Journalism from the heart of crises

Welcome to the beta version of our site. We'll be working as hard as we can over the next few days to smooth out any glitches. If something looks odd, please let us know by getting in touch here.

  • Venezuela to receive emergency UN aid for the first time

    Venezuela is to receive more than $9 million in assistance from the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund, according to the official list of 2018 allocations.


    The move signals the first known acceptance of UN emergency activity from President Nicolás Maduro's government, which has up until now refused international assistance and argued that there is no humanitarian crisis in the South American nation.


    Read more: A humanitarian crisis denied



    Venezuela, which has the largest known oil reserves in the world, has seen its economy implode over the last three years, during which time at least 2.3 million people have fled the country and inflation has soared to more than 800,000 percent.


    The name Venezuela appears 19th on CERF’s list of grantees for 2018, between Niger (18th) and Papua New Guinea (20th) with an amount of $9,202,761.


    The grant is allocated under the fund’s rapid response mechanism and is split between five UN agencies to assist programmes ranging from child malnutrition to gender-based violence.


    The largest tranche, $3,650,870, goes to the World Health Organization for “ensuring emergency care delivery capacity in priority health institutions to address essential health needs of the most vulnerable population in Venezuela.”



    There was no immediate confirmation from the government that it had accepted the projects, but according to the table above, taken from the CERF website, four of the five lines are already being disbursed and the fifth was approved last week.


    Unclear significance


    Up until now the UN has almost entirely confined its assistance to helping Venezuelans once they have crossed the border into a neighbouring country.


    But despite it apparently being the first time the Venezuelan government had agreed to emergency assistance, observers advised caution before accepting it as a milestone moment.

    Venezuelan Saul Guerrero, technical director with NGO Action Against Hunger, said the CERF grants “won’t make much of a difference unless the persistent and ill-advised policies of the national government to block humanitarian aid have been lifted.”

    For Francisco Toro, executive editor of the Caracas Chronicles news site, anything that alleviates the suffering of the Venezuelan people is a good thing, but he warned that aid mustn’t become “a pretext not to restructure economic policy”.


    “It's an atypical crisis because the humanitarian needs are immense, but the drivers aren't conflict, climate, or natural: the crisis is a function of terrible policy,” he said. “You could achieve multiples of the impact of this donation simply by agreeing simple economic reforms that would be seen as consensus measures anywhere else in the [western] hemisphere.”


    The news comes two weeks after the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Organisation for Migration, announced that the number of Venezuelans that have now left the country is in excess of three million, including more than 2.3 million since 2015. The vast majority have fled overland to neighbouring Brazil and Colombia, and near-neighbours Ecuador and Peru.


    Millions more have stayed behind in a country wracked by hyperinflation and hunger. Shortages of food, electricity, and basic supplies have reached crisis levels, as reported widely, including by IRIN.


    US President Donald Trump imposed fresh sanctions on Maduro and his inner circle in September and urged the restoration of democracy in the leading OPEC nation.


    Maduro’s government has repeatedly refused aid and insisted that Venezuela, which used to be the richest country in the region, is the victim of an economic plot by Western nations.


    "I insist here there is no humanitarian crisis; there is a war on the country,” Diosdado Cabello, president of the National Constituent Assembly, said last month, before adding: “Those who speak of humanitarian crisis are the ones who have created war against our country.”

    Additional reporting by Andrew Gully

    (TOP PHOTO: Secretary-General António Guterres (right) meets with Nicolás Maduro Moros, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. 27 September 2018. CREDIT: Rick Bajornas/UN Photo)


    Venezuela to receive emergency UN aid for the first time
    Millions lack food and healthcare, but the government has long refused international assistance
  • What is humanitarian deconfliction?

    A military word used since the 1970s to mean preventing “friendly fire” between allied armies has crept into the humanitarian lexicon. Deconfliction is now being applied to attempts to stop aid clinics, hospitals, and schools from being bombed by warring parties. How does it – or doesn’t it – work?


    Deconfliction emerged in humanitarian literature a decade ago, but efforts to use the process in a sustained way to try to stem civilian casualties are more recent and followed a sharp rise in the number of attacks on hospitals and health personnel, particularly in Syria and Yemen. According to the Geneva conventions, health facilities are off limits in war.


    High-profile airstrikes that led to greater deconfliction efforts include the October 2015 US bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which killed 42 people.


    At the UN Security Council in May 2016, former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called attacks on healthcare worldwide “systematic” and, speaking alongside him, MSF President Joanne Liu said there was “an epidemic of attacks on health facilities”.


    In response, the humanitarian community stepped up systems to share the geographic coordinates of aid operations with warring parties, especially those using air forces.


    At best, both NGOs and armies share the same deconfliction objective: to protect civilians and patients. At worst, sceptics say, armies use it to limit bad publicity and accusations of war crimes.


    Deconfliction: The exchange of information and planning advisories by humanitarian actors with military actors in order to prevent or resolve conflicts between the two sets [of] objectives, remove obstacles to humanitarian action, and avoid potential hazards for humanitarian personnel. This may include the negotiation of military pauses, temporary cessation of hostilities or ceasefires, or safe corridors for aid delivery.

    Source: To Stay and Deliver Good practice for humanitarians in complex security environments UN OCHA, 2011



    The definition may be fairly clear but there is no overarching international framework or rulebook for how deconfliction should be carried out.


    In dealing with armed groups that do not have air power, paper-based maps and face-to-face meetings are more often how aid agencies make sure their presence is known to those fighting on the ground.


    At present, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, oversees ad hoc arrangements in a variety of settings, while some of the largest humanitarian organisations run their own deconfliction processes independently.


    The conflicts in Yemen and Syria demonstrate different approaches to deconfliction with varying degrees of buy-in from humanitarian actors.


    Yemen: A multi-step process


    Yemen provides the most elaborate system of deconfliction currently in use.


    Deconfliction has become routine for relief agencies in Yemen since a spate of airstrikes on hospitals in 2015, the early days of a war that has pitted Houthi rebels and their allies against the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and its backers in a Saudi Arabia-led coalition.


    The UN, major NGOs, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and MSF all supply the Saudi-led coalition with coordinates of project sites, offices, warehouses, and convoy movements.


    OCHA plays the middleman, collating the GPS coordinates from most UN agencies and NGOs. Each new location or planned road (or sea) movement is sent by email to a coordinating office in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, which should add it to a “no-strike list”. Once the emailed data is acknowledged as received, the site is regarded as “deconflicted”.


    Map of no-strike locations in Yemen according to the Saudi-led coalition
    Supplied by Saudi-Arabia-led military coalition

    MSF and the ICRC are exceptions to this system; they communicate directly with the coalition.


    A Saudi Arabian official told IRIN the deconfliction system included coordinates for more than 64,000 locations and tracked an average of 30 transports of humanitarian goods and personnel per day, a process the official said requires “highly skilled planning and precision”. IRIN was unable to determine from the UN or Saudi Arabia if the 64,000 figure included temporary itineraries of past road movements, or only static sites and convoys that remain operational. UN documents suggest the list of static sites currently maintained by the UN has under 30,000 entries.


    Ghassan Abou Chaar, former country director of MSF in Yemen, told IRIN that the medical charity decided to comply routinely with the deconfliction system to “ensure more security” for its teams in 2015 after a hospital it supports in Haydan, in the northern province of Saada, was destroyed by airstrikes that October. No one was killed.


    The health NGO now reports 60-100 static sites to Riyadh. MSF also agreed to send the coalition notification of its road travel – as do the UN and other aid agencies – but drew the line at ambulances. By definition, ambulance movements are unpredictable and take place at short notice, Abou Chaar explained.


    Despite this deconfliction effort, the Saudi-led coalition has been widely criticised for the scale and frequency of its attacks on civilian sites, including a widely reported August strike on a school bus – that sort of civilian movement would not have been deconflicted.


    In May 2018, a new but unopened MSF cholera treatment unit was hit in the Yemeni town of Abs in the northern province of Hajjah, despite the fact that its location had been reported to the coalition. Some 32 percent of all Saudi-led air raids have targeted non-military areas, according to the Yemen Data Project, an independent monitor. A UN human rights team reported in September that coalition airstrikes had killed at least 4,300 civilians, and in a number of incidents they examined field combat commanders had “routinely failed to consult” the no-strike list.


    Abou Chaar believes there have been “intentional mistakes”, when the coalition may hit a “deconflicted” site on the basis of intelligence.


