US no longer leads global efforts to mitigate suffering

President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the United Nations, which runs agencies such as the World Food Program and UNICEF, come at a time when famine is reaching a crisis point in parts of Africa. The timing of the proposed cuts has sent chills through the international aid community, which fears that a retreat by the U.S. in relief funding could make a bad situation worse.

Just days before Trump’s budget was released, U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien warned that the globe is facing its worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II. Two years of drought and failed rains across much of Africa have affected 38 million people in 17 countries.

For decades, the U.S. has been the largest supporter of the World Food Program as part of a bipartisan congressional commitment to averting famine and starvation. In 2016, the U.S. paid 24% of the food program’s $8.6-billion budget, or about $2 billion. At present levels, the U.S. also funds 40% of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 22% of the U.N. Secretariat, as well as 28% of the cost of U.N. peacekeeping operations.

Ben Parker, an analyst and editor at IRIN, a news agency specializing in humanitarian issues, said the U.S. humanitarian contribution was large in dollar terms, but in terms of the percentage of its economy, “the U.S. is not very generous.”

Scott Paul, senior policy adviser at the humanitarian agency Oxfam, said Trump’s budget blueprint sent tremors of alarm through the humanitarian community. “The message that it sends is that the U.S. is no longer interested in leading or being part of global efforts to mitigate suffering in the world,” he said.

[Los Angeles Times]

The US spends a lot less on foreign aid than you think

President Trump’s wants a 28 percent cut in America’s foreign aid funding, though some areas would go untouched — U.S. assistance to Israel, for example.

But Trump is playing to a strong feeling among Americans that we spend large parts of our national budget on international programs. That’s a persistent belief.

And a false one.

Guess how much of the U.S. budget is spent on foreign aid. Go ahead.

“When we ask the public to give us their best guess, we find on average they tell us 31 percent,” said Bianca DiJulio, associate director of public opinion and survey research at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“The actual amount is 1 percent or less.”   Read more  

Underappreciated benefits of US foreign aid

Carnegie Endowment senior fellow Rachel Kleinfeld points to an underappreciated fact about foreign aid. “I would say the majority of it helps us strategically and economically,” Kleinfeld said.

U.S. companies and organizations often carry out disaster assistance for example. But there’s long-term payoff as well. “Think about it this way, of our 15 biggest trading partners today, 11 used to be recipients of U.S. aid,” she said.

Helping others helps ourselves in the long term. And of course, helping others … helps others.

Compared with other countries, the U.S. gives the most money. But when you compare by what percentage of our budget we give, we’re 19th in the world.

[Marketplace]

US asks Cambodia to pay war debts for destroying it!

Half a century after American B-52 bombers dropped more than 500,000 tonnes of explosives on Cambodia’s countryside, Washington now wants the country to repay a $US500 million war debt. The demand has prompted expressions of indignation and outrage from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

Over 200 nights in 1973 alone, 257,456 tons of explosives fell in secret carpet-bombing sweeps. The pilots flew at such great heights they were incapable of discriminating between a Cambodian village and their targets, North Vietnamese supply lines. The bombs were of such massive tonnage they blew out eardrums of anyone standing within a 1-kilometre radius.

According to one genocide researcher, up to 500,000 Cambodians were killed, many of them children. The Kymer Rouge then seized power in 1975 and over the next four years presided over the deaths of more than almost two million people through starvation disease and execution.

Cambodia’s strongman prime minister Hun Sen has hit back, saying “The US … dropped bombs on our heads and then ask up to repay. When we do not repay, they tell the IMF (International Monetary Fund) not to lend us money,” he told an international conference in early March.

A former Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh City, said no-one could call him a supporter of Hun Sen,  but on this matter he is “absolutely correct. … Cambodia does not owe a brass farthing to the US for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover,” he wrote in the Cambodia Daily.

American Elizabeth Becker, one of the few correspondents who witnessed the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, has also written that the US “owes Cambodia more in war debts that can be repaid in cash.”

[Sydney Morning Herald]

Why is the world facing its worst humanitarian crisis since 1945?

The UN has warned that the world is facing its largest humanitarian crisis since the organization was founded in 1945. Aid agencies have been warning for months and, in the case of Somalia, for years of an impending catastrophe. But the situation has deteriorated rapidly in the past 12 months.

