(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts

    A political solution to nearly four years of war in Yemen is possible as long as the shaky ceasefire deal for the northern port city of Hodeidah takes hold, Saudi Arabia’s influential ambassador to Yemen has told IRIN.

     

    Mohammed al-Jaber, who is the public face of Saudi Arabia in Yemen and is said to have a direct line to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, suggested the Hodeidah deal could lead to further fruitful UN-backed peace talks if it succeeds but might be their undoing if it doesn’t.

     

    “I think there is no [next] effective round of talks between Yemenis if Hodeidah is not implemented,” al-Jaber told IRIN in an interview in his Riyadh office. “If the Houthis implement Hodeidah, everybody will pressure all parties to come to the table and make it succeed.”

     

    The next round of what the UN officially calls “political consultations” are expected later this month, but warring sides are still at odds over the finer details of the Hodeidah deal and there are fears it might soon collapse. Aid groups warn of a spiral towards famine if fighting restarts around the city – a key entry point for commercial imports and humanitarian aid, especially for parts of the country under Houthi control.

     

    Hashed out at December negotiations near Stockholm but still to come into effect, the ceasefire deal is supposed to see both Saudi-led coalition forces and Houthi rebels withdraw from Hodeidah city and eventually Hodeidah province, with “local security forces” taking over and the UN playing some role in managing the port.

     

    While the ambassador was quick to emphasise that he is not an official party to the negotiations – Saudi Arabia’s position is not to negotiate with the Houthis and the UN process is two-sided, between the internationally recognised Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels – he was in Stockholm and recounted locations, attendees, and results (or lack of) past talks in detail.

     

    ‘A clean war’

    IRIN sat down with al-Jaber at a pivotal point in the 46-month war. The conflict has left tens of thousands dead and millions without enough to eat, while decimating a health system that has been unable to cope with two waves of cholera and destroying the country’s already weak economy.

     

    Away from the debate over Hodeidah, the broader war is ongoing: a Houthi drone hit a Yemeni military parade the day after IRIN spoke with the ambassador, fighting in the southern city of Taiz continues, and the coalition has been pounding the capital city of Sana’a with airstrikes.

     

    In a wide-ranging interview in his Riyadh office, al-Jaber said his country is waging a “clean war” in Yemen, is doing all it can to lessen Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, and is already planning for its redevelopment and reconstruction despite ongoing fighting.

     

    A military strategist by training who heads up two bodies that focus on humanitarian, development, and restronstruction aid to Yemen, the ambassador strongly dismissed the idea that any of this assistance was an attempt to polish his country’s tarnished public image.

     

    “It’s not PR. And anybody who says that wants to hurt us,” al-Jaber said. “But if someone is neutral, he should study and see with his eyes and research how much Saudi Arabia did for [funding] the UN organisations, [with its own relief projects], and for the economy….[Yemenis] are our permanent brothers, and we are there to support [the] Yemeni government and Yemeni people.”

     

    The view in Riyadh

     

    Saudi Arabia’s public position on Yemen has been fairly consistent since March 2015, when it began airstrikes along with a multi-country coalition to support the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced to flee the country by Houthi rebels and their allies, including fighters who sided with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

     

    Saudi Arabia sees the Houthis as an Iranian proxy and a threat to its borders and says its mission in Yemen is to restore Hadi’s government.

     

    Few expected the war to drag on this long – in fact, the coalition said it was ending the initial military operation a month into its bombing, officially swapping it out for “Operation Restoring Hope” – a peacebuilding effort aimed at forging a political solution in Yemen and shoring up Saudi Arabia’s national security.

     

    Al-Jaber, appointed to his job in late 2014, also used the word “hope” when discussing the Saudi role in the war.

     

    “We are fighting there to restore hopes, not to kill Yemenis,” he said. “We spent billions of dollars to support the war, the economy, the humanitarian situation, and we will continue to support Yemen. We don’t want Yemenis to hate us or to see us as their enemy. We are not their enemy.”

     

    He said he remained “100 percent sure” that the coalition was waging the war in line with international humanitarian law.

     

    “We are responsible countries,” he said. “We are 12 countries [in the coalition] and we implement NATO standards… I think the coalition did a good job. It is a clean war for us, because we are aware of what we are doing there in Yemen. We are there to reinstate their state.”

     

    Saudi Arabia’s air campaign has been blamed for the majority of the nearly 7,000 violent civilian deaths the UN has been able to count in the war.

     

    In August, an airstrike hit a bus full of children in a rebel-held northern part of the country, killing a reported 40 children and 51 people total – one of several civilian atrocities that rights groups say violate international law. A UN group of experts has said it believes individuals on all sides of Yemen’s conflict may have committed war crimes.

     

    In response to questions about such strikes, as well as hits on civilian infrastructure like hospitals, al-Jaber admitted that Saudi Arabia had “made mistakes”, much as “other countries do, during war.”

     

    “We investigate each accident,” he said, referring to the Joint Incidents Assessment Team, or JIAT – a body set up to look into “claims and accidents” in coalition operations but whose members are not disclosed to the public.

     

    Findings are usually only released in summary press releases and can be hard to track, but an August report by Human Rights Watch said JIAT investigations were inadequate and that the watchdog was “unaware of any concrete steps the coalition has taken to implement a compensation process or to hold individuals accountable for possible war crimes.”

     

    Al-Jaber said the coalition began the compensation process “a couple of months ago” but that he didn’t know how many people had been compensated so far. “I know they started,” he said. “The Yemeni government… sent us a list [of names] and there is a fund responsible for that… we are trying to accelerate this mechanism.”

     

    Aden, Hodeidah, or both?

     

    The international community says there’s no alternative to Hodeidah for avoiding mass hunger in the country, not only because of the port’s overall capacity – including to store and mill flour – but also because it is in the north of the country where 70 percent of the population lives (and Houthis are in control).

     

    In November 2018, the Saudi-led coalition closed most air, sea, and land entries to Yemen for two weeks after a Houthi rocket was fired at Riyadh, causing aid agencies to warn of imminent catastrophe. Even before that, aid groups said the coalition had delayed and diverted the entry of crucial supplies, including fuel.

     

    Al-Jaber said the “humanitarian situation was pressure on everybody”, but that he believed the importance of Hodeidah had been exaggerated and that “UN organisations are trying to ignore Aden port”.

     

    The Saudi-led coalition has been pushing for increased use of Aden, but UN relief chief Mark Lowcock said earlier this month that the southern port has a “severe congestion” problem. Trucking supplies from Aden to the north adds cost and can be risky, which al-Jaber admitted.

     

    In a briefing on 9 January at the UN Security Council, Lowcock said that fuel imports are now rising and more ships are trying to get to Yemen’s ports, but commercial food imports were still at their lowest since the UN began monitoring in 2016.

     

    Al-Jaber said the coalition had been unfairly accused of deepening the humanitarian crisis through delays in allowing shipping to reach Yemen, particularly Hodeidah. What he called a “misunderstanding” is now resolved and the UN and the coalition have a mechanism to ensure ship clearance at Hodeidah in “24 hours maximum”, he added.

     

    If anything, al-Jaber said, Saudi Arabia is lessening the humanitarian crisis. It has contributed $901 million to UN-led humanitarian appeals for Yemen between 2015 and 2018, according to UN funding data, and he also mentioned the $2.2 billion Saudi Arabia had deposited in Yemen’s Central Bank and $350 million in letters of credit to Yemeni importers he said had recently been issued (a number IRIN could not independently verify).

     

    Looking forward

     

    While all eyes remain on Hodeidah, al-Jaber was also keen to talk about development and reconstruction – an approach he said feeds into the two main aims of the war: “to restore the legitimate government of Yemen, and to secure our national security”.

     

    Al-Jaber said the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen, which he has been working on for the past few months, is already being rolled out in parts of the country the government controls.

     

    IRIN wasn’t shown the overall plan but was given a PowerPoint presentation on projects that have begun – new school buses, textbooks, and beefing up power stations by shipping $60 million in oil derivatives each month – as well as some that are still in the works, like new hospitals and an airport.

     

    But how do you reconstruct a country you don’t completely control, in the midst of a war?

     

    Al-Jaber, who said he had briefed the UN about his plans and invited them to collaborate, anticipated support from other organisations, including the World Bank, and said it’s best to start in areas the coalition controls as “they are safe”.

     

    His strategy also involves beefing up borders to clamp down on smuggling, and making sure al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State (Da’esh in its Arabic acronym) do not take hold in the country.

     

    He said he was “very worried about” this, both because the Houthis could use their presence as an excuse to continue fighting and because “some people, some tribes in the middle and the south, also say they will engage with al-Qaeda to fight the Houthis.”

     

    The disparate nature of the coalition Saudi Arabia heads, and the loose and often tense alliances that support Hadi’s government, mean Yemen’s war could yet fracture into a collection of disastrous smaller conflicts.

     

    Al-Jaber was candid that several parties currently on side with the government, including southern separatists and the powerful Islamist Islah party, may not fully back Hadi. Rather, he explained, they agree with the “Hadi project” – that is, the legitimacy of his government.

