(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • Songs, radio shows, and door-to-door visits: how community awareness is helping defeat Ebola in Congo

    Relatives ride in on motorbikes, bust three patients out of an Ebola treatment centre, and take them to a church to be prayed over by 50 people. Later, one dies at home, another in hospital, while the third lives but could have infected an untold number of people.


    It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood disaster movie, but it took place less than three weeks ago in Mbandaka, a city of 1.2 million people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A huge effort is now underway here to raise awareness about the virus and prevent its spread.


    The government and international NGOs are leading the charge, but some of the most effective work is done by the local community and Church leaders. In the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Mbandaka-Bikoro, for instance, sacraments such as baptisms and anointing ceremonies have been suspended to avert the risk of transmitting Ebola.


    “Ebola is real,” stressed community leader Gabriel Selemani at an impromptu gathering near a marketplace. “Don’t play games with it, and don’t listen to rumours and lies being spread around that it is a fairy-tale, an international conspiracy, or as a result of witchcraft.”

    In local schools in Mbandaka, teachers hammer home the message too, leading children through a special “Ebola, Go away!” song and making hand-washing and temperature-taking mandatory before class.


    Talking to people on the city’s streets, it is evident that many take the dangers posed by the outbreak extremely seriously. But others disregard the risks, while some are in denial about the outbreak or say they believe news of it has been planted as some kind of Western plot.


    Many still flock to traditional healers or witch doctors like Papa Nganga, believing Ebola to be a product of witchcraft.


    “What I need right now is for the NGOs and the health ministry to stop spending money and bring me all the Ebola patients,” Nganga told IRIN. “My ancestors, who still live in this statue, are empowering me to heal anyone in two days.”  


    Contained? Perhaps, for now


    News of Congo’s latest Ebola outbreak (this is its ninth since the first-ever case was discovered near the country’s Ebola River in 1976) emerged in early May in the northwestern province of Equateur.


    Read more: Ebola outbreak in Congo – what you need to know





    As of Thursday, 37 Ebola cases had been confirmed, all in Equateur, including 25 deaths, according to the World Health Organisation.


    Three deaths in Mbandaka by 22 May – including the two in the motorcycle kidnapping/escape incident – led health experts to warn that the outbreak was on a “knife-edge” and could spawn a wider epidemic.


    The latest confirmed infection, in a village in the remote Iboko area, was recorded on 30 May. Experts caution that because the index (first) case was never identified and it can take three weeks for symptoms to appear, it is too early to declare the outbreak contained.


    The greatest fear remains: that an infected person could carry the disease to a major urban centre, like the capital, Kinshasa, or Bangui, the capital of neighbouring Central African Republic – both reachable via the largely unmonitored Congo River.


    Read more: Fear, suspicion, and anger along Congo’s river of worry




    This time around, a new weapon has been deployed in the fight against Ebola – a vaccine, administered to anyone who comes into contact with a confirmed case. Tested towards the end of the West Africa epidemic that claimed more than 11,000 lives from 2013-16, this is the first time a vaccine has been part of a concerted effort to contain an Ebola outbreak.


    For the so-called ring vaccination campaign to work, every person who has come into physical contact with a suspected case must be identified, vaccinated, and then monitored for symptoms.


    While WHO experts say ring vaccination and contact-tracing are key to stemming outbreaks, they are time-consuming, invasive, and hard to do effectively in rural areas with patchy phone networks like Bikoro and Iboko, where the outbreak is thought to have originated. A journey of just 20 kilometres in this region can take several hours, and the vaccine needs to be kept at an extremely low temperature.


    But containing the outbreak also depends on the willingness of the local community to help – by raising the alarm when a case is suspected and by informing health workers promptly and accurately of everyone an infected person has been in contact with.


    Winning over the sceptics


    While most people are cooperating and health workers say all the immediate contacts of known cases in Mbandaka have now been vaccinated, rumours and conspiracy theories have also taken root.


    Hordes of health officials (WHO alone has sent 170 experts), aid workers, and journalists have descended on Mbandaka, often making disconcerting demands or asking difficult questions. Some locals are benefiting from an economic boom, but others have been hit by unexpected price hikes and many are wary of the foreign invasion.


    “The so-called Ebola is nothing but a curse. Ebola is a white man’s invention to attempt to control Africa’s resources,” pastor Jean-Pierre Elumba told his riveted congregation, meeting near one of Mbandaka’s many river ports. “Brothers and sisters, whether this Ebola thing exists here in Equateur or not, the truth is that the solution of Ebola lies in repentance, not in washing hands...


    “Does anyone know anyone suffering from Ebola in their neighbourhood? If you know someone, please bring them to me, I will pray for that person and they will be healed. Now, shake the hand of the person standing next to you.”


    Infection prevention and control materials from WHO are brought to the General Reference Hospital in Mbandaka.

    Elumba’s sermon is the exception rather than the rule. Raphael Mbuyi, provincial coordinator in Equateur for UK-based charity Oxfam, reckons four in five pastors are on-side with the response effort. “It is the remaining 20 percent still resisting that pose a problem,” he said. “And, among them, there are at least 80 percent that say Ebola is a curse from God.”


    Oxfam, which is taking part in a larger awareness-raising campaign involving the Congolese government, UNICEF, and other international NGO partners, has recruited 120 local people to go door-to-door to get the facts out to as many families as possible. “We are well aware of the rumours going around about the disease,” Mbuyi said. “That’s why we are moving quickly to get the message across.”


    In addition to buying radio air time to offer health professionals an opportunity to discuss Ebola, Oxfam is promoting phone-in programmes that allow listeners to ask questions about the disease.


    Vaccine fears and changing customs


    The traditional practice of touching and handling the bodies of the dead was a major factor in the fast spread of Ebola in the 2013-16 West Africa outbreak.


    One of the pillars of containing Ebola now is what the WHO calls “safe and dignified burials”, whereby professionals handle the corpses and follow a 12-stage guide, observing, as much as possible, local custom.


    But not everyone is happy with the way this is going down in Equateur.


    “I was in Bikoro and I was angry the way people were holding Ebola funerals,” said Elizabeth Mokia, a woman in her 70s.


    “We are used to cuddling each other when somebody passes away, and embrace the dead to tell them how badly we are going to miss them and how much they meant to us. But now we don’t even hold a funeral, or we hold it far away from the corpse and don’t approach even the dead. The worst part of it is we don’t even shake the hand of our own best friend.”


    Marthe Bomboka, a nurse and midwife working at Wangata General Hospital, turned down the chance to be vaccinated.


    “The hospital superintendent told all of us to register for vaccination, whether we are treating Ebola patients or not,” she explained. “But when our colleagues who were vaccinated reported side-effects such as diarrhoea, vomiting, and migraines, I categorically refused to go for it.”

    Bomboka said that before Médecins Sans Frontières opened a separate Ebola clinic at Iyonda, 15 kilometres from Mbandaka, fear of the virus had been scaring people away from the hospital. (There is now a second MSF isolation unit in Bikoro, and the international medical NGO is setting up other treatment centres in Iboko and Itipo.)

    “We ran out of patients,” Bomboka said. “And the maternity consultations became free of charge, perhaps to attract patients and pregnant women to come. It shows you that people want nothing to do with this so-called Ebola.”


    WHO spokesman Tarik Jašarević acknowledged possible side-effects from the vaccine but said these were “typically mild”, including “headache, fatigue, muscle pain, and mild fever”.

    He also sought to reassure people, saying the vaccinations are free and voluntary (on the basis of written informed consent only), and are approved by the Congolese government’s ethics committee. Every person vaccinated receives two check-up visits, three and 14 days after vaccination, Jašarević added.

    Making (some) progress


    In a statement Wednesday highlighting that “information and social mobilisation are key to containing Ebola”, UNICEF trumpeted the fact that more than 300,000 people had been provided with lifesaving information by the organisation and its partners.


    For the moment, at least, the Equateur outbreak appears to have been stopped in its tracks. Oxfam’s Mbuyi, for one, attributes this to both the vaccine and the awareness-raising campaign.


    Issa Sikiti Da Silva/IRIN

    “We have seen an amazing change of behaviour in many people,” he said. “As a result of what we have been doing, many people are going to hospital to be vaccinated, and the culture of hand-washing is also being fostered in many areas and in households.”


    Yet the vaccine hasn’t stopped some in Mbandaka from turning to alternative methods to ward off the virus, and others from purveying their “cures”.


    Francine Kibala, 49, claimed to have developed her own powerful “vaccine” from plants in the giant Mai-Ndombe forest that are famed in Congo for their supposedly magical powers.


