(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • BRIEFING: All you need to know about South Sudan's new power-sharing accord

    After months of negotiations aimed at ending a civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and forced some 4.5 million from their homes since December 2013, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar signed new power-sharing and ceasefire agreements on 5 August.

    The conflict, coupled with a dire national economy, the difficulty of delivering humanitarian aid to warring areas, and the widespread disruption of livelihoods, has left some 60 percent of the population at risk of not getting enough to eat.

    This briefing, drawn from interviews with analysts, rights advocates, aid workers, and refugees, assesses whether the new agreements represent a major milestone in ending the civil war or are more likely another false dawn for efforts to forge lasting peace.

    What exactly did the parties sign?

    The title of the document is a bit of a mouthful: Agreement on Outstanding Issues on Governance and Security Arrangements. Its signature by Kiir, Machar, and, in a last-minute policy U-turn, representatives of several other armed groups (under the umbrella of the South Sudan Opposition Alliance), marks another step towards the signing of a revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (ARCSS).

    The original ARCSS, supposedly a comprehensive peace deal, was inked in 2015 (by fewer signatories) but quickly collapsed. It was derided by some as fundamentally ill-conceived. The main difference between it and the new power-sharing formula is that the envisaged cabinet and parliament have been expanded to include more people.

    Other recent steps in resuscitating the ARCSS were the 27 June signing of the Khartoum Declaration – which included a permanent ceasefire (which is largely holding) and a commitment to withdraw troops from urban centres – and a detailed agreement on security arrangements signed on 6 July.


    Three days after signing the latest power-sharing agreement, the president granted a general amnesty to Machar and other rebel leaders. Another round of talks began in Khartoum on 13 August to tackle some unresolved issues.

    What does the deal mean for civilians in need?


    More than six million people in South Sudan are facing “crisis” or “emergency” levels of acute food insecurity, according to UN agencies. “Emergency” is just one level down from the worst situation, famine, which reached some parts of the country in early 2017.


    In areas affected by conflict, “it will be difficult for households... to realise a harvest… and the possibility of extreme food insecurity through to January 2019 will remain,” the UN agencies warned, pointing in particular to Leer and Mayendit counties in former Unity State, in the Greater Upper Nile region.



    Several aid agencies told IRIN they see potential for the latest deal to bring an end to the suffering of millions of civilians, especially if it leads to improved access to areas where it has been too dangerous to deliver assistance.


    “When people see aid workers doing their work in safety, they will be better able to conduct their own day to day activities,” said Rosalind Crowther, country director for CARE.


    But the country’s 12 million citizens are not a primary consideration for the agreement’s signatories, according to Jok Maduk Jok, a former government minister who is now the executive director of the Sudd Institute, an independent research group.


    “Leaders will now work for their entry into public offices, but none of them will think about the people who suffered so gravely from a war that was none of their choosing,”  he wrote in a Facebook post.


    How will power be shared?

    The latest agreement paves the way for Machar to return to South Sudan as one of five vice-presidents under Kiir in a three-year transitional government of national unity, due to be formed within three months of the final peace deal being signed. No date for that key event has been set.

    The agreement also provides for a 35-strong cabinet, with 20 ministers drawn from the government, nine from Machar’s Sudan People's Liberation Movement-in-Opposition and six from representatives of other opposition groups. The legislative assembly will have 550 lawmakers, 332 from government, and 128 from the opposition.

    There has been a reduction in fighting since the Khartoum Declaration was signed, and humanitarian access to several areas has improved.

    “Leaders will now work for their entry into public offices, but none of them will think about the people who suffered so gravely from a war that was none of their choosing.”

    What role did regional and global leaders play?


    Pressure from the likes of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, and his Sudanese and Kenyan counterparts Omar al-Bashir and Uhuru Kenyatta, coupled with a 13 July UN Security Council arms embargo and extended targeted sanctions, helped drive Kiir and Machar to sign the power-sharing deal.


    Daniel Akech Thiong, an independent consultant focused on politics and economics on South Sudan, said the pair were keen not to disappoint their respective backers, Museveni (in the case of Kiir) and al-Bashir (for Machar) “who are themselves motivated by the hope of cashing in during peacetime… [having] seen an economic opportunity to exploit, but which requires the end of the civil war.”


    Thiong pointed to the $26 Khartoum receives in fees for every barrel of oil that landlocked South Sudan exports through Sudan, and explained that “South Sudan's share of the oil wealth will be spent on buying goods from Uganda.”  


    Is the end of the war within sight?


    Relief and some jubilation swept across Juba when news of the signing of the new accords reached the South Sudanese capital. But a tweet from Museveni, one of the guarantors of the peace process, immediately put things in perspective. “We are congratulating ourselves over many dead bodies in South Sudan over the last four years,” he wrote.


    A reality check was provided on 10 August when Britain, the United States, and Norway – the so-called “Troika” that helped end Sudan’s protracted civil war in 2005 and deliver South Sudan’s independence six years later – dismissed the current peace process as a road to nowhere.


    “We are concerned that the arrangements agreed to date are not realistic or sustainable,” they said in a joint statement. “The best hope for sustainable peace is a process inclusive of ordinary men and women, civil society, religious leaders, ethnic minorities, and other excluded groups.”


    Jok’s assessment echoed some of those concerns. “The threats to this arrangement will most likely come from outside the government, from youth groups, from ethnic communities that were most affected by conflict that are clearly excluded and who will now be waiting for some sort of reparations in the form of money and reconstruction efforts,” he told IRIN.

    A reality check was provided on 10 August when Britain, the United States, and Norway – the so-called “Troika” that helped end Sudan’s protracted civil war in 2005 and deliver South Sudan’s independence six years later – dismissed the current peace process as a road to nowhere.

    For Juliette Paauwe, research analyst at the US-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, it will take more than a power-sharing deal between two bitter enemies who have already broken about 10 previous agreements to end the bloodshed.


    “Only time will tell if this agreement will last or simply be a brief pause before the killing resumes,” she said. “The people of South Sudan deserve lasting peace with justice, not gestures without substance.”


    Could the conflict, in fact, escalate?


    Mistrust, rather than reconciliation, still defines the relationship between Kiir and Machar, a fact underlined by the former’s snubbing of the latter’s bid for a handshake at the signing ceremony.


    This mistrust “is a major risk factor for relapse to war,” warned Jok.


    Thijs Van Laer of International Refugee Rights Initiative, an advocacy group, lamented the absence of any reference to accountability in the agreement.


    “Not only does the document fail to reaffirm the urgent need to judge those responsible, but it also further empowers those responsible for atrocities, by giving them positions and resources, and fails to mention how spoilers of the agreement will be sanctioned,” he said.


    Van Laer suggested some of those who signed the deal had been pressured to do so and that this makes it more likely they will take up arms again, while other individuals or groups might be tempted to resort to violence “to get a slice of the cake”.


    Mike Brand, a US-based conflict and atrocities prevention consultant, pointed to other glaring omissions.


    “This new agreement has many unanswered questions and doesn’t do anything to solve the underlying political and security issues that led to conflict in 2013 and 2016, many of which could easily cause the entire process to derail,” he said.


    Priscilla Pita, one of 60,000 South Sudanese living in the Imvepi Refugee Settlement in the Ugandan district of Arua, agreed. “It might be a short-lived deal and war breaks out again. We are tired of this war. We can’t continue suffering. We need peace, freedom, and joy,” she said.


    Fellow refugee John Dada said he feared the latest deal would remain mere “ink and paper”. “But let it be the last chance. If they fail to implement and continue with war, the International Criminal Court should hold them accountable for war crimes.”


    However, another refugee, Agnes Poni, was more optimistic. “I see seriousness. I congratulate President Kiir and Machar. They will implement it,” she said.

    “It might be a short-lived deal and war breaks out again. We are tired of this war. We can’t continue suffering. We need peace, freedom, and joy.”

    What next?


    Issues under discussion in the current round of talks include the powers of the president and vice-presidents, representation in the judicial authority, as well as revision of the country’s administrative division and the naming of new ministries.


    A number of other issues need to be resolved to improve the chances of lasting peace, including: the logistics of organising elections, how to integrate some rebel fighters into a national army and demobilise others, and how a cash-strapped government will fund the enlarged administration and still pay for essential goods and services across the country.


    In its statement, the Troika underscored the importance of clarifying “how resources will be used in a transparent and accountable way for the benefit of all South Sudanese… how security will be provided in Juba during the transition period, and how meaningful checks will be placed on executive power.”


    Another key challenge will be dealing with armed groups not party to the agreement such as the People’s Democratic Movement and the National Salvation Front.


    Kiir and Machar have little to no command and control over various splinter groups within their respective forces, a fact that several analysts pointed to as one of the most considerable obstacles to resolving the conflict.


    As Jok put it: the “massive elephant in the room” is “how to translate this elite pact into peace for all communities, overcoming the communal feuds that were made worse by the elite rivalry but not resolved by the peace deal.”

    (TOP PHOTO: President Salva Kiir, right, shakes hands with rival Riek Machar. CREDIT: Sumy Sadurni/AFP)



    Will it help end the war and improve civilian life?
    BRIEFING: All you need to know about South Sudan's new power-sharing accord
  • As Iraq slips from the headlines, humanitarians worry that aid donors are beginning to lose interest

    Iraq has defeated so-called Islamic State, its displaced citizens are heading home, and the country is slowly rebuilding after more than three years of war. But barely a year after the liberation of Mosul, millions of Iraqis still depend on aid, and the agencies that provide it say donors are losing interest in funding them.


    According to the UN’s count, 8.7 million Iraqis need assistance this year, down from 11 million in 2017. To account for this 23-percent drop in needs, the UN has asked for less money for the emergency-related response it coordinates in Iraq: its 2018 appeal is for $569 million, down from $985 million (not including a separate appeal for the fallout of the Mosul military operation).


