(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • What Libya’s “slave auctions” tell us about the humanitarian system

    In the wake of the CNN report on human auctions in Libya, there has rightly been a surge in concern for the thousands of Africans languishing in inhumane conditions in detention camps.


    Political leaders in Europe and Africa, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres and African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki, have condemned the situation.


    Notable also has been the spontaneous attention of African and African-American celebrities in the face of the silence by official Hollywood goodwill ambassadors for various international organisations.


    After years of flailing diplomacy and lonely advocacy, it seems the world is finally ready to talk about the humanitarian disaster in Libya.


    But while this new wave of attention is welcome and necessary, it does raise key questions.


    Why did it take so long to have this near-unified voice of condemnation on a well-researched and well-covered issue that has been in the public domain for the better part of the last decade? Why now and not before? And more importantly, what does this delayed reaction say about race and racism in international humanitarian work?


    The CNN film has had such a major impact in part because of the starkness of the imagery – the visuals reminiscent of the trans-Saharan and trans-Atlantic slave trades.


    Although the men in the videos are not shackled, they are certainly imprisoned and, in a later part of the film, they detail the dire conditions in which they are held. Rape, beatings, starvation and murder all recur with alarming frequency in this contemporary slave trade.


    The impact of injustice


    Yet this information is not new. International organisations, politicians, and journalists have all reported the dire conditions facing African migrants in Libya from at least 2010.


    Rather, this new urgency can be attributed in part to the rise of new forms of organising for racial justice.


    Specifically, the Black Lives Matter movement has broadened the concerns of global racial solidarity, not just in the United States where it was born, but also across other racially divided societies like South Africa and Brazil.

    Read more

    Since you've been gone - the families migrants leave behind

    Disposable Africians - migration and its consequences

    The forgotten frontline of the migration crisis

    EU strategy stems migrant flow from Niger, but at what cost? 

    African diasporas in France and in the United Kingdom have also organised chapters to fight local racial battles. The call for a new global compact for racial justice demanded in the streets of Baltimore, New York, Paris, Johannesburg, and Tel Aviv is finally being heard in offices in Geneva and New York.


    Is global humanitarianism ready to talk about race? 


    It should be, considering that anti-black racism is the elephant in the room when it comes to the protection of refugees and migrants.


    The vast majority of the world’s refugees and migrants today are Asian and African, unlike in the 1940s when the original instruments of protection were negotiated.


    Most of these people remain in their region of origin. South-South migration is common in Africa where, for example, 20,000 Ethiopians and Eritreans try to reach southern Africa every year.


    It’s important to situate contemporary human mobility in its proper place. With the notable exception of the cruel and inhumane global slave trade, the search for better opportunities, particularly in young men negotiating patriarchal masculinities, is – and has long been – common.


    But the rules have changed.


    In the 19th century as more and more young men took to the sea from southern Portugal as part of exploration and colonisation missions, the women they left behind would sing mournful songs, lamenting their departure and willing them to return safely, songs collectively known as Fado.


    Now, hundreds of thousands of young African men and women die on their journeys abroad – from the North African deserts to the Mediterranean Sea, primarily as a consequence of increasingly inhumane policies towards human mobility. They are unmourned except when families finally get word that they have gone missing.


    Criminalising migrants


    Unlike European men in the last century who were celebrated for leaving home in search of opportunity or even adventure, young African men today are criminalised and punished, especially when they try to enter predominantly white societies.


    Take another example. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have crossed into Bangladesh and have been largely welcomed, if under-resourced, while Australia expends much force and energy to keep hundreds of refugees violently contained on Manus Island. The same can be said of South Americans attempting to cross into the United States, and of course the frame of existential crisis that populist parties in Europe reserve for Muslim refugees from the Middle East.


    If there is a global crisis of migration it is that societies are resorting to increasingly draconian measures to keep “The Other” out.


    Contrast this panic with the treatment of predominantly white migrants or “expats”. Most countries in the world have migration policies that favour immigration by “expats” while penalising similar migration from predominantly black and brown populations.


    This includes African countries like Kenya, which has kept half a million Somali refugees encamped with no legal status or pathway to citizenship for over 25 years.


    On the campaign trail earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron emphatically offered France as a “second home” to American climate scientists concerned about the anti-science proclivities of Donald Trump’s administration.


    But when African and European leaders met in Abidjan last week, Macron was equivocal in offering the same emphatic welcome to African migrants held in the detention centres in Libya – regardless of their qualifications.


    Everyone wants “good migrants” – where “good” means primarily white and/or wealthy.


    Ignoring the suffering


    At the same time, consider that the barter of African bodies in Libya is not a question of a handful of criminals in the desert. It is a global system that rises to the highest level.


    Deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi routinely used the threat of allowing mass migration of black Africans to Europe in negotiations for improved political relations.


    European governments have repeatedly paid African countries to take and keep African migrants and refugees in Africa. Black and brown bodies are constantly on sale in the modern era, but it is couched in the polite language of diplomatic negotiation and “helping them where they are”.


    And the very act of feigning shock at information that has been in the public domain – reported by survivors and journalists alike – for so long speaks to an unwillingness to see the suffering of Africans.


    Race and racism are at the heart of the ongoing refugee and migrant crisis, but, to date, humanitarianism has been reluctant to talk about it in stark terms.


    The preferred language of protection is dry and technical, linked to statutes and conventions that were drafted at the time of Jim Crow and independence movements around the world.


    Consider that the refugee convention entered into force in 1951 when most of Africa and the Caribbean was still colonised and three years before Brown v. Board of Education desegregated US schools.


    New voices


    The convention was not designed with ethnic minorities in mind and has struggled to adapt as the dynamics of refugee protection have shifted. It responded to the white-on-white crimes of World War II and is predicated on the goodwill of states towards citizens that arguably has never been extended to black or brown people.


    Which is probably why, less than a week later, the momentum triggered by the CNN film is already fading. The United States has pulled out of the new global compact on migration, and the document agreed upon by EU and AU leaders in Abidjan is widely viewed as weak.


    The stark visuals of the CNN report have forced a conversation on humanitarian protection to be openly and explicitly framed as a question of racial justice.


    This has allowed new voices and new advocacy into the conversation. It remains unclear if this new momentum and direction of thought will translate into more meaningful action for those on the move.



    What Libya’s “slave auctions” tell us about the humanitarian system
    It’s time to talk about race and racism
  • Amid record needs, new UN relief chief promises reform

    His predecessors sat in an office of picture windows overlooking the East River fitted with beige furniture on the upper floors of UN headquarters in Manhattan.

    But Mark Lowcock, the new UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, prefers a cubicle.

    “I like the interaction with my direct team,” said the approachable 55-year-old. “I don’t like being stuck in the corner office with all the sofas and that. It’s not my style.”


    Ninety days into his role as the coordinator of global relief efforts, the former British civil servant sat down with IRIN after launching the largest appeal for humanitarian funding in UN history.


    His role has arguably never been more important. His office estimates that war, drought, and other disasters will put 135 million people at risk around the world next year, a five percent increase on 2017. Last week, he appealed for $22.5 billion to help 90 million of them – the price tag of the omnibus appeal involving the UN and dozens of other aid groups has risen eightfold since 1992.

    New conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo have engulfed millions; the speed and scale of the Rohingya exodus from Myanmar demands an exceptional response; and Yemen, already predicted to be 2018’s worst crisis, could get even worse.





    Lowcock faces a troubled world, but also a troubled organisation.


    One of his responsibilities is running the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN body charged with bringing together governments, NGOs, UN agencies, and others to ensure a coherent response to emergencies.

    Described in 2016 by external consultants as being in a state of “widespread organisational dysfunction”, and facing donor-imposed budget cuts, OCHA embarked on an internal restructuring. Led by his predecessor Stephen O’Brien, it is now for Lowcock to complete.


    Three months in, some of the changes are coming into focus.

