(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks

    Revived attempts to resolve one of the world’s least known conflicts will resume in Geneva this week as representatives from Morocco and the Polisario Front attend roundtable talks to discuss the future of Western Sahara, often referred to as the last remaining colony in Africa, and home to tens of thousands of refugees.


    The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that more than *170,000 of Western Sahara’s indigenous Sahrawis now live as refugees in camps in Algeria’s Tindouf province, although Morocco says the number is only around 40,000. The people of Tindouf are almost entirely dependent on international aid for food, water, education, and other necessities.


    Many are cut off from family members by a 2,700-kilometre wall that divides the two thirds of Western Sahara controlled by Morocco – which contains most of its settlements and natural resources – from the sparsely populated desert interior held by the Polisario.


    The result of the talks on Thursday and Friday could spell out the future of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara, or MINURSO, established as part of a 1991 ceasefire that promised a vote on self-determination within one year, including the option of full independence.


    The two parties met face to face for the first time in six years in December, sitting alongside Algeria and Mauritania in informal talks that the UN’s envoy for Western Sahara, Horst Köhler, called a “first – but important – step” to rebuilding a fragile peace process that has yielded little since it began decades ago.


    Appointed envoy in 2017, Köhler, the former German president, has been working to achieve the political settlement that eluded his three predecessors. Each were unable to reconcile the positions of Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario, which considers itself the liberation movement of the Sahrawi people.


    Morocco partly annexed Western Sahara in 1975, following the withdrawal of Spanish colonial forces. That violence pushed tens of thousands of Sahrawis to flee to refugee camps in western Algeria, from where the Polisario fought a guerrilla war backed by Algeria and Libya until a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.


    Ruairi Casey/IRIN
    Wreckage from the 1975-1991 Saharan war sits outside a museum in the camps.



    Over a quarter-century later, MINURSO peacekeepers still have a presence in the Western Sahara, but the parties are no closer to a vote, which is often called the “final status referendum”. The conflict is mostly a cold one, although there have been occasional dust-ups, including heightened tensions when then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon referred to Morocco’s presence in the Western Sahara as an “occupation”.


    No other country recognises its claim over Western Sahara, but Morocco considers the territory an inviolable part of its national identity and has steadfastly refused to consider anything more far-reaching than greater autonomy within the kingdom. “Self-determination, in Morocco’s view, is done by negotiation,” Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita said after December’s talks. “A referendum is not on the agenda.”


    In April last year, the Security Council began to renew MINURSO’s mandate for six months, half the usual year. US National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has been a key player in recent efforts to jump-start diplomatic negotiations, has taken credit for the switch to six-month mandates, saying in December the change was intended to ratchet up the pressure on both parties to talk.


    Bolton, who worked as an assistant for then envoy James Baker between 1997 and 2000, has maintained a keen interest in the conflict, bolstered by a career-long disdain for costly UN missions and what some observers regard as sympathy towards the Polisario.


    In December, Bolton told an audience at the Conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation that he was “frustrated” at the lack of progress made over the past years.


    “Ladies and gentlemen, 27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there?,” he said. “How can you justify that?”


    Future of talks


    The European Parliament’s approval last month of a trade deal with Morocco that included Western Sahara’s fishing waters added to the animosity between the parties, especially as it contravened a ruling by the European Court of Justice last year.


    The parliamentary green light infuriated the Polisario, which said the EU had violated international law and jeopardised the peace process.

    “27 years of deployment of this UN peacekeeping force, 27 years and it’s still there? How can you justify that?”

    But the key question in Geneva will be whether Morocco is willing to budge towards a power-sharing arrangement the Polisario might accept – from its current plan of keeping Western Sahara as part of the country, with some autonomy.


    Securing such movement is likely to be a challenge, Jacob Mundy, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University and an expert on the Western Sahara, told IRIN.


    Mundy said the current Moroccan plan “seems woefully insufficient to attract interest from Polisario, especially because it says nothing about a final status referendum”.


    But he added that Bolton’s shake-up could bring a welcome change of dynamic in a conflict that has changed little since the early 1990s.


    “The game might now be to see how much this actually works to get the parties to really discuss substantive issues on a political solution,” said Mundy.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the UNHCR figure was 90,000. This has now been updated)


    Aid, refugees, and peacekeeping at stake in new Western Sahara talks
  • In Libya, hard economic times force migrant workers to look elsewhere

    The well-worn description of migrants in Libya is of desperate people trapped in hellish detention centres trying to get to Europe. But many come for work, and some return multiple times despite the dangers posed by people smugglers, armed gangs, or merciless employers.


    After years of civil conflict and political mismanagement, oil-rich Libya is on the verge of economic collapse. It can hardly look after its own financially struggling citizens, let alone its migrant workforce, who have become vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping, and other abuses.


    Philip Badou, a Ghanaian pastor who has lived in Tripoli for the past 25 years and has a mostly migrant congregation there, said Libya’s downward spiral has made life so bad for migrant workers that some longtime residents of the capital are leaving.


    “Libya always provided many opportunities for Africans, and they just weren’t interested in going to Europe before because they could make good money here,” said Badou. “This big problem with migration has really only started since 2011.”


    This was the year Muammar Gaddafi was ousted. Under his rule, Libya had depended on a large migrant workforce; his 42 years in power marked by a reliance on oil revenues and the handing out to citizens of public sector jobs that required little actual work.

    “Libya always provided many opportunities for Africans, and they just weren’t interested in going to Europe before because they could make good money here.”

    The UN estimates there are currently some 670,000 migrants and refugees in Libya, including 56,455 currently registered with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and another 6,200 in detention centres across the country.


    It’s not clear what proportion of those people are in the country solely to work, but it is still a mostly sub-Saharan African workforce that unloads cargo ships, tends to farmland, restocks shelves, operates most aspects of construction and demolition, and manages rubbish and street clearance. There are also Syrian and Ukrainian doctors and dentists, Indian and Iraqi teachers, Filipino nurses and oil workers, and Eastern European engineers.


    ‘They had rights’


    Some migrant workers in Libya manage to get regular employment, but for most it is more of a struggle.


    Across the country, many congregate at roadside points each morning, waiting for prospective employers. They can make up to 650 or 700 Libyan dinars per month – the average salary a Libyan in a state sector job makes – but their jobs are insecure and can be dangerous.


    Migrant workers say they are often held up at gunpoint for their wages after a day’s work, if they are paid at all. Some foreigners are abducted off the streets and forced to work for free.


    “One of my Nigerien workers went missing, and when I called his phone it was answered by a Libyan who had basically abducted the worker because he wanted a large farm area cleaned for free,” said Farouq, a Libyan who runs a beach resort in Misrata.


    The kidnapping of foreigners for extortion is a common practice in some parts of the country, including the southern town of Sebha, a hub for the smuggling of goods and people. One church in Tripoli, which has an all migrant congregation, reported using most of its collections in 2016 to pay ransoms to free its members, although less so in the past two years.


    Even foreigners who have been in Libya for several years have no legal resource. The country has multiple militias competing for power and no real police force with any quantifiable power, but also few migrant workers have official documents and there are few functioning embassies where they can be renewed.

    This is a change from the Gaddafi years, according to 28-year-old Libyan taxi driver Mohamed. “No one would treat migrants like this [then]. It was illegal. They had rights,” he said. “I remember well one single case, before 2011, where Libyans attacked a migrant family accused of stealing. It was a major, shocking news story.”