    For the time being, the reduced ask is the best-funded UN appeal in the world: 64 percent, or just over $362 million, has been given for this year. But aid agencies are still nervous.


    “Donor fatigue in Iraq is already kicking in,” said Alexandra Saieh, advocacy manager at the Norwegian Refugee Council in Iraq. “Humanitarian funding for Iraq is becoming more difficult to secure, and will likely decrease in the coming years.”


    Kate Pond, spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN agency that assists refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), pointed out that the international community had provided “immense support” as a million people were displaced during the nine months of fighting for Mosul – sending an extra $238 million.

    Waning US media coverage for Iraq

    Percent of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC news programming airtime on Iraq, 2014 to present


    The headlines are less dramatic these days, but many Iraqis still need help.


    “Now, a year on from the end of the battle for Mosul, the situation faced by Iraqis has changed,” said Pond. “Although different, the situation is no less challenging for people trying to rebuild homes and communities and restart their lives. At the same time, global interest is waning, support from humanitarian actors is decreasing, and donor priorities are changing.”


    Delayed returns


    Both the UN and the Iraqi government believed that people who had been sheltering in rented apartments, abandoned buildings, and displacement camps would head home soon after IS was kicked out of the country.


    In fact, the first sentence of the UN’s 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, the document that guides its funding and planning, reads: “the majority of displaced families are expected to return to their families by the end of the year.”


    Iraqis are returning – 3.8 million people have gone home out of a total of six million displaced since 2014. But, stresses Wendy Taeuber, Iraq country director for the International Rescue Committee, not at the pace humanitarians had anticipated. This means more people than originally thought will need help for longer periods.


    “It is increasingly clear that the number of IDPs expected to return home in 2018 was unrealistic,” Taeuber told IRIN. “Many displaced families are unable or unwilling to go back and will need support to integrate or settle elsewhere in the country. Until a lasting solution to their displacement is possible, they will continue to need humanitarian assistance.”


    In some cases, Iraqis are arriving back at camps on their own accord, finding life in their hometowns untenable, with their savings gone and job opportunities few and far between. In UNHCR-run camps south of Mosul city, “new arrivals consistently outpace returns,” according to Pond.


    Shift towards reconstruction


    Donors aren’t necessarily losing interest in Iraq as a whole, aid officials say, they’re just looking to direct their efforts towards reconstruction rather than emergency aid.


    “Many donor governments are shifting their focus to stabilisation and early recovery efforts in Iraq, effectively marking a shift from investing in people to investing in infrastructure,” said the NRC’s Saieh. “The latter is important, but will not work without the former.”


    It will cost money, too. In February, the UN said it was seeking $482 million for the first year of its two-year Resilience and Response Programme, which is intended to “fast-track the social dimensions of reconstruction,” plus $568 million to “help stabilise high-risk areas” in Iraq.


    Iraq’s leaders are also keen to look towards the future. At a February conference on reconstruction in Kuwait, they emphasised that the country was open for investment, and they received $30 billion in pledged loans and credit. That’s far short of the $80 to $100 billion it’s estimated Iraq will need to rebuild in the next five years, but it’s a start.


    Sattar Newrouz, spokesperson for Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration, said that while Iraq “highly values” the assistance it has received in the past few years, it had been “expecting more support” from the February conference.


    He added that other humanitarian crises in the region – he mentioned Yemen, Syria, and Libya – may have negatively impacted donations to Iraq, but said he believed the government still had strong relationships with donor countries.


    Annie Slemrod/IRIN
    Water pools under a tank at Kilo 18 camp in Anbar province.

    Who this impacts


    While accepting that development and reconstruction are necessary for Iraq’s future, many humanitarians are keen to point out that immediate needs must still be met.


    In addition to two million still-displaced Iraqis, the country hosts more than 250,000 Syrian refugees. Among those who most rely on emergency assistance are “highly vulnerable groups, like female-headed households, the elderly, and the disabled,” said Pond.


    In the camps of Anbar province, where nearly 80,000 people are still displaced, needs are clear. While some people complain that services need improvement (water pools under tanks, latrines do not provide enough privacy for young women), they also say they wouldn’t survive if it were not for the rations they receive from aid agencies.


    “Cities like Mosul are in ruins and, although the first steps have been taken, restoring them takes time,” said UNHCR’s Pond. “People need to be able to go home, but not before services like water and electricity are fully functional, and they have jobs and homes to return to.”


    For the IRC’s Taeuber, attention shifted immediately to stabilisation and reconstruction after the end of the military operation. “But Iraqis need more than buildings and roads to get back on their feet,” she said. “They need identity documents, jobs, quality education and health care, fair access to government assistance, and help finding lasting solutions to displacement.”



    Read more:

    As Iraq slips from the headlines, humanitarians worry that aid donors are beginning to lose interest
  • High-profile terror trial speaks to an emerging threat in Senegal

    Unlike other nearby West African countries like Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Mali, Senegal has so far been spared a major attack by Islamist extremists. But experts say an unprecedented trial of dozens of Senegalese terror suspects that concluded two weeks ago in Dakar is a timely wake-up call about a nascent and growing threat.


    The verdicts and sentences delivered on 19 July in the cases of 29 Senegalese citizens accused of planning to establish a terrorist cell in Senegal’s southern Casamance region were far from an unmitigated success for the prosecution.


    A key defendant, Alioune Ndao, whom the state wanted to see jailed for 30 years, received only a one-month suspended sentence for the unlawful possession of firearms, while 15 of the accused were acquitted for lack of evidence, and sentences handed down to others were shorter than the prosecutors’ recommended jail terms.


    Thirteen of the accused were given prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years for crimes that included terrorism financing and criminal conspiracy. Lawyers for at least one of those convicted have said they will appeal.


    “To think that Senegal is safe from this evil would be a dangerous illusion,” prosecutor Aly Ciré Ndiaye said when the trial began in earnest in April (multiple adjournments followed the official start date in December 2017). “Dangerous because it would make us neglect the colossal efforts needed to dismantle the scaffolding on which terrorism finds strength.”


    Senegal makes for an attractive target for extremists because of its strong international connections, with military cooperation agreements in place with the United States and France, and its sizeable troop contribution to the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, an intervention opposed by many Senegalese.

    As the regional hub for numerous international institutions, Senegal is “a luxury target... like the jackpot for terrorist groups,” said Bakary Sambe, director of the Dakar-based Timbuktu Institute, which tracks violent extremism.


    Islam in Senegal, which is followed by some 94 percent of the population, is dominated by a moderate, tolerant form of Sufism headed by powerful brotherhoods that have long been considered the country’s principal defence against extremism.


    But change is also occurring. Money is increasingly being pumped in from foreign states to build mosques and open Koranic schools, or daaras, which teach alternative interpretations of religious texts – more conservative Salafi and Wahhabi influences are beginning to take hold.

    Sambe believes Senegal’s school system is its greatest vulnerability. “We are one of the few countries in the world that does not have a complete hold on our own educational system,” he told IRIN. “There is a formal system controlled by the secular state and another in which foreign powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran interfere.”


    Imam of concern


    According to the prosecution’s case, the Casamance cell would have served as a base from which to carry out attacks against French targets and the Senegalese state. The court heard that the accused planned to extend the influence of this new so-called caliphate into neighbouring countries, including The Gambia, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau.


    Some of those in the dock were rounded up in 2015 during a large-scale police operation against what were perceived to be hate-filled sermons in mosques. Others were detained while travelling to, or returning from, Nigeria.

    Ndao is a Salafist imam who until his arrest in 2015 preached at a mosque in the town of Kaolack, 200 kilometres southeast of Dakar. He was accused of being the spiritual guide and coordinator of the cell.

    Momar Niang/IRIN
    Supporters of some of the accused outside the Dakar courthouse after the verdicts were delivered.

    Ndao appeared in court in the centre of the line of defendants, dressed in flowing white robes that matched his white beard. The trial was well attended by his supporters, and the courtroom erupted when the verdict was read out, with disciples of Ndao either rising to their feet or throwing themselves on the floor praising God.

    One such supporter was Imam Diene, who had travelled 100 kilometres for the occasion. “He is not a terrorist,” he asserted. “There are no terrorists here in Senegal – there’s no proof! Only when you have proof can you say there are terrorists.”

    The jihadist threat in the region has strengthened following the merger in 2017 of a handful of groups operating mainly out of northern Mali, including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM).


    The group’s leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, confirmed in April 2017 that Senegal is on its list of target countries. JNIM has been behind numerous attacks in recent months, including a twin assault in March on the French embassy and the national army headquarters in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, that killed eight people and wounded 80.

    Many of the defendants in the Dakar trial were accused of having links with Boko Haram, including the alleged ringleader, Makhtar Diokhané, who received a 20-year prison sentence for terrorist acts by criminal association. The court heard how Diokhané spent time with Boko Haram militants in northeastern Nigeria before being sent back to Senegal with six million naira (around $20,000) to launch an affiliated cell.

    Growing religious conservatism

    Most of those convicted last month had travelled abroad to receive training from extremist groups, including Boko Haram and AQIM, but experts like Sambe warn it would be a mistake to ignore the rising influence of more conservative strains of Islam within Senegal itself.


    Senegal’s northern town of Saint-Louis, once the colonial capital of French West Africa, is a prime destination for religious learning.

    It hosts a large number of renowned Koranic teachers, or marabouts, running daaras that attract students known as talibés – from boys as young as five to young men in their twenties – from other parts of Senegal and the wider region.

    The daaras are unregulated by the state in terms of both their curriculum and living standards. “Anyone can decide to set up a school and start teaching the Koran,” said Baye Ndaraw Diop, a former director of a child protection service within Senegal’s Ministry of Justice.

