Improving Humanitarian Aid

Excerpts of a Foreign Aid interview with David Millibrand,  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee

I think that the best thing that you can say about humanitarian aid around the world is it’s genuinely saving lives. … And I think that the premium on that kind of life saving in the midst of conflict; international agencies employing local people and making the difference between life and death by addressing, above all, health needs, water and sanitation needs is the most heroic and the most humbling thing to see. And the truth is that nongovernmental organizations are being pushed into the front line as more countries, 30, 35 countries around the world, are consumed by increasingly violent, increasingly chaotic, increasingly lawless conflict.

So, the upside of the story is that in the midst of chaos and conflict, there is some fantastic work being done. The downside is, or the challenge is, not just that there’s more and more need for this kind of international humanitarian work, 60 million people now, according to the UN, displaced by conflict and disaster by the end of last year, but their needs are changing. They’re more urban rather than in refugee camps. They’re long term rather than short term. They’re in the midst of armed opposition groups, not countries fighting according to certain Geneva Conventions and other rules.

So, the challenge for the humanitarian sector is to reach more people, but it’s also to reach them in a more fulfilling and deeper way, so that we’re doing more than just keeping them alive.

If you think about the change that’s happened in international development since the inauguration of the Millennium Development Goals 15 years ago, the revolution there has been the application of top-grade social science … that have taught us best practice in vaccination, in education, in water and sanitation.     Read more   

Countries with booming economies still need foreign aid

Excerpts from Bill Gates:  When world leaders recently gathered in Ethiopia] one important issue that didn’t draw much attention … is how we treat countries that have built strong enough economies to lift themselves out of extreme poverty, but which still have a lot of people who are barely getting by.

The system of development finance currently used by many donor governments and international financial institutions allocates funding to countries based in significant part on their average income per person. As economic growth moves countries like India and Nigeria into the “middle-income tier,” they become ineligible for many of the grants and low-interest loans used to fund basic infrastructure and essential services. The problem with this is that huge pockets of poverty still exist in many of the countries facing a cutoff of funds. In fact, more than 70% of the world’s poorest people live in countries defined as “middle income” by the World Bank.

Clearly, a nation’s access to the most favorable financing for development should taper off as the level of personal income grows. But if we make countries with high levels of inequality and poverty ineligible for aid too soon, it will become increasingly difficult for them to continue on a path of economic growth.

Based on current trends, our foundation estimates that countries such as India, Ghana, Nigeria, and Vietnam could lose between 18% and 40% of their funding from donor countries and multilateral aid programs. Cuts of this magnitude would have a severe impact on basic health and social programs that rely on donor funding to operate.

If we are intent on helping the world’s poorest lift themselves out of poverty, we need to ensure that development assistance reaches people in need, regardless of where they live. The classification of countries based mainly on average income should be updated to incorporate other measures centered on improving the human condition such as better access to health services and education. And we need to think about the right incentives and approach for a thoughtful and smooth transition for each country to reach self-sufficiency. Read more  

The Humanitarian’s Dilemma

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been working for more than 15 years in the occupied Palestinian territories. Our medical and psychological programs give a window into the daily reality for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. It is a journey that reveals the devastation of the policies of occupation, whether through blockades and bombardments or through walls and nighttime raids.

One form of psychological violence experienced by our patients is the constant threat of loved ones being locked away indefinitely, without charge.

In the town of Majdal Bani Fadil, six children are living by themselves: Both parents were arrested in the past year, an uncle explained when I visited their home with one of our psychological assessment teams in late April. Their mother was taken away in the middle of the night 12 months ago, he told me, and says that she has been held without sentencing ever since.

The children not only saw her dragged away, but they also have no idea when she will return. Now the eldest daughter cannot focus on her studies, the middle son is prone to violent outbursts, and the middle daughter is often found crying in her parents’ old room. “They don’t have hope,” the uncle said.

