Journalism from the heart of crises

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  • “Nowhere to go” on the front lines of climate change

    In a report released this week during the UN climate change summit in Poland, the UN Environment Programme warned of a widening gap between the cost of adaptation in developing countries – as much as $500 billion annually by 2050 – and what wealthier nations have promised.

     

    But while global leaders negotiate a path forward, communities on the front lines of climate change are already struggling to adjust to the impacts of extreme weather, shifting seasons, and volatile temperatures.

     

    IRIN reporters met with people coping with staggering changes to their ways of life. For some, the shifts have been life-altering: a family forced to flee their land for a city slum; a fisherman trying to farm because the seas are no longer productive; a drought-stricken herder who abandoned his livelihood only to see his new one threatened.

     

    Their stories, presented below, are a snapshot of everyday efforts to cope – and a sign of the enormity of adapting to climate change for those already living with its impacts.

     

    Lower-income countries say previous global commitments of $100 billion a year in climate financing for vulnerable nations are already short of what’s needed, and fail to account for the spiralling costs of disaster-inflicted loss and damages.

     

    “There are limits to the extent to which human and natural systems can adapt,” a bloc of 47 least-developed countries warned. “People are already suffering from the devastation that climate change brings.”

    “Nowhere to go” on the front lines of climate change
    “I have nowhere else to turn”
    From land to lake, drought threatens livelihoods in Kenya’s Turkana
    Fishermen with fish on the shore of Lake Turkana

    Severe drought forced lifelong pastoralist Eperit Naporon to abandon his goat herd to become a fisherman on northern Kenya’s Lake Turkana. But climate change is again threatening his livelihood.

     

    When 200 of his goats died during a drought last year, Naporon decided he had to find another way to feed his family and survive. For decades he had fished the waters of Lake Turkana – the world’s largest desert lake – not as a job, but to supplement the family’s diet. Now, the former herder is a full-time fisherman, supplying his catch to small-scale traders along the shore.

     

    But already, fish in the water have dwindled. “We used to get big and many fish very close to the shores. Now we have to go deeper in conflicted areas with our neighbours as that’s the only way to get a catch,” said the 43-year-old father of nine.

     

    “And what you bring home is much smaller fish compared to what we caught years ago.”

     

    Turkana County has long experienced periods of recurrent drought. However, increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are expected to increase the rates of evaporation at Lake Turkana. Government meteorological data show temperatures in Turkana County increased between two and three degrees Celsius (3.5 and 5.5°F) between 1967 and 2012.

     

    Naporon says the droughts have become longer, more frequent, and more economically damaging: “Nowadays, it dries almost annually. And when it hits, we lose everything... the cows, the goats; it's frustrating.”

     

    Now his second source of hope, the desert lake, is also under threat – not only from high levels of evaporation due to increased temperatures, but also from human interference.

     

    Hydroelectric and irrigation projects constructed along the Omo River will dramatically reduce freshwater input from the river into Lake Turkana, increasing its salinity levels and reducing fish-breeding areas and mature fish populations. The Omo River provides 90 percent of the water in Lake Turkana.

     

    As world leaders deliberate how to implement climate commitments aimed at limiting global temperature rise, the best Naporon can do is hope that the source of his current livelihood holds.

     

    “This is my only hope! I have nowhere else to turn,” he said. “Yes, I still keep a few goats, but with them dying in huge numbers nearly annually, it is no longer possible. So, this lake has to yield.”

    “When the river erodes, it takes away everything”
    Displaced by erosion, climate migrants cause Bangladesh’s slums to swell
    Portrait of a woman close up

    Raima Begum has little idea about global warming, but she’s living proof of the toll climate change is already exacting on the coastal communities of low-lying Bangladesh.

     

    In 2009, the Meghna River swallowed up her entire home and land on Bhola, an island perched near the mouth of the river on the Bay of Bengal. Bhola has gradually been shrinking over decades due to soil erosion exacerbated by rising sea levels and frequent flooding.

     

    “When the river erodes, it takes away everything,” Begum said.

     

    With her land and possessions gone, the 30-year-old mother of two made the lengthy upriver journey here to Kallyanpur Pora Bastee, a slum community on the margins of Bangladesh’s crowded capital, Dhaka. She wasn’t alone: residents say 80 percent of the people here are migrants from Bhola.

     

    Begum’s journey is part of a familiar rural exodus in Bangladesh, where some 300,000 to 400,000 new migrants head to urban centres like Dhaka each year. Reasons for migration are often complex, but wrapped in the economic motivations are environmental pressures – like drought, floods, and disappearing land – that force people like Begum to leave.

     

    Research by the World Bank warns there could be more than 40 million “internal climate migrants” in South Asia by 2050 – one third of them in Bangladesh.

     

    Today, river erosion claims about 10,000 hectares of land each year. Climate change accelerates this damage by increasing the risk and magnitude of extreme disasters such as Bangladesh’s worsening annual floods. A 2013 study on climate change’s impacts suggested that erosion along Bangladesh’s three major rivers could increase by 13 percent by 2050. Researchers say this rising loss of land could swell the ranks of Bangladesh’s climate migrants, like Begum and her family.

     

    The Begums lived off the land back on Bhola. But in the slums of Dhaka, they struggle to make ends meet. Her husband earns less than $100 a month, which is mostly taken up by rent and medicine for her ill son. She blames her family’s problems on the erosion that robbed them of their home, and drove them to the unfamiliar capital.

     

    “Isn’t erosion doing harm to us? Isn’t it our loss?” she said. “We’re now suffering in a foreign land.”

    “When there is no rain, you can’t grow anything”
    In Madagascar, “no rain” pushes farmers to the city
    Woman and child in front of a food market stall

    In a quiet corner of a market in Morondava, a city on Madagascar’s west coast, Alatsoa is tidying her stall: she sells spices and pulses, neatly displayed in their wholesale sacks.

     

    But this wasn’t always her life. Alatsoa, her husband, and their two sons arrived in the city in 2013 after drought in their home region of Androy in southern Madagascar made it impossible to continue working as farmers.

     

    “We grew maize and yam and sold it in local markets,” she said. “But when there is no rain, you can’t grow anything.”

    “No rain” has become an increasingly common concern in Androy as a result of climate change. The region has been in the grips of unprecedented drought since 2013, accentuated by an El Niño phenomenon that brought prolonged rain shortages. This has triggered a humanitarian crisis, with more than a million people now facing food shortages and malnutrition.

     

    This may be a sign of worse to come: forecasts agree that temperatures in the southernmost region will increase, drought will become more common, and rainfall more variable. With farming dependent almost entirely on rainfall, and very little in the way of formal irrigation or modern farming practices in Androy, drought has a disproportionate impact on this poor, underdeveloped region.

    “There is famine there, there is no water. Our future would have been very bleak if we had stayed,” said Alatsoa. “We would have managed to survive, but not live.”

     

    Climate change exacerbates internal migration flows in Madagascar, according to the UN. This trend is clear in Morondava’s market, where dozens of traders from Androy sell produce including bananas, mangoes, and poultry.

    Accompanying Alatsoa at the market, her youngest child Riantsoa, who was born in Morondava, is now three and looks small for her age. But she is likely in better health than many children back in Androy: the World Food Programme estimates that nearly half the children under the age of five in Madagascar suffer from chronic malnutrition or stunting, and the south is the worst-affected region.

     

    “Life here is good,” Alatsoa said. “We eat well and we are healthy. That’s the most important thing.”

     

    But she hopes that one day things will improve enough for the family to return to Androy. “When you’re old, you must go back to your homeland,” she said.

    “It’s all gone”
    Rising sea levels uproot coastal communities in Liberia
    A family in front of a broken building

    Before the sea removed a large chunk of his home in August, 30-year-old Lawrence Saweh sold dry goods at the market.

     

    “The sea damaged what I used to do for work,” he said. “I’m not doing anything now. It’s all gone.”

     

    Over the space of a weekend, his five-room house in the Funday quarter of Monrovia’s New Kru Town district was reduced to two. The sea tore through the concrete structure, demolishing the external walls and claiming what was inside, including his stock of goods to sell and his mother’s bed.

     

    Anything spared by the water was taken by looters who arrived once the sea had receded. “They even stole the zinc roofing,” he said, looking up at the sunlight streaming in from large holes through the remains of his home.

     

    In this coastal suburb, which sits on Bushrod Island, a portion of the capital that lies between the Saint Paul River and the Atlantic Ocean, many homes consist of a hotchpotch of corrugated iron sheets stuck into the sand.

     

    But Saweh’s home wasn’t always a beachside district.

     

    Since the 1970s, coastal erosion has reduced the size of Monrovia’s beachside communities by between two and seven metres annually and the densely populated New Kru Town, which is situated less than a metre above sea level, is among the worst-hit areas. Today, fishing boats nudge against the exposed foundations of Saweh’s home; 30 years ago, the neighbourhood extended more than 200 metres further out.

     

    Rising sea levels caused by climate change are expected to continue causing destruction to Monrovia’s coastal communities. A defence barrier is being built nearby, but this comes as small consolation to Saweh, whose home remains vulnerable and unprotected. “The sea is still finding a way,” he said, watching the saltwater washing into a channel behind his house.

     

    Saweh’s options are limited in the likely event of further destruction. “Where will I go?” he asked. “There’s nowhere to go; no money. That’s why we’re still here.”

    “I can’t predict it anymore”
    Warming oceans, erratic storms disrupt Indonesian fishing villages
    A fisherman in front of a boat and the sea

    Tuna fisherman Salsabila Makatika no longer trusts the ocean that has sustained his community for generations.

     

    Salsabila depends on tuna to support his family of 11 in Asilulu village, a small fishing community on Ambon Island near Indonesia’s eastern edges. But fish that used to be plentiful at the start of the traditional fishing season in early March now appear weeks later. And the storm season that once set in toward the end of the year begins weeks earlier, effectively shrinking his window to make a living.

     

    “I can’t predict it anymore,” said Salsabila, 51. “With the sudden wind changes, I can’t operate. I’ve gone many times out to the ocean but come back with nothing.”

     

    Climate researchers say ocean warming – one consequence of climate change – has already had a “profound” effect on global fisheries, shrinking fish catches in some regions and increasing them elsewhere. Climate change is expected to drive tuna stock here in the western Pacific further eastward and to higher latitudes. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that Indonesia will be among the hardest hit in Asia by this ongoing “redistribution” of fisheries.