    Evidence of Salafi influence is becoming apparent in some daaras in Saint-Louis, including one located near the northern tip of the historic island town that is attended by more than 1,000 talibés. Although not a Salafist himself, the presiding marabout is known for accepting students regardless of their religious leaning, so long as they wish to study the Koran.

    “We’ve noticed a change in behaviour among some of the older talibés in this daara,” said Issa Kouyaté, a campaigner working to improve the rights and living conditions for talibés. “They dress differently and refuse any kind of physical contact with women.”

    IRIN accompanied Kouyaté on a visit to the daara. Feet protruded from tarpaulin-roofed rooms set around an open space where clothes were haphazardly hung out to dry. In keeping with the living conditions in many of the country’s Koranic schools, the students are housed in derelict buildings and bathe in the dirty river nearby; diseases such as scabies are commonplace.  

    A dozen young men were gathered under a large tree outside their makeshift lodging. The tinny sound of recorded Koranic verses played from a mobile phone as one young man made tea, while another shaved the head of a younger talibé. The majority wore skull caps and plain tunics with trousers cut shorter than those customarily worn in Senegal – a sartorial hallmark of the more conservative forms of Islam.

    The young men originate mainly from The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau and stick together. Their common language, Mandingo, is not widely spoken in Saint-Louis. One stated that their sole motivation is to learn the Koran.

    State response


    The Senegalese government has won praise for its efforts to combat extremism in an increasingly unstable region. February 2016 saw the launch of the Inter-Ministerial Counter-Terrorism Intervention and Coordination Framework, known as the CICO. Chaired by the interior minister, the CICO is defined by the government as a “coordination and strategic monitoring mechanism in the fight against terrorism”.

    “The CICO relies particularly on intelligence, and is focused on monitoring our borders,” a source in the interior ministry, who requested anonymity, told IRIN. The ability of the state to effectively monitor jihadist activity using social media was demonstrated by the arrest of Momodou Ndiaye, an accomplice of Diokhané’s, after the Department of Investigations tracked interactions via a Facebook group.

    Some believe the state’s efforts are superficial, others that they go too far. “Senegal wanted to show the world and its donors that it was committed to the fight against terrorism,” said defence lawyer Assane Dioma Ndiaye on the conclusion of the trial. But, he continued, “there has been an exaggeration. It may be that some people in Senegal were tempted to respond to the call of terrorism. But the legal response was disproportionate.”

    For Sambe, however, the Senegalese government is falling short and needs to put forward some pre-emptive policies to tackle violent extremism.  

    “What we need now is an inclusive prevention strategy involving religious leaders, civil society, and the educational world,” he said.


    At the 2016 edition of the Dakar International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa, President Macky Sall appealed for a “doctrinal response” to jihadist propaganda, a vague-sounding call for a coordinated response that goes beyond simply military action.


    But while Senegal is a secular state, politicians are heavily dependent on religious leaders at election time for securing votes.


    This helps to explain why religious institutions and the extensive daara system are largely unregulated, and the growth of foreign ideologies – whether benign or otherwise – is left unchecked. “There is complicity between the religious power and the political power,” said Diop, the former justice ministry official. Another shortcoming in Senegal’s response may be a general unwillingness to acknowledge the problem. The jihadist threat is not a common topic of discussion, and few Senegalese journalists cover the issue.

    Kouyaté, the campaigner, is frustrated by this national complacency. “We need to de-taboo what is taboo,” he said. “It is obviously better to pre-empt than to heal, but here in Senegal the medicine only comes after death.”



    (Additional reporting by Momar Niang)  

    Light sentences raise questions about the state’s response to Islamist extremism
    High-profile terror trial speaks to an emerging threat in Senegal
    Part of a special project exploring violent extremism in Nigeria and the Sahel
  • Dispossession or development? The tug of war over Syria’s ruined slum dwellings

    With about a third of Syria’s housing and half its medical facilities damaged or destroyed, rebuilding is sorely needed. But major international donors refuse to fund reconstruction as long as President Bashar al-Assad remains in power. After losing 80 percent of its GDP between 2010 and 2016, the Syrian government now hopes to attract outside investment.

    A new law, introduced in April but not yet put into effect, has become the subject of fierce controversy as it would allow the government to expropriate and redevelop areas it deems fit.

    The opposition and international human rights groups warn it is a fig leaf for mass confiscation of refugee property, perhaps preventing their eventual return. But to the government, Law 10 is a way to attract private capital by offering up valuable urban real estate. Supporters of the law present it as an apolitical piece of reconstruction legislation that is the innocent target of a disinformation campaign.

    The row took on more urgency this week as al-Assad’s cabinet announced what seem likely to be the first areas set for redevelopment under Law 10: Barzeh, Jobar, Qaboun, and Yarmouk. All are formerly besieged rebel-held areas in Damascus, most of whose residents have been displaced, which adds grist to the mill for those who believe the legislation is targeted at the government’s opponents.

    How Law 10 works

    In theory, it is fairly simple. The Ministry of Local Administration and the Environment – led by Hussein Makhlouf, a relative of the president – will recommend areas that could be expropriated and redeveloped under Law 10. The final choice is left to al-Assad.

    These areas do not necessarily have to have been damaged by the past seven years of fighting. The original purpose of the legislation amended by Law 10 was to redevelop slum housing – more on this below – though it is now most likely to be used in a reconstruction context.

    Once a zone is declared publicly, Syrian citizens who want to receive compensation for property within that zone must make sure their ownership is recorded in the national land registry or file property deeds with the government within 30 days, either in person or through a relative or legal representative.

    A committee will determine the value of property slated for expropriation, and the amount will be translated into new plots of land or financial shares in the new development project. Property owners will have five days to contest the evaluation, and can be provided with rent compensation and alternative housing.

    While all of this seems clear cut, opposition groups say internally displaced Syrians and refugees are unlikely to be able to file the necessary papers, especially in a month’s time.

    Human Rights Watch has termed the law “a major obstacle to returning home for displaced residents”, warning that even if they have the papers, refugees will not realistically be able to file claims from abroad and may be deterred from even trying, for fear of endangering themselves or their relatives.

    Jihad Yazigi, who edits the economic newsletter The Syria Report, told IRIN the law is a warning to refugees and the nations hosting them that unless they agree to al-Assad’s terms the path to return will be blocked. “The regime has started reaping the benefits from this with calls by the German, Greek, and Lebanese governments for the Syrians to repeal the law,” said Yazigi, who added that Law 10 would also entice businessmen in the Gulf to invest in confiscated land. The message is simple, Yazigi said: “push your government to reconcile with us and bring your cash.”

    Many dissidents take this a step further, insisting that al-Assad wants to re-engineer Syria’s religious demography by dispossessing Sunni Muslims, who formed the majority in areas slated for redevelopment and are also the majority of Syria's six million refugees.

    The government rejects such allegations, and its supporters have staunchly defended the new legislation. Law 10 “is not about dispossessing anyone”, al-Assad told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini in May, blaming the criticism on “misinterpretation” or an attempt to “create a new narrative about the Syrian government in order to rekindle the fire of public opinion in the West.”

    Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem recently announced the 30-day filing period had been extended to a year. He insisted procedures are “easy and simple” and can be sorted out in 48 hours.

    Despite al-Moallem’s remarks, neither al-Assad nor the Syrian parliament – which is a rubber-stamp body – have actually amended the text of Law 10.

    Opposition activists insist whatever the law ends up saying on paper, there are no impartial institutions or independent courts in Syria, which ensures the process can be bent for political ends.


    Marota City
    A publicity image shows construction at Marota City


    Illegal housing


    Even if the time limit is extended, many Syrians in areas targeted by Law 10 will not be able to file their land deeds. The reason is simple: they don’t have any such documents.


    Millions of Syrians have lived in unregistered homes all their lives, in a legal grey zone born out of traditional informality, chaotic urbanisation, and dysfunctional governance. This is particularly the case in the Syrian countryside and in slums created through poverty-driven rural migration to the cities. These areas are what the government terms manateq al-mukhalafat al-jemaiyya, “areas of collective transgression”; more widely known as ashwaiyat, or “informals”.


    The legal status of the dwellings that make up the ashwaiyat is not clear cut. Some are indisputably illegal, squatting on land owned by others, like many of the neighbourhoods that cling to the slopes of Mount Qassioun, which overlooks Damascus from the north.


    But other ashwaiyat were built on legally purchased land, though the builders failed to abide by unenforced zoning regulations that designate an area as agricultural or industrial land. Such semi-legal suburbs make up most of the urban sprawl that has consumed the farmland of the Ghouta region around Damascus, in places like Darayya, Qaboun, or Jobar – areas now slated for redevelopment.


    Historically, illegal building was “the social response to the increase in demand and lack of supply in housing,” explained Marwa al-Sabouni, a Syrian architect and author of The Battle for Home, a memoir that speaks to the relationship between conflict and urban planning.


    Ideology and favouritism also played a part, as the ruling Baath Party promoted rural interests through the 1960s and 1970s. “Masses from the countryside were granted the socialist ’right’ to build over the land of ex-feudals, which is the cheaper solution than in-housing all of them and solving the land problems,” al-Sabouni told IRIN.


    Although the Baaths’ agrarian socialism had mutated into crony capitalism by the 1990s, the state remained unwilling to roll back illegal housing, largely due to bureaucratic inertia and a fear of social unrest. Authorities chose the path of least resistance, connecting informal areas to basic public services while turning a blind eye to the problem of ownership. By 2004, nearly all ashwaiyat in Damascus had running water, rubbish-collection, and paved roads, though many were still visibly poor, with irregular building styles, narrow streets, tangled electric wiring, and overcrowded schools.