    Money transfer problems


    While security threats can be a factor, it is mostly disenchantment with Libya’s financial situation that is driving migrant workers away to Europe or, in some cases, back home.


    Official money transfers abroad in Libyan dinars have been impossible since mid-2014, and both foreigners and locals have to rely on the black market as the official exchange rate has been largely unavailable and irrelevant for years.


    “Money is the main reason for so many people going to Europe,” said Badou, the Ghanaian pastor. “Since official money transfers stopped, there’s no way to send wages home legally and people have to work hard just to get 700 Libyan dinar, officially $504, which, on the black market, is now equivalent to $150, which is very bad. So of course, people start to leave.”

    “Here in Libya, we really need migrant workers. To be honest, we can’t get anything done without them.”

    Libya’s economic meltdown has meant banks have limited cash and restrict daily withdrawals, leaving most Libyans unable to access their own savings. As one government employee explained, salaries – routinely paid months late – are now “just a figure on paper”. This cash crisis has has been accompanied by rising prices, leaving many struggling financially.


    The exodus is beginning to cause alarm among some Libyan employers, according to a senior member of the Ghanaian community who said Libyans had started pleading with Ghanian plasterers to stop leaving. Within Libya’s migrant workforce, many nationalities have “specialties” and there are few skilled plasterers able to fill the void left by departing Ghanaians, he said.


    Libya is heavily dependent on its migrant workforce and some say that without foreign workers, the country would struggle to function.


    “Here in Libya, we really need migrant workers. To be honest, we can’t get anything done without them,” said General Mohammed al-Tamimi, the military commander at a checkpoint north of Sebha. “Recently, when we capture migrants, they stay here with us and we employ them as labourers,” as there are no detention centres open in Libya’s south, he added.


    In the open, but not safe


    As fast as people leave, either heading home overland or braving the Mediterranean crossing towards Europe, more migrants arrive across Libya’s porous southern borders.


    Despite the dangers of their lives here, they don’t live in hiding and, in Tripoli at least, they have long been a noticeable and active part of the community.


    Tom Westcott/IRIN
    Migrant workers play football in the Libyan capital city of Tripoli.

    For example, every Friday for the last 20 years, migrant football teams have played on a wasteland patch in the capital’s Souq al-Juma district. Last year, several hundred migrants and a handful of Libyans gathered to watch the final of a four-month tournament organised by migrant football enthusiasts.


    “We have no problems, no intimidation, nothing,” said Jaffa, a day labourer from Niger, one of the organisers. “The situation for migrants here is not like they say in the media. It’s actually okay.”


    But “okay” masks a myriad of difficulties, both financial and otherwise. “These football matches are great because they allow people suffering a very difficult situation to put their energy into something positive,” said Ben Hamza Adali, a Libyan who plays on one migrant team. “This place is in a well-secured area and we don’t suffer from any threats or harassment because no one has a problem with football.”


    Mid-game, a Toyota pickup pulled up and three men armed with Kalashnikovs, wearing official blue police uniforms and balaclavas, ran onto the football pitch, shooting in the air.


    Efforts by Tripoli’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to rein in the capital’s militias remain ineffective, with many operating independently, despite the state uniforms most now wear.


    It may just have been a show of power but it sent hundreds of terrified migrants fleeing across the pitch, scattering out into the busy road. No one was injured and, after a few minutes, the armed men sped off. The footballers returned, with a greatly diminished audience.



    In Libya, hard economic times force migrant workers to look elsewhere
  • South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Thousands flee renewed violence in South Sudan

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

    Overhead costs in focus for world’s largest aid grant

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

    Yemen heading towards ‘catastrophe’: UN experts

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

    Counting the cost of internal displacement

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

    Examining aid partnerships

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

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

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

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


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

    In case you missed it

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

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

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

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

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


    Weekend read

    International politics and humanitarian aid collide in Venezuela

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

    And finally

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

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


    South Sudan clashes, local aid partners, and a €500 million grant
  • Director’s Dispatch: Aid and the elite

    Over the last three years of attending the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, I have watched as people and themes not traditionally associated with that high-profile gathering of business and political elites move into the spotlight.

    Official sessions this year ranged from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals to investing in fragile states. A simulation of a day in the life of a refugee allowed CEOs and government ministers to experience what it’s like to be held up at gunpoint or taken away to be raped. An entire day of programming was devoted to the oceans. Advertisements plastered on the town’s streets sported corporate slogans like this one from Salesforce: “Because making the world better is everyone’s business.”

    I walked past a media scrum, expecting the mass of journalists to be waiting for a head of state or Fortune 500 CEO; they were crowded around for 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish climate activist who put the corporate elite in their place when she told them they had caused many of the world’s problems.

    From Amnesty International to the Rockefeller Foundation, from a small Indian relief organisation to the International Committee of the Red Cross – whose president sits on WEF’s board – many non-profit types attend Davos because they believe that only by having a seat at the table can they affect those with power and influence.

    Are they right?


    Heba Aly/IRIN
    At an evening reception called “Innovation with Purpose”, will.i.am presents a new app to help people take ownership of their personal data.

    Self-doubt and tough questions

    That question troubles many in the non-profit sector, for whom the real concern with Davos goes beyond the hypocrisy of eating canapés while discussing hunger or paying thousands of dollars for a mattress on a floor in a shared room.

    They are aware of the well-trodden critique: that for all the willingness of today’s titans of technology and finance to put climate change and income disparity centre stage, their eagerness to solve the world’s problems lasts only as long as the solutions don't threaten their own wealth and power.

    Those fears can run deeper “on the inside”, for instance that even the presence of civil society at gatherings like Davos risks legitimising an approach that avoids real transformation of the system – a system that underpinned the rise of the elite and caused most of the world’s problems in the first place.  

    As one person working for social change told me: “So we’re talking about migration and climate change, great. But are we really tackling the fundamental issues? Us being here – isn’t it hiding the real issues?”

    I asked Mohammed Hassan Mohamud, a Somali refugee and a co-chair of the meeting, for his take. His appointment to that post – a position usually reserved for the likes of Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft – itself signalled a shift at Davos.

    I had met Mohamud about six months earlier, at his home in the Kakuma refugee camps of Kenya during a WEF-organised trip for its network of young leaders, of which I am one.

    When he spoke to our group at Davos, he told us bluntly: “Next Saturday, I’m going [back] to the camp… Let’s be really honest and tangible about what we can do.”

    Co-chair of the World Economic Forum 2019 in Davos

    This year, the World Economic Forum asked a refugee to co-chair its annual meeting in Davos.

    At the end of the week, I caught up with Mohamud again.

    “I am grateful for the platform to get my message across,” he said. “But people [at Davos] want quick solutions,” he added, “like building a library in the camp. We shouldn’t normalise the camp.”

    I heard similar frustrations at the lack of attention to addressing more deep-rooted change.

    At a session about the Sahel, for instance, leaders in government, the private sector, and aid talked about the need for development and investment – but they didn’t tackle the geopolitics and foreign interference causing the instability in Africa.

    The world has seen massive progress in recent decades, true, but have the underlying structures of power changed?

    ‘The definition of insanity'

    WEF is a non-profit foundation and its mission, according to its latest statutes, is to bring together “leaders from business, governments, academia and society at large into a global community committed to improving the state of the world.”

    Around a decade ago, WEF began inviting civil society into its meetings at scale*.