    First, Lowcock has created five new senior management positions. He said he wants to “get the world’s best people in these jobs”. This opens the way to replacing at least some of the existing senior management, which has come under criticism for in-fighting. It could help rebalance resources “unusually” concentrated in one department, according to the Boston Consulting Group.


    Second, in cutting some $37 million from the $278 million OCHA budget due to reduced donor commitments, Lowcock has chosen the main offices in New York and Geneva to bear the brunt of reductions. “We’ve got this refocus on the field versus the HQ,” he said. “We protected the front line.” While some positions will be cut, including, IRIN understands, in liaison offices including Brussels, current staff can be reallocated to remaining jobs. Lowcock said he hopes to find most of the reduction in headcount from natural attrition rather than layoffs.


    Third, halting over a decade of OCHA’s growth, Lowcock is looking to be more focused. “We are in future going to be a bit smaller, but we’re also going to be better,” he said. “We're stopping doing the things which are least crucial to our mission, and we're doing more of the things which are most crucial to our mission.”


    More video: Lowcock explains five core functions for OCHA.


    Lowcock also embraced the prospect of improving the techniques of humanitarian action, wider UN reform under Secretary-General António Guterres, and closer collaboration between the humanitarian sector and development institutions.


    “When António Guterres called me in April and asked me about this job, the reason I was excited to take it up was principally because I see in him somebody who’s got the clearest vision for reform of the UN of any secretary-general who I've seen from the outside over the last 30 years working in this sector,” he said. “The work we’re doing to reform the UN development system, to improve the UN’s contribution to peace and security, to improve the way the UN is managed, I think is fundamental to building a UN of the sort that is needed to contribute to dealing with the problems of the world in the 21st century.”


    Formerly the top civil servant in the UK’s Department for International Development, Lowcock has worked in the development and humanitarian sector for the past three decades.


    His first job covered Ethiopia during the famine of 1984-1985 (he wrote a dissertation on famine as a student). He told IRIN he’d seen huge evolutions. “Since then, we’ve learned a lot about effective response. Famines are not just about providing food to people,” he said, pointing to the relatively recent recognition that the biggest killers are the mild medical ailments that can be lethal for acutely malnourished people.


    Lowcock was positive about the prospects of further innovation and listed a range of improvements to the way relief is delivered that have happened over the course of his career. One example: he said humanitarian groups helping in insecure locations have borrowed the concept of “mystery shoppers” from the retail sector, using incognito monitors to check aid is going where it’s supposed to.

    But as a newcomer to the UN, he recognised more work needs to be done.


    “One thing I’m learning is that António Guterres is right that we’ve got a lot to do to improve the UN, reform the UN. That’s not just a comment about OCHA, it’s a broader comment. And I’m happy, as part of his executive committee, to be playing a broader role as well as my role as the emergency relief coordinator.”


    “Is that a UN answer or is that a Mark Lowcock answer?” IRIN asked.  

    You only get the Mark Lowcock answer from me,” he replied.


    Asked about some of the biggest challenges to the UN today, including the dilemmas of dealing with member state governments involved in abuses like those in Yemen or Myanmar, he portrayed himself as a pragmatic problem-solver.


    Although it would sometimes be his job to raise the alarm on human rights violations, he said that role typically sits elsewhere in the UN system. “I’m not the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, I have a fantastic colleague, Zeid [Ra'ad al-Hussein], who does that job.”

    While attempting to navigate access and improve the respect for humanitarian law, he said he was already dealing with governments and rebels even-handedly, for example in Yemen: “You have to deal with the situation in front of you and that does involve dealing with whoever is in positions of authority”. He said he spoke to both sides about the need to pay health workers their salaries, allow unhindered humanitarian access, and get shipments into port.


    Describing himself as “basically a practical person”, Lowcock also rejected fears that working with development agencies like the World Bank would weaken humanitarian action by eroding impartiality and independence: “There are very few humanitarian crises which are solved by humanitarian intervention. I’m a person who’s interested in solutions, so I’m interested in how the political process will work to resolve conflicts. I'm interested in how peace and security is established, and crucially, I’m interested in development.”


    This pragmatic approach also extends to making competitive UN agencies play nice together. For Lowcock, the answer is humility. IRIN asked if his personality lends itself more to conciliation than banging heads together. “You’ll have to ask other people about my personality,” he demurred. But given an opportunity to weigh in on current tensions between the UN’s migration and refugee wings, he was conciliatory.


    “It’s not right for us to go around telling people what we think they should be doing. We need to be good listeners; we need to be facilitators; we need to help sort out problems behind the scenes.” Giving a vote of confidence to his new colleagues, he added: “I see my brilliant 2,000 colleagues in OCHA doing a lot of that.”


    Since our interview on Friday afternoon, the news has been bad: Yemen’s capital endured airstrikes and heavy fighting in which a former president was killed, Syria peace talks sputtered (again), and news emerged that the United States is pulling out of talks to improve international responses to migration.


    Despite the current political realities and the fact that raising billions of dollars might not even be the hardest part of the job, Lowcock was upbeat: “I see a lot of opportunity. My expectation is that we’re going to get better at dealing with the problems that confront us, some of which are growing. We will always have humanitarian crises to deal with, but we’ve got a system that is improvable and is improving.”








    Mark Lowcock, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator
  • Security lapses at aid agency leave beneficiary data at risk

    Aid agencies have put some projects on hold while reviewing the security of a popular online system for handling aid distributions, IRIN has learnt. Sensitive personal and financial data on tens of thousands of people in humanitarian aid projects is at risk from hackers, according to a damning security analysis by a financial technology startup.


    In a report, Mautinoa Technologies said it identified several security problems in a software platform used by aid agencies to store the data of vulnerable people, exposing them to "very significant risks". The company behind the platform, Red Rose, denies the claims.


    Mautinoa, a new provider of payment systems and technologies, was able to enter a cloud-based server of the NGO, Catholic Relief Services, and access names, photographs, family details, PIN numbers and map coordinates for more than 8,000 families receiving assistance from the NGO in West Africa.


    In response, Oxfam, one of several customers of the platform, told IRIN it has “temporarily suspended uploading new data,” to its Red Rose systems, as a precautionary measure. A spokesperson told IRIN the NGO, depending on its assessment, may review plans to implement the system in Bangladesh, where it is currently training staff. In recent days, a Red Rose server used for a CARE project in West Africa until May was taken offline. IOM told IRIN it is making plans to reduce its use of external “vendor support.”


    The incident is a real-world reminder of the possibility of personal details of aid beneficiaries falling into the wrong hands and the potential for fraud, as aid agencies increasingly turn to voucher systems and digital cash transfers as more efficient forms of assistance.


    The risks are significant: gaps in legal and ethical frameworks for humanitarian operations and a lack of professional skills in digital data amount to “a disaster waiting to happen,” according to a recent paper from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.


    Humanitarian security analyst Rakesh Bharania, now of Tarian Innovation LLC, and former co-chair of the security and privacy working group of humanitarian-corporate alliance NetHope, told IRIN “the risks to vulnerable people are extremely serious” and there's an “under-appreciated obligation” on aid groups and donors to tackle the issue.


    To manage its cash and voucher transfers, CRS – like at least 10 other aid groups – uses the web-based system run by Red Rose, a young company based in Turkey and the UK that has rapidly emerged in recent years as a leading vendor of online data management platforms and apps for humanitarian responders.


    By following instructions and clues in a public training video, Mautinoa got access to CRS’s administrative dashboard, giving it full control to view and edit financial and personal details, and to download data. The system, although not connected to the banking system, contains financial records totalling about $4 million, provided by donors including USAID and the European Commission.


    CRS, an NGO which manages $900 million of annual income and works in over 100 countries, confirmed the incident to IRIN, blaming an error in “password management”, but Mautinoa said it had found deeper flaws in the software. These claims Red Rose vigorously denies.


    The revelations could cause a “shockwave” in the aid sector, according to one analyst. Another said the implications of a bigger security breach could be “terrifying” for the safety of vulnerable refugees and other people in crisis situations.

