Monthly Archives: August 2014

Oxfam nudging big food companies to do right

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Oxfam America thinks that it can force the world’s biggest food companies to save the environment and make life better for millions of farm workers.

A campaign called Behind the Brands, led by Oxfam International, an advocacy organization dedicated to fighting poverty, is trying to make the inner workings of the 10 biggest food companies in the world more visible.

They include General Mills, Associated British Foods, Danone, Mars, Coca-Cola, Mondelez, Unilever, PepsiCo, Nestle and Kellogg, companies which collectively control much of what we consume.

Oxfam’s goal is to nudge them by scoring them on a scale of 1 to 10 on a whole host of fronts, from worker rights to climate change.

Chris Jochnick is one of the architects of this campaign and Oxfam America’s director of private sector development. In the following radio spot, he touches on how social media is giving activists more power, why big food companies respond to pressure, and whether corporate executives are his friends or his enemies, as well as some of the tactics he and others have used to influence corporate leaders.

Tactics include speaking up as shareholders at annual meetings or earnings calls, and staging public events, such as the one featured in this YouTube video of activists in Time Square drawing attention to the plight of female cocoa farmers in Africa. These efforts led to agreements with three large chocolate companies — Mars, Mondelez and Nestle — who have committed to doing more to help the female cocoa farmers in their supply chains escape poverty.

Listen to NPR’s Dan Charles and Allison Aubrey talk with Oxfam’s Chris Jochnick


UN: Syrian refugee crisis is ‘biggest humanitarian emergency of our era’

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The Syrian civil war has sparked “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.”

That’s according to António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, who added that while the world’s response to the crisis has been “generous,” it hasn’t met the needs of refugees.

The U.N. agency released new numbers on Friday and the picture they paint is exceedingly grim. A few data points from the report:

  • The total number of Syrian refugees is on the verge of surpassing 3 million people since the conflict began in 2011. (By comparison, Chicago has a population of 2.7 million.)
  • Nearly half of all Syrians have been forced to abandon their homes.
  • One in eight Syrians has fled the country.
  • 6.5 million Syrians are displaced inside the country.

The situation is also growing more acute, according to the report. More than half of the refugees coming into Lebanon, for example, told the agency that they have moved at least once before. One in 10 refugees in Lebanon say they have moved more than three times.


Major surge in humanitarian crises so far this year

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From Syria to Iraq and natural disasters to a deadly virus, 2014 has already been marked by a major surge in humanitarian crises — and there are still four months to go.

A UN report released last week says this year has seen a large increase in the number of people needing aid, up to 102 million from 81 million in December 2013.

“2014 has seen a major surge in humanitarian crises around the world,” said the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, adding that aid agencies need an estimated $17.3 billion US to cover the world’s needs, up from $12.9 billion in 2013.

Among the ongoing problems affecting people around the world:

  • The Syrian conflict.
  • Typhoon Haiyan, which hit last November but is still affecting people in the Philippines.
  • ISIS extremism in Iraq.
  • Violence in the Central African Republic.
  • An outbreak of the Ebola virus.
  • Longstanding violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Darfur and South Sudan.

“We’re having a particularly, it seems, difficult period of time right now,” Rachel Logel Carmichael, a team leader in World Vision’s humanitarian and emergency affairs branch, said in an interview with CBC News.

Fen Hampson, director of the global security and politics program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, says natural disasters like hurricanes or typhoons are typically one-off events that are damaging, but prolonged conflicts have more lasting effects on people.

The greatest humanitarian crisis of the last century, Hampson said, was due to the First and Second World Wars, “where you had very large-scale civilian casualties going into the tens of millions, and obviously displaced populations as well.”


Gazans launch Rubble Bucket Challenge

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An appeal to garner support for Gaza which imitates the wildly popular ALS Ice Bucket Challenge but uses rubble and dirt instead of cold water is picking up steam on social media.

“I have to do something and to send a message all over the world about Gaza,” said Ayman al Aloul, a journalist who started the so-called Rubble Bucket Challenge on Saturday. (Other hashtags doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter included #dustbucketchallenge and #remainsbucketchallenge.)

When the 42-year-old discussed the idea with friends, some suggested that he use either a bucket of blood or shrapnel. “It came to my mind that it’s good idea to show the whole picture – how Gaza looks now, rubble, destruction, cement with sand, small rocks,” Aloul said.