    Critics saw the move as a smart response to protests against the forum’s exclusivity. But those close to WEF’s founder and contentious leader, Klaus Schwab, see his motivation as genuine. They say he recognised that the policy-making of the 1950s – governed by business people and political leaders – was not the policy-making of the future. In transforming WEF into a multi-stakeholder platform, his supporters argue, he created a unique, neutral, and impartial platform for discussions badly needed in today’s world.

    There are certainly signs this orientation has caught on – though WEF is by no means the only reason why.  

    In 2011, less than 20 percent of S&P 500 companies (the largest and most influential listed in the United States) reported on corporate social responsibility programmes. By 2017, that percentage had jumped to 85, according to the Governance and Accountability Institute.

    Dozens of companies – from Microsoft to Mastercard, from DHL to Accenture – now support the UN and NGOs with technology and know-how, at reduced costs.  

    Investors are backing social impact bonds for refugees and humanitarian relief.

    In Davos, I heard stories of CEOs pledging to hire refugees after experiencing “A Day in the Life”, or investing millions of dollars in social causes as a result of exposure to new ideas.  

    And, as IRIN heard in an event we hosted at Davos, many in the private sector see themselves as having the skills, the will, and the responsibility to be part of the solution in an ever chaotic world where traditional aid is no longer enough.

    "Is public-private partnership really what’s needed when they’re the ones who got us in this mess to begin with?”

    Yet as Matthew Bishop, who leads the Rockefeller Foundation's thought leadership centre, Bellagio, told me:  “There has still not been anywhere near enough soul-searching or deep thinking among the Davos crowd about what has gone wrong since [the financial crisis of] 2008 and why the decades of dominant liberal policy that preceded the crash didn’t deliver real progress for enough people.”

    In short, he added, “Today, there still doesn’t seem to be any clear strategy coming from Davos to make life better for the average person.”

    The sceptical activist I cited above described coming back year after year in the hope of influencing the Davos crowd as “the definition of insanity”.

    “Are we really going to shift the needle like this?” they asked. “Is there any evidence that it has worked? Is public-private partnership really what’s needed when they’re the ones who got us in this mess to begin with?”

    These doubts exist even at the highest levels. When António Guterres, now UN secretary-general, was head of the UN refugee agency, he was never an enthusiastic participant at Davos, according to one of his former senior staffers. “He thought: ‘These people are not really interested in our issues’,” Nick van Praag, now head of an organisation that seeks the views of people affected by crises, told me.

    “I tried to convince him otherwise,” said van Praag. “I thought Davos was a great opportunity. Now, more than 10 years later, I think Guterres might have been right.”

    For van Praag, the Davos crowd has indeed adopted “our issues”, but conversations are more likely to veer towards “titillating technology” than try to address the real issues the aid sector is grappling with. “For instance,” he offered, “why not put that energy into the issues the humanitarian sector has already identified as priorities rather than having a completely separate conversation?”

    As examples, he pointed to more predictable financing, localising aid, and giving affected people more of a say in the assistance they receive. That said, WEF’s council on the future of the humanitarian system, of which I am a member, has focused its discussions on how to encourage private sector investment into fragile states to reduce dependency on aid – indeed a priority of the humanitarian sector.

    In any case, the social change types keep coming. And I understand why.

    Signs of change

    I was similarly sceptical when I accepted invitations to join WEF’s Young Global Leaders network and its Global Future Council for the Humanitarian System, a brain trust of sorts.  

    But in attending meeting after meeting, I am realising that these opportunities are what you make of them. It’s up to those of us who have a seat at the table to ensure our presence isn’t just window dressing.

    As a media organisation, for instance, it is up to us to effectively use this platform to bring the stories of those affected by crises to the so-called elite. We have an opportunity to provide newer players in this space access to the critical debate around ideas that can inform their behaviours, and to inform all those seeking to better understand the issues – regardless of their motivations.

    My scepticism has also been tempered by the realisation that change is slow: IRIN is soon to mark 25 years, for instance, and sadly we continue to cover many of the same crises year after year. Does that mean we shouldn’t bother? Of course not.  

    It’s up to those of us who have a seat at the table to ensure our presence isn’t just window dressing.

    And there are signs that change is afoot. Newer private-sector players are beginning to recognise that throwing money at problems won’t fix them. While philanthropists such as Bill Gates may still see market-based solutions as the only way forward, they have evolved from promoting one-drop vaccines and plug-and-play laptops to taking a longer-term view that embraces the complexity of development. In one of the discussions I chaired at Davos, the CEO of Syngenta argued that new technologies his company is developing to help prevent food crises around the world will have little effect without better public governance.

    And within WEF there’s also more openness to voices of dissent and critical thinking. Its recent reports on global risk have called for “fundamental reforms to market capitalism”.

    The Davos edition of Time magazine, which lined the shelves of the Congress Centre where the official proceedings took place, included a short message from Anand Giridharadas, author of The Elite Charade of Changing the World, to the “1 percent elite”:

    “You plutocrats are gathering above the rest of us, convinced that you hold the key to solving problems you’ve caused…

    “But,” he wrote, “the hunt for answers to the present mess is not yours to lead. Your moral duty now is to refrain from thwarting those who are working to bury this gilded age and usher in vital reforms… Your task is simple: Stay out of their way.”

    Schwab pushes back against what he calls "the blame game”.

    “What we have to do is address the root causes. We have to work together in a constructive way,” he told CNN.

    I see a similar message in the fact that so many of those trying to usher in vital reforms spend time (and money) at Davos each year: even they believe that the 1% need to be part of the solution.

    * An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that WEF started inviting civil society to its annual meeting around 10 years ago. According to WEF, civil society representatives have attended since its inception in 1970, although the forum has significantly scaled their presence in recent years. 

    The UN and civil society now flock to the annual World Economic Forum gathering in Davos. But not without asking themselves tough questions
    Director’s Dispatch: Aid and the elite
  • Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Yemen deal in the balance

    So what about that ceasefire deal for Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, the one agreed in late December, the same one Saudi Arabia’s envoy to the country told IRIN was key to moving the peace process? It has still not been implemented. A UN-led committee to redeploy (i.e. withdraw) fighters from the city and province has only met twice so far, and each side has accused the other of multiple violations. The two sides swapped a small number of prisoners this week, but nowhere near the scale of a larger swap agreement the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent is still waiting to carry out (the sticking point appears to involve lists of names). UN envoy Martin Griffiths says the Hodeidah ceasefire is “generally holding”, despite the extension of deadlines on key elements of the deal: “The initial timelines were rather ambitious,” he said this week. “We are dealing with a complex situation on the ground.”

    Mediterranean more dangerous for migrants

    The figures are in and EU leaders, through their migration policies, are “complicit in the tragedy”, according to a letter signed by dozens of NGOs. Arrivals to Europe across the Mediterranean and the overall number of deaths both fell sharply in 2018, but deaths per arrival went the other way: one in 269 in 2015 became one in 51 in 2018 (one in 14 from Libya) – and the number of deaths across the Western Mediterranean to Spain quadrupled last year. Two years since the EU-backed Italy-Libya deal sought to stem the flow by supporting the Libyan coastguard while Tripoli cracked down on smuggling operations, anger is growing as EU nations prevent rescue operations and refuse to allow migrant-carrying vessels to dock. The NGO letter sent on Wednesday to the EU contained three main demands: support search and rescue operations; adopt timely and predictable disembarkation arrangements; end returns to Libya. Renewing its criticism in a statement on Friday, Oxfam said "people are now in even more danger at sea and are being taken back by the Libyan coastguard to face human rights abuses in Libya". A double migrant boat disaster off the coast of Djibouti this week – more than 100 people dead or missing – was a reminder that this is not just a problem in the Mediterranean.