    “This solution, which was mixed with the mysterious water of Lake Mai-Ndombe, is better and stronger than the vaccine brought here by the white people,” she said, brandishing a darkish liquid she referred to as her “trophy”.


    One man who bought Kibala's “drinkable vaccine” strongly defended his decision: “Why shouldn’t I believe in her medicine? Congo’s forests are full of magical plants that can do wonders and cure many diseases. I bought it, drank some, and gave some to my family to protect us against Ebola.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Health workers operate within an Ebola safety zone in the Health Center in Iyonda, near Mbandaka, on 1 June 2018. CREDIT: Junior Kannah/AFP)


    Containing the outbreak isn’t simply down to the vaccine
    Songs, radio shows, and door-to-door visits: how community awareness is helping defeat Ebola in Congo
  • Congo Ebola outbreak offers first test for emergency fund to prevent pandemics

    A new financial mechanism that frees up emergency funding to ward off a pandemic has been activated for the first time, in response to an outbreak of Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo.


    Efforts to halt the outbreak received an injection of $12 million from the new World Bank fund and, if Ebola spreads to other countries and infects more people, hundreds of millions more could be released from a sister insurance scheme.


    The Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, or PEF, was set up after the 2013-2016 West Africa Ebola epidemic, which was only brought under control at a cost of more than 11,000 lives and about $3 billion, and after late and insufficient response efforts failed to stem the disease.  


    The World Bank says the PEF’s combination of donor cash and capital from the insurance markets provides a new model for epidemic response.


    News of Congo’s outbreak in Bikoro, an area in northwestern Equateur Province, reached the World Health Organisation on 8 May. Its spread to Mbandaka, a city of more than a million inhabitants with river transport links to the capital, Kinshasa, greatly increased fears of a major epidemic. As of 27 May, 35 cases of Ebola had been confirmed, including 12 deaths.


    Efforts to contain the outbreak are focusing on: an experimental vaccination campaign; boosting surveillance – locating cases of infection and people they have been in contact with; preventing further infections, particularly by encouraging safe burials; raising awareness of the risks among local communities; and stepping up readiness in neighbouring countries.


    The day after the 22 May release of a three-month response plan devised by Kinshasa with international aid groups, the new emergency financing facility agreed to disburse $12 million. This contributed towards an overall fundraising target for the plan of $56 million.


    “I’m very excited,” Mukesh Chawla, coordinator of the PEF, said in an interview with IRIN, adding that the facility aimed to work “as fast as possible, as early as necessary”.


    A spokesperson for the Congolese Ministry of Health said the PEF cash injection had closed a significant funding gap and allowed the government to concentrate on responding. In an email referring to the response plan, Jessica Ilunga said the government had received fresh commitments from other donors of about $25 million, as well as an agreement to redirect more funding towards Ebola from another $15 million World Bank project.

    How does PEF work?


    The facility has two elements (or “windows”): cash and insurance.


    The cash window, from where the DRC Ebola funds come, operates much like other pooled donor funds such as the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund. Grants can be released to any of 77 low-income countries based on the decision of a steering group of the donors, advised by the WHO and other experts. The World Bank manages the funds and disbursements. Any affected country can apply for funds and, if the outbreak meets the PEF’s criteria and a response plan is given a green light by the WHO, the steering group can then release the cash.


    In the case of Congo, the PEF has committed to $12 million, some of which will be spent by the government, and some by relief agencies, according to its operational rules.


    Chawla told IRIN that so far three UN agencies, the WHO, UNICEF, and the UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), had agreements with the PEF. Other agencies would be added, he said. These allow for expedited “one-liner” grants to be made once other criteria are met.


    The Ministry of Health spokesperson, Ilunga, said the funding for Congo would be split between the government and UN agencies. Chawla said a third donor may soon step in to replenish the cash fund, so far funded by Germany and Japan.


    Economist Stefan Dercon, co-author of a book on disaster insurance “Dull Disasters”, welcomed the launch of the PEF. “Releasing, now, 10, 20, 30 million is worth quite a few billion later on if we don’t do this early,” he said.


    Dercon described pandemics as good candidates for this class of rules-driven “contingent” finance (since there is past data to work with and for calculating risk), but cautioned that, as the PEF concentrates only on surge response, it fails to take the opportunity to build national systems and preparedness.




    Dercon says the other part of the PEF, the insurance window, is more “imaginative”. It’s effectively a giant insurance policy, covering the 77 poorest member countries of the World Bank. Payouts are triggered if certain types of disease outbreaks spread to multiple countries and pass preset thresholds of death toll and speed.


    If, in the case of Ebola for example, there were 250 deaths across two countries (more than 20 times the current confirmed death toll), significant payouts would flow. Private investors earn interest on bonds that back the policy, but can lose all or part of their capital in the event of major outbreaks.


    Donor countries Japan and Germany and the World Bank’s own International Development Assistance (IDA) grant-making arm pay the premiums. The three-year policy (details in this 386-page term sheet) was designed by the Bank along with insurance heavyweights Munich Re and Swiss Re.


    The price tag? Chawla says it’s $37 million a year, paid by the IDA, Japan, and Germany to secure a worst-case payout of $500 million. It’s equivalent to two cents per insured person per year, Chawla argues.


    The PEF insurance window can only cover outbreaks of the following diseases: pandemic Influenza (new or novel influenza A virus), Coronaviruses (e.g. SARS, MERS), Filoviruses (Ebola, Marburg), Crimean Congo haemorrhagic fever, Rift Valley fever, and Lassa fever.


    The likelihood of each disease and the resultant pricing were calculated from past event data using models developed by a third-party analyst, Air Worldwide Corporation.




    The World Bank does warn that at its extreme, in the event of a major global outbreak of influenza for example, investors could lose their shirts: “the principal amount due to the bondholders under a Pandemic Bond will be reduced in its entirety to zero”.


    However, the balance of risk versus return has not scared off investors: the offering, which pays between 6.9 percent in addition to the inter-bank interest rate LIBOR and 11.5 percent (plus LIBOR), depending on the riskiness, is 200 percent oversubscribed. In a world of low interest rates, that’s “pretty decent money”, acknowledged Chawla.


    Given the appetite in the market, and with the experience of the PEF’s first outing, Chawla said work was already underway to design the next phase, and that the cost to donors could drop further.


    Dercon said the enthusiasm in the market might suggest the PEF bonds appear “quite expensive”. He also believes that the epidemiological model data behind the pricing should ideally be open and public, to ensure some transparency. In his conversations with insurers Lloyds of London, he was told they could insure anything – and that “everything has a price”.


    Humanitarian finance analyst Lydia Poole said the PEF should spur humanitarians to consider which other situations that face “unpredictable, late, and inadequate funding” could suit similar solutions. “It’s long past time we lifted our ambitions above incremental financing reforms and designed financing solutions for system-level structural financing problems,” she said.


    Confident in its ability to marry data, markets, and donor appetites on pandemics, the World Bank has started work to design a similar insurance model for another human scourge: famine.

    (TOP PHOTO: A health official uses a thermometer to measure the temperature of disembarking passengers at the airport at Mbandaka in DRCongo on 19 May 2018. CREDIT: Junior Kannah/AFP)



    Congo Ebola outbreak offers first test for emergency fund to prevent pandemics
  • When Artificial Intelligence meets humanitarian jargon

    On the sidelines of an AI for Good conference in Geneva, where humans and robots mingled and discussed how machine learning could help global development, IRIN rolled up its data science sleeves and deployed a bot on an important new challenge: making up names of aid agencies and aid job titles.


    It’s a new take on some of the jargon and repetitiveness that can be found in the relief and development sector, and hopefully gives a taste of the rudiments of machine learning.

    *Update 31 May: Following suggestions from readers, we applied the machine learning code to 4,500 project titles from the International Aid Transparency Initiative dataset to generate some surreal but somehow familiar new project ideas. Scroll down for a taste... 

    First we downloaded a list of over 9,000 aid organisations from the UN’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS) database. The A-Z list goes from “A Call to Serve International” to “Zwanan Development Organization”. Then we fed them into a machine learning system running open-source code in the Python language.


    The aid organisation names were processed by a recurrent neural network built on the TensorFlow system. We won’t (also, can’t) explain how the maths works in detail. However, it functions like any machine learning process – the foundation of the current explosion in “AI” across a range of sectors – it analyses the patterns of letters and words and then attempts to generate new examples using the rules it has deduced from the original data.


    (Our idea to explore the jargon and nomenclature in aidspeak owes much to Janelle Shane, who feeds machine learning algorithms with unlikely lists, such as the names of craft beers or the names of pet guinea pigs).


    Here are some of our favourites, generated entirely by code.