     

    The volatility is already having an impact here in northern Ambon, where 90 percent of the families depend on fisheries. The tuna is sold to Indonesian companies, who ship it around the country and further abroad.

     

    Salsabila said he used to regularly return with seven large tuna in his boat’s icebox; these days, he catches two at most.

     

    This new reality has pushed some fishing families here to try and diversify their income: catching other types of fish, or balancing their fishing with farming. But other varieties of fish fetch far lower prices, and the amount of land suitable for farming on Ambon is relatively small, said Subair Abdullah, a professor at Ambon Islamic State University who has researched how Asilulu fishers are adapting to climate change.

     

    Subair believes the changing climate is putting the fishing community here at risk of a “food crisis” for which they are not prepared.

     

    “The fishermen impacted aren’t yet aware that what they’re experiencing is climate change,” Subair said. “It makes it hard to adapt.”

    This story was reported by Sophie Mbugua in Kenya, AZM Anas in Bangladesh, Emilie Filou in Madagascar, Lucinda Rouse in Liberia, and Ian Morse in Indonesia.

    (TOP PHOTO: Fishermen in Madagascar, threatened by the effects of global warming. CREDIT: Marco Longari/AFP)

  • Opinion | Ebola responders must learn language lessons from the 2014 epidemic

    August 2014 was a scary time in West Africa. Ebola was spreading rapidly and the international community was waking up to a disaster that ultimately killed more than 11,000 people.

    In the midst of the epidemic, UNICEF and Catholic Relief Services published ominous survey results: In Sierra Leone, one of the hardest-hit countries, 30 percent of respondents believed Ebola was transmitted by mosquitoes; another 30 percent believed it was an airborne disease. Moreover, four out of 10 respondents (42 percent) believed hot salt-water baths were an effective cure.

    Many reports evaluating how different agencies responded to the epidemic pointed to a lack of community engagement or understanding of local culture as key early failures. A big part of that failure was the inability of aid workers to converse in local languages.

    In the three most affected countries – Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – people speak more than 90 languages. Literacy levels are low, especially in the official national languages (French and English), and yet Ebola-related materials were mostly in written form in those languages.

    This early shortage of information for non-literate people and speakers of minority languages left significant swathes of the population in deadly ignorance.

    ACAPS, a non-profit specialising in research and analysis of the humanitarian sector, found that in both Liberia and Sierra Leone women died in greater numbers than men at the beginning of the outbreak, in part because they had less access to information and communication channels.

    Four years on, we are again responding to Ebola outbreaks: this year there have been two in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world.

    In the area affected by the latest outbreak, Beni Territory, the predominant languages are Swahili, Nande, and Mbuba. There are barely any trained translators for Nande and Mbuba, languages not supported by Google Translate, Microsoft Translator, Facebook, or Amazon.

    Community engagement is now a priority activity for some agencies. They write guideline documents and blogs about it, discuss local communication preferences, and make it very clear they are trying to learn the lessons of the past. Maps showing what languages are spoken where have proved useful to organisations working to curb the spread of the virus.

    The organisation I work for has helped provide local health workers and at-risk populations with localised translations of critical information. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the World Health Organisation are coordinating closely with local organisations, national health service providers, and the DRC Red Cross to make sure people get timely information in a language and format they understand and trust.

    It’s heartening to see that, even in such a complex and difficult context, aid agencies can and are trying to communicate effectively.

    Still, some aid agencies rely on untrained and under-supported national staff or community leaders to interpret or translate for them. Our research in other contexts has found that even local aid workers don’t always understand what they are being asked to interpret. Comprehension rates among those carrying out field questionnaires, for example, are as low at 35 percent in some places.

    Too often responders use a national language or regional lingua franca (such as Swahili), assuming, sometimes incorrectly, that everyone will understand.

    Weak data on the languages people speak and understand means there is no evidence base for developing effective communication strategies. Language support is often absent from humanitarian budgets and programme plans, which leads to a lack of high-quality translation and interpreting services and an inability to mobilise such services early on in a response.

    Think of language as a factor of vulnerability: it intersects with everything we do. Meaningful two-way communication fulfils a vital function in an emergency response, as pivotal as providing food, water, or health services.

    To keep themselves and their families safe, people need critical information in a language they understand, such as, in the case of Ebola, how to best wash their hands or bury their loved ones. To be effective and accountable, responders need to be able to understand the needs and concerns of affected people.

    Opinion | Ebola responders must learn language lessons from the 2014 epidemic
  • MeToo, AidToo: The next steps

    What can realistically help curb sexual exploitation and abuse in the aid sector? A flurry of reviews, new procedures, panels, regulatory enquiries, resignations, and public apologies have followed media revelations of serious misconduct among staff at NGOs, the Red Cross, and UN agencies. Will any of it make a difference?

     

    In the weeks since revelations about Oxfam hit the British media in February, humanitarian organisations have been discussing how to move forward. Drawing on an expert panel (full video here) held by IRIN and the Graduate Institute in Geneva on 22 March, and on interviews with analysts and non-profit managers, we’ve highlighted some topics at the heart of those discussions.

     

    Survivors and whistleblowers: Justice

     

    Amira Malik Miller, a Swedish civil servant and former aid worker, speaking at the Geneva event, said she was surprised at the level of media interest she has faced since coming forward to retell the story of her formal complaint, which led to the removal of Roland van Hauwermeiren from an NGO post long before he resurfaced in Oxfam Haiti. She said international aid workers in particular should take more responsibility to report misconduct.

     

    Asked what victims and survivors expect, Ignacio Packer, executive director of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), a Geneva-based NGO alliance, said, simply, "justice". Better in-country mechanisms for survivors to report incidents and initiate prosecution are necessary, he added.

     

    Governments in affected countries should regulate foreign NGOs more robustly, suggested Marie-Rose Romain Murphy, an NGO management advisor from Haiti.  “We should also implement a system of consequences” for breaches of regulations, she explained. “I know that some INGOs were prohibited to work in Haiti a few months ago because of lack of compliance. It’s a start, I guess.”

     

    Thea Hilhorst, professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at Erasmus University Rotterdam, suggested the need for country-level ombudspeople who can pursue cases at the local level.

     

    Antonia Mulvey, executive director of Legal Action Worldwide, called for more prosecutions of serious cases. She noted that often when staff abuse their power in order “to obtain sex in fragile or conflict-affected areas,” their actions are deemed sexual exploitation and abuse. “This is incorrect,” she said, “this is rape... We must start calling this conduct rape and demand that perpetrators are criminally prosecuted.”

     

    Calls for change: Organisational culture

     

    There’s no shortage of policies, but enforcement has been found wanting. Why?

     

    British NGOs Oxfam and Save the Children have appointed independent reviewers to look into their organisational culture. But codes of conduct, procedures, and policies can do only part of the job, said Packer; bringing change to agency cultures may take longer.

     

    A participant in the Geneva panel, Hannah Clare, former head of safeguarding at Oxfam GB, said: “We operate under some of the most entrenched power imbalances that you can imagine.”

     

    According to Romain Murphy: “What has happened is that organisations have set up policies and not really enforced them. It’s the sickening hypocrisy of the milieu.” A number of agencies, including within the UN, recently announced new hotlines and reporting processes.

     

    A safeguarding expert, who requested anonymity, remains sceptical: “Recent behaviour would indicate that much of these newly announced systems come off more as window-dressing than a real attempt to change the culture.”

     

    Boards: Too “chummy”

     

    Board-level accountability is another weakness: A campaign by former Save the Children staff argues that the group’s international board chairman, Alan Parker, should resign because of the handling of cases of in-house harassment. Jeremy Konyndyk, former US humanitarian aid chief, now with the Center for Global Development, a think tank, told the audience in Geneva relationships between the board and chief executive were too “chummy” and led to a “screw-up” in Save the Children UK’s investigations. Those cosy setups and resultant poor oversight form a pattern that is not uncommon for NGOs, he said.

     

    Checks and balances: Investigations and accreditation

     

    How do previous offenders keep getting get re-hired? What could work, practically and legally, to stop this? Save the Children has floated the idea of a “humanitarian passport”, possibly backed by Interpol. Other groups have proposed professional registers, like those for doctors. British NGOs are looking to adapt offender databases.

     

    But the unnamed safeguarding expert told IRIN that new systems aren’t needed and that, “We don't need Interpol – we need functioning HR departments.” Investigations that are abandoned when a staffer resigns are also a blind spot, the expert said, adding: “Organisations need to commit to complete investigations in a timely manner, even if the accused leaves during the process.”

     

    False allegations need to be weeded out of any tracking system, but the numbers of such accusations may in fact be low: only three in 200 cases that Clare investigated at Oxfam were malicious, she said, adding that unreported cases are far more likely than false reports.

     

    Donors: Demands for tracking

     

    Institutional donors have moved rapidly to demand details of past incidents and assurances of solid investigative procedures; some have even acknowledged the need to turn the spotlight on their own organisations. The demands have been exhaustive, but is their real purpose to “act tough” in order to reassure the public? “Donors need to be careful not to drive this issue underground through punishing organisations who come forward regarding internal findings and past faults,” Patricia McIlreavy, a vice president at US NGO alliance InterAction, said. “Donors and foundations must recognise that addressing this issue will take time and courage.”

     

    Packer’s organisation, ICVA, is a vocal advocate of simplifying paperwork in the humanitarian sector. He said aid workers are "spending a lot of time behind computers" dealing with demands for paperwork, which he doubts donors will ever be able to process or act upon effectively. He called for realistic donor expectations and realistic aid agency promises. Zero tolerance of abuses is not the same as "zero risk", he noted, adding that NGOs shouldn't "commit to things we cannot deliver".

     

    There is some new spending on the issue: Tamsyn Barton, CEO of British NGO consortium BOND, confirmed that new funding from the UK government will go to “design systems of accountability and transparency that have beneficiaries at their centre… to integrate safeguarding throughout the employment cycle, secure accountability through reporting and complaints mechanisms, and to ensure whistleblowers and survivors of exploitation and abuse receive support.”