    For more on EU policies and how they affect migrants and refugees in Africa, read our “Destination Europe” series.

    “Speed-networking” at mass humanitarian hook-up

    A big-tent gathering of the humanitarian community kicks off Monday. The Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (HNPW) offers a sprawling programme of 100 sessions across five days and 19 rooms in a Geneva conference centre. Over 2,100 relief professionals, diplomats, company representatives, NGO officials, and students have registered for the free event, backed by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and the Swiss government. Organiser Jesper Lund told IRIN the aim is the “acceleration of collaboration”. In its fifth year, HNPW prides itself on being an open forum, allowing parallel sessions of like-minded networks, and tries to avoid predictable formats. This year there will be speed-networking sessions to match up interested parties for one-on-one contacts. (The IRIN team will be around, and we’re always up for some speed-tipoffs, obvs). The range of topics for the week covers everything from airport readiness for disasters to (oh look!) humanitarian journalism (that's on Friday).

    Talking peace, losing ground

    The Afghan government’s control of its own territory continues to shrink. The government now has control or influence in about 54 percent of its districts, according to numbers released this week by SIGAR – the US-government mandated watchdog tracking reconstruction in Afghanistan. Afghan control is at its lowest since SIGAR began reporting the data in 2015 (other metrics suggest the government’s grip is even more tenuous, and that the insurgent Taliban need not directly control territory to wield influence). It’s another sign of the rocky road ahead in Afghanistan, despite recent talks of Taliban peace negotiations. In the aid sector, there’s plenty of concern about what a bargained Taliban peace might mean, particularly for the rights of women and minorities. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s Jan Egeland says “dialogue for humanitarian access and protection have been pushed off the table”. For now, Afghanistan remains mired in crisis: hundreds of thousands displaced by war and an ongoing severe drought, refugees and migrants returning to instability, and rising civilian casualties.

    Opposition arrests in Cameroon

    Cameroonian opposition leader Maurice Kamto, who maintains he won last year's presidential election, was among some 200 people arrested this week after new protests took place against the re-election of veteran leader Paul Biya. Further marches, planned for this weekend and into next week, were also banned by the government. The October vote was marred by violence, especially in the Northwest and Southwest anglophone regions, which are in the midst of a separatist rebellion against the francophone government. Last year, IRIN embedded with Cameroon’s separatist forces to get an inside look at the fledgling armed struggle.

    In case you missed it


    Democratic Republic of Congo: More than 50 mass graves have been found by a UN fact-finding mission near the western town of Yumbi, where a spate of inter-communal violence last December left almost 900 people dead in just three days.


    Indonesia: Dengue killed more than 100 people across the country in January. The mosquito-borne illness is endemic in parts of Indonesia, but health authorities are reporting a surge in cases during the current rainy season.


    Nigeria: Some 30,000 people fled the northeastern town of Rann last weekend for neighbouring Cameroon, about a week after 9,000 refugees were reported to have been forcibly returned by the Cameroonian authorities. Further violence has sent another 6,000 Nigerians fleeing into Chad.


    Syria: The UN says 23,000 people, including 10,000 in the past week, have fled so-called Islamic State’s last territory in Syria since December, most of them to al-Hol camp in Hassakeh province. The World Health Organisation says the camp is overwhelmed, with thousands of people sleeping in the open without so much as blankets. In the past eight weeks at least 29 children are reported to have died, mostly from hypothermia, on the way to the camp or just after arrival.


    USAID: The US government is reshuffling its aid portfolio, bringing the Office for Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and Food for Peace under a single humanitarian department. The new arrangement should reduce unnecessary fragmentation, according to a Twitter thread by former OFDA chief Jeremy Konyndyk.


    Weekend read

    The choices they made: Hondurans at the US-Mexico border

    As US President Donald Trump orders “several thousand” more US troops to the Mexican border, what about those on the other side? Take some time this weekend to delve into this feature from award-winning photojournalist Tomás Ayuso. A Honduran native, Ayuso wanted to better understand the motivations of countrymen and countrywomen who continue to make the long march north, even as the welcome they can expect looks increasingly hostile. What he found was not a uniform answer. From the man left for dead after being “executed” for refusing to become a drug dealer, to the woman whose husband died suddenly and felt compelled to find a better life for her and her son, the choices people made were all different. At the US border, there are choices too. One man has had enough and is heading home. The woman and son mentioned above also had enough of waiting. They headed across the border with smugglers shortly after Ayuso interviewed them and haven’t been heard from since.

    IRIN Event

    The future of the UN agency for Palestine refugees

    On Wednesday, IRIN Director Heba Aly sat down for a public conversation in Geneva with Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees. They talked about the agency’s funding ask for this year (it’s $1.2 billion), how UNRWA was only meant to be a temporary stop-gap but still exists 70 years on, and why it is frequently broke (Krähenbühl says those last two are related). The commissioner-general also addressed the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding from UNRWA, which serves some 5.4 million registered refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem). Speaking of East Jerusalem, the commissioner-general said he’d had “no indication” from the Israeli government that the schools UNRWA runs there would be shut down, despite multiple statements to the contrary from the local municipality.

    And finally...

    “Australia’s loss”

    Kurdish-Iranian writer Behrouz Boochani is making a name for himself in Australia – but he’s not allowed to set foot in the country. Boochani is an unwitting resident of Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, where he was sent in 2013 after trying to seek asylum in Australia. This week, Boochani’s book, “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison”, cleaned up at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, an annual contest in Australia. Judges called Boochani’s book, composed on a mobile phone, “a literary triumph, devastating and transcendent”, awarding it the non-fiction prize as well as the top honour – a haul worth 125,000 Australian dollars (more than 90,000 US dollars) . There are still about 1,200 refugees and asylum seekers on Manus and another island, Nauru – part of Australia’s criticised asylum policy, which saw boat arrivals pushed to offshore detention camps and barred from ever entering Australia. In an opinion piece published this week, the US official who signed a deal to take in hundreds of people stuck on Nauru or Manus says resettled refugees are putting down roots in their new American homes. Anne Richard, a former assistant secretary of state, writes about meeting the former detainees, now working in restaurants, attending evening classes, or sending their own kids to school. “Australia’s loss,” she writes, “is America’s gain”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Abdulrahman Mohammed Jahia (33) and his family heard a loud explosion outside their house in Sana'a, Yemen. Their neighbouring building was hit by airstrikes. CREDIT: Becky Bakr Abdulla/NRC)


    Mediterranean death rates, networking in a rush, and a shaky ceasefire in Yemen
  • WATCH LIVE: The future of the UN's agency for Palestine refugees

    Join us at the Graduate Institute in Geneva or through a livestream via the link below on Tuesday, 29 January at 18.30 CET.

    IRIN Director Heba Aly will be in discussion with Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees).

    Watch on YouTube

    WATCH LIVE: The future of the UN's agency for Palestine refugees
  • After Davos, let’s turn talk into action

    More and more private sector leaders recognise that business can’t survive in a failing world, as demonstrated by the sessions devoted to humanitarian issues at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos last week. Eight hundred million people live in unstable environments where they are left vulnerable to poverty, food insecurity, conflict, and other upheavals – often for years.