    "very poor cyber-hygiene practices going on"

    Isolated incident?


    In a statement provided to IRIN, Red Rose said “this is an isolated incident which we believe does not pose a risk of harm to our clients or beneficiaries.” The company argued that “the unauthorized access is not a system-related issue, but a username and password management issue.” It would however commission an independent “full penetration test of its system to review and test its security infrastructure.”


    Red Rose said Mautinoa’s actions were motivated by “corporate gain”. Mautinoa’s access to the system was “reckless”, the statement said, and likely the result of “unlawful activity”.

    Some aid agencies are looking at Bitcoin technology to provide more efficient ways of delivering ca

    Ben Parker/IRIN
    Smart cards are taking over from paper vouchers in humanitarian response (2015)

    Emerson Tan, the CEO of Mautinoa Technologies, freely acknowledges his company is working on a rival product. Tan has 20 years of experience in cyber-security in government and the private sector and has also worked in humanitarian response for more than a decade. He told IRIN his team were checking on the competition and decided to “kick the tyres” of the Red Rose system. (Analysts point out that technology companies routinely search for bugs in others’ products, one example being Google’s Project Zero.) Tan said he had rapidly become alarmed at his findings and decided to alert aid agencies using the platform.


    Tan claims many of the problems found are “fundamental” security flaws and could ultimately expose vulnerable people’s identities and locations. His report suggests weaknesses in encryption in the system and that smart cards issued to families on the basis of their aid entitlements could theoretically be faked or manipulated. Red Rose said its smart cards could not be cloned and its security systems are “robust” and “in line with industry standards”.


    Dominic Chell of UK security consultancy MDSec pointed out the report relied largely on the access possible from a single weak password on only one deployment of the system. He said the report did appear to reveal "very poor cyber-hygiene practices going on," but they did not seem very unusual nor absolutely critical: "we see this stuff all the time".


    CRS told IRIN that it would be tightening up its security practice and had already established more stringent requirements for IT vendors. Paul Eagle, vice president of marketing and communications for CRS, told IRIN the organisation was awaiting the outcome of Red Rose’s tests: “We will wait to pass judgement until we review those results.”

    Other NGOs using the software defended it.

    “ZOA is confident in the security of the Red Rose platform,” said one, while the Norwegian Refugee Council said: “We believe that our current implementation of the Red Rose platform is safe.”


    Mautinoa’s easy access to the CRS system was in large part due to human error, as well as system design, but that doesn’t make it any less serious, according to security specialists. Bharania, of Tarian Innovation, told IRIN “security vulnerabilities don't have to be fancy or exotic to be problematic.”


    Several humanitarian professionals contacted by IRIN agreed that this episode, regardless of the details of the software engineering, vividly highlights risks and responsibilities in data management that demand greater attention.

    See also:

    Irresponsible data and Rohingya? 

    Microsoft on cyber-conflict

    Slave to the algorithm

    Humanitarian biometrics

    “We don't understand the full implications of the data we hold and share, the same way we didn't when we were doing in-kind distributions via Excel,” an NGO manager said. “I think we are too trusting of companies that say they have data protection under control.”


    The risks of data


    Increasing volumes of personal data are collected from refugees and other aid recipients and stored digitally in the aid industry. These may include names, photos, fingerprints, physical addresses, ID numbers or iris scans, and are stored in a variety of databases and systems managed by aid agencies, banks and private companies. The UN World Food Programme’s SCOPE system alone has details on 20 million people. These systems allows aid agencies to combat fraud, control expenditure, and offer convenient benefits, such as cash and vouchers. On the flip side, that data, in the wrong hands, could facilitate surveillance, discrimination or persecution.


    Senior humanitarian specialist Zehra Rizvi, told IRIN she didn’t expect much impact due to structural issues in the sector: "There will be some head-shaking and calls for investigations and better rules and regulations..." However, part of the problem, she argued, is too many aid agencies "ramping up on using technology... and trying to one-up each other" in “a rush to be seen as innovative.”


    “It's truly inefficient", she added, suggesting a collaborative research and development effort would be ideal.


    Another analyst told IRIN that aid agencies should simply “get out of the business” of trying to deploy such advanced enterprise-quality software and outsource it to experts in financial services.


    Red Rose customers react


    Red Rose systems are used by at least nine aid agencies, according to IRIN’s search of public sources. Current customers may include: Action contre La Faim, Danish Church Aid, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), International Organisation for Migration, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam, Première Urgence Internationale, UNICEF and ZOA.


    An ICRC spokesperson said the organisation was testing out the system in three countries, including Ukraine, with an initial caseload of 9,000 people. Juliette Ebele said no data had been compromised, but that the ICRC took data protection very seriously. She said the organisation, like others, was looking into the platform and Mautinoa’s report, and would suspend the pilot project “should alleged flaws be confirmed”.  


    Most of the agencies that responded to IRIN’s questions, said they would be checking their procedures and were tightening up processes. IOM, which uses the platform for 25,000 Syrians in Turkey, said its data was safe and carefully handled. However in a statement, IOM said it “is making plans to reduce its dependence" on external IT vendors, including Red Rose. Some referred to Red Rose’s denials and others took aim at the source of the allegations being a competitor. Four had not replied by publication time.





    Ben Parker/IRIN
    UNHCR uses biometrics such as iris scans to register refugees
    Red Rose, one of few such providers in the non-profit sector, has been used in conflict zones in Syria and Ukraine. Bharania said in locations like these, humanitarian responders find themselves in a theatre of conflict with "some of the most sophisticated threat actors on the planet", often government-sponsored.


    He says there is no reason to expect cyber warfare to "spare the organizations that are involved in the humanitarian response (or the people they're trying to help)." In a response to the 2015 Nepal earthquake he reported evidence of a state-sponsored attempt to hack into relief workers’ communications.


    Bharania believes there is a long way to go to bring up standards in humanitarian data management, and donors need to invest. As well as financing data security, he said finding qualified staff will be challenging, and a system of responsible disclosure alerts and warnings is needed. The new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) sets stringent rules on personal data and privacy and will be a further wake-up call, he added.




    (TOP PHOTO: Presentation from Noble House, the company that originally offered the Red Rose platform)

    Leading software used by aid agencies "insecure" - report
    Humanitarian agencies face online security challenge
  • Bots and bombs: Does cyberspace need a “Digital Geneva Convention”?

    Cyber-attacks are on the rise, threatening power grids, driving up geopolitical tensions, and even crippling hospitals. Countries should agree a new “Digital Geneva Convention” to contain the risk and set up a new international organisation to police the new rules.


    These proposals from Microsoft’s chief legal officer, Brad Smith, also say that neutral companies dealing with the fallout should win protected status, like a technological Red Cross. Opinions differ on where the gaps are, if any, in international law, and whether Microsoft is a credible voice on the issues or just looking after its own vested interests.


    In a public speech in Geneva, Smith argued that cyberspace is a new battlefield and not properly governed by international law. Nation states and murky hacker groups have shown their potential to take out public infrastructure and services, sow political discord, and sabotage businesses, causing extensive social and economic harm.


    Experts in international law and the International Committee of the Red Cross, however, give his proposals a cool reception. Cyberspace may throw up some legal dilemmas (for example, how to distinguish military and civilian data travelling on the same network), but it is far from a legal vacuum. Microsoft's proposal for tech companies to be recognised as "first responders" on the cyber battlefield, borrowing language from the Red Cross, has met with surprise and scorn from critics.


    Smith spoke to hundreds of diplomats, officials, and visitors at the UN in Geneva, recalling the city’s heritage as “a place where the world has come together” on difficult issues. Introducing Smith’s talk, the head of the UN in Geneva, Michael Moeller, said “algorithms can be as powerful as tanks, bots as dangerous as bombs”. Smith said the global technology sector should reposition itself as “a trusted and neutral digital Switzerland”.