     

    Prevention: Transparency

     

    “Greater prevention of sexual misconduct will only occur if organisations feel free to openly talk about the improvements needed within their own systems,” McIlreavy said. Packer said he hoped for a wider recognition that Oxfam is now "top of the class" in its procedures on the issue of sexual misconduct, although it is taking a disproportionate blow to its reputation. He doesn’t believe that aid agencies have cooperated to create a united front. Since the Oxfam scandal broke, some NGOs have already seen drops in their funding, leading to the closure of programmes with real and positive impact, he added.

     

    While transparency may at first appear to be painful and self-damaging for NGOs, it's like HIV testing, the unnamed safeguarding expert said, adding: “The numbers were alarming at first, but it helped give us a good picture of the problem so that we could tailor our responses to address the epidemic more effectively.”

     

    Donors, Konyndyk said, "should also take care to not, in effect, be penalising the organisations that have been the most transparent.”

     

    Obstacles: Costs and structural imbalances

     

    Using the analogy of the need to build housing after a disaster, Gry Tina Tinde, of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told IRIN that you can't just say shelter is important and expect shelters to go up, so why would it be any different with safeguarding?

     

    A “dollar figure" is attached to stepping up safeguarding systems and processes for all NGOs, Packer noted. Half of ICVA's members are local and national NGOs, and they might struggle to find the cash to set up strong safeguarding procedures, he explained. He is concerned such efforts could lead to reduced "diversity of humanitarian actors" in the sector and less support to home-grown aid delivery – “localisation”.

     

    Power imbalances are another obstacle, Romain Murphy noted. Sexual exploitation in the international aid environment can be fuelled by underlying attitudes, she said, including race: “The ridiculous and unhealthy imbalance of power – an expert mentality which too often tends to breed discounting of local leadership, condescension, ineffectiveness and – as we’ve seen too often – abuse.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Survivor of sexual violence in Jordan. CREDIT: Areej Abuqudairi/IRIN)

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    MeToo, AidToo: The next steps
    A briefing on how to move forward after Oxfam
  • EXCLUSIVE: Oxfam sexual exploiter in Haiti caught seven years earlier in Liberia

    The man at the centre of a sexual exploitation scandal at aid agency Oxfam was dismissed by another British NGO seven years earlier for similar misconduct, IRIN has found.

     

    A former colleague reveals that Roland van Hauwermeiren was sent home from his job in Liberia in 2004 after her complaints prompted an investigation into sex parties there with young local women. Despite this, van Hauwermeiren was recruited by Oxfam in Chad less than two years later and went on to work for them in Haiti, and then in Bangladesh for Action contre la Faim.

     

    The Swedish government’s aid department, alerted in 2008, also missed an opportunity to bring his behaviour to light and even went ahead that year to fund Oxfam’s Chad project, under his management, to the tune of almost $750,000.

     

    Last week, The Times reported that van Hauwermeiren was ousted from Oxfam for sexual exploitation and abuse when he worked in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Oxfam’s deputy CEO, Penny Lawrence, has since resigned, and the charity has faced a deluge of criticism, both for the abuse itself and its handling of the staff member. It now faces an enquiry by the charity regulator.

     

    Agencies in the humanitarian sector face serious challenges in tackling sexual exploitation and abuse, and some argue, at least today, that Oxfam’s safeguarding procedures are stronger than those of many other aid agencies.

     

    Repeat offender

     

    Seeing the Times article about van Hauwermeiren, Swedish civil servant and former aid worker Amira Malik Miller was shaken to read about the Haiti case, which pertained to alleged parties and orgies in 2011, seven years after her own experiences of him in Liberia. She couldn’t believe he was still active in the aid world, especially after she had blown the whistle on him and his colleagues, not once but twice.

     

    “Oh my God, he’s been doing this for 14 years,” she remembers thinking. “He just goes around the system… from Liberia to Chad, to Haiti, to Bangladesh. Someone should have checked properly,” she told IRIN.

     

    On two previous occasions, she thought she had done enough to stop his predatory behaviour.

     

    Malik Miller told IRIN how her initial complaints way back in 2004 led to van Hauwermeiren being pushed out of his job as Liberia country director of UK charity Merlin, a medical group now merged with Save the Children. An internal investigation into sexual exploitation and misconduct led to his departure, several Merlin staff members confirmed.

     

    Formal complaint

     

    In 2004, Malik Miller was being briefed in London for a new job: assistant to the Liberia country director and reporting officer there for the medical group Merlin. She had been warned by a colleague that there might be some “dodgy” things going on; she says it was clear they were related to sexual behaviour.

     

    Soon on the plane to the West African country, she was picked up at the airport personally by her new boss: van Hauwermeiren. Initially grateful for his hospitable gesture, her confidence quickly evaporated after he took a call during the drive and said to the person on the other end: “It’s a green light”. She told IRIN it was “really uncomfortable” as she “definitely felt that it was about me”.

     

    Positioned in van Hauwermeiren’s Monrovia office as the most junior expatriate staff member, Malik Miller couldn’t help but notice unusual patterns in his workday. “He was away a lot,” she explained, often returning to work with fresh clothes or wet hair.

     

    Assigned to stay in one of two guest houses rented by Merlin, she shared one nicknamed “London” with several colleagues, while van Hauwermeiren and a medical manager were in another called “Brussels”.

     

    One weekend morning, two or three weeks into her assignment, Malik Miller found one of her housemates, the financial manager, joking with and fondling a young Liberian woman in the kitchen. The woman appeared young, she said. Immediately, she took him aside and explained she wasn’t going to tolerate sex work in the house.

     

    “It can’t go on where I’m living,” she told him. On the Monday morning, she emailed a formal complaint to the Merlin head office in London.

     

    From that point on, Malik Miller said it was “quite intimidating” – the four senior managers “constantly had their eye on me”. When Merlin’s human resources officer called to check up on her (which they did frequently), she pretended it was her mother or sister on the line and stepped away so she wouldn’t be overheard.

     

    Insufficient proof

     

    Within a fortnight, Merlin had sent a senior two-person team to Monrovia. In the course of their investigation, they spoke to other aid groups, Liberian employees of Merlin, and the expatriate staff and management.

     

    One of Merlin’s investigating team, a former senior manager, confirmed Malik Miller’s account. He told IRIN he and his colleague rapidly reached their conclusion: the management team (“four middle-aged men”) were all engaged in paying for sex. They had been using Merlin cars to ferry women to and from the NGO’s two guest houses for paid sex and parties involving sex workers.

     

    “It was obvious,” he explained. “So many people had seen them with a succession of young local girls.” He said it was impossible to say if some of the women were under 18. On being told the findings of the probe, van Hauwermeiren “denied everything” but nevertheless agreed  to an immediate resignation.

     

    The investigating manager said Merlin lacked sufficient proof to pursue a prosecution, and that the report from Malik Miller was the first he’d heard of the Monrovia misconduct. However, a third source, an aid worker familiar with the episode, countered this, saying the London head office had already been aware of the allegations.

     

    Van Hauwermeiren and the rest of the Liberia management team were “shameless”, she told IRIN. “They acted like it was the most normal thing in the world.”

     

    In the wake of the civil war, “the behaviour at that time in Monrovia was insane,” she recalled. “I think Merlin were a bit worse, but plenty of UN types [were] doing the same. Lots of sleazy bars, girls on the beach…”

     

    “Tip of the iceberg”
     

    Such behaviour may have been rife then in Liberia, but the former Merlin manager who conducted the 2004 investigation told IRIN that sexual exploitation in the aid sector remains an enormous problem to this day.

     

    The latest revelations were just the “tip of the iceberg”, he said, calling for more to be done to professionalise the sector. He argued that the lack of a professional certification body means there is no central monitoring of individuals, while aid agencies are compromised by trying to protect their reputations.

     

    He said it was “staggering” that van Hauwermeiren was able to find re-employment with Oxfam and that he felt “real regret” that his actions didn’t prevent Oxfam recruiting the Belgian. He claimed he couldn’t recall the names and further careers of the other three managers but said they had all been replaced and left Merlin.

     

    Malik Miller, meanwhile, told IRIN she was partly satisfied with the response of the head office and believed her original complaint had at least been taken seriously. “I felt supported,” she said.

     

    However, she was left thinking that the disciplinary action taken had been a bit weak. Van Hauwermeiren had been allowed to resign, while the housemate who had brought a sex worker to the guest house was told to apologise and allowed to stay on.

     

    She started to doubt her own resolve, thinking: “Maybe it is OK… if we can’t prove that they’re under 18, hey ho…. maybe it's me overreacting.”

     

    She recalled her deeper concern at the time being about this apparent “culture of complacency” that allowed men, ostensibly working for charitable causes, to conduct this behaviour more or less in the open.

     

    In the sector, it’s “a system failure” and a “lack of responsibility to protect children and vulnerable women,” she said. The transactional sex was widely known by colleagues, male and female, who seemed to have accepted it as normal.

     

    Second attempt

     

    Four years later, Malik Miller was at her desk in the Swedish government’s aid department. A file landed on her desk: an application for funding from Oxfam in Chad. She opened it and was appalled to find van Hauwermeiren’s name listed as the country director.

     

    Per Byman, then humanitarian director of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), confirmed to IRIN that he had been alerted in 2008 by Malik Miller to van Hauwermeiren's previous record at Merlin.

     

    He told IRIN he had taken advice from SIDA's legal department on what to do about it, but couldn’t recall the outcome. He said he was "disgusted" at reading the recent news of van Hauwermeiren's behaviour.

     

    SIDA’s website reports a grant of $748,537 to Oxfam for Chad in late 2008. Documents related to the grant include the following: “Oxfam will work with women in their communities to enable them to have recognised value in the family due to increased financial and social capital."

     

    Asked by IRIN whether it knew of the Liberia case, Oxfam did not answer the question and provided a link to a previous statement. The Charity Commission of England and Wales told IRIN it had no records for Merlin in 2004, so it couldn’t comment on whether it was alerted to the case. Last year, the regulator asked charities to report any previously withheld cases of abuse.

     

    Save the Children’s press office was unable to comment in detail before publication, but pointed out its takeover of Merlin was in 2013. IRIN was unable immediately to reach Geoff Prescott, who was chief executive of Merlin at the time of the 2004 allegations.

     

    Looking back, Malik Miller said: "My experience of whistle-blowing has not been negative. I felt like I was listened to, and supported by colleagues, including senior managers. At least that side of the system worked. It's the follow-through that was lacking, and allows people like Roland [van Hauwermeiren] to continue to work in the sector."

