Monday, March 30, 2009

The Stone age origins of Social Media

These days the wonderful world of Social Media is increasingly taking center stage. And rightly so in my opinion. Social media is the evolution of human communication in motion. We have come from stone age gestures and grunts, to spoken word, through the printing press to broadcast media and the digital world of the internet.

Lets not be blinded by the technologies (which are anyway more and more intuitive and easy to use). Social media represents a moment when we can recapture the fundamentals of communication. That cave art moment when the essence was about engaging with your community, defining identities, capturing the story of our time and reaching out. Social media does all of this and more.

It represents an authentic two-way communication process with all the innovation, excitement and risk that this implies. For humanitarians the writing is on the wall. Take up the tools that social media provides us so we can better advocate; run more successful public health campaigns; twitter vital snippets of information to populations affected by disasters; hold real conversations with communities in need; seek out new audiences and supporters; improve our understanding of the world and its humanitarian challenges (especially as perceived by those actually living with conflict and disaster).

The list is endless and the potential is powerful. And let's not forget, social media has been with us for a mere four years! Facebook has doubled its membership to 200 million in just eight months. Twitter, Flikr, MySpace, Digg and Youtube, to name a few (and blogger of course) are showing staggering growth never seen before. At the top of this post I embed the viral video of the moment which captures some of these questions and marvels at where we are today and at the speed we are traveling. Something to relish I'd wager. I am very interested to hear about your thoughts or experiences of social media in the humanitarian world and any ideas that might be rattling around.


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Waking up to the life-saving power of information

Timely, relevant information can spell the difference between life and death when disasters strike. Survivors need to know where health clinics have been set up or where food is being distributed. They need to know how to trace missing relatives, find shelter and get clean water. But in many emergencies, such information is limited for those who need it most. There is also a significant but narrowing gap in getting vital information, made possible through more accurate early warning forecasting systems, to communities at risk before disasters strike.

When an emergency situation breaks out people are often caught unawares. Typically, affected populations don’t know how to get help. They feel lost and abandoned and aren’t accurately informed of risks and health hazards. Rumours, myths and false information go unchecked, adding to the uncertainty and insecurity. People aren’t empowered to make good decisions and as such have no influence over the aid response. They are often omitted from the life-making decisions that directly affect them.

Important changes are however taking place in how communities affected by disasters are engaging with humanitarian organizations. Aid workers have long realized that people caught up in a crisis are not helpless victims but a potential first line of response and a potent source of local knowledge. The challenge has often been to effectively tap into this potential resource. At the same time, humanitarian organizations are partnering more and more with communities prone to weather-related disasters to put in place effective early warning sytems to minimize impact if calamity strikes. This is happening right now in countries such as Haiti, Mozambique and Vietnam.

Today, through a combination of traditional social mobilization, new media and better forecasting technologies, disaster-prone communities and aid agencies can better share and streamline information in an effort to ensure those who need it most get it first. Increasingly, populations affected by disasters are now empowered as those best-placed to help humanitarian organizations untangle the complexity of an emergency and to identify the most urgent needs in their communities.

In the tsunami affected area of Banda Aceh in Indonesia for instance the Irish Red Cross runs regular radio programmes based on thousands of phone calls, text messages and emails received from the local communitiy. This relatively low-tech service has not only proven to ensure a more relevant and effective response to the humanitarian needs as defined by the community itself but also holds the aid community and local authorities to account. It is a true two-way communication which promotes transparent, accurate information and places all participants on an equal footing. In time, humanitarian organizations will need to be every bit as accountable to those they are supporting and assisting as they are to those who provide funding for aid operations.

The days of viewing people caught up in conflict or disasters as mere “victims” are ending. Communities unfortunate enough to have to endure a humanitarian crisis should not be viewed as passive recipients of aid but people who need to be empowered as the first line of response. They need to take a central role in determining their own recovery; their engagement, through genuine grassroots communication, is the way to achieve this. It seems that aid agencies are finally waking up to the life-saving power of Information and treating it as a service and assistance every bit as valuable as wheat flour or tarpaulins.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Nervously watching the Zambezi Floods

Flooding has cut off food supplies to 4,000 people in northwestern Mozambique, as swelling rivers and a strong tropical storm raise fears of severe weather emergencies.

At this moment marine officials, the Red Cross, the government, health and community volunteers are all prepared to face this storm. It is reported that food aid would be needed in Cuamba, in the northwestern Niassa province, where the Lurio river basin has swollen under heavy rains that have been pounding the southern Africa region for weeks.