    Recounting the bloody Battle of Solferino in 1859, which led to the creation of the Red Cross, Smith said a hi-tech arms race is accelerating in cyberspace and international law isn’t configured to tackle the challenge. He raised examples of cyber-attacks affecting Iran, Ukraine, and the WannaCry malware attack that scrambled 200,000 computers, including some in the British health service.


    The laws of armed conflict


    Firstly, ICRC is the guardian of international humanitarian law and its representative at the event argued firmly that the law of armed conflict already governs cyber operations. As an example, ICRC’s Philip Spoerri said attacks against essential civilian infrastructure in wartime already constitute violations of international humanitarian law, unless the infrastructure is a military objective.



    Carlo Bossoli/Wikimedia Commons
    The Battle of Solferino, a painting by Carlo Bossoli.

    Spoerri said there may be value in clarifying other parts of international law about actions that don’t meet the threshold of armed conflict, but noted that political appetite seemed lacking.



    Other international law


    While telling the story of the laws of armed conflict as a scene-setter, Smith’s proposals also appeared to cover the less well-defined area of international law in peacetime.


    Hacking and sabotage may not count as acts of war, but equally they “do not occur in a legal vacuum”, according to a major study. “States have both rights and bear obligations under international law”, according to the Tallinn Manual, updated in February. This NATO-supported review interpreted existing international law as already being applicable and came up with 154 “rules” that can apply to cyber operations in peace or war.


    The field is nevertheless politically charged. Issues around attributing the source of attacks, defining the threshold for what constitutes an “armed attack”, and the right to self-defence and countermeasures, once opened for debate, have become controversial. An intergovernmental expert group to confirm ground rules on the applicability of international law in cyberspace failed to reach agreement in June, partly due to a polarised international climate.


    Dustin Lewis, senior researcher at the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, told IRIN: "the legal and political aspects are difficult, if not impossible, to completely dissociate".




    Microsoft’s proposals are flawed, critics say, both from a legal point of view and due to conflicts of interest. Since security holes in Microsoft’s software are often exploited, it would benefit commercially from wider protection from liability. Also, at a time when Silicon Valley is under scrutiny for wielding a dangerous level of unregulated power, Microsoft’s attempt to rebrand as a neutral paramedic on the cyber battlefield may appear a convenient distraction.


    Microsoft proposes tech companies could sign up to an accord of neutrality and cooperation that would justify a special legal status. Smith suggests they could pledge: “we will not aid in attacking customers anywhere”, and adopt a “100% defense” strategy. However, under the Geneva Conventions, whether an individual is working in military defence or in attack makes little difference to whether or not they “make an effective contribution to military action”.


    This means that Microsoft engineers, for example, fixing a military computer could potentially be a military target. Microsoft has won 1,432 contracts with the US Department of Defense alone in the last five years, worth $888 million, according to public data.


    A prominent critic of the technology giants, Evgeny Morozov, suggests the proposal is “entirely selfish”. Writing for the Guardian, he claimed “the conflict of interest here would be mind-boggling: the more insecure Microsoft’s software, the greater the demand for its cybersecurity services to protect it”.

    Another critical article, from a NATO-affiliated think tank, also suggests Microsoft’s interest stems from self-interest: that cyber-attacks in peacetime are “bad for the business of transnational ICT (tech) companies in that they reveal exploits of vulnerabilities in their products.” Smith confirmed that Microsoft was in part seeking regulatory clarity regarding their customers’ data.


    A senior UN human rights official, Kate Gilmore, was warmly applauded at the event when she said that governments were outsourcing too many decisions on critical issues to the corporate sector. She said there was “an accountability framework that is not fit for purpose” for “corporates larger than countries”.




    The issues aren’t only legal.


    Lewis told IRIN that “currently there is insufficient political consensus… concerning when and under what circumstances certain relevant parts of international law are applicable".


    The Harvard researcher suggested Microsoft’s foray into the arena might even make things worse: “A key question becomes whether the Microsoft proposal is likely to do more damage by questioning the applicability of international law or to have more beneficial effects by spurring interest in legal norms.”



    Microsoft's proposals

    For states

    No targeting of tech companies, private sector, or critical infrastructure

    Assist private-sector efforts to detect, contain, respond to, and recover from events

    Report vulnerabilities to vendors rather than stockpile, sell, or exploit them

    Exercise restraint in developing cyberweapons and ensure that any developed are limited, precise, and not reusable

    Commit to nonproliferation activities to cyberweapons

    Limit offensive operations to avoid a mass event

    For technology companies

    No assistance for offensive cyber operations

    Assistance to protect customers everywhere

    Collaboration to bolster first-response efforts

    Support for governments’ response efforts

    Coordination to address vulnerabilities

    Fighting the proliferation of vulnerabilities


    Bots and bombs: Does cyberspace need a “Digital Geneva Convention”?
    Microsoft is calling for a new international legal framework for cyber conflict with tech giants earning neutral “protected status”
  • Briefing: Nigerian farmers can’t fight desertification alone

    When Abbas Gandi lost a large portion of his crops to the combined ravages of desertification and drought a few years ago, he was so disillusioned he considered abandoning his 10-hectare farmland.

    “It came as a shock; very terrible year. Instead of getting at least 200 bags of yield, I got between 25 to 30 bags,” the 68-year-old farmer said, beads of sweat running off his weathered forehead. “I would have stopped farming if I hadn’t been used to winning and losing.”

    The father of 13 lives in the village of Gandi in northwestern Nigeria’s Sokoto State, close to the Sahara desert. The mean annual rainfall here is less than 600 millimetres compared to over 3,500 millimetres along the coast in the south.

    Eleven states in the north, including Sokoto, are threatened with desertification, the process by which dryland ecosystems are continually degraded by the removal of tree and plant cover, mostly by human activity. In northern Nigeria, desertification threatens the livelihoods of some 40 million people.

    These 11 states account for about 35 percent of the country’s total land area and are key areas of livestock rearing and agricultural production, such as beans, soya beans, millet, sorghum, tomatoes, melons, peppers, and onions.

    Farmers are taking a range of piecemeal steps to combat desertification, but for the fight against this devastating process to be waged effectively, experts say the government has to develop a more integrated and comprehensive approach to the management of land and water.

    What exactly is the problem?

    Professor Emmanuel Oladipo, who advises Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment on climate change issues, explained how desertification is being fuelled by poor land use, unsustainable grazing practices, deforestation, and the consumption pressures associated with a booming population.

    “The direct causes of desertification and arid land degradation stem mostly from drastic reduction or destruction of the perennial plant cover, particularly trees, and simplification of the vegetation structure,” Oladipo told IRIN.

    “Soil surface not protected by permanent vegetation becomes subject to: erosion by water and wind; crusting by raindrop splash and trampling by animals; salinisation by evaporation; and water logging in topographic depressions since water is no longer extracted by permanent vegetation.”

    Farmers in the north are taking steps to adapt to desertification and more frequent droughts – planting trees to provide shade and windbreaks, using diesel-powered pumps for irrigation, and sowing hardier crops such as beans – but such measures aren’t nearly equivalent to the enormous scale of the crisis.

    Nigeria has an annual deforestation rate of about 3.5 percent, meaning an average yearly loss of between 350,000 and 400,000 hectares of forest cover. Official figures say Africa’s largest nation loses over 10.5 billion naira ($34.3 million) every year to environmental challenges such as deforestation, drought, and desertification, but wider unofficial ones put the annual cost in the billions of dollars.

    What is being done?

    Five years ago, Nigeria developed a National Strategic Action Plan for desertification and drought, but just like its Drought and Desertification Policy and its Drought Preparedness Plan, a lack of funding and political will has held back progress.

    The bulk of the government’s counter-desertification work is implemented through the National Agency for the Great Green Wall, an ambitious plan launched in 2007 to plant a 15-kilometre wide swathe of trees along 8,000 kilometres of the southern edge of the Sahara. More than 20 countries in the Sahel are involved, and some $8 billion has been mobilised for the initiative.