MSF sees how this sort of administrative detention–through which people can be held indefinitely without charges–heightens the psychological violence inflicted on Palestinian children. The presence of the Israeli army and its use of force are the main cause of the psychological trauma of our patients in the West Bank. A review of the main triggers resulting in our patients’ need for psychological treatment showed that just over half (52 percent) of them describe violent IDF search operations inside their homes, 42 percent say one or more family members is currently incarcerated, and 35 percent report being affected by indirect violence such as shootings or incursion operations by the IDF.

Unsurprisingly, children suffer the worst effects. Half of the 254 patients who received care in 2014 were younger than 15, and 25 percent were younger than 10. Fifty percent of the children we see say they have trouble sleeping, 34 percent report anxiety, 28 percent have trouble concentrating, and 21 percent report bed-wetting.

Even our most seasoned psychologists are shocked by the levels of trauma.

[Jason Cone writing in “Foreign Policy”]

Double food crisis: malnutrition and obesity

The world is entering an era of global food insecurity which is already leading to the “double burden” of both obesity and malnutrition occurring side by side within countries and even within the same families, a leading food expert has warned.

It will become increasingly common to see obese parents in some developing countries raising underweight and stunted children because high-calorie food is cheaper and more readily available than the nutritious food needed for healthy growth, said Alan Dangour of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“It’s not the fault of the mother, it’s the fault of the food system where the mother cannot afford to buy nutritious food such as dairy, eggs and fruit and is predominantly feeding her child a diet that is rich in calories, such as oil and cereal-based carbohydrates,” Dr Dangour said. “That diet will not be sufficient for the child to grow. It will stop the child from being hungry but it will also stop the child from growing properly,” he said.

[The Independent]

Building Blocks, Bangalore, India

The Building Blocks program in Bangalore, India, provides a well-rounded kindergarten education for over 450 slum children who would otherwise not be able to attend school due to economics.

At its 6 schools located near slums in Bangalore, dedicated teachers employ an array of multi-sensory early learning techniques to introduce the basics of English reading and writing, arithmetic, social science, the arts, motor-skill development and character building. After two years in the program, most of the children are able to successfully pass the entrance exams to enter good English-medium primary schools.

Each K4-K5 school throughout Bangalore has an average of 75 students, and is strategically located near a slum neighborhood, facilitating regular school attendance and good parent-teacher rapport. For the students—all between the ages of 3-5, who mostly live in homes with no electricity, running water, or toilet—the school is not just about learning to read, write and count. The children learn basic hygiene and brush their teeth for the first time, and for most, looking at colorful books or using crayons and paintbrushes is a novelty.      Read more  

The psychological and medical consequences of the Palestinian occupation

With the one-year anniversary of the latest (but likely not the last) war in Gaza, all countries–the United States and European Union members in particular–that condone and help extend the occupation of the Palestinian territories, whether by subsidizing it through humanitarian or military aid or by giving political cover to its policies and practices, must confront their responsibility for the suffering of Palestinians.

Stepping out of a car in the West Bank town of Kafr Qaddum, I was greeted by … the Abu Ehab family–whose two-story house is on a slope just below the road we drove in on. Their walls do little to protect them from the exchange of tear gas, burning tires, and hurled rocks. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) troops frequently move around the Abu Ehab family’s property during nighttime search operations; at times, they enter the house.

The smell comes from “skunk,” the sewage-smelling liquid that the IDF uses to soak Palestinians and foreign protesters who gather weekly on this ashen road. It is so pungent that the family’s eldest son now vomits at the sight of food. The military also uses flashbang grenades to counter the demonstrations. After one detonated too close to the family’s home, the eldest daughter lost hearing in one ear.

“She used to not be able to finish a sentence without crying,” the psychologist with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) who has been counseling the girl’s mother tells me. “Now, she can talk about her fears without breaking down.”

This is how MSF, as a medical humanitarian organization, measures the progress of those we assist in the occupied Palestinian territories. For the past 15 years, our programs in the West Bank and Gaza have focused mainly on mental health, but my colleagues at times feel like they can only give patients a thicker coat of psychological armor against the daily trauma of their lives. These patients are parents of teenagers being held in Israeli or Palestinian prisons, children with one or both parents in detention, families on the front lines of settler-Palestinian violence or intra-Palestinian violence, and those affected by nighttime IDF search operations or other military actions.

