Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gaza needs Political will and not just Aid

Politicians often like to relegate and label complex emergencies and conflicts to 'humanitarian crisis' the insinuation being that it requires a humanitarian fix. This is rarely if ever the case. Humanitarian aid can only ever address short term needs or contribute to longer term development and needs political will in the air if it is to have a chance of succeeding. Gaza is a case in point. This is a political crisis plain and simple that requires political action first and foremost. Humanitarian aid is a factor that needs to be added to the political solution it is not and never can be considered as the embodiment of the solution. If we hear commentators referring to Gaza as a humanitarian crisis 'only' then we can safely deduce that political responsibilities are being shirked. These sentiments are echoed quiet unambiguously in a from-the-hip commentary in today's Guaridan UK, penned by Nick Young, the CEO of the British Red Cross who has just returned from Gaza. Indeed, the International Committee of the Red Cross emphasized the same point in its public statement on Thursday. Both commentaries wrestle with the politics of aid while recognizing the necessity to remain focused on neutral and impartial action. Young puts it best when he says: Our mandate requires us to provide aid on the basis of need, and need alone, without recourse to ideology, politics or difference. But from political actors an honest and courageous peace process is required: to stop the destruction of thousands of civilian lives and to enable people to rebuild their communities and live with dignity. We will continue to fulfill our mandate. I urge the politicians and world leaders to fulfill theirs.


Friday, February 27, 2009

Rebuilding Hope and Homes in Gaza

Next week, the powers that be, will assemble in Sharm el Sheik in Egypt to hammer out an aid package to rebuild Gaza. Three weeks (actually 22 days) of intensive fighting and bombardment left some 1300 Palestinians dead, about a quarter of them children. Israel declared a sudden and unilateral ceasefire and withdrew leaving stunned Gazans to pick up the pieces of thier broken lives and thier destroyed towns, villages, neighbourhoods and farms.

During the early days of the conflict which started on 27th of December 2008, I was constantly on the phone to several friends living in Gaza and in Israel itself (I had lived and worked in the region for two years until June 2008). For Gazans, in particular, it is important to understand that this was merely another escalation - albeit one of enormous magnitude and destruction - in the ongoing conflict with Israel. For Israelis it was yet again another moment to rally around a military offensive and support thier troops, protect thier sovereignity and demand their right to live in security - nothing less could be expected.

Israel's right to self-determination is not a question for me but the proportionality of its 'legitimate' response to home made rocket attacks shocked even hardened IDF veterans (IDF is the Israeli Defence Forces). Indeed the head of the International Red Cross in Gaza in one of several tv reports stated clearly that Israel failed in its obligations to abide by international law, especially when it came to facilitating access to the wounded and dead. In a particularily shocking incident in Zeitoun the Red Cross came across starving children, lying by the bodies of thier dead mothers. The Red Cross had been prevented for days by the IDF from reaching them and exceptionally spoke out against the disrespect for its cherished neutrality.

The political repercussions of this latest round of conflict will become apparent in time. A possible positive was reported today concerning committments from the main Palestinian groups to work together for the unity and benefit of its people. On the humanitarian side, more than 4000 people are left with horrific injuries; infrastrucure - which prior to the military offensive was already delapidated - is now completely defunct; schools, hospitals and homes need to be rebuilt (it is estimated that in three short weeks 15% of Gazas buildings were destroyed). The UN already estimates that it will take U$2billion to rebuild Gaza back to even a basic operating level.

Almost 7 years ago the world deplored a similar scene as the West Bank was brought to its knees when a wave of suicide attacks inside Israel prompted the IDF to launch Operation Defensive Shield. This also took approximately three weeks and in that operation 500 Palestinians were reported to have been killed, 1500 wounded and some U$360m worth of destruction caused.

During this latest round of hostilities the facilities of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) alone will cost some U$20 million to rebuild and replace. The PRCS is well-placed to assess the real needs and deliver where it matters. They are still the only organization present all over the Occupied Terriotories at the grassroots level. Lets hope the PRCS is given the means to get back on its feet and serve the people of Gaza as it has done for 40 years or more - if this happens at least some positives will come from yet another major donor conference aimed at pledging to repair the massive damage wrought by war.


Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Big Ask

The human cost of climate-related disasters is probably less talked about than melting ice caps or global warming. But people are struggling to cope with the effects of climate change and the impact is here and now. 70% of disasters are now weather related. Weather is more extreme, disasters more frequent and storms more violent. The cost of responding to disasters has doubled in the last decade putting a huge strain on existing resources and capacities. The smart thing to do is to shift the focus onto good preparedness. To take action before disasters rather than wait for the inevitable before acting. People who live in risk-prone areas and without the means to withstand a disaster are the hardest hit. Poor people - especially women, children, elderly, ill and handicapped - make up the highest proportion of victims. The humanitarian consequences of climate change is not a future scenario. This blog will frequently return to this issue, bringing in issues directly and indirectly related such as climate and health, climate and food security, and climate and migration. I will also link to some of the many excellent awareness-raising tools out there - one of my favourites I embed in this blog. A viral video from Friends of the Earth from late last year, called the Big Ask. Big? Massive more like.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Believe in Africa

The focus of the blog to date has been mainly about the massive humanitarian challenges facing people in the Horn of Africa and Zimbabwe.

In a rare 'good news' story from Africa in the Guardian (the story itself not online unfortunately) I was thrilled to read about the incredible work of Mo Ibrahim, a self-made telecoms billionaire from Sudan. His story moved me to blog this and to re-commit to share more good news about Africa.

For every harrowing experience one may encounter there will be truly inspiring stories not far beneath the surface. Stories of communities uniting together to change their situations and forge out a positive future for their children. I have witnessed, for instance, Croatian families, at huge personal risk, providing safe harbor for Serb neighbors. Or meeting a man on the third day of a bicycle journey into the deep bush of Southern Sudan. He was delivering a letter from a girl separated from her mother because of conflict. The lone cyclist did not know the woman to whom he was about to deliver such a great gift. But he felt compelled to carry out this humanitarian gesture. Maybe he knew the personal heartache of separation and needed to help mend his own hurt. Maybe it was the true spirit of humanity that you so often find in the African light.

I wonder what was the last story you read about Africa? What was it about? I would wager a guess that it wasn’t a positive story. I’m guessing that it was probably another depressing story painting a continent without hope: a continent rife with corruption, disease, famine and conflict.

We recently ran a survey of how the media and key international decision makers perceive Africa. According to the findings about three quarters of the 2,607 monitored news articles were negative. The few positive stories typically focused on business rather than successes in development or health.

Now, we should be clear that this is not a criticism of the media. Journalists are often the ones uncovering hidden issues and suffering that needs our attention. They are often the ones who take risks to find out what is happening far away from cities. The media is an invaluable ally for all humanitarian organizations.

As humanitarians we need to shoulder a large part of the responsibility. We know that positive news rarely make the headlines, they don’t make prime time, and they don’t always move people to donate.

But there is good news. There are real and meaningful developments being achieved every day in Africa. Amidst the images of conflict, famine and drought, health risks, corruption and political instability, there are countless untold stories of progress and achievements.

Let’s start with the big ones: since 2000 there has been a staggering 91 per cent reduction in measles deaths, an extraordinary effort achieved largely thanks to the determination and commitment of community-based Red Cross volunteers. Its essential to acknowledge that people are actively working to change their lives for the better.

If we dig our way down to the cities, townships and settlements that scatter the African continent we will hear the story of the volunteers in Zimbabwe, who, in the midst of a cholera and food crisis are selflessly working around the clock. Let’s hear the story of Hortense in Cameroon who works to protect young women exposed to the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.

This grassroots action is at the heart of the Red Cross. It is the source of its strength and its incredible reach. Problems are not solved in London, New York or Geneva: they are solved in the cities, communities and townships across Africa. And the Red Cross Red Crescent is at the heart of these communities.

We must not shy away from the profound challenges that Africa continent faces. But we must not get lost. We need to celebrate the micro-successes that are happening everyday. These successes, though they seem small, will be the seeds of meaningful development on this continent. We must Believe in Africa.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Beyond cholera - catastrophe looms in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is to the forefront of our concerns today. It is my third post on the crisis in a week. Yesterday, both the International Red Cross and the World Health Organization issued new updated reports. The prognosis is deadly. The WHO is now estimating a worst case scenario of some 110'00 cholera infected people in Zimbabwe in the coming weeks. This is revised upwards from 60'000. Almost 3'800 people have died to date.

