Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Gaza: 1.5 million people trapped in despair

Last March, as the international community grandly pledged an impressive U$4.5 billion dollars for the reconstruction of Gaza, HDEO welcomed the support but - based on a long list of previous and direct experiences - cautioned against optimism. Why so skeptical? Because recent history has shown the detached intransigence of Israeli authorities to allow the transit of vital goods and materials to meet the needs of long-suffering Gazans. Regrettably, we were not wrong.

Gaza: What is essentially a political problem has been converted – through restrictions, blockades and military operations - into a pitiful humanitarian crisis. And of course, it is sadly ironic that while Israel prevents the rebuilding of family homes and businesses in Gaza, it is at the same time at loggerheads with the Obama administration on what it perceives as Israel's 'right' to continue building illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian lands in the West Bank. And build it does; nearly U$260m allocated in Israel's budget for settlement expansion according to a recent report from Peace Now, an Israeli NGO.

The people of Gaza are steadily being deprived of basic necessities and the densely populated coastal strip is being transformed before our eyes from a once bustling mercantile centre into a barricaded sewage-covered refugee camp. Perfect if you want to project Gaza as 'only' a humanitarian crisis which can be remedied with plastic sheeting and dried milk.

Not so very long ago, during the upbeat days of the Oslo peace negotiations, Gaza was being championed as the ideal setting for a free trade haven a la Dubai. How their dreams have been splattered in the rubble. As one prominent Palestinian politician said to me privately: "They promised us Singapore and what did we get? We got Somalia". And he's not wrong. Today, instead of living in apartments with clean running water, families are forced to build mud huts and survive under tents and tarpaulin amidst the stench of untreated waste because essential raw materials are withheld on the dubious pretext that they will be dual-purposed into home made rockets.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has released an excellent report to mark the six months since the Gaza conflict escalated at the end of December last year. It recalls how more than 1’300 lives were lost and tens of thousands injured, many of them severely. In the words of an ICRC surgeon, "we treat very few combatants here, most of the patients are civilians".

Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were damaged beyond repair. This has "ripped the economic heart out of Gaza" which was already shattered by decades of conflict and deprivation.

The heavy restrictions on goods entering Gaza means that prices of scarce commodities in the Strip are extremely high, pushing people further and further into debt and poverty. As one man says in the video embedded in this post: "We are exhausted and drowning in debt".

More than six months since the recent escalation in Gaza and some three months since U$4.5 billion was 'pledged' but not spent, is there real political will to ensure that the people of Gaza are not battered back to stone age conditions, living in a sewage-filled environment, without adequate shelter, health care or education (the list is long)?

Urgent measures called upon in the report include easing imports of medical equipment, allowing the entry of building materials such as cement and steel, lifting restrictions on exports from Gaza, reopening terminals to improve the flow of people and goods into and out of the territory, allowing farmers access to their land in the buffer zone, and restoring safe access to deeper waters for fishermen.

Antoine Grand, a colleague at the ICRC who runs the Gaza operation, puts it best: "Israel has the right to protect its population against attacks, but does that mean that 1.5 million people in Gaza do not have the right to live a normal life?"

And this just in: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8127145.stm

And this: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8127144.stm


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Israeli blockade thwarts efforts to rebuild war-shattered Gaza

"There's no future in Gaza." Aid workers say that's the view being voiced throughout the coastal enclave which is struggling to recover after an Israeli offensive early this year flattened thousands of houses and damaged dozens of schools and hospitals.

Six months after the campaign, many families are still living in tents or homes with broken windows and smashed walls. Donkey carts are being used to clear away rubble. Thousands of people have no running water and there are frequent power cuts.

Aid groups say the suffering is made worse by Israel's two-year blockade of Gaza, which continues to frustrate reconstruction efforts and strangle the economy, forcing four out of five Gazans to rely on foreign aid.

"Gaza will remain in a state of abject destitution unless the blockade is lifted," said Christopher Gunness, spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Antoine Grand, head of the Gaza office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said a survey the ICRC carried out last year revealed that more and more people were living in poverty and becoming dependent on aid.

"That was before the war - it's even worse now," Grand said.

"People have been traumatised by the war, they are very tired and depressed - and that's probably what will have the longest impact," he added.


Israel has long restricted entry of goods into Gaza, and tightened its blockade in 2007 after Islamist group Hamas took control of the sliver of territory - home to 1.5 million Palestinians - from the rival Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Late last December, Israeli forces bombed and then invaded Gaza to rout out militants firing rockets into Israel in an operation that devastated its already battered infrastructure.

