(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Key donors freeze Uganda refugee aid after UN mismanagement scandal

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


    Frozen funds


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


    Risks for the response


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


    Distribution and investigation


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


    A niche market

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


    (Additional reporting by Lorenzo D’Agostino in Rome)

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


    Investigators determining if “operational error, negligence, or fraudulent behaviour” to blame
    UN probes substandard food aid for mothers and children
  • Saudi Arabia and UAE in record pledge at Yemen aid conference

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


    “Driving seat”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


    Salary payments


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

    On our radar

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

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


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

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


    South Sudan rights violations may amount to war crimes

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

    Joining up billions in development, humanitarian, and peace spending

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

    In case you missed it

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


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


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


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


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



    Weekend read

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

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

    And finally

    US-armed donor proposal stirs alarm

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

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


    Rival Venezuela pop concerts, the “triple nexus”, arming US aid officials
  • Briefing: Haiti’s new crisis and the humanitarian risks

    The last decade has been cruel to Haiti: one of the world’s deadliest ever earthquakes struck in 2010; cholera, brought in accidentally by UN peacekeepers, then ravaged the country for years afterwards, claiming at least 10,000 lives; and, in October 2016, Hurricane Matthew wiped out 90 percent of buildings along the southern coast at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion.


    The Caribbean country is now gripped by deadly protests over allegations of government corruption and the crippling effects of stubbornly high inflation – protests that could bring down President Jovenel Moïse and have already plunged the nation of 11 million people into renewed uncertainty.


    ☰ Read more: Haiti’s changing fortunes


    Haiti, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic to the east, has a proud history – a successful revolution against French rule culminated in the formation of the world’s first black republic in 1804.


    But since three decades of brutal Duvalier dictatorship ended in 1986, its more recent past has been marked by revolts, coups, natural disasters, questionable military and foreign interventions, and political mismanagement.


    Over the course of a few decades, Haiti went from being a booming (if short-lived) tourist destination, and a large exporter of food and other goods, to a failed economic state that has to import more than 80 percent of its rice at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.


    According to the World Bank, 59 percent of Haiti’s population lives below the poverty line (on less than $2.41 a day), and almost one in four in extreme poverty (less than $1.23 a day). Only a quarter of Haitians have access to electricity. The country has an official unemployment rate of 30 percent, but the real figure is believed to be higher.


    “Haitians want to work, but they can’t find jobs,” said Haitian economist Eddy Labossière, calling in particular for a better loan system for the country’s farmers. It is very difficult for Haitians to get credit to help start or build businesses – 80 percent of loans given out by the banks go to just 10 percent of borrowers.


    Clarens Renois, a former journalist who is now the president of the National Union for Integration and Reconciliation, or UNIR, a centre-left opposition party, called for dialogue and said he didn’t think it wise for Moïse to resign without a plan in place.


    “There are many players,” Renois said. “You have the private sector; in the past you had the military; you have the international community playing into it; and, of course, the Haitian politicians.”


    Haitians use democracy to protest in the streets, he said, but they can’t even find food to feed their children. “I think we’re in a really big crisis,” Renois said. “Even if schools reopen and things return to normal, you will still have to address this in the next three to six months.”


    One of the most vulnerable countries to extreme weather events, Haiti has long had chronic problems trying to feed its population. In December, the UN’s World Food Programme stated that “between March and June 2019, it is projected that 2.6 million people will be acutely food insecure, including 571,000 in a food emergency.”


    But the current political and economic crisis, aid officials are warning, will only worsen the humanitarian prognosis for what is already the poorest country in the western hemisphere.


    Why did protests erupt?

    A report published in 2017 by the Haitian Senate accused dozens of government officials and heads of private firms of embezzling $2 billion from Petrocaribe – a cut-price-oil aid programme Venezuela offers to several Caribbean countries. According to the Miami Herald, the report listed a firm Moïse owns as a beneficiary of funds from a road construction project that never had a signed contract.


    The funds were supposed to go to infrastructure development and health, education, and social programmes. The allegations fed into existing questions about what successive governments had to show for some $9 billion in foreign aid since the 2010 earthquake, even though little of it went directly to the Haitian government of Haitian firms.

    Demonstrations over a 40 percent hike in fuel prices in July 2018 marked the beginning of the current unrest. Then, on 14 August, Haitian filmmaker and writer Gilbert Mirambeau Jr. posted a photo of himself on social media holding a sign asking where the PetroCaribe funds had gone, hashtag #PetroCaribeChallenge.