    The Saudi official said “the protection of civilians and locations on the list is of highest priority to the coalition.” However, the deconfliction system cannot prevent all incidents, they added, noting that “involuntary mistakes are an unfortunate and infrequent reality of military operations, irrespective of the location.”


    An OCHA official who worked on the Yemen deconfliction system, speaking in a training video, said the Saudi Arabian officer receiving the coordinate data was initially “overwhelmed” by the number of sites. There was a danger in listing too many locations, he believed, as it might become “quite possible that none of it is taken into consideration”.

    In a recent speech, OCHA chief Mark Lowcock said of deconfliction in Yemen: “This system has proven largely effective in sparing the aid operation from accidental or incidental harm. Without it, we would simply not be able to deliver assistance safely.”


    Syria: Wary participants


    The UN has set up a much smaller deconfliction system for Syria, but it has been met with mistrust and slow uptake by NGOs that feel supplying coordinates to Russia and the Syrian air force (as well as the US military) paints a target on their backs.


    The set-up is similar to what has been done in Yemen: NGOs supply coordinates to OCHA, which in turn provides them to the warring parties with air power.


    A UN official told IRIN that 778 locations had been listed in Syria throughout the more than seven years of war in Syria, most of them added this year. And of over 120 health facilities reportedly hit by heavy weapons in Syria this year, only a handful were on deconflicted sites.


    OCHA is currently urging sceptical NGOs to share coordinates for more locations in the last major rebel-held area, northwestern Idlib, where it estimates there are over 300 health facilities unlisted.


    A brief air offensive mounted by Russia and Syria to dislodge rebels in and around Idlib in early September struck a hospital in Kafr Zita, in northern Hama province, that had been deconflicted via the UN. That was the sixth strike on a deconflicted location this year.


    Provisional data for Jan-Oct 2018 shows about 1,400 airstrikes affecting civilians in Syria. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), based on open sources and pending verification. More information and methodology.

    Mohamad Katoub, senior advocacy manager of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), the healthcare NGO running the Kafr Zita hospital, told IRIN that its facilities made up four of the six hits this year. It only joined the deconfliction process in March, saying in a statement that sharing coordinates was a “last-resort decision” after ”relentless and systematic attacks on healthcare across Syria resulted in no meaningful accountability.”


    “As there are no clear consequences”, other than incidents being mentioned in UN briefings, and as, Katoub argued, there is no accountability mechanism, the process should at least be made more public so as to “embarrass” the parties more clearly.


    Other NGOs are participating in the UN’s system in Syria, but with mixed enthusiasm, in part because of their view – backed by US NGO Physicians for Human Rights and other organisations – that hospital bombings are a deliberate tactic by the government of Syria.


    A 2018 UN Commission of Inquiry report on Syria alleges that “pro-government forces deliberately target medical infrastructure as part of their war strategy, which constitutes the war crime of intentionally targeting protected objects”, and details specific attacks in an “ongoing pattern of deliberate attacks on hospitals”.


    An official with a different Syrian medical organisation working in opposition areas told IRIN that “we are sure this method [of deconfliction] does not protect medical facilities”, and that colleagues in the field find the idea hard to stomach. But its value, an official said, requesting anonymity for security reasons, is as “evidence of criminal activities of the regime or Russia if they attack health facilities”. If a deconflicted site is attacked, it would add “accountability in the future”, providing evidence for prosecutions, the official added.


    Despite the six strikes this year, former UN humanitarian negotiator Jan Egeland supports the deconfliction process because it minimises overall attacks. He said in September: “There are clear indications that it is shielding those [deconflicted sites] from attack.”


    Lack of accountability


    The most obvious probIem is that deconfliction doesn’t always work: the location of Kunduz hospital had been supplied to US forces, (and Haydan’s to Riyadh). But the US nevertheless pounded the Afghan facility for 29 minutes. A US investigation found the attack, called in by Afghan ground troops, a “tragedy” due to human error and poor communication.


    And when the system doesn’t work, there are no real consequences.


    The Kafr Zita airstrike in September, which was met with a swift UN statement but no notable consequences, was the latest of six cases in which Russian or Syrian aircraft have hit deconflicted sites. In a briefing, Egeland reported that Russia was investigating four attacks that happened in March or April 2018. Any follow-up of the September cases in Idlib has so far not been made public.


    In the same statement, SAMS said it did not expect UN-run deconfliction to stop attacks on hospitals. The possibility of collecting evidence of war crimes did however provide motivation: “Although we know that such attacks are likely to continue, we hope that this move will act as a deterrent and bring increased transparency to the reporting process.”


    In 2016, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad denied that his government targets hospitals, saying they did not “have a policy to destroy hospitals or schools or any such facility”.

    When the system doesn’t work, there are no real consequences.

    The Saudi Arabian official said that when incidents did occur in Yemen the coalition was committed to “holding those responsible accountable, and putting measures into place to mitigate any future reoccurrence”, referring to its investigative procedures.


    The coalition has formed a Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) that investigates serious allegations. However, the coalition’s investigations have been criticised by Human Rights Watch and others for a lack of independence and rigour.


    In the case of the Haydan hospital strike, JIAT said Houthi rebels had been using the hospital as a shelter, but that the coalition should still have notified MSF “about withdrawing the international protection from this building” before the bombing.


    Last week, Amnesty International accused Houthis of taking up positions on a hospital roof during the ongoing battle for the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah. Several days later, the rights group said the coalition appeared to have struck close to a different busy hospital in the city.


    Perceptions and errors


    Using the word deconfliction itself is problematic for some: supplying coordinates leads to the “bizarre” phenomenon of NGOs “serving the purpose of the military”, according to analyst Michaël Neuman of the MSF-affiliated think tank CRASH.


    By adopting the term deconfliction, rather than something more neutral like “notification”, unarmed aid agencies are revealing their “docility” in playing into a military agenda, Neuman said. Deconfliction may be a common-sense necessity, he added, but it has the disturbing effect of “helping the military designate the targets”.


    Another issue is the data management skills required: current humanitarian deconfliction systems are ad hoc – based on manual records and spreadsheets – and are thus error-prone.

    Deconfliction may be a common-sense necessity but it has the disturbing effect of “helping the military designate the targets”.

    A data analyst familiar with the process in several conflicts explained some of the potential areas of error.


    One is that geographic coordinates can be written in “minutes and seconds” format or in decimal format. Converting between the two can garble the location. Mixing up latitude and longitude usually puts a marker “in another continent”. Other risks include marking only the centre of a large compound rather than drawing the perimeter, the analyst said.


    Aid agencies nevertheless have a duty to supply coordinates to deconfliction mechanisms, because if they don’t they “recklessly and criminally” endanger civilians and humanitarian staff, the analyst argued.


    With or without deconfliction, the World Health Organization reports that attacks continue: by mid-October there were at least 215 heavy weapons attacks (including airstrikes) on health facilities this year, 121 in Syria, but just two in Yemen.


    While deconfliction has become routine, it remains “a very strange concept” to MSF’s Abou Chaar. For better or worse “we’re locked into it”, he said, adding that he’s sure about one thing: where the responsibility lies. “A hospital shouldn’t be targeted,” he said. “That’s it.”



    How aid agencies try to avoid getting bombed in Yemen and Syria
    What is humanitarian deconfliction?
  • Syria-Jordan: relief convoy fails to reach “desperate” border camp

    A convoy of relief supplies for 45,000 Syrians trapped between the closed Jordanian border and Syrian government front lines did not arrive on Thursday as planned, a UN spokesperson told IRIN. But even if it had, civilians in the isolated no-man’s land camp of Rukban would largely continue to remain cut off from aid, commercial shipments of food, and medical care, in an area where officials and health workers say hunger, disease, and sexual abuse are on the rise.


    While the UN no longer lists any part of Syria as “besieged” and classifies Rukban as “hard-to-reach”, a senior aid official familiar with the camp told IRIN that the situation there has “never been as bad as now.”


    “It’s hell,” that person added. “It’s very hard to put words on it.” A senior official with another aid organisation said the camp, which began forming in late 2014 after Jordan closed its border to most asylum seekers, is “de facto besieged.” Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve sensitive working relationships.


    Iolanda Jaquemet, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross, told IRIN that “prices of basic commodities inside the camp are skyrocketing, food supplies precarious, and reportedly deaths are rising due to the living conditions and lack of health care.”