Flooding in the upper Zambezi river basin,
first posted here one week ago, has already displaced hundreds of thousands in Angola, Namibia and Zambia. The deluge has jeopardized food supplies in the southern African region and raised the threat of cholera and malaria outbreaks.

As the flood waters travel downstream, officials in Mozambique are nervously watching their own stretch of the Zambezi basin. Last year, heavy rains in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi caused flash flooding in Mozambique that displaced tens of thousands of people and destroyed almost 100,000 hectares of crops.

Emergency officials in Mozambique are also monitoring tropical storm Izilda, which meteorologists say is gaining strength in the Mozambique Channel. Mozambique is no stranger to weather-related disasters. In 2000-2001 about 700 people were killed in one of the country's worst floods when torrential rains hit the southeastern African country. Many lessons have been learned from that tragedy and today Mozambique is better prepared to save lives before disaster strikes.

Meanwhile in Namibia

Rain continues to lash countries along the course of the upper Zambezi River, aggravating already extensive flooding in Angola, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia, where crops and infrastructure have been destroyed. In Namibia at least 90 lives have been lost and 350,000 people affected. Read my colleague, Matt Cochrane's, on the spot account.

Namibia has launched an operation to rescue schoolchildren marooned by floodwaters at a boarding school in the country's northeastern Caprivi Strip.

Rapidly rising water levels in the Zambezi, Chobe, Kwando and Linyati rivers meant more than 19,000 people have had to be evacuated from the Caprivi Strip and relocated to eight camps.

The Zambezi River, which rose to record levels, has begun to subside and rains have eased in Caprivi’s neighbouring Kavango region, where 2,000 people have been relocated to six camps.

The Namibian government has declared a state of emergency and released US$10.9 million for disaster response efforts. The International Red Cross has already issued an appeal and released emergency funds to allow quick and early action.


this report was garnered from IRIN, Alertnet, AFP and IFRC

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Haiti: Haunted by Hurricanes

Last August, when I moved to Geneva I had a baptism of fire as hurricanes began to batter the Caribbean and ferocious floods uprooted more than 2 million people in the province of Bihar in India. These far flung time zones had me disoriented for days as we tried to support our colleagues doing the real work on the ground.

I remember in particular the tragedy that befell Haiti, and especially its northern town of Gonaives, as not one, not two, not three, but four hurricanes battered it in quick succession submerging the town in a square mile of mud upto 12 meters high. The story grabbed the attention of the world's media for weeks and the first pictures of the disaster came out from red cross cameras, helping somehow to raise awareness of the desperate situation being faced by a community under water.

Yesterday, in the IHT, in a great report from journalist Neil MacFarquhar, I felt a tingle of unease as I read about Gonaives today and the fear people feel at the hint of rain. I was amazed to hear that no evacuation plans are in place, no craft available to ferry people to safety and apparently little in the way of preparation or prevention. Have no lessons been learned from last year's tragedy (which was by no means the only one suffered by Haitians due to climate-related disasters)?

As hurricane season is around the corner I hope there is soon a real effort on behalf of the people of Haiti to put in place safety measures before disaster strikes instead of merely running in with relief efforts afterwards. Someone told me that Haiti holds the largest UN presence in the world per head of population. I hope peace-keeping also includes protecting communities from the known disaster risks. I know its the poorest country in the northern hemisphere - this is, I assume, a reason to help and not a reason to be complacent.

The photos in this post were taken for the Red Cross by Victor Lacken, writer, videographer and photographer.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Praying for Rain

The Ethiopian government and its humanitarian partners in the country say nearly 5 million people require emergency food-aid this year, outside the governments own safety net programme. An additional 1.2 million mothers and children under five there will require supplementary feeding. We are now working with the Ethiopian Red Cross Society to finalize plans for the major food-aid operation it hopes to start next month in Oromiya and Somali regions.

Praying for Rain - the story of Ute-Muda Garero

Ute-Muda Garero has 12 children by his two wives, Makayi-Jiro and Abayo-Sorsa. Six boys and six girls. Tidy numbers.

“Are you a Muslim,” asks a visiting Ethiopian expert in animal husbandry.

“No, and not a Christian either. I believe in one god,” says Garero, 38, smiling with the deliberately ironic reference to monotheism.

“Do you pray?” says the expert, intrigued by Garero’s equanimity.

“Yes, and I pray for rain.”