    After a drought in 2006 sent hundreds of thousands of rural Syrians fleeing to the cities, economists began to warn that the housing issue was a “time bomb”. But the government did little to address the problem. 

    By the end of al-Assad’s first decade in power, an estimated 40 percent of Syria’s housing stock was in informal areas, which could mean that as many as eight or 10 million people lived in illegal or undocumented homes.


    The past seven years have only made the problem worse. As soon as state control weakened in 2011, there was an immediate surge in illegal building. Cement sales more than doubled in the month following the start of the uprising.


    Since then, Syria has seen massive civilian displacement, destruction of housing, and loss of documentation, particularly in poor, Sunni ashwaiyat areas that sided with the opposition and were shelled and bombed during the war.


    The four areas now considered for redevelopment under Law 10 are illustrative examples, all laid in ruins as the government recaptured them from insurgents.


    Barzeh and Qaboun were retaken in early 2017, while Jobar was captured by loyalist forces in March 2018, during the battle for the Eastern Ghouta rebel enclave.


    Yarmouk was historically a refugee camp run by UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, but had melted into a cluster of informal neighbourhoods in southern Damascus. After years of siege, shelling, and fighting, it was retaken in April. Formerly home to 160,000 Syrians and Palestinians, Yarmouk is now mostly rubble.


    “The scale of the destruction in Yarmouk compares to very little else that I have seen in many years of humanitarian work in conflict zones,” said UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl on a 3 July visit to Damascus.


    The paperwork problem, multiplied by war


    With large areas outside of state control and half the Syrian population driven from their homes, gaps in property documentation are now even more widespread than they were before the war.


    “Houses and land have been changing hands throughout the conflict,” Rachel Sider, policy and advocacy advisor at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN.


    “Transactions are not always formally recorded, documents including property deeds have been lost or destroyed, and disputes over ownership are common. Many Syrians are excluded from even claiming their housing, land, and property rights in the first place because they lack the proper identity documents.”


    The problem is particularly acute for women, since poor and conservative families would often deal with authorities exclusively through the male head of the family. It has left women without any obvious way to claim their property if their father or husband has disappeared in jail or died.


    In a Norwegian Refugee Council survey of Syrian refugees in Jordan in 2016, the organisation found that only about a fifth owned property documents. Some never had written deeds to begin with, while others were forced to flee their homes too quickly to bring them, lost documents to fire, rain, or family separation, or had them confiscated at checkpoints.


    In cases where refugees did have paperwork, it was often “incomplete, inaccurate, not-recorded or improperly recorded, and of uncertain legal standing”.


    Decree 66: the test run


    In trying to divine the effects of Law 10, both detractors and supporters look to Decree 66 of 2012, an area-specific forerunner that was used to redevelop two areas in Damascus. (Law 10 is a detailed amendment to Decree 66, extending it nationally.)


    Though Decree 66, in an article that remains in effect under Law 10, notes that provincial authorities may choose to give “surplus” housing to inhabitants without legal claims, it also specifies that “offenders” who are found to have built illegally on public or private land have no rights beyond “collecting the rubble of their buildings”.


    In many ashwaiyat slated for development under Law 10, that could apply to most inhabitants, or even all of them.


    The best-known result of Decree 66 is Marota City, Syria’s largest investment project. Although major construction has yet to start, the project aims to build high-rise housing units for some 25,000 people, plus offices and malls, in the Basatin al-Razi area of western Damascus. The president himself visited the site in 2016 to inaugurate the project.


    Although Damascus Governor Bishr al-Sabban is formally responsible for Marota City, the leading players in this Central Bank of Syria-funded investment scheme are believed to be regime-linked financiers who have set up joint ventures with al-Sabban’s provincial authorities.


    They include the president’s billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf, who hails from the same family as the minister of local administration and is known to sponsor loyalist militias, and a wealthy Kuwait-based Syrian investor named Mazen Tarazi.


    Chief among Marota City’s future landlords is the mysterious Syrian-Turkish-Lebanese businessman Samer Foz, who emerged out of relative obscurity in 2016-2017 to suddenly gobble up enormous commercial holdings in Syria. Foz is widely assumed to be fronting for more senior political figures, with rumours centring on al-Assad’s cousin, Lieutenant-General Dhu al-Himma Shalish, or even the president himself.


    Marota City’s ownership structures are opaque, and the same goes for the results of the expropriation process.


    Syrian authorities present the Decree 66 redevelopment projects as an unmitigated success story, but even pro-government media has noted the absence of alternative housing for people evicted from Basatin al-Razi. Former residents were recently told they may get new apartments in the coming three years.


    In other words, if the Decree 66 pilot project is anything to go by, the implementation of Law 10 will likely be sluggish, under-resourced, socially abrasive, tailored to the interests of ruling elites, and politically controversial. But it was always hard to imagine that a wartime campaign to raze slums for new construction could be anything else.


    War by regulation?


    In theory, something like Law 10 was long overdue. If reconstruction is ever to begin, the state must find a way to smash through Syria’s legal thicket of undefined property rights – a legacy of economic mismanagement that long predates the war.


    To the government, the law’s primary function is to cut the Gordian knot of planning and property claims in the ashwaiyat, allowing authorities to move forward with construction in “a mixture of destroyed and illegal suburbs”. The urgency is hard to overstate, since Syria must quickly produce massive amounts of cheap urban housing for its millions of homeless and displaced citizens.


    But if, in practice, it is mainly former rebel-held ashwaiyat that will be redeveloped – which makes sense on its own terms, given the destruction there – Law 10 could end up having a devastatingly disproportionate political and social impact, depending on how land right issues are handled. All the more so, if the bulldozers are used to pave the way for upscale apartments and malls instead of low-cost housing.


    As the Syrian state moves to rebuild its cities, al-Assad’s government can decide to show leniency toward displaced civilians from the slums that rose up against him in 2011, or it can decide to wield the law as a weapon against them. For many hundreds of thousands of Syrians, their future hangs in this balance.

    (TOP PHOTO: A publicity shot shows new buildings at Marota City. CREDIT: Maroty City)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.


    The government has chosen formerly besieged rebel areas as the first for reconstruction
    Dispossession or development? The tug of war over Syria’s ruined slum dwellings
  • Razed villages and empty fields await Congo-Brazzaville’s displaced

    The jungle has edged into fields left untilled. It has crept onto thatched-roof houses turned to ruins; and it has stretched over empty highways once used to transport bananas, beans, cassava from a region long-known as Congo-Brazzaville’s breadbasket.


    For nearly two years, militia fighters and soldiers manning dozens of checkpoints were the only signs of life in Congo’s Pool region, 50 kilometres west of the capital, Brazzaville.


    Now, some of the 108,000 people who fled their villages during the 2016-17 conflict between the Congolese army and the “Ninja” rebels are returning home following a December peace agreement.


    But with houses and villages destroyed by the military, schools and healthcare centres unstaffed, and fear that conflict may return, many Pool residents have chosen to remain displaced or have returned to poverty and hardship.



    Yvonne Massembo, 70, fled her home in a town called Goma Tsé Tsé during the conflict. While life as a displaced person in southern Brazzaville has been hard, the mother of five, who is still living in the capital, said returning to her village would make life even harder.


    During the conflict, her small mud-hut house collapsed after the roof was stolen. Equipment from her local hospital was looted. The canoe she once used to cross the river Djoué and reach her farm was destroyed.


    “If I go back, what am I going to eat?” she said.


    Political unrest, lives upended


    Last December, IRIN was the first international news organisation to gain access to the Pool region in 20 months, to document crimes against civilians by the Congolese army and Ninja rebels.

    The southern part of the country had been sealed off as fighting raged in a conflict that took hold shortly after the March 2016 presidential elections, in which Denis Sassou Nguesso retained a post he has held for all but five years since 1979.


    ☰ Read more: The history of the conflict

    The elections were marred by allegations of fraud and followed a contested constitutional referendum a year earlier that had removed term and age limits for his post.


    After the poll results were made public, a series of attacks were carried out in Brazzaville against government, police, and military buildings in opposition strongholds.

    The government blamed the Brazzaville attacks on the Ninjas, a militia group that opposed Sassou Nguesso during civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s but had largely demobilised.


    Although the group’s leader, Frédéric Bintsamou, better known as Pastor Ntumi, denied responsibility for the post-election violence, the government attacked the villages and jungle of the Pool region, where Ntumi and remnants of his group were known to shelter.


    Sporadic clashes continued for nearly two years, as the army locked down the region. More than half of the population of eight rural districts of Pool sought refuge in nearby towns and in Brazzaville, leaving the Pool region almost entirely deserted.


    Now, life is slowly returning. The World Food Programme estimates that in some districts, such as Kimba, nearly all of the displaced residents have returned. Apart from the heartache of living away from home, the price of staple foods like cassava and rice rose dramatically during the conflict last year and is propelling many to come back to their fields.


    Humanitarian access has also improved, particularly in northern Pool, where villages were previously cut off by the military.


    “We have been able to do [food] distributions and assessments in places we couldn’t previously reach,” said Jean-Martin Bauer, World Food Programme country director in Congo-Brazzaville.

    Alain-Robert Moukouri, secretary-general of Caritas Congo, an NGO that delivers humanitarian assistance in the Pool area, said the Ninjas have now removed their checkpoints and the army has stopped harassing people for money at theirs. Businesses in towns that had long been inaccessible are now operating.


    Villages bombed, houses burnt


    But beginning life anew is proving difficult in villages that were severely damaged during the conflict. In a village called Soumouna, where the government suspected Ninjas were based, 86 structures were destroyed between late February and May 2016, according to satellite images obtained by IRIN. This time period coincides with the army’s attacks.


    The satellite data shows houses were also destroyed in Kindamba Gouéri, Mayama, and Malengo, while parts of villages were set on fire by ground troops, according to multiple interviews conducted by IRIN in Pool last December. A humanitarian worker based in the region described the military’s campaign as “scorched-earth”.