Here is a look at the causes of food shortages and what is being done.
Are these crises man-made? The short answer is yes, although to varying degrees:
– North-east Nigeria has been a center of Boko Haram militancy. In the past 12 months the government has made military inroads, but hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes or trapped in Boko Haram areas. The UN’s World Food Programme says individual families face starvation, but the situation is not yet widespread enough for a famine to be officially declared.
– The two-year conflict in Yemen has pushed the poorest Arab state into a humanitarian crisis and driven millions of people to the brink of starvation. Saudi Arabia launched a Sunni-led military coalition two years ago to fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who had ousted the government. More than 10,000 civilians have died. Some 7m people face severe food shortages. The Saudis are blocking ports, ostensibly to stop the flow of weapons but also affecting food imports.
Somalia is different because the main reason for hunger is a drought, described by pastoralists as the worst in living memory. Temperatures have been rising in the Horn of Africa and weather patterns have become more unpredictable, a phenomenon some blame on global warming. Ever since 2011, the country has been plagued by internecine fighting.  Aid agencies say that, in some of the worst-affected regions, multiple armed militias are fighting for territory. 40 per cent of the population are at risk.

Is there donor fatigue? The refugee crisis triggered by the war in Syria has sucked up a lot of international attention and funding. In western countries, the appetite for foreign aid is lower among parts of the population. But Challiss McDonough, regional spokeswoman for the World Food Programme, said “fatigue is not the right word,” adding: “It is more like an overwhelming of the humanitarian system: 20m people are facing potential famine. A year ago I would have said that was unimaginable.”

Are countries condemned to repeat these catastrophes year after year? No. Ethiopia is often associated with starvation because of the 1983-85 famine in which at least 400,000 people died, with some estimates suggesting as many as 1m. Since then, however, a new government has taken big steps to prevent a recurrence. Last year, Ethiopia suffered the worst drought in at least three decades. People certainly went hungry, but Addis Ababa was able to mount a concerted response that was made easier by much-improved infrastructure, years of fast economic growth and prudent planning.

[Financial Times]

Man-made famine in Yemen “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”

UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien called war-wracked Yemen “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” with two-thirds of the population, or 18.8 million people — three million more than in January — in need of assistance and more than seven million with no regular access to food.

The conflict in Yemen has left more than 7,400 people dead and 40,000 wounded since a US-backed, Saudi-led coalition intervened on the government’s side against rebels in March 2015, according to UN figures.

In just the past two months alone, more than 48,000 people have fled fighting in the Arab world’s poorest country, according to O’Brien, as it grapples with a proxy war fought by archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“The humanitarian suffering that we see in Yemen today is caused by the parties and proxies and if they don’t change their behavior now, they must be held accountable for the inevitable famine, unnecessary deaths and associated amplification in suffering that will follow,” said O’Brien.

“Yet all parties to the conflict are arbitrarily denying sustained humanitarian access and politicize aid,” he added.

A total of $2.1 billion are needed to reach 12 million people with life-saving assistance and protection in Yemen this year, according to O’Brien, who noted that just six percent of those funds have been received so far. He announced that a ministerial-level pledging event for Yemen will take place in Geneva on April 25, to be chaired by UN chief Antonio Guterres.

[PRI]

2016 worst year yet for Syrian children

Children suffered a “drastic escalation” in violence from the Syrian civil war in 2016, the United Nations said Sunday in a report that showed child deaths jumped at least 20 percent from the year before and recruitment of child combatants more than doubled.

“The depth of suffering is unprecedented,” Geert Cappelaere, the UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement releasing the report. “Each and every child is scarred for life with horrific consequences on their health, well-being and future.”

More than a third of the children killed, were killed in or near a school, a reflection of how all sides in the conflict have disregarded schools as a safe haven in the war. A Unicef report in December said the United Nations had documented attacks on 84 schools in 2016.

“Children are [also] being used and recruited to fight directly on the front lines and are increasingly taking part in combat roles, including in extreme cases as executioners, suicide bombers and prison guards,” the report said.

Other statistics in the UNICEF report showed 280,000 children live in hard-to-reach areas almost completely cut off from humanitarian aid. Nearly six million children now depend on such aid to survive, a 12-fold increase from 2012. Millions have been displaced, some as many as seven times.