    The UN’s humanitarian negotiator for Syria, Jan Egeland, confirmed earlier this month that a “trickle” of trade that had kept the informal camp supplied from the Syrian side had been cut off, making it “one of the most desperate places in Syria.” Aid workers say the reduced commercial trade with the rest of Syria has increased tension and cut food supplies.


    ‘Under siege’


    Activists charge that the trade blockade is a deliberate move by the Bashar al-Assad government. Laila Kiki, executive director of advocacy group The Syria Campaign, said “Rukban has been under siege by the regime for months.”


    A UN World Food Programme spokesperson, Herve Verhoosel, said Friday that the convoy “had not started” but that efforts continue to get it on the road.

    “The big problem is that nobody cares.”

    Last week Egeland told reporters “we have been assured that we will have all the green lights and the permits from the government in Damascus to send a convoy with food, with health and sanitation equipment.” The UN and the Red Cross/Red Crescent have been unsuccessfully negotiating with the Syrian government for access to the no-man’s-land border area, known as the “berm”, since 2016.


    Civilians in Rukban have received almost no international relief supplies since January, when Jordan permitted food shipments to be dropped across the border by crane. Jordan refuses to allow further supplies to cross its border, saying the camp is Syria’s responsibility. Syria-based aid agencies have been unable to deliver supplies for want of security clearances from armed groups and permissions from the Damascus government.


    “History will judge us”


    Medical care has also been jeopardised recently. A UNICEF statement noted that two babies who could not be transported to hospital died in early October. The statement about the deaths noted that “history will judge us and the death of children, preventable in many cases, will continue to chase us.”


    A resident of the camp, who requested anonymity due to security concerns, said a new arrival date for the delayed convoy had not been announced and that in any case a single shipment would not be of much use. “If these supplies come only one time, what will happen to us after one month, or after 15 days, or after two months? If it’s coming just one time, we don’t need it.”


    This month, Russian media reported that Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said he had “serious talks with Russia on the de-establishment of that camp [Rukban]”. Safadi was reported as saying its dispersal would send a signal to Syrian refugees in Jordan that things are improving at home.


    For months, Russia has said it was working on proposals to evacuate fighters and civilians from Rukban. IRIN has obtained a 5 September letter and map dated August that were prepared by Russia and proposed a negotiated evacuation of armed opposition and civilians from Rukban. Rebel fighters are mixed in with civilians at the camp. However that plan seems to have stalled in October, triggering the restrictions on trade.


    As one of the senior aid officials who spoke to IRIN described the situation, “the big problem is that nobody cares.” The lives of people at Rukban seem, according to that person, to be seen as “completely dispensable” by all parties that could take action.


    Water and a modest clinic


    Jordan, which already hosts more than 670,000 Syrian refugees, has refused to admit additional refugees or allow anything more than occasional aid deliveries to cross from its territory into Rukban after a suicide attack coming from the camp area struck a Jordanian border post in 2016. Safadi said last year that Rukban was Syria’s responsibility. According to the state news agency, Petra, he said any aid “must be delivered through Syrian territory”.


    Clean water is piped to standpipes across the berm – an earth ridge that marks the border. There are no regular food deliveries. A modest clinic funded by UN agencies is accessible at a service area on the Jordanian side of the border.


    Because aid officials and journalists are generally banned from entering the berm area, accounts of medical care offer one of the few sources of reliable information about conditions in the camp. Journalists and aid workers monitor the situation from Jordan and Damascus via phone and text messages, and speak with camp residents who reach the clinic inside the Jordanian border.


    One of the senior aid officials, who had recently spoken with camp residents at the clinic, said many are “desperate to leave” but don't have money, transport, or a safe destination.


    About 250 camp residents are treated daily at the clinic, which is operated by the Jordan Health Aid Society (JHAS), funded by UN agencies. Patients must trek several kilometres on foot to the heavily defended border and then undergo security screening, managed by Jordanian security forces and the allied Syrian militia, the Tribal Army.

    A collection of pre-fabricated units installed in the Jordanian desert host the "service area" and a clinic serving the Rukban camp. A converted truck-trailer serves as a delivery centre for women giving birth.

    JHAS President Yaroup Ajlouni told IRIN he believed conditions were worsening in the camp but said the number of patients had not increased, perhaps because it is difficult to reach the clinic. “I think more cases cannot reach the service area,” he said. The most common conditions treated at the clinic are complicated pregnancies, upper respiratory tract infections, diarrhoea, malnutrition, and trauma.


    Jordan allows patients with critical conditions to be treated in Jordanian hospitals before being returned to the camp. Each case requires explicit medical referrals and permission from national security officials in the capital, and hours of delay have become common, aid workers told IRIN.


    Ajlouni denied this last point, saying the clinic referred about four cases a day to Jordanian hospitals and that the process happens “so quickly”.


    Citing delays and official reluctance to allow patients to reach hospital, the second aid official, who had also spoken with camp residents, said at least three women in the camp had died in pregnancy or childbirth since August. The referral process is “ridiculous” and not practical, the official said. “I struggle to see” the threat that babies or a woman “with a baby coming out of her” could possibly pose to national security, the official added. While statistics are not available and details impossible to confirm, the camp resident also told the aid official that “many pregnant women die here because they need surgery and there is no way to take them to the hospital.”


    ‘Hidden stories’ of abuse


    In addition to inadequate or delayed medical treatment, stories of rape, sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as underage marriage have emerged from the camp. The cases that make it to the JHAS clinic give a partial picture of what is happening. The two senior aid officials familiar with the situation said such cases were on the rise.


    The JHAS president, Ajlouni, said “we hear about sex for food.” And last year, he said, a nine-year-old boy was treated for an anal tear allegedly resulting from a rape. Financial pressure pushes parents to marry off young girls, as a wedding elicits a dowry payment and staying single may make girls more vulnerable to assault. A 14-year-old recently gave birth at the clinic, one of the aid officials said. Ajlouni said he estimated early marriage trends by monitoring requests for contraceptive pills from women who asked for more prescriptions than they needed.


    Aljouni cautioned that the full scale of abuse at Rukban was unlikely to ever come to light. “Many hidden stories” would not be told given the lawlessness of Rukban, he said. As he explained: “Do you think a woman can tell? Who will punish the guilty man? If the man is a militia and he knows that she has told a story to the UN? Can the UN protect a woman inside the camp?”


    Aid stalemate


    Various parties to the Syrian war have vocally blamed each other for the conditions at the camp; negotiations to secure passage for aid are unusually complicated.


    A typical relief convoy due to cross Syrian front lines would travel with assurances of safe passage from government and opposition armed groups. Paperwork and inspection of cargo could be demanded at multiple checkpoints. In the case of the planned UN/Red Crescent convoy, however, the journey across front lines also may require that the convoy be vetted by American forces as well as Damascus.


    The US base al-Tanf (pronounced at-Tanf) straddles the main road connecting the camp to the rest of Syria and to Iraq and is less than 25 km from the Rukban camp. A spokesperson for the US-led coalition, which is fighting so-called Islamic State, told IRIN that the US intended to verify the relief trucks en route, to “check the security of the [convoy] transport as a precaution but without delay.”


    The US has established a “deconfliction zone” within a radius of 55 kilometres around the desert base, and a rebel group it backs called Maghaweir al-Thowra (Commandos of the Revolution) also operates from there. It says US deployment and support to Syrian militia are part of the fight against so-called Islamic State – but are also a bulwark against Iranian influence.


    A convoy would also need to contend with armed criminal, rebel, and extremist groups that are active in and around Rukban. The Tribal Army, a militia that has good relations with Jordan, is also present there.


    Russia blames the US for blocking humanitarian access and evacuations. The Maghaweir al-Thowra says they are ready to help, and blame Damascus for blocking food and aid.


    The US coalition spokesperson told IRIN: “Rukban is a humanitarian tragedy right now, and while not an area of military operations for the coalition, definitely an area of concern from the human perspective.”


    One of the senior aid officials interviewed by IRIN described the situation at Rukban even more starkly, calling it “a breakdown of human decency.” Permitting it to continue indicates “no respect for human life”.


    Aid official says ‘nobody cares’ about 45,000 trapped Syrians
    Syria-Jordan: relief convoy fails to reach “desperate” border camp
  • Famine in Yemen: A primer

    Warnings of famine in Yemen are coming hard and fast these days, with UN Relief Chief Mark Lowcock telling the Security Council on Tuesday that “there is now a clear and present danger of an imminent and great big famine engulfing” the country.