    Update: Aid project titles produced by AI

    Here are 12 favourites generated from studying a dataset of 4,500 IATI project titles:

    • Support to South Savable Girls
    • Emergency Womens Affected Host Technocons 
    • Support to complication against agriculture in The Rehabilitation
    • Tender Support to State Final Emergency II​
    • Emergency WASH project for Visibility
    • Develop Award Girls in Good Di Minion
    • Bossing Support​
    • Emergency WASH Election Response in South Sudan​
    • Mid-term Education Most Hard African States in Kosovo
    • Support to the GBV Livestock Strategy of Integrated Host Communities in IDPs in Laba
    • Support to the poops in Emergency​
    • Transit come response for the improved EU Development of the Sudanian State​


    Aid agency names produced by AI


    Some sound quite plausible – if you do set one up, please let us know and send the logo.

    Support International Aid Foundation

    Community Aid Association for Development

    Association des Femmes de l'Environnement

    Medicultural Community Foundation

    Some a little pompous:

    International Council of Society

    Internationalist Fund for Rehabilitation

    Save Foundation

    Others, possibly creative and/or radical:

    Sure Vision for Red Cross

    Africa Relief and Empower Swedish Family

    People Trust of South ye Community Humanitarian Family

    Water World Sudan

    AI-generated NGO: People Trust of South ye Community Humanitarian Family

    Sometimes our bot seemed to get a little lost and confused:

    Alliance for Development and Development

    Miseration Mission for Comment of Africa

    Alliance Save the Development International

    Gy Alliance Conflicted Now Women International

    El Organisation des Futures

    And, some are just plain weird (sorry not sorry):

    ACF and Development Porn

    Scam for National Aid

    Bin Welfare Relief and Training

    Association Premirerianista

    Next, we moved onto humanitarian job titles. We fed the bot more than 2,000 vacancies on the UN’s ReliefWeb jobs pages. And these are some of the best new jobs titles it came up with. Perhaps some of these fit your current role? Or make you wish you could apply?

    AI-generated job title: Regional Regionalization of International Programme for Head of Party  


    Humanitarian job titles invented by AI


    Chief of Party (Sex)

    Sneak Specialist

    South Changes Manager

    Chef of Finances and Grant & Manager

    Regional Leader (Interant) Livelihood and Consultant

    Multiple International Director

    Nation demonic Manager


    Safe Manager

    Consultant Africa and Charging and Programme

    Hand Officer

    Projectories Analyst

    Regional Regionalization of International Programme for Head of Party  

    Changing Director

    Communications Coordinator and Memaliature Manager

    Integration Director (Support) (H/F)

    International Parent (H/F) Adviser

    Street Communication Laborator

    Development Coordinator – Safety Senior Charge Policy Specialist

    And some that sound more like entry level roles:

    Engager Programmes Intern


    Project (unimation volunteer)

    Reliefancer Coordinator

    Editor Intern Coordinator

    As always, comments and reactions are welcome below - tell us your favourites!


    When Artificial Intelligence meets humanitarian jargon
    Could you be the next Hand Officer at Bin Welfare Relief and Training?
  • From alms and Artificial Intelligence to Malala and Madagascar: The Cheat Sheet

    Our editors’ Friday roundup of humanitarian trends and developments.


    On our radar:


    Alms race


    The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next week. As well as fasting and prayer, it's a time for charity in the form of alms known as zakat. NGOs often mount Ramadan fundraising campaigns, an extra source of scarce humanitarian funding. A 2015 study on zakat by consultancy Development Initiatives found billions in play but "conflicting opinions on whether non-Muslims can benefit from zakat and where it can be used." No such doubts blocked one fund, however. A Malaysian state zakat initiative gave $1.2 million for a Red Cross water and agriculture project in Kenya last year, and the communities helped were largely Christian – a deal brokered by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Meanwhile, British NGO Islamic Relief put out a new advert just before Ramadan to encourage donations, with a message about do-it-yourself aid expeditions. In the three-minute video, well-meaning young Yusuf raises money online in the UK and sets off for Niger to personally deliver his own package of aid.


    Let's just say, things don't go as he planned…


    Madagascar on edge

    Keep an eye on Madagascar. Following contested changes to the country’s electoral laws, things are in danger of unravelling. That’s the warning the Institute of Security Studies issued to the Southern African Development Community this week regarding intensifying violence between supporters of two former presidents and the government of President Hery Rajaonarimampianina; two people were killed during protests in April. The Pretoria-based research institute predicted “another full-scale crisis” unless a free election takes place with a level-playing field. The tension is fuelled by fears that popular ex-presidents Marc Ravalomanana and Andry Rajoelina could be barred from the race. Amnesty International has urged the government to refrain from criminalising freedom of peaceful assembly and called on the opposition not to intimidate or harass citizens, including schoolchildren, into joining its demonstrations.


    In Myanmar, displacement goes way beyond the Rohingya


    With so much attention on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, it’s easy to forget that Myanmar also has multiple internal displacement crises on its hands. More than 100,000 people are still uprooted in the north, and aid groups say more than 6,800 people have joined them since early April, fleeing indiscriminate shelling by the military in its clashes with a Kachin rebel group.


    Elsewhere, a trickle of refugees returned this week to eastern Myanmar after decades in camps in Thailand. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, announced it had helped 93 people return under a voluntary programme. If that strikes you as an infinitesimally small number, you’re right. Almost 100,000 people live in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, according to The Border Consortium, which represents aid groups that have worked with the refugees since the 1980s. While Myanmar’s political reforms once filled donors with hope, a national peace process has stalled and many refugees in Thailand aren’t sure if it’s safe to return. Aid funding has fallen, both in the camps and in eastern Myanmar, leaving refugees with an unenviable choice. While the UNHCR returns programme is ongoing, many refugees don’t want to take part because their names could be given to Myanmar’s government. Instead, an estimated 18,000 refugees have returned home on their own since 2012, with no official support.  

    More than Malala


    We’re not sure who actually reads 300-page reports, but this one covers a scary and important reality – indiscriminate and deadly attacks on schools, universities, students, and staff are becoming more widespread. This exhaustive research from the Global Coalition to Prevent Education from Attack contains plenty of facts and figures: the headline number is 12,700 attacks from 2013 to 2017, harming more than 21,000 students and educators. In many countries, female students and teachers are targeted because of their gender (see: Malala, but also plenty of other girls). For those without the patience to get through the whole thing, you can skip to helpful country profiles, and you don’t need to read it all to get the point. As GCPEA’s Executive Director Diya Nijhowne puts it: “Teaching and learning has become increasingly dangerous.”


    Getting to grips with cholera


    Last year, the World Health Organisation and Yemeni authorities cancelled plans to vaccinate against cholera: a huge epidemic was raging, supplies were uncertain, and permissions, security, and access difficult. On 6 May, a new operation to vaccinate 350,000 people in and around the port of Aden began. This time, a total of 4.6 million doses have been earmarked for Yemen with funding from the vaccine alliance, GAVI. Improvements in the effectiveness and supply of the cholera vaccine mean it’s now feasible to control outbreaks better than ever. In the first four months of 2018, 15 million doses of the oral vaccine have been allocated, more than the 11 million used in the whole of 2017. Billed the “largest cholera vaccination drive in history”, two million people in Malawi, Nigeria, South Sudan, Uganda, and Zambia are to get the oral vaccine in upcoming campaigns. Speaking at a briefing in Geneva, GAVI chief Seth Berkley also said that thanks to access allowing vaccination and good immunisation coverage a cholera epidemic “never came” to the high-risk refugee camps of Rohingya in Bangladesh. Another round of vaccinations for up to one million people there is underway, but a senior WHO official warned: “we’re not out of the woods yet”.


    Keep in mind:


    AI for good


    Satellites, cities, health, and trust: four themes pack the programme for an Artificial Intelligence conference in Geneva next week. The AI for Good Summit brings together academics, philanthropists and development types to come up with ideas for good bots to help with the sustainable development goals. You can’t get to the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva in person? The event will also be available on webcast. Oh yes, and a little nugget: one of the conference sponsors is Saudi Arabia, which granted “citizenship” to a robot last year called Sophia, drawing scorn from women’s rights activists.


    Our weekend read:


    Niger sends Sudanese refugees back to Libya


    Last week, we drew your attention to the arrest of more than 100 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers in Agadez. They are part of a reversal of usual migration trends that has seen some 1,700 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers moving south to Niger from Libya in search of more secure lives, prompted, at least in part, by European Union efforts to stem migration.