More than two million Syrian children are living as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq, representing roughly half the number of Syrians who have fled their country since the conflict began in March 2011 as an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

[The New York Times]

World facing greatest humanitarian crisis since 1945

The world is facing its largest humanitarian crisis since 1945, the United Nations says, issuing a plea for help to avoid “a catastrophe”.

UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said that more than 20 million people faced the threat of starvation and famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria.

“We stand at a critical point in history,” Mr O’Brien told the Security Council on Friday. “Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations. … More than 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine. Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death. Many more will suffer and die from disease.

“Children stunted and out of school. Livelihoods, futures and hope will be lost. Communities’ resilience rapidly wilting away. Development gains reversed. Many will be displaced and will continue to move in search for survival, creating ever more instability across entire regions.”

Mr O’Brien’s comments follow on from a similar appeal made by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres last month.

[BBC]

Up to 450,000 IDPs expected in cramped Mosul camps

There may not be enough space in camps to accommodate the tens of thousands of internally displaced people (IDP) currently fleeing their homes in western Mosul amid intense fighting in the city, a United Nations official has said.

At least 50,000 people have made their way to the camps on the eastern side of the Tigris River, but the UN warns that if the number rapidly increases, they will be hard pressed to find a place for the new arrivals.

Up to 450,000 are expected to make their way to the camps, Lise Grande, humanitarian coordinator for the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, said. Field workers, she said, are “working around the clock” to construct additional emergency tents as quickly as possible.

As the US-led Iraqi army offensive to retake the western half of the city from ISIL continues to push on, at least 700,000 civilians are still trapped inside, with food and fuel supplies fast dwindling.

Supported by the US-led coalition bombing ISIL in Iraq and Syria, Iraqi forces began the operation to retake the western part of Mosul on February 19. West Mosul is the largest remaining urban stronghold in the “caliphate” declared by ISIL in 2014.

[Al Jazeera]

Digital disaster response

What do you do if you are a disaster manager in a coastal city when a powerful earthquake hits offshore?

  • You start tweeting life-saving updates and safety information to the public, alert your volunteers via SMS and set up a helpline.
  • You host a conference call for rescue workers using open-source tools and provide them with access to key documents via an online file-sharing service before reaching out to emergency accommodation providers through lodgings websites.

At a conference on resilience in New Orleans this week, technology companies outlined the increasingly sophisticated tools they are offering – on an altruistic basis – to help people cope better when disasters strike.

Cloud communications platform Twilio.org is partnering with the International Rescue Committee charity so that refugees in Greece can find out the date of their asylum appointment in their own language via a phone-based voice response system.

Twitter aims to “weaponize Twitter in a disaster” by helping users make the most of different features – from dedicated hashtags to Twitter handle lists, adverts and live video – to get vital information to those affected as quickly as possible. If communications go down or are overloaded in a disaster, an SMS version of Twitter can be activated.

Yet while these companies are seeking innovative ways to assist in disasters, they acknowledged technology cannot always substitute for human support.

When New Orleans was battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, around two-thirds of the lowest-income groups do not have access to the internet, said Estes White, adding that offline information remained essential to piece together a full picture of the situation on the ground and reach all those in need. “I would caution against thinking that social media is a total solution,” she said.

[Thomson Reuters Foundation]

European Court of Justice rules against humanitarian visas for refugees

The European Court of Justice has ruled that refugees do not have to be granted humanitarian visas to the EU.

The court handed down its ruling in connection with a case brought by a Syrian family of five from Aleppo. The family had initially applied for a visa to Belgium at the Belgian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. They then planned to travel to Belgium where they would apply for asylum.

EU states are also not obliged to accept everyone who has experienced a catastrophic situation, the Foreign Office said.

Legally, refugees can currently enter the EU only under the new resettlement program. Between July 2015 and February 2017, some 14,422 people from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon were able to enter the EU and apply for asylum using this method.

[Deutsche Welle]

What a cut in US foreign aid could mean for this woman’s family

Last September, 19 months after fighting had erupted around her home in South Sudan, Alaakiir Ajok ran for the Uganda border. She found refuge in a settlement called Nyumanzi, where she was living with two of her four children. The other two disappeared in the chaos of conflict.