     

    Liberian former aid worker Jeanine Cooper told IRIN she was "shocked" to hear of the case and outraged to see how "these predators are recycled in a cozy system".

     

    “[Back in 2004], the NGO scene was absolutely horrible; the UN too – impunity all around," said Cooper, who worked with the UN in several countries.

     

    The aid worker familiar with the Merlin case, who asked to remain anonymous, told IRIN her perception of what is normal in the sector needed readjustment after the experience of working with van Hauwermeiren.

     

    “My next field posting after Liberia was post- (2004 Indian Ocean) tsunami,” she said. “And I remember thinking, ‘oh, there are some old unattractive white men NOT having sex with prostitutes – weird’.”

     

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    Oxfam's sexual exploiter in Haiti was caught seven years earlier in Liberia
    Former colleague tells IRIN how she blew the whistle in 2004 and 2008
  • Angry anglophones, cholera contrast, and a Vanuatu volcano: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    A tale of two choleras

    As if their plight was not desperate enough, the more than 507,000 Rohingya refugees who have fled to Bangladesh in the past six weeks are now facing disease – measles, diphtheria, dysentery and cholera – thanks to serious concerns about the sanitation in sites where they are sheltering (see our report from Cox’s Bazaar this week for the gritty details). In one way (and only one, really), the refugees may be in luck: the World Health Organisation plus other agencies – together calling themselves the Global Task Force on Cholera Control – have just rolled out what they call an “ambitious strategy to reduce deaths from cholera by 90 percent” by 2030. The plan to reduce the estimated 95,000 deaths from cholera each year includes the deployment of vaccines, and 900,000 doses are on their way to Bangladesh to prevent a major outbreak among the Rohingya. But what about Yemen, where the International Committee of the Red Cross fears suspected cholera cases could hit one million by the year-end? A vaccine was on its way back in June, then it wasn’t. The key word to watch here is “suspected” in the cholera numbers – data collection is not easy in Yemen, but it matters for how an outbreak is handled. Check back with IRIN in the coming days for an update on response plans for Yemen: a country in dire need.

     

    Moving beyond crisis in Cameroon

     

    As the so-called “anglophone crisis” in Cameroon continues to escalate, Washington has weighed in with criticism and the UN’s human rights wing today called for political dialogue. On Wednesday, a US State Department spokesman said the Cameroon government’s “use of force to restrict free expression and peaceful assembly, and violence by protestors, are unacceptable.” According to Amnesty International, at least 17 people in English-speaking regions of the northwest and southwest of the country were shot dead and 50 wounded last weekend when they gathered to mark a symbolic declaration of independence. For years, Cameroon’s English speakers, who make up one in five of the country’s inhabitants, have complained of discrimination and marginalisation. These grievances recently hardened from calls for a return to federalism to demands for a fully independent state. Anglophone activists have used improvised bombs and arson attacks and kept many schools closed for more than a year. The African Union today issued its first statement on the crisis since January, saying it was “deeply concerned by the deteriorating security situation” and calling on all parties “to exercise restraint" in their pronouncements and to refrain from further acts of violence. The UN and the African Union could perhaps have applied more pressure sooner, but the real responsibility for calming things down lies with the government in Yaoundé. A first step, according to the International Crisis Group’s Richard Moncrieff, would be to acknowledge anglophones’ deep-seated grievances. Next, decentralisation measures outlined in a 1996 constitution – such as the election of regional presidents and councils – should be dusted off and put into practice. This would benefit the whole country, said Moncrieff, generating “a reinvigorated sense of national purpose and cohesiveness, and less risk of renewed violence in anglophone areas.”

     

    In volcano response, Vanuatu keeps it local

     

    Authorities in Vanuatu have evacuated the entire population of Ambae Island after alert levels for the simmering Monaro volcano reached the country’s second-highest stage in late September, putting some 11,600 Ambae residents in danger. A convoy of privately owned boats, commercial vessels, and small planes have shuttled residents to the safety of neighbouring islands. International aid groups have had limited involvement in the Vanuatu response; the government has invited only three UN agencies, as well as the Red Cross, to participate – leaving the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, on the sidelines. Aid officials told IRIN this is due in part to the aftermath of 2015’s devastating Cyclone Pam, where humanitarian groups flooded the country and were seen to have taken over response efforts. Ownership of emergency response is a contentious issue throughout the disaster-prone Pacific Islands, where small, cash-strapped governments are keen to accept international funding but mindful of maintaining control. In the Pacific, this has been central to debates over locally driven aid – one of the key outcomes of last year’s World Humanitarian Summit. For now, Vanuatu’s geo-hazards department has downgraded the Monaro volcano’s alert level, saying that continuing volcanic eruption appears to have stabilised. But Monaro is just one of six active volcanoes in Vanuatu. A volcano on Ambrym, 100 kilometres to Ambae’s south, remains in a volatile state.

    Suffering in peace

    Ellen Johnson Sirleaf steps down next week as Liberian president. How will history judge her? She came to power in 2005, just after the end of a civil war that killed more than 250,000 people and displaced another million. But the Harvard-educated technocrat has been more popular abroad than at home. The accusations are that she has been far too lenient when it comes to corruption, and far too slow to rebuild the economy and create jobs. She has used her international connections to bring in investment, but the needs are immense. “We are suffering in peace,” was the verdict of one man quoted by the FT.

    There’s also the charge she has not done enough to advance the cause of women: There is only one female candidate out of a field of 20 in Tuesday’s election. Old ghosts may still be haunting the ballot. Former warlord and president Charles Taylor is trying to influence the poll from his prison cell in the UK. And in an unlikely alliance, third-time presidential candidate George Weah has chosen Taylor's ex-wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, as his deputy. 

    Did you miss it?

    Kabila sits tight as Congo crumbles

     

    We won’t say, “we told you so”, but we did warn in our New Year listicle of humanitarian crises that President Joseph Kabila’s intention to cling to power would become a 2017 powder keg. In this excellent investigation, regular IRIN contributor Philip Kleinfeld unearths disturbing facts that paint a deeply worrying picture. Kabila appears to have the election commission in his pocket. It’s therefore no surprise to learn of irregularities in voter registration, and delay upon delay in dealing with the numerous logistical and bureaucratic hurdles ahead. This can’t go on for ever: The opposition is becoming increasingly uncompromising; unrest is spiking in several different regions; the economy is disintegrating; and army wages are starting to go unpaid. The logical conclusion is a popular uprising, but this risks sending Congo spiralling back towards the maelstrom of the 1990s and early 2000s when millions died from civil war and disease. The onus is on Kabila, after 16 years at the helm, to expedite free and fair elections and ensure a peaceful transfer of power. Don’t hold your breath.

     

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    Angry anglophones, cholera contrast, and a Vanuatu volcano
  • Why there’s no need to panic on UN peacekeeping cuts

    Fears are growing that the UN will be forced to drastically cut peacekeeping missions at President Donald Trump’s behest. Fortunately, it's a lot more complicated than that. First, Trump has to get his proposed budget through the US Congress and then, even if he does, where and when to cut the presence of blue helmets around the globe relies on tricky diplomatic manoeuvring and careful navigation of the UN's bureaucratic roadblocks. 

    The current UN peacekeeping budget, for the year ending 30 June, 2017, is $7.78 billion. The US provides 28.57 percent of this budget, followed by China and Japan at around 10 percent, then Germany, France, and the UK.

    The budget officially proposed by the Trump administration would significantly reduce financing to the State Department, international aid, and the financing of international organisations, including the UN. The so-called “skinny” budget contains only a few lines that directly reference peacekeeping. Namely, the US “would not contribute more than 25 percent for UN peacekeeping costs”.

    However, the US Congress already caps American’s peacekeeping assessment level at 25 percent. To meet its marginally higher existing obligations, that cap must be waived every year. “Trump is not creating this – it exists already,” pointed out Paul D. Williams, associate professor of international affairs at George Washington University.

    Recent reports suggest that the Trump administration wants to cut far deeper than the 25 percent ceiling, ripping as much as 40 percent from the $2.2 billion annual US contribution. A decrease from 28.57 percent to under 25 percent amounts to around $280 million. Incidentally, this is almost precisely the figure a 2014/15 UN Board of Auditors’ report identified as the total amount funded but not being spent by missions. A 40 percent cut would take roughly $1 billion from the UN's peacekeeping budget and reduce the US share, at existing levels, to more like 17-18 percent.

    The UN has often faced threats from American politicians, but this time the White House has telegraphed a clear intent to follow through on its promises: “We’re absolutely reducing funding to the UN and to various foreign aid programmes,” said Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director.

    “We should look at all 16 of them,” US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said at her confirmation hearing, referring to the number of blue-helmet missions around the world (14 are funded through the assessed peacekeeping budget). Haley will chair a 6 April meeting at the UN Security Council about the future of those peacekeeping missions. A letter she sent to Council members asks: "are current missions still 'fit for purpose?'"

    "Council members are encouraged to review missions and identify areas where mandates no longer match political realities and propose alternatives or paths towards restructuring to bring missions more in line with achievable outcomes," wrote the US mission. The letter, obtained by IRIN, asks many of the same questions already being posed by Council members – what to do "where there is no political process to support"; how to guard against mission creep; or whether it is "advisable, or even possible, to operate a mision without the strategic consent of the host government".

    Even if a far larger proposed cut does emerge when Trump’s more detailed budget is released in May, the reality is that it is Congress that ultimately decides the budget, not the White House. Many Republicans already balked at the proposed cuts, especially at the State Department, and the president is already locked in a major congressional battle over healthcare reform.

    "I do not anticipate that Congress will approve the UN-related provisions in the president’s budget without major revisions,” Peter Yeo of the UN Foundation told IRIN. "There are many congressional champions who appreciate peacekeeping, and want to ensure full-funding."

    Experts reserve their deepest concern for reductions in US financing to other UN programming, including UNICEF. “I think the proposed cuts to the UN’s humanitarian, climate and human rights work will have a far more negative impact,” said Cedric de Coning, senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.

    No one knows exactly how things will play out at this stage. For one, the White House has yet to even brief Congress on its budget proposals for the State Department. 

    “Depending on how all this shakes out, the cuts could end up being quite enormous across the various agencies and the UN itself,” Bathsheba Crocker, assistant secretary of international organisation affairs at the State Department during President Barack Obama’s administration, told IRIN. “I think we all need to be girding ourselves for that possibility.”