     

    “When the Yemenis agree on a comprehensive political solution, we will stop the military track which supports the legitimate Yemeni government,” the ambassador said. “And [then] we will support their security, economy, the political process, and work with Yemenis to finish the political process, to build their economy and develop and reconstruct their country.”

     

    For the full interview, read the transcript here.

     

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    Saudi envoy says Hodeidah deal make-or-break for Yemen peace efforts
  • Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

     

    Al-Shabab attacks civilians in Kenya and Somalia

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

     

    Swine fever threatens food security

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

     

    IS reminds US it still exists in Syria

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

     

    Voting on peace in the Philippines

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

     

    Sexual harassment at the UN

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

    In case you missed it:

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

     

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

    Weekend read

     

    Venezuela’s new humanitarians

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

    And finally...

    IRIN at Davos

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

     

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

     

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    Al-Shabab attacks, swine fever, and sexual harassment at the UN
  • Where there’s political will, there’s a way to protect civilians

    2018 was a disastrous year for civilians caught in conflict.

     

    In most conflict zones around the world, the majority of those killed were civilians. Those who survived suffered myriad physical, emotional, and economic hardships.

     

    In the Middle East, three permanent members of the UN Security Council – the body charged with maintaining global peace and security – conducted or supported military campaigns that massacred civilians.

     

    In Syria, Russia participated in the offensive on rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which killed more than 1,000 civilians, some through the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons.

     

    In Yemen, the US and the UK continued to support the Saudi-led coalition, despite mounting evidence that airstrikes there have hit hospitals, markets, and school buses, and that the on-off blockade it imposed has worsened an already catastrophic humanitarian crisis in which nearly 16 million Yemenis – more than half of the population – are on the brink of starvation.

    We have repeatedly seen that when political will to protect civilians is mustered, tangible progress is possible.

    In Afghanistan, insurgent groups increasingly targeted civilians, and the number of civilian deaths and injuries climbed steadily over 2018, reaching at least 8,050 by the end of September, according to the latest UN figures.

     

    In Africa, UN peacekeeping missions continued to fall short of their mandates to protect civilians. In the Central African Republic, for example, at least 70 civilians were killed in an attack on a displaced persons’ camp metres away from a UN base. In South Sudan, reports emerged of at least 125 women being raped as they made the multi-day journey to a food distribution site. In the Beni area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN has failed to contain the killings of civilians, which some estimates put at 1,000 since 2014.

     

    Despite these discouraging examples, we at CIVIC have hope for 2019. Why? Because we have repeatedly seen that when political will to protect civilians is mustered, tangible progress is possible.

     

    In Yemen, the October murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi spurred a renewed push to end external actors’ involvement in the war – one factor in December talks that declared a desperately needed (if not yet implemented) ceasefire for the port of Hodeidah. In Syria, it appears that a political deal has prevented – at least for the time being – a military assault on the province of Idlib, which would undoubtedly have catastrophic consequences for civilians.

     

    The three-day Eid holiday ceasefire in Afghanistan last June offered a glimpse of what peace could look like, as Taliban fighters, Afghan military, and civilians mingled without fighting, despite two bombings in Nangarhar province, one claimed by the so-called Islamic State.

     

    At the international level, last May the UN General Assembly dedicated an entire week to discussing tangible ways to further the protection of civilians, and Secretary-General António Guterres called for all UN member states to adopt national policy frameworks on the issue.

     

    Just as we supported the Afghan government in its groundbreaking 2017 adoption of a civilian protection policy, we at CIVIC will continue to help governments around the world – from Iraq to Nigeria to Ukraine – looking to do the same: identifying potential improvements to their policies and laws; providing workshops to equip military and security forces to see their mission with a protection mindset; helping them to understand their obligations under international humanitarian law, and to account for civilian lives in their day-to-day operations.

     

    In South Sudan last January, UNMISS opened a base in Yei – an area devastated by violence in 2017 – to enable the UN mission to better protect civilians in the region. UNMISS is committed to using inter-communal dialogues across the country to prevent deadly conflicts between semi-nomadic cattle farmers and agricultural groups.

     

    In Congo’s Ituri province, the UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO responded to escalating violence against civilians in the first half of the year by rapidly launching mobile troop deployments to high-threat areas and initiating peace dialogues between communities. This move was possible thanks to collaboration between officials, community leaders, and UN mission leadership – and most actors in the region agree that the peacekeepers’ quick action halted ongoing violence and likely prevented an escalation in fighting.

     

    These two peacekeeping wins are particularly encouraging as we approach the 20th anniversary of the first specifically mandated UN mission to protect civilians: the formation of UNAMSIL in 1999 was in part a response to global outrage following the massacre of civilians in Sierra Leone.

     

    We’re also hopeful for 2019 because even when political will wavers, the will of civilians themselves does not. We’ve seen repeatedly how meaningfully engaging communities about their own protection yields tangible advances. In Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, for example, community elders in two districts convinced the Taliban, at least temporarily, to remove and stop planting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

     

    In northeastern Nigeria, when community protection committees in Bama notified the military that local militia were sexually exploiting women near an informal displaced persons’ camp, the military banned all militia members who did not have family members at the site from entering. These same committees also obtained regular military escorts for civilians leaving the site, allowing 3,500 people to farm and collect firewood without fear of being attacked.

     

    This sort of determination is encouraging, but it cannot stand alone. Ensuring the protection of civilians in conflict requires consistent, committed, and courageous support from leaders at all levels.

     

    With strong leadership at the international level, true commitment and political will by key states involved in conflicts, and meaningful engagement of affected communities, protection is possible.

     

    We call on leaders to muster the political will to make the possible a reality in 2019.

     

    Civilians trapped in conflict zones don’t have another year to spare.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: A displaced South Sudanese woman in a Protection of Civilians site adjacent to the UNMISS base in Wau, South Sudan. CREDIT: Phil Hatcher-Moore/UNICEF)

    Where there’s political will, there’s a way to protect civilians
  • Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen: The Cheat Sheet

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

    On our radar

    Militant attacks spike in Nigeria

    More than 30,000 people have fled fighting in northeastern Nigeria's Borno State, most from Baga on the shores of Lake Chad, as attacks by Boko Haram and its Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) offshoot increased in recent weeks. The UN has expressed concern about the flood of newly displaced people into the state capital, Maiduguri. The impact of the fighting has been "devastating and has created a humanitarian tragedy,” said Edward Kallon, head of UN operations in Nigeria. Meanwhile, the Nigerian army said it had cleared jihadists from several towns, including Baga. The government has previously made claims that Boko Haram was "technically defeated". In reality, the insurgency, which began in 2009, has fragmented but continues – with an uptick in violence in some areas and jihadists targeting other countries in the region. Read more of IRIN's in-depth coverage on countering militancy in the Sahel.

    Winter has come

    Snow and flooding may affect 70,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon this week, according to the UN refugee agency. Storm Norma, bringing rain, high wind, and snow at higher altitudes, will have already passed through Lebanon by Sunday but rain is forecast for next week, adding to flood risks. So far 361 refugee sites have been affected, and one eight-year-old girl died in floodwaters. Flimsy plastic and tarpaulin structures are no match for the heaviest snowfall – one informal settlement near Arsal is said to have been “buried”. Affected refugees have had to find alternatives and aid groups are working to provide shelter, clothing, and heating. The storm follows flooding of displacement camps within Syria: more than 20,000 people in 108 camps were affected in northwestern Idlib by early January, according to Save the Children.

    Congo election result challenged

    After 18 years of Joseph Kabila’s rule, this week saw Felix Tshisekedi, leader of the largest opposition party in the Democratic Republic of Congo, declared the provisional victor of long-delayed presidential elections. But another opposition candidate, Martin Fayulu, called the result an "electoral coup" and said he would file a court challenge against it this weekend. Since independence in 1960 from Belgium, Congo has never seen a peaceful transfer of political power. It is struggling to move on from decades of conflict and political unrest and still faces a host of humanitarian challenges, including its largest ever Ebola outbreak. There are fears these new tensions may lead to a fresh eruption of political violence across the country. Initial unrest has already included one demonstration by Fayulu’s supporters that reportedly left five civilians dead and 17 police officers injured in the southwestern city of Kikwit. Fayulu believes he won 61 percent of the vote, citing election observers from the Catholic Church, which also cast doubt on the result. Fayulu claims Tshisekedi only won because he made a backdoor power-sharing deal with Kabila's chosen successor, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary.

    Deal or no deal? Yemen ceasefire falling apart

    The shaky ceasefire deal in Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah racked up another obstacle on Thursday when a Houthi drone attacked a military parade at a base that belongs to the Yemeni army and its allies in the Saudi-led coalition. Six soldiers were reportedly killed, and the government of internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi said the attack shows the rebels are “not ready for peace”. Efforts to implement the Hodeidah agreement – reached at talks last month in Stockholm – have been hampered by differing interpretations of the text, which Oxfam this week called too vague, not to mention what a UN spokesperson described as a “lack of trust between the parties”. Watch this space for more on the ongoing diplomatic efforts not just to sort out Hodeidah – a key entry point for aid and commercial goods – but to finally end Yemen’s war.

