International president of Médecins Sans Frontières steps down from the helm

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Canadian doctor Joanne Liu held the position from 2013 to 2019 through tumultuous times for the organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), including the West Africa Ebola epidemic, a wave of attacks on health facilities in conflict zones, and what became known – in Europe at least – as a migration “crisis”.

MSF is not a single organization: Several large NGOs operate under a loose umbrella structure. As international president, based in Geneva, Liu was elected by a general assembly representing MSF’s branches around the world. The president does not have executive control across the whole MSF family but acts as an external representative and “deal-broker”.

Liu talked with The New Humanitarian by phone from London a few days after her successor, MSF fieldworker and surgeon Christos Christou, took over. Highlights from the interview follow:

TNH: In an internal report in June you gave a diagnosis of some of the illnesses you think MSF faces. ‘Humanitarian diva’ was number one. Tell me about that.
Joanne Liu: I really do think that we have all passed this era where an international organization will come into a country and say, ‘it is my way, otherwise, it’s no way’. That [era] is over. … At the end of the day, we are a guest wherever we are.

TNH: MSF used to be an ‘enfant terrible’, but now it’s middle-aged – how is the organization?
Liu: We started from a few people who were volunteering – you were initially having to pay for your ticket to go to the field. … [Now] it’s massive. When you start to manage an organization of that size, then you have to put in place some systems and some structure. … We need to make sure that the core social mission of MSF, which is bringing assistance to people in crisis, remains the priority focus [is] not being overtaken by the survival of the institution and headquarters. So that is tricky. It is difficult right now to find the right balance because we basically have outgrown all of our systems and processes.

TNH: You’ve talked about ‘selective humanitarianism’. What can MSF do and what can’t it do?
Liu: We are tolerated when it fits the agenda, we are obstructed when it doesn’t. I know that we are not fixing the root cause of what’s going on in Libya, but if we were not in the Libya [detention] centers, and if we weren’t able to tell what is going on and then share the stories of people we care for, it would be off the radar: nobody would talk about it. It’s to humanize crisis. … We have to tell the story of a mother and father and a child who were looking for a better future. And I think we have a key role. We never realized the blessing of our financial Independence as much as today, because people come to us and tell us, ‘if MSF doesn’t say it, nobody’s going to say it’.

TNH: When MSF is at the top table, briefing the Security Council or invited to international summits, do you feel uncomfortable about being part of the establishment?
Liu: Every time that we’ve been at those, it’s been an internal debate. If you go there and [don’t] challenge the establishment in a strong way, then you should not go there.

TNH: Looking back: highlights and lowlights?
Liu: The 20th century was, after World War II, somehow the humanitarian century. The 21st century for me is a century of fear. Everything today is seen through the lens of security. … We get our hospitals looted over and over again, in South Sudan, or in Central African Republic, massively. What is striking about Kunduz* is the fact that it was a repeated attack: five airstrikes over a little bit more than an hour. We somehow still believed in immunity in the hospital, and then our staff believed that it was a safe place. We told them it was a safe place.

TNH: Will you miss your job?
Liu: I will certainly miss it. It’s been it’s been an immense, immense privilege… because we faced some of our biggest challenges over the last few decades. It’s such a privilege to be at the center of those crises and, having the confidence of the movement, to go and speak on their behalf and try to basically move lines on things and try to advance.

*On 3 October 2015, a United States Air Force AC-130U gunship attacked the Kunduz Trauma Centre operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the city of Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan. It has been reported that at least 42 people were killed and over 30 were injured.

Nigerian humanitarian situation worsening

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Humanitarian aid to people in Nigeria is not getting through because of a resurgence of Boko Haram and the West African branch of the Islamic State.

Reuters and the New York Times both have reported on both groups having a freer rein as Nigeria’s military has withdrawn to “super camps” in various parts of the country. The new strategy, announced last month, masses military personnel in key towns that can be more easily defended and from which soldiers would better be able to respond to insurgent attacks.

But that leaves many areas unprotected, and in the words of a Reuters article the Islamic State is “filling the void.” (ISIS in West Africa evolved in 2016 as a group split from the Boko Haram insurgency, which itself started in 2009 in order to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic caliphate.)

The New York Times reported that the faction has received propaganda guidance from the Islamic State in Syria. Boko Haram militants are “still roaming the countryside with impunity,” the Times reported. This too is happening in the wake of the military’s new strategy. “Their fighters now have more sophisticated drones than the military and are well-armed after successful raids on military brigades, according to local politicians and security analysts.”

Meanwhile more than 100,000 people are cut off from aid and if more soldiers go, as many as 121,000 other civilians could flee their towns, one aid agency briefing note said. Said the Times, “The war with Boko Haram has devastated the population in rural northeast Nigeria, one of the poorest regions on earth. More than two million people have fled their homes, tens of thousands have been killed and many more injured, abducted and conscripted to join the fight. The International Committee of the Red Cross said this week that nearly 22,000 Nigerians have been reported missing during the crisis.”