    But when it comes to peacekeeping, the US cannot pick and choose which missions it wants to fund.

    What each member state owes as a portion of the peacekeeping budget is determined every three years. The US share, like that of other countries, won’t be renegotiated until late 2018. That means that if the US cuts funding to 25 percent of the peacekeeping budget – regardless of what the total budget is – it will be in arrears for the first time in nearly a decade, according to the UN Foundation.

    America’s own federal budget won’t be passed for nearly a year. The UN’s peacekeeping budget, meanwhile, will be renewed at the beginning of July. “This cycle is rarely aligned with the Security Council mandate” of each peacekeeping mission, the UN’s website notes.

    "This is an attack on an institution based on prejudice and ignorance."

    All of these built in lags – at times criticised as roadblocks to simplifying UN bureaucracy – could now serve as buffers. New UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has already committed himself to deep reforms and will look to carefully decide how and where best to trim.

    Some Security Council diplomats say there is room to make missions work better, and that could mean some cuts in funding – though such efforts may now be associated with the White House, where top officials have shown contempt for the UN as an institution. "There is an opportunity to have a tougher approach with the UN on where they spend their money, using money as an incentive for reform,” insisted one non-American Security Council diplomat. If the US approves deep funding cuts without a parallel re-assessment at the UN, diplomats may be less sympathetic. 

    US reviews of peacekeeping missions, noted de Coning, “will probably prompt the UN Secretariat to also do its own internal reviews, and other member states, especially those in the Security Council, will also need to form their own opinions, and have a basis for doing so.”

    “This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is always good to be under pressure to review your goals, objectives, effectiveness, and efficiencies,” he added. “The proposed cut to 25 percent will be politically symbolically important for the US, but the real reduction in costs would come from pressure to bring down the overall $8 billion budget.”

    Others point to the fact that peacekeeping is hugely cost effective for countries like the US. As one recent analysis points out, the US pays $2.1 million every year for each servicemember deployed in a war zone; the equivalent figure for a deployed UN peacekeeper is $24,500.

    “I think this budget proposal reveals this administration’s slash-and-burn approach to the UN is ideological,” said Williams. “It is not the product of a thoughtful review process carried out and then implemented to find sensible reforms. This is an attack on an institution based on prejudice and ignorance.”

    “Such cuts would mean the UN Security Council would not be able to achieve a range of objectives it authorised in the name of maintaining international peace and security,” he added.

    But several missions were already in the process of shutting down or transitioning to a smaller footprint, so efficiencies can also be made, even if they don’t make the kind of dent in spending that the White House appears intent on achieving.

    “There are actually quite a lot of straightforward ways to shrink the peacekeeping budget by reasonably high amounts in the next several years,” said Richard Gowan, an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on the UN.

    IRIN took a look at the options, mission by mission:

    Cutting and shrinking

    MINUSTAH – Haiti

    UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has recommended that the mission in Haiti be drawn down and replaced with a smaller UN presence by October of this year. That move is complicated both by disagreements over what the new presence would entail – or if there should be one at all – and the UN’s ongoing response to a cholera epidemic that its own peacekeepers introduced in 2011. A trust fund set up to finance the UN’s $400 million cholera response strategy currently contains just $2 million. MINUSTAH’s current mandate will expire in less than one month – on 15 April.

    Currently, there are nearly 5,000 uniformed personnel deployed, including 2,370 military and 2,601 police. An additional 1,245 civilian personnel are in the country, according to the Department of Peacekeeping. The mission’s budget is currently $345.9 million.

    UNOCI – Cote D’Ivoire

    In April 2016, the UN Security Council voted to close down UNOCI by June of this year, and lifted an arms embargo on the country, and travel bans. By 30 April, all uniformed and civilian personnel are to leave the country. The mission’s budget for the fiscal year ending June 2017 is $153 million.

    UNMIL – Liberia

    After more than 13 years, the UN’s mission in Liberia will close at the end of March. Its approved budget through this year was $187 million.

    Maximum overall savings: $685.9 million

    The Big Missions

    The UN’s five most expensive missions are MONUSCO, deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; UNMISS, deployed in South Sudan; UNAMID, deployed in Darfur, Sudan; MINUSMA, deployed in Mali; and MINUSCA, deployed in the Central African Republic. Together, the five missions soak up more than $5.2 billion, or two-thirds of the entire peacekeeping budget.

    In order for significant cuts to be made, “you have to see some major changes to existing missions like CAR or Mali or DR Congo,” said Peter Yeo of the UN Foundation. “If you want to get serious numbers,” said Crocker, “it’s very hard to do without these big missions taking some hits.”

    MONUSCO – The Democratic Republic of Congo

    The UN’s mission in the DRC is its most expensive peacekeeping operation, with an approved budget of $1.23 billion. Nearly 19,000 peacekeepers are deployed in the country, and Guterres recently requested that the Security Council send 320 additional police to handle election-related unrest. The Council meets in March to consider mandate renewal. It could be a first sign of how Haley’s US mission plans to throw its weight around. But it may also be too soon to gauge, with the ink on the White House budget barely dry, and little sense of how Congress will proceed. Recent violence and the disappearance of two UN experts and their teams have ratcheted concerns.

    At the Security Council, France has circulated a draft resolution to renew the mandate. Last week, France’s UN ambassador Francoise Delattre said he was open to “negotiations aimed at reforming MONUSCO,” as long as they remained focused on protection of civilians and preparing for elections. “We should not be playing with fire when it comes to such high stakes,” he added.

    "What commitments should the Council expect of countries hosting UN peace operations where the UN is helping the government to establish its authority throughout its territory," asked the US note, specifically referring to MONUSCO, as well as missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and Somalia. 

    “Negotiations around MONUSCO are going to be the first evidence of how these battles play out,” said Akshaya Kumar, deputy UN director at Human Rights Watch. “In many ways you need MONUSCO to do more, not less, in the coming year. Slimming down the mission at the same time as the country is gearing up for elections could be really problematic.”

    “My guess is that the DRC mission will stay in some capacity, although the government pretty much wants it to leave,” assessed David Curran, a peacekeeping research fellow at Coventry University.

    UNMISS – South Sudan

    Authorised on 8 July, 2011 – one day before South Sudan became independent – the mission’s task changed drastically following the outbreak of civil war in December 2013. Today, the mission protects a quarter of a million displaced South Sudanese civilians at its bases, including more than 120,000 just in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State. The mission has been censured for previous failures to intervene in violence against civilians and aid workers.

    It would be hard to rationalise shutting down a mission in a country where UN officials have repeatedly highlighted the threat of genocide, and where famine has been declared in some areas. But UNMISS may find its funding at risk simply because of the need to find ways of overall tightening.

    With an approved budget of $1.08 billion, UNMISS is the second most expensive UN mission. According to State Department figures, the US financed the mission in 2016 to the tune of $315.47 million. The UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) reports that 12,923 uniformed personnel are currently deployed, along with 1,973 civilians. In December 2016, the mission’s mandate was renewed and the Security Council reaffirmed the authorisation of a 4,000-member “Regional Protection Force”. That force has yet to be allowed into the country, underscoring the impasse.

    UNAMID – Darfur, Sudan

    UNAMID is the UN’s *third costliest mission, and its first hybrid deployment. 2017 marks the 10-year anniversary of the joint UN-African Union enterprise, and at an annual price tag of $1.03 billion, it has been one of the “most expensive endeavours ever conducted” by the organisation. Beset by scandals and an inability – some say unwillingness – to operate freely, the mission has long been under pressure. UN officials say it is not always easy to quantify the return on investment for UNAMID – a metric the US now appears bent on amplifying. In a region historically vulnerable to genocide, it acts as a deterrent (a weak one, critics say) and provides leverage against the government in Khartoum. Several Security Council diplomats told IRIN that UNAMID needs at the very least to be reformed.

    The 16,000-strong mission is currently mandated through June 2017. “It may be the case that the calls for UNAMID to leave are more open now than ever before,” said David Curran, a peacekeeping research fellow at Coventry University.

    “It is a very troubled mission for sure; it is also a very troubled part of the world,” offered Crocker. The Security Council, she said, “should make sure that any decisions that are made about downsizing the mission are made on a realistic strategic assessment of the needs on the ground.”

    Several diplomats suggested that the US may negotiate hard on UNAMID, potentially raising the threat – perhaps feigned – of vetoing its renewal.

    “I would imagine Darfur (UNAMID) may receive the most attention as the protection situation there is perhaps less acute than in DRC and South Sudan,” said de Coning.

    MINUSMA – Mali

    The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali is one of its most expensive – and also one of the deadliest. More than 70 peacekeepers have been killed since MINUSMA’s deployment in July 2013, following French intervention against extremists and rebel groups. Blue helmets are targeted by and involved in fights with regional al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremists. Currently, more than 13,000 peacekeepers are deployed.

    Because of the mission’s counter-terrorism role, some diplomats consider it better safeguarded from cuts than other deployments. It is also relatively new by UN standards. In February, Canada reportedly delayed deployment of its peacekeepers to the country because it was wary of US plans across all missions. “The overall security situation remains worrying,” UN peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous said last week during a visit.

    MINUSMA will cost $933 million in the fiscal year ending June 2017.

    MINUSCA – Central African Republic

    A mission notorious for rampant sexual abuse among its peacekeepers, some diplomats consider MINUSCA too recently created for large scale retrenchment. Deployed in April 2014, there are currently more than 12,000 peacekeepers in the country. MINUSCA will cost roughly $920 million this year.

    On 16 March, Haley met with Faustin-Archange Touadéra, president of the Central African Republic. According to a readout, she expressed America’s “commitment” to both MINUSCA and “how to make it as efficient and effective as possible.” In a speech before the Security Council on the same day, deputy US representative Michele Sison also largely endorsed the mission; repeating that America wanted to make “MINUSCA an even more efficient and more effective peacekeeping mission”. She did note the sexual exploitation and abuse tied to the mission, but did not criticise its staffing.