    Humanitarians, meanwhile, recognise that their ability to respond is at risk because traditional donor funding is not keeping up with changing needs. The statistics are always sobering: UN requests to fund emergency and other aid needs have risen continuously over the last three years, to more than $25 billion for 2018. Yet donations, largely by governments, fell short in recent years to the tune of more than $10 billion.

    So how to translate well-intentioned talk in Davos and elsewhere into action? A start, say Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC, and Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian & development at Mastercard, is to look beyond emergency situations, to economically and politically fragile environments. Then tap the private sector and other stakeholders to help people rebuild sustainable livelihoods and basic services, with the goal of preventing or speeding up recovery from humanitarian crises.

    Maurer and Nathan have spent time thinking about that approach, both at Davos and as the leads of a group of professionals from diverse fields who are examining the issue as part of a World Economic Forum initiative. Below, they share some of their ideas.

    How do you define 'humanitarianism' and the role of humanitarians?

    Maurer: The traditional notion of urgent humanitarian relief no longer matches the reality on the ground. The average length of time the ICRC has been present in the countries hosting its 10 largest operations is more than 36 years. In these contexts that remain fragile, void of development activity and international interest, it is not feasible to implement responses on an emergency aid model for such protracted periods of time. The size and scale of long-term conflicts and situations of fragility compels the design and implementation of new, more sustainable multi-stakeholder approaches to humanitarian action.

    Nathan: We are all humanitarians. There is a shortfall of funding for humanitarian response, and the needs vastly outstrip the capacity to respond. There seems to be merit in enabling the humanitarians to focus on life-saving aid and engaging other partners to help fill longer term needs. We all care about humanity, we all want people to move from poverty to prosperity.

    How should the private and humanitarian sectors work together?

    Maurer: Each year, I travel to the most fragile contexts around the world, places suffering the devastating impacts of war and cycles of violence. In these emergency settings, many people assume that aid handouts are the only way to provide support because social services and economies have broken down. Yet when I speak to people affected, they so often tell me that what they most want is to be able to continue working, build their business, access finance, and provide for their families. As humanitarians, we need to do a thorough economic analysis and understand the potential to connect people to economic opportunities.

    Nathan: Aid organisations must do more with less, and the private sector needs to play a greater role. But it can’t be through traditional models of corporate philanthropy – those models cannot scale. Instead, we should seek new models of deep partnership where the private sector can leverage commercial approaches, and where they can work hand in hand with humanitarians and donors to test and scale those approaches. We need to create the tactical, legal, operational, and commercial constructs that incentivise private sector actors to engage.

    What needs to change?

    Maurer: Humanitarian actors will always be needed to provide emergency basic services in acute crises. In situations of protracted conflict or fragility, however, we need to find sustainable models for income generation. Communities inevitably restart economic activity, but their livelihoods remain precarious and without much support from the development community due to ongoing security risks. These are the situations where investment in livelihoods can have crucial impact, not only on individuals’ stability and sense of hope, but also flow-on effects on wider social and economic resilience.

    Nathan: We fundamentally need to change the way the private and public sectors partner and deliver solutions. And – perhaps most crucially – we need to overcome the misconceptions and suspicion between the sectors and build trust.

    How can the private sector help prevent or shorten humanitarian crises?

    Nathan: The private sector has pivotal assets – technologies, expertise, and unique service delivery models – that can move the needle in humanitarian response. Taking a market-based approach can be a real force for good. Through support to local markets we can: prevent the market instability that often causes political instability; build resilience of vulnerable communities; and spur the recovery of communities after crises. Failing to recognise the capabilities of the private sector is actually a disservice to the beneficiaries we all seek to serve.

    Maurer: Whether by starting new businesses, using digital technology to connect to remittance flows, or creating social units to reinforce community protection and security, affected communities are the true first responders to crisis. We need to explore how to support, enable, and scale inclusive local markets, employment, and business opportunities in fragile contexts. And we need to find ways to collaborate with others who can help to accelerate large-scale capital investment and to leverage digital solutions for humanitarian gains.

    What market-driven approaches are already in use?

    Maurer: A range of interventions already exists, including coordination platforms to connect farmers to value chains and market infrastructure, digital tools to facilitate access to financial products, capacity-building to increase production, entrepreneurship training, guidance for job-seekers in displaced populations, and more.

    Nathan: Cash-based assistance is a critical tool to generate needed efficiencies in the sector and empower affected populations by giving them choice. But it’s a first step. The Mastercard Aid Network, for example, offers an offline, digital voucher system that allows an individual to purchase goods – food, water, household items – from local businesses in a fragile context. By channeling response to local merchants, and by using a digital technology to deliver those vouchers, the programme supports more efficient, effective, and transparent delivery of aid.

    A solution like this one can bridge the humanitarian and development divide. If this beneficiary is in a rural farming community, she can use the platform to receive vouchers for agriculture subsidies to rebuild her farm and livelihood. The technology can ultimately connect her to a market of agriculture buyers, bringing price transparency and cutting out the middle men, thereby allowing her to grow her income.

    After Davos, let’s turn talk into action
    Combining humanitarian expertise, local know-how, and private sector acumen could help aid 800 million people around the world
    Maurer and Nathan are co-chairs of the <a href=https://www.weforum.org/communities/the-future-of-the-humanitarian-system">World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council for the Humanitarian System</a>. IRIN News Director Heba Aly is also a member of the council.
  • Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot: The Cheat Sheet

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


    On our radar

    What next in Venezuela?


    The crisis in Venezuela has bubbled away for months, demanding media attention only when protests flare or the sheer number of people fleeing the freefalling economy and increasingly authoritarian state becomes difficult to ignore. Not now. Since President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in two weeks ago for a new six-year term, things have escalated quickly. No sooner was a revolt by members of the National Guard quelled than protesters took to the streets demanding he step down. Opposition challenger Juan Guaidó on Wednesday declared himself leader and has since been recognised as such by the United States and a clutch of regional powers. No one knows what will happen next. Talk of a US military intervention seems to be just that for now, but there’s no sign either that Maduro – still backed by Venezuela’s armed forces – is prepared to accept any offer of amnesty and leave quietly. If he does go, it won’t cure Venezuela’s ills overnight, but it would provide the change in government some argue is the only long-term solution to a humanitarian crisis Maduro has long denied – one that has left his people desperate, hungry, and sick. A study published in The Lancet Global Health Journal this week indicates that infant mortality rates have risen back to 1990s levels.


    “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede”


    Around 9,000 Nigerians who say they fled armed clashes involving Boko Haram are “shuttling” back and forth in the Cameroon border area, a UN official said in Geneva. The group was pushed back after trying to take refuge in the neighbouring country, with Cameroonian officials admitting that insecurity forced the government to take exceptional measures, despite its supposed "open doors" policy. UN humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon Allegra Baiocchi told a press conference "the right of asylum is being tested". She said many of the group were women and children. Cameroon’s director of civil protection Yap Mariatou told IRIN that a recent attack on the border town of Achigashia by an armed group had put the authorities on edge. “If you’re bitten by a snake, you’ll be afraid of a millipede,” she said. The UN is appealing for $299 million to help 2.3 million people in Cameroon, including about 100,000 refugees from Nigeria and more than 400,000 internally displaced by an ongoing separatist rebellion.


