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.”


Near-historic level of humanitarian need right now

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U.S. Agency for International Development rep Nancy Lindborg spoke with NPR Morning Edition.

“We are probably at a near-historic level of humanitarian need right now … We have, for the first time in the history of USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, four disaster assistance response teams deployed … to high-tempo, big crises around the world at the same time. And this is in addition to … ongoing needs that are being met in Nigeria, Gaza, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the emerging crisis in Ukraine.”

Lindborg noted a striking contrast between addressing all the current crises and the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last November and December. “It was up and over in about a month,” she says.

“However, what we have now…are really complex, difficult crises that are fundamentally the result of non-democratic governments.” In the Philippines, “Nobody was shooting anyone. And so, for humanitarian workers to be able to go in after there was a clear beginning and move progressively toward a better outcome, there’s something very satisfying about that in contrast with the kind of crises we’re seeing.”

International humanitarian agencies are “at their limit”

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Ebola is only the latest among several large-scale humanitarian responses around the world that USAID’s disaster response officials are currently managing.

It’s the first time in history the agency has had to respond to four such humanitarian operations. The other three are in South Sudan, Syria and Iraq.

In a radio interview, Thomas Staal, senior deputy assistant administrator in USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, said that the international humanitarian agencies coordinating on all four situations are currently “at their limit.”

Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are facing the worst Ebola virus outbreak in history, and the team responsible for coordinating the U.S. government response effort has a grim equipment request: more body bags.

With more than 1,000 deaths already reported and concerns that the virus could spread further, humanitarian agencies and their partners taking part in the international emergency response are preparing to ramp up their efforts.

Tim Callaghan, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s disaster assistance response team leader, said that to treat patients, medical professionals must receive additional training specific to the virus and follow a “meticulous” system to ensure they are confident and capable enough to mitigate risks.

USAID’s team is responsible for assessing conditions that might hamper the response and assistance effort. Callaghan did not identify any current bottlenecks for equipment, personnel or coordination, but did note that the persistence of rumors and misinformation has made things more challenging.


Humanitarian workers and reverse culture shock

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You’re in a country where everything feels different. The food isn’t what you’re used to; the people don’t make sense. It’s sensory overload and you’re bewildered by all the things around you — the language, the music, the faces, the smells.

Everyone is moving at lightning speed, and you’re still staring at the food in the grocery store, confused about what to buy.

Erin Curtis, a Peace Corps volunteer, isn’t talking about her time in Kazakhstan. She is referring to her trip to the local grocery in Lexington, South Carolina, last month.

Curtis, like many long-term volunteers and workers who return from abroad, was feeling what is known as reverse culture shock.

Five common grievances of returning workers and volunteers
  Waste – “The ridiculous amount of trash we produce in the U.S. was hard for me to look at every day,” said returning Peace Corps volunteer Erin Curtis.
  Choice – Many volunteers feel overwhelmed by the wide variety of choices in the U.S.
  Pace of life – “You feel so rushed in this culture and bombarded with things,” said returned Peace Corps volunteer coordinator Jodi Hammer.
  Relationships – Not only do volunteers miss the connections they made abroad, but they may find they’ve grown apart from their friends at home.
  Language/Communication – Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words after speaking another language for a long time.

For many volunteers and workers, coming home can be harder than going abroad, said Jodi Hammer, a coordinator for returned Peace Corps volunteers.

Read full article 

Insights behind U.S. intervention in northern Iraq

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Besides rescuing Yazidis, who are ethnically identified as Kurds, Erbil was another main cause that drew President Obama back to combat in northern Iraq, two and a half years after he fulfilled a campaign pledge and pulled the last troops out.

Erbil is the capital of the oil-endowed Kurdish Regional Government, in northern Iraq. There the United States built political alliances and equipped Kurdish peshmerga militias, and since 2003 it has been the most stable place in an unstable country.

[View maps of Iraq, including location of Erbil, Sinjar mountains, ISIS control etc]

A secure Kurdistan could provide sanctuary for those fleeing ISIS. “The Kurdish region is functional in the way we would like to see,” Obama explained in a fascinating interview with Thomas Friedman. “It is tolerant of other sects and other religions in a way that we would like to see elsewhere. So we do think it is important to make sure that that space is protected.”

Obama’s advisers explained to reporters that Erbil holds an American consulate, and that “thousands” of Americans live there. The city has to be defended, they continued, lest ISIS overrun it and threaten American lives. Fair enough, but why are thousands of Americans in Erbil these days? It is not to take in clean mountain air.

ExxonMobil and Chevron are among the many oil and gas firms large and small drilling in Kurdistan under contracts that compensate the companies for their political risk-taking with unusually favorable terms.  The status quo in Kurdistan also includes oil production by international firms, as it might be candid to mention.

[Read full “New Yorker” article]