    The truth is that Yemen has been teetering on the edge of famine for much of its more than three and a half years of war, and while food prices have recently shot up thanks to a collapsing currency, this is not the first time humanitarians have rung the alarm bells.


    Back in November 2017, the Saudi-led coalition fighting Houthi rebels and their allies temporarily closed Yemen’s air, land, and sea borders in response to a rocket sent by the Houthis towards Riyadh. Eighteen NGOs issued a statement then expressing concern that “the humanitarian situation is extremely fragile and any disruption in the pipeline of critical supplies such as food, fuel, and medicines has the potential to bring millions of people closer to starvation and death”.


    Read more: Yemen “starvation” warnings as Saudi Arabia shuts borders


    The blockade was later eased and some aid was allowed in, but as we pointed out at the time, when it comes to averting famine, commercial imports are more important than relief supplies.


    Read more: Yemen needs commercial imports to avoid famine


    In most of Yemen, shops and markets still sell food. But many people simply don’t have the money to buy it. Yemen’s currency has been in freefall since September, causing a spike in food and fuel prices and even further impacting the average Yemeni’s ability to purchase what they need to survive.


    Read more: “If the war doesn’t kill us, the food prices will”


    Millions of hungry people live in Yemen. The UN now estimates that 14 million Yemenis, half the country, could soon be in what it calls “pre-famine” conditions; that means they will rely on aid to survive. That number may rise even more if Yemen’s Red Sea port of Hodeidah is closed by fighting; the coalition is currently intensifying an offensive on Houthis in the city.


    But declaring a famine is a technically complicated process, as this account from South Sudan illustrates:


    Read more: How to declare a famine: A primer from South Sudan


    We don’t yet know if and when famine will be declared. Analysts are reviewing market, health, and nutrition surveys from across Yemen to determine if the situation crosses the technical threshold of “famine”. In order to avoid false alarms and crying wolf, strict requirements must be met before a situation can be designated a famine. And even that declaration can still be held up or delayed by political concerns – governments and warring parties typically don’t want to admit to a famine on their watch.


    In 2011, the UN declared the first famine of the 21st century in Somalia, caused by war, drought, and restricted relief access. The announcement was met by a wave of new funding, international media and diplomatic attention, and more determined efforts to work through blockages. The declaration, based on the same Integrated Phase Classification methodology that Yemen analysts are using, had no automatic effect but galvanised an international response, including $1.25 billion in 2011. Any famine declaration is an admission of failure: later studies showed that about half of an estimated 260,000 Somali deaths took place before the pronouncement.


    For now, just when an official declaration of famine will come, if it comes at all, is still unclear. What we know for sure: malnutrition can be deadly, and right now it’s making some Yemenis more susceptible to diseases like cholera and diphtheria.


    Read more: Cholera returns to Yemen, with powerful allies



    Famine in Yemen: A primer
  • Schemes to stop sex abuse in the aid sector off to a shaky start

    UK Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt has probably had better days. As the host of the 18 October London conference on steps to address sexual abuse in the aid sector, she went for a bumpy ride: a prominent activist conspicuously boycotted the event; a whistleblower interrupted Mordaunt’s keynote address, walking on stage and charging that victims were not being heard; and the agenda, speaker list, and planning process all came under heavy fire in private and across social media. On top of all that, critics charged that the event was elitist and white-dominated.


    Before the UK-hosted international Safeguarding Summit 2018  even began, the flagship initiative for which the conference had been intended to serve as a launching pad had already come under sharp criticism. A preview of a £10 million government scheme to work with Interpol to vet aid workers against criminal records met with dismay from development sector analysts when it was announced the day before. Most often, those critics charged, even serious cases of misconduct do not end in a criminal conviction.


    Commonly, the person is sacked or resigns, and the employer’s investigations may be inconclusive and prosecution difficult in third countries. What that means, several aid workers noted, is that any database of convicted criminals won’t catch predators.


    “The list of bad guys will be very short,” one senior aid worker said. Another NGO official said the majority of cases aren’t even reported, so there would be no trail to follow. A spokesperson for Save the Children said the project was not a “silver bullet” but hoped to use Interpol “green notices”, which can provide alerts without necessarily requiring a conviction.


    An overnight press release caused further dismay: Mordaunt announced a “coordinating” role in the vetting project – dubbed “Soteria” – for the NGO Save the Children. Several observers were surprised, others outraged: Save the Children UK is currently under investigation by UK authorities for its handling of sexual misconduct in 2015, both by its former CEO and a former senior manager. Whistleblowers have said there was a coverup, and the NGO admitted spending over £100,000 in legal fees this year to steer media reporting of the story. To award them funding in a new preventative structure “spits in the face of survivors," one experienced aid worker said.


    A spokesperson for UK Department for International Development told IRIN that Save’s role in the project does not involve DFID funding. When pressed on the suitability of involving Save, the spokesperson said that the organisation’s “expertise in dealing with these cases” and “commitment to tackling this issue” in fact made it particularly suitable for a role on the advisory board of the project.


    When told of that explanation, a senior aid worker who attended the conference sent IRIN a one-word message: “Bahahahaha”.


    A spokesperson for Save explained that the NGO’s head of safeguarding, Steve Reeves, had conceived the idea for the vetting system and in 2016 had approached Interpol, which will participate in the vetting process. When viewed in that way, the spokesperson said, DFID was joining an existing initiative, supplying “money and leadership”.


    Red flags

    The event had been intended to highlight the UK’s attempts to drive efforts to address sexual exploitation, harassment, and abuse in the international aid sector. The issue leapt onto the international agenda after revelations about sexual misconduct by a senior Oxfam staff member were published in the London Times.


    Then, #MeToo and, later, #AidToo scandals and revelations snowballed, rocking public confidence and the reputations of NGOs. Media and public investigations revealed that vulnerable women, possibly under-18, had been blackmailed for sex by aid workers and public outrage greeted news of the widespread use of sex workers by expatriates in the field. The litany of cases included accounts of workplace rape, assault, and harassment that were seen to be badly handled or had been denied or covered up.


    Even in the runup to the conference, red flags were raised, according to several senior aid workers (most of them female) who monitored the planning and attended or followed the conference online. They, in messages with IRIN, pointed to criticisms that ranged from not allowing enough time for audience questions to a lack of diversity among speakers.


    The confirmed agenda and speaker list was circulated only 48 hours before the event. An attendee noted that “inclusion is such a problem still,” pointing to “a lack of brown/black/southern voices”.  


    It was with a sense of “despair”, survivor and activist Megan Nobert noted in her address, that she felt the community needed to be reminded “that the voices and lives of those impacted people” should be at the forefront. “It is easy,” she said, “to get caught up in the technical aspects of safeguarding… redrafting policies, trainings, hotlines, worrying about the media and... funding”.


    In an open letter, activist Paula Donovan declined to participate, calling the event “cavalier and offensive”. Donovan heads “Code Blue”, a campaign calling for the UN to crack down on sexual abuse amongst its staff and peacekeepers. Donovan claimed the agenda consisted of too many “powerful institutions’ appointed spokespersons”. The pain and suffering of survivors, she wrote, “should never be exploited by powerful institutions for public relations or damage control purposes”.


    Criticisms and commitments

    “It seems more about DFID and its public profile than real measures to address this long-standing problem,” one senior aid worker said, referring to the UK Department for International Development. The worker, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, added that too little attention was paid to abuses in the field.


    At the event, the audience of several hundred people who ranged from victims to government officials, heard from survivors, whistleblowers and activists and listened as a range of institutional and government commitments were made.  In her remarks, Mordaunt called for “clear, ambitious commitments” and “coordinated global action” to combat sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment in the aid sector. She said Britain and other large donors would address four main areas: preventing abuses, listening to survivors, responding “decisively”, and learning to do better.


    As Mordaunt spoke, a former Save the Children employee, Alexia Pepper de Caires, slipped onto the stage and interrupted with her own brief speech. De Caires said she was “disgusted” that Save the Children were selected for a new safeguarding role. De Caires has campaigned for the organisation’s CEO and board members to take more responsibility over its earlier failings. She said women who had worked on the issues “for decades” had been sidelined. “We do not need fancy new systems,” she noted. “We do not need technology, we need systematic change” and to understand issues of “sexism, racism, and abuse of power.”


    In response, Mordaunt gave up a later speaking slot to de Caires and other whistleblowers and survivors; former Oxfam employee Lesley Agams; and former UN employee Caroline Hunt-Matthes.