    “There is nothing left,” said Massembo from Goma Tsé Tsé, explaining why she cannot return. “All the houses were burned.”


    Displaced people are also returning to scarcity. During the conflict, fields became unsafe, causing two planting seasons to be missed. Today, many villagers are unable to feed themselves.


    The UN has spent $13 million assisting displaced people with food, money, and basic goods. Bauer of the WFP said his team has reached “a substantial number of people”.


    But needs remain vast. Bauer recently met a woman at a health centre near the capital, Brazzaville, who had returned to her village in Pool but left shortly after because she could not find food.


    “When she got back she said there was nothing there,” Bauer explained. “Her child became malnourished, so she had to come back to Brazzaville.”


    Lack of basic facilities in villages is compounding the problem. Most health centres were shuttered during the conflict. Half the primary schools in the Pool region have been closed and 65 completely destroyed, according to the UN. In districts like Vindza, all the schools are closed.


    “Life has to be rebuilt,” said Bauer.


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Displaced people in Kinkala, capital of the Pool region.

    Peace and promises


    Previous peace agreements between the Ninjas and the government have also failed, casting doubt on whether the ceasefire will last.


    In the December agreement, the Ninjas agreed to demobilise, dismantle their checkpoints, and turn in their weapons. In exchange, the government promised “free movement” for Ninja leader Frédéric Bintsamou, better known as Pastor Ntumi – meaning he wouldn’t be arrested.


    While no clashes have taken place since December, Ntumi is still hiding in the forests of Pool, and many of his fighters have not given up their weapons.


    A Ninja spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said Ntumi is worried that an arrest warrant still hangs over his head. IRIN’s request to talk with him directly were denied.





    “There’s no freedom of movement” as promised in the peace agreement, the spokesman said, because “until now, many of those who have been arrested are still in prisons.”


    The Ninja spokesman added that local people are sceptical that peace has been reached, “because there is military in the villages”.


    “There are more soldiers in the villages than locals,” he said. This perception, he added, keeps people from returning.


    Bauer confirmed that in some cases only men have returned to tend to their crops, leaving their families in safer locations.


    Repression continues


    Rather than seeking a genuine end to the conflict, Sassou Nguesso’s motivation for signing the agreement was influenced by economic factors, said Brett Carter, assistant professor at the University of Southern California.

    One of the largest oil producers in the region, Congo-Brazzaville has been hit hard by declining prices for global crude. Skyrocketing public debt and unpaid salaries and pensions for civil servants have forced the president to ask the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.

    But talks with the IMF have dragged, with military activities in Pool undermining “Sassou Nguesso’s claims to transparency and good governance, which the IMF rightly recognised as dubious anyway,” said Carter.


    Since changing the constitution to allow him to stay in power, Sassou Nguesso has also faced growing opposition to his power. Stalwarts of his ruling Congolese Labor Party (PCT), including Charles Zacharie Bowao and Andre Okombi Salissa, have turned against him. Even his own son, Denis-Christel, has suggested he may stand against his father in elections scheduled for 2021.


    In response to these threats, Sassou Nguesso has turned to “full-scale authoritarian mode”, said Fonteh Akum, senior researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. In May, Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, a former army general who stood against Sassou Nguesso in the 2016 presidential elections, was jailed for 20 years for “undermining the internal security of the state”. Salissa, meanwhile, is expected to face trial on the same charges this month.

    Unsure who to trust, Sassou Nguesso is likely to remain wary of the long-restive Pool region which represents, said Akum, “the one space from which military contestation against Sassou Nguesso’s government could actually emanate”.


    Rather than an “artificial” peace agreement, what is needed, said Akum, is a truth commission that can establish the root causes of the latest bout of violence in the Pool region and its consequences for civilians.


    “Those facts would be able to create some kind of understanding for who is held accountable and who needs to pay reparations for crimes committed,” Akum said.


    For now, the residents of Pool have received little closure or assistance from the government.


    “I don’t have shelter and my village has been ravaged,” said a 69-year-old currently living in Brazzaville, who gave his name as Makoudou. He said his house, in a village near Vindza, had been partially destroyed by bombs during the conflict, and the tools he needed for work had been taken.


    “That is what is preventing me from going back,” he said.


    Read Part 1: The exclusive story of Pool's hidden war






    “Life has to be rebuilt”
    Razed villages and empty fields await Congo-Brazzaville’s displaced
  • Hodeidah: What the assault means for Yemen’s civilians and the aid effort

    After months of diplomatic wrangling and despite repeated warnings of humanitarian catastrophe, the long-threatened assault on Yemen’s Red Sea port city of Hodeidah is now underway.


    Forces backed by the United Arab Emirates and their Yemeni partners – part of a Saudi Arabian-led coalition that has been fighting Houthi rebels and their allies in Yemen since March 2015 – are now on the outskirts of the Houthi-controlled city of 600,000.


    No one can be sure how the battle will play out, but everyone agrees that in a country that has been on the brink of famine for years, the offensive will make life for 27 million Yemenis even worse. However, this sort of statement (found in just about every aid agency press release and headline) doesn’t mean much to those on the ground or give a picture of what’s really at stake.


    • 22.2 million people need humanitarian assistance
    • More than 2 million internally displaced people
    • More than 6,400 conflict-related civilian deaths
    • More than 2,300 cholera deaths
    • 50% of health facilities are functioning

    Hodeidah is a port, a city, and a province, and all these things matter. Here’s a briefing with a bit more detail about each to explain what is keeping humanitarians up at night.


    The province: Fleeing into harm’s way


    It hasn’t made the headlines, but civilians have actually been on the run in Hodeidah province since November, when coalition-allied forces began slowly making their way up Yemen’s western coast.


    Up-to-date displacement numbers aren’t available for all of Yemen, but the UN figures that do exist are telling. Since December, more than 112,000 people have fled to the country’s southern provinces, including Aden, and 62 percent of them escaped Hodeidah province.


    It hasn’t all been one-way traffic. Aid workers report that many civilians have also taken flight inside Hodeidah province, fleeing north towards the city and exhausting their resources along the way just to get there.


    Isma’eel al-Sharabi, director of the Hodeidah-based Ash'ari Association for Social Charity, told IRIN that large numbers of people had fled into the city, despite the imminent assault. Many are staying with relatives, while others have taken shelter in schools and other public buildings.


    Mohamed Abdi, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, says people fleeing will need shelter, clean water, and other supplies, placing deeper strains on already stretched host communities.


    “Of course people will run from their current homes to other places where they feel safe,” he said. “But if they move to a neighbourhood in large numbers, or to another governorate in large numbers, [displaced people] put pressure on the existing structures – meaning water and health facilities will not be enough for the original inhabitants.”


    A UN bid in April to evacuate some civilians from southern Hodeidah province failed as locals were reluctant to leave their livelihoods and homes behind.


    A recent UN operational update says “the humanitarian community is preparing for possible mass displacement and increased humanitarian needs, if the conflict reaches the city”.


    Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, told IRIN the UN has positioned supplies around the province but is not planning on setting up camps for displaced people.


    Displacement is hardly the only concern for those in the region, however. Houthi forces have reportedly left mines in southern parts of the province, and, according to several aid workers, coalition airstrikes have destroyed some of the roads that humanitarians use to access communities in need.


    The city: “Trapped in the line of fire”


    As fighting intensifies on the outskirts of Hodeidah, some civilians are reportedly already attempting to flee. But not everyone will be able to get out of harm’s way.


    “In these instances, the people who remain behind are the elderly, children, and disabled people,” said the NRC’s Abdi. “It is harder for them to move, especially if they don’t have means or the money to enable them to move from one area or another. There is a danger that some people might not want to move, and they could be trapped in the line of fire.”


    The city’s population has already suffered three years of war. As in most of Yemen, civil servants have largely gone unpaid for almost two years. Salahuddin al-Maswari, project coordinator for the Yemeni All Girls Foundation for Development in Hodeidah, says most other residents work as day labourers or in markets and spend everything they have on food.


    “I’ve been here in Hodeidah for one year now, and I’ve seen so many heartbreaking scenes,” al-Maswari said. “Families can barely feed their older children, and sometimes they go without food for days.”


    But it isn’t just food that civilians need; aid agencies say water shortages are also a major concern.


    Most of the people in Hodeidah city already rely on aid agencies to bring them safe water by truck, but UNICEF spokesman Bismarck Swangin worries this may not be possible if fighting escalates.



    “During clashes, the public water corporation operators will not be able to report to their stations and operate the system,” Swangin told IRIN. “It will be impossible for water trucks to move around within the city.” This “increases the risks of people having no access to water and sanitation services, which will cause health and environmental risks.”


    Yemen has already seen how quickly water-borne disease can spread without proper sanitation and clean water: a cholera outbreak, now largely under control, has killed 2,300 people and infected more than 1.1 million since April 2017.


    The port: The poor will starve first


    While civilians in Hodeidah city and province are in clear danger, the port is also a key concern. In a country like Yemen that imports almost all its food and most of its fuel, seaports are key to civilian survival.


    Hodeidah is essential for humanitarian and commercial imports, both because of its capacity to store and mill grain, and because of its proximity to the northern Houthi-controlled parts of the country, where some two thirds of the population live.


    Accurate statistics in Yemen are hard to come by, but the USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) estimates that Hodeidah and the nearby smaller port of Saleef bring in approximately 70 percent of the country’s monthly food imports, and 40 to 50 percent of its fuel.  


    If the port is damaged or otherwise cut off by fighting, Yemenis across the country are in trouble, not so much because food will be unavailable (although that is not out of the question), but because it may become so expensive that most people won’t be able to buy it.