What our staff sees, day in and day out, are the medical consequences of the occupation. But while we can treat some of our patients’ symptoms, we can’t alter the underlying causes of their suffering. And as the suffering has become normalized, we have been questioning the wisdom of our presence. This is the humanitarian’s dilemma: how to alleviate the suffering of a population while not enabling the powers at the root of the pain.

[Jason Cone writing in “Foreign Policy”]

Indian billionaire has given 39% of his company stake to charity

Wipro chairman Azim Premji, who is India’s top giver, has given away an additional 18% of his stake in India’s third largest IT services company to his foundation.

“Over these years, I have irrevocably transferred a significant part of the shareholding in Wipro, amounting to 39% of the shares of Wipro…” said Premji in a letter to the shareholders.

Premji had previously given away 21% of his stake, worth $4.3 billion, to the eponymous foundation. He has allocated an additional 18%, taking his total contribution so far to 39%, according to the company’s 2015 annual report.

Premji set up the Azim Premji Foundation in 2001 to focus on philanthropy and improve the country’s school system, signed a giving pledge in 2013 along with philanthropists such as Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates among others.

The 69-year-old has been gradually transferring his shares to the foundation over the last five years—in 2010, he transferred 9% of his shares worth $2 billion, and followed it up with a 12% share transfer in 2013 worth $2.3 billion.

The foundation works in eight states which together have more than 350,000 schools.

[Hindustan Times]

International aid agencies gain unexpected help from corporate sector

With more refugees in the world today than any point since the Second World War and as Western governments like Canada slash spending on foreign aid, aid agencies are increasingly looking for help from an unlikely quarter: the corporate sector.

And sometimes solutions are developed directly at the request of aid agencies. That’s what happened when Télécoms San Frontières approached the Vodafone Foundation four years ago to build a “network in a box” for deployment following natural disasters such as the recent cyclone in Vanuatu and earthquake in Nepal.

That invention, a complete mobile network that comes in three simple boxes, has led to changes for the refugee community as well.

“As a humanitarian program, we are trying to reach the most vulnerable people,” said Oisin Walton, the instant network roll-out manager for the Vodafone Foundation. “After discussions with UNHCR on how we could better support them, we found that education was a key area we could contribute in.”

The result is the Instant Network School Program, tablet-based classrooms in refugee camps where students and teachers can spend a few hours every day for an interactive education.

The program debuted at the Yeda refugee camp in South Sudan in 2013 and 16 classrooms are now up and running in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp in Kenya.

Over the next two years, UNHCR and the Vodafone Foundation hope to expand the program to 33 schools in these countries plus Tanzania, serving an estimated 60,000 refugee students.


Charities face government challenges globally

The Indian government labeled Greenpeace India “anti-national” for its campaigns against coal mining, genetically modified crops and nuclear power, and blocked its bank accounts, deported foreign workers and stopped Indian staff from overseas travel. But it is not alone in facing a crackdown by governments which see the growing affluence and influence of charities backed by social media as a threat, say experts.

Thousands of foreign-funded non-government organizations from Latin America and Africa to the Middle East and Asia have come up against authorities imposing or drafting laws which put a squeeze on their foreign donations, jeopardizing their work. Over 60 countries in the last three years (These include Russia, China, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Uganda, Israel, Ethiopia, Angola, Honduras, Venezuela and Egypt) have sought to curb the ability of non-profit groups to receive or use overseas funds, using justifications which range from labeling them as “foreign agents” to allegations of financial misconduct, says the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL).

The move comes following a surge in funding–and a shift in focus for many non-profit groups that has made governments edgy. Civil society groups received $17.7 billion from developed nations in 2013, up from $2.7 billion in 2004, according to humanitarian data researcher Development Initiatives. Alongside this, they have shifted from traditional work in basic service provision to advocacy and campaigning, mobilizing public support through Facebook and Twitter on issues ranging from corruption and conservation to religious and gender rights.