    The tweet quickly went viral, inspiring both the Haitian youth and the Haitian diaspora. Black banners started being draped above streets in the capital, Port-au-Prince, asking “Kot Kòb Petwo Karibe a?” or “Where is the PetroCaribe money?”

    Pascale Solages, a spokeswoman for the PetroCaribe Challenge, said the movement is inspiring everyone to rise up and speak out against corruption. “We need to have investigations,” she told IRIN. “The people who are accused need to go on trial; we need to have justice.”


    When did the violence start?


    The movement began peacefully, attracting thousands of protesters demanding greater government accountability. However, as it grew, opposition politicians became involved and different agendas came into play. The first clashes were reported in October and November.



    A stack of tires on fire at a petrol station as protesters march behind
    Jessica Obert/IRIN
    Nationwide protests at the PetroCaribe scandal were held on 17 October, Dessalines Day – a holiday honouring a Haitian independence hero.


    Frustration over corruption but also over inflation, gas shortages, and failed government promises to introduce 24-hour electricity and boost agricultural production came to a head on 7 February when the opposition began a series of protests dubbed “Operation Lockdown Haiti”, marching on the presidential palace, and blocking the road to the airport.

    Some protesters burned cars and looted as the security situation deteriorated. At least nine people have been killed and dozens injured in 10 days of protests that also saw 78 detainees escape from a prison in Aquin, a town in southern Haiti.


    President Moïse didn’t address the nation until last Thursday, a week after the protests started. He called for the country to stand behind him, saying he wouldn’t resign to armed gangs and drug dealers. The US Embassy released a statement shortly after the address, supporting Moïse but urging his government to crack down on corruption and find those responsible for the missing PetroCaribe funds.


    Protests continued after Moïse’s speech and into the weekend, but the streets have been calmer since Sunday even while uncertainty remains.


    What are the humanitarian needs?


    High inflation for several years, recently exceeding 15 percent, has made it ever more difficult for most Haitians to buy the bare necessities and feed their families. A few months ago one US dollar was equivalent to roughly 71 gourdes. It has now risen to nearly 85. One small can of rice used to cost 35 gourdes. Now, it costs 60.


    Hospitals in the capital reported being besieged during the protests, unable to get doctors or patients in, let alone medicines, although one doctor told CNN: “To be honest this is normal for this hospital – we don't have medicines, we don't have any working equipment.”

    "Generally speaking there is food available, it’s just that people don’t have the cash to buy anything."


    WFP supported a national analysis in December that found “a significant deterioration of food security and the nutritional situation of rural households”. It said 2.2 million Haitians were facing acute food insecurity, including 386,000 in a food emergency.


    Jessica Pearl, country director of Mercy Corps, explained how most people in Haiti live on the margins, so her organisation works to build their resilience and leave them less dependent on foreign aid.


    “In the humanitarian community, we try to distribute cash instead of food so that people can support the local economy, and the cash circulates in the local economy,” she told IRIN. “In the areas where the food is not available, there would be some distribution of food that is handled by the UN World Food Programme. Generally speaking there is food available, it’s just that people don’t have the cash to buy anything. This will be the largest challenge for people.”


    What are the risks ahead?


    Pearl warned that the situation was now likely to get worse. “We were already in a difficult food security situation, and there were already plans underway to provide food assistance to a large number of people across the country,” she said. “So that need hasn’t gone away and if anything it’s probably been exacerbated.”


    The WFP prediction for March-June represents an almost 50 percent increase in those with “food emergency” status in just a few months.


    For Mercy Corps and other aid agencies, as well as any government response efforts, the volatility and unpredictability of the demonstrations makes it difficult to move safely through the streets, particularly in the overcrowded capital. This has prevented the delivery of water and fuel, and the restocking of markets.


    According to the Miami Herald, aid groups have been unclear whether the situation is even safe enough to enter Haiti.

    “We want the price of goods to go down and for the possibility to find work. We just want the country to function well.”

    In the countryside, Haitians are often dependent on gas and food coming overland from the Dominican Republic. The economic crisis has meant trucks have had difficulty providing diesel to stations outside the capital, and roadblocks have disrupted trade.


    Kesner Pharel, a Harvard graduate and economist in Haiti, warned that continued political instability would hit the economy hard as renewed calm will be needed to draw back in some foreign investment and make the devalued gourde more competitive.


