Tag Archives: humanitarian aid

Syria’s humanitarian crisis

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The Syrian revolt has over the past three years escalated into a massive humanitarian crisis with regional implications. At present, almost half Syria’s pre-war population (22 million) is displaced, including 6.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 2.3 million refugees. Inside Syria, almost ten million war-affected residents need outside assistance, the majority of them being homeless. At the Kuwait donor conference in January 2013, the international community pledged USD 1.5 billion in aid to the “Syria Regional Response Plan”. In June, the amount was tripled to USD 4.5 billion, the largest humanitarian appeal in UN history. By end of the year the amount was raised to USD 6.5 billion the largest-ever appeal for a single crisis.

 Complex emergency

The Syrian civil war has turned into a complex emergency with brutal violence, massive displacement and regional havoc. The most intense battles have taken place along the Hama-Homs-Idlib axis. This is the most ethnically diverse part of the country, where the Alawites – who make up about 12 per cent of the pre-war population – live side-by-side with the Sunni majority representing over 70 per cent. Strategically, the Syrian Army is determined to remain in control of the Homs-Hama “corridor” connecting Damascus with the Alawite heartland in the Latakia and Tartous Governates. For this reason, the Army has staged massive attacks on rebel strongholds in Homs, Hama and Aleppo ruining the built environment, killing civilians and causing repeated displacement.

Displacement crisis

The Syrian displacement crisis is consistent with (global) panel data surveys demonstrating the robust link between violence and displacement. The turning point was the the Syrian army’s ground assault on Homs in March 2012, which changed the nature of the conflict,from a security to military approach that led to a steep rise in casualties and displacement (Figure 1). In mid-2013, the UN casualty figure was more than 100,000 dead, with current estimates reaching 130,000 (Dec. 2013). Since the start of 2013, nearly 50,000 people are fleeing Syria every week. With no diplomatic or military solution in sight the Syrian civil war will continue. The displacement crises will therefore expand too, with dire consequences for regional stability.

 

Syria displacement crisis (Figure 1)

Figure 1: Syria displacement crisis: March 2011–December 2013 (33 months)
Sources: Data compiled from several sources: HIU, ICDM, OHCHR, SNC, UNHCR, UNOCHA.
 
This blog post is part of a longer article analysing the Syrian displacement crisis within the context of contemporary forced migration theory and assesses its impact on the region, forthcoming in Maghreb-Machrek (2014). 

Humanitarian challenges in Syria

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NCHS arranged a seminar on the humanitarian situation in Syria. During the discussions it was made clear that the world had not seen a humanitarian emergency of this scope since Rwanda 1994. Lack of access inhibits humanitarian operations directed at the Syrians in Syria, while the programs for the protection of refugees are still underfunded. There are many potential partner NGOs operating inside Syria, but the large international humanitarian NGOs have a hard time finding implementing partners. NGOs that are reliably neutral and have a full mastery of Western accounting standards – are in short supply. It was noted that work in Syria was very dangerous for both the media and the humanitarians; kidnappings, arrests, and executions have effectively blinded the international community and largely incapacitated the humanitarian response.

The seminar was opened by a rough introduction to the current positions in the civil war: The cleavages are many and, unfortunately, multiplying. A rough summary is that the Assad regime controls areas to the south and west; the opposition controls areas in the north and east – while the northern most area is controlled by Kurdish nationalists. The conflict threatens the stability of the entire region. Turkey is under pressure by a massive influx of people fleeing the conflict, Jordan is hard-pressed by its’ own population which can potentially gain support from Syrian refugees, and the population of Syrians in Lebanon is closing in on the 25 % mark. Considering Hezbollah’s close affiliation with the Shiite regime in Syria, and that the majority of fleeing Syrians are Sunni, this can potentially destabilize the political balance in Lebanon.

It was claimed that the international actors have a disproportionate focus on refugees; to the detriment of the internally displace inside Syria. A partial explanation for this is that it is very difficult to act inside Syria. The security situation is tough for the international humanitarians and the complex political situation makes it difficult to choose local implementing partners. It was also emphasized from many speakers that the neutrality had become an impossible ideal inside Syria. It is virtually impossible to get a full overview of political implications and potential offences taken at any given course of action. Meanwhile the UN is forced to work within the framework of Syria as a sovereign state, granting the Assad regime authority over how they conduct their humanitarian efforts. The national Red Cross Society also has close ties to Assad’s administration. Concern was expressed by several speakers that humanitarian relief could be abused by Islamist elements in the opposition. To this it was objected that the Islamists were there to stay. Neglecting humanitarian obligations in fear of supporting radical Islamists could potentially lead to a failure similar to the one faced in Somalia. The consequences could be catastrophic for the Syrian population.