    Hodeidah was bombed in August 2015, and has been operating at reduced capacity ever since. Two much-trumpeted USAID-funded mobile cranes arrived at the port at the start of this year, but, according to Suze van Meegen, protection and advocacy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Yemen, they haven’t made much of a difference.

    “The damaged cranes were giant, permanently-installed pieces of machinery, capable of offloading up to 30 containers each per hour; their substitutes are extendable apparatus attached to the sort of tiny, portable trucks one might expect to see at a suburban construction site,” van Meegen told IRIN.


    There are other ports in Yemen – namely government-controlled Aden – and goods also come in through official border crossings with Saudi Arabia and Oman, not to mention various smuggling routes. But bringing goods from Aden or the land borders means an increase in transport costs and taxes – both at the port and at the entrance to the Houthi-controlled north, plus at unofficial checkpoints along the way. These costs would invariably be passed down to consumers, and there is some precedent for this: prices shot up almost immediately when the coalition shuttered Hodeidah and Saleef last November.


    The NRC’s Abdi said “the whole of northern Yemen will feel the pinch if the port is closed or disrupted”, but pointed out that people across the country who’ve exhausted their resources will also suffer. Scott Paul, head of humanitarian advocacy at UK-based charity Oxfam, says those most impacted will be, to put it bluntly, “everybody that is already poor”. In Yemen, that’s millions of people.


    What next?


    The UN Security Council was to hold a last-minute emergency meeting on the offensive, and UN Special Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths said he was negotiating to keep the port open, but coalition forces appeared set on continuing their march through Hodeidah.


    On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced a “five-point plan” to “safeguard and intensify the flow of humanitarian aid into the port of Hodeidah.”


    In a statement, they said they planned to open shipping lanes from Hodeidah to Jazan in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, and would be distributing food, medical supplies, staff, and economic support on the ground, as well as ensuring continued electricity supply.


    The coalition has said it will attempt to avoid damage to the port, and hopes to keep it running even if it finds it mined by the Houthi rebels.


    But heavy airstrikes have been reported south of Hodeidah city, and aid agencies say they are already finding it increasingly difficult to do their jobs. The NRC said its programmes in Hodeidah and nearby Hajjah province had been “severely disrupted by fighting”, but they have not evacuated staff.


    “We have been stockpiling supplies wherever possible and taking additional steps to protect what we have so we can deliver it to people as needed, but as the offensive takes hold of more highly-populated areas we can expect to be completely overwhelmed by the scale of need,” the NRC’s van Meegen said.


    Paul of Oxfam said that in addition to continuing attempts to stave off a disruption at the port, the organisation would be “supplementing markets as much as we can, with cash when possible and with food and fuel when necessary.”


    The UN’s Grande emphasised that “the UN is in Hodeidah,” with local Yemeni staff working to assist those in need. She said a World Food Programme vessel was offloading food, and that the UN was delivering health, water, and sanitation programmes.


    “We are not going to leave Hodeidah,” she insisted. “Too many lives are at stake."


    (Additional reporting by Mohammed Ali Kalfood in Yemen and Samuel Oakford at the United Nations in New York)



    “We are not going to leave. Too many lives are at stake”: UN humanitarian coordinator
    Hodeidah: What the assault means for Yemen’s civilians and the aid effort
  • As Syria looks to rebuild, US and allies hope money can win where guns lost

    President Bashar al-Assad is winning Syria’s seven-year war on the battlefield, but his American, European, and Arab opponents are ramping up the pressure on the economic front. Their plan to block aid and investment that could help the regime’s plans for reconstruction will frustrate al-Assad’s regime and his allies, but analysts say it’s also likely to prevent many civilians from rebuilding their lives.


    After seven years of war, much of Syria is broken and economically exhausted.


    More than six million people are displaced from their homes and about as many have fled abroad. Getting decimated cities like Aleppo or Homs back on their feet, and citizens back to a functioning economy, will require a major infusion of cash.


    Since al-Assad allies like Russia, Iran, and China appear unwilling to step in with additional support, and have donated very little to cover humanitarian needs in Syria, a credible international reconstruction programme would likely require funding from the wealthy Western countries that contribute the vast majority of assistance through the UN and World Bank systems.


    But American and European policymakers are hoping that money can win where guns failed, and, even as they withdraw support from the insurgency, they have settled on a strategy of boycott and sanctions, placing one major condition on reconstruction aid to areas the government controls: a transition away from al-Assad’s dictatorship.


    This transition seems unlikely to materialise, but their commitment to economic pressure remains – and now a bill in the US Congress wants to lock that strategy in place, by blocking funding for reconstruction in areas the regime controls.


    A broken country


    As of early 2017, the World Bank estimated that the conflict in Syria had destroyed a third of housing, as well as half of all medical and education facilities. It’s only gotten worse since, as US Air Force backing for a Kurdish campaign left much of Raqqa destroyed, without electricity or running water, and government offensives ravaged the Ghouta region near Damascus.


    It’s not clear who, if anyone, will provide the resources to rebuild Syria. The fate of formerly rebel-held neighbourhoods in Syria’s third city, Homs, is instructive. With little visible reconstruction or return of the displaced more than four years after being retaken by the army, these vast expanses of burned-out homes and concrete rubble have become visible proof of the economic weakness of al-Assad and his allies.


    Syria’s Central Bureau of Statistics has revealed that the country lost four fifths of its GDP between 2010 and 2016, and al-Assad recently said the cost of a nationwide reconstruction programme could range between $200 billion and $400 billion, far beyond the means of his government.


    Help will not be forthcoming from Washington or its allies, at least not in the parts of the country the Syrian government controls. And while legislation currently before Congress aims to cement this position as law, it has been the general US policy for a while.  


    “The United States will not support international reconstruction efforts in Syria until there is a genuine political transition per UN Security Council Resolution 2254 through the Geneva process,” a US State Department official told IRIN earlier this year, referring to the December 2015 resolution that called for a ceasefire and an elections-based  political resolution, which has been the basis for peace talks in Geneva and Sochi.


    The official added that Washington will “discourage” international trade, cooperation, and normalisation with Damascus until al-Assad is “gone from power”.


    Complementing this strategy, the United States has asked allies to invest in reconstruction efforts in areas under the control of US-friendly non-state actors, like Raqqa, both in order to stabilise them and to reduce their interest in reconnecting with Damascus.


    But this element of the plan has been hobbled by US President Donald Trump’s March decision to withhold approximately $200 million in “stabilisation” aid to areas outside al-Assad’s control, demanding instead that America’s Gulf Arab allies provide money and troops to pick up the slack.


    This rise in foreign support for Kurdish-controlled and opposition regions has yet to materialise, but the wider strategy of boycotting reconstruction in al-Assad-controlled Syria is already solidly in place. It has been formally endorsed by several key US allies, ensuring that Syria cannot tap into World Bank support or other sources of funding.


    Expert scepticism


    Backing for the US strategy may be holding firm, but Syria experts contacted by IRIN put little faith in the plan to tie reconstruction to transition, noting that al-Assad has already weathered years of sanctions and war without offering meaningful concessions.


    According to Joshua Landis, who heads the Centre for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, Washington’s strategy of blocking reconstruction and keeping troops in oil-rich northeastern Syria aims at creating a “quagmire” for al-Assad’s Iranian and Russian allies.


    “The US policy should be gratifying to America’s allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Landis told IRIN. “But it will leave 18 million Syrians in the lurch”, he said, referring to the number of people thought to still reside inside Syria.


    Landis said that Washington and its allies are using the “language of human rights” to “disguise a mean policy in noble cloth”.


    Samar Batrawi, a Hague-based researcher with the Clingendael Institute think tank, also signalled scepticism about the idea of toppling al-Assad by economic means.


    “Strong conditionality and selective distribution of assistance appear to be the only two avenues US and EU policymakers have, apart from doing nothing at all,” she told IRIN in an email, but added, “the notion that assistance can help secure a political transition is in my eyes overly simplistic”.


    Though placing conditions on reconstruction aid could build some leverage over the Syrian government, it would be unlikely to determine al-Assad’s fate, given the high stakes on both sides and the deep involvement of regional and international powers.


    “I fail to see how strategic distribution of what will likely be a small percentage of the total reconstruction bill [given the massive overall needs] will override these proxy dynamics and interests,” Batrawi said.


    The No Assistance for Assad Act


    Whatever the linkage between reconstruction and political change, efforts are underway to fix the American-led economic boycott in place.


    On 24 April, the No Assistance for Assad Act, NAAA, was approved with bipartisan support in the US House of Representatives.


    If it passes the Senate and is signed by the president, it will become law, banning US assistance to all parts of Syria ruled by al-Assad except for basic humanitarian needs of the sort the UN already delivers, such as food or medicine.


    A major donor meeting in Brussels last month affirmed its adherence to the policy of dividing emergency aid from reconstruction, pledging some €4.4 billion in humanitarian support for 2018 but also stating that reconstruction aid “will be a peace dividend only once a credible political transition is firmly underway”.


    Humanitarian principles require that life-saving assistance should not have political strings attached. However, the Damascus government has a long history of manipulating emergency aid, regularly denying access to convoys into rebel-held areas it has besieged, and steering the UN towards cooperating with charities close to the al-Assad family. Supporters of the NAAA say the regime would likely seek to exploit reconstruction aid in the same way, and that this is all the more reason not to fund reconstruction of government-held areas.


    According to Faysal Itani, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who advised on the writing of the NAAA, passing the bill would “make it more difficult for the regime to directly or indirectly profit from US taxpayer money, and kill any World Bank dreams to get board approval and funding to operate in Syria.”


    One reason for the bill’s success so far is al-Assad’s alliance with Iran.