    Mediterranean crossing just got even more dangerous


    The EU’s troubled naval mission against people smuggling in the Mediterranean faced yet another setback this week as Germany announced it was suspending participation, a decision MPs said was the result of Italy’s consistent refusal to allow rescued migrants entry at its ports. The removal of Germany’s ship leaves the mission, Operation Sophia, with only two vessels. Meanwhile, migrants continue to drown in the Mediterranean – 201 so far this year – including in two recent shipwrecks, one off the coast of Libya, the second between Morocco and Spain. Many of those rescued are being brought to Libya, and Médecins Sans Frontières says it has seen a “sharp increase” in the number of people held in crowded detention centres there – conditions are dire, with shortages of clean water and food. Human Rights Watch said EU policies, including the decision to enable the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept and return people, are contributing to a “cycle of extreme abuse” against migrants in the country. For a forensic examination of one Mediterranean incident in 2017 in which at least 20 migrants died, check out this film, “How Europe Outsources Migrant Suffering at Sea”, from Times Insider.


    Forwarding hate


    There’s increasing scrutiny on the real-world impacts of the spread of misinformation and hate speech on social media. This week, messaging app WhatsApp announced a five-recipient limit for message forwarding. WhatsApp messages – which can be rapidly distributed through group and broadcast features – have been linked to a spate of lynchings in India and a pre-election flood of false news in Brazil. Sri Lanka also temporarily shut down Facebook, WhatsApp, and others after anti-Muslim violence last March. WhatsApp recipient limits were recommended in a “human rights impact assessment” commissioned by Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. That report focused on Facebook usage in Myanmar, where UN investigators say the company was ”slow and ineffective” in stemming hate speech on its platform amid the violent 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya. But hate speech on WhatsApp could prove even tougher to contain: the company may enforce “community standards” on Facebook, but WhatsApp messages are encrypted.


    Overheard in Davos


    Sure, the mood at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos this week was generally sombre, but there was a bright spot for some: the increasing spotlight on social issues, including humanitarian response. Humanitarian topics included sessions on private sector investment in fragile states and the use of artificial intelligence in crises. The WEF, the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross launched an initiative to promote so-called humanitarian investing – the private sector working to boost economies in crisis-affected areas in order to help people get back on their feet and avoid becoming dependent on aid. The IKEA Foundation pledged 6.8 million euros to help create livelihoods for refugees in Jordan. Still, investors were honest about the constraints of putting capital into fragile states at scale. On the tech side, AI was front and centre with discussions on its use in crisis zones. It has huge potential – from predicting famines to chatbots that help refugees further their education to facial recognition for identifying family members separated by war. But what happens when AI-aggregated data falls into the wrong hands? Or when machines reinforce political or human biases in the data? Many agencies, one observer noted, are pushing ahead with pilot projects and thinking about due diligence later. For more from Davos, see our roundup on IRIN’s event, “Meet the new humanitarians changing the face of aid.”

    In case you missed it:


    Central African Republic: Talks aimed at ending CAR’s long-running conflict began in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, this week. Brokered by the African Union, the negotiations involve representatives of the government and 14 armed groups. Aid officials say a successful peace accord is critical to ensuring the ongoing humanitarian crisis doesn’t deepen.


    Indonesia: Dozens of people were killed after heavy rains battered Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province this week, leading to floods and landslides. Local authorities say the rains caused rivers to burst their banks, inundating homes and forcing more than 3,000 people to evacuate.


    Philippines: A majority voted to ratify a long-awaited peace deal in the conflict-torn Mindanao region, according to unofficial results from the first stage of a referendum held this week. A vote in favour will expand autonomy for Mindanao’s Muslim community.


    Yemen: After just a month on the job, the retired Dutch general overseeing the not-yet-implemented ceasefire for the port city of Hodeidah is reportedly about to step down. It’s not clear why. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Yemen thinks the deal is make-or-break for peace negotiations: read our interview with him to find out why.


    Zimbabwe: Half-a-million government workers have gone on strike across the country, adding to uncertainty after fuel protests and a violent crackdown by security forces left several people dead and hundreds arrested. Accusations that protesters were raped by members of the military have been accompanied by warnings that social unrest and instability are spiralling out of control. Look out for our full briefing next week.


    Weekend read


    Fleeing the last days of Islamic State in Syria


    No, as we flagged in our 10 crises to watch in 2019, the war in Syria is not over. The focus towards the end of last year was on the potential for a humanitarian catastrophe if President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed forces moved in to retake Idlib. While this risk hasn’t gone away, especially as al-Qaeda-linked fighters cement control over parts of the northwestern province, our weekend read takes us elsewhere. In the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, a US-backed Kurdish-led alliance of militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces is trying to snuff out the last pockets of so-called Islamic State in Syria. This photo feature takes us inside their operations as they intercept a convoy of people escaping what remains of the militant group’s territory. But with IS members disguising themselves as civilians to make last-gasp attacks, how do you tell who is who? Those fleeing – nearly 5,000 in just two days this week – are hungry and exhausted. Some say there’s no food at all in areas under IS control.


    And finally…


    Top Libyan photographer dies in crossfire


    Libyan freelance journalist – and occasional IRIN contributor – Mohamed Ben Khalifa was killed last Saturday while covering militia clashes in the capital city of Tripoli, prompting demonstrations by his colleagues denouncing violence against journalists. Ben Khalifa was 35, and is survived by his wife and young daughter. A well-respected photographer who covered the often violent instability that has plagued Libya since the 2011 uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, Ben Khalifa was known for his sensitive portrayals of the migrants whose bodies washed up on Libya’s shores, including this 2015 IRIN piece. His death “is a reminder of the utter lack of protection for journalists in Libya, as well as the dangers of photojournalists in the battlefield,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists. The week of fighting in Tripoli left 16 people dead (including Khalifa) and 65 injured, and rival militias have since agreed to a new ceasefire deal.



    Venezuela on the brink, WhatsApping hate, and a Davos bright spot
  • ‘New humanitarians’ take a seat at the table

    At a time when more lives than ever are upended for longer periods and the traditional aid system is struggling to keep up, new players are unapologetically redefining what it means to be a humanitarian – and inviting others to join them.


    In an IRIN event convened in Davos on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, leaders from the private sector, philanthropy, aid organisations large and small, and civil society shared their takes on the need to shake up what one called a “smokestack industry”.


    “We tend to discredit when people come with a different background,” said Jérôme Jarre, a Snapchat and Vine celebrity turned humanitarian. “In fact, that's exactly what the space needs. We came [from] outside of the box. We didn't know the process, what it means to be humanitarian.”


    As he told IRIN Director Heba Aly, who moderated the discussion before an audience that included entrepreneurs, aid workers, and others from the private and public sectors: “We didn't know the rules, so it was easy to break them. And we basically had a white canvas, which is the best place to start when you want to create change and innovation.”


    In 2017, Jarre and other social media influencers raised $2 million in 48 hours to respond to the pending famine in Somalia. He went on to found Love Army, a collection of celebrities and social media influencers who have raised $9 million from their followers for humanitarian projects around the world.


    Listen to Jérôme Jarre on the value of outsiders

    The urgency to make room for new players and new ideas is clear, Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said: “The gap between what is needed today and what we are able to provide by the traditional model of doing is just enormous, and we have to recognise that we are failing millions of people whom we are not able to service.”


    ‘New’ and ‘old’ models of aid

    Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian and development at Mastercard, said she had seen a “positive trajectory” in the relationship between the private and humanitarian sectors, with a growing discussion around engaging the private sector, especially at the senior level. However, turning those high-level discussions into action on the ground will remain difficult until “that cultural message of trust between public and private permeates throughout the ranks of the organisations,” she noted.