    On 10 May, we published this exclusive story about the deportation of 135 of those arrested Sudanese from Niger back to Libya. They were forcefully loaded onto trucks and taken from Agadez on 7 May. Since then, their whereabouts had been unknown. The regular IRIN contributor who broke the story, Eric Reidy, reached one of the deported Sudanese by phone this afternoon. He said they are still stranded at the Madama border crossing, in a no man’s land between Niger and Libya, uncertain where to go from there. “We left Libya because of the security situation to apply for asylum,” the Sudanese man said. But now they can’t go back to Niger. “No one will try because we were in Agadez and they kicked us out,” he said.


    And finally:


    Four calendars for the Rohingya  


    “We will distribute food at the end of the month.” Straightforward, right? Not in Bangladesh’s crowded Rohingya refugee camps. The Rohingya use four different calendars: the Bangla calendar used in parts of South Asia, the Gregorian or Western calendar, an Islamic calendar for religious occasions, and the Burmese calendar for some official documents back in Myanmar – from where an estimated 693,000 Rohingya have fled since August 2017. But not all these calendars overlap, and some Rohingya refer to all four depending on the subject, according to BBC Media Action, Internews, and Translators Without Borders, which have been collecting feedback from Rohingya refugees.


    So what does this mean for the Rohingya and the local and international aid workers assisting them? Be aware of the nuances, and “communicate clearly,” the groups advise. Aid groups have already been criticised for not doing enough to listen to the Rohingya themselves – including relying on complaints boxes with English instructions, despite high levels of illiteracy among the Rohingya. The Rohingya dialect is most similar to the Chittagonian spoken by locals in Cox’s Bazar, but a step removed from Bangla, Bangladesh’s dominant tongue. Failing to recognise these differences could be disastrous, according to a separate Translators Without Borders study on language barriers. In Bangla, the word used to describe a cyclone is jhor. In Rohingya, the same word may describe heavy rain – but not a storm. With cyclone and monsoon season imminent, such subtleties, TWB says, “could be the difference of life and death”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Posters for Madagascar's President Hery Rajaonarimampianina. CREDIT: Zo Andriamifidisoa/Flickr)


    From alms and Artificial Intelligence to Malala and Madagascar
  • Dial for help: The surprise hotline helping quake survivors in Papua New Guinea

    More than two months after Papua New Guinea’s strongest earthquake in almost a century, stranded survivors are turning to an unexpected lifeline: a small domestic violence hotline run by a non-governmental organisation.


    Although the risks of violence against women rise after disasters, most callers aren’t women. They’re men reaching out for support, enquiring about how to obtain food, shelter, and other  services, or fearful of violence that has broken out in some areas after tribal clashes.


    The toll-free line has been ringing almost non-stop with calls from people whose lives are still upended by the 7.5-magnitude earthquake that struck the country’s remote highlands region on 26 February.


    The quake triggered landslides that toppled villages, wiped out food supplies, and blocked key access roads. Authorities say the disaster killed dozens and left an estimated 270,000 in need of help. But tens of thousands of displaced people in isolated areas are still waiting for food, water, shelter, and other emergency aid.


    “In a way, it was one of the only available help sources for people,” said Sally Beadle, programme team leader on gender and child protection with ChildFund, which runs the hotline in cooperation with the Port Moresby-based Family and Sexual Violence Action Committee. “We see that many, many people who access the hotline probably have no access to any other face-to-face service.”


    She added that people are desperate, “and what we hear is that people are hungry”.


    The nine local trauma counsellors at the 1-Tok Kaunselin Helpim Lain have fielded roughly 2,000 calls since the earthquake, according to ChildFund. In addition to hearing about shortages of food and other basic needs, the Port Moresby-based counsellors talk with people who are afraid of aftershocks or simply anxious about what’s happening in their communities.


    “Everything was destroyed: their house, their gardens,” said Audrey, a trauma counsellor who uses a pseudonym in her work to protect her identity. “They have no means to get food, and also the water is polluted.”


    She and other hotline workers forward information from the calls to disaster responders working with the government and NGOs. Most callers don’t know where else to turn. “They’re traumatised,” Audrey said. “They’re in fear that it’s going to happen again.”


    A 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck Papua New Guinea’s highlands region on 26 February. The remote area has also been hit by at least 194 aftershocks between 26 February and 9 April.

    Vast distances

    The hotline was set up in 2015 to provide counselling to domestic violence survivors in a country where 68 percent of women report experiencing physical or sexual abuse. ChildFund had recorded about 10,000 calls before the February earthquake.


    The surge in calls after the earthquake reflects the challenge of responding to disasters in Papua New Guinea’s highlands region, where many already remote communities have been further isolated by landslides that have blocked roads, forcing aid workers to make hours-long journeys through rough terrain, often on foot.


    The government and aid groups say that at least 42,000 people in the three hardest-hit areas – Hela, Southern Highlands, and Western provinces – are still without shelter, living in poorly stocked camps or near their buried homes. Survivors in more than two thirds of 38 recently surveyed displacement sites said they had not received food shipments since the earthquake, leaving them reliant on home gardens and dwindling food stocks that were damaged by the disaster.


    The number of displaced people is expected to rise as aid workers finally visit the most hard-to-reach areas. Some of these are accessible only by helicopter, and airlifts are costly; UNICEF says logistics and security – necessitated by the outbreaks of violence that followed the earthquake – consume more than a quarter of its $13.8-million budget for the response.


    Last month, Robyn Drysdale, deputy humanitarian director in the Pacific for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, visited communities in Southern Highlands Province, near the epicentre of the earthquake, as part of an ongoing response focused on minimising maternal and newborn deaths after the disaster.


    She explained that it had been tough to provide healthcare and other basic services to the remote area in the best of times, but that after the earthquake the task of simply reaching people is even more difficult, with roads blocked and entire villages swept away by landslides. Now, she said, “health centres are destroyed, aid posts are destroyed”, and health workers have “run away because they're scared”.


    A home sits in ruins after a 26 February earthquake struck Papua New Guinea’s highlands region. Aid groups say shortages of food, clean water, and health services could lead to disease outbreaks and worsen severe malnutrition.
    Thomas Nybo/UNICEF
    A home sits in ruins after a 26 February earthquake struck Papua New Guinea’s highlands region. Aid groups say shortages of food, clean water, and health services could lead to disease outbreaks and worsen severe malnutrition.

    Long-term impacts


    UNICEF warns that the most-affected areas already had one of the world’s highest levels of child malnutrition. The UN agency predicts widespread damage to farms and other food sources could lead to a jump in the rate of life-threatening severe acute malnutrition – from the current national average of 2.6 percent to 4 percent in the worst-hit provinces. Health authorities are reporting diarrhoea outbreaks and deaths from preventable diseases.


    The earthquake has also inflamed tribal tensions in some areas, and UNICEF says more than 40,000 people now live in the midst of this violence. In late March, UN staff pulled out of Tari, the capital of Hela Province, after tribal clashes killed four people.


    The hotline has received unexpectedly few calls for its original purpose: to help survivors of family violence. Beadle said that while the phone service is available to anyone, the overwhelming proportion of male callers underscores the need to find ways of reaching more women in the weeks ahead.


    “We've got calls from single women who don't have a man, and a lot of this distribution is controlled by men. So they're just completely missing out,” she said.


    She noted that “women aren't not calling because they don't have a need for counselling and support; we're quite certain of that.”


    For most of the helpline staff, this is the first time they have counselled people after a natural disaster. But with aid still out of reach for many and aftershocks continuing to rattle the country, the trauma counsellors are preparing for the long haul.


    “There’s so much to do,” said another trauma counsellor, using the pseudonym Cathy. “People are still calling and asking for aid support. There’s still more to do in the months to come.”

    (TOP PHOTO: A woman and her one-year-old son stand outside a makeshift tent where they have been living since a 7.5-magnitude earthquake hit Papua New Guinea on 26 February, destroying most of the homes in their village. Authorities estimate that at least 42,000 people are still displaced, two months after the earthquake. CREDIT: Thomas Nybo/UNICEF)


    Dial for help: The surprise hotline helping quake survivors in Papua New Guinea
  • #MeToo sex scandals spur interest in standards for the aid sector

    The slew of #MeToo sexual abuse scandals that has jolted the humanitarian sector has prompted calls for proper oversight and vetting of aid agencies and workers, and for the introduction of mandatory professional standards.


    Donors have demanded new measures and reporting from grantees, and investigations have been launched by the British regulator. Critics say aid agencies operate without sufficient checks and balances and wonder why attempts to set up an independent authority, such as an ombudsman, have flopped. This, they argue, partly explains how the Oxfam scandal could happen.


    Others insist that viable systems are in place, they just need to be implemented: a leading benchmark for aid agencies, the Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS), drawn up in 2014, already includes the management of risk and prevention of sexual abuse and exploitation.


    “Never has it been more important to apply the Core Humanitarian Standard,” CHS Alliance Executive Director Judith Greenwood wrote in a web posting.


