Thursday, December 31, 2009

Head Down Eyes Open at Hootenanny

Head Down Eyes Open surfaced as an idea for a blog on February 07th this year. My main motivation was two fold - to be able to write and discuss issues of political and humanitarian concern while at the same time learn more, much more, about social media, the blogosphere, search optimization,RSS, micro-blogging and so forth. On both counts I can honestly say it has proven to be immensely rewarding and we will continue, with fellow travellers like regular contributor Joe Lowry, to up the ante in twenty ten.

Wordle: Head Down Eyes Open blog wordled

Since the first post eleven months ago we have managed to compile over a hundred forty posts in Head Down Eyes Open, the vast majority of which is fully original writing and analysis (i.e. not aggregated from other sites). We have also had the pleasure (and honor) of posts being picked up and linked by different mainstream and online media including CNN and the Irish Times. So now, on the eve of a new decade and a new year for the blog I wanted to Wordle it to see what popped up - I am so pleased to see such a primary emphasis on the word "People" 'cause that is basically what we are about. Enough said - HDEO wishes you all a healthy and happy 2010 and beyond. Sincere thanks for your support and interest, we wouldn't be here without it. Keep fighting the good fight. Happy Hootenanny and Keep the Aspidistra Flying ....


Monday, December 28, 2009

Aid Workers increasingly targeted

Somewhere right now, fellow Red Cross colleagues, Gauthier Lefèvre and Laurent Maurice, are being held hostage in Darfur and Chad. The exact location is of course not known. Gauthier was kidnapped in western Darfur some 70 days ago on 22 October and Laurent taken in eastern Chad nearly 50 days ago on 09 November. Their abduction followed hot on the heels of the release of two other aid workers who had been taken hostage: Irish aid worker Sharon Commins and her Ugandan colleague Hilda Kawuki were released in mid-October after some four months in captivity. Two civilian workers of the UN peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) are also still in the hands of their abductors since last August.

Aid workers now more at risk than UN peacekeepers

The most recent reliable statistics for 2009 cite 19 aid workers being killed in Sudan and dozens more kidnapped. In 2008, according to the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG), some 260 aid workers were killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in violent attacks. This year's numbers are trending to surpass 2008's record breaking figures. The amount of murderous and hostage taking incidents of aid workers is indisputably surging with the annual average now three times higher than the previous nine years (when systematic documentation of this type of data was first seriously gathered). Interestingly, the figure of aid worker fatalities now exceeds that of UN Peacekeeping troops.

The traditional 'protection' afforded to humanitarians working in areas of conflict (or post-conflict) has its origins in universally accepted norms of war which have been most recently enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 (and their related Protocols of 1977). The Conventions outline the obligation of 'beligerents' to provide protection to civilians and non-combatants and specifically points out their obligations towards facilitating security for people and assets (warehousing, telecommunications, vehicles etc.) engaged in humanitarian activities that are aimed at reducing the suffering of people not taking part in the conflict i.e. the non-combatants (which also includes injured or detained fighters and soldiers i.e. people who no longer pose a threat).

Military 'Heroes' and Humanitarian 'Do-gooders'

This legal and de facto protection has become increasingly eroded and is probably best demonstrated during the war in Iraq when humanitarian organizations were directly targeted (including the Red Cross head office in Baghdad) as they were wrongly perceived by the insurgency to be part and parcel of the occupying forces. What's more, the very work of aid agencies in places such as Afghanistan, Somalia or Sudan, which includes providing clean water, sewage treatment, effective medical care, infant nutrition programs and so on - is now often viewed as contrary to the 'war' aims of insurgency groups in whose interests it may be to maintain chaotic and dire conditions (as the contrary - the success of aid work - might indirectly reflect well on the central powers that be, or want to be).

There is another aspect which niggles slightly and that is the deafening silence that generally meets the news of aid workers being killed or taken hostage. There is not only a relative silence from governments, media or the public but even from the humanitarian sector itself. Compare the death in Afghanistan of aid workers to that of soldiers who, by and large, are armed to the teeth and sent to Afghanistan to kill or be killed. I don't dispute military interventions - not my business - but it is quiet incredible that the media is so keen to eulogize the military as 'fallen heroes' and ignore those who risk (and give) their lives desperately trying to make a difference on the human level without resorting to state of the art munitions and military occupation.

Ready for risk but not to be a target

This realization - ever rising fatalities among aid workers in recent years - will inevitably affect how aid organizations operate in increasingly insecure environments. Can you, as an operational manager of an aid agency, send your people into danger zones knowing that the risks are unacceptable; knowing that they are likely targets? As is often said, aid workers are ready to accept the risks that come with the context of conflict but can we really accept to be a target? 

There are many possible reasons for this worrying trend not least of which are the blurring of the lines as occupying military armies (such as the US and its allies) increasingly resort to what they like to call 'hearts and minds' whereby you have the contradictory scenario of soldiers doing aid work (normally conditional on locals cooperating with military objectives rather than based on urgent humanitarian needs). And then you have the massive increase in private military contractors - as many as 100'000 working directly in Iraq alone - basically guys in tee shirts and jeans (just like aid workers) but part of the occupying power and walking around heavily armed (unlike aid workers - but can armed opposition groups or the public tell the difference?).

Neutral, independent, humanitarian action must be maintained if we are to retain a smidgeon of security, international law, human decency, conversation and understanding between the richly diverse and distinct peoples of our confused, imbalanced world. In the jargon of the aid business, the humanitarian space is shrinking fast. We have surely come too far, learned too much from the 'colonial' type mistakes of aid in the past, to resort to a regressive 'aid through the barrel of a gun' - or am I completely naive?