    Michael Hughes/DFID

    In addition to the vetting system, several other initiatives were announced at the conference. They included a collective reference-checking system intended to prevent staff from circulating from one agency to another without their misconduct catching up with them. The effort, currently involving 15 agencies, will be coordinated by the Geneva-based aid agency consortium Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response.


    The Dutch government is backing a proposed independent ombudsperson who could investigate allegations of misconduct and abuse that organisations can’t or won’t complete themselves. The next steps may be to find an institutional home for the project and define its scope before launching field-based pilot projects. Analyst Asmita Naik, author of a 2002 report on sex-for-aid in West African relief operations, said the“most pressing need“ was “somewhere for victims to make complaints and ensure these are investigated independently.”


    A humanitarian passport scheme, in which accredited aid workers would be issued an ID card attesting to their clean records, has been backed by DFID and led by Save the Children, was also raised. Such a plan requires refinement on several levels, some conference attendees noted, as the legal and data protection issues are complex, as is the definition of “aid worker”.



    Schemes to stop sex abuse in the aid sector off to a shaky start
    Protests and objections roil UK event
  • Famine and the machine

    In the runup to a 2011 famine in Somalia that killed over 250,000 people, there were 78 warnings. Last year famine nearly happened again, not only in Somalia but in Yemen, South Sudan, and West Africa’s Lake Chad region. Now, a multi-billion dollar venture is betting that big data and smart money can make famine a thing of the past.


    The Famine Action Mechanism initiative, or FAM, is led by the World Bank and draws on its $1.8 billion kitty for famine-prone countries. It is taking a fresh look at how famines happen and what it would take to prevent them, including artificial intelligence (AI)-driven analytics, social safety nets, and new forms of financing. The FAM project is rooted in the belief that donor funding decisions now rely too much on “personal networks as well as political discretion”.


    Abdurahman Sharif, head of a consortium of NGOs which tackle nutrition and other needs in Somalia, told IRIN he welcomed new ways to convince donors. “Early warnings can always be tricky, and we’re not always the best at getting early signs,” he said. “Decision-makers,” he added, “won’t take decisions unless they see data”.


    Somalia, along with South Sudan, Afghanistan, Niger, and Mali are likely pilots for the data analysis.


    Critics, however, say no amount of machine learning and creative financial architecture will change donor decision-making, and warning systems and monitoring tools already exist. It’s political will, not algorithms, they say, that’s the missing ingredient.


    World Bank president Jim Yong Kim says modern-day famine is a “collective failure of shameful proportions”. Relief aid typically begins only “when pictures of starving children appear on television”, Kim said at a New York launch event alongside the UN’s September General Assembly.  A “proactive” response could save millions of lives, he added, and would cost donors up to 30 percent less than a last-minute scramble. Speaking with representatives of UN agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, Kim described the FAM as “an unprecedented global coalition to say, ‘no more’”.


    The project launch was strong on rhetoric and short on detail. Few specifics are available on the World Bank website, although IRIN has obtained a June “concept note” that outlines the strategy and tasks across two main areas of work: prevention and early action. On Saturday 13 October, Kim will host another event on the FAM, this time as part of the World Bank’ annual meetings in Indonesia, with ministers from Afghanistan, Chad, Niger, Somalia and the UK.

    The Bank says FAM will invest in at-risk regions to strengthen prevention and resilience and plans to swing into action when a famine is on the way. Its most headline-grabbing element is an artificial intelligence tool, Artemis, to improve forecasting. The Bank has recruited Google, Amazon, and Microsoft to analyse a mass of weather, agriculture, market, and conflict data.


    More reliable predictions produced from data, the Bank argues, will remove ambiguity, win swifter response from donors, and trigger payouts from future insurance policies.


    One long-term observer of food crises, who requested anonymity, said more money isn’t the solution where relief operations are “at the absolute limit,” and that “another half a billion dollars will struggle to make a big difference to South Sudan” when logistics are already stretched and access and security difficult. The analyst also doubted that data on its own – “better and better figures” – would change inherently political decision-making, pointing out that some famines are deliberate, basically “starvation for political and military aims”.


    In a politically charged conflict like Yemen’s, it’s not about “how good your figures are”, the analyst said. Nobody wants to look bad because a famine is declared on their watch. This “deep reluctance”  among governments may be shared by others, including aid agencies.


    Saul Guerrero, a technical director at NGO Action Against Hunger, told IRIN the World Bank is far from being the first to try to model data around hunger. But, given its clout and access to funds, he said it might be able to “create a critical mass” and drive change that is overdue.


    Current systems, based on a methodology known as the Integrated Phase Classification, “need some help,” said Guerrero.


    Measuring and declaring famine


    The strict technical definition of famine has become more scientific over the years. The five-step Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) system, developed in east Africa, is now used in 37 countries. By combining food consumption with mortality and nutrition surveys, the IPC method, and its West Africa affiliate, the Cadre Harmonisé, scores the severity of the situation. The worst, phase 5, is labeled “catastrophe/famine”. All indicators must cross a certain threshold to reach that phase 5 categorisation and trigger a declaration of famine.

    It’s not all down to numbers, however: several pockets of South Sudan were graded at phase 5 in a 29 September IPC update, but famine has not been officially declared. Pockets of people in Yemen may live under phase 5 conditions, but data collection is probably too patchy to confirm it.


    The decision of how to interpret the often patchy data comes down to an in-country committee of experts and government officials. As many as 120 people were involved in South Sudan’s IPC committee. In these groups, politics, vested interests, and differing opinions can muddy the eventual IPC categorisations. The task is even more tricky when forecasts months into the future are needed. Officials may fail to agree not only “what the pattern is” but also “what the pattern means”, according to Guerrero.


    The most prominent international effort working to supply data to the IPC system is a network funded by the US. Since 1985, the Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) has provided analysis, bulletins, and alerts. In an emailed response to questions, a World Bank spokesperson said the FAM would build “advanced analytics” and comb new sources of data. However, there is no intention to replace existing initiatives: “FEWSNET, IPC, and other food insecurity estimators are key to the success of FAM,” the spokesperson wrote. FEWSNET declined to comment for this article.


    Feeding the code


    The FAM will draw on a wider range of data sources than current systems: more remote sensing options, datasets tracking conflict, and possibly even social media, in the pursuit of the best model. Early results from the FAM’s AI data modelling are mixed, according to the World Bank concept note. Part of the experiment is to see if the machines can reproduce past IPC results. For a start, analysts fed algorithms various data to see if they could arrive at the same determinations as the conventional (human) IPC analysts. The World Bank spokesperson said the work was at the “proof-of-concept” stage, and continued ground-truthing was needed.

    If humans struggle to agree on what the data means, can machines do any better?


    The initial code hit the target 40 percent of the time for South Sudan and 55 percent of the time for Somalia. The preliminary conclusions are unlikely to surprise food security analysts.


    In Mali, satellite imagery of areas that are largely desert provided little indication of food consumption. In South Sudan, more violence and higher prices did match up with a worsening food situation, as expected. But in Somalia, there was little correlation between conflict and hunger levels in the midst of near-continuous conflict.

    Guerrero acknowledged that the hype around AI could be excessive. Nevertheless, he believes that technology companies can “inspire confidence”, and he welcomes having “people in the room who really understand the technology”. (AI is based on cutting edge mathematics: one model being applied to the data is called “Support Vector Machine with Radial Basis Function and cross-validated L2 penalty”).

    ☰ Read more: IRIN reporting on famine



    If humans struggle to agree on what the data means, can machines do any better? Not on their own, says Guerrero: “nobody expects it to be a mechanical process”. He says computational power and a complex analytical process could provide a clearer picture: “from greater complexity, greater simplicity.”


    Guerrero, who has lobbied UN Security Council members on the issues, said decision-makers feel “the current way of monitoring the risk of famine is not reliable enough… too prone to political pressure”.


    “You need evidence”


    Sharif, the Somali NGO leader, said, “I can’t recall the amount of letters as NGOs we sent to different capitals” to try and mobilise donors to avert famine in 2017. Sharif said he welcomed the prospect of greater funding and more authoritative data that could help convince donors.


    “You need evidence to be able to convince them six months in advance, or one year in advance.” The current evidence only works, he said, when you’re already “very close to the crisis”.