The potential for abuse of humanitarian aid to promote political and military goals is large. At the same time the situation is dire. With winter on the way it can become necessary to sacrifice neutrality in order to ensure that the aid can reach those in the greatest of needs.

The complete video of the “Humanitarian Challenges in Syria” seminar (in Norwegian) is available here:

Part 1

Part 2

 

Somalia from Humanitarian Crisis to Struggling Statehood

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March 21, more than 90 people attended a Breakfast seminar “Return to Somalia, a New Era” jointly hosted by NCHS and PRIO’s Migration Research Group. Speakers were Abdi Aynte, executive director of the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) , HIPS researcher Anab Ibrahim Nur and PRIO senior researcher Cindy Horst.  HIPS is a recently established Somali think tank based in Mogadishu, and a collaborative research partner to NCHS on the Somali case study for the Protection of Civilians project. A recording of this event is available here.

Abdi Aynte explained that after more than 20 years of wars and widespread disorder, Somalia entered a new era of optimism during the last quarter of 2012. A UN-backed process culminated in the selection of 275 members of parliament, and a new leadership was subsequently elected. The capital Mogadishu is considerably safer than it was two years ago. The new government has extended its domain of control to a number of regions outside the capital, and business vibrancy and civil society activities are slowly but steadily returning to Somalia. Despite the progress, significant challenges remain. The Somali state is profoundly fragile, and the state of chronic contestation over political and resource control persists. The new government has yet to articulate a set of national policies on most crucial issues, and the nature of Somalia’s federal structure remains disputed.

In her presentation (available here, under related files to the left), Cindy Horst discussed protection, displacement and return to Somalia. Her main message was that considering the profoundly fragile state of the road towards stabilization in Somalia, it is very premature to return people there at the moment. Not only can their protection not be guaranteed, but ultimately, a large influx of “involuntary returnees” is likely to destabilize an already fragile situation in the country. Horst also argued that the increasing return visits and stays of Somali diaspora to places like Mogadishu cannot be used as an argument to force others back, as protection upon return depends on many different factors – not the least having a foreign passport that allows a quick exit again if the security situation turns bad. She expressed her concern over the shrinking protection space for refugees and IDPs worldwide – not just affecting those trying to find protection from violent conflict but also increasingly in the transitional phase towards stability.
Both speakers asked a number of critical questions relating to the issue of Repatriation and “Voluntary” Return: What will be the humanitarian implications as the Kenyan government attempts to repatriate more than half a million Somali refugees?  Many Western countries have buffed up their repatriation programs, including repatriation of rejected asylum seekers and also potentially Somalis with a criminal record. What will be the plight of these civilians and what kind of protection is available for them once they get off the plane in Mogadishu? While the new Somali government has started to reach agreements with a number of countries offering conditionality packages (aid for return), can it deal with the impact of a large influx of people?

Three specific issues were highlighted in the discussion that followed the presentations. The first is the Contested Role of the Diaspora as Humanitarians and Leaders and the development of what has been termed ‘Diaspora Hate Syndrome’ in Mogadishu and other places.  While the Diaspora has often played an important role in providing humanitarian aid for Somalis inside Somalia, the influx of a large number of Somali individuals carrying European, American or Australian passports who want “top jobs” in the reconstruction phase is currently generating tension on the ground.

The second concerned the proliferation of land disputes, which is becoming a topic of particular concern. As noted in a 2009 report by ODI on land, conflict and humanitarian action, “Land and property disputes tend to increase in the post-conflict period, particularly in the context of large-scale returns of displaced populations. If these issues are overlooked, they are likely to threaten the fragile stability of post-conflict transitions”. Hence, one of the most acute needs  is for the government to re-establish some way of managing the increasing number of land disputes, sometimes fueled by individuals in control of old registries issuing deeds and titles.

Finally, the international humanitarian community, which has a less than impressive track record in Somalia must now face up to new challenges. As pointed out in a 2012 report by Refugees International: “With security in Mogadishu improving, international aid agencies should be able to increase their presence on the ground, allowing them to learn more about how these gatekeepers operate and to whom they are connected. With this increased knowledge and greater presence, the aid system in Mogadishu can become more open and accountable”.

Urban Humanitarianism: Accessing informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya

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This blogpost is based on the first phase of my PhD fieldwork in the informal settlements of Nairobi. Over the next four years you can follow the developments of the NUPI/PRIO project Armed Violence in Urban Settings: New Challenges, New Humanitarianisms on this site. Our goal is to explore the humanitarian engagement in the field of urban violence.