    Exploring peace amid fresh violence in Thailand’s deep south

    The long-running Malay Muslim separatist insurgency in Thailand’s troubled south is back in the spotlight early in the new year. January has seen renewed attempts at peace talks – as well as fresh bouts of violence. Thai peace negotiators and Malaysian intermediaries want leaders of the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional to join peace talks, though it’s unclear if insurgents affiliated with the group are prepared to do so. These peace overtures come amid continuing violence in the south, including a school car bomb (blamed on the BRN), which injured a 12-year-old student, and the killing of four defence volunteers at a school. Rights groups say such attacks on civilian targets are war crimes, but they also accuse Thai security forces of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture. More than 6,000 people have been killed in violence in Thailand’s southern provinces since 2004, including more than 200 people last year, according to monitoring group Deep South Watch.

    One to listen to

    Keeping local staff safe

    Local staff continue to bear the brunt of violence targeting humanitarian groups. A guard working for an NGO in the Central African Republic was killed on 5 January, while a Syrian staff member of an international NGO was abducted and killed in Idlib. The most recent episode of the Humanitarian Incidents podcast tackles the issue of safety for local staff (including humanitarians working for subcontracted local partners). Nour Qoussaibany, security lead for the International Rescue Committee in Lebanon, speaks about local perceptions that international NGOs pay more attention to the safety of international staff, and explores what can be done to prioritise security for local aid workers. Hint to donors: boosting funding to build local security capacity would be a good start. Listen to the interview here.

    In case you missed it:

    BURUNDI: Disability NGO Handicap International (aka Humanity and Inclusion) is leaving Burundi, citing regulatory demands. In a re-registration process, the government now requires NGOs to apply a quota for the ethnicity of their Burundian staff, a measure the NGO called discriminatory and unconstitutional. [Your tips and views are welcome.]

    NEW VIRUS: A fruit bat has been found to host a previously unknown filovirus (the family that includes Ebola). In the laboratory, it can infect human cells, but the risk of transmission is unknown. According to Nature, researchers have called it Měnglà, after the area where the bat was captured in China.

    THE PHILIPPINES: At least 140 people have been killed in the Philippines since late December, when heavy rains from Tropical Depression Usman unleashed landslides and flooding in parts of southern Luzon and eastern Visayas. Philippine authorities say more than 56,000 people sought refuge in evacuation centres.

    SUDAN: Violence against protesters and medics must end, Human Rights Watch said, after a “particularly bloody” Wednesday in the Sudanese city of Omdurman. At least three people died after government forces opened fire and used tear gas against demonstrators demanding the downfall of President Omar al-Bashir. Officials say 22 people have died since protests started last month; HRW put the toll at around 40.

    WORLD BANK: World Bank President Jim Yong Kim is quitting for a role in private investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners. All previous Bank presidents have also been US citizens. As well as speculating on the backstory, observers are asking if the tradition of Washingon D.C. handpicking the candidate should continue.

    Weekend read

    Women, girls, and gender preparedness in aid

    It’s no secret that understanding how crises affect women and girls differently from men and boys is one of the keys to an effective humanitarian response. But Suzy Madigan, senior advisor for gender and protection for CARE International, says: “The talk is there, but to really put talk into action there needs to be concrete actions put behind it.” Get up to speed on gender issues in aid this weekend, not just with Madigan’s Q&A, which calls for more local women to be included in emergency response, but also with two stories from the ground that show why extra care and planning is needed. Discover how girls forced into conflict in South Sudan are finding it particularly tough to reintegrate into their communities in peacetime, and how the healthcare gap for returnees to Syria’s Raqqa affects vulnerable women.

    And finally...

    Brexit and the US shutdown

    It’s reaching crunch time for two massive news stories with humanitarian ramifications: Brexit, and the US government shutdown over President Donald Trump’s Mexico border wall. On the former, British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to see her “only deal on the table” with the EU defeated in a vote on Tuesday. What’s next is anyone’s guess: she could resign, there could be a new general election, possibly another referendum, perhaps all of the above. As a rush of migrant vessels has made it across the Channel from France in recent weeks, we’ll be exploring whether the British government, in its response, has tried to manufacture a migration “crisis” to harden attitudes on immigration at this crucial juncture. On the latter, we’ve already reported on the real humanitarian crisis on the US-Mexico border, but look out for more on the possible impacts of a prolonged shutdown on humanitarian programmes.

    (TOP PHOTO: People carry the body of one of the attack victims during their burial ceremony at the Sajeri village on the outskirts of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, on 8 January 2019. CREDIT: Audu Marte/AFP)

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    Nigerian militancy, refugee winters, and a drone in Yemen
  • My hope for 2019 is...

    In a season of lists and predictions, many of them dark, it’s easy to forget what underpins much humanitarian work: hope for change.

     

    We asked a wide-ranging group of humanitarians to share their hopes for 2019 – ranging from digital safeguards to empowerment for women and youth. Share yours via Twitter or Facebook.

     

     

    Long-term change for Yemen

    “The international community must find sustainable ways to help civilians rebuild lives devastated by the conflict.”
    Nadwa Al-Dawsari

    Country Director, Yemen, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), an organisation that seeks to make warring parties more responsible to civilians before, during, and after armed conflict

     

    In 2019, I hope to see the international community expand its focus beyond humanitarian aid and think about long-term, sustainable support for Yemen.

     

    Despite billions of dollars made available for humanitarian needs, Yemenis continue to suffer, physically and financially. The situation has been exacerbated by the collapse of the national currency, lack of salaries for civil servants for two and a half years, and misappropriation of aid by some armed groups.

     

    The recent agreement in Stockholm between the Houthis and the Yemeni government is a welcome development. Ensuring operation of the Hodeidah port, where 80 percent of goods enter Yemen, is essential – but aid alone is not enough. The international community must find sustainable ways to help civilians rebuild lives devastated by the conflict.

     

    Kickstarting the economy is a key step. The dedicated young Yemenis behind the Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Service (SMEPS) of the Social Fund for Development prove progress is possible. By providing small grants to entrepreneurs, including farmers and fishermen, SMEPS has created over 65,000 jobs since 2017, nearly one third to women.

     

    The international community should also focus on promoting governance, rule of law, and professionalising local forces responsible for security in areas where fighting has stopped. This will help create pockets of stability that will increase the demand for peace that Yemenis desperately need.

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    Power to the people

    “Grassroots, people-led movements… [are] where I see so much hope for the year ahead.”
    Shaista Aziz

    Co-founder, NGO Safe Space, a feminist platform countering abuse in the aid sector

     

    Huge and exciting changes are taking place in grassroots, people-led movements around the world; this is where I see so much hope for the year ahead. Despite the political environment making life harder for civil society actors across the globe, organic, people-led movements – from Brazil to India, from Pakistan to Senegal – are doing vital work pushing for climate justice, trans rights, women’s rights, and trade justice. It is through these decolonised structures – where power is fluid and shared horizontally – that we are seeing real change. I also see the #AidToo movement gathering pace as more women’s rights activists and grassroots women’s rights defenders from the Global South take their rightful place: centre stage in the movement.

     

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    Focus on frontline aid workers

    “My hope... is a recognition by the donors of the real value of frontline organisations and their people.”

    I would like to see an end to several worrying trends. Firstly, privatisation of the work of certain major players, which has fuelled the rise of multinationals with no humanitarian credentials. Such organisations combine access to large budgets with an instinct to reduce costs; their main activity is reporting positively on their work to their paymasters, with no accountability or responsibility towards the humanitarian community, let alone the beneficiaries.

     

    Secondly, the increasingly virtual nature of aid work. The number of humanitarians whose daily round consists of interactions with their various IT devices is growing exponentially. Alas, aid workers who perform a hands-on activity of direct benefit to the beneficiaries – those who get their hands dirty and sometimes have to rough it – are an increasingly rare breed.

     

    Thirdly, I lament the increasing role of the military in aid operations. It is a fallacy that military logistics and security are superior to those developed in the aid sector: the former are giant, unwieldy machines, without the lean flexibility required for rapid, focused response.

     

    My overall hope for the sector next year is a recognition by the donors of the real value of frontline organisations and their people – those whose voices are heard the least in the rarified atmosphere in which strategic decisions that affect the sector are taken. After all, they built it.

     

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    Avoid a legitimacy crisis

    “Focus more on promoting accountability.”
    Idayat Hassan

    Director, Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based organisation with a focus on deepening democracy and development in West Africa. @HassanIdayat

    Humanitarian aid is keeping hope alive in Africa, as the continent continues to be bedeviled with conflicts and natural disasters. Leaving their homes in various parts of the world to help out, aid workers have become targets in Mali, Nigeria, and South Sudan, to mention a few. The humanitarians have also been at the brutal end of the stick at the hand of governments and extremists, who accuse them of lacking accountability, sexual harassment, and not attuning themselves to local context. While the challenge of fundraising and security are real threats, the humanitarian community will have to focus more in 2019 on promoting accountability and exhibiting knowledge of its context to avoid a legitimacy crisis.

     

    We will have to rethink how we intervene in the communities where we operate and recognise that (for example) Iraq, Mali, and Nepal are completely different contexts; we should not transpose wholesome ideas from other parts of the world to the other. In the same vein, we have to consult our audience, the recipients of aid: what are their priorities, how do they want aid to be delivered – cash or food, and what kind of food? Recipients of aid also complain of being treated as victims, and not human beings.