    The catastrophic effects of late funding in 2011 proved persuasive to donors in 2017, Sharif said. The UN reports that $1.3 billion of humanitarian funding went to Somalia last year, up from $681 million the year before, and a famine was not declared. Sharif said donors gave him the impression it would be “very, very hard” to raise the same amount again.


    There’s little long-lasting effect from all that emergency spending, Sharif added. “Are we preventing another famine, two, three years down the line?” Sharif asked. “I don’t think so.”


    Can big money and big data make famine a thing of the past?
    Famine and the machine
  • US and UK halt key Syria aid shipments over extremist “taxes”

    The United States and Britain have abruptly stopped aid they fund from going through a key border crossing into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, with USAID saying the move is to prevent extremist groups from benefiting from taxes they impose on aid trucks.


    The freeze puts at risk supplies that help to support hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in Idlib, which is controlled by a patchwork of armed groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and faces the prospect of an assault by al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces.


    The unexpected instruction to aid agencies, communicated by USAID on 26 September and Britain’s aid department DFID shortly after, forbids shipments from passing into Syria through the main Bab al-Hawa border point with Turkey.


    A spokesperson for USAID said its “partners” should “immediately cease all use of the Bab al-Hawa (BAH) border crossing between Syria and Turkey under USAID-funded awards.” USAID took the step as a “sanctioned terrorist group” is “likely incurring financial benefits from Syrian trucks accessing the BAH border crossing.”


    An aid official familiar with the Syria relief operation confirmed the measures to IRIN and asked for anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject. The US and Britain are two of the top four donors of humanitarian aid to Syria, according to UN data. The others are Germany and the European Union.


    Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group sanctioned by the UN (and therefore all its member states) as well as by the United States, controls a large part of Idlib, including the Bab al-Hawa crossing.


    DFID followed USAID’s lead after the US government told aid groups it had concerns over “taxes” levied by the civilian arm of HTS, aid officials familiar with the humanitarian system in Syria confirmed to IRIN.

    In what appeared to be a swift response to the shutdown, dual English-Arabic language statements dated 29 September from HTS’s self-styled “Salvation Government”, or civilian administration, said it would stop charging aid trucks as of 1 October.


    The Salvation Government confirmed it had been imposing “fees” on “trucks used for delivering humanitarian aid”, money that was spent on repairing and maintaining roads used by the aid trucks. The statement added that the fees would now stop so as to “relieve the suffering and hardship faced by our people”.


    However, what appear to be the official website, and Twitter and Facebook accounts for the administration of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing issued a statement on 1 October denying that it had charged aid trucks cash or in-kind fees.


    Vital aid route for many in need


    In the latter stages of Syria’s war, Idlib’s original population has swollen with displaced people from elsewhere in the country – about one third currently receive internationally-funded humanitarian food aid.


    An estimated 2.5 million people live in rebel-controlled Idlib province and the surrounding areas (excluding the nearby Kurdish enclave of Afrin), and as many as half have been forced to flee their homes at least once. Estimates of people in all of opposition-controlled northwestern Syria have been put as high as 2.9 million.


    Al-Assad’s government plans to retake Idlib, but a stop-gap deal between Turkey and Russia has put off a full-scale assault that could have had a “catastrophic” impact on the vulnerable civilian population, according to the UN.

    Concerns that food and other aid are being taxed or siphoned off by extremist groups have complicated aid operations in rebel-held parts of Syria this year, despite growing fears for the wellbeing of the general population.


    Bab al-Hawa has changed hands several times in the Syrian war, as rebel groups fight to control its strategic position and lucrative income.


    A Turkish news agency estimates that 1,500 trucks of aid enter Syria through Bab al-Hawa every month, as well as 4,000 commercial truckloads. A promotional video from the border crossing operator has a similar figure, saying 85,000 consignments pass through every year (roughly 7,000 per month).


    One study said that fees and duties through the key crossing point in 2015-2016 amounted to at least $3.6 million per month.


    Aid supplies from Turkey, delivered free on the basis of need, offer a safety net to the most vulnerable who lack income or resources to support themselves. Commercial trade and smuggling, both with Turkey and with the rest of Syria, provide the vast bulk of Idlib’s imports.


    Aid groups that do not rely on US or British funding will be unaffected by the donors’ move: these include Turkish aid groups and its Red Crescent, which also provide aid within Idlib but use a different crossing point not controlled by HTS: Bab al-Salaam, further to the north. The USAID spokesperson told IRIN the Bab al-Salaam border crossing “is not impacted”.



    US and UK halt key Syria aid shipments over extremist “taxes”
  • Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief in world’s troublespots at risk

    Tougher donor restrictions on relief operations in areas controlled by extremist groups are “out of control”, impeding life-saving work, and could lead aid groups to pull out of the most challenging responses, senior humanitarian officials and rights experts warn.


    Project suspensions and closures in Syria, two recent prosecutions in US courts, and a new USAID ruling have combined to make NGOs alarmed at the shrinking space for humanitarian action and unforgiving climate for aid in “terrorist” zones.


    French activist and scholar Agnès Callamard, a UN special rapporteur on human rights, is calling for a new system of exemptions for aid to areas like Syria’s northwestern Idlib province that are largely controlled by Islamist extremists.


    A 17 September report by Callamard, ”Saving Lives is not a Crime”, released at the start of the UN’s annual General Assembly, argues that counter-terrorism laws are “out of control” and can “potentially criminalise even life-saving medical aid or food relief”.

    A UN special rapporteur on human rights argues counter-terrorism laws are “out of control” and can “potentially criminalise even life-saving medical aid or food relief”.

    She warns they are having “chilling effects” on the provision of aid, preventing assistance “from reaching populations controlled by ‘terrorist’ organisations” and likely resulting in “greater harm to life and civilian deaths”.


    Recent moves by the United States – the world’s largest donor to humanitarian efforts – have reinforced what Joel Charny, US director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, characterised as an unrealistic approach toward compliance with anti-terror restrictions, setting off what he deemed an “existential crisis” for some aid groups that depend on US funding.


    Some aid groups, facing mounting legal risks on counter-terrorism rules, may decide “it’s not worth the hassle” and pull out of the most testing places, Charny warned.


    Two of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, Syria and Somalia, have significant parts of the country controlled by sanctioned groups. USAID guidelines, further tightened for Syria this month, point out several other locations that qualify as high risk for counter-terror violations, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, northeast Nigeria, parts of Ukraine, Venezuela and Yemen.


    Callamard says Australia, Britain, Canada, and Switzerland are among the countries that have made efforts to exempt humanitarian action from anti-terrorist regulation. However, the US role in the international banking system, she argues, gives its counter-terrorism policies wide influence.

    Some aid groups, facing mounting legal risks on counter-terrorism rules, may decide “it’s not worth the hassle” and pull out of the most testing places.

    New rules


    According to international law, the delivery and distribution of neutral and impartial humanitarian aid must be permitted, no matter who the de facto authorities are. NGOs and other international aid agencies continue to provide food, water, health, and other support to civilians who live in areas controlled by sanctioned groups in Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.


    Such operations, as in Syria’s Idlib province, face multiple challenges, including maintaining impartiality and staff security, dealing with chains of sub-grantees, and reliance on third-party or remote monitoring. Large parts of Idlib are controlled by Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaeda-linked armed group sanctioned by the US government.


    While aid groups aim to work impartially on the basis of need, food is strategic and symbolic and vulnerable to political grandstanding – Tahrir Al-Sham issued a decree on 4 September banning the sale of food made in Syria in areas it controls.


    To comply with US law, NGOs must declare they do not provide material support or resources to sanctioned groups or individuals, anywhere in the world. In addition, USAID grant agreements may demand detailed procedures on how they limit those risks. For example, they should check the senior staff of any groups they donate to, or use as intermediaries, such as local hospitals and NGOs, against counter-terrorism databases.


    In the past some minor cases of aid being diverted to extremist groups have been tolerated, where the imperative of getting help to the needy has taken precedence over the letter of the law.


    That seems to be changing.


    USAID recently added more requirements to future grant agreements, as reported by IRIN last week. A USAID spokesperson said the new requirements were put in place to ensure that US taxpayers’ dollars are not boosting extremist organisations but are still delivering aid.


    But the tougher US policy has been met with outright frustration from some quarters.


    One aid worker familiar with the issues, who requested anonymity, charged that the new USAID terms – sent to aid agencies on 12 September – run counter to humanitarian principles and appear to “instrumentalise” aid to achieve strategic goals, such as dislodging extremist groups.