In early December the figure was around 500 and hopes were high that it would not pass one thousand fatalities. Those hopes were based on an assumption that the international community would reach into its pockets and come up with the relatively insignificant sum of U$10m to arrest cholera in its tracks.

Despite our best efforts our operation is only 45% funded and as the report starkly states: This operation remains dangerously underfunded, and is at risk of being significantly scaled back at a time when it is clear that humanitarian operations in Zimbabwe need to be on the increase.

Despite the worrying rise in cholera cases we know we are having an impact in certain communities where infection rates are falling by some 5%. But cholera has taken root in rural areas making it difficult to contain. In fact, more than 60% of fatalities are in rural areas - it is our opinion that many of these deaths occur simply because people do not have the fuel or transport to reach the health centers that can cure them (the photo in this post for example shows a woman suffering from cholera being taken in a wheelbarrow to a clinic in Harare).

We are now working on a new and even gloomier scenario and aim to publish our findings by next weekend. WHO's expert prognosis states that more than one hundred thousand people will now be infected. However, this does not take into account compounding factors such as floods, HIV AIDs and a widespread lack of food. Our report will take these additional factors into account and will not make cheerful reading. The situation is spiraling out of control despite the fact that it should be relatively straight forward to contain - if sufficiently funded.

This is an all too common dilemma faced by humanitarian workers - can we really speak about 'scaling down' because there are no funds? Can we really abandon our hard-working colleagues in the Zimbabwean Red Cross? Can we simply turn our backs on the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe because of paltry funds? Can we really do this at a time when we are starting to roll back cholera? Do we retreat now when we have precise information at our fingertips that clearly indicates the situation could edge towards a catastrophe that goes beyond Cholera - that goes even beyond the borders of Zimbabwe? Do we really live in a society that bails out billionaire bankers with tax payers money and turns a blind eye to the humanitarian imperative to prevent more unnecessary deaths in Zimbabwe?

By way of conclusion I should acknowledge the sterling efforts of many Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies around the globe who are demonstrating true solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe during these dreadful times and doing their utmost to rally support and raise awareness. Our report lists all the donors to date. I was particularly delighted to see my own national society, the Irish Red Cross, announce yesterday that it is doubling its funds towards curbing the cholera crisis in Zimbabwe.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Health Workers need better protection

We can never let up in our efforts to convince combattants that targeting medical workers and health facilities is not only a breach of international law but contrary to all accepted customary norms of war throughout all cultures. Unfortunately, we still recieve frequent reports of hospitals being bombed, paramedics being shot and ambulances being mortared.

The neutrality of the Red Cross means that speaking out on such incidences is quiet rare. Why? Well for a start, access to the sick and wounded must be the priority and if public silence is the price to pay, so be it. Behind closed doors issues are raised directly with those who can influence positive change on the ground. I have personally witnessed this in many contexts such as in the Caucasus, Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian Territories and Darfur.

The frustration of course is that you are sometimes also restricted from speaking about 'positive' progress (as it implies that a negative existed in the first place). However, there are exceptions to public denouncements - especially if there is irrefutable evidence that the targetting of civilians or medical workers and facilities is deliberate and part and parcel of military strategy (very difficult to prove).

The Red Cross also operates according to the principle of Independence and this can, in my opinion, mean the 'independence to communicate' no matter how unsavoury the consequences. The reality is that there is often a real humanitarian responsibility to speak out on behalf of the most vulnerable with all the moral authority that the Red Cross voice can muster.

In fact, it is probably being more commonly witnessed today where people affected by conflict or disaster are requesting (desperately) for the "assistance of communication" -- to advocate to the world and "tell them what is happening here". Often it is not wheatflour or tarpaulins that are needed but solidarity and advocacy on behalf of the voiceless.

While outright condemnation is rare, public statements of concern are less so. This is a topic - complex but core - that is only touched upon today but that this blog will tackle on a regular basis in the future.

The embedded 30-second TV spot above contrasts the protection afforded to combatants with the vulnerability of medical staff during an armed conflict. The spot concludes with a battle scene demonstrating how health workers put themselves in harm’s way, unprotected by flak jackets and armoured vehicles. And it reiterates that the safety of health workers must be ensured at all times so that they can do their work – so that they can save lives.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bring out your Dead

Digging a Pauper's grave in Bulawayo (left)

You know a country has reached the bottom when its dead must suffer the indignity of mass burial because funeral costs are out of reach.