    Over the last 20 years, international aid organisations and donors have set up a range of self-regulation initiatives for quality assurance, accountability, and common technical standards with which many major aid agencies say they comply.


    A handful of donors tie compliance with standards to funding. For example, Denmark makes independent CHS verification or certification a requirement for its strategic partners, and provides funding to defray the costs of compliance. A spokesperson for the humanitarian department of the Danish foreign ministry told IRIN that agencies that have “gone through a CHS verification or certification process [are] shown to have better Protection against Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA) safe-guarding systems.”


    As humanitarian aid professor Dorothea Hilhorst put it in a column published by IRIN, the problem now facing the sector is not a lack of standards, rather it’s the lack of third-party enforcement and meaningful sanctions. “The initiatives all rely on the voluntary buy-in of NGOs, who ultimately retain power to independently deal with abuse,” she wrote.


    The regulatory challenge


    Designing a unified body of regulations and standards is difficult when so many different types of organisations inhabit the humanitarian space. International emergency aid services are offered by NGOs and charities, faith organisations, volunteer networks, social enterprises, or philanthropic projects connected to for-profit companies. More than 600 agencies received officially reported funding (mainly from governments) in 2017, according to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service (and that doesn’t include myriad smaller and informal groups).


    But there is no international humanitarian watchdog, nor is there a directory of vetted aid groups. Each group is governed by an array of oversight and tax mechanisms in its home country and unevenly governed by the host country at the point of delivery. The organisations are not under a single jurisdiction, and neither are the staff; there isn’t an aid worker union.


    And “aid worker” isn’t a single profession: a trauma surgeon or a water engineer may hold internationally recognised qualifications, but a range of generalist roles lack a single categorisation.


    In the Oxfam scandal, for instance, it was possible for an aid worker whose conduct was questionable to be re-hired repeatedly over a 20-year period because there was no system to flag up such people and prevent their re-recruitment. But proposals for a single register of “whitelisted” aid workers, even if such a registry were legally viable, would not have stopped the re-recruitment of Oxfam Haiti manager Roland van Hauwermeiren: none of the organisations he worked with fired him, nor was he criminally prosecuted.


    Organisations and banana skins


    At the other end of the spectrum, the challenges facing smaller organisations trying to gain credibility can also feel immense.


    Reza Chowdhury, executive director of Coast Trust, a Bangladeshi NGO supporting Rohingya refugees and combatting local poverty, has spent over two years ensuring that his organisation adheres to professional standards.


    Local aid agencies like his that are trying to break into the big leagues have “banana skins” in their internal systems that prevent them gaining credibility, he said. Chowdhury said a two-year process of getting an independent certification as a humanitarian agency, culminating in an on-site audit in late 2017, has been worth it to provide a recognised seal of approval from an independent group, and get a robust review of its procedures.


    Chowdhury spoke as he was picking up a certificate from the Geneva office of the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI).The document designated Coast Trust as the 14th aid agency certified by the group – the first from the so-called Global South, or developing nations.


    Using a network of independent auditors, HQAI assesses aid organisations, usually against the CHS standards. The process involves a management audit: interviewing staff, focus groups, project beneficiaries, reviewing documents and records in the field and at the agency’s offices.


    Ben Parker/IRIN
    Coast Trust is the first southern NGO to be certified by the Humanitarian Quality Assurance Initiative (HQAI), an independent auditing and advisory service for relief aid agencies, based in Geneva. COAST gained its certificate in January 2018.

    Lately, HQAI is particularly busy, a fact the group’s executive director, Pierre Hauselmann, partially ascribes to reactions to the UK aid agency scandals. “Suddenly, HQAI services have become much more visible, from donors and NGOs alike,” he said.


    Over the last two years, the organisation has done about 35 audits, which Hauselmann says are designed to drive incremental improvements in adherence to the CHS standards. Because the process involves repeat annual reviews, “we can see the improvements from one audit to the other”, he noted.


    A trusted third-party seal of approval can make a difference to donors who are considering whether to shift more cash to non-Western aid groups, often as part of “localisation” efforts, Chowdhury said. HQAI worked with his group to align its operations with the principles and commitments set out in the CHS. In this post-scandal era, that includes showing how an organisation can act on complaints and misconduct if and when they arise.


    It’s a process that takes time, Chowdhury said, not a rapid “commando raid” by auditors. Coast Trust’s audit report included 12 “minor” recommendations, with deadlines for the group to make improvements. These included, for example, better procedures for following up complaints and data protection.


    This is not unusual, said Hauselmann: an audit without findings for improvement would itself be suspect. Coast Trust’s relationship with HQAI, Chowdhury said, is similar to a partnership, but with a watchdog element. To retain their ratings, organisations must commit to annual checkups and, if standards are not kept up, the HQAI seal of approval can be withdrawn. “The teeth exist”, Hauselmann said, but “behind a smile.” In the current climate, he added, agencies are “very wary” of losing certification.




    At least part of the answer to regulating aid workers may lie in the international standards and professional credential systems used by sports coaches and those who care for the elderly, according to a Geneva-based non-profit training provider and association, Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP).


    The group is beta testing multiple-choice examinations on skills, similar to exams offered in other professions. PHAP will soon offer a total of six exams, designed to confirm a candidate’s competence and suitability for specific aid jobs, (for example in cash distribution or needs assessment) and test their general knowledge of the sector as well as ethical foundations.


    Angharad Laing, PHAP’s executive director, said there is no shortage of volunteers to help design and test the exams. As well as taking a “nerdy” pleasure in checking questions on their specialist areas, volunteers feel a sense of community and pride, she said, approaching the project with an attitude of: “Oh wow, lots of people have been thinking really hard about how I do my work”.


    To address misconduct and underperformance, holders of credentials earned through the exams can be stripped of their professional designation after a review by a credentialed peer panel. This process is based on a system devised by the International Standards Organisation.


    Laing says some job postings now specify that candidates hold PHAP credentials. Since the UK scandals broke, she said, the HR departments of major NGOs have contacted her to discuss how they could use PHAP’s services. She believes there has been an over-reliance on agencies and organisations “holding themselves to account”.


    PHAP has 4,000 aid workers as current members and offers face-to-face training, webinars, and a professional membership structure. PHAP’s membership makes it one of the largest aid worker associations, although its members are only a fraction of the amorphous aid community: consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes estimates that there are 450,000 humanitarian aid workers worldwide.


    Technical standards


    In addition to organisational accountability and coherence, and individual competence and ethics, efforts toward stronger regulation in the aid sector must address technical issues.


    Sphere, a donor-funded standards organisation formed in 1997, brings together practitioners and experts to set minimum standards for quality humanitarian response, including targets for planning shelters, building latrines, or setting up vaccine campaigns.


    The group considers issues such as what is the acceptable number of people per toilet in emergency environments (answer: 20), or reminders not to distribute powdered milk.

    “The teeth exist”, Hauselmann said, but “behind a smile.”

    The Sphere Handbook wraps these technical materials with the CHS (of which it was a co-author) and an overarching “humanitarian charter”. The fourth edition of the omnibus publication, available in about 30 languages, will be issued later this year, said executive director Christine Knudsen.


    Enablers or barriers?


    Standards in general are not a barrier to new or small NGOs and newcomers to the sector, Knudsen insisted. In fact, she added, they provide a framework for good practice and comparability.


    Knudsen pointed out that standards and certifications only demonstrate whether an organisation has the structure to do quality work. They are “an enabler, rather than a predictor” of quality, she said.


    Hauselmann of HQAI said that previous attempts at third-party audits and independent assessments had suffered because of a perception that they are “a tool to sanction”. Instead, he stressed, they should be seen as one of the “most important drivers for improvement”.


    However, Nicholas Stockton, former head of the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership and a veteran of earlier initiatives to improve standards, doesn’t believe NGOs can achieve effective collective self-regulation.


    After revelations of sex-for-aid abuses in West Africa in 2002, there was a “moral panic”, and new initiatives were established, he wrote in an online comment on IRIN. Gradually, however, “business as usual resumed and a growing sense of impunity and hubris grew, and with it the ever-increasing danger of unmanaged moral hazard that has now been blown open.”



    #MeToo sex scandals spur interest in standards for the aid sector
  • Mosul: Overcoming the trauma of IS rule, one haircut at a time

    Hairdressers, barbers, cosmetologists, and manicurists have always served as confidantes for their customers. They are the keepers of untold secrets. But in post-war Mosul, a city freed from the grip of so-called Islamic State in January 2017 and still struggling to recover, the hair salon is more important than ever.