    “If you look at the last 10 months, you see the riots in July, a big strike in October, one week of strikes in November, and now the country has been closed for more than a week. It’s a big shock for the economic supply,” Pharel said. “If you aren’t creating wealth, how can you solve unemployment? Where are you getting the money to buy?”


    A mother and daughter sit on a bed as light from the window falls on them
    Jessica Obert/IRIN
    Kessia Madocher and her eight-year-old daughter inside their home in Turgeau. Water and other basic essentials are becoming increasingly scarce after protests have gripped Haiti for the past two weeks.


    What do ordinary Haitians think?


    On the steep hillside in the Turgeau neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, you can almost convince yourself that all is well below. However, Kessia Madocher, 31, struggles to find drinking water and food for her daughter and four brothers and sisters.

    Normally, she’d be able to send her water canisters down the hill on a motorcycle. Now, she has to walk long distances to stand in long lines with no guarantee of getting any. Madocher has resorted to buying water from neighbours’ rain basins – used normally for bathing – and treating it with clorox. Since the unrest, she says they’ve had to cut back on food and water.


    Savanel St. Jour works as a motorcycle driver in the capital. He took part in the most recent protests and says Moïse must go because no one can trust what he says any longer.


    Madocher isn’t so sure. A friend of hers was killed last week in the demonstrations, and she says she’s afraid to leave her home to look for food and can’t send her daughter to school.

    “Jovenel didn’t say anything of substance,” Madocher says. “He didn’t speak for us or about the missing money people are protesting about. He’s speaking for the rich people that are with him.”


    Madocher leaves an empty cup used to measure rice on the table in her house. Gallons of empty jugs of water are piled up in the corner of the room. She wants the country to change, but in a way that all Haitians feel the impact. “We want the price of goods to go down and for the possibility to find work,” she says. “We just want the country to function well.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Protesters demonstrate in anger at the PetroCaribe scandal. CREDIT: Jessica Obert/IRIN)


    “We just want the country to function well”
    Briefing: Haiti’s new crisis and the humanitarian risks
  • South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

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

    Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

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

    Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

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

    Counting the cost of internal displacement

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

    Examining aid partnerships

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

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

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

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


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

    In case you missed it

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

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

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

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

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


    Weekend read

    International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

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

    And finally

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


    What’s the current situation?


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


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


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


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


    Read more:  A humanitarian crisis denied


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


    Read more:  Worries grow as more Venezuelans look to Peru


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


    What plans are there to get aid in?


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


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


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


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


    What are the main needs?


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


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


    Read more: Hunger and survival in Venezuela


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


    Is it just the US offering aid?


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


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


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


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


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


    Is any international aid being provided within Venezuela?


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


    What next?


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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


    Briefing: International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela
  • Security checks delaying urgent healthcare for Syrians fleeing Islamic State: UN official

    The UN says people fleeing so-called Islamic State are being prevented from seeing medical workers until they undergo security screening at a displacement camp in Syria, despite travelling long distances in the winter cold and after enduring months of food shortages.


    As of last week, the UN’s World Health Organisation said 35 children and newborns had died in the last two months either en route or shortly after arrival to al-Hol, the main camp where people leaving IS territory are taken.


    A spokesman for the Syrian Democratic Forces, the US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias fighting off the last vestiges of IS in Hajin and surrounding areas of Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, insisted they are putting the health needs of new arrivals first.


    A total of 25,000 people have fled to al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province since the beginning of December, 10,000 of them since 22 January.


    The SDF controls the territory around al-Hol camp and screens people leaving IS territory to separate off those suspected of being IS members and fighters from civilians. This is done at multiple locations in Syria, including at al-Hol.

    "I personally made sure that medical teams are receiving newcomers before any specific screening or measures."

    With priority given to the screening process, new arrivals are being made to wait “too long in the reception area at the camp before medical triage takes place,” Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO’s representative in Syria, told IRIN. “When they come to the camp, we want to see them immediately,” she said. “If there are sick children or critically ill patients, we don’t want to wait until they are finished [the screening].”

    Hoff said most of the 35 deaths were from hypothermia or hypoglycemia; cold and hunger. IRIN was with the SDF when it met a convoy of people fleeing IS in January, and many said they had been living with severe shortages of food and medicine for months.


    Mustafa Bali, spokesman for the SDF, denied Hoff’s assertion that security was being prioritised over health.