Access is a critical issue for any humanitarian organization making their entry into a new field. Often, the question of access is purely physical:  During the rainy season, populations in villages connected to rest of the world by a single dirt road can be impossible to reach. The informal settlements of Nairobi do not fall into this category. Huruma can be seen from the Northeastern corner of the UN compound. Resident expats catch an excellent view of the Kibera Slum from the 11th hole at the Royal Nairobi Golf Club. Nevertheless, short physical distance is no guarantee of easy access.

Urban access. If access to an informal settlement is not granted by the local residents, there will be no security for staff and no project. Negotiating access to such informal urban settlements can be daunting, as humanitarian actors  must navigate several layers of formal and informal governmental structures. While permission from the central government is required, nothing will happen without the seal of approval from the presidentially appointed chiefs, assistant chiefs and village elders who hold key positions at the local level. The loyalty of these elders is primarily to the community, including at times those engaged in criminal and violent activities.

While the police might have achieved some sway in Mathare, the law is enforced by youth gangs in many of the Kibera villages, where The twelve disciples and Yes we can! are among the groups providing protection.  While  the defeat of the dreaded Mungiki is widely proclaimed in Mathare, the gangs remain a formidable force in this settlement. Financed by “taxation” of the community they ensure that the residents’ property and lives remain safe from external and internal threats. Any organization setting up projects in Mathare will need their tacit approval. Landlords are also important actors. Rents are rapidly adjusted to changing circumstances; a local water and sanitation project can result in increased prices that force the residents into financial exodus. Any structures or renovations in the slums need approval of the de jure owners, who are not known for their philanthropic nature.

The INGOs interviewed for this project have almost exclusively relied on a Community Based Organization (CBO) to negotiate first access. This, however, is not a fail-safe plan. These organizations are often centered around a charismatic leader, whose politics can compromise neutrality. There are also several “suit-case CBOs” with few real ties to the community and no actual projects. Selling projects to the humanitarian and human rights organizations is potentially very good business; a fact that creative entrepreneurs have learned to capitalize on.

Having managed to work with and around these political structures, humanitarian actors still face a real risk of involuntary involvement in the tribal and ethnic conflicts that dominate Kenyan politics.  Tribal suspicions run high, and skewed representation of one tribe among the staff could potentially be enough for the INGO to be seen as a partisan.  Rumors run fast through the settlements and any organization wishing to operate in this area must keep one ear constantly to the ground: Catching and disproving rumors early is of vital importance for staff safety.

Put to the test? While the conflict during the 2007-08 elections was between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin, the current political drama is playing out between the Kikuyu and the Luo. Prior to the 2013 election,  the graffiti “No Raila: No Peace” could be found everywhere in Kibera, including at the gates of the MSF Belgium clinic. In 2007-08, the violence spread from the city to the country side – eventually engulfing most of the country. The death toll rose beyond a thousand and estimates of the number of displaced vary between 180 000 and 600 000.

Despite the large number of humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, the humanitarian community was caught off guard. Evaluations of the response indicate that while IDP camps received the necessary aid, the humanitarians were largely incapable of aiding those who settled elsewhere. Those who sought shelter among family and friends in the settlements were hard to identify and support.

At the time of writing, it appears that in 2013, the  humanitarian community has been better prepared. OCHA has initiated a hub-based coordination system that ensures that actors know of each other and the relevant government structures in the areas where they operate. Nairobi has been divided into seven sub-hubs, each of which is led by an organization with solid local knowledge. The responsibility for the life and dignity of Kenyans rests with the Kenyan government. Making government actors aware of the resources they can call upon from the humanitarian community, and making sure that humanitarian response complements the government efforts, has been a cornerstone of the preparation.

The move from a sector-based to an area specific coordination of humanitarian action and the inclusion of the CBOs and Faith Based Organizations in the disaster preparedness plan are approaches which on a general basis could enhance access to urban populations during crisis and   strengthen the humanitarian response.

Update April 2nd: In the end there was no test. The Kenyan Supreme Court decided against the petition fronted by Odinga, confirming the election of Uhurru Kenyatta as the president to succeed Kibaki. Raila Odinga held a speech reaffirming his commitment to the constitution and thereby also the decision of the Supreme Court. There was no outbreak of political violence, though two deaths were reported by Kenya Red Cross in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.

 

The Unspoken in Kabul: What does the future hold for humanitarian actors?