    Nigerian farmer in his maize field
    Linus Unah/IRIN
    Abbas Gandi almost gave up farming because of losses to desertification

    Since Nigeria started implementing the initiative in 2013, the agency claims a long list of successes, including the planting of five million assorted forest and fruit tree seedlings, as well as hundreds of hectares of shelterbelts and community woods and orchards.

    However, reporting from the individual states involved gives an equally long list of problems and indicates a general lack of enthusiasm. And, according to local newspaper The Guardian, the agency received less than one fifth of the 1.05 billion naira ($3.4 million) approved for operations this year.

    For Murtala Adogi Mohammed, a PhD researcher looking at the impact of climate change in northwestern Kastina State, the deeper problem is that farmers themselves aren’t being given enough say in the design, implementation, and monitoring of the work.

    “Government-designed tree planting projects without the input of the local farmers and key rural stakeholders are not sustainable,” he said. “To ensure stewardship, ownership and sustainability – rural dwellers buy-in is very important.”

    The result is that Nigeria has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in afforestation and reforestation programmes over the last few decades without effectively tackling desertification.

    Ologun Freeman, an associate director at the Federal Ministry of Environment, told IRIN that the 2012 Presidential Initiative on Afforestation, in which millions of seedlings were planted, “was not really successful as the government could not really track down the seedlings [all the way] to the field where they are supposed to be planted”.

    Many of the government’s efforts to tackle desertification in northern Nigeria are not “sustainable”, said Olagunju Temidayo Ebenezer, a climate change researcher at the University of Ibadan. Ebenezer blamed the lack of monitoring and continuity, inconsistent government policies, and the diversion of money from environmental management funds.

    What needs to be done?

    Experts say the government needs to address the underlying enablers of deforestation such as a lack of policy support, weak regulations, and rural poverty.

    Most of all, the trend towards an increasingly unsustainable dependence on land resources for food production, medicine, fuel, fodder, building materials, and household items, must stop.

    The soaring demand for fuelwood overrides any concerns about advancing desertification in the north. Fuelwood and charcoal account for about 50 percent of national primary energy consumption, with rural communities burning up over 32 million cubic metres of fuelwood yearly.

    Mohammed believes providing “economic incentives” such as social capital loans, microcredit schemes, and subsidies for agricultural machinery would reduce poverty and thereby release this growing pressure on arid lands.

    “Government should also improve the state of social amenities such as rural electricity, which would serve as an alternative to fuelwood as a source of local energy,” he said.

    Beyond planting trees, Nigeria has to develop more efficient ways to reverse desertification and drought, said Oladipo, who participated in the drafting of the 2012 action plan.

    “It requires a comprehensive and integrated approach to the management of the land, biodiversity, and water resources of the affected areas in northern Nigeria for the sustainable livelihoods of the people in the region,” he explained.

    Perhaps the best clues for how to succeed in the future lie in the action plan itself. It conceded that Nigeria’s approach to reversing desertification had been “generally inconsistent, uncoordinated, piecemeal, sectoral and consists of single set remedial and ad hoc measures” without “serious attempts to have a comprehensive and integrated national framework.”


    Nigerian farmers can’t fight desertification alone
    Without concerted government action, land degradation could destroy millions of livelihoods
    Part of a special project that explores the impact of climate change on the food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe
  • Seed banks help Zimbabwe’s farmers tackle climate change

    “Seed security is food security” is something of a mantra in developing world agronomy circles. In Zimbabwe, the adage is gradually being put into action by promoting the use of indigenous small grains threatened with extinction by the dominance of maize, both in fields and on dinner tables.

    This dominance has left indigenous small seeds such as millet, cowpeas and sorghum as bit players in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, despite their greater resilience to weather shocks such as droughtwhich are occurring with increasing frequency and severity in Zimbabwe because of the effects of climate change.

    Such small seeds also tend to require fewer of the expensive inputs required by commercial hybrid maize.

    John Misi, the administrator of Mudzi District, in Mashonaland East Province, explained that getting farmers to use small grains “has been a challenge as maize is our staple food, and as such people are used to planting maize in this community.”

    For example, most of the land farmed by Jameson Sithole, a smallholder in a marginal and dry area of Chipinge, in Manicaland Province, is planted with maize. He sows just two of his 17 hectares with indigenous small grains.

    “Maize is a cash crop such that I am able to sell without challenges, helping me to send my 10 children to school and buy equipment for my farm,” he told IRIN. “With small grains it’s different. But l need to supplement my maize stocks when they run out and feed my family during drought.”

    One hurdle standing in the way of greater use of indigenous seeds is their relative lack of availability.  Whereas farmers tend to buy maize seeds from commercial suppliers, 95 percent of all other kinds of seed are obtained from their own crops or those of fellow farmers.

    Community spirit

    Seed banks can help to solve this problem.

    Community seed banks tend to work along the same lines as money banks: farmers take out loans of seeds, which in many cases are donated by the local community, and then repay the loan in kind with interest after they harvest their crops.

    Seed banks typically consist of small dark rooms protected from the heat of the sun and filled with shelves of pots and bottles containing a wide range of indigenous seeds, including, in the case of Zimbabwe, millet, cowpeas and local varieties of maize.

    According to an April 2017 paper on the evolution and role of seed banks in several countries around the world published by Development in Practice, such facilities help “enhance the resilience of farmers, in particular of communities and households most affected by climate change.”

    This is because they can “secure improved access to, and availability of, diverse, locally adapted crops and varieties, and enhance related indigenous knowledge and skills in plant management” – including seed selection and distribution.

    Jameson Patricia Muchenje, a smallholder farmer in the district of Rushinga, in Mashonaland Central Province, is a case in point.

    “In our community we are working towards keeping and protecting our small grains from disappearing through our community seed bank,” she told IRIN. “We have been working together, teaching each other on planting the right seeds and use the best farming techniques.”

    She added that she and other farmers in her neighbourhood were soon hoping to sell seeds from the seed bank “to enable us to get some income, which we can use to upgrade our seed bank infrastructure or start our income-generating projects such as market gardening or poultry projects."

    Marjorie Jeke, a farmer in Murehwa District, in the neighbouring province of Mashonaland East said: "In the event that there are floods and our crops don’t do well in the field, the seed bank becomes useful as I will go back to the seed bank and retrieve my seeds for free to replant.

    “I don’t have to struggle borrowing from neighbours, or to bother my children with money because the seed bank has made it easier for us to survive as farmers.”

    Safety net

    According to recent field research conducted by Oxfam in Zimbabwe, “access to the right seeds at the right time, and for the right price, is critical to being able to produce enough food to eat in the face of growing climate disruption.

    “Farmer seed systems and community seed banks provide an important safety net for cash-strapped, vulnerable people,” the Oxfam report said. “Supporting them is an adaptation opportunity that is currently being missed.”

    In September, the Community Technology Development Trust, an NGO based in Harare, opened a seed bank in Mudzi district. It was the fourth such facility it had set up, and several more are in the pipeline.

    They are needed because “farmers are slowly losing their valuable indigenous crop seeds due to the vigorous promotion and growing of hybrid crop varieties, which concentrate on a small number of varieties designed for intensive farming,” CTDT Director Andrew Mushita said at the opening.

    If Mushita has his way, seed banks, which he said cost around $20,000 each to set up, would be established in all of Zimbabwe’s rural districts.

    The value of seed banks is clear, but Zimbabwe’s agriculture sector – despite its importance to economic growth – suffers from under funding.

    Without sustained external support, there’s a risk that seed banks fall into disuse after the initial start-up financing runs out, the Development in Practice paper noted.




    Seed banks help Zimbabwe’s farmers tackle climate change
    Part of a special project that explores the impact of climate change on the food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe
  • South Sudan’s youth: perpetrators or peacebuilders?

    “There are no opportunities for youth here,” said Yar, a 20-year-old South Sudanese refugee from Jonglei, stuck in the Nyumanzi refugee settlement in northern Uganda.