    In the absence of much in the way of mental health services, the salon has transformed into an unofficial group therapy session, one of the few places where women can gather among themselves to process the collective trauma of three years of terror.


    Hanen starts her day in the east Mosul salon where she works by taking off her headscarf, putting her dyed honey-coloured hair up in a businesslike ponytail, and slipping on a white coat.


    Her three daughters run around the salon – the youngest holds up an Iraqi flag that she knitted at home and poses for photos – while Hanen chats quietly with her first customer, trading the occasional joke with the hairstylist next to her.


    Some days are like today, Hanen says, full of laughter and ease, women chatting while they wait for hair dye to develop under thin foil flaps. Other days, though, the entire salon is in tears.


    Between 9,000 and 11,000 civilians lost their lives in the war. Entire neighbourhoods were turned to rubble by the bombs. Mosul has experienced a collective trauma, one it is ill-equipped to address.


    There were only 80 clinical psychologists working in all of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan as of January 2017, according to official figures. Organisations like Save the Children, the International Organization for Migration, Médecins Sans Frontières, and UN agencies fill some of the gap, and provide trauma treatment. However, their efforts are limited by both funding and the sheer scope of trauma in a city that has been through both an IS occupation and war.


    “Many women come and tell us their stories, their lives,” Hanen says. “Every woman who comes, talks about her life, about her story, about her situation under IS, and during the period of liberation.”


    Life under IS


    IS first came into the city offering promises of relief from what many saw as a repressive central government in Baghdad – but the group quickly instituted tight restrictions of its own.


    Loudspeakers blasted public announcements instructing women to cover their faces. Women were required to wear black abayas (long, loose robes), cover their hands in gloves and their feet with socks. Being caught with just your eyes showing meant fines or whipping.


    Beauty salons were out of the question. But just because they were banned did not mean women stopped doing their hair.


    “During the siege, they would say, ‘this is forbidden, this is forbidden, this is forbidden’,” says Hanen, who owned her own salon for 13 years. After IS took control of Mosul in 2014 she moved the business underground, running it in secret from her east Mosul apartment. Her customers found her by word of mouth.


    Even the wives of IS fighters would come to the salon to get their hair done, Hanen says, recalling cutting their hair with gritted teeth. “It was truly hard,” she says, “But if I didn't do their hair, they would report me.” The consequences of being reported could be dire.


    “The first thing they would do is open the house, they would break down the door, they would take the head of the house or the owner of the salon. They would kill her. Anything was possible... That was the reason we kept it secret,” explains Hanen.  


    Dealing with the trauma


    Ali al-Rassam, the director of al-Messala, a UN-affiliated women’s centre for psychological and social services, says there is a serious lack of mental health services for those who have lived under IS or fled its terror.


    “Mosul has not seen anything as hard as this war before. This is the first time we have seen something this [traumatic],” says al-Rassam. “The government in Mosul does not have a programme to deal with the trauma.”


    Hanen lost her home and her salon to bombing. “They were destroyed,” she says. In the final months of the battle she and her family sheltered in a neighbour’s basement with 84 other people for two weeks while IS patrolled the streets and bombs rained down around them. They did not have enough food to go around, so to eat they made soup out of tahina paste and water. When Hanen celebrated her youngest daughter’s birthday in the basement, she was not able to feed her.


    Her experience was far from exceptional. Everyone in Mosul has been personally affected by the occupation or the war that followed. Many women retreated to their homes and barely went out in public for years. Countless others lost family or friends, either to IS or to the heavy bombing of the nine-month war to banish IS from the city.


    Al-Rassam says most public hospitals do not even have a psychologist on staff. “I was surprised. I was only able to find one doctor who treats psychological problems in all of the hospitals for both men and women. I don't know, they could have just one doctor to treat that number of people – it's impossible of course.”


    He says that at al-Mesalla, which has six branches open throughout Mosul, women will sometimes come from as far as five kilometres away to get their services – simply because there is nothing else available in their neighbourhoods.


    A place to share stories


    Even with IS defeated, billboards in Mosul still show remnants of the years when pictures of the female face were forbidden: images of headless women, their bodies floating eerily under a cloud of black paint.


    But the walls of the east Mosul salon where Hanen works are covered with pictures of models with shiny hair and bright white smiles, and the logo is a silhouette of a woman smiling ever so slightly, her face in full view.


    The salon chair transformed under the militants’ control, Hanen says. Before IS, chat between hairdresser and customer was full of complaints about everyday life and family. During the occupation, conversation was fearful and stilted. And now, the chair is a place of sometimes heartbreaking honesty as women share their stories, of their losses, of forced marriages, of trauma.


    “We cry with her,” Hanen says of these moments. “We comfort her, we try to heal her psychologically as much as we can, we tell her that pain… [fades] with time.”


    Roua, a middle-aged woman getting brown and blonde streaks in her hair, says the first thing she felt entering the salon was “trust in the place and the people”. She says she comes at least once month, and not just to keep up her highlights. “The salon is necessary. For women to continue, they need it. Women must have it.”


    Soaring demand


    One key reason that salons have stepped up to help patrons deal with their trauma is that they are women-only.


    Mosul is fairly conservative, and many cafés are the domain of men. When women do go out, they are usually with family or friends. The salon is one of the only places where women can decompress publicly without the gaze or presence of men.


    The back of the salon has an electric stove top where they cook and share food. Children come in and immediately adapt into the fabric of the salon.


    Janan, the owner of the salon, says business is booming. “Right after we opened the salon, after IS, and started to advertise it openly, everyone came,” she says. For many women, being able to freely cut and dye their hair took on new meaning after the city’s liberation.


    “It was important. As the years passed, people loved the field of beautification in a big way,” Janan says. “There was always fear. Now, there isn't fear.”   


    For Hanen, going back to work has brought her deep satisfaction, even in the aftermath of horror. She says the salon is more than work for her, it is a passion. “I love it,” Hanen says, “Even if I had the chance to leave, I would not leave this salon.”


    *Names have been changed

    (TOP PHOTO: A woman enters a Mosul salon. Pesha Magid/IRIN)





    Mosul: Overcoming the trauma of IS rule, one haircut at a time
  • A LinkedIn to combat rights abuse?

    In 2016, a 12-year-old boy was reportedly detained and tortured in Giwa barracks in northeastern Nigeria. He ended up nearly paralysed. “We wanted to cite the officers in charge,” said lawyer Chino Edmund Obiagwu. “But we weren’t able to get the information on their names.”

    Obiagwu is the director of the Legal Defence and Assistance Project, an organisation representing victims of abuse by the Nigerian security forces. He explained how a new website, Who Was in Command, has made his work a lot easier by publishing the names, ranks, and command responsibilities of security forces in Nigeria, Egypt, and Mexico.

    Victims of human rights abuses and their families often don’t know the names of the individual security officers they accuse of violating their rights, but their bosses can be held liable for their actions. However, according to Obiagwu, commanders tend not to stay in the same place for more than six months, which makes it time-intensive to find out who is responsible for the troops’ actions.

    “There’s a tug of war between institutions that want to remain permanently obscure, and those people who need to know more about them."

    Obiagwu said they can only litigate on the strongest of cases. “There are so many cases, there are so many,” he repeated. Given the amount of work for a small organisation, “sometimes we [have to] drop cases because we don’t know who is responsible.”

    Having all this information gathered from public sources on one website and made into a reference database has revolutionised his work. Now, “if I want to know the name of the person who is in charge… it can easily be gotten from that website,” he said.

    Another user is Aster van Kregten, Amnesty International's senior research advisor for Nigeria. She said it’s especially useful for tracking specific Nigerian police officers, because the police often move officers from one state to another when there’s a complaint against them.

    Sometimes, she said, her group will only investigate one specific allegation, but not necessarily look at the “track record” of the officer. With the new site, they can look back at each officer’s history and follow links to public allegations against each individual.

    “The only risk is how it’s verified. I can imagine that will be one of the big objections from the military or the police,” said van Kregten. “It’s not the same as the military saying that someone is in charge… but on the website you can check what the sources are… it gives you a very good indication, and then you need to follow up on that.”

    The project was initiated by Tony Wilson, director of the Security Force Monitor, a separate venture hosted at Columbia Law School. He explained that he got the idea for this latest project while researching police accountability in Bahrain around 2013.

    The Leahy laws, which are supposed to prohibit the United States from providing training or assistance to security forces that have violated human rights with impunity, gave Wilson further motivation. “The main challenge in our perspective is that groups… can’t make specific allegations, and thus the law can’t be implemented,” he explained. Because of that, he fears that some security forces accused of abuses might still get funding from the United States.

    Wilson and his colleagues picked countries where there were long-standing concerns with security forces, and where they could partner with solid organisations working on this issue. They hope to extend it to a total of 20 countries over the next three years.