    “Bear in mind the depth of hatred toward Iran on the Hill,” Itani told IRIN. “Some of the more hawkish members of Congress see themselves as ‘picking up the slack’ left by the Obama team and now, to a lesser extent, the Trump team when it comes to Assad and Iran. Legislation like this is empowering in that sense, makes them feel useful on Iran, and applies pressure on the administration to hang tough.”


    As currently written, the NAAA would outlaw any use of US taxpayers’ money for “early recovery, reconstruction, or stabilisation” in any area of Syria governed by al-Assad, including through institutions like the UN, the World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund.


    Small-scale, internationally-funded reconstruction by another name – what the UN calls “stabilisation” and “early-recovery” – is already underway in parts of Syria not controlled by the government, but the NAAA is designed to stop precisely this drift into the grey zone between emergency humanitarian and reconstruction support.


    Exceptions could be granted on stringent conditions – including, for example, the holding of free elections, the creation of an independent judiciary, and the firing of senior security chiefs – but such demands are non-starters for al-Assad.


    Though the NAAA would formally be based on the policy of linking aid to transition, its more immediate effects would be to lock US tax money out of helping al-Assad-led Syria and to block any tendency within the UN to shift into a reconstruction role.


    To the bill’s authors, this is basic common sense: just as Russia would not provide money for the reconstruction of, say, Ukraine, so the United States will not support the rebuilding of a hostile, al-Assad-led, Russian-allied Syria.


    “If Bashar al-Assad, the Butcher of Syria, wants to destroy his own country and then expects the United States to pick up the pieces, he is sorely mistaken,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, New York Democrat Eliot Engel, after the NAAA passed the House of Representatives. “That simply won’t happen. He and Russia and Iran broke Syria, and now they have to buy it.”

    Reconstruction debate


    There are voices in the United States who favour even tougher measures than the NAAA, which stops short of cutting emergency humanitarian aid like food, water, and shelter already provided by the UN and other aid organisations.


    Robert Ford, the US ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, and Mark Ward, who oversaw US assistance to Syria from Turkey between 2012 and 2016, recently penned an op-ed calling on the United States to end humanitarian assistance in government-held areas unless al-Assad stops interfering with UN missions.


    “Let’s stop funding UN agencies charged with delivering humanitarian aid inside Syria if the Syrian government continues to block the aid. The UN might complain,” Ford and Ward wrote, “but our taking such a bold step would strengthen their hand with the government in Damascus and its allies.”


    However, critics argue that the US strategy – even if it is ostensibly targeted at reconstruction in areas al-Assad controls – knowingly harms civilian welfare simply to make a political point.


    Not only does Washington plan to withhold its own money from a post-conflict phase, but it is also pressuring other nations to undercut Syria’s economic recovery through sanctions, aid boycotts, and border closures.


    The Middle East Institute’s Geoffrey Aronson recently accused the US government of running a “mean-spirited policy” that seeks to punish the Syrian people for the US failure to topple al-Assad.


    In Damascus, some think the trajectory of events on the ground means it won't be long before support for this US policy fades.


    “All these pronouncements that the pro-opposition countries will refuse to deal with Syria as long as President Assad remains in office are meaningless,” said Ibrahim Ibrahim, a consultant with the Syrian Law Journal, which markets legal services to would-be reconstruction investors.


    “Once the Syrian Arab Army and its allies have extended their control to all Syrian territory, the countries that opposed Syria will start to shift their stances,” Ibrahim said. “History has proven this to be the case.”


    Stuck in a broken state


    However, history has a habit of taking its time, and until and unless something changes, all sides seem to be trapped in an emerging stalemate.


    Washington and its allies will likely find it impossible to trigger a transition using only economic means. Measures like the NAAA, their deep anger against al-Assad, and the perceived need to set an example for future offenders will nevertheless ensure that many states – if not necessarily all – will continue a boycott-and-sanction policy for years to come, cementing Syria’s status as a barren market littered with political and legal risk.


    In such a scenario, given the meagre support provided by its allies, the Syrian government is unlikely to be able to launch large-scale reconstruction projects. It could even find itself unable to ensure the basic economic integrity of the post-war order, with harmful effects on civilian welfare and – which is of course the point of the American-European strategy – on the government’s internal functioning.


    To scrape together funds, Damascus could be forced to continue its fire sale of land and energy concessions to politically-connected profiteers and foreign allies. Although such measures may loosen the state’s grip on Syrian society and the economy, they would be a stop-gap to sustain al-Assad’s authoritarian rule rather than a prelude to real reform or transition.

    (TOP PHOTO: Conflict in Moadamiyeh, rural Damascus, left vast destruction in its wake. Ali Yousef/ICRC)

    This work was supported in part by a research grant from the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.

    Critics say tying reconstruction aid to political change won’t work and will hurt civilians
    As Syria looks to rebuild, US and allies hope money can win where guns lost
  • Emergency aid funding fell in 2017, even as Syria/Yemen wars drove needs higher

    The numbers are in: 2017 was another costly year for humanitarian aid donors, but despite huge needs in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, and elsewhere, funding levels have stagnated.


    In 2017, preliminary UN figures show a drop in relief funding of $1.56 billion, or seven percent, against 2016, despite rising needs. Funding levels continue to be heavily reliant on the United States and the European Union, while an inner circle of 13 aid agencies commands two thirds of spending.


    Confirmed 2017 funding reported to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS) was $21.3 billion, down from $22.9 billion in 2016. The data could still be adjusted with edits and additions, for example when amounts are moved from a status of “pledged” to “paid”. Donors and recipients report voluntarily to the system on a rolling basis. However, the decline shown in 2017 is in the context of a 19 percent increase in needs, according to the total price tag for the UN-managed response plans – reflecting increasing levels of need that donors didn’t keep pace with.


    FTS is the most complete source of information on international humanitarian funding, and major donor governments submit their data to it. However it does not include the full extent of international relief spending.


    For example, at least $5 billion of annual donations from private individuals to NGOs are not listed in the database. Médecins Sans Frontières alone reported spending of €1.4 billion in 2016, funded almost entirely from individuals.


    An annual review of humanitarian financing is produced by the consultancy Development Initiatives. The Global Humanitarian Assistance report, expected in June, triangulates FTS with other data sources to provide a fuller picture.


    Who spends where?


    The pool of official donors is dominated by a small group: the 15 largest donors gave 86 percent of the money. Repeating the pattern in 2016, the largest donors are the United States, the European Union, Germany, and the UK. Despite fears for the aid budget under Donald Trump’s presidency, levels of US emergency funding have yet to show any significant changes.


    Over half of all funding goes to the following largest crises: Yemen, Syria (and its neighbours), South Sudan, Iraq, and Somalia. This interactive graphic allows you to see where donors focus their energies – some spread even their modest budget across a wide range of locations -- others are more selective.


    Pick a donor and see where the funding flows.


    (IRIN built this 2017 dataset of donor-recipient pairings of more than $500,000 used here via the FTS API. It excludes donations for centralised, pooled, or multicountry purposes that couldn’t be mapped. However, to avoid missing a large tranche, funding for Syrian refugee operations is marked as directed to Syria.)


    Fair shares


    The United States pays about 30 percent of the total, but is the world’s largest economy paying an unfair amount? It depends how you look at it.


    Rich countries have long been urged to spend 0.7 percent of their national income on development aid. However, they currently give about 0.32 percent. Emergency (or humanitarian) funding is only a portion of that, and there is no agreed target.


    The donor countries who are the most generous with emergency aid spending are those who give the highest portion of their national income to humanitarian aid. The United States gives only 0.04 percent of its national income to humanitarian funding, placing it 16th in 2017.


    IRIN calculates that the highest percentage was 0.12 percent, from Denmark. So the United States is not contributing beyond its means, at least compared to other major donors.


    However, it could be argued that other large economies are not pulling their weight. The world’s second-largest economy, China, contributes very little to the conventional humanitarian aid apparatus.


    And if, for example, Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, were to spread its income over the course of a year, we calculate that only 52 minutes’ worth would go towards financing emergency relief.



    Who spends it?


    The UN agencies have long dominated the finances of humanitarian aid, and last year they commanded 59 percent of the funding. The World Food Programme is the undisputed giant: the Rome-based UN agency took in $5.7 billion, more than twice the amount of second-placed UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency (WFP’s figures are not all cash – its turnover is boosted by the value of food commodities received and distributed).


    As described in a related IRIN analysis, “The Humanitarian Economy”, a remarkably small group of aid agencies dominates the “market” – forming what some have called an oligopoly. In 2017, 13 big UN agencies and larger NGOs controlled two thirds of the funding. The largest non-Western, non-UN agency is the national branch of the Red Crescent of the United Arab Emirates.

    A package of emergency aid reforms agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, the Grand Bargain, commits major donors and field-based aid agencies to reduce overheads, streamline administrative costs, support local aid groups, and shift more spending to cash.


    Whether or not the reforms are being implemented, the Grand Bargain now represents the consensus: 88 percent of all emergency aid reported to the UN comes from donors that have signed up to it. Many of the biggest aid agencies that receive donor funding have also signed up, and IRIN‘s analysis shows they get 70 percent of the funds. The Grand Bargain signatories on both sides of the table therefore represent the core humanitarian players. A progress report is due next month on the sidelines of the UN’s humanitarian meetings on how far they have actually stuck to their commitments.


    The club of the major donors, the OECD, also released its figures recently. These capture all international aid (developmental and emergency-related) from major economies, under an extensive set of definitions that are regularly tweaked. For 2017, they also report a total aid spend of $146 billion (a small dip on 2016). Updated 16 May: The proportion of that which went on strictly humanitarian or emergency work is 10.5%. Some spending by rich countries on receiving refugees is also down, compared to 2016, according to the OECD figures. The rules for defining what should be allowed as domestic refugee aid spending were a subject of lengthy negotiations last year, as reported by IRIN.