Zimbabwe's economic meltdown has prevented families from claiming bodies as funeral costs have become unaffordable.

Unemployment is calculated at 94 percent and more than half the population survives on donor food assistance.

The mortuary crisis has become so acute that on Valentine's Day - 14 February - the Bulawayo Residents Association (BURA), together with churches, businesses, funeral parlours and the Zimbabwe Prisons Service (ZPS), conducted a pauper's burial for 65 people whose bodies had languished in the city's morgues for over six months.

A simple wooden casket is priced at between US$350 and US$400, a sum beyond the reach of nearly all Zimbabweans. Read the full story.

This illustrative story joins a littany of others, just as harrowing. It would have been unimaginable only a few years ago to envisage such a precarious situation for Zimbabwe. Once the breadbasket of the continent it is now fully reliant on food aid, struggling to combat cholera and apparently experiencing an economic self-destruct.

The cholera crisis is a manifestation of a more fundamental humanitarian challenge underscored by food insecurity and the complete collapse of the health system. The President of MSF, Dr. Christoph Fournier, has just visited Zimbabwe and had this to say:

"The cholera outbreak, even if it is still not under control, is just the visible manifestation of this whole crisis," Dr Fournier added.

"Governments and international agencies must recognise the severity of this crisis and ensure that the provision of humanitarian aid remains distinct from political processes.

"Their policies towards Zimbabwe must not come at the expense of the humanitarian imperative to ensure that malnourished children, victims of violence and people with HIV/Aids or other illnesses have unhindered access to the assistance they need to survive." The full report of his visit plus a podcast is available on the BBC website.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Early Warning, Early Action

The Kenyan Red Cross takes preemptive action to stave off hunger in the drought-ridden east of the country.

Kenya is a country known mostly in 'the west' as a tourist haven and as one of Africa's better equipped economies. However, severe drought in the east has put as many as 10 million people at risk of starvation.

As written in an earlier blog such preventative action is not without risks. Donors are more accustomed to 'reacting' to emergency situations rather than trying to address causes before whole communities are decimated by famine.

Through its dynamic CEO, Abbas Gullet, the Kenyan Red Cross is working hard to create awareness and raise the required funds. They should be roundly applauded for addressing humanitarian needs in such a proactive fashion.

The International Red Cross is supporting its member national society on the ground and is scaling up its operations to address the chronic food security crisis in the Horn of Africa today where as many as 20 million people are considered at risk of starvation. Read this on the ground report by Anne Wanjiru, Titus Mung’ou and Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu in Yatta and Kiboko, east Kenya:


Friday, February 13, 2009

Cholera soars while funds dry up

At some point in the past three weeks Zimbabwe passed a grim milestone. On one day in January Zimbabwe registered cholera case number 60,001.

A week before Christmas 60,000 was considered the worst case scenario. Now, humanitarian organizations working in the country fear that the toll could climb to 100,000 or beyond. Whatever the final number, Zimbabwe is now in the grip of the worst cholera outbreak on this continent in 15 years. In six sickening and painful months, Zimbabwe has surpassed Africa’s continent-wide annual average of cases and deaths.

And yet despite the constant media focus and the pledges of solidarity from around the world, efforts made by the humanitarian community to arrest this slide are being undermined because we are rapidly running out of funds.

In a typical case in Kadoma, there is a Red Cross cholera treatment centre. There, a football pitch had been co-opted by tents and aid organizations and is a refuge for 100 people suffering from this awful illness.

A young woman arrived on an oxcart. She was carried by her family and a couple of harried nurses to a registration desk. As her details were recorded, this poor girl lay on a tarpaulin, shivering with exhaustion and dehydration.

As the situation unfolded a man approached a Red Cross worker. He explained that his village had lost 10 people in recent days to cholera. He pleaded to arrange some transportation as, just like the girl, all the cases in his village had to be brought in by cart or wheelbarrow. Ten kilometres, he said, is a long distance with that kind of load in this type of heat.

His request was taken to the nurse in charge. “What vehicles?” she asked. “There are not that many unused trucks or cars, and besides, where would we get the money for the fuel?”

In the centre of the tented stadium one tent was put aside for the most acute cases. A stench of chlorine greeted those who entered. Everything here is scrubbed thoroughly and repeatedly.

To the right there was a woman hooked up to a respirator. “Renal failure,” the nurse whispered. A pre-existing condition exacerbated by cholera. “She should be in Harare,” Sister continued. But again: transport.