Meanwhile, spare a thought for Laurent and Gauthière and the good people of Sudan and Chad who are helping to secure their release.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Surviving the Tsunami - Stories of Hope

This time five years ago the Tsunami claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives and left in its wake the greatest reconstruction and recovery challenge since the second world war. Hundreds of millions of ordinary people around the world responded spontaneously in an act of solidarity. For organizations like ours, the Red Cross, this meant an incredible 3 billion dollars in donations of which almost 80% came from the general public. But from this tragedy came stories of hope. Stories of survival that inspire and illuminate. Together with Thomson Reuters Foundation, and the creative guys and girls at Mediastorm, we put together (in less than three months from start to finish) a multimedia piece that we hope pays tribute to these stories of resilience and survival and may contribute to the Tsunami testimony. The multimedia includes a resources section, an animated data map, a comments feature and the centre piece - multimedia documentary portraying four people whose lives were touched by the Tsunami. Embedded here is the trailer - I hope it moves you to explore the full project which can be found at:

This was an amazing project to work in. Massive archival research; dispatching tv crews to four different locations within a two week window, identifying people whose stories might resonate and represent (and who were willing to tell these stories), meticulous multimedia production and, not least, sharing a professional and principled approach with the folks at Reuters and Mediastorm so that we could enable people tell their stories in a dignified manner that will stand the tests of time. We hope you enjoy it and let us know what you think.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Learning from the tsunami – five years on

My friend and colleague Patrick Fuller, put together this short reflection which describes well the enormous challenge the Red Cross and others faced trying to cope with responding to the multiple disasters the tsunami left in its wake all across Asia Pacific and as far away as East Africa. The piece was originally written for our website but I think its worth reposting here. In the humanitarian world (and beyond I have no doubt) the Tsunami was a catalyst for a new modus operandi - it certainly was not business as usual and it never will be again. Patrick is our communications coordinator for the Tsunami operation with whom I also worked closely to produce a multi-media documentary that tells the story of four incredible people whose lives were changed forever by the Tsunami. Called Stories of Hope it is a testimony not only to human suffering but to human resilience - the incredible instinct to survive and move on.

When the tsunami struck on Dec 26th 2004, millions of people watched in horror as the full extent of the worst natural disaster in living memory unfolded on their television screens. More than 226,000 people lost their lives across 14 countries and 470,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. Now, five years on, the story is a very different one. Communities have recovered and in some cases been entirely rebuilt.

The Red Cross Red Crescent launched a major recovery operation with programmes in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. In the space of five years close to 5 million people have been reached with humanitarian assistance and more than 51,000 permanent houses have been built.

“How are we going to cope?”

Al Panico, head of the IFRC’s tsunami unit first joined as head of operation in Sri Lanka in 2005. ‘My first thoughts on seeing the scale of the devastation were, how are we going to cope with this? We always said this was going to be a marathon and not a sprint and that it would take five years to rebuild’.

In Sri Lanka two thirds of the coastline had been hit and the situation was chaotic at best. The immediate priority was to get tents, food and water to the thousands of people camped by the roadside who had lost everything. ‘Our volunteers played a vital role in helping to avert the risk of a second tragedy’, says Tissa Abeywickrama, Chairman of the Movement Task Force with the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society. ‘We provided thousands of cooked meals to people all the way along the coast. Quick medical care and supplies of clean water meant that there were no outbreaks of disease’.

The story in Indonesia was similar but on a bigger scale. The waves had come in higher, 20 metres in some stretches, driving inland for miles and destroying entire settlements along parts of the coast.
‘Some of those who came to help had lost homes and family members themselves’, says Bob McKerrow, IFRC head of delegation in Jakarta. ‘Over a three-month period 200 young Indonesian Red Cross volunteers retrieved some 45,000 bodies in Aceh and took them for a proper burial. This was harrowing work’.

Operation Recovery

Recovering from such a massive disaster presented huge logistical challenges. Hundreds of skilled staff from all corners of the world were recruited together with thousands of local staff. The tsunami had affected an 800 kilometre strip around the coast of Aceh. Reaching communities meant mobilising boats, planes, helicopters and a fleet of M6 trucks specially imported from Norway that could travel cross-country. Wood was sourced from Finland and steel from Thailand to build over 20,000 high quality shelters in Aceh. In the Maldives everything had to be taken by ship including 15,000 rainwater-harvesting kits that were installed on 79 islands. Then there were the political challenges. The resurgence of conflict in northern Sri Lanka meant that access to areas was difficult and projects had to be put on hold. Land titles in Indonesia meant that in many areas it took years to be able to start building permanent homes.

‘We had to take some risks but this was because the needs were so huge’, explains Panico. ‘This was the biggest reconstruction programme that the Red Cross Red Crescent had ever embarked upon. We were getting into partnerships with government agencies and organisations that we had never worked with before, in areas where we didn’t have all the answers’.
Catalyst for managing disasters

In the early days of the disaster, coordination between humanitarian organisations, government agencies and people affcectey be the disaster themselves proved difficult.  But lessons have since been learnt. The tsunami was a catalyst for improving the way that disasters are now collectively managed. In recent years the UN cluster system came into being, in which the IFRC plays a prominent role. Now there are dedicated teams coordinating the response to disasters in specific sectors such as shelter, water and sanitation and health.

 In Aceh, an early challenge emerged when most agencies miscalculated the time it would take to get families into permanent housing.  Thousands of people were still living in tents by the end of 2005 which lead to the IFRC stepping in and taking the lead in building 20,000 transitional shelters, many of which are still in use today as shops or annexes to permanent homes.