    “We collaborate very well at panels,” she added. “How can we bring that collaboration down into the field, where we're actually side-by-side implementing solutions, addressing refugee needs, addressing the needs of the local communities?”

    Listen to Tara Nathan on partnerships between the private and humanitarian sectors

    For some, tension around ‘old’ and ‘new’ is rooted in finding the balance between passion and professionalism. It also arises, Maurer suggested, from a misunderstanding around the idea of collaboration. Rather than doing things together, humanitarian actors both old and new should be “trying to combine things that are complementary to each other”.


    Listen to Peter Maurer on 'collaboration'

    The key is to allow both traditional and newer players to use their strengths. Tapping the expertise of the private sector through market-based initiatives that stabilise fragile situations – restarting economies and rebuilding healthcare, education, and other basic services to stave off future crises or move out of existing ones – is one place to start, several panelists and commentators from the audience suggested.


    Another is to look at the humanitarian sector’s push toward ‘localisation’ as more than a mantra and to begin listening to the people on the ground. Local responders like Mayuri Bhattacharjee often reach people in need first and understand cultural and social norms. Yet, she said, they are not always seen or listened to by larger international players. “We do find a seat at the table,” she said, “but that seat is sometimes very low…. What we ask for is more visibility.”

    Listen to Mayuri Bhattacharjee on localisation and women

    Jarre also emphasised the need to listen to the people on the ground. Not coming from traditional humanitarian backgrounds, he said he and his team spent time in Somalia and in Bangladesh familiarising themselves with the situations there, “always asking the same questions: “‘How can we help you? Is this good enough? Do you have better ideas? How should we do it?'” The traditional aid sector needs to learn to re-ask those questions, he suggested, if it hopes to deliver the most useful aid most efficiently and empower aid recipients.

    Changing with the times

    Peter Laugharn of the Conrad Hilton Foundation noted that the traditional aid sector is “a bit of a smokestack industry” and needs to update its approach. “We're working in a system that was not set up to deal with the situation we've got now,” he said.

    He added that foundations, too, need to retool to be able to fund new humanitarian realities, such as complex emergencies and needs in fragile states; his foundation is taking a longer and wider view when determining what kinds of humanitarian efforts to fund. “Grant-making was set up mostly in the 19th and early 20th centuries,” he noted. “You make a big annual grant, you ask for reporting a year later, and things move really slowly.”

    Listen to Peter Laugharn on the roles foundations can play

    One private-sector company, Salesforce.com, looks to technology as a way to bridge old and new approaches. It encourages employees to donate their time and technical expertise to the humanitarian sector and elsewhere. Rob Acker, CEO of Salesforce.org, acknowledged that there “are questions on how do we collaborate in a multi-sector way.” But, he said, “we work with humanitarian-sector organisations like Peter’s [Maurer] to tap into that employee engagement talent and that technology, and work together better.”

    So are those employees and other citizen volunteers humanitarians? In the future, there may be no need to ask that question. As Nathan said: “I would love to see a world in which we all just consider ourselves humanitarians.”

    Highlights of the conversation, edited for clarity and length, are below. Watch the full event here.


    • Rob Acker, CEO, Salesforce.org
    • Mayuri Bhattacharjee, founder, Sikun Relief Foundation, Assam, India
    • Jérôme Jarre, founder, Love Army, and social media activist
    • Peter Laugharn, president and CEO, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation
    • Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
    • Tara Nathan, executive vice president, humanitarian and development, Mastercard

    This event was organized in partnership with Mastercard and the International Committee of the Red Cross.


    Peter Hans Ward/Hub Culture

    Tensions between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ humanitarians


    Jérôme Jarre: It doesn't take 20 years of humanitarianism to know how to help someone.… If your mom is starving, are you going to figure it out? What are you going to bring her, are you going to bring her a bag of rice? Are you going to bring her a restricted car? … Or are you going to ask her what she wants and really, really empower her?

    Listen to Jérôme Jarre on aid agency branding

    Peter Maurer: I'm deeply convinced that we need a new movement, which of course can come also from traditional organisations reflecting on what they have learned in the past and where the limits are, and are trying to reach out to new forms of investing and engaging in the humanitarian context.


    Tara Nathan: Neither side is right or wrong. … We need to bring the dialogue from one of who's right and who's wrong down to practical, tactical means to collaborate. And collaborate cannot be a concept.… If we really think that we can leverage the private sector, it's not saying, “Is it private? Is it millennials or is it traditional?” It's saying, “What are the core competencies of the respective actors? And how do you bring them together in a tactical way?”


    Corporate volunteers

    Rob Acker: Employees are the new humanitarians.… The number one attribute that millennials look for in their job is to have purpose. And companies need to give them that outlet for purpose.… Our employees volunteer. They did about a million hours last year alone. They're helping the humanitarian space with technology skills, and technology has changed. We can connect, organise, scale. If you look at the 68 million displaced people in the world right now, you can create highly personalised outcomes for each and every one of those individuals.

    Listen to Rob Acker on corporate volunteers creating purpose-built technology for the humanitarian sector


    The role of the private sector

    Nathan: There's a general acknowledgement that when you think about humanitarian, we need to think about development. We need to think about the journey, if you will, from humanitarian response through to development.… If you really want to address humanitarian needs, you have to go to the causes and conditions of what caused these situations to rise.

    So how can we focus on building local market capacity in fragile markets as a means to obviate all sorts of crises in the first place, but then also to build resilience? When you start to talk about building local markets as a prevention, if you will, going into the causes of humanitarian crisis, that's when you start to think, “Well, that's a key role where the private sector can play a meaningful role.”

    Maurer: I'm coming from the Red Cross movement, and I am always reminded of the creation of this movement, which was not Henry Dunant [often considered the founder of modern humanitarianism]. It was the women of Solferino and Castiglione who, when confronted with 40,000 dying soldiers, mobilised themselves and created a humanitarian movement. …Civil society has to reclaim the humanitarian space. Then we can discuss good ways of moving forward.


    The future

    Mayuri Bhattacharjee: We suffer from something called the tyranny of distance: Every year floods happen, and every year citizens of Assam and people who were affected complain there's not enough media attention. I would like to change the future. I want media and also the local actors to respond… to at least be sensitive to this crisis which happens every year. Every year, 1.5 million people are affected in floods in Assam. And yet, we sometimes cry for attention.

    Peter Laugharn: I would like to see innovation at the legacy level, if you like, and strengthening and deepening at the new entry-level.… We know what the overall mandate is and what we all need to rise to work on it together.

    Maurer: We are out of balance. We need to find a rebalancing of the system, which gives a better deal for people. At the end of the day, it's not about the system. It’s about whether we managed to service people in need and suffering from natural disaster and conflict. Whether we are able to serve them, that's the threshold of whether we are in a better balance in five, 10, 15, or 20 years.

    A conversation from Davos
    ‘New humanitarians’ take a seat at the table
  • Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar


    Al-Shabab attacks civilians in Kenya and Somalia

    It has been a tragic week in East Africa, as militant group al-Shabab claimed responsibility for an attack in Kenya and was accused of kidnapping 60 schoolchildren in the Bakol region of southern Somalia. The commissioner of Tiyeglow district said the children were taken on Monday in a raid on a village and most likely recruited as fighters – a common al-Shabab tactic. On Tuesday, the al-Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for a 19-hour siege on an upmarket Nairobi hotel, which left 21 civilians dead. Al-Shabab said the attack was in response to US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It could also be retaliation for Kenyan and US military operations against al-Shabab in Somalia. The hotel attack took place on the eve of a verdict in the trial of men alleged to have been involved in the 2013 siege on Nairobi's Westgate mall, which left 67 people dead. Militancy is an ongoing threat across Africa, a trend we continue to watch in 2019.