    Despite calls to reform and “localise” the response to humanitarian crises, two thirds of the money went to just 13 major groups
    Emergency aid funding fell in 2017, even as Syria/Yemen wars drove needs higher
  • In Burundi, a disputed referendum threatens to deepen a neglected humanitarian crisis

    Burundi isn’t at war, but it has all the humanitarian hallmarks of a country that is.


    Campaigning began this week ahead of a 17 May referendum that could allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to stay in office until 2034. A government clampdown and an uptick in political violence are raising fears that the humanitarian situation will deteriorate further as civil liberties and the rule of law are eroded, prompting more people to join some 400,000 already seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.


    Lewis Mudge, senior researcher in the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, said Burundians will continue to flee unless the political crisis is resolved.


    “The current situation is worrying, as a lot of Burundi's problems are political at the root and at their base,” he said. “It's hard to put a timeline on it, but unless these political issues are resolved, I think it's very possible that we could see even more people fleeing the country, which would put an enormous strain on Burundi's neighbours.”


    More than 3.6 million Burundians – about a quarter of the population of what is the world’s fourth poorest country – now need aid to get by, an increase of almost 20 percent over 2017, according to the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan.


    Some 2.6 million people lack reliable access to food, up from 1.5 million a year ago and 700,000 in April 2016. One in six children under the age of five are affected by chronic malnutrition, a condition that stunts growth and impairs mental development.



    Aid agencies say they need some $142 million to meet needs this year. So far, only two percent of the appeal has been funded.


    Much of this money is required to fill the gap left by a cash-strapped and ineffective state in providing basic services – countering widespread malnutrition and food insecurity, boosting primary healthcare (six million Burundians got malaria in 2017), and helping 190,000 internally displaced people (mostly due to natural disasters such as floods and landslides in 2016) and 65,000 refugees from neighbouring states.

    Multiple causes


    Burundi’s inability to care for its citizens has several causes: the lingering effects of a civil war that broke out in 1993 and only formally ended in 2006; an economy overly dependent on an inefficient agriculture sector; the political crisis ignited in 2015 when Nkurunziza decided to run for re-election in apparent violation of constitutional term limits; and the drying-up of the foreign cash on which the government long depended.

    Such overseas assistance “is on a drip at the moment”, according to one aid worker, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of working in Burundi. Suspended donor support has led to a 72-percent cut in the government’s water and sanitation budget, increasing the risk of epidemics such as cholera, while funds for healthcare have been more than halved.


    Hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled the country in the early stages of the 2015 political crisis, and continue to leave at a rate of up to 70 a day, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.


    Richard Moncrieff, Central Africa project director at the International Crisis Group, blamed government policy for the deteriorating humanitarian situation.


    “Some progress was being made before the crisis in 2015 in food security and malnutrition, but this is being reversed partly because donors are pulling out – for which government is to blame also – and partly because government incompetence is being exposed by uncertainty, violence, and flight of human capital,” he said.

    Government policies are also making it harder for humanitarian agencies to deliver aid in Burundi. The 2018 Response Plan pointed to numerous “legal and administrative restrictions [that] limit current and future operational efficiency” of aid agencies and their ability to travel into the interior of the country, except in extremely urgent cases. It added that legislation covering NGOs adopted in January 2017 undermined the independence of aid agencies.


    These constraints “remain a key issue for humanitarian actors” in Burundi, Philippe Adapoe, Save the Children’s country director in neighbouring Rwanda, said.

    Abuses rise as poll draws near


    Wide-ranging human rights abuses committed by security forces and affiliated groups over the past few years led the International Criminal Court to announce in November that it would conduct an investigation into Burundi, even though the country became the first in the world to withdraw from the tribunal the previous month.


    Alleged crimes against humanity cited by the ICC include: murder and attempted murder; imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty; torture; rape; enforced disappearance; and persecution. Depending on its findings, the ICC’s next step could be indictments and arrest warrants.


    The run-up to the 17 May poll has seen a spike in abuses and threats against those opposed to the amendments.


    Mediation efforts led by the East African Community have failed to reconcile the government and the opposition. “The mediation process still shows signs of being highly fractured and is yet to achieve tangible results,” the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies think tank said this week. “Nkurunziza’s government has shown an increasingly intransigent and uncooperative position towards resolving the crisis,” it added.


    Many of Nkurunziza’s leading opponents now live in exile, while those still in Burundi who favour a “No” vote in the referendum are being cast by officials as enemies and criminals.


    “Opponents, including elected officials, are constantly harassed. The [Imbonerakure] militia which protects government bigwigs commits abuses in deplorable indifference of a judiciary which is a mere shadow of itself,” Dieudonné Bashirahishize, the head of a group of lawyers representing victims of the 2015 crisis, told IRIN. “Leaders of the ruling party keep calling for those who dare to push for a ‘No’ vote to be lynched.”


    Read more: Who are the Imbonerakure and is Burundi unravelling?


    In one of several similar videos circulating on social media, a ruling party official says: “If you vote ‘No’, you know it will be death.”


    And in a rare case of hate speech prosecution, a ruling party official was handed a three-year jail term on 30 April, days after publicly warning that opponents of the referendum would be put into pirogues on Lake Tanganyika (widely understood to mean opponents would be fed to the lake’s fish).


    A group of “concerned citizens”, tweeting collectively as @iBurundi, described this trial as a “sideshow” designed to cover up incitement to violence by some of the most senior officials in the ruling party.


    Read more: Hate speech stirs trouble in Burundi


    Speaking out about abuses in Burundi carries great risks. On 26 April, human rights activist Germain Rukuki was handed a 32-year jail sentence after being convicted of taking part in an “insurrection movement” in 2015. Amnesty International said the charges were trumped up.



    AU UN IST Photo
    President Pierre Nkurunziza
    In 2015, the country’s most prominent human rights defender, Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. The monthly report for March 2018 prepared by the organisation Mbonimpa heads, APRODH, lists the most recent killings, arbitrary detentions, torture, beatings, and intimidation, and paints a picture of “growing” insecurity. Many abuses were allegedly carried out by the Imbonerakure - the ruling party’s powerful youth wing -, the police, and intelligence agents working for Nkurunziza’s government.


    Lamenting that the prevailing climate of fear was preventing citizens from freely expressing their opinions, Burundi’s bishops said on 2 May that “the time is not right to make profound changes to the constitution”.

    Night raids


    Earlier this month, legislators approved a draft law that would give police the power to conduct night-time raids on people’s homes.


    “The ruling party has just buried democracy in Burundi,” one opposition MP stated after the decision.


    Jérémie Minani, the spokesperson for humanitarian issues in the CNARED opposition coalition – which has called for a boycott of the referendum – said the vote would “create chaos and worsen the suffering and misery of the population”.


    He added that if the constitutional changes were adopted, it would spell the end of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement – signed in 2000 under the stewardship of Nelson Mandela to end the civil war and create a governance framework for sustainable peace.


    The death of the accord would “certainly take the country back to a new civil war,” he warned. “The humanitarian consequences will be extremely serious: a total collapse of the economy resulting in increased poverty.”


    The government, which denies there is a political crisis in Burundi and has contested the data in the latest humanitarian appeal as “fabricated figures”, turned Minani’s accusation on its head.


    The opposition were the ones who “took the path of violence”, Interior Ministry Spokesman Terence Ntahiraja told IRIN. “They showed that on 13 May 2015,” he added, referring to the day of a failed coup attempt. “So I would ask them to change their behaviour, to abandon their intentions to create trouble in the country and to accept democracy and compete on the ground, [in the referendum campaign] and to win if the people so decide.”


    Such an outcome is virtually impossible, said Bashirahishize, the victims’ lawyer. “It’s not a referendum, but a piece of theatre set up to enthrone the ‘Eternal Supreme Guide,’” he told IRIN, using the title the ruling party bestowed on the head of state in March.

    What next?


    Around 400,000 Burundians who fled since 2015 are still living in neighbouring states, but their welcome in two of them is wearing thin. Tanzania, which hosts some 60 percent of the caseload, no longer grants Burundians prima facie refugee status and is keen to step up the rate of repatriations.


    Relations between Burundi and Rwanda have soured, with the neighbours accusing one another of backing rebellions.


    Earlier this month, Bujumbura protested the deportation by Kigali of some 1,600 Burundian refugees, alleging they had been sent back for refusing to join an armed group formed to attack Burundi.


    Lucy Hovil, senior research associate at the International Refugee Rights Initiative, said the situation facing those fleeing Burundi’s political violence was deeply concerning.


    “Given [conditions in] the neighbouring countries to Burundi, this leaves them in a very difficult position because, as you know, many don't want to flee to Rwanda because it's not very safe… and neither is [the Democratic Republic of] Congo,” she said.


    Robert Rugurika, a Burundian living in Brussels, told IRIN that the political repression in his home country deters many refugees from going back.


    “There is nothing the regime can do to convince people to return if it does not stop oppressing Burundians. This won’t happen because the regime only survives by terrorising its own people and committing human rights violations,” he said. “People are still fleeing even now ahead of the referendum. Since assassinations and torture continues against opponents, people will continue to flee in large numbers.”


    Bashirahishize said the international community “needs to pay more attention to the Burundian crisis, which is getting worse with time, so as to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe which risks getting worse with this referendum.”




    The president’s bid to stay in power until 2034 could further destabilise the country
    In Burundi, a disputed referendum threatens to deepen a neglected humanitarian crisis
  • #MeToo sex scandals spur interest in standards for the aid sector

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


    The regulatory challenge


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


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


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


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


    Organisations and banana skins


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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


    Technical standards


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


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


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

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

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


    Enablers or barriers?


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


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


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


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


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



    #MeToo sex scandals spur interest in standards for the aid sector

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