As of this week, Uganda is sheltering more than 761,000 other South Sudanese.

Ajok and her kids subsist on rations distributed by the World Food Program (WFP), and every month, she said, she would sell a portion of her sorghum for a bit of money to pay her children’s school fees. But when we met, WFP had just cut her rations in half, due to dramatic funding shortages. After that, Ajok had no sorghum to spare—which meant she had no money, and her son stopped going to school.

That was five months ago. On Tuesday, President Trump announced a proposal to cut the US State Department and USAID budgets by 30 percent or more.

The United States is by far the world’s largest contributor to humanitarian assistance in general, and the WFP in particular. International aid workers have been on edge ever since the election.

[Read full UN Dispatch article]

You don’t have to be rich to be a humanitarian

Rihanna, the Grammy Award-winning artist — whose full name is Robyn Rihanna Fenty — was in Boston Tuesday to receive Harvard College’s 2017 Humanitarian of the Year award.

At just 18, Rihanna founded the Believe Foundation, which provided support to terminally ill children. And since then, she hasn’t much slowed down.

Her Clara Lionel Foundation — named for her grandparents — tackles a range of causes, from education to health and emergency response programs. And her work with the Global Partnership for Education and Global Citizen Project helped convince Canada to pledge $20 million to the Education Cannot Wait fund.

In thanking the university, Rihanna spoke about family, and her grandmother’s losing battle with cancer. She spoke of her upbringing in Barbados, and her childhood dreams of saving the world, one 25-cent donation at a time.

Mostly, she urged students to do their part, to make a commitment to help just one person.

“People make it seem way too hard, man,” she said. “You don’t have to be rich to be a humanitarian. You don’t have to be rich to help someone, you don’t have to be famous, you don’t even have to be college educated.

“My grandma always used to say if you’ve got a dollar, there’s plenty to share.”

[Boston Globe]

Pre-dawn raids across US to deport the undocumented impacting Mexico

Last week, a series of before-dawn raids by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) were launched in a number of American cities in at least six States. Immigrant rights advocates and the Mexican government are redoubling efforts to support Mexican citizens in the States.

Where ICE once only targeted undocumented people who had been convicted of criminal activity, now they are detaining those without criminal records, according to a number of activists who deal with undocumented peoples’ legal cases.

Activists explain that many undocumented people do not know that they don’t need – by law – to open the door. If the undocumented person opens their door, that is where the trouble starts, explains Francisco Moreno, COFEM community director, who works with people affected by raids. “If the person opens the door, [the ICE officers] can register everyone that’s inside – even non-criminals.” Detainees are removed from their homes in handcuffs, taken to a vehicle outside, and asked questions, said Moreno.

“It’s hard to overstate how disruptive this is, how wrenching this can be – people picked up in a raid might be the only source of income for a whole family, dressed their kids for school in the morning, cooks for their family, they might be a person supporting an elder parent or young baby. To imagine that person would be ripped away – imagine how it could affect everyone around them is extremely serious,” a representative of activist group KIWA said.

In recent weeks, Mexico has hastily established a program called Somos Mexicanos – We are Mexicans – designed to inform freshly deported or otherwise returned citizens from the US of programs available to reintegrate them into Mexican society.

Mexico has been struggling in recent weeks to cope with a sudden influx of refugees from across the country and around the world – from El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and countries in Africa – to its northern border towns, hoping to cross over into the US before the Trump administration further tightens border controls. Despite the sudden added pressure on its resources, Mexico has also managed to offer Haitian refugees and others papers where the US has made it clear it will not.

Russia and China veto UN resolution on Syria sanctions

Russia and China have vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions on Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Drafted by Britain, France and the United States, the measure won nine votes in favor, while three countries – China, Russia and Bolivia – opposed it. Kazakhstan, Ethiopia and Egypt abstained.

It was Russia’s seventh veto in five years to save its Syrian ally. China, also one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, has joined Russia in vetoing six resolutions on Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned that imposing sanctions on Syria during the ongoing Geneva conference was “completely inappropriate” and would undermine the effort to end Syria’s nearly six-year war.