Rebuilding entirely new communities

The biggest single achievement for the Red Cross Red Crescent has been the permanent housing programme. Various different approaches were used to reconstruct more than 51,000 homes. Contractors were used to build entire communities on resettlement sites provided by governments. In the Maldives the IFRC coordinated the construction of an entire community on Dhuvaafaru an uninhabited island in the Raa Atoll. Six hundred homes, together with infrastructure such as schools, mosques, water and power plants, were built for over 3,000 Maldivians whose former island home was ruined by the tsunami.

Considerable funds were also channelled into ‘owner driven’ housing schemes.  In Sri Lanka more than 17,000 families were provided with cash grants and technical guidance to build or repair their own homes under a unique partnership between the IFRC, UN-Habitat and the World Bank.

Economic life and independence

The focus on ‘building back better’ has meant looking beyond simply helping someone to build a house. Over 650,000 people now have clean water to drink and better sanitation thanks to water supply plants, distribution pipelines and new wells constructed by the Red Cross Red Crescent.  Thousands of people have been helped to get back on their feet through livelihoods support programmes. Over 30,000 households have been reached by asset replacement or enhancement projects. Fishing boats, engines and nets have been replaced and people have been given opportunities to retrain in new vocations.
 Over 62,000 households have received livelihoods support grants which have enabled them to start up small businesses such as groceries or market gardens. Many people opted to start livestock and poulty rearing businesses. The expertise built up in the field of livelihoods is now an important part of the Red Cross Red Crescent approach to recovery programming. Helping individuals to cope with the trauma and stress of the tsunami has been another area where the Red Cross Red Crescent has developed considerable experience. Psychosocial support programmes have helped both children and adults to cope with the stress and trauma of the tsunami. Now, over 270,000 people are certified in community based first aid and pyschosocial support.
Allowing families and communities to take action on their own behalf, without becoming dependent on external support, has been one of the most important lessons drawn from the tsunami.

Saving lives before the next disaster strikes
‘Even though reconstruction projects are drawing to a close, disaster prone communities still need to be made safer and better prepared,’ says Al Panico, ‘a huge amount has been done to improve the technology around early warning systems, but this approach has to go hand in hand with risk reduction programmes at the community level’. Making sure that people have the right information, skills and knowledge to take early action and prepare for disasters is a long term priority for Red Cross national societies in countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
These countries now feature community based disaster risk reduction projects focused on training volunteers, developing  village disaster risk reduction plans, and improving community capacity in mitigating the risks from disasters. Since the tsunami Over 38,000 people have been trained in vulnerability and capacity assessments or community based disaster management.
“The tsunami operation has given us the highest recognition we ever had from both the public and government,” says Indonesian Red Cross Society Secretary General, Iyang D. Sukandar.  Since the tsunami and subsequent disaster operations in Indonesia, the Government of Indonesia has recognised the Red Cross as a key member of a newly formed National Disaster Quick Response Team.  “We now have skilled volunteers and staff who always ready to help people in any disaster situation throughout Indonesia,” Iyang Sukandar says. 


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Philippines: Thousands flee as Volcano about to erupt

The alert level for Mt. Mayon in the Philippines has been raised to 4, meaning a hazardous eruption could be imminent. As of today, December 22, the volcano continued to show an intense level of activity, reinforcing fears that a hazardous explosive eruption in possible, writes Alex Rosete in Manila.

The Philippines Red Cross (PRC) has been coordinating evacuation drills and the distribution and pre-positioning of relief items with local government units (LGUs). Staff and volunteers in the Albay Chapter of PRC are on high alert and remain on stand by around the clock.

A total of 44,637 persons or 9,276 families have been evacuated our of harm’s way from the municipalities of Daraga, Camalig, Legazpi City, Tobaco City, Malilipot, Sto. Domingo, Ligao City and Guinobatan. Volunteers were also assigned to the evacuation centers to carry out health assessment and hygiene promotion activities.
The Philippine Institute for Volcanology and Seismology has gradually expanded the danger zone around the volcano up to eight kilometers. No human presence or activity is allowed within the zone, and people just outside have been alerted to prepare for speedy evacuation in case of a volcanic eruption. However, people continue to risk entering the danger zone to tend to fields and livestock.

Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) emission rates remain very high and were measured at an average of 6,529 tons per day (t/d) yesterday. Intensified crater glow was observed during a short cloud break last night.

Red hot lava also continuously flowed down along the Bonga-Buyuan, Miisi and Lidong gullies and has reached about 5 kilometers from the summit.


Monday, December 21, 2009

What has the Tsunami really taught us?

Five years ago, on 26 December 2004, a massive earthquake off the coast of Sumatra created a tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean. Millions of people around the world watched in horror as the aftermath of the biggest single natural disaster in living memory unfolded on their television screens. Almost 230,000 people lost their lives across 14 countries.

In Indonesia’s Aceh province, entire communities were wiped off the map. Constructing sturdier new homes and settlements with electricity, clean water and good sanitation is one step towards what is known as “building back better”, but genuine recovery requires a more inclusive approach that addresses people’s wider needs as they see them.

In its wake came extraordinary generosity. Over the past five years the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has channelled public donations into recovery programmes that have supported almost 5 million people across the four worst affected countries - Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Maldives. The immense  task of reconstructing homes, schools and hospitals is almost complete, allowing us to see more clearly what we have learned from the tsunami and how it has fundamentally changed the way we respond to large-scale disasters.

Building back better means helping to create safer and more resilient communities. Reducing risks as effectively as possible requires the full participation of communities exposed to potential disasters.

Since the tsunami, the Red Cross Red Crescent has helped to create community-based risk reduction programmes that are now active in more than 265 communities across Aceh. These risk reduction teams map the hazards faced in their communities and carry out small-scale prevention and mitigation activities such as improving drainage systems to prevent flooding during the monsoon. They also learn emergency first aid skills and involve all generations in their community in evacuation drills. Empowering communities to take preventive action on their own behalf, without being dependent on external support, is one of the clear, unalterable lessons learned from the tsunami experience.