    Could this sort of database present additional risks to the security of military or police personnel, or to members of the public? Wilson doesn’t think so because the information is already out there, coming from official announcements by the army and other organisations. “It’s also not like we’re live-tweeting movements of troops,” he said, adding, “there’s always going to be a lag [to the information they are collating].”

    Wilson’s colleague, Tom Longley, pointed out what he referred to as “a bias in favour of secrecy” when it comes to working on national security issues. “There’s a tug of war between institutions that want to remain permanently obscure, and those people who need to know more about them so that they… uphold the standards of human rights,” he said.

    Amnesty researcher van Kregten hopes, one day at least, security forces might contribute the information freely themselves. “That,” she said, “would be a real step in the direction of transparency.” The Nigerian army didn’t respond to IRIN’s request for comments.



    A LinkedIn to combat rights abuse?
    New website helps track police and military personnel
  • Gains against malaria at risk from US cuts, donor complacency

    Dishes, pots, clothes, and cabinets – the entire contents of Jennifer Nyiranda's house are piled up on the ground outside her front door. But the eviction is only temporary, and it’s worth it, says Nyiranda, a 53-year-old farmer sitting with her family in front of their two-room brick house.


    It’s time for the annual insecticide spraying and, although it’s a half-day inconvenience, it’s an easy trade-off. In addition to the spraying, two insecticide-treated nets cover the whole family when they sleep, and they get access to treatment in their community if they do become sick.


    Before the government's control efforts in Zambia's Eastern Province, Nyiranda’s whole family frequently caught malaria, especially the children, and it was hard to work. “It was like almost every week we were in the hospital,” she told IRIN.


    Zambia’s multipronged effort is making headway, at least in some parts of the country. In Eastern Province, where Nyiranda lives, parasite prevalence among small children is down almost by half, to 12 percent. Efforts in Southern Province have been even more successful –prevalence is now below one percent. The national death rate declined by around 80 percent from 2010 to 2017. However, the results – and the government efforts – have been uneven. Many parts of the country have seen increases in prevalence, with some areas as high as 32 percent.


    A big chunk of the funding for Zambia's anti-malaria programming comes from the United States. Begun under former president George W. Bush, the fight against malaria is often cited as one of the US government’s most successful global health campaigns. But that could all change with President Donald Trump’s threat to cut foreign assistance around the globe.


    It comes at a critical time in the fight against malaria, when threatened cuts could tip the balance in an already precarious struggle. So far, the budget process has been in flux, but the US Congress appears primed to keep spending levels steady from last year. Malaria advocates say that is effectively a cut, however, as it does not keep up with programme cost increases.


    The United States is such a massive player in global health, accounting for more than one third of total anti-malaria funding expenditures worldwide, that even relatively minor cuts would have a significant impact. The current global budget for malaria is $2.7 billion, less than half of what is needed to meet global malaria targets of reducing malaria by 40 percent by 2020, according to the World Health Organization.  


    Progress is stalling


    The reductions in malaria have made a real difference in people’s lives – not just to their health but also to their economic wellbeing. “Because of malaria, we could not afford to go the field and do farm work,” said Sokolani Phiri, an elder from the Katete district of the country’s Eastern Province, which has over 100 villages. “We were almost starving because of it.”


    The indoor spraying programme, one of the cornerstones of malaria control, has been going on in the Katete area and much of Eastern Province since 2008. Incidence of malaria in Katete has dropped significantly, from 876 per 1,000 people in 2011 to 132 per 1,000 in 2016.

    Zambia malaria

    Patrick Adams/IRIN
    A Zambian home is marked after it was sprayed with insecticide

    Malaria experts warn that a reduction in that effort would be more than a minor setback: if malaria has been suppressed in a region and then resurges, the results can be devastating since natural immunities will be lowered and death and disability can rise sharply.


    Globally, the trend is worrying. A recent WHO assessment found that progress around the world had stalled for the first time in a decade. While total cases are down from 237 million in 2010 to 216 million in 2016, they are still up slightly from the previous two years.


    “For the first time in the last 10 or 15 years, the progress in the fight against malaria has stalled… [as] reductions in diseases and death have ceased,” said Dr. Pedro Alonso, the director of the WHO’s global malaria programme. He attributed the drop-off in funding to a decreased sense of urgency and complacency among donors.


    Mixed story, and more investment needed


    Last year, Zambia shifted its strategy from control to elimination, with an ambitious target of 2021. Many experts concede it is unlikely to meet that goal nationally, as despite successes in the southern and eastern sections of the country, most of the rest is lagging behind.


    The uneven progress reflects deeper inequalities.


    The wealthier southern region has faired far better, due in part to better infrastructure, including roads and brick houses, and it already had a lower burden of disease to begin with.


    The northern areas, which are poorer and have a rougher rural environment, have maintained a consistently high level of malaria, even with all of the national effort. “The north will be a harder-fought battle,” said Melanie Luick-Martins, who directs USAID’s health programmes in Zambia. “We need to use everything we learned and take it from there.”


    Despite the efforts at elimination in Southern Africa, there was an increase in the number of malaria cases in many countries last year. Botswana and Namibia both declared an outbreak, and another four countries, although not Zambia, also reported sharp increases in malaria cases, particularly in border regions.


    Zambia's borders are porous and the chance of cross-border infection remains high, which could undermine the country's own internal efforts. Some border crossings have been outfitted with thermal scanners to detect fever, with onsite clinics to treat infected travellers.  


    At the village level, community health workers play a key role in the efforts to combat malaria. Betty Zulu, a mother of six, has been a community health worker for 15 years. She is from the Chagumu farms village and oversees about 400 families. She stopped school at age nine, she says, but by being a health worker she is supporting her community. “It could be my children that need help one day,” she told IRIN.


    For now, the biggest challenge for Zambia will be closing the gap in its malaria elimination strategy, which will cost around $160 million a year and is currently only about 50 percent funded – two thirds from international donors and one third from the Zambian government. Privately, international donors say the government must spend more money on its malaria programme if it is to succeed.


    Spending money on anti-malaria efforts is a good economic investment, explained Doctor Elizabeth Chizema, the head of Zambia’s malaria elimination programme: “We believe that when you spend more now, you are saving more lives, and saving more for the future.”


    Travel costs and logistics assistance for this article were provided by a grant from the Washington Global Health Alliance and Malaria No MoreThey had no control over the content. 

    (TOP PHOTO: A mother and child under a mosquito net in Sikensi, Côte d’Ivoire. Frank Dejongh/UNICEF)


    Gains against malaria at risk from US cuts, donor complacency
  • Crises on the horizon in 2018: the view from Davos

    Political violence, increased weather threats, and the rise of strongmen will be key drivers of crises in 2018, experts told IRIN at the World Economic Forum this week.


    The Global Humanitarian Outlook, convened by IRIN News and the Overseas Development Institute in Davos, Switzerland, brought together UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, professor and former Mauritanian foreign minister Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth, and ODI’s Managing Director Sara Pantuliano.

    Watch the full discussion here.

    Here are key highlights of their conversation with IRIN Director Heba Aly:


    End of so-called Islamic State? Not so fast


    The Iraqi and Syrian governments have both proclaimed victory over the militant group IS in recent months as it has lost swathes of territory in the region and seen its leadership decimated. But in the wake of a deadly, IS-claimed attack this week on aid agency Save the Children’s compound in Afghanistan, Mohamedou, author of ‘A Theory of ISIS’, warned of prematurely claiming victory. 


    “It’s a misleading narrative… This is the evil genius of [former US president] George W. Bush – to have couched the ‘war on terror’ in those terms – that there’s a sense, fundamentally, of closure that would come with bringing down physically, quantitatively what is a societal, what is a social, what is a political problem, what is a historical issue…” He recalled similar perceptions a decade ago when the Islamic State of Iraq, the successor to al-Qaeda, appeared “defeated” after a US military surge, “and then we came back to see that another much more powerful entity came behind, which was [IS].”

    While the IS of the last few years is “for all practical purposes gone”, the group is mutating, repositioning, and regrouping into “an entity that has become much more transnational, much more global,” Mohamedou added, pointing to specific risks in Libya and the Sinai region of Egypt.


    Read more:

    Radio Wars: Islamic State takes over the Afghan airwaves

    Libya’s downward spiral to shortages, militia power, and migrant abuse

    Secrecy in Sinai – an unknown human toll



    What about Syria? Any progress?


    Lowcock, the UN’s relief chief, described a very mixed picture after a recent trip to Syria, which, in March, will enter its eighth year of war.


    “There are certainly parts of the country where things are calmer than they were two or three years ago… Equally, the situation has gotten a lot more complex and there’s obviously been a very unsettling spike in the violence over the last three months or so.”