    The current mandate expires in November 2017.

    unmiss_1.jpg

    Annemieke Vanderploeg/UNMISS
     

    Other Missions

    UNIFIL – Lebanon

    The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has been deployed in the country since 1978. Its mandate has changed several times, most recently after the 2006 Lebanon War involving Israel. UNIFIL was subsequently expanded by the Security Council. Rarely mentioned in the press, its presence and price tag are not small: 11,425 UN personnel, including 10,577 troops, are currently deployed. The mission currently has an approved budget of $488 million.

    When UNIFIL’s mandate was last renewed, in June 2016, the Security Council requested that the secretary-general conduct a strategic review. Delivered on 9 March, it recommended reductions in the number of maritime crew personnel deployed by the mission, from 1,200 to 900, and that helicopters be flown less. Larger cuts were not outlined, although the review reiterated that “UNIFIL should continue to optimise its staffing complement and resources to support the effective and cost-efficient implementation of its mandate.”

    UNISFA – Abyei

    The United Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei was deployed in June 2011. Set up as an interim force, the current mission costs a sizeable $268.5 million. More than 5,300 military personnel are deployed. The current mandate runs through May of 2017. Much of the Security Council’s attention has been drawn to the other more expensive missions in the Sudans – UNAMID and UNMISS.

    UNMIK – Kosovo

    The UN’s mission in Kosovo, deployed since 1999, costs $36 million per year. In a February report, Guterres supported the continued resourcing of the mission, which he said “in it’s current configuration, is well suited to respond to challenges on the ground.” But the US representative told the Security Council in February: “we believe UNMIK is over-resourced and overstaffed in comparison with its limited responsibilities.”

    UNFICYP – Cyprus

    Amid negotiations between Turkish and Greek Cypriot representatives, the UN in January approved a six-month extension of the mission there. One of the UN’s oldest missions, UNFICYP costs a modest $55 million per year.

    UNMOGIP - India/Pakistan

    The United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan is one of the smallest peacekeeping operations. Only 111 total personnel are deployed; the budget through 2017 is $21 million.

    UNTSO – Middle East

    The United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO) is the UN’s oldest current peacekeeping mission. Founded in 1948, today it assists other deployments in the region. Its budget for the fiscal year ending in 2017 is $68 million.

    MINURSO – Western Sahara

    The UN’s mission in Western Sahara was created in 1991. Last year, it was the center of controversy when then secretary-general Ban Ki-moon referred to the Moroccan “occupation” of the territory. Today, the mission is involved in ceasefire monitoring and supporting local families. Current strength is around 480 personnel, including 241 peacekeepers. Its budget through mid-2017 is $56 million.

    UNDOF - Golan Heights

    UNDOF was mandated in 1974 to supervise disengagement between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights. Since 2013, fighting inside Syria has forced most of its peacekeepers into Israeli-controlled territory. The mission currently deploys around 830 peacekeepers, at a cost of $47 million per year. Its mandate was renewed in December until 30 June, 2017.

    (*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that UNAMID was the second most expensive UN peacekeeping mission)

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    A look at the options, mission by mission
    Why there’s no need to panic on UN peacekeeping cuts
  • How a gold mine has brought only misery in Liberia

    The maths was merciless. Siah* had the equivalent of $5 in her pocket but needed $15 to treat her youngest son Joseph’s malaria. She had travelled an hour to the nearest clinic only to discover she couldn’t afford the medicine. Joseph died that day, as she cradled him in her arms.

     

    Siah lives in Kinjor, a small town in the lush forests of western Liberia. Just a few steps from her home, Liberia’s largest commercial gold mine, New Liberty Gold, plans to dig out a billion dollars-worth of the precious metal.

     

    The Liberian government and its multilateral funding partners see commercial mining as a path to development in a country still recovering from the impact of 11 years of civil war.

     

    Under the law, communities are obliged to give up their land rights and move, in return for compensation. But a months-long investigation by IRIN, Le Monde Afrique, and 100Reporters reveals that financial reward isn’t always forthcoming from the foreign mining operations.

     

    To make way for New Liberty Gold, 325 families in two villages, Kinjor and Larjor, had to abandon their homes, farms, and artisanal mines that had provided some income. In return for their move to a new village, also named Kinjor, and carved out of the forest near the mine, the company promised to make life better: new houses, a school, hand pumps – and what could have made all the difference to Joseph – a clinic. 

     

    Construction began on the mine in 2014, and the first gold sales came a year later. Even though the company describes the operation as a “key asset”, the promised better amenities are yet to materialise years later, and there has already been one major chemical spill that has polluted the environment.

     

    New Liberty Gold has the backing of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, which since 2014 invested $19 million and became a key shareholder. That support was predicated on a 155-page Resettlement Action Plan by the company, which listed its planned $3.9 million investments in the new Kinjor.

     

    During the IFC board meeting that approved the mining project, the US delegate formally raised “serious concerns” regarding “the environmental and social risks posed”. The US urged the IFC “to work with the company to ensure that all appropriate funds are set aside for this [resettlement] plan”.

    The cost of “progress”?
    Hundreds of families forced to make way for New Liberty Gold mine
    The World Bank is a key shareholder in the multi-million-dollar project
    The promised resettlement package remains largely undelivered
    A March 2016 accident released arsenic, cyanide into nearby river
    Dead fish, skin rashes reported by local riverside communities
    Responsibility hard to pin down due to opaque offshore ownership
    The origins of conflict
    A history of displacement

    Projects funded by the World Bank have displaced more than three million people between 2004 and 2013 in 124 countries, according to data published by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.  Those shortcomings were acknowledged by Bank president Jim Yong Kim in 2015, after an internal review found “major problems” that caused him “deep concern”.

     

    But the Bank and the IFC do not appear to have held New Liberty Gold accountable for failing to meet its basic obligations, despite a commitment made by the IFC on its website to help the company “implement best practice standards” in Kinjor.

     

    “I’m really disappointed to say that [this case] is one amongst many," said Jessica Evans, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "We’ve seen time after time serious failings by the World Bank and the IFC when it comes to resettlement."

     

    That is little comfort for Siah. Outside a neighbour’s house in Kinjor, she fought back the tears to speak about her son’s death. Her voice rose in anger when she listed the failings of New Liberty Gold: “no hospital here, no safe drinking water”.

     

    “There are toilets right next to the water pump. It makes us sick,” she added. “We are suffering.”

     

    The owner of the mine, Avesoro Resources Inc. (previously called Aureus Mining), has built a school and installed some water pumps. But the rest of the action plan, the compensation due for uprooting people against their will, remains little more than a wish list.

    Still waiting

    Controversy at mining projects like New Liberty Gold is not new in Liberia. For nearly 100 years, natural resource extraction – from rubber to minerals – has been steeped in violence and corruption. Opaque investments carry a tremendous risk in the context of such a fragile state as Liberia.

     

    In one of Kinjor’s narrow alleys flanked by mud huts, Yarpawolo Gblan, an old man in a faded black polo shirt, stepped forward: “Are you a journalist? Come and see my house!”

     

    We sat on a bench, our backs to the wooden wall of a hut scrawled with the phone numbers of Gblan’s children. Three years ago, Avesoro had forced him to move from what had been his home for a decade, into “temporary” accommodation, to make way for the mining project.

     

    The huts the company provided have just two small rooms: not nearly big enough to house Gblan’s family of eight. He extended the original structure as best he could, using his own resources.

     

    The huts were meant to be a stopgap measure, until the displaced families could move into 325 “improved houses” promised by the company. The unfinished shells of those houses stand in ordered rows, just a few hundred metres away.

     

    But construction stopped longer than a year ago. Weeds now grow between the brick walls, and slimy bright-green algae thrive in puddles fed by rain falling through where roofs should be.

    The company man

    Half a day’s drive from Kinjor, in a wealthy suburb of Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, a striking white-walled villa serves as the headquarters of New Liberty Gold.

     

    Debar Allen is the company’s general manager, a physically imposing man who fills his generously appointed office. From behind a large wooden desk, he explained in a calm baritone that people like Gblan, who were supposed to have been resettled, “do not want to move from where they are”.

     

    He offered two reasons for the construction delay: the need “to get going with the mining project because we were running out of funds”, and the desire of those being resettled to build their own permanent houses where they are now. “Rather than bringing contractors from Monrovia, we have to team up with them,” he said.

     

    The World Bank, via email, offered a different explanation. With “the Ebola outbreak, the company faced significant construction delays. As a consequence, the project experienced some significant challenges that impacted its financial/cash flow position.”

     

    The result was that “the full implementation of several aspects of the project had to be postponed, and some of the permanent houses have not yet been completed.”

     

    But in February 2015, the IFC provided a $5.3 million cash injection for New Liberty Gold to help the company “cope with additional costs” as a result of the Ebola outbreak, and to “support the company’s ongoing work in Liberia”. 

     

    In reality, the company should have finished the resettlement houses several months before Ebola hit Liberia. Moreover, the outbreak was brought under control more than 18 months ago, yet the new housing construction will not be completed any time soon.

     

    Allen explained: “We signed with the [local] leaders a memorandum of understanding that postpones the completion to the end of next year”. That means December 2017.

     

    Community representatives told IRIN that the company had asked them to sign numerous times, accepting the new deadline, and that they eventually gave in. They had reasoned that whether they signed or not, the houses would not be built any faster.

     

    The World Bank did not reply to IRIN’s requests for more details on the resettlement timeline and the mine’s failure to make good on its promises to the community.

     
    Dead fish and rashes

    In March 2016, an accident at New Liberty Gold mine released cyanide and arsenic, byproducts of the mining process, into a nearby river that serves villages downstream. In Jikando, where people use its water to fish, bath and wash clothes, they began to see dead fish floating. Soon, they started developing skin rashes themselves.

     

    A slim teenager lifted his t-shirt to show a rash he has had since shortly after the spill. He told IRIN it still itched but said: “it doesn’t worry me all the time”. Several mothers confirmed their children were still afflicted by similar rashes. No medical tests have been conducted on villagers who’ve reported similar effects.

     

    Avesoro’s Allen said the company found out about the leak in April, after a phone call from the local chief in Jikando. He noted that the company now regularly delivers frozen fish to replace the poisoned ones, as the community’s “source of protein was from the creek”.

     

    On 14 April, shortly after the leak, the Liberian Environmental Protection Agency fined the company. On 10 May, Avesoro publicly disclosed the spill to shareholders, stating that its “investigations to date indicate no adverse impact on any human settlement”. 