On average, the Asia Pacific region experiences 41 per cent of recorded global disaster events. Two to three large scale disasters now take place every two years. This situation is compounded by an increasing number of localized smaller scale disasters that have increased the total number of disasters per month from an average of 21 in 2004 to 51 in 2008.

Since the tsunami, the Red Cross Red Crescent has responded to no fewer than five major earthquakes that have struck in ‘the Ring of Fire’, a highly active seismic zone running through the Indonesian archipelago.

When the latest quake struck the city of Padang in West Sumatra on October 1, a trained network of radio operators swung into action keeping vital lines of communication open between the Indonesian Red Cross headquarters in Jakarta and its field offices in the quake zone. Pre-positioned emergency relief items in the area meant that help was immediately at hand for survivors and 200 ‘Satgana’ (disaster response) volunteers fanned out into affected areas to assess the urgent needs. Psychosocial support volunteers who had been trained in Aceh also arrived in Padang to help adults and children cope with the trauma. Much of this effective disaster response capacity comes directly from our learning following the tsunami.

Perhaps the most important lesson that the tsunami has taught us is that systematic risk reduction efforts depends on building strong working partnerships between all stakeholders – communities, local and national government, governmental and non-governmental organizations and the private sector. The legacy of the tsunami is that the IFRC has moved significantly closer to this goal.

The key lesson still needs to be acted upon. Governments, donors, the media and the general public must increase their support and promote preventive action such as early warning systems.

But early warning systems alone are not enough.  While these help people to be aware of a disaster, true risk reduction can only be achieved by working and building the knowledge and skills of the people who live in ‘at risk’ communities. This is where the strength of the Red Cross Red Crescent lies. Our volunteers come from these communities and are there before, during and after disasters. 

The incredible public  generosity that the tsunami uncovered must be harnessed to invest in helping communities at risk adapt to known weather and seismic related threats but also to new disasters emerging from changing climate patterns. At the same time international donors must honour their commitments to increase funding towards risk reduction initiatives.

Responding effectively to disasters will always be essential but nothing is more effective than getting people out of harm’s way in the first place. Indeed is this not our moral obligation to those whose lives were taken by the tsunami five years ago? Let that be the great lesson of the tsunami – act early and save lives.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Climate Voices: directly to you, for you.

I feel passionately about aid organizations such as ours, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, using their vast grassroots network and global reach to provide a platform for people to directly voice their concerns - as opposed to 'speaking on behalf of' or 'in the interests of' marginalized or invisible people struggling and battling against poverty, migration, violence, conflict, human rights abuses, HIV, stigma, the real and present danger of climate change ... you name it (the photo shows Wang Hui Min, sitting on a makeshift raft that he uses to visit his submerged house, seen behind him. Wang now lives on a dyke with his family of six).

The embedded video here was produced specifically for the Copenhagen Climate Conference with this same purpose in mind i.e. to give a voice to the people whose lives and livelihoods are right now being seriously threatened because of the consequences of climate change in their communities. The idea was to bring them directly into the Copenhagen conference center so that they could speak directly to governments and delegates making decisions that have a very real impact on their survival and the future of their children and communities - this is not a cliché but a fact.

In record breaking time - three weeks from concept to delivery - we dispatched almost a dozen tv crews, all locally hired, to meet with and interview ordinary people trying to cope with climate change - a genuine attempt to use our global presence to give a voice to the voiceless. This has been screened all over Copenhagen and is just now uploaded onto YouTube whose motto "broadcast yourself" has never been so relevant.

The next step or the next challenge is to really really really make it possible for people to broadcast themselves and tell their stories directly without any obvious involvement from organizations such as ours. For this we are putting the finishing touches on a partnership with Thomson Reuters and others built around empowering communities affected by disasters to communicate directly to the outside world without need for meddling intermediaries - the intermediaries will simply build capacity and facilitate pushing out the message of the people who are too rarely heard.

As Rupert Murdoch correctly predicted when he first came across MySpace "For fuck sake - the people have taken control"! Right you are Rupert - power to the people. Exciting times have just kicked off. This vid is only 5 mins but we have hours of footage which we will repackage and reversion to influence the decisions beyond Copenhagen. Its a drop in the ocean I know, but what an ocean .... really interested to hear what you think, not just of the video, but of the aspiration.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Football is not a matter of Life and Death ... it is more important than that

Head Down Eyes Open has been sucked into the end of year bottle neck of work and festive cheer leaving little spare time or thought for more regular updates. In order to breach the gap I would like to share with you a remarkable multi-media video piece (under four minutes) which documents a crucial football game in the Brazilian league last Sunday. The red and black supporters were waiting to see Flamengo win the Brazilian National Soccer Championship for the sixth time. A seventeen years wait for Flamengo. Moments of tension, joy and ecstasy on a day that will never be forgotten, an epic day. The Maracanã stadium was completely full for the red and black party. Rio de Janeiro is no longer the same. For those who believe football is more than mere sport, that it is a triumph of tribalism, a global religion that can rise to the heights of pure theatre and dive to the depths of tragedy (remember the hand of Henry a few weeks back? How could we forget?), then this piece is for you. Sit back and enjoy!

Flamengo Hexacampeão Brasileiro from Gustavo Pellizzon on Vimeo.