Since then, Israel has barred imports of building materials, including steel, cement and pipes, fearing that Hamas could use them to manufacture weapons.

Donor countries pledged $4 billion in March to help the Palestinian economy and rebuild the Gaza Strip, but aid workers say the money cannot be spent if border crossings stay closed. And until the border is open to goods and trade, Gaza's people will have little chance of rebuilding their homes and their lives.

"The situation is obviously more dire than before the Israeli offensive. The amount of aid coming through is not acceptable," said Elliott Woods, a researcher and analyst for CARE International who is based in Gaza.

"The one thing we are completely unable to get in, as the international community, are materials for construction. It's so desperate that people are trying to build houses with mud bricks."


Aid workers say the amount of supplies allowed into Gaza is a quarter of the flow before the blockade was tightened. Some food and vital medicine are filtering through, but clothes, shoes, toys and school books are frequently prohibited.

Seedlings and calves are not allowed through which means a healthy, balanced diet is beyond the reach of most Gazans.

Medicine, along with other goods, is also being smuggled through the tunnels that run under the border between Gaza and Egypt, but the drugs are often very expensive, out of date or of poor quality.

Aid workers say hospital staff must wait up to three months before being able to replace or get spare parts for medical equipment such as X-ray and dialysis machines.

The situation has prompted more than 40 international and U.N. aid agencies to call for "free and uninhibited access" for all humanitarian assistance, as well as a return to normalised trade as a way of combating high levels of poverty and joblessness.

"The population should not have to collectively pay the price for the conflict," said ICRC's Grand.

Unemployment in Gaza is close to 50 percent. Aid workers say the blockade means university graduates have no outlets for their skills, and Palestinian labourers who used to work in Israel cannot move freely. Doctors are unable to cross the border to sharpen their expertise.

Israel's government has tied the lifting of the blockade to the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by militants three years ago. During his captivity, no Israeli or international groups have been allowed to visit Shalit, and he has been kept incommunicado except for a few letters and a tape-recorded message.

But many in Gaza say the kidnapping does not justify the blockade - which they call collective punishment - and fear the Israeli strategy will ultimately play into the hands of militants.

"People are beginning to realise that strangulation of the economy by the blockade can only strengthen Hamas," one aid worker said.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Gilad in Gaza still

Three years ago yesterday, to the day, I arrived on the balmy shores of Tel Aviv to begin a turbulent two-year assignment. On my journey from the airport I remember being gob-smacked by the Miami-style shoreline of Tel Aviv, the stunning women in high heels and bikinis, the party all-night-long atmosphere, the Mojito fountains and cold beer washing away the humidity of that World Cup summer.

I was accommodated in a small family run hotel right next to Tel Aviv’s best Irish pub, Molly Blooms (who also happens to be one of my favourite fictional characters). That night I wasted no time in getting to know my new environment and parked myself at Molly’s counter to watch Argentina beat Mexico two one after extra time and got to know some people with whom I have remained friends to this day.

The following morning, 25th of June, a groggy Sunday (for Sunday is a work day in this part of the world), I arrived in good time to begin my orientation when the news of an event on the Israeli-Gaza border near Kerem Shalom came filtering in. We soon learned that a young Israeli corporal, only 19 at the time, called Gilad Shalit, had been taken hostage by Palestinian militants after a daring ambush on an Israeli border patrol. It later emerged that the Palestinians had tunnelled their way under the Israeli position, exiting on the other side and ambushing the unwitting soldiers from the rear as they peered towards Gaza.

This was a rare event indeed in these trouble lands, not least because it also involved high-level planning and coordination between an array of Palestinian factions (Hamas eventually took control of the Strip and responsibility for Gilad’s detention). The International Red Cross, with whom I worked, was quickly involved in trying to negotiate access, to ensure that his dignity was being respected in accordance with international law, to assess his health and to convey messages from and to his devastated family.

I personally liaised with Gilad’s family on many occasions and remember my first visit a week or so afterwards, to their home in the beautiful northern part of Israel along the border with Lebanon. They were an extremely courteous, welcoming and dignified family who were genuinely interested in hearing from me the situation faced by Palestinians on a day to day basis inside Gaza. There was no hatred, no bitterness, just pure loss and shock. Over the course of two years we met frequently but the Red Cross could do little to convince Hamas to allow us visit or even to pass some ‘sign of life’ to Gilad’s suffering family.