Aloul’s aims are modest. “If five famous people in the world like actors or presidents will do the challenge, that means I succeeded in sending the message about Gaza,” he said.

The conflict that has killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and 68 Israelis since July 8 has also leveled swaths of the Palestinian enclave.

Watch on YouTube  

The Rice Bucket Challenge

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More than a million people worldwide have poured buckets of ice water over their heads as part of a fund-raising campaign for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

But when word of the challenge made its way to India, where more than 100 million people lack access to clean drinking water, locals weren’t exactly eager to drench themselves with the scarce supply. And so, a spinoff was born.

Manju Kalanidhi, a 38-year-old journalist from Hyderabad who reports on the global rice market, put her own twist on the challenge. She calls her version the Rice Bucket Challenge, but don’t worry, no grains of rice went to waste. Instead, they went to the hungry.

Kalanidhi chose to focus on hunger. A third of India’s 1.2 billion people live on less than $1.25 USD a day, and a kilogram of rice, or 2 pounds, costs between 80 cents and a dollar.

That’s why she’s challenging people to give a bucket of rice, cooked or uncooked, to a person in need. Snap a photo, share it online and, just as with the Ice Bucket Challenge, nominate friends to take part, she suggests.

Kalanidhi kicked off the campaign Friday, and posted on her personal Facebook page. Responses poured in by the hundreds, prompting her to create a page for the campaign on Saturday. It received a hundred likes in just five hours. As of today, the number of likes has topped 40,000 in what she calls a “social tsunami.”


One of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent years

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The rate at which the situation in Iraq has deteriorated is the largest reason why it is being called one of the worst humanitarian disasters in recent years.

The worst of it commenced in June, when the Islamic State (then ISIS) took Mosul. Today, the number of displaced Iraqis is at 1.5 million — small in comparison to Syria’s 6.5 million — but almost 600,000 of them fled their homes in the past two months.

The other factor that makes this conflict increasingly difficult is the widespread instability in neighboring countries. Jordan and Turkey were already hosting huge amounts of refugees. Still, some refugees had no choice but to leave Iraq. Ariane Rummery, a UNHCR communications officer, said that “some people are actually seeking refuge in Syria, which has been so wrecked.”

The current state of Iraq and the quick escalation in aid the region needs has made this the worst crisis Rummery has seen in the past 10 years.

The United Nations refugee agency has launched a land, air and sea aid push to address the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, one that the organization says is one of the worst it has seen in recent years. There are about 12 sites in northern Iraq that are providing humanitarian shelter for about 140,000 people, but due to continued unrest, the demand could increase very quickly.

[Washington Post]

Russian humanitarian aid delivery an attempt to break a siege?

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Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists unloaded desperately needed provisions from some 280 Russian trucks in Luhansk, Ukraine. After delivering their loads of humanitarian supplies, many of the trucks promptly returned to Russia.

Despite the fury expressed by U.S. and NATO officials about Russia’s unilateral delivery of the supplies after weeks of frustrating negotiations with Ukrainian authorities, there was clearly a humanitarian need. An International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) team that visited Luhansk on Aug. 21 to make arrangements for the delivery of aid found water and electricity supplies cut off because of damage to essential infrastructure. Laurent Corbaz, ICRC head of operations for Europe and Central Asia, reported “an urgent need for essentials like food and medical supplies.”

The ICRC stated that it had “taken all necessary administrative and preparatory steps for the passage of the Russian convoy,” and that, “pending customs checks,” the organization was “therefore ready to deliver the aid to Luhansk … provided assurances of safe passage are respected.”

The “safe passage” requirement, however, was the Catch-22.  Kiev and its Western supporters have resisted a ceasefire or a political settlement until the federalists lay down their arms and surrender. The Ukrainian army has also been directing artillery fire into the city in an effort to dislodge the ethnic Russian federalists.

Accusing the West of repeatedly blocking a “humanitarian armistice,” a Russian Foreign Ministry statement cited both Kiev’s obstructionist diplomacy and “much more intensive bombardment of Luhansk” on Aug. 21, the day after some progress had been made on the ground regarding customs clearance and border control procedures: “In other words, the Ukrainian authorities are bombing the destination [Luhansk] and are using this as a pretext to stop the delivery of humanitarian relief aid.”