For those interested to know the nuts and bolts about how this video was produced, Gustavo Pellizzon, the Brazilian photographer and multi-media artist who created this impassioned tribute to football, tells us that the gear used was a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, Canon lens 600mm 4.0, 70-200 2.8, 35mm 1.4 and a 12mm Sygma. Video tripod and a little monopod to help stabilization on his shoulder. Audio recording with Zoom H2. Edited in Final Cut and Adobe Camera Raw.

"Football is not a matter of Life and Death .... it is more important than that" (Bill Shankly)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Conflict, Climate and Fragility

An excellent new report from the peace-building organization International Alert presents a strong case for better understanding the relationship between conflict and climate. 

In all the talk about adapting to climate change, "scant attention" is being paid to "the dangers of ... [adaptation strategies] going astray in fragile and conflict-affected" countries, warned a report released on 28 November.

Just under three billion people live in 46 conflict-affected countries, where climate change could create a high risk of violent conflict, according to International Alert's research.

In its
latest report the NGO urged policy-makers to take into account the interaction between the impact of climate change and "the social and political realities in which people live that will determine" their capacity to adapt.

The political dimension of adapting to climate change, and the underlying causes of vulnerability in a fragile state that cannon carry out its core functions has to be factored in, as "technical fixes will only act as sticking plasters" cautioned  the report’s authors, Dan Smith and Janani Vivekananda.

"It is difficult to walk the line between alarmism and complacency," said Smith. "There is no point in exaggerating the risks, but there is equally no point in denying that with each year of inaction the risks of climate-related conflict and political instability increase."

He cited conflict-ridden Yemen
 where the water situation is "dire", to illustrate the impact of stress on essential resources in a fragile country. Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, is expected to run out of water in 10 to 15 years. "The consequences for the people of Yemen of worsening water shortage could be catastrophic. The risk of the state ceasing to be effective cannot be discounted.

The ground reality 

Policies for adapting to water stresses brought on partly by climate change in many conflict-ridden countries, particularly in the Arab region, were not being given priority, according to Hosny Khordagui, Director of the Water Governance Program in Arab States.

The Arab region - the Middle East and North Africa - is home to five percent of the world's population but has access to only one percent of global fresh water resources; according to the UN it is the most water-stressed region in the world.

Some of the world's biggest and longest-running conflicts are also playing out here: in Iraq, Sudan and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian and Syrian territories.

A rising number of droughts, lower water levels in rivers, stunted agricultural production, and sea level rise brought on by climate change will turn millions of people, particularly in the Nile River Delta and the coastal areas in the Persian Gulf, into "environmental refugees", warned the UNDP Arab Human Development Report 2009.

Tensions over natural resources not only pose a threat to security among communities, but also nationally and regionally. The UNDP report cited Sudan, which has "experienced internal conflicts in Darfur ... between pastoralists and farmers over access to water sources", and Palestinian farmers, who "suffer because Israeli settlers monopolize most ground water sources".

Climate-Proofing Peace Builing

International Alert recommended that adaptation strategies should be more conflict-sensitive, so that water management in water stressed countries was shaped by understanding the systems of power and equity: involve everyone and avoid pitting groups against each other.

Peace-building needed to be climate-proofed by paying attention to the availability of resources for livelihoods such as agriculture - which could be under pressure because of climate change - for returning ex-combatants or people displaced by conflict.

The International Alert report cited Liberia, which is in the process of recovery from war. Many returnees and ex-combatants will come back to villages and make a living from agriculture, but the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global scientific body, has projected that crop yields in parts of West Africa could halve by 2020.

"The prospect arises of returned fighters becoming resentful unemployed farmers, and thus potential recruits, with their combat experience, in a new conflict," the authors commented.

The efforts of rich countries to shift to a low-carbon economy must be peace-friendly and supportive of development. The International Alert report noted that the diversion of food crops and land use to biofuel production had played a role in pushing food prices up in 2007/08, causing conflict in many countries.

The capacity to absorb is absent

Vulnerability to climate change is also about the capacity to adapt and many countries do not have the money to make themselves resilient. The UNDP report noted for instance that the Arab region would need around US$73 billion, an annual average of $2.6 billion over the next three decades, to enhance its desalination capacity to provide fresh water. 

Many countries do not have the information or the capacity to factor the impact of climate change into their policies.  They need more reliable regional and country-specific data to be able to plan; they also need to identify the most vulnerable communities to help them become resilient. 

International Alert is an independent peacebuilding organisation that has worked for over 20 years to lay the foundations for lasting peace and security in communities affected by violent conflict. Our multifaceted approach focuses both in and across various regions; aiming to shape policies and practices that affect peacebuilding; and helping build skills and capacity through training. This post was based on an original report published by our good friends in IRIN.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

When the French fought for Ireland’s glory

Some reflections on November 1798, and why the French are right to hate Thierry Henry.

“Behold at last Frenchmen arrived among you! Brave Irishmen our cause is common. Union. Liberty, the Irish Republic. Let us march. Our hearts are devoted to you; our glory is in your happiness.”

On those words, from the declaration of an Irish Republic by General Humbert in 1798, were relations between France and Ireland predicated for over 200 years, and thus smarts the hurt that Henry has inflicted on his own nation by his sleight of hand.

The French love affair for Ireland is deep, as deep as their antipathy for our mutual foe. And – last week’s blip apart – we owe much of who we are to the French, although if they had been better sailors history might have been different.

But this musing is not about Bantry Bay. It starts with an actual French landing, in August 1798, and finishes on 19 November, the day of the death of the great Theobald Wolfe Tone. The same day, 211 years on when we had to come to terms with the death of our World Cup dreams through French treachery, as opposed to her valour.

Of course it’s not right to compare the gravity of the events, but the quote, by Tone’s own son, finds an echo in November 2009: "The next day was passed in a kind of stupor. A cloud or portentous awe seemed to hang over the city of Dublin.