     

    It’s important to address accountability; in the last two years, there have been many allegations of corruption raised on the continent against humanitarians and their staff. Some are contrived. But real or contrived, erring officials who sell or mismanage aid meant for displaced people must be brought to account; IDPs alleging sexual violence committed by aid workers, or aid workers’ complaints against their employers, must get justice.

     

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    Digital responsibility

    “Collective work and partnerships are now necessary in the more digitally integrated humanitarian sector.”
    Androulla Kaminara

    Director, Africa, Asia, Latin America, Caribbean and Pacific with the European Commission Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO)

    The use of digital technologies is progressively being incorporated into humanitarian operations, in the search of greater efficiency and effectiveness. But so far NGOs, the European Commission, other donors, UN agencies etc. have largely been doing it on an individual basis.

     

    In 2018, a number of individual initiatives aimed to raise awareness of the opportunities digital technologies can bring to the sector, while also raising awareness of the need to mitigate potential risks.

     

    In 2019, the development of synergies and partnerships involving all possible actors (i.e. donors, humanitarian agencies, academia, private sector, as well as beneficiary communities) is necessary to harness those benefits. Through these partnerships we can:

     

    • Improve humanitarian aid operations by enhancing preparedness, improving needs assessment, and improving the design, monitoring, and implementation of actions.

     

    • Put in place the framework needed to exchange experiences, develop standards, propose guidelines for data protection, share information, increase mutual accountability, implement international humanitarian law in the digital world, and listen more to our beneficiaries.

     

    The challenges we face are considerable, but the realisation and acceptance by all that collective work and partnerships are now necessary in what is a more digitally integrated humanitarian sector would constitute a major step forward.

     

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    Plan for the future

    “Promote ways to anticipate and adapt to new types of threats and ways to mitigate them.”
    Dr. Randolph Kent

    Creator of the Humanitarian Futures Programme, which helped humanitarian organisations adapt to transformational changes in the sector, now hosted at www.humanitarianfutures.com; visiting professor, African Leadership Centre at King’s College London

     

    2019 should present a platform for the humanitarian sector to prepare for ever more complex and uncertain futures. Transformative change all too often occurs at the brink of chaos. Decision-makers, strategists, policy planners adjust for the evident but all too rarely choose to explore the “what might be’s” – factors that have transformative consequences beyond the immediately obvious. This would seem to be the case for what is generally referred to as “the humanitarian sector” – those institutions and individuals who have roles and responsibilities for preventing, preparing for, and responding to disasters and emergencies.

     

    Given the generally reactive, siloed and ‘standing operating procedure’ inclinations of all too many in the sector, the future will require significantly different approaches to humanitarian action.

     

    These approaches in turn will require humanitarian actors to promote ways to anticipate and adapt to new types of threats and ways to mitigate them. They will reflect new methods for identifying innovation and innovative practices as well as new measures for promoting effective collaboration.

    Towards this end, one step would be for the United Nations to use its convening power and its many hubs of expertise to provide a global overview of humanitarian futures – identifying plausible future risks, opportunities to mitigate such risks, and preparatory methods.

     

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    Take sexual violence seriously

    “Let 2019 be the year of holding leadership and perpetrators accountable for their actions.”
    Megan Nobert

    Safeguarding Expert and Independent Consultant, Founder and former Director of Report the Abuse

    We end this year with a platform on safeguarding that is starting to be taken seriously, which has increasing gravitas and commitment. In 2019, my hope is that we continue to build on the substantial safeguarding work being done across the globe, particularly by those working on the ground.

     

    (Safeguarding here encompasses both workplace sexual violence for those delivering aid and the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse against our beneficiary populations.)

     

    I hope that we will shift from requiring survivors to raise their voices and reveal their pain, and from focussing on individual organisations, to addressing the reality that safeguarding is a challenge that literally every aid organisation is struggling with. Donors, NGOs, United Nations, local NGOs, contractors, everyone.

     

    Let us recognize that harm happens in the absence of survivors stepping forward, and that creating safe spaces for them to speak should be for their benefit and not to prove to us that their experiences matter. Let us shift prevention from what individuals (women, in particular) should do to stop themselves from being harassed or harmed or violated, to stopping perpetrators altogether. Let 2019 be the year of holding leadership and perpetrators accountable for their actions.

     

    Work on safeguarding is no longer fringe or isolated. We are going beyond the hashtag of #AidToo. This is now all an essential piece of our aid operations and ethos.

     

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    Respect for African migrants

    “Counteract the politics of fear that is sweeping across Europe and the lack of moral and political clarity within Africa’s political class.”
    Nanjala Nyabola

    Political analyst; humanitarian advocate; writer on justice and integration in post conflict and post crisis societies; author, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya

    My hope is that 2019 will be the year of the African migrant, not just as an abstract object of political debates and the subject of fear-mongering campaigns in Europe, but as a human being worthy of dignity and the humanitarian imperative to protect.

     

    In 2018, European hostility against Africans crossing the Mediterranean reached devastating proportions. In November, MSF’s rescue boat, the Aquarius, was prevented from intervening to help people making the Mediterranean crossing, the culmination of a year of regulatory threats and interference with the rescue programme. Earlier in the year, the Aquarius and other boats were prevented from docking in Spain, Malta, and in Italy as the public policy of European governments veered sharply to the right and away from the humanitarian imperative to protect at all costs.

     

    As a direct consequence, thousands of people are currently trapped in inhumane conditions especially in Libya, double victims of a war that Europe helped to start and of the slow demise of the humanitarian imperative on the high seas. Paradoxically, European governments seem determined to sustain both the conditions that make migration attractive and the dangerous programme to send them back.

     

    2019 should be the year that we refocus on the humanity of African migrants and refugees. I hope for a concerted effort to counteract the politics of fear that is sweeping across Europe and the lack of moral and political clarity within Africa’s political class, and to defend the humanitarian imperative on the high seas.

     

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    Return to our roots

     

    “My hope is that the humanitarian sector (re)starts considering the forgotten issue of justice.”
    Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou

    Professor, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and former foreign minister of Mauritania

    My hope is that the humanitarian sector (re)starts considering the forgotten issue of justice. Technocratic approaches have hollowed out contemporary humanitarianism with the danger of removing the very ethos of altruism and the principles that underwrote it historically. Much of today's crises are grounded in injustice and its perpetuation.

     

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    Bring back trust

    “I hope there is a real change in attitude and behaviour that leads to a deeper reflection on re-balancing power.”
    Smruti Patel

    Director, Global Mentoring Initiative, a Geneva-based consultancy firm

    What I look forward to in 2019 is thinking the unthinkable: We must change where the status quo is not ethical, fair, honest and respectful enough. Senior leaders and their teams must think about how they can put values, ethics and people at the centre again, creating an environment that releases our full potential to serve populations in crisis. I am also looking forward to seeing national actors taking their place, confidently leading and fulfilling their full potential to assist and protect populations in their own localities and influencing the international decision-making processes.

     

    I hope there is a real change in attitude and behaviour that leads to a deeper reflection on re-balancing power and some real value-based collaborations. I hope to see the international donors and partners shift the focus from risk and deficit thinking to trust, opportunity, and equitable partnerships to bring a real sea-change in the system.  

     

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    Embrace development

    “Move beyond the rhetoric of ‘the nexus’ and ‘new ways of working’ and, once and for all, abandon our humanitarian and development siloes.”

    Ebola, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo: an outbreak of a dangerous pathogen in a war zone threatens one of the largest countries in sub-Saharan Africa and potentially, other countries in east Africa. More than 500 cases and 300 deaths make it the second worst outbreak of Ebola in human history. In the same year in DRC, there are outbreaks of cholera, monkey pox, malaria, measles, vaccine-derived polio, and rabies. More generally, DRC represents one of the largest and most neglected emergencies in the world, with more than 10 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. But, as dramatic as the needs are, and as clear as the humanitarian imperative is, they are merely a symptom of a fundamental failure of development. DRC is perhaps the prototype of a fragile state caught in a vicious cycle of acute and protracted crises and under-development. As a consequence, every year, more than 300,000 Congolese children under the age of five die of mainly preventable causes.

    In fact, fragility, whether across nation states or within their territories, causes acute crisis after acute crisis, is the primary cause of both internal displacement and refugee movement, and fundamentally alters the trajectory of development. It is now arguably the central humanitarian and development issue of our time. So my hope for 2019 is that, as an international community, we will move beyond the rhetoric of “the nexus” and “new ways of working” and once and for all, abandon our humanitarian and development siloes. We need to create a practical instrument for multi-year strategic planning, programming, and financing that prioritises this group of 20 or so countries or settings, which are so central to the achievement of both our Sustainable Development Goals and humanitarian outcomes. Such a mechanism would provide a fulcrum around which peace efforts coalesce, break the vicious cycle of crisis and underdevelopment, rejuvenate the social contract between governments and their citizens, and obtain measurable results on a national scale. Perhaps the most important result will be the restoration of hope for millions of people around the world whose fate and life chances are currently determined by their place of birth.