    Swine fever threatens food security

    A highly contagious disease with a near-100 percent fatality rate for pigs and wild boars could have “devastating consequences” for food security over large swathes of Asia, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation warned in a report this week. The FAO says African swine fever threatens to spread from China, where the virus has hit at least 24 provinces since it was detected there in August. The disease is not transmissible to humans, but pork is a key source of animal protein in China, the Korean peninsula, and Southeast Asia, while China produces half the world’s pigs. The FAO says the risk of the virus spreading beyond China’s borders represents “an imminent threat for the pig population in this region” and could damage livelihoods and food security. There is no vaccine. This week, Chinese agriculture officials announced the culling of more than 916,000 pigs, Mongolia reported its first outbreak, and Australia said it had found traces of African swine fever in six pork products seized at its airports. Since the virus was first discovered nearly a century ago in Kenya, there have been outbreaks in parts of Europe, the Caribbean, and Brazil, including ongoing cases in parts of eastern Europe.


    IS reminds US it still exists in Syria

    Days after President Trump said he had begun withdrawing troops from Syria, in part because so-called Islamic State had been defeated, the group claimed a suicide bombing in the northeastern city of Manbij that killed 19 people, including four Americans (two soldiers, a contractor, and a civilian defense department employee). The pullout was already controversial, not to mention confusing – nobody seems to know how or when it is happening – and Wednesday’s attack raised further questions about the wisdom of the move. In northeastern Syria, where some 2,000 US troops plus civilian contractors offer support to Kurdish fighters taking on IS, humanitarians are concerned about the  uncertainty (A Turkish invasion? New alliances? Shifting front lines?) and how it will impact their ability to deliver aid. Read Aron Lund’s latest timely analysis for an understanding of the many possibilities, and what they mean for the estimated two million Syrians in areas under Kurdish control.


    Voting on peace in the Philippines

    On 21 January, parts of conflict-hit Mindanao in the Philippines will begin voting on a long-awaited peace deal that will grant more autonomy and a new homeland for the southern island’s Muslim population. The proposed Bangsamoro Organic Law is the culmination of years of negotiations between Philippine authorities and multiple iterations of Muslim armed groups on Mindanao. Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed into law a peace agreement with the largest Muslim armed group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The upcoming referendum, which continues on 6 February, is the next step to putting the law into effect. Recent polling suggests large parts of existing Muslim-majority areas on Mindanao support the law, which would create a new territory, known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with greater control of resources and taxation. But it’s uncertain whether adjoining areas like Cotabato City, wedged in the middle of an existing region, will vote to join. If the referendum passes, Mindanao still faces a challenge building peace. Authorities must oversee the decommissioning of thousands of armed fighters. But other armed groups continue to clash, including extremist fighters that have in the past drawn from the ranks of disaffected MILF members.


    Sexual harassment at the UN

    One in three UN workers has been sexually harassed in the past two years, according to survey results published this week. More than 30,000 UN agency staff and contractors took part in the online survey conducted in November by business advisory firm Deloitte. UN Secretary-General António Guterres expressed disappointment, not just at the results but also at the low participation – only 17 percent of those polled responded. He said it showed how far the UN has to go before it can “fully and openly” discuss sexual harassment and counter ongoing “mistrust, perceptions of inaction, and lack of accountability”. Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has reportedly ordered an internal investigation after a string of anonymous emails containing allegations of racism, sexism, and corruption were sent to top managers at the UN health agency last year. Both reports follow hot on the heels of the announcement last month that the head of UNAIDS, Michel Sidibé, will step down six months early, in June, after a panel found that he tolerated “a culture of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying, and abuse of power.” A preliminary report this week into the Oxfam scandal, which precipitated the #AidToo movement, called for a stronger system of safeguarding, for empowering and creating the space for staff to challenge negative power dynamics, and for investing in ways to more generally improve the culture of such organisations.

    In case you missed it:

    Democratic Republic of Congo: While global attention has been focused on Congo's disputed elections and the ongoing Ebola outbreak in the eastern regions, almost 900 people were killed in inter-communal clashes in western Mai-Ndombe province last month, the UN said. The fighting between Banunu and Batende communities took place in Yumbi, one of the towns excluded from the 30 December polls due to insecurity.


    The Hague: The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo of crimes against humanity, calling the case against him "exceptionally weak". Gbagbo spent more than seven years in custody, and was tried for allegations including involvement in election-related violence in 2010 and 2011, during which thousands of people were killed. Prosecutors said they would appeal the verdict and, initially at least, he remained behind bars.


    Syria: UNICEF reports that eight children, most under four months, have died in the past month at the makeshift camp on the Jordan-Syria border where some 40,000 Syrians have taken shelter. People at the camp, Rukban, are exposed to harsh winter conditions and are short on medical supplies and care; the last humanitarian convoy was in November.


    United States: Four humanitarian volunteers went on trial this week in Tucson, Arizona, facing misdemeanour charges for leaving water and other supplies in the desert for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Since 2017, at least 43 sets of human remains have reportedly been found in the wildlife refuge where the volunteers had left the provisions.


    Yemen: Days after the UN Security Council voted to send 75 observers to monitor a faltering ceasefire in Yemen’s northern port city of Hodeidah, bullets hit an armoured car carrying the mission’s head, retired Dutch general Patrick Cammaert. No one was injured, and the warring sides blamed each other for the incident.


    Zimbabwe: The UN has condemned Zimbabwe's “excessive use of force” in cracking down on protests, which were sparked by a dramatic fuel price hike last weekend. Five people have been killed, hundreds detained, and the government has imposed a total internet shutdown. There is concern that a prolonged crisis could lead to mass displacement and create a new humanitarian challenge for neighbouring countries.

    Weekend read


    Venezuela’s new humanitarians

    Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro faces mounting pressure at home and abroad as his disputed second term in office begins. Opposition politician Juan Guaidó is challenging Maduro’s rule, while some foreign governments, including the United States, are calling the Maduro regime “illegitimate”. Venezuela is mired in economic freefall and its citizens face severe food and healthcare shortages. The crisis has pushed some three million to flee the country, spilling the humanitarian emergency across the region. For our weekend read, journalist Susan Schulman has the latest from our reporting on local aid in crises. The story profiles Venezuela’s local NGOs, which have been forced to make drastic changes to respond to a humanitarian crisis the government denies. Local organisations that once focused on rights or development find themselves thrust into unfamiliar new roles: an education NGO that abandoned its training programmes because teachers were too busy queuing for food; a rights group that diverted its resources to feed hungry children. “We don’t know what a humanitarian emergency is,” says one local activist. “We didn’t know until now.”

    And finally...

    IRIN at Davos

    Look out for IRIN’s participation at next week’s annual World Economic Forum gathering of top business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland. Join us on Tuesday 22 January at 7:30am local time (0630 GMT), for a live stream of “Meet the New Humanitarians”, our headline event aimed at showcasing emerging actors in the humanitarian landscape, not to mention our new name and brand (In case you missed our big announcement).


    And if you don’t mind a quick 10-second sign-in form (or are already signed on), check out the Humanitarian Action entry on Transformation Maps, the WEF’s new attempt to harness technology and collaboration to tackle complex global issues and better inform decision-makers. IRIN’s Ben Parker was the key contributor.



    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN

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