It is would be burdensome enough raising 12 children in Dhuko – one of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society’s three critically drought-affected “peasant associations” hereabouts. The name is a Marxist legacy, meaning just a settled community in a woreda (district).

But adding to his worries is the knowledge that his herd of cattle have deteriorated to the exact mid-point of the official yardstick of animal health : between two and three on a four-point scale (another tidy number), four meaning near death.

Garero is the one of the few herdsmen who have stayed in Dhuko to sit out the dry season, fearful of getting mixed up in the tribal conflict over water and pasture he says bedevils the part of nearby Borena zone where hundreds of other men from the PA have temporarily migrated, seeking better grazing.

Only the women and children and a handful of community leaders and elders are left.

Ute-Muda Garero knows all about cattle-rustling. He’s one of the few pastoralist herdsmen who have stayed behind in Dhuko village, Oromiya, to sit out the dry season, fearful of getting mixed up in a conflict over water and pasture he says bedevils an area where hundreds of other men from the village have temporarily migrated, seeking better grazing. But his animals are suffering for it. They have already deteriorated to the exact mid-point of the official yardstick of animal health: between two and three on a four-point scale, four meaning near death.

“I pray for rain”

“My cattle will be ‘threes’ even if the rains start on time,” he explains, referring to the main seasonal rains due next month. “If the rains fail, they’ll die for sure.”

“What would you do then?”

“There’s not much we can do. We’ll have to depend on relatives. And aid.”

From a lack of resources, the Ethiopian government was recently forced to put Dhuko on half-time in its “safety net” of food-aid and cash handouts, which nevertheless includes some 6 million people across Ethiopia.

The ERCS is hoping to help fill the gap with food-aid distributions now being planned in Addis Ababa and locally.

For two years there has been no proper seasonal rain here – just the occasional torrential downpour that damages homes and crops and ploughs up the barely-passable 60-kilometre track to the nearest town, Hare Kello.

A little way short of Dhuko, an elderly Norwegian missionary and local legend, Jorunn Hamre, 77, apologizes for the small size of her congregation at the Mekane Yesus church, depleted by the same curse that has drastically thinned Dhuko’s population: drought.

“Things are really difficult here,” she says. “Food-aid is very necessary.”

It’s in Dhuko and countless thousands of settlements like it that the disaster in the Horn of Africa is hidden: difficult to see, even standing in the middle of it. But it’s there.

Children who look half their age from malnutrition; unnecessarily high infant-mortality statistics; “resource wars” fought between different tribes who might otherwise live in peace; the gradual erosion of an ancient lifestyle – pastoralism; in some places, like the centre of Ethiopia’s vast Somali region, the potential death of hope.

For the moment, the gods – be they one or many – seem to be against the pastoralists of Dhuko.

this story first appeared on and was written by Alex Wynter reporting from the
Goro Dola, Oromiya region, Ethiopia.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Ancient Killer still on the loose

In 1998, after three years of assignments in the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union, I tested positive for Tuberculosis (TB) during a routine medical. I had picked up my infection in the prisons of Georgia where I had been visiting detainees held in relation to the internal conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Luckily, my infection was latent, and after treatment I was given the all clear.

Others are not so lucky.
They do not have access to proper diagnosis, treatment or care and an incredible 1.7 million people die every year from a preventable age old disease which continues to be a massive modern day killer.

Among those dying from TB each year, 200,000 are also living with HIV. They are suffering what is commonly called “co-infection". Eastern Europe, Central Asia and - more recently - southern Africa are often considered as the most affected areas but the fact is that TB is also on the rise in Latin America and Asia – especially India and China - making it a prevalent global challenge.

It is worth repeating that TB is a disease that is curable if identified on time and when the correct treatment is provided. When no action is taken, because it is a highly contagious disease, everyone infected with TB will contaminate another ten to fifteen other people around them.

These facts clearly show the necessity for more effective prevention. Engaging with communities at risk is one of the most efficient ways to fight the disease but that is too often a rare approach.

Conventional global prevention campaigns do exist. Some of them are excellent such as the one involving the Portuguese football player Luis Figo. They do a lot to remind everyone that TB is still around today.

However, these mainstream campaigns also need to be complemented by action on the ground working together with the most vulnerable, including stigmatized groups because of their origins or because of their socio-economic status. As for HIV, we won’t reduce the number of TB cases as long as entire groups within our society are in the dark about the dangers they face.