The girl outside will be ok. Cholera is not a difficult illness to treat. Some fluids, some tender care and some rest will see her back on her feet in a couple of days. She was lucky because her community had an oxcart, and her village was within a manageable distance. Like pretty much all of the cases in this makeshift hospital, she will recover and return home.

Here, she will have first rate treatment, and access to sanitary toilets and regular food.

But then she will go home and there’s no guarantee that the cholera can be kept at bay. We can picture her village. If it is typical of rural Zimbabwe today it will most likely have no running water, no sanitation, no food. She will be encouraged to practice basic hygiene and to drink from clean water sources. She and her family will be visited by Red Cross volunteers and this message will be reiterated.

But what would you do if your only water source was a muddied river, and if you could only carry what you and your family could drink?

The truth is that Zimbabwe’s economic and infrastructural collapse sit hand-in-hand with this cholera outbreak.

None of this is to say that organizations like the Red Cross don’t have a key role to play. The infrastructure issues must be addressed, but they are longer-term concerns. Right now, our focus is on stopping infections and deaths. Turning the tide of cholera is literally an urgent matter of life and death.

The Red Cross Red Crescent is doing a lot, and the impact is clear. For starters, we are producing millions of litres of clean water and digging sanitary latrines. We are supporting overworked and under resourced clinics with drugs and expertise, and our volunteers are in the remotest villages explaining to people the simple steps they must take to identify and avoid the illness.

And yet, despite the desperate needs, and despite the very real impact that the Red Cross Red Crescent having across the country, our cholera operation is scarily under-funded. Unless this changes we will be forced to revise our plans. And this is simply untenable.

We have already seen one ‘worst case scenario’ overtaken. The people of Zimbabwe – can’t afford another. They have suffered more than enough and desperately need our collective efforts to rescue them from this appalling humanitarian crisis. The resources needed for battling cholera on the frontlines must be provided. The death toll already exceeds three thousand. We cannot let it reach four thousand. That would be one milestone too many, too grim and entirely unnecessary.

Check out the indepth article in today's Gaurdian based very much on our perspective and inputs


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Famine stalks Ethiopia yet again

Here is a compelling report from the field by a Red Cross writer, Alex Wynter. It portrays the enormous challenges facing the people in Negele, southern Oromiya, Ethiopia, as they struggle to feed their families and maintain their livlihoods.

In 'the business' of humanitarian aid, this is categorized as "a slow onset disaster" -- this type of scenario is notoriously difficult to promote in the media and to raise funds for. It seems, sadly, we still live in a world where it takes tv images of emaciated, starving children before we 'react'. To prevent such disasters is logically and financially much more sensible but it is rare.

What is unique also about the current drought in Ethiopia and throughout the rest of the horn of Africa is that it is provoked almost exclusively by external factors such as climate, rising fuel and food prices and the sudden devaluation of the dollar. This is well outlined in an assessment report produced by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies last December.

See more reports from the field by Alex Wynter on


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sudan Slideshow

Here is a collection of photos from my time in Sudan, most of them taken by myself but a few others whipped off the odd hard-drive. Sudan is a fantastic country. Big Country Big Problems. A lot will be written in this blog about this beleaguered country.


Head Down Eyes Open

Welcome to Head Down Eyes Open, a blog from an Irish guy with 20 odd years in journalism and humanitarianism.

The name of the blog is inspired by a quip from a rugged street fighter in the depressed neighborhoods of London in the early eighties. His name was 'non-stop MacNally'. He came from my own hometown of Ballinasloe in County Galway. "Head Down Eyes Open" was his advice to me on how to survive the rougher side of life in London. And on how to avoid arrest on account of being Irish.

This advice has stood by me over the years as I traipsed discreetly, pen and camera in hand, through the conflict zones of Chechnya, Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh, Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia, Israel and Palestine and of course, the troubled Northern Ireland.

This is my first foray into blogging and I want to involve some fellow journeymen such as Dennis McClean and Joe Lowry. They will introduce themselves in good time. I would like this blog to tackle contemporary humanitarian issues with all the honesty and experience that this collection of bloggers can muster. There should also be enough room left over to discuss music, song, sport, politics, travel, culture, more politics and maybe the odd cocktail recipe.

It will have an international perspective from a platform of Irishness. It will strive to keep the Aspidistra Flying!