     

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    Time for reflection

    “Grant ourselves the time to reflect and exchange on the specific context of our operations, the relevance of our strategic focus, or the longer-term impact of our short-term activities.”
    Dan Schreiber

    Deputy Head of Office ad interim with OCHA, DRC

    In 2019, I hope I will be one among many to take concrete measures to make reflexive monitoring in action a larger part of my daily work. Like many of my colleagues, I work in a complex emergency where extreme humanitarian challenges seem to pile up and refuse to go away. Massive forced migration, the spread of endemic diseases, crisis-level food insecurity and shocking levels of malnutrition come to mind. To tackle the impact of these "wicked problems", some of the strengths of our humanitarian community are its diversity, its constant innovation, and its focus on quick and practical results. We are in constant motion to address humanitarian needs in an ever-changing context. But how often do we grant ourselves the time to reflect and exchange on the specific context of our operations, the relevance of our strategic focus, or the longer-term impact of our short-term activities?

     

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    Empower Syria’s women and youth

    “Humanitarian policies need to shift from an aid-based focus – which perpetuates the cycle of dependency – towards sustainable development.”
    Yakzan Shishakly

    CEO, Maram Foundation for Relief & Development, an NGO that works on relief and development projects in Syria

    My hope for 2019 is to witness the sowing of inclusive, empowering seeds of change in Syria. Seeds planted for those groups most marginalised by society. Seeds of peace. I believe there are concrete actions that can be taken by the humanitarian world to build the foundations necessary for a peaceful future. These actions target the two most vulnerable – and yet most powerful – groups in society: namely, women and youth.

     

    A movement towards peace requires that humanitarian actors place women and girls at the heart of all peacebuilding efforts. Ending and preventing violence is rooted in sustainable solutions, and the transformative potential of women’s voices, capacity, and agency are at the core of sustainability. Institutionalising gender equality and advocating for greater representation of women in peace processes at decision-making levels should take precedence in all humanitarian responses.

     

    During times of war, education systems – and therefore children and youth – are often on the front line of violence. Education is central to the social, economic, and political development of every country. And, at the risk of sounding cliché, children are the future. Humanitarian policies need to shift from an aid-based focus – which perpetuates the cycle of dependency – towards sustainable development, beginning with the development of conflict-sensitive education plans and policies.

     

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    Address root problems

    “My wish is that… the spirit of the times will be better reflected by the words ‘back on track’ rather than ‘never again’.”
    Ivan Šimonović

    Professor, Zagreb Law School; former special adviser to the UN secretary-general on the responsibility to protect, assistant secretary-general for human rights, and minister of justice, Croatia

    Every year, Oxford Dictionaries selects a word that reflects the spirit of the times. For 2018, that word was “toxic”, reflecting the deepening divisions within societies as well as in international relations. My wish is that, by the end of 2019, the spirit of the times will be better reflected by the words "back on track” rather than “never again” – the expression we often use after the worst humanitarian tragedies.

     

    After decades of improvement, the last couple of years have seen an increase in conflicts, conflict-related casualties, and civilians killed. Human rights – the best structural prevention for internal and international conflicts – are on the retreat, a result of poorly managed globalisation. An increasing number of authoritarian leaders are demanding more power and fewer human rights for their countries’ citizens. They are weakening multilateralism, human rights, and the rule of law – replacing these with unconstrained national interests, increased xenophobia, and the closing of borders. It is a populistic attempt to extinguish fire by pouring on gasoline. As a result, the risk of atrocity crimes is rising as well.

     

    Instead of treating symptoms, root causes should be addressed. Terrorism will not be defeated by torturing and killing terrorists and retaliating against their supporters, but by nourishing non-discrimination, ending corruption, and establishing the rule of law and human rights for everyone. Migration will not be controlled by barbed wire, police brutality, and walls, but by improving human rights situations and development perspectives in the countries migrants are leaving. Authoritarian leaders will not save their populations from the shortcomings of globalisation: only improving how globalisation is managed will accomplish this.

     

    What is needed is more – not less – global solidarity, multilateralism, and sensitivity to globalisation’s losers. To prevent conflicts and atrocity crimes in 2019, we need more – not fewer – human rights.

     

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    Help citizens drive social change

    “Re-imagine the role and value of civil society.”
    Danny Sriskandarajah

    CEO, Oxfam Great Britain; former secretary general at the global civil society network CIVICUS

    As I move on from my role at CIVICUS to one at Oxfam, I do so with the acute awareness that civic freedoms and civil society are coming under attack all over the world. Yet, I do not look ahead to 2019 with trepidation. In fact, quite the opposite. My time at CIVICUS has made me hopeful.

    Hopeful because of the amazing activists I have met around the world who are daring to disrupt and to innovate; to organise and mobilise in new and creative ways to defend civic freedoms, to fight for social justice and equality and to push back against populism.

    Hopeful because these activists are fighting, not only to defend the democratic achievements of the past, but to advance the fundamental values of our open societies today and for the future.

    Hopeful because, wherever I have been, I have encountered not just frustration with broken politics, but a desire to shape better democracies; to sate an unquenched thirst for participation; to re-imagine democracy for a new age.

    Neither the market nor the state alone can mend our social fabric or rebuild our ailing democracies; but it is safe to assume that those civic formations that are already reshaping, reinventing, and renewing themselves will be at the vanguard of driving social change in the 21st century.

    I am more convinced than ever that this will be the century of the citizen; a new era in which we are more empowered, more connected, and more equal. The question for all of us in organised, professional, salaried bits of civil society is can we step up to re-imagine the role and value of civil society in this quest.

     

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    Fight terrorism, not aid

    “Hold humanitarian actors exempt from all sanctions regimes and ‘no-contact’ rules.”
    Abby Stoddard

    Partner, Humanitarian Outcomes, a British research consultancy firm for humanitarian aid agencies and donors

    Apart from ending the armed conflicts that have displaced and imperiled 134 million people in 2018, the thing that governments could do to most benefit humanitarian action would be to agree on a global humanitarian exemption rule.

     

    Humanitarian access has measurably declined in conflicts such as Syria and Afghanistan, and many areas of South Sudan, Somalia, and elsewhere remain unable to obtain vital aid. Yet as donor governments are urging their recipient agencies to do better on access, they are also throwing up new obstacles. The proposed UK travel ban and new USAID counter-terror restrictions are but the latest examples. Sanctions and legal controls are important tools in governments’ security agendas, but when applied in blunt and blanket ways they do more to disincentivise humanitarians than they achieve in containing terrorists. The ambiguous language and severe penalties attached to these instruments have aid groups increasingly deciding that operating in certain areas is not worth the risk. And by effectively criminalising humanitarian aid to these places, these laws produce a pattern of aid coverage that is skewed towards politically favoured areas, violating the core humanitarian principle of impartiality.

     

    It does not have to be this way. The longstanding principle of humanitarian exemptions is rooted in customary international humanitarian law, and has been applied in numerous cases, including Security Council resolutions on Somalia in 2011 and North Korea in 2017, as well as the EU’s 2017 counter-terrorism directive. Rather than case-by-case resolutions, donor governments could use the Good Humanitarian Donorship platform to incubate a global rule that would hold humanitarian actors exempt from all sanctions regimes and “no-contact” rules, and further commit to passing no laws or regulations that would have the effect of reducing or disincentivising humanitarian aid to civilians.

     

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    Post-disaster aid

    “When news interest fades, people’s needs grow as they face the implications of months of disrupted lives and incomes.”
    Yenni Suryani

    Country manager, Indonesia, Catholic Relief Services

    The aftermath of a natural disaster can be frightening. When the spotlight of media attention moves on, survivors can feel abandoned. As I look ahead to 2019 here in Indonesia, my thoughts turn to families in Lombok who experienced a devastating earthquake in August, and thousands of other families who survived an earthquake and tsunami in Central Sulawesi a month later. These back-to-back disasters brought together government, private sector, and non-profit groups to meet immediate needs for relief and to begin planning for recovery.

     

    We can’t neglect the early recovery and reconstruction needs around the city of Palu in Sulawesi and in northwest Lombok. When news interest fades, people’s needs grow as they face the implications of months of disrupted lives and incomes. Families must have jobs and income alongside safe, dignified housing.

     

    We also must continue to invest in preparedness and risk reduction throughout the country, particularly with small, local organisations. Catholic Relief Services has seen these local preparedness efforts pay off over and over again with life-saving impact and good stewardship of resources.

     

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    Include more women

    “My wish for 2019 is a stronger feminist analysis and approach to humanitarian disasters.”
    Everjoice Win

    Programmes & global engagement director at ActionAid International, a development NGO working in over 40 countries

    The world seems slightly more aware – and a bit more prepared – to prevent and manage emergencies. Yet we do not seem to learn any hard lessons, nor do we seem willing to fundamentally shift the ways in which our world is structured and operates. My wish for 2019 is a stronger feminist analysis and approach to humanitarian disasters. Lest you think that requires rocket science, here’s how to achieve it:

    • Listen more to indigenous women and tap into their knowledge and understanding of how we must relate to nature and ecology.
    • Practise more ecologically friendly agriculture and land use.
    • Accept that climate change is real, listen to those living on the front lines, and provide them with the necessary support to adapt to this reality.
    • As humanitarian responders, we need fewer white men in shorts and yellow vests, and more local women and young people. Trust people affected by disasters and let them lead the response.
    • Use more women and local leaders as spokespersons when disasters strike.
    • Listen to women and girls who have directly experienced sexual and other forms of gender-based violence.
    • Be braver in challenging power and privilege and call sexual abuse – and all forms of violence, harassment, and abuse of power – what it is, rather than use the euphemistic term ‘safeguarding’. Instead of thinking that violence against women and girls is a new issue, learn from women’s rights organisations who have been here before us. They have decades of experience, manuals, tools, and people that we can tap into.