    The new rules make it harder to deliver help to civilians trapped in the Idlib region – who may unwillingly be under the thumb of extremists – and are “cruel and nonsensical”, the aid worker said, adding that they leave “so many questions” unanswered, including how to define which group controls which area.


    The USAID’s Office of the Inspector General, or OIG, held a roundtable briefing for NGOs on 24 July to lay out its approach to oversight, circulating an updated handbook on fraud prevention in Syria and Iraq. (OIG reports 20 open investigations between Iraq and Syria. The cases include allegations of theft, bribery, fraud, and diversion to armed groups. The OIG claims it has helped avoid losses of $180 million this year.)


    The UN estimates that two thirds of the people in Idlib need help with getting enough food.

    Charny described the message from the OIG as: “don’t make any mistakes… or we’ll have to come after you.” He said the OIG had recently been expanding those requirements, for example by requesting notice of unproven allegations of diversion. The OIG also appeared to expect NGOs to vet each beneficiary for links to banned individuals, Charney noted, adding that such a requirement was impractical if not impossible. “We can’t vet every beneficiary” who might be “a cousin or sister-in-law” of a US-sanctioned person, he said.


    “Spectrum of manipulation”


    It is not uncommon for armed groups, governments, and local officials to try to steal, tax, or skim aid resources. Aid agencies can’t prevent every single such incident. At what point are those losses unacceptable, especially if most of the aid is getting through to people who need it? "What is an acceptable residual risk?" one NGO analyst asked.


    According to Charny, there’s a “spectrum of manipulation”, and there may be places where “it’s not possible to work”. But he said his agency aimed to specialise in so-called “hard-to-reach” areas “by doubling down on our ability to do the requisite checking and vetting.”


    NGOs routinely struggle to stay within the rules enforced by donors in areas where extremists operate, noted Abby Stoddard, a partner with the aid sector consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes.

    USAID’s two largest NGO partners working in Idlib have already run into regulatory difficulties: Catholic Relief Services halted operations and GOAL has paused part of its food programme. Violations of counter-terrorism law can be punished by fines or, in aggravated cases, imprisonment.


    The UN estimates that two thirds of the people in Idlib need help with getting enough food. Countrywide, about 11 million people fall into that category, while about four million of them get monthly help. The new USAID restrictions do not apply to areas controlled by the Bashar al-Assad government, which has regained most of the territory.

    The potential impact of the latest US regulations “looks very bad indeed”, Stoddard warned, noting that Syria is already under-provided for. “The needs of civilians inside Syria are the least covered by humanitarian assistance of any current crisis,” she said, adding that she expected aid to decline further under the new US requirements. An internal UN planning document, seen by IRIN, said “interference in humanitarian programming” from armed groups would also likely increase during any Idlib crisis response.


    Some donor officials privately acknowledge that “zero losses is an impossible standard”, but politically they can’t afford to be more flexible, Stoddard said. “Donors have not found a way to communicate the realities of humanitarian assistance in these environments to their tax-paying publics, and they are dealing with significant political risks of their own.”

    “Compliance is costly, some humanitarians working in Syria and Somalia complain that they spend more time proving to donors that the aid is getting there than they do on the programming itself.”

    As in other insecure locations, international NGOs and UN agencies in Idlib typically rely on local NGOs to provide the final leg in the operation: assessing needs, preparing lists of project beneficiaries, liaising with local authorities, and doing distributions. An additional contractor is often engaged to provide “third party monitoring” – additional oversight and spot checks as part of “remote management”.

    “Compliance is costly,” Stoddard said, adding that “some humanitarians working in Syria and Somalia complain that they spend more time proving to donors that the aid is getting there than they do on the programming itself.”


    This puts additional strain on the small number of local NGOs that can “handle the compliance burden”, Stoddard said. “Some of these organisations are becoming overstretched, which has the perverse effect of raising the risk that things will go wrong.”


    Another US NGO policy analyst dealing with the issue, who asked for anonymity, said USAID should share the “residual risk” with its grantees. Exemptions and waivers can be used, but their use seemed to be out of favour, the analyst continued. “None of us wants our money to go to corruption… [but] zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero incidents.” The analyst added: “Even Walmart has a spillage allowance.”



    A harder donor line on counter-terror compliance, from the US in Syria in particular, has the sector worried
    Shutdowns, suspensions, and legal threats put relief in world’s troublespots at risk
  • A Q&A with the pro-Israel US lawyer rattling NGOs on counter-terror compliance

    Lawyer David Abrams is an American pro-Israel activist behind a legal campaign accusing non-profits of illegally helping terrorists. In the first major case of its kind, he helped the US government win a multi-million-dollar payout from Norwegian People’s Aid in April. He now has four more cases in the works, as he confirmed in a telephone interview with IRIN.

    Several NGO officials, speaking only on background, given the sensitivity of the matter, told IRIN they’re rattled: Abrams has found a way to make a major liability out of relatively minor interaction with US-sanctioned groups. Any NGO that applies for US funding must attest it has not provided material support to US-sanctioned groups anywhere in the world, regardless of whether US funds were involved. This, Abrams has found, can provide a legal opportunity to prosecute them for making false claims.

    NPA, which did receive US funding, rejected the “fairness” of Abrams case but agreed to pay the US government $2.05 million.

    Abrams, who set up his own Zionist Advocacy Center (TZAC) in 2015, claims he is acting against those giving material support to US-sanctioned groups and defending Israel’s interests. He tried, and failed, to seek penalties against the Carter Center for engagements with representatives of Hamas and another Palestinian faction the US has designated as a terrorist group. He also failed to trigger action by US tax authorities against Médecins Sans Frontières for aspects of their health work with Hamas in Gaza, which the Palestinian group has governed since 2007.


    ☰ READ MORE: How NGOs are falling foul of the US “material support” law

    In a 2010 ruling, the US Supreme Court broadly defined “material support” to include training and technical advice, but not holding meetings with sanctioned individuals.

    Abrams worked on a case in which the American University in Beirut had to pay $700,000 for including US-sanctioned Lebanese groups in media training courses, and for simply listing another group on its website. In his case against the Carter Center, Abrams even argued that providing “refreshments” to officials of sanctioned groups was “material support”.

    Abrams’ corporation, the Zionist Advocacy Center, started the NPA case, which the US government then took charge of, and is set to receive a $364,500 share of the settlement, under US whistleblower law. NPA was alleged to have misrepresented itself in assurances to USAID in unrelated grant paperwork for South Sudan.

    NPA was charged under the US False Claims Act, which allows a private individual “with knowledge of past or present fraud on the federal government to sue on the government’s behalf to recover compensatory damages, civil penalties, and triple damages”, according to a book published by the American Bar Association. NPA was accused of not revealing material support to “designated” entities, in its application for USAID funds [in South Sudan] elsewhere. The case argued that NPA should have mentioned activities in Gaza and Iran that would constitute material support.

    Taking a different legal approach, Abrams challenged MSF’s tax-exempt status in the United States for alleged cooperation with the Hamas-run public health service in Gaza, but the Internal Revenue Service rejected his proposition. MSF declined to comment for this article.


    Abrams’ campaign has coincided with a more robust enforcement attitude at USAID and compliance failures in Syria to make a tough environment for NGOs working in areas controlled by US-sanctioned groups. USAID’s inspector general said of the NPA case: “My office makes these cases a top priority and we will continue to investigate them aggressively.”

    All of this adds to a sense of foreboding among NGOs, especially those working in the West Bank and Gaza. Adding to their anxiety is the fact that an NGO may not realise it is under investigation until the legal case is in full swing: NPA’s case was filed in 2015, but, the group told an interviewer, it only knew about it in September 2017.

    Some 2.5 million Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories require humanitarian aid, according to the UN. NPA still supports agriculture, fishing and education projects, as well as a range of local civic groups there.

    In a recent interview with IRIN, Abrams confirmed he has two more cases against NGOs already in the courts – one filed in February calling for a $150 million fine. He also said he has another two under preparation – one against an American NGO, the other involving a Middle Eastern group. The identities of the two NGOs with ongoing cases have been sealed by the court. Abrams would not divulge the identity of the other two he is investigating.

    Excerpts of the interview follow, edited for length and clarity:

    You had a case against MSF/Doctors Without Borders?

    Well, according to my research, they had some kind of contract with Hamas so that they could operate in the hospitals in the Gaza Strip. My argument was that by contracting with Hamas, that is support of terrorism in violation of American laws. So even if there's no False Claims Act claim, my argument was that they still aren't in compliance with American laws.