It is precisely these marginalized groups that we work with when conducting awareness-raising campaigns. Once we identify community members who are infected with TB, volunteers help them get proper treatment. Even more crucial, they also visit them on a regular basis to make sure that they follow their treatments, they bring them nutritious food - when necessary - as well as psychosocial support. This is all the more important since TB patients can also be stigmatized and discriminated against within their own community. This is well portrayed in the video embedded in this post which documents the fantastic work being carried out by community-based volunteers in South Africa. There are also a number of TB survivors who go on to carry out influential advocacy and bring greater awareness and support to the struggle against TB.

If you woke up tomorrow morning and heard on the morning news that 12 Boeing 747s had crashed causing the death of all passengers on board I do believe you would be horrified and the world would be numb with shock. If you were to wake up up every single day to that same news for one year it would be barely conceivable. That's exactly the number of people dying from TB. We do not see them on the nightly news because they are hidden - hidden by poverty and stigma. At least on the 24th of March, World TB Day, we can take some time to find out more about this ancient modern day killer and see what more can be done to Stop TB.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Floods in a Desert

On 17 March 2009, as Ireland and Montserrat and the rest of the world celebrated Saint Patrick's day, the Namibian government declared a state of emergency in its northern flood-stricken regions. The President, Hifikepunye Pohamba, called on the international community for assistance.

Ninety Two deaths have already been reported and more than 276,000 people have been directly affected. This figure is expected to rise as more information comes to light.

There are real fears that an existing outbreak of cholera (in the Kunene region) could be exacerbated. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation facilities is very limited in the flood areas, and cholera and other such diseases could increase. There are also some warnings of a possible outbreak of malaria.

The floods have also caused extensive destruction to homes, schools, health facilities, agricultural fields, businesses and infrastructure. Wide-spread crop failures are expected, compounding the loss of any food reserves the communities may have had. Farmers are also increasingly worried about outbreaks of disease in their livestock. Many roads have been rendered impassable, and access to health facilities and schools has become very difficult, if not impossible.

The Namibian Red Cross Society has been assisting people who are being relocated to higher ground. This includes registrations, camp management, and provision of available relief materials, health and hygiene promotions and sanitation within the camps.

The Zambezi River Basin, which stretches from Angola to Mozambique, is affected annually by floods, bringing death and disease to those living along the river banks. Namibia, a largely desert-covered country, is not normally subjected to such extreme flooding.

The International Red Cross is appealing for nearly 800,000 Swiss Francs (USD 709,000) in response to severe flooding in Namibia, in the regions on the border with neighbouring Angola. 300,000 Swiss Francs (USD 253,000) has already been released from its Disaster Emergency Relief Fund (DREF) for operations in both Namibia and Angola.

The Emergency Appeal seeks to provide shelter, food, clothing, mosquito nets, clean water and sanitation to relieve the impact of floods for a period of six months. Clean water, sanitation facilities and temporary shelter are the most urgent needs since the majority of the affected people have been displaced from their homes and safe water has been contaminated.

In a real-time example of early warning early action, the Red Cross Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) released CHF 146,695 (USD 124,473, EURO 99,224) when unseasonal rains hit Namibia on the 11th of March, ensuring that the Namibian authorities and its local Red Cross society were ready prepared for the imminent flooding to which they are now responding.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

One man on a bicycle with a whistle can save thousands of lives

The human cost of climate change is now an over-riding priority for many humanitarian organizations. It is not a priority because it is the flavour of the day or a significant issue on government agendas. It is a priority, from our perspective, because in the Red Cross and Red Crescent network we are confronted with the human cost of climate change every day. For us this is not a new or a future challenge.

We have being dealing with climate and weather-related disasters for decades. Working at the grassroots level in disaster-prone communities we have invested heavily in more effective early warning systems, smarter disaster risk reduction and improved resilience of vulnerable populations. We continue to launch emergency response and recovery operations but for us prevention is the key that will unlock the solution to the human cost of climate change.

Prevention, preparedness, risk-reduction and adaptation – these are fundamental if we are to effectively address the human cost of climate change. It is an enormous challenge on a number of fronts.

Firstly, and most urgently, the challenge is enormous due to the growing urgency to support and work with disaster-prone communities so that they are better protected; to save lives and livlihoods before disasters strike is possible and, logically and morally, it is the best approach.

Secondly, from the economic angle there is also a compelling argument for prevention. Investment in prevention safeguards livelihoods and defends development efforts already carried out. According to the World Bank, investing in prevention can save as much as 80% of the cost of the emergency response. These are important elements to consider as the world grapples with a global financial crisis.