     

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    Ideas for change
    My hope for 2019 is...
  • UN food agency demands ‘immediate end’ to aid fraud in Yemen

    Diversion is preventing food aid from reaching people who need it in Yemen, including “many” in the Houthi rebel-controlled capital Sana’a, the World Food Programme said Monday, calling it an “outrage” that aid was being siphoned off with the involvement of local officials.

     

    The UN’s food relief agency said it uncovered the misappropriation in a review during recent months, when it found that “at least one partner organisation” affiliated with the Houthi Ministry of Education in Sana’a was committing fraud. It added that local officials were manipulating the lists that determine who receives aid, records were falsified, and trucks were “illicitly” removing food from distribution centres.

     

    “This conduct amounts to the stealing of food from the mouths of hungry people,” WFP executive director David Beasley said in a statement, which said the agency was “demanding an immediate end to the diversion of humanitarian food relief in Yemen.”

     

    “At a time when children are dying in Yemen because they haven’t enough food to eat, that is an outrage,” Beasley said. “This criminal behaviour must stop immediately.”

     

    Conflict has left some 16 million Yemenis severely food insecure: WFP says it supplies some eight million people a month with food aid, and aims to increase that number to as high as 12 million as the situation verges on famine in some parts of the country. WFP reports that this will cost $152 million per month. It received $954 million for Yemen operations in 2018.

     

    For three years and nine months, Houthi rebels have been fighting the government of the internationally recognised (but exiled) President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his allies, who are backed by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition. Throughout the war, all sides have been accused of preventing aid from reaching its targets, with aid agencies saying an on-off blockade of northern Houthi-run ports by the coalition is a major cause of hunger in Yemen.

     

    Earlier on Monday, the Associated Press reported that “factions and militias on all sides of the conflict have blocked food aid from going to groups suspected of disloyalty, diverted it to front-line combat units or sold it for profit on the black market.” Quoting a former Houthi aid official, the AP investigation alleged that 15,000 monthly rations were being siphoned off in Sana’a.

     

    Prior warning

     

    An internal WFP audit, started in November 2017 and released in March 2018, highlighted “political interference” and risks of aid diversion in Yemen.

     

    ”The de facto authorities [Houthis] continue to impose restrictions that impact WFP’s ability to provide assurance that assistance is reaching the most food insecure and vulnerable populations,” the audit said. “Lack of access due to insecurity, interference by the de facto authorities, and the large number of distribution sites have led to monitoring gaps in certain governorates and districts.”

     

    The audit singled out the Houthi Ministry of Education for criticism, saying there were “significant weaknesses and poor performance” in its delivery of food. The ministry handled 40 percent of WFP’s food aid recipients in Yemen, according to the audit.

     

    WFP and other UN agencies often use local partners, including government agencies, both to determine who needs aid and to deliver it. However, such arrangements typically involve independent needs assessment, monitoring, and end-user verification procedures to make sure aid ends up where it is intended. The audit found that Houthi authorities denied WFP the opportunity to even check “the validity of beneficiary lists”.

     

    WFP said in Monday’s statement that authorities in Houthi-controlled areas had “repeatedly resisted” efforts to overhaul the relief system in Yemen, including changes in how those who receive aid are selected, more monitoring of where the aid goes, and nationwide biometric registration of those enrolled for food aid.

     

    “I’m asking the Houthi authorities in Sana’a to take immediate action to end the diversion of food assistance and ensure that it reaches those people who rely on it to stay alive,” said Beasley.

     

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    UN food agency demands ‘immediate end’ to aid fraud in Yemen
  • Our 10 most popular stories of 2018

    Investigations, exclusives, and special reports dominate our most-read stories this year, but there’s room for some timely analysis and the odd news feature. Find out which IRIN articles created the most buzz in 2018 (by unique pageviews, most-viewed first). And once you’re on top of the news, why not test yourself with our year-end quiz?

    Cameroon’s anglophone war, part 1 and part 2

    Emmanuel Freudenthal became the first journalist to spend time with an anglophone armed group, trekking for a week with them in the sun and rain, across rivers and up steep hills, through dark rainforests and fields of giant grass. In this two-part series, he explored the make-up and motivation of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, and how the civil war brewing in Cameroon was changing the lives of fighters, civilians, and refugees.

    A gun in the foreground as soldiers stand in file in mismatched clothing

     

    EXCLUSIVE: Oxfam sexual exploiter in Haiti caught seven years earlier in Liberia

    IRIN found that the man at the centre of Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal was dismissed by another British NGO seven years earlier for similar misconduct. A former colleague revealed that Roland van Hauwermeiren was sent home from Liberia in 2004 after her complaints prompted an investigation into sex parties there with young local women.

    People walk in the distances abstractly

     

    Understanding Eastern Ghouta in Syria

    In February, the UN said nearly 400,000 civilians were trapped in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, the latest battleground in a series of bloody rebel defeats in Syria’s cities. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and his Russian allies seemed poised for a major ground offensive on the besieged insurgent enclave. Syria analyst Aron Lund unpicked what we knew, and what we didn’t.

    A dust cloud from an explosion on a city

     

    Audit finds UN refugee agency critically mismanaged donor funds in Uganda

    This damning internal probe by the UN into waste and corruption in refugee operations in Uganda in 2017 went unnoticed by many. Ben Parker read the fine print and exposed the extent of mismanagement by the UN’s refugee agency, including a $7.9 million contract for road repairs awarded to a contractor with no experience in road construction.

    Two girls in a refugee camp one with her arm on the other

     

    Eritrea-Ethiopia peace leads to a refugee surge

    Inter-ethnic conflict over scarce resources saw more people internally displaced in Ethiopia in the first half of 2018 than in any other country. In the second half of the year, peace and an open border with Eritrea saw a sudden spike in Eritrean refugees. Addis Ababa-based reporter James Jeffrey travelled to the border regions to speak to new arrivals.

    Closeup of two Eritrean men looking away from the camera

     

    Inside the EU’s flawed $200 million migration deal with Sudan

    As millions of dollars in EU funds flow into Sudan to stem African migration, asylum seekers say they are increasingly afraid and living in fear of exploitation. In interviews with dozens of Eritreans and Ethiopians, as well as local journalists and lawyers, reporter Caitlin Chandler documented allegations of endemic police abuse, including extortion, violence, and sexual assault.

    An obscured portrait of a man's face behind purple and white drapes

     

    Former Save the Children staffers speak out on abusive culture under Justin Forsyth

    2018 was a year in which #AidToo scandals tarnished the image of the sector. In February, Justin Forsyth resigned from UNICEF, becoming the highest-profile departure in the widening scandal sparked by the Oxfam sexual exploitation case. Former colleagues of Forsyth told IRIN of their disappointment at what they saw as a half-hearted apology that failed to properly acknowledge his past misconduct.

    A man with a notebook sits on the floor with two people facing away from the camera

     

    EXCLUSIVE: Audit exposes UN food agency’s poor data-handling

    The year that brought us GDPR disclaimers also brought some belated realisation in the aid sector about the importance of data protection. In January, after an internal audit slammed failings across its systems, the World Food Programme told IRIN’s Ben Parker it was “working to get ahead of the curve” on data-handling, would address weaknesses, and spend more on systems.

    Two cards like credit cards that read: Humanitarian Assistance

     

    EXCLUSIVE: Refugees in Sudan allege chronic corruption in UN resettlement process

    Sudan, again. This time allegations of corruption within the UN’s refugee resettlement operations in Khartoum. Investigating the programme over a 10-month period, journalist Sally Hayden uncovered a bribery scheme that prompted it to be shut down while the UN refugee agency mounted an investigation. Her follow-up in July found further problems as potential witnesses expressed fears of retaliation and concerns over a lack of protection.

    Outside of an office with barbed wire

     

    Yemen PR wars: Saudi Arabia employs UK/US firms to push multi-billion dollar aid plan

    In a year in which Yemen was described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the aid largesse of Saudi Arabia came under the microscope. IRIN revealed the extent of Riyadh’s PR offensive as critics suggested its multi-billion dollar aid plan amounted to propaganda and could reduce imports of vital goods into a key port held by the Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabia’s opponents in the three-year war.

    Men in camo, one with a camera, offload aid on a pallet

    (TOP PHOTO: Refugees from anglophone areas of Cameroon in camps across the border in Nigeria. CREDIT: Emmanuel Freudenthal/IRIN)

     

    From #AidToo and UN mismanagement to Cameroon and a siege in Syria
    Our 10 most popular stories of 2018
  • 2018 in Review: Local aid

    This series

    In this week-long series, IRIN’s editors highlight five themes from across our reporting that will continue to inform our coverage of the humanitarian sector in the new year: local aid; women and girls; returns and rebuilding; policy and practice; and migration. Are there untold stories we should be covering in 2019 on these or other themes? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here. Happy reading.