“Some aid groups are scaling back, deeming the conflict so protracted that it is no longer an acute emergency,” the newspaper said.


African countries to develop climate-resilient agriculture systems

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Fifty-five African countries recently signed a five-point declaration to increase the climate adaptation and resilience of the continent’s food systems.  

The declaration lists five measures that should be taken by the signatory countries to increase food production amidst climate change:

  • To embed resilience and adaptation in national agricultural and investment plans
  • To develop a comprehensive risk management plan coupled with appropriate financial tools to manage risk
  • To accelerate adoption of technologies and information platforms that have significant grass root impacts
  • To engage smallholder farmers to drive food security
  • To encourage and support the private sector for generating evidence and knowledge needed in adaptation and resilience building in food systems

The signatories also agreed to strengthen climate data analysis and reinforce Early Warning Early Action systems to protect livelihoods.

Africa’s population will increase to 2.4 billion by 2050, requiring the continent to scale up its food production while tackling the challenge of climate change.


New Italian government lets migrant rescue ship dock

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In a sign that Italy’s new government will reject the previous administration’s hostile stance towards migrants, an aid ship carrying 82 people rescued from the Mediterranean has been granted permission to dock and let them disembark on Lampedusa.

The vessel, called Ocean Viking, rescued 50 migrants from a shipwreck off the coast of Libya on September 8. It then took on more people rescued by another sailboat which did not have appropriate shelter for them in high seas.

On Twitter, SOS Mediterranee said: “The #OceanViking just received instruction from Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (MRCC) of Rome to proceed to Lampedusa, Italy, which has been designated as Place of Safety for the 82 survivors rescued in two operations.”

Italy’s Minister of Cultural Heritage and Tourism Dario Franceschini, member of the Democratic Party, indicated on Twitter that the migrants would be taken in by several European countries. He wrote: “The Government assigns a safe haven to #OceanViking and migrants will be welcomed in many European countries. End of Salvini’s propaganda over the skin of desperate people at sea. Politics and good international relations are back to tackle and solve the migration problem.”

The “end of Salvini’s propaganda” refers to former Italian Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini, who is well known for his anti-migrant stance.

The move comes just days after a new Italian coalition government, comprised of the populist 5 Star Movement and the left wing Democratic Party, was sworn in.


At least 2,500 people registered as missing in the Bahamas

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At least 2,500 people have been registered as missing in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, the Bahamas government said Wednesday.

The government has confirmed that oil from tanks damaged by the storm had spread along the coast of Grand Bahama. The oil spill first became apparent on Friday. Equinor’s oil facility is located on the shore of the eastern end of Grand Bahama, which was slammed by Dorian when the storm parked itself over the island with winds in excess of 165 miles per hour and life-threatening rains. An architect with the Bahamas Ministry of Works said that the oil from the facility had made its way into the area’s drinking water supply.

At least 5,500 people had been evacuated to Nassau, where officials were adding additional tents to accommodate evacuees.

Officials warned that Bahamians are still in the peak of hurricane season, and they should expect heavy rainfall and gusty winds through the weekend as a new system moves across the islands. The storm has a low chance of developing, officials said. 

A representative from Bahamas Power and Light said the company anticipates restoring power to the southern part of Abaco in three weeks. The company has not completed assessment of the 15 affected cays, which could take months to restore.

[Miami Herald]

Future uncertain for 70,000 in the Bahamas left homeless by Dorian

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As the Grand Celebration cruise ship sailed away from the Bahamas on a humanitarian mission carrying nearly 1,500 hurricane evacuees, Ceva Seymour looked back at the hundreds of desperate Bahamians left behind at Freeport Harbour.

“It was difficult for me to see that other people couldn’t get on the ship who probably needed to be there more than me,” Seymour, 56, said after arriving in Florida with 16 cousins and grandchildren, who will stay with a sister in Florida for now. 

Those who stayed behind are among the 70,000 people thrust into homelessness on Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands by the strongest hurricane ever to hit the archipelago nation of about 390,000 residents.

The death toll, now at 43, remains unknown one week after the Category 5 storm struck, but government officials warn that it will be far higher. 

Dorian lingered over the islands for days with winds of about 185 mph. It crushed homes, schools, supermarkets, roads and airports across the northern end of the Bahamas. Tens of thousands of people have lost homes on Abaco and Grand Bahama, according to the United Nations. A thousand tarpaulins were to be distributed to replace roofs, the International Organization for Migration said.

The number of displaced is staggering, given the population of the Bahamas, but not unusual for a major environmental disaster, according to Maria Cristina Garcia, a history professor at Cornell University. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti left 1.5 million homeless. “These 70,000 do not include the thousands who, though not technically homeless, will live in damaged homes covered only by blue plastic tarps,” she said. “You can still find blue tarps in the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico two years after Hurricanes Irma and Maria.”