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On the day that the UN announced the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has fallen for the first time in six years, NCHS hosted a lively and interesting panel debate on the contemporary and future state of humanitarianism in the country (19th February). Based on a recently published report from the Feinstein Center, Afghanistan: Humanitarianism in Uncertain Times, the event took stock of the current humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan as well as how humanitarian actors can prepare for the forthcoming 2014 withdrawal of ISAF forces.  Panelists included Antonio Donini from the Feinstein Center and co-author of the report, academics from SOAS and CMI, and senior representatives from the Norwegian MFA, the Norwegian Red Cross and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

In a packed room at PRIO composed of Afghans, practitioners and policy-makers, Antonio Donini outlined the legacy of decades of international involvement in Afghanistan. Remarking on the similarities with the Soviet withdrawal from the country in 1989, Donini asked, what has been achieved? He noted that the human development indicators make somber reading after a decade of international engagement since the fall of the Taliban and millions of dollars of aid.  He observed that a unique feature of the Afghan situation is that all major donors are also belligerents, including Norway.

Having been invited to discuss possible scenarios for Afghanistan come 2014 and the need to engage in serious contingency planning, there was general agreement among panelists concerning a set of key issues: the re-categorization of the Afghan situation from “post-conflict” to “humanitarian crisis” around 2008 was very belated and had important implications for humanitarian strategies and policy.  The (marginalized) role of UN agencies and accessibility to various parts of the country remains a challenge. The withdrawal of ISAF forces is seen for some humanitarian actors as a positive development but perceived by panelists with varying degrees of apprehension. There was widespread agreement that there is also an acute need to address Afghanistan’s youth bulge.

Despite some agreement across the six panelists, there were strikingly different perspectives on what has and hasn’t been achieved in Afghanistan and what will come next for both ordinary Afghans and humanitarian organizations.  Some panelists suggested that it was not all doom and gloom, while others were more cautious.

Donini reflected on the fact that humanitarian response had not been overly successful in Afghanistan. The Norwegian Refugee Council described humanitarians as having achieved “remarkably little progress”. However, pointing to the successful work of local organizations in the more stable regions of the country, CMI argued that there were distinctly positive aspects to build on for the country’s future.

The lack of open discussions about contingency planning at the UN level was described by one participant as “the unspoken in Kabul, the elephant in the room”. There is a continuing bunkerization mentality within Kabul and agencies were reluctant to admit that their access is limited. On the positive side, 2014 will offer opportunities for looking more carefully at what negotiated access will mean and broader acceptance of the Taliban as a partner around the table. There is also the possibility that the ISAF withdrawal will undermine the Taliban’s main message of fighting a foreign force. Increasingly, the group will have to ask themselves what they now offer the population beyond attacking foreign troops. Humanitarians will also have to ask themselves difficult questions. As pointed out by a member of the audience, there cannot be an assumption that humanitarian actors (especially international) are actually welcome across the country. For many Afghans, they have already overstayed their welcome and humanitarians need to think carefully about what their future contribution to Afghan society can be.

As other countries scale down their funding, the Norwegian MFA repeated its commitment to maintain its funding for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.  The MFA emphasized that it saw humanitarian aid as distinct from the Norwegian participation in ISAF. The focus of the Norwegian efforts would be on generating resilience through local capacity building.

In a comment, the SOAS participant, who is also an Afghan national, questioned why pour funding into capacity building now?   He also wondered why none of the other speakers had mentioned the role of the Afghan state which strongly asserts – at least rhetorically – its sovereignty and desire to actively participate in relieving poverty and suffering across the country.  He also described the humanitarian debate about a lack of access as slightly naïve: Afghani politics is about deal making and leveraging resources; humanitarian, drug related or otherwise.

He expressed concern at the militarization of rural Afghanistan as villages and communities are being armed as part of the ISAF withdrawal strategy.  Yet, he suggested that doom and gloom humanitarians also need to question their own contribution to the military Armageddon narrative: “As soon as we pull out, everything will go to hell. But while we were there, things held together”.

Somewhat surprisingly, there was no generally shared apprehension about insecurity.  The Norwegian Red Cross expressed concern about a decreased capacity to deliver as security deteriorates and international contributions to Afghanistan are reduced.  According to CMI, local Afghan NGOs will probably continue to work quite effectively with local populations. It was suggested that only certain kinds of humanitarians – those with foreign funding, dual citizenship or who financially benefit from disseminating a ‘worst-case scenario’ narrative – engaged in doomsday scenarios.  Local staff, particularly in the northern part of the country, focused on getting their job done with quality and politeness as keywords. While there had been a radical under-investment in peaceful areas with the bulk of funding going to Afghanistan’s conflict zones, there was eagerness in Afghan society to move forward.

A final point of discussion brought up by panelists and by young Afghans in the audience was the potential role of the emergent generation of young Afghans.  Afghani society has irrevocably changed and social media has become an integrated part of everyday life. What kind of space for leveraging social changed can be carved out between the traditional political elite, the warlords and the “NGOized” groups of privileged civil society actors?