    The aid sector has made broad commitments to “localise” aid by shifting more power and funding to humanitarians on the ground where crises hit. But change has been slow, and the costs of delivering aid in emergencies continue to soar.

     

    In sprawling refugee camps and ravaged disaster zones, however, local aid workers are already on the front lines of the world’s most pressing crises, as our 2018 reporting on local aid in emergencies demonstrated.

     

    Below are highlights from our reporting, which will continue to explore how these local humanitarians – from grassroots NGOs and community leaders to local governments and everyday citizens – step in to respond, and to examine how this shift impacts the wider aid sector.

     

    Aid sector imbalances

    From evacuee to humanitarian: aid goes local in conflict-torn Marawi

     

    Local humanitarians rushed to respond when fierce urban warfare and martial law turned the Philippine city of Marawi into a no-go zone for most international aid groups last year. But they also put themselves at immense risk, foregoing basic protections that international staff would demand – exposing imbalances in the aid sector.

    A woman with an umbrella stands on rubble as light breaks through

     

    Stepping in

    In the Caribbean, local aid helps tackle a surge in Venezuelan asylum seekers

     

    Venezuelans continue to flee their country, and the region is struggling to absorb the influx. In small Caribbean nations like Trinidad and Tobago – home to an estimated 40,000 Venezuelans – local aid groups are some of the only agencies helping the growing number of asylum seekers.

    closeup of a people in jeans as they sit waiting

     

    Agile response

    In Burkina Faso, a local drive to educate children fleeing extremist violence

    In 2018, jihadist attacks forced hundreds of schools to close in Burkina Faso’s north. One school in the capital, Ouagadougou, adapted to the emergency by taking in and providing psychological support to children displaced by the violence.

    Twins look directly at the camera in front of a chalkboard

     

    ‘Informal humanitarians’

    Behind Indonesia’s tsunami response, a patchwork army of volunteers

     

    Everyday volunteers are playing a crucial role in the ongoing response to the earthquakes and tsunami that hit Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province in 2018. These “informal humanitarians” were first on the ground, while official aid was hampered by damaged infrastructure and red tape. However, the effort was also “spontaneous and disorganised”, as one volunteer told IRIN.

    A woman with a headscarf and sunglasses on a boat carrying a box of aid on her lap

     

    Aid at home

    First person: Bringing aid to my neighbours in Hodeidah just got harder

     

    “The days are long, the dangers many, and the obstacles to aid workers’ jobs in Hodeidah never seem to end,” a local aid worker wrote in his on-the-ground account of the mounting challenges in Yemen’s Red Sea port.

    A family sits on the floor inside and looks up at the camera

     

    Slow-going reforms

    In Bangladesh, a Rohingya strike highlights growing refugee activism

     

    For proponents of the “localisation” agenda, the response to the Rohingya refugee emergency in Bangladesh is evidence of just how slow reforms have been: local aid groups say they’ve been pushed aside while dozens of big international agencies have flooded into the camps. But the voices of Rohingya refugees themselves have also been conspicuously absent.

    Three adult men in a white have a discussion inside a temporary structure

     


     

    Read more of our local aid coverage here. In 2019 we’ll deepen our reporting on local aid, spotlighting the new humanitarians on the front lines of crises around the globe, tracking progress toward “localisation” and examining the implications of this continuing shift. Any stories we should be covering? Let us know: tweet us @irinnews or get in touch here.

    Highlights from our coverage
    2018 in Review: Local aid
  • Climate disasters, Congo elections, and charitable countries: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

     

    Respite for Yemen’s Hodeidah

     

    It’s been a busy week for Yemen, at least in the realms of diplomacy and foreign politics. After a week of peace talks in Sweden, on Thursday the UN announced the warring sides had agreed to a ceasefire in the key port city of Hodeidah and the wider province of the same name. Their fighters are to withdraw the city within 21 days, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the “UN will play a leading role in the port”. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this deal and what it means for civilians; you can read the fine print here. Later on Thursday, the US Senate voted to withdraw support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen. It was a rebuke to President Donald Trump’s backing for the kingdom’s crown prince despite mounting evidence of his involvement in the killing of a dissident Saudi journalist, but a largely symbolic one, as Trump has vowed to veto the measure if it passes the House of Representatives and reaches his desk.

     

    Challenges as Congo prepares to replace Kabila

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo's long-delayed presidential election is now just over a week away. But it's still far from smooth sailing, as thousands of voting machines were destroyed in a warehouse fire in the capital, Kinshasa, this week. Officials said the blaze seemed to be criminal in nature, but gave assurances it would not affect the poll. Use of the machines, a first in Congo, have raised opposition concerns of possible voter manipulation in favour of ruling party candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, who was chosen by President Joseph Kabila as his preferred successor. Kabila, who has been in power since 2001, won’t stand for re-election on 23 December, but said he may contest the 2023 poll. The EU meanwhile renewed sanctions on leading Congolese politicians, including Shadary, saying they were open to reviewing the decision after the election. Kabila, however, has refused to accredit EU election observers, calling the sanctions “politically motivated” and promising to retaliate. One to watch.

     

    Linking climate change and extreme weather

     

    Heatwaves in China and the Mediterranean; drought in East Africa and the United States, heavy flooding from parts of Asia to South America: all of these weather extremes that struck across the globe in 2017 would have been “virtually impossible” without the impacts of climate change, according to new research released this week. The study, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, is part of the growing body of “attribution science”, which explores the links between climate change and extreme weather events. The AMS says 70 percent of its research on the topic has found a “substantial link” between extreme events and climate change. There’s a growing push among vulnerable nations to be compensated for loss and damages from climate-linked disasters, but it’s among the more sensitive topics in global climate negotiations – including the COP24 summit set to conclude 14 December in Poland. While countries debate a path forward, communities on the front lines of climate change are already struggling to adjust. Read more on what coping with climate change means for people already living with its impacts.

     

    Gas guzzlers put on notice

     

    Humanitarian organisations are large-scale polluters, don't have renewable energy strategies and waste $517 million a year on fuel costs. Those are some of the blunt messages of a new report published by think tank Chatham House. It finds that although it  makes up about five percent of spending, fuel use is not closely tracked and there are few incentives to be more efficient. The study surveyed 21 aid operations in Burkina Faso, Kenya, and Jordan. In Kenya, partly because of heavy generator usage in remote locations, seven agencies were found to spend $6.7 million a year on fuel and related maintenance. There are some exceptions: solar systems for refugee camps in Jordan save $7.5 million a year; adding solar and wind power at a single WFP store in Afghanistan should save $60,000 a year. Donors could push for higher standards by demanding data on emissions, efficiency, and usage, the report argues.

    In case you missed it

     

    Ebola: Frontline health workers in South Sudan will begin receiving vaccinations for Ebola next week, the WHO said, as the country faces “very high risk” from an outbreak that's killed more than 300 people in neighbouring Congo. Ebola has not spread beyond Congo, but as a precaution, vaccinations also began in Uganda last month.

     

    International Humanitarian Law: The latest multinational effort to shore up respect for the laws of war has failed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) expressed "strong disappointment" that states could not agree on a “safe space” concept to consider war crimes.

     

    Papua New Guinea: Powerful volcanic eruptions on Manam Island, off Papua New Guinea’s northern coast, have triggered lava flows and ash fall and displaced multiple villages. A previous eruption in August destroyed two villages, while eruptions in 2004 forced the entire island to evacuate.

     

    The Philippines: The Philippine Congress this week extended martial law on the southern island of Mindanao through December 2019 – drawing criticism from rights groups. Parts of the island are preparing for a January plebiscite that could create a new autonomous region comprising majority-Muslim areas.

     

    Syria: UNICEF said that two sick babies died in the past week at Rukban, an isolated camp where 45,000 Syrians are trapped between the Jordanian border and Syrian government front lines. A convoy delivered supplies to the area in November. Before that civilians had gone with almost no aid since January. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council extended authorisation for cross-border aid deliveries elsewhere.

     

    Weekend read

     

    South Sudan: The humanitarian toll of a half decade of war

     

    The statistics speak for themselves: an estimated 400,000 dead, 4.5 million displaced, seven million said to be in need of aid. As South Sudan marks five years of war on 15 December, there is no question that the conflict has exacted an enormous human cost. Our weekend read curates our recent coverage along with a new slideshow and updated timeline of the conflict. As the war enters its sixth year on Sunday only the most optimistic of observers is voicing much hope that the revitalised peace agreement, signed in September by President Salva Kiir and his former rival and soon-to-be vice president (again) Riek Machar, will hold for very long. Regardless, it hasn’t brought an end to the violence, the hunger, and the need for broad-based reconciliation. Look out too for South Sudan analyst Alan Boswell’s stark assessment of where things stand heading into 2019.

     

    And finally...