     

    It’s difficult to pin responsibility for the mine’s failures on any individual because it’s hard to identify the successive true owners of New Liberty Gold. Aureus is part of a long list of shell companies named in the Panama Papers leak, many of them registered in opaque jurisdictions. 

     

    The latest twist in the ownership trail came at the end of 2016 when MNG Gold, headquartered in Turkey, took over Aureus and changed its name to Avesoro Resources Inc.

    The warlord

    Investing in companies with complex ownership is not unusual for the IFC. A recent report by Oxfam found that 84 percent of the IFC’s investments in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 used “secrecy” jurisdictions.

     

    But the roots of the New Liberty Gold project stretch back before 1995, when a resource extraction license was issued by former warlord turned president Charles Taylor to a mysterious company called KAFCO. 

     

    The permit changed hands a few times and, today, Avesoro holds its permit via a wholly-owned subsidiary, Bea Mountain Mining Corp – a company created in 1996 by Keikurah B. Kpoto, one of Taylor’s closest associates.  

     

    The exploitation of Liberia’s gold and diamonds allowed Taylor, convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court in 2012 and now serving a 50-year prison sentence in the UK, to fund his war effort.

     

    In 1998, foreign interests bought Bea Mountain Mining. The beneficiaries of the sale were well hidden. According to a document IRIN procured, three quarters of its capital belonged to a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. The rest was held by owners of bearer shares.  

     

    Bearer shares are the vehicles of choice for the corrupt because they are owned by whoever holds the paper certificates, just like cash. There is no trace of their owner in company records and they can easily become covert payments for pretty much anything.

     

    The World Bank nevertheless wrote that it had undertaken due diligence on New Liberty Gold, an investigation that included “desktop reviews, several meetings with Aureus management and a site visit”. 

     

    Over the past decade, the IFC has spent more than $200 million on projects like New Liberty Gold. It has a seemingly unshakable faith that commercial mining can deliver development that will trickle down to communities like Kinjor.

     

    As for Siah: Her last-born is now buried. If she once believed the promises of New Liberty Gold, that is certainly no longer the case. “The company is doing nothing for us,” she told IRIN. “If the company had built a hospital here, [his death] would not have happened.”

     

    (This investigative report is being jointly published by 100Reporters, IRIN and Le Monde Afrique. 100Reporters is an award-winning investigative news organisation based in Washington, DC. Its objective is to reveal untold stories on corruption, transparency and accountability. IRIN delivers unique, authoritative and independent reporting from the front lines of crises to inspire and produce a more effective humanitarian response. Le Monde Afrique is a pan-African francophone media for news, reporting, analysis and debates.)

    Photos:

    - The mainroad of new Kinjor

    - Yarpawolo Gblan sitting in front of his “temporary house”

    - Unfinished "new houses"

    - A child's hand after the chemical spill

    - Left to right: Tambakai Jangaba, Taylor, Foday Sankoh (leader of the Sierra Leonean rebel RUF), and Kpoto

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  • “People’s science”: How West African communities fought the Ebola epidemic and won

    Three years on from the start of the West African Ebola epidemic, lessons are still being learned. And the most surprising are not coming from the scientists, but from the affected communities themselves; about how, with hardly any help, they tackled the virus and won.

    One of the curious aspects of the epidemic, which shook Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, was the way in which the number of cases started dropping before the main international response was in place. In one area after another, the infection arrived, spread rapidly, and then – apparently spontaneously – began to decline.

    Ebola first crossed over from Guinea into Liberia's Lofa County in March 2014. A rapidly erected treatment centre at Foya, on the border, was soon full to overflowing. In September, it was treating more than 70 patients at a time. But by late October, the centre was empty.

    People’s science

    Paul Richards, a veteran British anthropologist, now teaching at Njala University in Sierra Leone, has been worrying away at this phenomenon. He is convinced the main driver of the reduction was what he calls “People's Science”; the fact that people in the affected areas used their experience and common sense to figure out what was happening, and began to change their behaviour accordingly.

    He told a recent meeting at London's Chatham House: “One of the pieces of evidence which makes me think that local response was significant is that the decline first occurred where the epidemic began, so that the longer the experience you had of the disease, the more likely you are to see tumbling numbers. So, someone was learning… People ask me, 'How long does it take to learn?'  And we don't know, but on the basis of this case study, it's about six weeks.”

    A lot of national and international effort was put into public health education, and the messages broadcast on radio were very widely heard. But initially they were not very helpful, with a lot of emphasis on the origin of the disease, and warnings not to handle dead animals or eat bushmeat. 

    In fact, it now seems likely that only the very first case came from a wild animal; all subsequent cases were caused by human-to-human transmission.  

    The villagers interviewed by Richards and his team were sceptical about the government’s warnings: “If eating bushmeat is dangerous, why did no one get ill before”, was a typical question raised.

    He found the conclusions they drew from their own observation and experience were much nearer the mark. 

    “We know our own people,” they told him. “So, we know that it’s socially obligatory to wash the bodies of dead people and to attend their funerals. We monitor very closely who's not doing that, who's not paying attention to their social duties.  

    “So, it very quickly dawned on us that the people who were attending funerals were the ones that were dying, the good people, the ones that do their social duty,” Richards recounted. “So, from that we knew that it was something to do with funerals and we started modifying our behaviour.”

    Getting organised

    The areas where Richards was working in Sierra Leone had been badly affected by the civil war. But that period had taught them how to organise, and how to depend on their own resources. The Kamajor civil defence groups, which had protected villages from the notoriously brutal RUF rebels, were revived as taskforces to track cases, enforce quarantine, and bury bodies safely.

    Across the border in Liberia, the same thing was happening. Nyewolihun, a small village in the forest, not far from the original source of the outbreak, put itself into quarantine. 

    Matthew Ndorleh, the headmaster of the local school, told IRIN: “We didn't allow anyone to go and sleep in any other place, and we didn't allow anyone to come in. We set up a taskforce of young men to man checkpoints at all the entrances to the village, and everyone obeyed it.” 

    It was hard, and having to rely on its own resources meant the village ran short of rice, but although Ebola reached the nearby town of Kolahun, Nyewolihun stayed safe.

    It is clear that one of the missed opportunities in the outbreak was a failure to encourage these local initiatives and give local people the tools and techniques they needed to do the job. 

    Governments and aid agencies preferred to recruit and train official burial teams rather than teaching people how to bury their own dead safely. But there were numerous complaints about difficulties in contacting these teams, long delays, and disrespectful attitudes to the deceased. More isolated communities had no alternative but to take care of their own dead, whether they were trained and equipped or not.

    DIY response

    American anthropologists, who interviewed people in urban areas of Liberia during the outbreak, found a sense of frustration that the information campaigns told them about the origin of Ebola, how it was spread, but didn't give them practical advice on how to care for sick relatives, how to transport them safely to hospital, and what to do with corpses when the burial teams didn't arrive. 

    They wanted training, and they wanted access to protective equipment. “We have heard the messages,” said one interviewee, “but most people do not know how to practicalise them.”

    This was because Ebola is such a dangerous disease that home nursing, the transport of the sick, and do-it-yourself burials were being strongly discouraged. It took six months for Sierra Leone to finally produce a poster giving some advice on caring for the sick, and even then it was headlined, “Taking Care of Someone with Suspected Ebola: Be Safe While You Wait”. The clear message was that this was only a stopgap – professional care had to be the norm.

    And yet, in reality, people did have to take care of Ebola patients at home. The early stages of the disease are not obviously different from any other fever, and so would be nursed in the usual way. Once Ebola became obvious, patients were sometimes too sick to be safely moved, especially from off-road villages where the only form of patient transport was a hammock. 

    Richards met communities that had worked out the dangers of hammock transport for themselves, without it having been mentioned in official health messaging.

    Care in the community

    Some patients were kept at home because they and their families were terrified of the big Ebola treatment centres, where patients, once taken away, disappeared behind high fences and were often never seen again. 

    “They would transport you from your village to Freetown. You had never been to Freetown, never seen these town places,” explained Esther Mokuwa, who worked with Richards on his study. She was told by patients: “If you take me from my loved ones, even the discouragement would kill me.” 

    Mokuwa said the Community Care Centres that were eventually constructed in late 2014, although modest, were much more acceptable. 

    “People could go there; they had their colleagues working inside who could take messages; so they could relax. At the CCC, even though you were very safe, you could see them, and even stand talking. You could cook food and bring to them in the centre. Like pepper soup – pepper soup is very important in [West] Africa!”

    This was much more like normal care. People finally had a way to express their love and support, and do what they considered the proper thing for their loved ones. 

    The team investigating urban attitudes in Liberia met women who had planned in advance what they would do if anyone in their family became infected, and had worked out how they could nurse them as safely as possible. Many had seen the news reports of a student nurse who improvised protective kit from plastic bags and bin liners – and successfully nursed several family members without becoming sick herself – and were thinking how they might do the same. 

    With hindsight, it might have been wiser to acknowledge these powerful and understandable emotions, and the practical difficulties of providing professional Ebola services in remote areas, and to place more trust in the communities who wanted their own training and equipment. 

    But at the height of the epidemic there was no time to have a debate about community action and how best to harness it. The hope now is that the work being done can inform future policy, should another deadly epidemic emerge.

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    TOP PHOTO: Community volunteers in Liberia. CREDIT: Morgana Wingard/UNDP

    MAP SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/IRIN

    Three years on, lessons are still being learned from West Africa's Ebola outbreak
  • A look back at Ebola

    The past year has been a roller coaster ride for West Africa, with Ebola coming and going and coming and going, and then coming once again. But now, after nearly two years battling the deadly virus, the region finally seems to be Ebola-free. None of the three countries most affected – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – has had an active case since mid-November.

    Experts warn that there will likely be a re-emergence of Ebola at some point, but governments, health workers, communities and aid agencies all say they are now better prepared to stop any new flare-ups.

    The region may enter 2016 Ebola-free, but the impact of the outbreak is still being felt by many. More than 28,600 people were infected and 11,315 died. Hundreds of thousands more lost jobs or loved ones or had their lives in some way turned upside down. Economic losses totalled an estimated $1.6 billion in 2015 alone, according to the World Bank. Kids finally returned to school this year after months of disrupted classes, but the long-term impact on children and education won’t be known for years to come. And, despite waning stigma, not all survivors or Ebola workers have been accepted back into their communities.