    In particular, he pointed to the sieges of civilians in Eastern Ghouta, a suburb outside the capital, Damascus, as well as in the towns of Fua and Kefraya; the “extraordinary” amount of exploded ordnance in Raqqa; the 50,000 people stuck on the “berm” between the Jordanian and Syrian borders; the Turkish  advance into Afrin; and the Syria government and Russian-backed operations in Idlib.


    Lowcock was most concerned by the limited aid access to alleviate the “very, very bad” situations in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. “For example, we haven’t been able to get a single convoy into Eastern Ghouta since November,” he said.

    And he was pessimistic about ongoing peace negotiations, saying: “it’s not the obvious moment to be expecting to make lots of progress on that, when we see all of this military activity on the ground.”


    For Roth, of Human Rights Watch, a lack of pressure on war criminals is making matters worse. He criticised Lowcock and the wider humanitarian community for failing to call out those responsible for atrocities.


    “This is a common approach among humanitarians to say, ‘Oh there are needs; it doesn’t really matter who did what; we’re just going to try to get food and shelter and medicine to people and that’s for the good’…


    “It isn’t just that there is a siege in Eastern Ghouta; the Syrian army is pursuing a war crimes strategy of starving 390,000 civilians in order to force the surrender of this territory. It’s not just there is military activity in Idlib, but it is that Russian Syrian bombers are either deliberately attacking civilians and civilian institutions or firing utterly indiscriminately… This is not just a matter of semantics; this is a matter of how you put pressure on the warring parties that are causing this humanitarian crisis because they are violating the most basic principles of the Geneva Conventions.”


    Roth said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was “beyond shaming” now, but that the international community still had leverage over Russian President Vladimir Putin because of his interest in lifting sanctions imposed in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, and in normalising relations with Europe.

    “The international community is sophisticated enough that it can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Roth said. “By all means, press for humanitarian aid, try to have peace talks – yes. But don’t do that in lieu of pressure on people who are doing deliberate slaughter… Until we recognise that there are human rights atrocities, mass atrocities, at the base of this humanitarian catastrophe…we’re not going really get to the heart of it.”


    Congo “could explode”


    Apart from Syria, Roth’s big worry for 2018 was the unravelling of the Democratic Republic of Congo as President Joseph Kabila clings to power and unrest swirls around the country.

    Read our in-depth report: Crumbling Congo – the making of a humanitarian emergency



    Roth accused Kabila not only of killing protesters in the capital, but also of fomenting armed conflict in the Kasai region and the Kivu provinces in the east, to maintain power.


    “If the country is at war, you can’t hold elections and he doesn’t have to step down.”


    Among several Western and African states, he said, “there is a recognition that if you don’t address the political and human rights sources of the problem, Congo could utterly explode… Congo is always a bit of a mess, but it could be so much worse if we don’t get Kabila to step down within a year.”


    Further reading:

    Ten humanitarian crises to look out for in 2018

    Five migration trends to watch in 2018

    IRIN in-depth: Forgotten Conflicts




    New crises on the horizon


    The Overseas Development Institute’s Pantuliano sounded the alarm over two countries where human rights abuses, economic deterioration, and societal fracture are ripe to spawn larger scale humanitarian crises in 2018.


    “Venezuela should really worry us on a daily basis,” she said, citing political persecution, people queuing for food, challenges accessing medicine, and tens of thousands of people fleeing.


    Read: Colombia’s Venezuela problem



    ”The situation is really on the brink, but does not attract the level of attention and engagement that it should attract before it becomes too late.”


    Her second choice was Mozambique, where a resurgence of tension between militant group RENAMO and the government, human rights abuses against civilians by both sides, climatic pressures (both erratic rains and heavy levels of flooding), and a “perfect storm on the economic side”, have all collided to start driving up the number of vulnerable people.


    “These are all signs that come together to signal that an engagement is really critical at an early stage to prevent a crisis from escalating and then becoming a really difficult, intractable humanitarian crisis,” she said.


    Pantuliano also flagged the alarming homicide rate in El Salvador that drove 90,000 people out the country in 2017.

    She urged humanitarian organisations to push harder and earlier in emerging crises, and to intervene before it is too late.


    The rise of the strongmen


    Mohamedou expressed dismay at the “definitive return with a vengeance of authoritarianism around the world” – from the United States to Egypt, “by way of a number countries around the world in Europe, in Asia and in Africa”.


    “Authoritarianism is … normalising racism, normalising sexism, normalising discrimination, diminishing the importance of human rights. And that actually feeds into the social drivers that are at the heart of the conflicts.”


    Most of the conflicts of the 20th century, he said, are a result of long-festering and unresolved societal problems.


    “As a historian, we see this happening in slow motion… Take a look at a country like the United States, for instance… look at the return of racial tension, things that we thought were solved in the ‘60s and ‘70s… these are the type[s] of issues that you should be addressing so that they don’t materialise [again]. Look at a country like Myanmar, where essentially the ethnic and religious cleansing of a people is dealt with very late in the game. And the first word we hear from the president of that country is what? Terrorism...


    “It might get worse before it gets better when it comes to that particular political dynamic.”


    Read IRIN’s in-depth: The denied oppression of Myanmar’s Rohingya people


    Storms ahead


    Turning to climate change impacts on humanitarian issues, from drought to extreme weather events, Lowcock foresaw greater risks ahead.


    “We need to get ready for growing and increasing ferocity of storms and weather-related events in parts of the world which are vulnerable…. Those storms we saw through the Caribbean were not like anything that had been seen…


    His “overall anxiety”, he said, was that countries were not adequately investing in preparing for the increasing number of natural disasters they are likely to face, by changing their standards, norms, and behaviours to build better resilience.


    However, he highlighted improvements in the ability to track storms in advance and the early success of special insurance schemes that provided money to pasts of the disaster-stricken Caribbean within days.


    “In previous eras, the loss of life through those storms would have been much higher.”


    See IRIN’s in-depth report: The hurricanes of 2017


    The worst of times?


    In a recent lecture, former administrator of the US Agency for International Development, Gayle Smith, said: “I’ve never seen a time that has worried me more”, and yet by several key markers, as Aly, IRIN’s director, pointed out, current levels of human progress are unprecedented. So, which way are things actually headed?


    “We’ve got a long way to go, but definitely there is some progress in managing some crises,” Pantuliano said. 


    She recalled multiple simultaneous emergencies in the 1990s, including in Angola, Sudan, Somalia, the Balkans, and Rwanda, saying: “We tend, unfortunately, also for fundraising purposes, to exaggerate the situation which we’re in, but we need to acknowledge that, yes, as a system, we’ve gotten better.”


    One example, Pantuliano said, is the humanitarian sector’s improved ability to respond to natural hazards, “which means there can be more focus on the more intractable, difficult, protracted crises… We’ve [still] got to get a lot better. But, incrementally, there are steps in the right direction.”

    Lowcock identified the need for the international community to develop a “toolkit” for interacting with dozens of countries like South Sudan, Burundi, and Central African Republic that stand out from the overall trend of progress and “seem to be stuck in a cycle of violence and economic failure and instability and conflict and human rights abuses”. He described this as “the next big strategic challenge for the world as a whole over the next generation”, and said, “the things we’re doing are not moving those countries in the [right] direction fast enough.”


    Mohamedou argued it was political will and leadership that was lacking, not a toolkit.


    Read: UN bid to improve migrant, refugee response flounders as political will evaporates



    Lowcock painted UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ conflict prevention agenda as a reason for optimism, but admitted that the UN’s success is largely dependent on the willingness of states. “The countries of the world have to decide how effective they want the UN to be,” he said. Guterres, he argued, has set out “a very clear and coherent” set of priorities – like preventive diplomacy and more effective peacekeeping operations – that can make a difference. “But the trick is: what is it that’s going to happen to cause the member states as a group to buy enough of that package?”


    But two of the other panelists felt humanitarianism needed to rediscover its “humanity” and its “ethos”.

    “[There] has been an excessive bureaucratisation, a technocratic approach,” Mohamedou said, “that does take away, essentially, the humanity at the heart of the humanitarian [action] and human rights...


    For Roth: “There’s a need to look this in the eye and actually call a spade a spade… There’s too many people involved in a whitewashing of what’s happening… The United Nations and the major powers of this world have to step up and address this in a way that brings back diplomacy, that brings back the values, that brings back the ethos of humanitarian work.”

    For more on the humanitarian sector's ability to respond to the crises ahead, listen to IRIN Senior Editor Ben Parker's keynote speech at the Humanitarian Congress in Berlin.


    Crises on the horizon in 2018: the view from Davos

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