    Her words were echoed in conversations I had throughout my two-week visit to the settlements.

    Since war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, approximately four million people, one third of the fledgling nation’s population, have been forced to flee their homes.

    Today, half of those who’ve fled are living as internally displaced persons in South Sudan, and the other half have become refugees in neighbouring countries, especially Uganda.

    Uganda now hosts more than one million South Sudanese refugees and more cross the border every day, fleeing violence, insecurity, and drastic food shortages in their native country.

    Yar arrived in Uganda in 2014. She lost most of her family in the war and is now living alone in the refugee settlement, without much hope for the future.

    “There is no opportunity for youth to study in secondary school or to get jobs,” she told me. “Young people are just sitting around doing nothing.”

    The issue of youth idleness was a recurring theme in nearly all my conversations: with refugees, NGO representatives, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and the Office of the Prime Minister, or OPM, which coordinates the refugee response in Uganda. 

    Approximately 61 percent of the South Sudanese refugee population in Uganda is under the age of 18.  With no signs of South Sudan’s ethnically driven civil war ending anytime soon, some refugees could be displaced for 10 to 20 years, or more.

    Wasted lives

    If this youth population remains idle for the next decade or two, without support to address their trauma and hatred towards certain ethnic groups, there is a significant risk they could return to South Sudan to perpetuate violence through the next generation.

    There are already some reports of refugees being recruited by armed forces in South Sudan, and some are willingly returning home to take up arms. 

    Research has shown a strong correlation between a growing unemployed/idle youth population and civil conflict.

    As US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Hayley begins a trip to South Sudan and Uganda today, she must confront this issue in the refugee settlements and prioritise the inclusion of youth in future peace endeavours. 

    Large and idle youth populations are often easily manipulated, especially if there are unaddressed grievances against certain groups (ethnic, religious, political). Some individuals become so desperate that they will join armed groups to provide for themselves and their families. 

    With a third of the population displaced – most of them youth – lacking opportunities, traumatised by war, and ethnically divided, the situation could become a perfect storm for perpetuating the conflict.

    As Michelle Gavin, an adjunct fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations said: “If you have no other options and not much else going on, the opportunity cost of joining an armed movement may be low.”

    For good reason, the humanitarian community’s emergency response to the refugee situation has focused primarily on providing for refugees’ basic needs – food, water, shelter, and healthcare.

    However, by now some refugees have been displaced for more than three years. The response must also prioritise youth empowerment programmes, job training, and peacebuilding efforts to ensure they don’t become a lost generation.

    Change agents


    A plan of action

    Today’s idle youth population represents a huge risk factor for further violence, but it does not have to be that way.

    With the right training and investment, these young refugees could become productive members of both the South Sudanese and Ugandan societies, and could play a pivotal role in bringing peace to South Sudan.

    Some South Sudanese youth leaders have taken the initiative to form organisations dedicated to mobilising their peers to become a positive force for change.

    Among these is the African Youth Action Network, which conducts dialogue sessions and trains leaders in peacebuilding and conflict resolution. Operating in both South Sudan and Uganda, AYAN brings together youth of various ethnic groups – men and women – to discuss issues related to the conflict in South Sudan, as well as issues specific to refugee communities.

    “So often, youth are being regarded as only victims or perpetrators, but the great potential that we have to bring about positive change in South Sudan is neglected,” Malual Bol Kiir, AYAN’s co-founder and executive director, told me.

    Kiir, who is also a member of the UN Advisory Group of Experts for the Progress Study on Youth, Peace and Security, added: “We organise dialogues and train young people on peacebuilding and conflict resolution. So far, we have 150 South Sudanese peace ambassadors across Uganda and in Juba [South Sudan].”

    Given the training and opportunity of working with organisations like AYAN, South Sudan’s youth could become the change-makers their country so desperately needs. With two thirds of the population under the age of 30, the country cannot afford to have its youth sitting idle – in refugee camps or at home. 

    As Ambassador Haley tries to understand the current conflict dynamics and determine how to reignite a peace process, it is imperative that she takes time to meet with South Sudanese youth leaders, and insists on the inclusion of youth in any future peace process.

    Donor nations and the humanitarian community responding to the refugee crisis must prioritise the issue of youth idleness and invest in reconciliation and peacebuilding programmes.

    We must engage these youths now so that they will play a leading role in bringing peace to their young nation.


    TOP PHOTO: An AYAN meeting in Rhino refugee settlement, northern Uganda

    South Sudan’s youth: perpetrators or peacebuilders?
    We can’t afford to lose an entire generation to the war
  • Drought pushes Kenya’s pastoralists to the brink

    Even at the best of times, the people of Turkana live on the edge. Almost all of the 1.3 million inhabitants of this arid county in northwest Kenya endure extreme poverty. Malnutrition rates are among the highest in the country. Since much of the land here is unsuitable for agriculture, most of the population raises livestock, herding animals long distances to find good pasture and plentiful water.

    These days, both resources are in catastrophically short supply. Long dry spells and occasional droughts have always been part of the rhythm of pastoralism here, but Turkana, like much of east Africa, is currently nine months into one of severest droughts in living memory.


    In February, when 23 of the country’s 47 counties were affected, and after the number of food insecure people had more than doubled, from 1.3 million to 2.7 million, the Kenyan government declared a national drought emergency.

    Since then, the situation has worsened considerably. The annual “long rains”, which usually fall between March and May, ended early. It was the third successive poor or failed rainy season.

    By August the number of food insecure Kenyans – those lacking access to food sufficient to live a healthy life – had risen to 3.4 million. According to a flash appeal published in early September by OCHA, the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination body, half a million Kenyans fall into the category of “emergency” food insecurity.

    In Turkana, “very critical” rates of global acute malnutrition (one of the key indicators of humanitarian crises) of up to 37 percent or above have been recorded in some areas – more than double the emergency threshold of 15 percent. This is largely a result of higher food prices and a reduction in milk and food supplies.

    Dying animals and vanishing vegetation

    “Turkana is the epicentre of the drought,” Chris Ajele, director of the county’s ministry of pastoral economy, told IRIN in late September in Lodwar, the county capital.

    The drought “has rendered some families destitute”, he said. “In Turkana, the economy revolves around pastoralism,” he explained. “People attain their daily requirements through the sale and consumption of livestock.”

    In arid counties like Turkana livestock usually accounts for some 80 percent of a household’s income through sales of animals and milk. Livestock also represents a considerable store of wealth: Many herders with few other possessions aside from a wooden stool, a knife, and some cooking utensils own 100 or more goats and sheep, each worth around $60. Camels are worth more than 10 times as much.

    “We have lost about half a million head of livestock [in Turkana] – mostly sheep and goats, as well as cattle and some camels,” Ajele said. High rates of livestock death have also been recorded in the counties of Isiolo, Laikipia, Marsabit, and Samburu.

    This is mainly because the animals don’t have enough to eat. According to a chart complied by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, things are only going to get worse in the months to come: In the map for November 2017, almost the entire country is shaded red, indicating “extreme vegetation deficit”. Just last year, foraging conditions in most of the country were either “normal” or “very good”.


    Chart of forage coverage in Kenya
    Food and Agriculture Organization
    Forage conditions worsened dramatically in 2017

    And the longer a drought lasts, especially when coupled with over-grazing, the greater the risk that subsequent growth and reproduction of the grasses eaten by livestock will be compromised. There is strong correlation between foraging conditions and levels of human malnutrition.

    “Drought is a part of life for pastoralists, but whereas they used to happen every 10 years, now, because of climate change, the gap is narrowing and they are becoming unpredictable,” said Josephat Lotwel, who works on drought response in Turkana for the National Disaster Management Authority. “The forecast is that this drought will continue, malnutrition will increase, and more animals will die.”

    “I live like a dog”

    All the pastoralists IRIN met in Turkana said most of their herds had perished as a result of the drought.