After many false dawns, the French landed in Killala under General Humbert (right). The village on the inlet was hardly the best place to launch an insurgency, but Humbert did remarkable things. To his disappointment, he was met, in Killala Bay by a few thousand-poorly equipped peasants with no prominent leaders. The French had been led to believe that the whole of Ireland would rise up and join the French once they had landed. (One supposes, given their previous inability to make landfall, we thought the day would never come).  Nevertheless, the French-Irish collaboration had immediate successes.

Humbert decided that he must advertise his presence in Ireland and fan the flame of hope that the risings of 1798 had already ignited. He chose to engage the British. He had learned of a force of 3,500 British troops advancing on his position. He surmised that he could be successful if he engaged them at Castlebar, County Mayo. Defeating the British at Castlebar, especially since the commander of the British forces was General Lake who had defeated the Irish pikemen in Wexford, would be the kind of demonstration that the Irish people needed to show that they could, with French help, defeat the British. 

With 700  French infantry cavalry and almost the same number of Irish rebels, Humbert conducted a twenty-five mile forced march through back roads to reach Castlebar. The strategy was brilliant. With only one cannon, the French overran the British and forced the British to run, leaving behind muskets, packs, cannons, flags, munitions, and even General Lake’s luggage. Known later as "The Races at Castlebar," (left) this defeat was one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history (pictured left, the Humbert Memorial, Humbert Street, Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland).

The French and the Irish established a provisional government in Castlebar. Then, a bit like last week, the Irish took their eye of the ball and, as we are wont to do, went on the lash. Humbert and his boys were wined and dined on a most lavish scale by the people of the Castlebar and environs. Those who did not sign up for active service came loaded with gifts of meat, butter, poultry, eggs, fish, etc., for the troops. One party came with a steer that had been cooked in a quarry near the town on heated slabs of limestone, a custom dating back to Hannibal's time. Gifts of clothing and footwear donated by merchants from Castlebar and the nearby towns also arrived.

Getting ready took time, and the British eventually encircled and defeated Humbert. Wolfe Tone’s brother Michael was hanged. At the time, Tone himself was on the way to Lough Swilly in Donegal with another French force which encountered a vastly superior English fleet.

Battle raged. Admiral Bombard nailed his colours to the mast, meaning he intended to go down fighting. The French officers urged Tone to escape in a frigate they had made ready. Remember that Tone was a VIP and more. He’d met with Napoleon several times, was a renowned writer and thinker, and at just 35 was poised to be one of the greatest Europeans of his day.

In the white heat of battle, facing defeat and almost certain death, what did Tone – a Protestant by the way -  do? Take the easy way out? A metaphorical handball? Hardly. He asked “shall it be said that I fled when the French were fighting the battles of my country? No, I shall stand by the ship”.

Such – gallantry – there’s no other word for it, leaves a huge lump in the throat. Tone commanded a battery fighting “like a lion, exposing himself to every peril” according to a 19th century historian. “One of the most obstinate and desperate engagements which have ever been fought in the ocean,” reads an another account. “During six hours she sustained the fire of the whole fleet till her masts and rigging were swept away, her scuppers flowed with blood, her wounded filled the cockpit, her shattered ribs yawned at each new stroke and let in five feet of water…a dismantled wreck… in shreds”. (pictured, right, the memorial plaque that stands today on the spot where Tone was arrested).

Captured and towed to shore, the prisoners were marched to Letterkenny where Tone was recognised by an old college companion, an Orangeman. He was handed over to the police and bound in irons, prompting only the comment: “I feel prouder to wear these chains than if I was decorated with the star and garter of England”. He was sentenced, for his treason, to death by hanging, despite his plea to be shot like a soldier. The only slight consolation was that his skull was not to be piked in a public place.

Some mystery surrounds his death. There is a suggestion that a an assassination attempt was botched, and a bullet-wound it his neck was slashed by a blade to make the original trauma look like suicide. The generally accepted version is that Tone cut his own throat to make the hangman’s work impossible.

His wound was dressed by, of all people, a French doctor, who whispered to an attendant that any attempt by Tone to move or speak would result in instant death of the patient. Tone had written farewell to his wife and children, and making a slight movement said “I can find yet words to thank you sir. It is the most welcome news you can give me. What should I wish to live for?”

So perished Wolfe Tone. With honour and with pride. With him died the rebellion of 1798, and the name of Ireland as a nation.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"They love us at night. They hate us the rest of the time”

In the run up to World AIDS day on December 1st my colleague, Jean-Luc Martinage, has been busy putting together a report highlighting the extent of the pandemic in Latin America - a region not normally associated with HIV/AIDS. The report was released yesterday together with a number of web stories about the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. Head Down Eyes Open would like to feature one of these stories here.

Her name is Pamela. She is one of the dozens of transgenders selling their bodies in what the locals call “Calle del Pecado” (The street of the sin”) near the historical centre of Cali, Colombia’s third largest city.

We meet Pamela at a snackbar near the place she lives. “Housing is one of the first problems transgenders like myself keep facing”, Pamela explains. “Nobody wants to rent a flat to a transgender”.

Even if she officially became “Pamela” only a few years ago, since the age of 6, the boy that she was at that time immediately felt that he was different from the other boys and wanted to be considered as a “she”.

From stylist to sex worker

Pamela became a stylist and a hairdresser. However, she had a serious accident that left her slightly disabled and she could no longer do her job. “At the age of 35, I became a sex-worker”, she explains, telling us also about the long legal battle she had to face with the authorities to allow her to change her name to Pamela. “The civil servant who received my request just laughed at me and said he would never allow such a change”, she recalls. However, she took the matter to the Supreme Court who finally allowed her to change her name to Pamela. But on her identity card, she is still considered as a “male”. Pamela had thought about a change of sex but she gave up when she was told she was told that after all she might not be allowed to have surgery despite living as a woman for at least 10 years and having faced dozens of medical and psychatric appointments.