     

    The axis of helpful

    Indonesia, take a bow. A new survey, The World’s Most Generous Countries Report, finds that Indonesians are the most charitable nationality. 153,000 interviewees in 146 countries were asked by pollster Gallup if they a) donated money, b) volunteered their time, or c) helped a stranger. Extrapolating the numbers, Gallup suggests 2.2 billion people helped a stranger in 2017 (about 43 percent of the world's adults). Glass half full: good neighbourliness is alive and well. Glass half empty: what is wrong with the other half? Gallup combines the results into a score per country. Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United States make up the rest of the top four. The bottom scorers for "civic engagement" are China, Greece, and Yemen. Does that seem fair?

    (TOP PHOTO: A woman who fled fighting in Hodeidah arrives at an informal shelter in Aden, Yemen. CREDIT: Ammar Bamatraf/UNHCR)

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    Climate disasters, Congo elections, and charitable countries
  • Congo data, South Sudan attacks, and UNAIDS in crisis: The Cheat Sheet

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

     

    On our radar

     

    "Brutal attacks" against women and girls in South Sudan

     

    Despite some cautious optimism around a new peace agreement, civilians are still far from safe in South Sudan. Aid groups say more than 150 women and girls were raped, beaten, and brutalised over a 10-day period at the end of November. Armed men, many in uniform, carried out the “abhorrent” attacks near the city of Bentiu, the UN said. Médecins Sans Frontières, which provided emergency medical care to survivors, expressed deep concerns. “Some are girls under 10 years old and others are women older than 65. Even pregnant women have not been spared from these brutal attacks,” said MSF midwife Ruth Okello. Since the war began in 2013, South Sudan has seen horrific levels of sexual violence. In the first half of 2018, 2,300 cases were reported; more than 20 percent of victims were children, the UN said. For more on the conflict and what it’s like to live in Juba and report on it, watch this frank Q&A interview with IRIN contributor Stefanie Glinski. And look out for our special package next week as the war marks its five-year milestone.

     

    UN accused of manipulating data in Congo

     

    Aid groups working in the Democratic Republic of Congo have accused the UN of "manipulating" data and bowing to government pressure ahead of elections later this month. In a statement in November, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, put the overall number of people needing assistance in Congo in 2019 at 12.8 million, a slight decrease on last year, despite the fact that according to the authoritative IPC scale 13.1 million Congolese are facing crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity next year (up from 7.7 million in 2018). The OCHA overall needs figure appears to only count the displaced as 1.37 million people newly displaced between January and August 2018. Aid groups say that overlooking three million people who had already been displaced prior to that will dramatically impact their ability to respond to needs, and may encourage forced closures of IDP camps. A letter obtained by IRIN – addressed to UN aid chief Mark Lowcock and Kim Bolduc, the UN’s most senior humanitarian official in Congo – from a forum of 45 international NGOs working in the country, blames the decision on "increased politicisation of humanitarian data", which they say sends a misleading message that the situation is improving "despite clear evidence to the contrary". OCHA has denied manipulating data. Read our report from April on how relations were already strained between aid groups and the Congolese government, after it failed to attend its own donor conference in March.

    UNAIDS: "A broken organisational culture"

     

    An independent report on harassment and management culture at the UN's specialised HIV/AIDS body, UNAIDS, is out today and it's damning. The executive director, Michel Sidibé, is found to have set up a "patriarchal culture", and the organisation to be in crisis. The four-month review followed reports that a senior UNAIDS official's sexual misconduct was not properly handled. The report plants the blame at the feet of Sidibé. He has been "tolerating harassment and abuse of authority" and "accepted no responsibility for actions and effects of decisions and practices creating the conditions that led to this review,” it said. In an email to staff, Sidibé wrote: "I have taken on board the criticisms."

     

    Disputed Papua killings raise tensions in Indonesia

     

    Violence this week in the Papua region put the spotlight back on a decades-long pro-independence movement along Indonesia’s eastern edge. Indonesian authorities say pro-independence fighters killed up to 31 people working on a controversial infrastructure project in Papua province this week, though an armed group that reportedly claimed responsibility said those killed were not civilians. A separate pro-independence leader called for restraint and warned of retaliatory attacks by Indonesia’s military. For decades, Indonesia has quashed Papuan nationalism, which includes both armed elements and a peaceful movement by activists who have called for a referendum on independence. Over that time, the heavily militarised region has been mired in poverty and under-development, letting treatable health problems fester. Earlier this year, a measles outbreak killed dozens of children.

     

    One year after victory, is Iraq IS-free?

     

    One year ago (on 9 December, to be exact) Iraq declared victory against so-called Islamic State. The country’s recovery has come in fits and starts. There were elections and a new prime minister, but he’s not yet managed to form a government. November saw the lowest number of civilian deaths and injuries in violence, terrorism, and armed conflict in six years, but a new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says IS is regrouping, operating in a cell structure, and targeting the Iraqi government, especially local village heads. And while 4.1 million Iraqis who fled their homes during the IS years have returned home, 1.9 remain displaced, half of them for more than three years. The UN says it’s increasingly clear many of these people don’t want to (or can’t) go home, many still rely on aid, and it’s not clear what their future holds.

     

    Plus ça change

     

    MSF employs more people than any other relief organisation, and there are 570,000 people working in humanitarian aid overall. Just two new data points from an ambitious report, the State of the Humanitarian System 2018, released this week. The study finds that the global political climate is causing a "decline in performance in the areas of coverage (the ability to reach everyone in need) and coherence (the ability to conduct operations in line with international humanitarian and refugee law)". The report, from the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance, or ALNAP, also gives a lukewarm appraisal of the humanitarian system: “incremental improvement in some areas, and a lack of movement in others”. While UN agencies dominate the funding picture, six large NGOs command 23 percent of the spending in 2017, the report finds. The 331 page report came hard on the heels of the UN-led omnibus humanitarian appeal for 2019, which signalled the need for $25 billion in aid for more than 90 million people.

    In case you missed it

     

    Afghanistan: Two bodies managing October parliamentary elections are clashing over poll results in the capital, Kabul. The elections complaints commission declared fraud and invalidated all votes cast in Kabul, but the agency overseeing the vote said it would ignore the ruling.

     

    China: More than 7,400 women and girls could be victims of forced marriage in just a few remote districts along the northern Myanmar-China border, according to a new study. Nearly 40 percent of women interviewed for the research said they’d been forced to marry.

     

    Ebola: Eighteen new Ebola cases and five more deaths have been recorded in just two days in Congo. The health ministry expressed particular concern about the spread in Butembo, a major trading city in North Kivu province. With 471 cases, including 273 deaths, the outbreak is now the second-largest ever.

     

    Libya: Locals say a US strike in Libya killed as many as 11 civilians at the end of November, the casualty monitor Airwars reports. The US says the strike targeted a local faction of al-Qaeda.

     

    Mediterranean: MSF and SOS Méditerranée say they have been “forced” to stop operating their Aquarius migrant rescue vessel. The ship, which has saved countless lives in the Mediterranean since 2015, has been docked in Marseilles since Panama revoked its registration in September after sustained legal pressure, in particular from Italy.

     

    Yemen: Two sides in the war kicked off talks in Sweden on Thursday, as a new report said that 20 million people back in Yemen are hungry, including nearly a quarter of a million who could soon be on the “brink of death”, but the threshold for famine has not been met.

     

    Our weekend read

     

    “Yes, the babies die”: Tales of despair and dismay from Venezuela

     

    To get a sense of how fast and how far Venezuela has fallen, look no further than the University Hospital of Maracaibo. Once a shining beacon of the South American nation’s oil-rich economy, this modernist building that once pioneered liver transplants now peels into disrepair and lacks electricity, water, even basic medicines. Inside, the shelves lie empty, coated with flies. Outside, a large mound of blue rubbish bags grows, rotting, by the day. “Hospitals have become like extermination camps,” says surgeon and professor Dr. Dora Colomenares. Our weekend read is the latest instalment of Susan Schulman’s special report on the humanitarian impacts of Venezuela’s economic collapse. Through the graphic accounts of patients and doctors, it lays bare the collapse of a healthcare system that has lost most of its capability to treat the sick. As more and more medical personnel join the mass exodus from the country, malnutrition is weakening immune systems and long-dormant diseases are returning. “We feel very helpless because there is nothing we can do,” Colomenares says. “Yes,” she nods, “yes, the babies die.”

     

    And finally…

     

    The muppets are coming to the Rohingya refugee camps. The Lego Foundation this week announced a $100 million grant to the Sesame Workshop – the non-profit behind the long-running US children’s TV show. The money will be used to bring “play-based early childhood development” targeted to Rohingya and Syrian refugee children, including a curriculum featuring Sesame Street’s fuzzy muppet puppets (yes, they are muppets). In Bangladesh, this will include partnering with the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC, whose work in the camps includes running “learning centres” for children – Bangladesh’s government does not allow formal schooling for Rohingya refugees. In case you’re wondering, there is indeed a Bangladeshi version of Sesame Street, and the proponents of this initiative say it will be a part of the programming.

    (TOP PHOTO: South Sudanese students at an event for the International Day for eliminating Sexual Violence in Conflict. CREDIT: UNMISS)

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    Congo data, South Sudan attacks, and UNAIDS in crisis

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