    “200 of my goats died,” said Joseph Lopido at a livestock market in the small town of Kerio. “I used to be a man. Now I live like a dog because I am poor.”

    Lopido said everyone in the community was affected because getting enough food to survive was a real problem.

    “Some of my family eat wild fruit to survive and sometimes it can cause health problems,” he said. “The only thing that helps us is rain. When it rains, the grass grows and the goats graze. How can we survive without rain?”

    Lopido had come to the market hoping to sell his two remaining goats, but the prices he was offered were so low he decided to hang on to them.

    According to OCHA, average prices of livestock in Kenya “have declined by up to 40 percent, and the combination of low household incomes and high staple food prices has significantly reduced the livestock-to-cereals terms of trade”. In other words, goats, sheep, and cows are worth far less maize than they used to be.

    On the road to Kerio, camel herder Ebei Lotubwa was trying to flag down cars, waving a yellow plastic cooking oil bottle cut off at the top to serve as a jug – he was desperate for water.

    “This is the worst drought. There is no grass. It did rain last month, but they were only showers,” he said, explaining that 16 of his camels – animals renowned for their ability to survive for months without drinking – had died during this drought.

    “To find water for our animals, sometimes we have to walk for 30 kilometres. That’s why we beg water from passing cars. Not everyone stops.”

    “When there is no rain, we get no milk from the camels.”

    Another herder, Peter Okapelo, said 100 of his sheep and goats had died, leaving him with 20. “The only way for me to get more is for them to breed. But if this drought continues, these 20 will also die. I don’t know what I will do then.”

    Asked about the long-term future, he said: “I think pastoralism will be finished because of the droughts. All the animals are dying.”

    Drought in Turkana

    Fredrik Lerneryd/IRIN
    Slideshow: Drought in Turkana

    Vulnerability to climate change

    In the absence of prolonged drought, pastoralism generally makes better use of open rangeland environments, and delivers better food security than other agricultural systems. It delivers greater returns per hectare, for example, than ranches. And while often dismissed as geographically isolated and economically peripheral, the African Union recognises that “pastoralists supply very substantial numbers of livestock to domestic, regional and international markets and therefore, make crucial – but often undervalued – contributions to national and regional economies in Africa”.

    Pastoralists have long coped with – even thrived on – wide variations in temperature and rainfall, but they are extremely vulnerable to the harsher weather shocks brought about by climate change in three ways: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity.

    As a 2014 paper on pastoralism and climate change adaptation in northern Kenya explains, pastoralists are especially exposed to climate change because in east Africa it manifests itself in “increasing temperatures and higher rainfall variability… with both escalating the likelihood of more frequent and extended droughts.” According to a 2007 study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Kenya is warming at a rate roughly 1.5 times the global average.

    The paper’s authors add that Kenyan pastoralists are particularly “sensitive” because their livestock “depends on the availability of water and pasture which is negatively affected by climate change”.


    Water point in Turkana County, Kenya
    Fredrik Lerneryd/IRIN
    Without water points like this, many more animals would die

    And on the third vulnerability, the paper explains that while “pastoralists have developed their adaptive knowledge and skills over centuries, their options for adaption and economic assets have been limited by political and socio-economic marginalisation.”

    According to Johnstone Moru, who advises the county government in Turkana on climate change on behalf of German consultancy firm Ambero, “the colonial and successive governments [in Kenya] had no proper policies on the development of arid and semi-arid lands, including pastoralism.”

    The International Livestock Research Institute sums up the chronic plight of those who live in Kenya’s drylands: “With a dearth of alternative productive livelihood strategies to pursue, scant risk management options to provide safety nets in the event of shock, diminished rangelands and increasing incidents of violent conflicts, these populations grow ever more vulnerable to the range of risks that afflict them.”


    That’s not to say nothing at all has been done, or could be done in the future, to make pastoralism in Kenya more sustainable and resilient to climate change.

    Cash transfers, an index-based insurance scheme, an off-take programme under which the government buys livestock in times of drought to give pastoralists a monetary lifeline as well as meat from the slaughtered animals, and efforts to diversify sources of income through the promotion of agro-pastoralism and the processing of animal by-products, are examples of recent investments.

    But there are shortcomings to many of these initiatives: The feed stores where pastoralists are supposed to spend their insurance payouts to ensure their animals’ survival are often far away; the off-take programme generally pays less than potential market rates; land exploited for agriculture tends to be close to rivers, blocking traditional migration routes; and a tannery near Lodwar, conceived to boost pastoralists’ income through the production and marketing of leather goods and launched with some fanfare in April, was entirely dormant when IRIN visited in September, with no clear timetable for a resumption of its operations.

    The adoption in Kenya of a new constitution in 2010 set in motion a process of political devolution and led to the creation of county governments, with the aim of improving services better suited to local needs.

    Turkana County’s 2016-2020 Investment Plan sets out 16 areas for “quick wins” in scaling up the pastoralism sector. These include exporting live animals; setting up feeding ranches as well as meat processing plants; building more tanneries; and developing bio-gas projects.

    But the pastoralists IRIN spoke to were less than impressed. “Devolution hasn’t made any difference I can see,” said Lopido. “The local government has built some structures, but we don’t have any food in our stomachs.”


    Drought pushes Kenya’s pastoralists to the brink
    Part of a special project that explores the impact of climate change on the food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe
  • Can Congo’s new child-free army bring lasting change?

    The Democratic Republic of Congo’s military has been removed from the UN’s ‘list of shame’ of armed groups that recruit and use child soldiers – only the second ever delisting after Chad in 2014.

    It’s a hugely positive step. The UN’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report, released last week, is a key document in highlighting the militaries and armed groups that recruit and commit grave violations against children. This year, 56 state forces and armed groups from 14 countries were named.

    However, the progress made by the Congolese armed forces, the FARDC, has been a long time coming, and serious concerns remain over sexual violence committed by its soldiers.

    History of abuse and recruitment

    Officially formed in 2003, the current national army has for much of its existence been mired in conflicts with Congo’s multiple militias. Violence has long scarred the country, as national and foreign armed groups vie for power and survival in the mineral-rich east.

    These conflicts have left a trail of death, sexual abuse, and child recruitment across the region. For many years during the 2000s, FARDC forces were among the perpetrators.

    Exact figures on child recruitment by the army since 2003 are not known. But international observers and human rights groups believe it’s in the thousands, with minors exploited as fighters alongside less official roles as look-outs, porters, messengers, cooks, and sexual slaves – often referred to as “wives”.

    One of the most significant enabling factors in the army’s use of children has been the fractured and disorganised way it has integrated disparate armed groups into its ranks as part of various peace settlements.

    In 2009, 12,000 fighters from the National Congress for the Defence of the People and many local self-defence ‘Mai-Mai’ groups surrendered and joined the Congolese army.

    It was envisaged as a way to stem the deadly conflict – at this point 800,000 civilians had been displaced and thousands more killed in the east. The integration process resulted in hundreds of children being integrated alongside adult fighters. It also led to senior militia commanders maintaining power bases, only now as members of the armed forces, and still continuing to recruit and use children.

    A 2012-2013 recruitment campaign by the FARDC targeting 18 to 25 year olds also permitted hundreds more children to enrol due to lack of robust screening procedures.

    UN action plan

    The signing of a 2012 UN action plan by President Joseph Kabila’s government and the UN marked a major step forward.

    Between 2009 and 2015, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, MONUSCO, and the FARDC assisted with the release of 8,546 children associated with Congo’s armed groups, including from within the army itself.

    The training of the army and other security forces on child protection issues, and the creation of standard operating procedures on age verification have all helped eliminate the recruitment of children by the armed forces; as has the appointment, in 2014, of Jeanine Mabunda Lioko as special advisor to the president on sexual violence and child recruitment, and the systematic screening and separation of children in the ranks of the armed forces.