In India over the last three months, the home affairs ministry has canceled the licenses of more than 13,000 organizations, saying they have violated a law on foreign funding. Pakistan has ordered all foreign non-profits to re-register within three months and is drafting a law allowing officials to stop overseas funded charities from operating.

Big donors are not immune. The U.S.-based Ford Foundation faces a probe into funding a group run by a prominent rights activist and critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and auditors are investigating the finances of charities funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Charities welcome regulation and transparency, aware of the need to keep the booming sector in check, but say the law is being abused to the detriment of those they are trying to help–the poor and marginalized.


Doing good is harder than it looks

It’s clear that doing good is harder than it looks. For example, abundant evidence suggests that education can be transformative in a poor country, so donors often pay for schools. But building a school is expensive and can line the pockets of corrupt officials. And in my reporting I’ve found that the big truancy problem in poor countries typically involves not students but teachers: I remember one rural Indian school where the teachers appeared only once or twice a year to administer standardized tests. To make sure that the students didn’t do embarrassingly badly on those exams, the teachers wrote all the answers on the blackboard. The critics can cite similar unexpected difficulties in almost every nook of the aid universe.

An emerging synthesis … would acknowledge the shortcomings of aid, but also note some grand successes. For example, the number of children dying each year before the age of 5 has dropped by three million worldwide since 1990, largely because of foreign aid. Yes, aid often fails — but more than balancing the failures is quite a triumph: one child’s life saved every 11 seconds (according to calculations from United Nations statistics).

Moreover, pragmatic donors are figuring out creative ways to overcome the obstacles. Take education. Given the problems with school-building programs, donors have turned to other strategies to increase the number of students, and these are often much more cost-effective: (1) Deworm children. This costs about 50 cents per child per year and reduces absenteeism from anemia, sickness and malnutrition. A Kenya study found, in effect, that it is only one twenty-fifth as expensive to increase school attendance by deworming students as by constructing schools. (2) Bribe parents. One of the most successful antipoverty initiatives is Oportunidades in Mexico, which pays impoverished mothers a monthly stipend if their kids attend school regularly. Oportunidades has raised high school enrollment in some rural areas by 85 percent.

The upshot is that we can now see that there are many aid programs that work very well. We don’t need to distract ourselves with theoretical questions about aid, so long as we can focus on deworming children and bribing parents. The new synthesis should embrace specific interventions that all sides agree have merit, while also borrowing from an important insight of the aid critics: trade is usually preferable to aid.

[Excerpts from Nicholas D. Kristof, author, with Sheryl WuDunn, of “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.”]

The global humanitarian system on the verge of collapse

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the largest humanitarian relief agency in the world, has announced that it is cutting food rations to Syrian refugees living in Lebanon and Jordan. As a result, nearly 1.6 million Syrian refugees will be at greater risk of hunger and malnutrition. In Syria itself, about one-quarter of the country’s population, rely on the agency’s food assistance to survive.

The WFP and other humanitarian organizations can only respond if resources are available. Yet according to the U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator, less than 25 percent of global humanitarian needs have been funded in the first six months of 2015. That’s the lowest mid-year percentage in the U.N.’s history.

And it’s not just the WFP. UNICEF has also been forced to make cuts in Syria as a result of budget shortfalls.

It’s not just Syria either. In the past five years, at least 14 conflicts have erupted or reignited across the globe that have caused millions of families to flee their homes. In fact, in its latest Global Trends report, the UNHCR notes that the total number of refugees and internally displaced people worldwide stands at an all-time high.

Globally, one in every 122 people is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum. From 2013 to 2014, the number of refugees grew by nearly 8 million — the biggest leap in a single year in UNHCR’s history. Right now, an estimated 78 million people across the globe are displaced through no fault of their own. If this figure were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest.

Providing humanitarian assistance in Syria and elsewhere isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing to do. History has proven that helping victims of war and persecution leads to greater stability, prosperity and goodwill for generations to come.