    IRIN has covered the ups and downs of the outbreak from the start, as far back as March 2014. Here’s a look back at a selection of our Ebola stories from the past year:

    The good

    Before the Ebola outbreak, many Guineans used to rely solely on local medicine men or “féticheurs” to treat their various ailments and illnesses. But as local communities watched both their people and traditional healers die from Ebola – their powers apparently not strong enough to combat the virus – more and more of the sick began taking the advice of health workers and seeking out care from licensed doctors and nurses. 

    See: Ebola's silver lining: Guineans learn to have faith in hospitals 

    For a long time after the outbreak began, families were forbidden from holding traditional funerals, due to fears the events would help spread the virus. They thought they’d never be able to give their loved ones a proper goodbye. But as more and more communities were declared Ebola-free this year, and public gatherings resumed, many finally got that chance.

    See:  A year on, Guineans finally lay Ebola souls to rest

    A great number of Ebola survivors, particularly early on in the outbreak, lost their jobs, were excluded from community events, and were often even shunned by their own families. But thanks to large-scale education campaigns, many are now being welcomed back home. 

    See: Liberia Ebola survivors find unexpected hope

    The bad

    West Africa is known for its friendly, personal interactions – even among strangers. But Ebola, which is transmitted through bodily contact, changed all that. Too afraid to get too close to anyone, many people gave up their most common practice: the handshake.

    See: Guinea Ebola diary: In the land of lost handshakes

    Guinea’s Gueckedou region, where the outbreak began, was declared Ebola-free in January 2015. But this photo feature and reportage from IRIN West Africa Editor Jennifer Lazuta show how, months later, the extent of the damage was only just starting to be realised.

    See: Photo feature: Ebola and me: Tales from Guinea
    See: The pain of the new normal: Guinea after Ebola

    Things in Sierra Leone and Liberia were looking up mid-year: unemployment was down for the first time since the outbreak began and schools had reopened after nine months of closure. But many families said they still didn’t have enough to eat and malnutrition rates among children under the age of five remained high. Just 10 percent of students initially returned to class, according to Save the Children. Many were too afraid; others had already turned to selling goods on the street, in order to support their families. 

    See: Ebola in Sierra Leone: A long way to go
    See: Schools reopen but Ebola keeps pupils on the streets 
    See: Ebola effect ripples on in Liberian schools 

    The ugly

    Some 17,000 people are believed to have survived Ebola in West Africa. But their ordeal is far from over. More than half say they are suffering from debilitating joint pain, headaches, and fatigue, and at least 25 percent have experienced some degree of change in vision, with many now close to being blind, according to the World Health Organization. Their healthcare options remain limited. 

    See: Post-Ebola Syndrome: It's not over for Ebola survivors 

    More than 20,000 Liberians risked their lives to bury the dead during the Ebola outbreak. Many left their former jobs to help contain the virus. Others simply volunteered their time. Now, due to ongoing stigma, they are unable to find new work. Burial workers in Sierra Leone faced a similar fate: months after the last Ebola case was found, volunteers were still being shunned by their families and communities.

    See: Stigma leaves Ebola burial workers high and dry  
    See: Photo feature: After Ebola: Sierra Leone's burial workers fear their future

    Nearly 6,000 children in Liberia lost either one or both parents to Ebola. While many found loving homes with friends, family or neighbors, not all were so lucky.

    See: What happened to Liberia's Ebola orphans?

    Liberia was in dire need of doctors and nurses before the Ebola outbreak began. Then, more than 200 health workers died from Ebola. Now, at a time when the country needs new staff at clinics more than ever, many Liberians say they are too afraid to enter medicine. In Sierra Leone, where more than 220 health workers died from Ebola, many worry about the impact on pregnant women. The World Bank has warned that the country’s maternity mortality rate could increase by up to 74 percent because of the Ebola crisis.

    See: Ebola scares off trainee nurses in Liberia
    See: Ebola's victims of the future: Pregnant women

    Looking forward

    The WHO has vowed to reform following widespread criticism of its delayed and “inadequate” response to the Ebola outbreak. WHO’s newly appointed regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, says the organisation has learnt lessons and become stronger after making changes, but health experts say there is still a long way to go.

    See: Can WHO learn the lessons from Ebola? 

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    A look back at Ebola
  • IRIN's Top Picks: Landmines, mental health and making do in Lebanon

    Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of recent must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates. 

    Five to read

    Landmines: two steps forward…

    Landmine use had been dropping steadily over the last decade, and so had casualty numbers. Until 2014, that is. The annual Landmine Monitor report, published by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, shows the first rise in nine years in casualty figures worldwide, alongside an increase in landmine use by non-state actors. In a “disturbing step backwards”, 10 countries recorded anti-personnel or victim-activated IED (improvised explosive device) use by rebel groups including, for the first time, Yemen and Ukraine. The casualty spike – up 11 percent to 3,678 from 3,308 in 2013 – was mostly driven by a sharp increase in victim-activated IEDs in Afghanistan. And it’s certainly not all bad news. The long-term trend remains downward, and anti-landmine treaties seem to be working: the use of landmines by governments remains low, with confirmed new use in 2014-15 restricted to Myanmar, North Korea and Syria – none of them signatories to the Mine Ban Treaty. 

    Yemen: the forgotten conflict

    While the eyes of global political leaders remain firmly trained on the patch of land currently occupied by self-styled Islamic State, the news from another part of the region grows increasingly bleak. The latest Humanitarian Needs Overview for Yemen from OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination arm, finds that 82 percent of the population – more than 21 million people – are in need of assistance ranging from food and clean water to basic healthcare. Some 32,000 casualties have been recorded since March, and OHCHR, the UN human rights monitor, reports an average of 43 violations every day. Internal displacement figures are now at 2.3 million. And, as these needs increase, basic services are collapsing. The Yemen appeal, meanwhile, remains just 49 percent funded. 

    Lessons from Ebola

    Last week, Sierra Leoneans danced with joy as the country was declared Ebola-free after nearly two years of devastation. But this week, two months after neighbouring Liberia’s own similar celebrations, a teenager there died of the virus, underlining that the outbreak in West Africa is still not over. This makes the recommendations of a panel convened by the Harvard Global Health Institute and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine even more timely: reform the World Health Organization so it can cope with pandemics; invest in core capacity to handle outbreaks at the national level, especially in poorer countries; and invest in the necessary research and development – including vaccines. The report, which highlighted the problem affected countries had in detecting and reporting cases as well as the WHO’s failure to sound the alarm early enough, concluded that the poor international response caused “needless suffering and death.”

    Making victims better participants in justice

    When the now much-criticised International Criminal Court was founded, part of what was supposed to make it different was the way it involved victims. Instead of treating them as mere trial witnesses, they were to have a say in multiple aspects of court process, including decisions to open investigations and admit cases. They would also have their own special bit of the court – the Victims Participation and Reparations Section – through which to engage. Nearly 15 years on, a study of more than 600 of the thousands of “victim participants” by the Human Rights Center at the Berkeley School of Law in California has found that this lofty idea hasn’t quite worked out as planned. Incorporating the views of multiple victims has proved unworkable, and both defence and prosecution teams have questioned whether their involvement has actually made it harder to have a fair hearing. Most victims want convictions and reparations and are disappointed with any other outcome, despite having insufficient knowledge of the court process to participate meaningfully. Some also fear their participation will not go unnoticed at home and they will face reprisals. Berkeley’s recommendations? Invest in support to victim participants. Manage their expectations better. Speed up trials.

    The mental health of aid workers

    Anyone wondering if Steve Dennis, the aid worker who won his case for damages against the Norwegian Refugee Council this week, was an isolated case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the industry could do worse than take a look at the results of a Guardian survey published this week, which found that 79 percent of respondents had experienced mental health issues. The survey was self-selecting and hardly representative – 75 percent of respondents were women and most were international NGO staff – but the figures are nonetheless striking: fully 93 percent felt their struggles were directly related to their work. And contributors also spoke widely of a “culture of secrecy” within the industry. Respondents said they were reluctant to speak out for fear of their careers being damaged, or that they would be considered a “bad” humanitarian. The focus, says The Guardian, is particularly on the aftercare and support provided for those working in what is unquestionably an inherently risky profession – a point reinforced by the Dennis case, in which the court heard evidence that mismanagement of incidents by aid agencies can increase the impact on those concerned.

    Coming up:

    United Nations conference on climate change

    It’s all about Paris next week, but this time in a good way. The 21st Conference of the Parties (governments taking action on climate change) kicks off in the City of Light with the hope being that 12 days later the world will have agreed a new international climate change treaty, specifically around carbon emissions. No fewer than 147 heads of state will attend, joining more than 40,000 others, ranging from bright-eyed volunteers to the UK’s Prince Charles. Unusually – and controversially for France, where demonstrations are a national pastime – the authorities have banned marches and demonstrations in the wake of the recent bombings, so expect tightened security and more behind-closed-doors events than usual.

    See IRIN’s take on what’s at stake: COP21: A turning point?

    One to listen to:

    From Syria to Yorkshire

    We have heard and read much over the last few months about the struggle of refugees, especially those from Syria, to reach Europe. But we hear less about what happens when they arrive. This week, the BBC went to Bradford in the north of England to meet those settling into their new homes, and find out how the struggle doesn’t just end with a successful asylum claim. Among them is Nadia, for whom a new shopping centre in Bradford brings back painful memories of the mall her property company built in Damascus; and Aham, who fled Syria two years ago and works in a falafel shop as the first step to funding his dream of a medical degree. All are grateful for their new chance and for all the support, but they miss their homes horribly and are struggling to adapt. It’s a poignant portrait of a group of people trying to fit in with new lives they didn’t want or choose. 

    One from IRIN:

    How Syrians get by in Lebanon

    A common over-simplification in the current debate around refugees is that once Syrians make it to Lebanon their struggles are behind them: they are safe in a stable country. But as IRIN discovered this week, the reality for the vast majority is that life is still far from easy. Everything is stretched: World Food Programme rations have been cut and cut again, and 90 percent of Syrians are in debt as they struggle to make ends meet. IRIN spoke to six families about how they get by. From making a stew last for days to eating wild plants and running up debts at the pharmacist for everyday medication, their stories sketch the daily humiliations and stresses of life on the margins. 

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    IRIN's Top Picks: 27 November, 2015

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