    Culture of impunity remains

    However, an end to the sexual violence committed by the FARDC and others is yet to materialise. Significantly, the UN report still lists the FARDC as committing “rape and other forms of sexual violence against children”.

    High-ranking officers of the FARDC, the national police, and leaders of armed groups have been arrested and convicted of sexual violence against children. Members of the FARDC have also been charged with child recruitment, but there have been no convictions to date.

    Further, in contravention to the action plan and a 2013 Ministry of Defence directive prohibiting the practice, the detention by government forces of children formerly associated with armed groups persists.

    MONUSCO has noted incidents where children freed from groups are being detained “for periods ranging from a few days to several months,” by the security forces. Eradicating such practices is crucial if the army’s reputation is to be restored. 

    Many Congolese children are still routinely exploited by armed groups in both combat and support roles. And for girls, who account for up to 40 percent of Congo’s child soldiers, serious sexual and physical abuse continues, as well as stigma and family rejection of those able to return home.

    The scale of the enduring problems is demonstrated by the fact that the latest UN report found that 12 armed groups active in Congo were still using child soldiers.

    And worryingly, recent violence in the restive Kasai region has created hundreds more child soldiers. MONUSCO chief Maman Sidikou told IRIN in September that recruitment in the central region “has never been so extensive in DRC”.

    Previously, when the country has spiralled back into conflict, the use of children by both armed groups and the FARDC has resumed.

    The UN’s delisting of the Congolese armed forces shows tangible results are possible. To avoid a regression, the government must maintain the progress made within its own ranks and intensify its efforts to stop recruitment by armed groups, while at the same time respecting human rights across the country.

    It is paramount that children who are released or escape, and the communities to which they return, receive adequate support if victims are to recover and lead normal lives again. Any assistance given must be holistic and community-based otherwise recruitment and re-recruitment will occur when conflict flares up.

    Cementing progress will not only ensure Congo’s removal is lasting but also inspire other countries to take concerted action to tackle the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict.


    TOP PHOTO: Sensitisation initiative by local NGO with armed groups in Lubarika, South Kivu. CREDIT: Child Soldiers International

    Can Congo’s new child-free army bring lasting change?
  • Women drivers, corrupt cops, and dating refugees: The Cheat Sheet

    Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:

    Was letting women drive a Saudi PR stunt?

    It would have been hard to miss the news that Saudi Arabia will soon let women drive, trumpeted as a major victory led by brave activists. The policy change is a big deal, but might it also have been a PR stunt to try to appease the West? Perhaps, distraction from the war in Yemen and today’s hotly debated UN Human Rights Council vote on an independent investigation into the war in Yemen? Don’t rule it out. Saudi Arabia was certainly nervous – it reportedly sent a letter warning other countries that such a probe could “negatively affect” trade and diplomatic ties with the kingdom. The proposal, which has been written and rewritten, negotiated and hashtagged (#YemenInquiryNow), was strongly supported by advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch.

    Diplomacy has singularly failed to do anything for the people of Yemen, who are enduring the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth. So, especially as Saudi Arabia has several friends in high places, expectations were low ahead of the vote. But as Cheat Sheet went to press the council passed a resolution by consensus that mandates a group of international experts to investigate abuses. Amnesty International Senior Director for Research Anna Neistat said the move “sends an unequivocal message to all parties to the conflict in Yemen – that their conduct will be scrutinised and the abuses they commit will not go unpunished.” The independent investigation falls short of a full-scale UN international commission of inquiry that could have led to referrals to the international criminal court, but it won’t leave the powers-that-be in Riyadh particularly happy. If allowing women to drive was a PR stunt, it was an epic fail.

    Biafra redux

    A growing secessionist swell in southeastern Nigeria is dividing the country once again, 50 years after the civil war that claimed a million lives (see an earlier IRIN report). Thousands of troops have been deployed to the region in a heavy-handed crackdown on pro-Biafra agitation, and the leader of the breakaway Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) campaign, Nnamdi Kanu, has gone missing – reportedly detained by the army. Secessionist sentiment has been building in recent years under the leadership of Kanu, a skilled propagandist. He won sympathy among Igbos in the southeast during a lengthy trial on terrorism and treason charges. A pro-Biafra social media campaign portrays President Muhammadu Buhari as a pro-Muslim northerner out to crush the southeast. In June, northern youth groups upped the ante by demanding that all Igbos must leave the north by 1 October – an uncomfortable reminder of the pogroms in the north that led to the declaration of Biafra in 1967. Kanu’s announcement of the formation of self-defence units and threat to prevent elections in the southeast has also worsened the tension. Igbos are a successful trading community, spread throughout the country. Many leading Igbos have condemned Kanu’s cause, including the southeastern governors. But the governors have also called for urgent dialogue, drawing parallels between IPOB, an inflexible government, and the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast.

    Drying out and dying out in Kenya’s Turkana

    Turkana County lies in the 80 percent of Kenya’s landmass that is classed as drylands, where most inhabitants eke out a living raising livestock – cows, goats, sheep, and camels. Pastoralism is a way of life that is defined by environmental variation, with herders constantly moving their flocks across vast distances to the best available pasture and water points. Coping with the occasional failure of seasonal rains has always been a feature of this arduous livelihood. But as IRIN discovered on a just-concluded reporting mission to Turkana, the drought which for months has ravaged much of east Africa, and which the Kenyan government has termed a national emergency, is the worst in living memory. One local official said half a million head of livestock had succumbed to thirst, hunger, and disease, leaving many herders destitute. Much of the human population has fallen into crisis levels of food insecurity. The climate shock is all the more severe because of the Kenyan drylands’ chronic poverty, and the absence of basic services that would have served as a cushion. And while grassland tends to recover from droughts once rains return, this one is so severe and prolonged that there are fears that some pasture has been scorched beyond repair. All these issues and more – including the pernicious threat posed by an aggressive, invasive, and tantalisingly evergreen shrub – will be explored in depth in IRIN’s forthcoming package of stories.

    The refugee’s dating coach

    This week, we bring you something a bit different – dare we say it, even uplifting? It’s the final episode in the inaugural series of a new NPR podcast – Rough Translation – all about navigating the dating landscape in Berlin as a Syrian refugee. This is not yet another piece about teaching Arab men how to approach women in miniskirts in the aftermath of the Cologne attacks, although the repercussions of the media frenzy after those events certainly form a backdrop to this must-listen. Instead, this is the story of Aktham, known as “Abu Techno” for his role in getting the word about the Syrian uprising out – and his quest to find a relationship in a new language and culture, with a little help from his German flirt coach Sophia. There are misunderstandings aplenty, honesty, and some fresh perspective on how the little things matter even when you've fled something vast and terrible.

    Did you miss it?

    Unfair cop: Why African police forces make violent extremism worse

    Studies indicate that the majority of young people who sign up to extremist groups do so because of the actions of government security forces, often the killing or arrest of friends or family members. Often the culprit in many African countries is the abusive and intimidatory behaviour of corrupt police officers. In this hard-hitting analysis, IRIN’s Africa Editor Obi Anyadike strikes at the heart of issue, offering his depressing but acurate critique of those paid to protect not endanger society. But in Kenyan senior sergeant Francis Mwangi, someone at the forefront of efforts to reform policing, Anyadike finds some hope. But are the lessons Mwangi is learning as he builds bridges in the Nairobi slum of Kamakunji being written down and taught in police academies across the continent? Probably not. Meanwhile, from Nigeria to Somalia, from Kenya even to South Africa, police forces are seen as subservient to the wishes of ruling elites. In insurgeny-prone areas, hit squads take priority over proper detective work. Tolerance of abuse is mainstream. Governance failures abound. All the talk is of the soft power of preventing violent extremism, or PVE. But if this is to work in an African context, policing needs a radical overhaul.

    Anyadike’s story is part of IRIN’s special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel.

    (TOP PHOTO: A young girl in a displacement camp in rural Taiz in Yemen. Ahmed al-Basha/IRIN)


    Women drivers, corrupt cops, and dating refugees

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