The U.S. government has consistently led the world in fighting hunger and addressing humanitarian needs. Once again, U.S. leadership is needed to mobilize the international community to address this “new normal.” While governments may disagree on the causes and possible solutions to the conflicts, all can agree that no child should suffer from hunger and malnutrition as a consequence of these conflicts. 

[By Rick Leach, the president and CEO of World Food Program USA, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that supports the mission of the U.N. World Food Programme] 

A new high-tech low-cost tent for refugees

Issues as simple as housing have plagued refugee agencies like UNHCR for years. The tents used around the world in refugee camps are cramped, provide little protection from extreme temperatures and only last about six months.

Repeated attempts to reinvent refugee housing failed for one simple reason: cost. What tents lack in comfort they make up for with how easily they can be shipped. Any new housing solution would need to ship easily and cheaply.

The problem of cost plagued Johan Karlsson, a Swedish designer working on the problem. Then one day, while shopping at his local Ikea store, the solution came to him: if the units were flat packed, much like Ikea furniture is, transport costs would be significantly reduced.

After reaching out to the Ikea Foundation for help, Karlsson’s idea became reality. For the Ikea Foundation, which focuses mainly on improving the lives of children, improving refugee housing appeared to be a natural fit.

Now, after a two-year pilot project in Ethiopia and Iraq, UNHCR announced it will purchase 10,000 more “Better Shelter” units in 2015 for refugee camps in Iraq. The new housing units fit up to five people and come with solar panels, built-in lighting and USB ports to power electronics, marking a significant step up from the canvas tents of old.


Philippines: A tooth brush a day keeps tooth decay at bay

Like many developing countries, tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease in the Philippines is  tooth decay, simply because awareness of dental hygiene is not taught to the nation’s children.

Amongst elementary school students participating in a Rise Above Foundation program in Cebu, the simple act of thoroughly brushing teeth once a day effectively improves tooth decay and deterioration by 50%. (If twice daily brushing could be instituted, statistics show that it would cut tooth decay significantly by a further 20%. The challenge here is the fact that the follow-up element, brushing after a second meal, would need to be conducted at the children’s homes.)

In this program, toothbrushes are kept at the school so that this practice of daily brushing can be overseen and monitored during recess. Whereas if the toothbrushes were to be returned home with the child, since the parents also have no dental hygiene background, the practice would soon be lost. The goal here is to eventually build a habit so that the kids at school learn to brush their teeth as they grow up.

As a result of this basic approach, children can focus on their schoolwork, instead of the pain caused by dental issues. Read more

Celebrity humanitarians

Celebrity humanitarianism has been around for barely a generation. A celebrity playing a humanitarian role acts as a bridge between a (Western) audience and a faraway tragedy, a focus for empathy, an emotional interpreter. While some columnists who write about foreign atrocities freight every sentence with bombast and outrage, a talented actor tells the story with just sufficient cues for the audience to supply the sadness and anger. That’s a far more potent performance.

Celebrities such as Mia Farrow, George Clooney, and Don Cheadle (who played the lead in the movie Hotel Rwanda) converged on the Darfur issue.

In a promotional video for the (RED) campaign, which purports to battle HIV/AIDS through commerce, Bono and Oprah Winfrey stroll down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, inspecting (RED) products—sunglasses, iPods, cellphones—and eagerly buying them up. Gap T-shirts printed with words such as “INSPI(RED)” are prominent among them. A percentage of each purchase price goes to the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The message is not subtle—buy consumer brands and save Africans from dying of AIDS.

Launched in March 2006, a year later (RED) had generated just $18 million for the Global Fund. Subsequent (RED) fact sheets say that (RED) “partners and events” have generated more than $100 million. But the product line had expanded to just thirteen items and its “make history” timeline, as of August 2008, lists no events subsequent to January 2008.

(RED) has been on the receiving side of much criticism, some of it both witty and pointed. For example, the Web site has a banner: “Shopping is not a solution: Buy (Less). Give More.” It explains how to contribute directly to the Global Fund without buying a pair of sneakers and lists thirteen pages worth of charities, linking to Web sites where donations can be made directly. It displays a T-shirt with the words “Conscience clea(RED).”

[World Affairs