The powerful storm seems to have overwhelmed authorities in the small island nation, leaving most early relief efforts in the hands of Bahamian nonprofits and US relief agencies. 

The US Agency for International Development this weekend announced an additional $1 million in humanitarian assistance, bringing the US agency’s funding to $2.8 million for food, shelter, water containers and other items. Its partner, the Bahamas Red Cross, will also distribute supplies including portable stoves and towels. USAID also has teams of disaster response experts on the ground. The UN provided another $1 million. 


Salesian missionaries complete rebuilding 10 rural schools after 2015 Nepal earthquake

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Salesian missionaries in Nepal are still hard at work with long-term reconstruction efforts after the devastating 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal in April, 2015, with a second earthquake following just weeks later. The United Nations reported that more than 1,300 schools were destroyed during the earthquakes.

Today, thanks to Salesian missionaries, 10 rural schools have been rebuilt and equipped.

Children and youth from Sankhu, within the district of Lalitpur, were able to return to school at the beginning of the new school year. The school also has a kindergarten so that even the youngest children in Sankhu can access a quality education.

Among those present at the school’s inauguration were the head of the village development committee, Dhurva Ghimire, and the head of the Salesians in Nepal, Father Augusty Pulickal. Salesian missionaries living and working in Nepal for more than 25 years have been engaged in long-term reconstruction efforts, helping communities to rebuild homes and schools as well as offering important training to increase the capacity of communities to deal effectively in the aftermath of disasters.

The Nepal Don Bosco Society entered into an agreement with the government of Nepal for the reconstruction of 12 public schools in areas most affected by the earthquakes, 10 of which have been built. Salesian programs are also helping to train teachers and supply school materials in order to offer quality education for children.


Bahamas in crisis after Hurricane Dorian flattens homes, food scarce

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Survivors of Hurricane Dorian picked through the wreckage of homes ripped open by fierce winds, struggled to fuel generators and queued for food after one of the most powerful Caribbean storms on record devastated parts of the Bahamas.

Dorian killed at least seven people, but the full scope of the destruction and a humanitarian crisis is still coming into focus. As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said. Aid agencies estimated that tens of thousands of people out of the Bahamas population of 400,000 would need food and other support.

“We are in the midst of one of the greatest national crises in our country’s history,” Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told a news conference. “We can expect more deaths to be recorded. This is just preliminary information.”

LaQuez Williams, pastor at Jubilee Cathedral in Grand Bahama, opened the church as a shelter for about 150 people. As the storm ground on, Williams said that from the higher ground of the church he could see people on their rooftops seeking refuge. “They were calling for help, but you could not go out to reach,” Williams said. “It was very difficult because you felt helpless.”

With many telephones down on Abaco and Grand Bahama islands, residents posted lists of missing loved ones on social media sites. Aerial video of Great Abaco Island showed miles of flooded neighborhoods littered with upturned boats and shipping containers scattered like toys. Many buildings had walls or roofs partly ripped off. Other posts on Twitter said entire communities were swept away. Photographs from the airport at Freeport showed a light plane torn in two, with hangars badly damaged and scattered debris.

Janith Mullings, 66, from Freeport, Grand Bahama, said she had been through hurricanes all her life but had never seen anything like Dorian.


Spain rescues 200 migrants in the Mediterranean

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Almost 200 people were rescued attempting to make the dangerous crossing from North Africa to Spain on Monday, the Spanish coastguard said.

The rescues come amid a debate in Spain over the role that charity boats should play in assisting government efforts after a Spanish non-governmental organization ship was at the center of a standoff with European states last month.

In the Strait of Gibraltar, 73 people were rescued from three boats, among them 10 minors, Spanish rescue services said. Another 110 people were rescued from five boats in the Alboran Sea, the majority of whom will be taken to the port of Malaga.

UN data show sea arrivals from the Middle East and North Africa to the European Union dropped from over 1 million in 2015 to some 141,500 people last year, while nearly 15,000 people are estimated to have died or gone missing in the perilous sea voyage.


Hurricane Dorian bashes Bahamas, grows in size as it heads toward Florida

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Hurricane Dorian pounded Grand Bahama Island for about a day, killing at least five people. Dorian has grown in size and picked up speed, and is now forecast to come “dangerously close” to Florida’s coast.

The exact toll of the devastation in the Bahamas will not be clear until the storm passes and rescue crews can get on the ground. The storm lashed the islands for almost 24 hours, and the death toll was likely to rise, said Iram Lewis, a member of Parliament, in an interview with CNN. As many as 13,000 homes in the Bahamas may have been destroyed or severely damaged, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said.

Dorian is expected to churn toward Florida by day’s end, before bringing its powerful winds and dangerous surf along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina by late Thursday. More than a million people have been ordered evacuated.

Dorian is one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record. It is tied with Gilbert (1988), Wilma (2005) and the 1935 Labor Day hurricane for the second-strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, based on maximum sustained winds. Allen in 1980 was the most powerful, with 190-mile (306-kph) winds, the NHC said.