This is a cruel game in the Middle East (more than most parts of the world to my knowledge) where prisoners are used as bargaining chips with little regard for the rights of families to know the fate of their missing loved ones. I experienced the same harrowing scenes with the parents of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev who were captured by Hezbollah along the Lebanon border, on July 12, 2006, (not far from where Gilad’s parents live as it happens) only weeks after Gilad’s abduction.

Hezbollah played the same game – giving false hope for two years to the families of Eldad and Ehud. A terrible 34 day war was sparked by this abduction which resulted in little more than the needless killing of over one thousand Lebanese civilians and 43 Israelis. On July 16, 2008, their bodies were returned to Israel via the Red Cross, in an Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner swap. An Israeli army examination of the bodies determined that the two reservists were probably killed during the initial attack that led to their abduction. So once more, along the scenic high coastal cliffs that separate Israel from Lebanon, Israeli corpses and body parts were traded for ‘live’ or fallen Lebanese. In the cruel reality of the Israeli-Arab conflict one can at least determine that Ehud and Eldad’s family have closure; they now know that fate of their sons, awful though that may be.

This is not the case for Gilad’s family. They must continue to struggle without knowing whether their son and brother is still alive. If he is, what is the condition of his health? How has he fared psychologically, living – most probably – deep underground in Gaza's darkness without the most basic of foods or comforts? Not knowing whether he’ll be traded or killed from one minute to the next.

Gilad’s abduction also kicked off a futile, violent conflict, coded Summer Rains, which left about 250 Palestinians dead. This military operation was quickly followed by two others: Autumn Cloud and Warm Winter (the Israelis can be quiet poetic when it comes to naming their military ops). And, most recently, almost six months ago, the terrible escalation in December 27th 2006, that saw more than one thousand Palestinians die (and was code named Operation Cast Lead, in case of interest).

It is assumed that Gilad survived all these onslaughts which failed to release him or even determine his whereabouts. And certainly failed to pressure Hamas at the negotiation table (if in fact there really is such a table). I remember speaking to a Palestinian friend of mine about Gilad in Gaza shortly after operation Summer Rain and asked him how most people felt on the streets. “We are jubilant” he said. “Finally we have something the Israelis want”. That ‘something’ of course is a very young guy with a loving family who is also compelled by his country to do his military service.

I know there are more than 10’000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, rightly or wrongly - and I visited many of them personally. But all of them are registered and their whereabouts are known to the Red Cross and to their families. Their families and Red Cross officials also have the right to visit and this right is exercised on a monthly basis. Although, in the tit-for-tat pressure politics of the region, Gazan families are being denied visits to their relatives in Israeli jails.

But that’s not a debate I want to enter now – now I am thinking about Noam and Aviva Shalit and their young family in the beautiful hills of north Israel and how three years later they still wait for their young son to return home. It is a real tragedy that has befallen this pivotal region when cynical blackmail becomes commonplace with attempts to justify. After all, two wrongs do not make a right still underscores the international legal norms against reciprocity in the rules of war.

My thoughts wander back to those early days in Israel-Palestine and how I was so quickly jolted out of my Miami-style World Cup summer reverie. I never did get back to the beach much and I never saw much more of the World Cup thanks to operation Summer Rain, the war in Lebanon and all the rest of the turmoil that so easily follows week on week in this region. "Full gas in neutral" an Arab-Israeli friend called it - lots of noise and smoke but going nowhere.

I leave the last word to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch: "Hamas authorities have no excuse for cutting off Shalit from his family and the outside world for three years. Punishing Shalit for grievances against Israel is unjust and unlawful."


Moving Mountains: Unique World Youth Gathering in Solferino Italy

Right now, thousands are gathering in the fields around Solferino, northern Italy (birthplace of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement) to commemorate 150 years of the Red Cross. This is a remarkable event in many ways - youth representatives from some 150 countries will be present and will spend the next days working on a declaration to bring about positive change and to identify, from their perspective, what are the real contemporary humanitarian challenges that need to be addressed. Importantly, from a media guy's point of view, this event will also be a rare opportunity to listen and learn from a global representation of the younger generation on how we, as humanitarian organizations, can better engage with and more effectively communicate to our emerging activists, journalists, leaders and decision makers. There is also a special focus on harnessing new media technologies in a genuine effort to reach out and make that conversation with youth. Here below, to give you a flavour of the event, the first video diary, fresh from 'the field', produced by and for our Youth on the Move as part of our global Our World. Your Move. campaign.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Moving Moolah, Somali style

Anyone out there guess the fastest, surest and cheapest way of transferring money these days? Western Union you say? Wrong. It's Hawala, and its likely to be for some time to come.