However Pamela kept her fighting spirit by creating a network of support for all transgender people. From just a dozen at the beginning, her small NGO called “Transmujer” now gathers around 700 people.

Tripling the price for unprotected sex 

“We need to help each other because we are faced with a high level of stigma and discrimination” says Pamela. “Men love us at night but they hate us during the day”, she sums up, explaining how besides being insulted on the streets, they also need to face numerous requests from men ready to triple the price to have unprotected sex. “I always say “no” because I am fully aware of the danger of being infected by HIV and other sexually-transmissible diseases. However, some transgenders need money so badly that they say “yes”, putting themselves into a highly dangerous situation.”

“Most of my customers are actually heterosexual men”, she says, “so in a way we are sometimes even more protected than our costumers’ wives who have no control at all on their own sexuality. I have seen terrible things like a girl who was providing sex without condoms against money while she was already infected with HIV. I managed to convince her to finally use condoms but my other concern is especially to make sure that transgender people who are not infected don’t catch the virus through unprotected sex”, she adds.

Pamela fought very hard to get access to condoms she could distribute to the other transgender sex workers. However, she never managed to have her status as an activit fully recognized. A while ago, she held a sensitization meeting in Cali and it happened that a Colombian Red Cross volunteer attended. The connection between her NGO and the Red Cross was quickly established and they are currently developing projects to provide a better access to condoms, to promote safe sex and voluntary testing as well as developing new prevention tools.

Working with the most vulnerable groups

“We won’t have a lasting impact on HIV infection if we don’t reach the most vulnerable groups such as the transgender sex workers,” says Dr. Yacid Estrada, coordinator of the Colombian Red Cross HIV programme. "Not only we will try to support Pamela in her prevention initiatives but we are even thinking of developing specific tools that will take into account the specificities of transgender sex. By doing this, we are in no way encouraging sex work but we believe no lasting breakthrough in reducing HIV infection can happen unless we take care of people such as transgenders who are highly affected by stigma and discrimination".

When asked how she sees her future, Pamela remains quite vague. She would like to become a full time activist for her community but her status is still not recognized by the authorities. 

But for the time being, Pamela is back in the “Calle del Pecado” facing an uncertain future. With several packs of condoms she can share with other sex workers who now are even looking for her at night since they know she has a better access to condoms.


Friday, November 20, 2009

Through Albino Eyes

Over the past two years at least 56 albino people in Burundi and Tanzania have been killed by hunters working for witchdoctors who sell their body parts as talismans for thousands of dollars.

The killings triggered a humanitarian crisis as thousands of albinos were either trapped in their villages, too frightened to move, or in the case of children abandoned in special schools for the disabled and shelters guarded by the police.

The spontaneous local humanitarian response to this emergency was coordinated by the Red Cross societies of both countries. It sharply highlighted the long-standing social and health problems of Great Lakes albinos, above all the skin cancer to which so many of them succumb. One of HDEO's intrepid friends, Alex Wynter, has just finished producing a ten-minute web documentary on this tragic story (below) as well as comprehensive advocacy report

A few figures

·         $75,000 - Tanzanian police estimate of the value to witch doctors of a complete set of albino body parts, including all four limbs, genitals, ears, nose, and tongue.

·         $4,000 - Amount raised by a local appeal organized by the Tanzania Red Cross in Kigoma to assist abandoned albino children – all from private contributions by Red Cross volunteers and other local humanitarian workers.

·         $246,000 - Amount the Tanzania Red Cross is appealing for now to expand humanitarian work with albinos throughout the two regions most seriously affected by the occult-based killings: Kigoma and Mwanza.

·         56 - Official number of albinos who have been killed by hunters over the past two years in Burundi and Tanzania (44 of them in Tanzania).

HDEO has featured a number of stories and photos on this issue over the last months, including:


Thursday, November 19, 2009

La Honte de Henry

It hurts. Sweet Lord how it hurts. A night of fitful sleep punctured by dreams of a winning goal on 121 minutes has passed and it still hurts like a punch in the solar plexus. It was one of the best performances ever seen from an Irish team, men who grew from journeymen in Stoke and Wolves, to giants playing with composure and skill. The truth is we deserved it. We deserved it more than the French. And for so long we had the champagne on ice, only for the grapes to turn sour by a mind-blowing piece of cheating.

But amid all that, amid the heartache and the tears and the it’s-just-not-fair of it all, three things stand out. One, that FIFA is a farcical organisation dancing on Jules Rimet’s dream by seeding playoffs (how, I mean HOW can they justify it, other than telling the truth – that a Mondial without Ronaldo and Henry rather loses its sheen). Two, the ref had a good game, apart from the obvious. He could easily have given France a penalty late in the second half and then it would have been good night Josephine anyway.

And third, though it hurts like hell to write it, Henry did the decent thing. OK, ok, he could have run over to the referee and said no, fair cop, I handled it. But would Robbie Keane have done that? Would Bobby Charlton, the cleanest player ever? Would he f…

Henry could have done a Maradonna and been smarmy in a hand of God way but no. He went straight over to our boys and didn’t just mutter “sorry lads” and give a patronising ruffle of the hair. He sat with them, while million voices roared “CHEAT” at screens from Dallas to Darwin (I, rather pretentiously hollered “La Honte” and worse at the few Frenchies in O’Brien’s of Kiev).

After the game Henry told the press: “I said that I handled it to Richard Dunne but he said to me … you’re not the referee”. 