Referring to these “intolerable” delays and “endless artificial demands and pretexts,” the Foreign Ministry said, “The Russian side has decided to act. … Those who are ready to continue sacrificing human lives to their own ambitions and geopolitical designs and are rudely trampling on the norms and principles of international humanitarian law will assume complete responsibility for the possible consequences of provocations against the humanitarian relief convoy.”

During a press conference at the UN on Friday, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin claimed that 59 Ukrainian inspectors had been looking through the trucks on the Russian side of the border, and also that media representatives had been able to choose for themselves which trucks to examine.

[Excerpts of article by Ray McGovern, former US Army officer and CIA analyst]

No improvement in Gaza humanitarian crisis

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Children play amongst Gaza rubbleCNN reports that 92 people in Gaza have been killed since a ceasefire ended five days ago, adding to the more than 2,100 that have died.

Other effects of the violence, which began in early July: The United Nations, which runs many schools in Gaza, said 500,000 children were unable to begin classes. A spokesman for the Palestinian ministry of education said more than 100 government-run schools are closed while others are being used as shelters.

Most of the blockaded enclave has been without power for 18 hours a day since Israel attacked the territory’s sole power plant on July 29. The damage is said to take up to a year to fix.

People in Gaza also face a shortage of water, with reports indicating that various diseases are spreading among the population that has been displaced due to the Israeli war. According to reports, the displaced Palestinians living in UN-run schools struggle for access to water.

Monzer Shoblak, an official from the local water board, said that the damage from Israel’s month-long offensive against Gaza meant that Gaza was pumping 50 percent less water.

On Sunday, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said it may take months to repair the damage Israel inflicted on Gaza’s infrastructure.

She also said that 97 UN installations, including health centers and schools, were damaged in the Israeli war.

Hamas is urging Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to go before the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israeli leaders for war crimes. The Palestinians are not currently under the jurisdiction of the ICC, but would be if they sign the court’s Rome Statute, the treaty that established the court. Back in May, a group of 17 human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, signed a letter to Abbas encouraging him to join the ICC.

The United States and Israel and some other nations have pressured Abbas not to take this step, arguing that it would harm peace talks.

Ukraine begins approving Russian aid convoy

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Ukrainian border guards began on Thursday to inspect a Russian truck convoy carrying aid earmarked for humanitarian relief in eastern Ukraine that has been stranded at the border between the two former Soviet republics for nearly a week.

Ukraine’s border guard service said that its troops had begun checking the first vehicles in the more than 200-truck convoy as they finally begin the process of entering Ukraine. The convoy had been waiting at the border for a series of formal steps to be completed, including inspection by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

It was not clear when the trucks will finally be authorized to enter Ukrainian territory, which at that border point is under rebel control. The rebels granted Kiev’s border guards permission to access the crossing to check the trucks.

Kiev believed the convoy of about 260 trucks, carrying water, food and medicines, could prove a Trojan horse for Russia to get weapons to pro-Russian separatists battling Ukrainian forces in the region – a notion that Moscow has dismissed as absurd.


UN to deliver over 2,400 tons of aid into northern Iraq by September

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A plane carrying the first load of humanitarian aid as part of a multiday operation to help hundreds of thousands of displaced people in northern Iraq has landed in Irbil, the U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday. It’s one of the largest aid pushes the agency has ever undertaken. And it’s much needed.

The first Boeing 747 to land carried 100 tons of aid, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said. Three more flights will follow from Jordan into Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, with the last on Saturday.

The airlift will be bolstered by deliveries made by road and sea over the next 10 days, with 175 trucks ferrying cargo from warehouses in Turkey, Jordan and Iran.

The shipments include thousands of tents, plastic sheets, kitchen sets and jerrycans, destined for families who fled with little more than the clothes on their back.

In total, the UNHCR intends to bring 2,410 tons of aid into northern Iraq between now and the start of September.

Many have been sleeping rough where they can, finding shelter in schools, parks or unfinished buildings, the UNHCR said. The agency is working to set up a dozen or more tent cities in Dohuk and Irbil governorates where some 140,000 people can be housed.

“This is a massive logistics operation to bring in relief supplies by air, land and sea to help the hundreds of thousands of desperate people who have fled suddenly with nothing but their lives, and are now struggling to survive in harsh conditions,” said U.N. High Commissioner Antonio Guterres. “It’s the largest single aid push we have mounted in more than a decade.”