    Why didn’t the case work out?

    The IRS didn't give an explanation. They just said “We looked into this and we're not pursuing it,” or something like that.

    Are USAID and its Office of the Inspector General taking a tougher line on diversion to sanctioned groups?

    You know, I don't know first-hand, although my sense is that it's becoming a bit of a hotter issue than it has been in the past. So I think that that's probably true; I don't know 100 percent.


    I think the issue is getting more attention now. I think World Vision kind of got everyone’s attention and now the issue is getting more attention. It's also possible that the work I did has contributed to that. I don't really know. [In 2016, a senior staff member of World Vision in Gaza was accused of skimming off the NGO’s funds to benefit Hamas. He faces terrorism charges in an Israeli court.]

    Has your campaign changed USAID policy?

    I think that's a brick in the wall. And I think it's probably contributed. You know, I'm not going to claim full credit on that but I think I probably deserve a little credit, yes.

    How do USAID view you?

    They're fine with it. They're fine with it because they like to look at these cases and see. And they can make a determination if they think there's something there, or not.

    How many of you work on this and how do you fund it?

    My work is mainly me. I have the occasional intern, but I don't have a staff of people. In terms of funding, you know, it generates its own funding, because under the American law, the whistleblower or the person who brings the claim can get potentially a percentage of any settlement. So in this case against Norwegian People's Aid, I received over $300,000.

    Is this your full-time job?

    In terms of pro-Israel work, I also do anti-boycott work. As you may be aware, there's a movement to boycott Israel. So I do cases that involve legal challenges to those boycotts.

    How would an NGO know they are involved when the cases are under seal?

    If the government decides to investigate, they send an information request to the organisations. So they know they're being investigated, but they don't necessarily know that there is one of these False Claims Act cases.

    These NGOs are trying to help people all over the world and now something that went on in Gaza might impact their work globally. Isn’t this disproportionate?

    So it doesn't seem that my government is in the business of breaking humanitarian NGOs. It seems like their mission is to get them in compliance.

    Well, first of all, it seems that most humanitarian NGOs don't divert or don't get involved in these kinds of issues. But perhaps more importantly, when you look at the amount of aid that, for example, Norwegian People’s Aid received from the US government, and how much they would have had to pay back... the statute can make them pay back everything, tripled. So in theory, they could have been liable for $90 million and instead they only had to pay $2 million. And if you look at that, and if you look at their financials, it's a pretty modest slap on the wrist at this point.

    So it doesn't seem that my government is in the business of breaking humanitarian NGOs. It seems like their mission is to get them in compliance.

    But they could be denied the possibility of future funding. It does effectively cripple them if the case goes badly, doesn’t it?

    If the American government went full out, went all out, then sure, but that doesn't seem to be what's happening.

    Are you saying the penalties are too small?

    I'm only going to talk about the Norwegian People’s Aid case. Too small? That’s a very interesting question. There’s a couple of questions there.

    You asked me is it [the penalty NPA paid] too aggressive? The answer to that is definitely not.

    There’s another question: could it or should it be more aggressive? That's a very interesting question. I think if it were up to me, I think it probably should be. But look, I don't make policy for the American government.

    Isn’t this punishing civilians just because they live in a region controlled by extremists?

    I would say it's definitely possible for humanitarian organisations to pursue a strictly humanitarian agenda without getting tied up with terrorist organisations and, furthermore, without injecting themselves into the Arab-Israeli conflict.

    Why do you do it?

    I'm a pro-Israel advocate… Perhaps it's not a coincidence that most of these designated terrorist organisations are anti-Israel. Going after terrorism is almost the same thing as supporting Israel.

    What about the future? Are there more cases on the way?

    This False Claims Act business, I don’t know how long that’s going to go on for… NGOs seem to be taking this issue pretty seriously. I don't think there's a lot more cases. I intend to do pro-Israel work for ever.

    Do you receive help from others or from Israel?

    I receive no help from anyone.


    After Norwegian People’s Aid, four more non-profits are being targeted in a sustained legal campaign
    A Q&A with the pro-Israel US lawyer rattling NGOs on counter-terror compliance
  • US tightens counter-terror clampdown on Syria aid

    The US government has reinforced counter-terrorism controls on aid operations in Syria. New contractual terms require US-funded organisations to get special permission to provide relief in areas controlled by extremist groups. The move further complicates aid operations for those trapped in Syria’s last rebel stronghold, Idlib, where two thirds of its three million people need assistance.


    The top UN official for the Syrian humanitarian crisis, Panos Moumtzis, told IRIN that donors were, in general, backing away from funding all but the most critical needs in Idlib, fearing aid will fall into the hands of groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).


    A UN-appointed human rights watchdog, Agnès Callamard, told IRIN that counter-terror legislation applied to aid was “out of control” and leading to the “arbitrary deprivation of life”. USAID’s two largest NGO partners working in Idlib have already run into regulatory difficulties: Catholic Relief Services halted operations and GOAL has paused part of its food programme.


    Via email, a USAID spokesperson said the reinforced terms – which specifically mention HTS and other groups – would be applied to all new USAID grants and contracts, adding: “USAID regularly reviews the provisions in our awards to mitigate risks, ensure compliance with US law, and safeguard US taxpayer funding.”


    While the front lines in Syria are “fluid”, and the “presence of armed and sanctioned groups in Syria raises particular challenges”, the spokesperson said USAID “remains committed to providing life-saving humanitarian assistance to vulnerable Syrians.”


    Asked how difficult it would be to get the special permissions, the spokesperson referred to a list of extensive high-risk mitigation requirements. For Syria, these already include 12 pages on vetting of “recipients, sub-recipients and sub-contractors.”


    A US-based NGO policy specialist, who asked to remain anonymous, said the terms, released on 12 September, showed that USAID was “coming down hard” on compliance, even if the policies are technically by the book. Other NGO officials say the USAID policy is ill thought out and unfairly expects aid agencies to meet unrealistic “zero-losses” aims.


    As a condition of receiving USAID grants, NGOs must undertake not to provide material support or resources to sanctioned groups or individuals. Violations of counter-terrorism law can be punished by fines or, in aggravated cases, imprisonment. However, NGOs and researchers say, minor losses and cases of diversion, even involving sanctioned armed groups, have been tolerated by USAID in the past.


    Large parts of Idlib – up to 60 percent, according to a Syrian conflict monitor – are controlled by HTS, an armed group sanctioned by the US. A military offensive to capture it by the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia appears to have been postponed after Turkey and Russia agreed to attempt to tackle HTS without a full-scale attack. The UN has warned of “catastrophic” humanitarian consequences on an already weakened and vulnerable population if a no-holds-barred attack unfolds.


    To limit the risk to civilians from a military onslaught, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has called for HTS to move its fighters away from towns and cities. De Mistura estimated there are 10,000 “terrorists” in the region.


    The new terms offer a slightly less stringent requirement for Kurdish areas of Syria, where the US has a military presence. They read as follows:


    “USAID/FFP restricts support to all activities in ISIS, YPG/PYD, JKW, and HTS controlled areas of Syria under the terms of its award agreements. With the exception of activities outlined in the Program Description to be implemented in YPG/PYD controlled areas only, no funds under this award may be used to support activities implemented in areas controlled by ISIS, YPG/PYD, JKW, or HTS without additional written approval of the Agreement Officer.”


    JKW is an extremist group in southern Syria. The YPG/PYD are Kurdish groups in northern Syria that fought against so-called Islamic State, alongside the US.


    Moumtzis, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator, told IRIN by email that the aid community was taking counter-terrorism legislation “extremely seriously”, especially as keeping up donor confidence and funding is “vital” for Idlib. He said a Syrian NGO even has donor funding to provide training and advice to other NGOs on donor compliance.


    Humanitarian money from a range of donors was still flowing but donors had cut back “stabilisation” funding, which typically goes beyond immediate survival needs, Moumtzis said. He cited cuts in support to public bakeries – donors have funded flour and other support that provided over 150,000 people in Idlib with free or discounted bread in June, according to UN reporting. Moumtzis said he believes bakery projects will need to “seek other funding”, as they go beyond the boundaries of strictly humanitarian action.



    USAID puts new limits on aid to areas controlled by Syrian extremists
    US tightens counter-terror clampdown on Syria aid

Support our work

Donate now