And Sean St Leger, who’s hip deflected the ball into the net in Croke Park put it well: “it doesn’t look great, but he’s got his team to the World Cup finals. If it had been one of our team we’d have probably done the same. The blame doesn’t necessarily fall on him, but he’s handled it. Everyone can see it around the world.”

Sometimes luck vanishes. We had ours in ’87 when Scotsman Gary MacKay put us into our first finals with a goal from nowhere on a cold night in Sofia. But we’ve had precious little since. All the way from Schillaci to Squillaci, you might say.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Afghanistan: We kill f**king civilians all the time

Keep an eye out for an online documentary coming soon called the battle for hearts and minds. This is a sneak preview below, only one and a half minutes or so and well worth a glimpse. As Obama tries to resolve his procrastination - to surge or not to surge - over Afghanistan, this documentary is set to give Americans a real uncomfortable close and personal view of events around the cosily coined "battle for hearts and minds." Some notable quotes from the trailer below: "We are experts in the application of violence..... ECHO company is going to change history starting early tomorrow morning .... We kill fucking civilians all the time". This will not only open American eyes to the illusion of their military might (please check out a previous post that interviewed Seymour Hersh, well known American journalist, on this issue) but it will also touch the hearts and minds of Afghans and their neighbours for generations to come!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Keeping an eye on South Sudan

Over the last 12 months or so violence in South Sudan has steadily increased. Rumours are rife that militias are being armed in the south to create fear and tensions in the run up to one of the most anticipated referendums in world politics scheduled for 2011 – to determine whether South Sudan secedes from Khartoum and opts for independence as stipulated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005. One thing is certain - the road to the CPA referendum vote will be bumpy if not potentially lethal.

There are many fractious areas where tensions can be easily stoked. Places like Malakal, Abyei, Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains. In Malakal, a beautiful town by the banks of the Upper Nile that lies along the north-south divide, more than 100 people were reported killed in clashes last month. This brings a total of more than 2000 people killed in Southern Sudan already this year. Arguably as explosive as the still unresolved Darfur conflict.

Nubian Wrestling

The Nuba Mountains, a former frontline region in Sudan’s north-south civil war is set to remain tense, years after the 2005 north-south peace agreement, local leaders and analysts say. It is an area famed for its rhythms, art, wrestling and, it has to be said, incredibly beautiful looking people.

Comprising some 48,000sqkm of green uplands and farmland, the area is part of northern Sudan’s Southern Kordofan State, but remains politically dominated by the southern-led Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).

Tensions and mistrust have remained high between Sudan’s north and south - major political, ideological and religious differences are unresolved – not least in the Nuba region.

"Security is a big problem, with violations and hostility between two parties - the SPLM and the NCP [National Congress Party], and a lot of conflict between tribes," said Kamal al-Nur, commissioner of SPLM-controlled Heiban County in Southern Kordofan.

"We are concerned that violence will escalate as we come closer to the elections - and in the period after the elections - to the referendum," al-Nur added. General elections in Sudan are slated for April 2010, before a southern independence referendum in 2011.

During the war, the Nuba population suffered aerial bombardment, isolation, shortages, land expropriation and forced population movements, according to international human rights groups.

The area is characterized by a mix of ethnic groups and coexistence between Muslim, Christian and traditional believers.

"We fought for long years… for equality, for the right to live as we want and not under the [Islamic] Sharia law of the north," said Younan Albaround, the SPLM chairman in Kauda, the party’s former headquarters for Nuba during the war.

“Popular consultation” 

Unlike Southern Sudan and the oil-rich region of Abyei which are due to vote on independence and self-determination in 2011, the 2005 peace deal only set out arrangements for interim power sharing and ”popular consultation” in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

Abyei, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile are sometimes referred to as Sudan’s “three areas” – transitional and contested-zones straddling the north-south political, military and cultural fault lines. 

"Whilst the South and Abyei have clearly defined rights to an independence referendum - guaranteed by the presence of the SPLA and thus with the option of unilateral secession should the peace deal fail to be fully implemented - the two `contested areas’ are only given the ill-defined concept of `popular consultation’ on their future status," said Peter Moszynski, a Sudan analyst who began working in the Nuba region in 1981.

The SPLA’s ranks in the Nuba Mountains were largely filled by local people, but those forces have officially pulled out of the region under terms set down by the peace agreement, with only special joint north-south units remaining.

Tensions have also risen following recent comments by senior Southern Sudanese officials in favour of separation, including a speech by the Southern president, Salva Kiir, that voting for unity would make southerners "second class" citizens.

"The Nuba people fear the breakaway of the south because they will be left as an isolated minority in the north - and will also be on the frontline of any future north-south conflict," Moszynski said.

"There are huge concerns that the Nuba Mountains could return to fighting," said Sudan analyst, John Ashworth. "They have no referendums - but many ordinary people are not aware of that yet and will be angry when it finally dawns on them. The `popular consultation’ is vague and probably meaningless."

Sentiments flagged already in October 2008 by International Crisis Group (ICG) in a report on Southern Kordofan entitled The Next Darfur? "If the NCP, SPLM and international community fail to pay the required attention to the divided region," the ICG warned, "their inaction could come back to haunt them in a way that threatens the stability of the already divided country." 

HDEO has a long and personal relationship with Sudan. "Big Country with Big Problems" as my Sudanese mentor (a Nubian Arab as it happens) told me in 2005 as the CPA was signed and Darfur was in flames. I could tell him after a few years experience that "Sudan also has a Big Heart." How else can Africa's largest nation continually overcome so much adversity? HDEO aims to post frequently as this amazing country approaches the momentous referendum in 2011.


This post is based on an IRIN report.