Thirdly, as humanitarians, donors and policy makers we are confronted with a serious challenge to convince governments and their constituencies that investing in prevention is the best course of action. It is my belief that the aid community is failing vulnerable people all over the world if we are simply caught up in a cycle of perpetual emergency response.

The story is not about when disasters strike. The story is about what we can collectively and responsibly do before the disasters strike. With the knowledge and experience at our disposal and the massive resources within risk-prone communities themselves, we can effectively save lives and reduce the impact of climate-related disasters by being proactive and by promoting a culture of prevention.

This approach recognises that climate-related disasters are a reality - even an inevitability. It is not inevitable however that communities lose their loved ones, livelihoods and futures because of climate-related disasters. Working together with communities at risk, humanitarian organizations and governments can strengthen their resilience, improve their early warning systems, boost their preparedness measures and, as a bottom line, minimize loss of life.

Early Warning Early Action

This approach, often referred to as Early Warning Early Action is as much a mindset as an operational framework. It states clearly: We can do better if we proactively seek out the risks before they happen.

In Bangladesh in 1970 a Cyclone called Bhola struck with sudden ferocity and 500’000 people lost their lives. The world was in shock, it grieved and it moved on, numbly accepting this “Act of God”. In 1991, Bangladesh again sufferd the devastating impact of a deadly cyclone and 140’000 people lost their lives. Together with our local Red Crescent organization we said, “OK, no more can we blindly accept such large scale loss of life. What can we reasonably do to adapt, to protect coastal communities against the dangers?” It wasn’t straightforward but based on local knowledge and expertise, supported by the international component of our Movement, we build high-rise community cyclone shelters; we trained people to quickly recognize and respond to early warning systems; we installed community telecommunications centres to quickly pass on vital information about weather patterns; we worked with communities to improve evacuation drills.

One man on a bicycle with a megaphone and a whistle can save thousands of lives. My point being, while we must harness the high-tech resources at our disposal we must also appreciate the effective low-tech and community-based solutions which already exist. The last major cyclone to hit Bangladesh claimed approximately 2’000 lives. Loss of life is not something to celebrate but we can reasonably claim that our early warning systems and improved preparedness and risk reduction has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Not to mention the important economic and developmental savings which Bangladesh needs for a better future. There are many more such examples of how investment in risk-reduction has saved lives in countries such as Cuba, Mozambique and Vietnam.

The forecast data from the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, which we established in 2002, indicates annual economic losses up to 20 per cent of the world economy and humanitarian consequences on a much larger scale than the increase in disasters we are currently witnessing.

Inaction is not an option: either we address the rising risks, or we fail to address our humanitarian obligation to care for the most vulnerable people around the world.The main question is not if but how to address the risks of climate change. While some impacts can already be seen, or projected fairly accurately, many others will appear as surprises, or only become apparent once climate change progresses.

Climate change therefore not only raises the risks but also increases the uncertainties. A country may be hit by a once-in-a-century flood this year and by a heat wave or drought the next. And it may face more complex disasters, compounded by poverty, disease or conflict. Addressing the rising risks is not something new – we just need to integrate the notion of changing risks into everything we do, aware that the range of extreme events may be growing. We must enhance our ability to respond and help people to reduce their vulnerability.

Let us remind ourselves that climate change is the result of individual human actions everywhere though, of course, those who have enjoyed the fruits of energy-dense development must acknowledge their greater historic responsibility in this regard. In any case, the disastrous effects of climate change affect all of us – rich or poor – though, as always, it is the poor that pay the greatest price.

The magnitude of this issue is unprecedented and far greater than what the Red Cross Red Crescent alone can achieve. Humanitarian organizations and civil society organizations, together with governments and policy makers must address with urgency and priority the human cost of climate change. Governments and humanitarians alike must recognize and act upon the crucial importance of investing in prevention, preparedness and early warning systems; and above all – we must do what we can to give a voice to those who are most vulnerable to climate-related disasters. If nothing else happens, climate change should encourage all of us to listen to them, support them and work with them for a better, safer future.

Today, a leading think tank, the London-based Overseas Development Institute (ODI) is holding a special high-level panel discussion on the humanitarian implications of Climate Change.

The photograph used in this post is by Assi Dvilanski. I came across it on facebook and asked permission to use it. Turns out Assi is a paramedic with the Magan David Adom (Israel's equivalent to a Red Cross society).