    He told IRIN that “no security screening is being conducted before the provision of medical and logistical services,” adding that medical care was provided by the SDF’s specialist medical teams in what he called a “humanitarian corridor” between the IS-controlled areas and displaced persons’ camps.

    “It is untrue that we subject new arrivals to security screening before medical check-up,” he said. “I visited the humanitarian corridor more than once and I personally made sure that medical teams are receiving newcomers before any specific screening or measures. In addition to the availability of medical teams, food stuffs, water, and essentials are being distributed.”


    UN call for earlier help


    This is not the first time screening procedures for members of IS have come under scrutiny. As IS has been beaten back in Syria and Iraq, rights groups have expressed concern about separation of families, arbitrary detention, and a lack of transparency in the process.


    In a 1 February statement, the UN’s agency for refugees, UNHCR, said it was “concerned about the persistent practice of confiscation of identity documents and movement restrictions imposed on residents of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugee camps in Hassakeh governorate.”


    Hoff also said that WHO, along with other UN agencies, had asked to set up a waystation between Hajin and al-Hol where they could treat emergency medical cases and provide other aid. The journey to the camp is approximately 250 kilometres from Hajin, and she said health workers “need to interact earlier – we cannot wait until they come to the camp”.


    “We have asked the forces in control [of the area] for access at the al-Omar oilfield centre [on the route from Hajin to al-Hol] so we can meet them and have a health point to perform medical check-ups there, and also have some ambulances to pick them up and send trauma and critically ill patients to hospitals for treatment,” Hoff said. “Because people are dying… If we interact earlier, we can send ambulances, get people to the hospital earlier.”


    Hoff said the request was made over two weeks ago.


    Bali denied the SDF had received any such request, saying: “Claims that the UN has requested the establishment of a station near al-Omar oil field are false and we received no request from any side to set [up] such a station.”

    “People are dying… If we interact earlier, we can send ambulances, get people to the hospital earlier.”

    A spokesman for the US-backed coalition referred questions back to the SDF because, he said, those “forces provided support to the civilians on the ground, not the coalition.”


    UNHCR failed to respond to questions about its part in the request to set up a waystation on the way to al-Hol. But in its 1 February statement the agency said that “humanitarian actors have collectively requested forces in control of the area to designate a transit site en route for al-Hol where life-saving assistance can be provided.


    “This initiative remains unimplemented more than two weeks later,” the statement added, noting that “little or no assistance is provided en route to the hungry and cold people, the vast majority of whom are women and children.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Muhammad, 15, fled al-Sousah village in Hajin as violence escalated and sought safety at al-Hol camp along with his older brother. CREDIT: Delil Soleiman/UNICEF)


    Security checks delaying urgent healthcare for Syrians fleeing Islamic State: UN official
    The Kurdish militia fighting IS insists it is putting medical assistance first
  • Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

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

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

    Measles kills more than 300 in Madagascar

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

    Atrocities feared amid rising militancy in Burkina Faso

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

    Aid stuck on Venezuela border

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

    Mixed picture in South Sudan as refugees return

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

    One to listen to:

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

    In case you missed it

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


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


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


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


    Weekend read

    New UN deal with data mining firm Palantir raises protection concerns

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


    And finally...

    Hot in here

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


    Madagascar measles, Venezuela aid, and a dodgy data deal
  • In rural Pakistan, ‘worst drought in years’ drives displacement and hunger

    Water shortages and crop failure caused by record-low rainfalls in Pakistan are forcing some farming families to abandon their land, fleeing what officials say is the worst drought to hit the country in years, while others are selling their last breeding animals or seed stocks to survive.


    Authorities and aid groups say conditions are deteriorating in large swathes of Sindh to the south and Balochistan to the west, where both provincial governments have declared emergencies. Disaster management officials say at least 2.8 million people are affected in the two provinces’ worst-hit districts.


    Pakistan’s Red Crescent Society says the drought in Sindh and Balochistan is “rapidly developing into one of the worst disasters in Pakistan”. Health officials fear rising food insecurity and malnutrition, while authorities say more needs to be done to help families cope at home.


    But some are already leaving. In late January Sunita Meghwar boarded a truck along with 55 other people – the entire population of her tiny village near Mithi, the capital of drought-hit Tharparkar district in southern Sindh.


    Meghwar said she decided to leave when her village’s wells dried up.


    Saleem Shaikh/IRIN
    Sunita Meghwar left her village in drought-hit Tharparkar district. She and her neighbours are heading 200 kilometres away to look for work.