The proposal marked the first major Security Council action by the new US administration under President Donald Trump, which is seeking warmer ties with Russia.

[Al Jazeera]

Humanitarian catastrophe unfolds in Yemen as world refuses to act

Yemen is now classified as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, described by the UN as being “on the brink of famine”. Yemen is listed as the worst-affected country facing potential famine, where more than 7 million people require emergency food assistance.

When I was in Yemen last August, I’ll never forget the looks on the parents’ faces. They were so ashamed and embarrassed — unable to afford the most basic food for their children who now lay in hospital on the verge of death, some with their stomachs bloated and others with their tiny ribs sticking out.

Seventeen-month-old Eissa’s mum sat on the bed holding her lifeless son, tears streaming out of her eyes. We went back to that hospital the next day. Eissa’s bed was empty. He had died overnight.

It’s hard to believe the situation in Yemen has gotten so much worse since then. The UN says there are more than 460,000 children like Eissa who are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

“While Yemen is being starved or is starving, there is nothing really that is actually taking place to actually fix it,” said Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s top aid official in Yemen. “What we are facing is a generation of young kids who are going to be stunted. They are never going to reach their full potential physically and intellectually, because of the importance of those early years and the right nutrition.”

The plight of children starving to death in Yemen was first reported around March last year. The world knows this is happening but is refusing to act and is choosing to ignore what is happening.

[ABC.au]

Bridging the humanitarian and development nexus

Humanitarian aid and development actors “have an opportunity to do what we are all talking about — bridging the humanitarian and development divide,” said World Food Program Executive Director Ertharin Cousin at the Oslo Humanitarian Conference on Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin.

During the conference, 14 donors pledged $458 million for relief efforts in 2017 and an additional $214 million for 2018 and beyond. Pledges have been announced by the European Commission, Norway, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Italy, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Luxembourg, Netherlands and Republic of Korea.

More than 170 representatives from 40 countries and several high-level U.N. representatives gathered in Oslo Friday to discuss the humanitarian response to the Lake Chad Basin, where $1.5 billion is needed in 2017 to assist more than 8 million people, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

[Read full Devex article]

The Syrian outlook on life

The news from Syria is terrifying: The war hasn’t ended, despite Russia’s decisive intervention on behalf of Bashar al-Assad and the fall of Aleppo at the end of last year.

Refugees are still fleeing, in search of a safe haven, wherever they can.

And the West is still giving them the cold shoulder.

This is especially true of the United States, where the Trump administration is preparing a revised executive order that blocks people from seven Muslim nations entering the country. The original version banned all Syrian refugees from coming to America, indefinitely.

These people are among the most vulnerable in the world today.

[CNN]

Rihanna named Harvard’s Humanitarian of the Year

Popular singer Rihanna has been named the 2017 Harvard University Humanitarian of the Year.

“Rihanna has charitably built a state-of- the-art center for oncology and nuclear medicine to diagnose and treat breast cancer at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Bridgetown, Barbados,” said S. Allen Counter, the Harvard Foundation’s director.

“In 2012, she founded the nonprofit the Clara Lionel Foundation Global Scholarship Program [named for her grandparents] for students attending college in the U.S. from Caribbean countries, and supports the Global Partnership for Education and Global Citizen Project, which provides children with access to education in over 60 developing countries, giving priority to girls, and those affected by lack of access to education in the world today. ”

[Harvard Gazzete]

UN says 1.4 million children at risk of dying due to famine

Nearly 1.4 million children are at “imminent risk” of death in famines in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said on Tuesday.

People are already starving to death in all four countries, and the World Food Programme says more than 20 million lives are at risk in the next six months.

“Time is running out for more than a million children,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in statement. “We can still save many lives. The severe malnutrition and looming famine are largely man-made. Our common humanity demands faster action. We must not repeat the tragedy of the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa.”

Famine was formally declared on Monday in parts of South Sudan, which has been mired in civil war since 2013. South Sudan has also been hit by the same east African drought that has pushed Somalia back to the brink of famine. Children are also suffering from severe acute malnutrition in Yemen, where two years of war have caused economic collapse and severe restrictions on shipping. Famine has been ongoing since last year in parts of northeastern Nigeria, where the government is fighting the militant group Boko Haram.

[Reuters]