sometimes they have to collect it from the garbage.”


    Susan Schulman/IRIN
    Carmen Senovia Tovar, 77, works with a local NGO to serve lunch to elderly people at a public kitchen in Caracas.

    Even as the needs increase, Tovar worries that her organisation’s ability to help is withering. Hyper-inflation continues to ascend, sending costs soaring on a daily basis. Funds that were once able to supply food for 200 now only cover 150, she says, and the organisation can only provide meals three times a week rather than its planned five.


    For the elderly Venezuelans who rely on the local NGO, however, the efforts are life-saving.


    “This place is not just very important, it is super important,” says 78-year-old Martin Burguillos as he waits his turn in the queue. “It’s the only place we can find food.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Children queue for lunch served by the NGO Mi Convive in the San Miguel neighbourhood of Caracas. CREDIT: Susan Schulman/IRIN)


    As Venezuela’s denied crisis deepens, local aid groups shift tactics
    One of a series of stories from within Venezuela, reporting on the humanitarian impacts of the country's economic collapse. <a href="https://www.irinnews.org/special-report/2018/11/20/venezuela-humanitarian-crisis-denied">Read more here</a>.

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