    “We have no option other than migrating,” she said, as she stopped for water at a public tap en route to the city of Hyderabad, some 200 kilometres away from her village.


    Parts of Pakistan have seen frequent dry spells for years, particularly Tharparkar district, where malnutrition and disease – exacerbated by frequent drought – reportedly kill hundreds of children each year, prompting calls for an inquiry into government actions in the district.


    But Meghwar said this past year has been the harshest and most prolonged in memory, with almost no rain.


    ”There seems to be no end,” she said, adding: “How can we live in such harsh conditions with no water, food, and farm-related jobs?”


    Selling stock, seeds to survive


    In a January assessment of Sindh’s eight worst-hit districts, roughly five percent of households surveyed said a family member had migrated in the last six months due to the drought. The study – by UN agencies, NGOs, and the provincial government – found food insecurity in 71 percent of households polled, and nearly one third reported severe levels of food insecurity.


    In order to cope many farming households said they were resorting to “extreme irreversible strategies meant only for emergencies”, including selling off land, seed stocks, and their last female animal. The study recommended a “rapid and comprehensive” humanitarian response, as well as deeper long-term investments to improve water and agriculture infrastructure, and access to basic healthcare.

    Preliminary results from a separate national nutrition survey, conducted last year, also found emergency levels of malnutrition in all eight districts. In Tharparkar, the survey found 22 percent of children under five to be moderately or severely malnourished; rates of “global acute malnutrition” higher than 10 percent generally indicate a “serious” emergency.


    Dr. Nushin Hamid, the country’s parliamentary secretary for nutrition, said the drought has threatened the income of farming families, which can lead to malnutrition as food supplies run low. “There are tens of thousands of poor communities across the country that lack financial resources to protect their families from the growing risk of malnourishment, diseases, and possible deaths,” he told IRIN.


    ‘Forced to migrate’


    The drought is also reaching other parts of the country that usually see more rainfall or benefit from better irrigation.


    Allahrakhi Bibi, a farm labourer from northern Sindh’s Qambar Shahdadkot district, left her home in September and migrated to Larkana, a bustling town near the Indus River, which flows through the length of Pakistan.


    She said her family relies on their only valuable possessions – four camels – to plough a plot of land for a local landlord. But, after repeated crop failures over the last two years, they had to leave.


    “We felt forced to migrate with 36 other farming families when we saw our fields getting parched,” she said.


    Bibi now tries to make ends meet by selling camel milk in Larkana, but it hasn’t been enough for her family of five.


    A woman with two camels in town pours camel milk for a man on a motorcycle.
    Saleem Shaikh/IRIN
    Allahrakhi Bibi sells camel milk in the city of Larkana in Pakistan’s Sindh province. Her family left their home in a drought-hit district after successive crop failures made it impossible to eke out a living.

    Omar Mahmood Hayat, who chairs Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority, said farmers in the worst-hit districts are abandoning their homes to migrate to urban areas. He said authorities were focusing efforts on these rural farming communities, distributing free grain, water, and medicine to help them adapt.


    Future risks


    While authorities and aid groups respond to the current drought, climatologists say Pakistan can expect drought conditions to become more frequent and more intense in the coming years.


    “Droughts in Pakistan were [a] very rare phenomenon and would occur once in a decade or so,” said Muhammad Riaz, a climatologist and director-general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department. But now, he said, even well-irrigated areas and other parts of Pakistan that normally see steady rains during monsoon seasons are grappling with drought conditions.


    Climate change projections suggest temperatures will rise and make the seasonal monsoon rains increasingly unpredictable, raising the threat of humanitarian impacts from extreme weather.


    “Spiking temperatures due to global warming in the coming years would further deepen drought severity and frequency in most parts of the country,” said Kamal Ahmed, a climate scientist at Lasbela University of Agriculture, Water and Marine Sciences in Balochistan.


    For now, aid groups say there are urgent needs across the spectrum: emergency food, medical assistance, clean water, and help to support recovery for stricken agriculture and livestock. The government has asked agencies like the World Food Programme, UNICEF, and the World Health Organisation to help boost nutrition programmes, a WFP spokeswoman said.

    (TOP PHOTO: A man leads his herd from drought-hit Tharparkar district in southern Pakistan in search of an irrigated area elsewhere in the province. CREDIT: Saleem Shaikh/IRIN)


    In rural Pakistan, ‘worst drought in years’ drives displacement and hunger

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