You haven't heard of it because you've never been in a foreign city and received a desperate call from the folks back home who need cash fast to buy an air ticket out, bury a body, pay for a wedding, repair a bombed house, or any one of the myriad emergencies that can strike your average Somali family.

This is how it works. You bring your money to a Hawala point or contact. He then contacts, either by phone or e-mail, an agent in the other location. The first agent confirms that money has been received for transfer, the second confirms that he has enough cash on hand to complete the transfer. If this is the case, a password is shared among the originator, the recipient and the two agents. The originator passes the password along to the recipient who then provides the second agent with the password to receive the money. The cash debt is settled later between the two money transfer agents, usually by using traditional banks to transfer funds to a central bank account, in a third country in the case of Somalia.

The fee is about three to five per cent, and the money is normally in the hands of the intended recipient within 24 hours. Incredible when you think of it, that some sophisticated systems can survive 20 years of bloody conflict, a tattered, battered, shattered infrastructure and the absence of any real rule of law. Money can fly over borders in seconds, evading the grubby fingers of customs officers or crooked postal workers. How? Because it works on honour, a word not normally associated with the banking system that we know and tolerate.

There's some dispute over the provenance of the word Hawala. The original Arabic means to change or transform, and when the word passed into Hindi it took on the meaning of "trust". And I remember buying a board game in Abidjan called "Awalé" which I was told meant "to share" in one of the local languages.)

Hawala exists in many parts of the world but is probably most famous - and successful - in Somalia where the World Bank (how sweetly that spoonerises!) even coined a name for it. Don't get excited, the name was invented by bankers after all, the prosaic "Somali Remittance Organisation".

Back in the days of BC (Before Children) Head Down Eyes Opener in Chief and myself broke bread together on a regular basis in Geneva, that bastion of world bankers. On one of those fine occasions we got a lesson in the Somali Remittance Organisation form a wily old Somali, with the standard issue impish grin and straggly beard so frequent back in Hamar.

Our friend, let's call him Hassan, even gave us a real time illustration of how it worked - cash was transferred in front of our eyes from the counter of an Irish bar to the fragrant African night, within an hour. It was a little piece of sorcery Hassan weaved for us. You couldn't help but imagine a knock on the door somewhere in downtown Mogadishu, hushed voices, a torch flitting over a face, a child crying out, a crackle of nearby gunfire, a handshake, and the relieved sigh from the woman of the house at the soft thud of notes hitting the table.

Sadly, that picture is being seen less and less in these straightened times. Remittances from overseas are 25 per cent down in the first quarter of 2009. This is seriously bad news for a country where the one million Somalis in the diaspora basically keep the country's economy - such as it is - afloat with remittances of up to US$1 billion. These funds - "money from America without writin for it" as we used to be known in Ireland, have kept a third of the population alive.

Some 3.4 million people are dependent on food aid in Somalia, where violence is on the up and where the worst drought in ten years is causing concern. Another 120,000 people fled the capital in May and the UN is warning of an emerging catastrophe. Mark Bowden, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the country said: "this is a critical year for Somalia because of the potentially collapsing economy due to the drought," he said. "There is a real danger that Somalia can become more dependent on humanitarian assistance than ever before".

The UN is looking for almost a billion bucks for its operations in Somalia this year (ironic that it's almost the same sum that the diaspora has been sending home) but has only received one third of that appeal to date. (Some would say that even that response is a miracle, given the complexities of working in Somalia.)

I penned a few lines on leaving Somalia in June 1993 after the most intense six months of my life. They're still rattling round my skull - excuse the ultimate introspection of quoting myself:

Sometimes I see a star bleached white on blue

like bones in the ocean

and I hear your voice Mohammad Farah:

"Defend your freedom, your honour"

Sometimes I catch myself staring at a child with a baby in her arms

An old man atop a termite hill watching the tanks roll by

Blood and shit on main street

Nights of sweat and anguish as together we tore our hearts out

Was any of it worth it?

Whose hearts, souls, minds, bodies did any of us save?


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Civilians suffer most in War

Today, the International Committee of the Red Cross, released ground-breaking research on the impact of armed conflict as expressed by the civilians whose lives it affects. No prizes for guessing the conclusions of the report - civilians bear the brunt of war. A far cry from the Battle of Solferino, 150 years ago, which kicked off the Red Cross movement, when one civilian reportedly died among 44'000 military casualities. The data collected from 4000 interviewees across eight countries makes interesting reading and here, HDEO provides a short preview of the 90 page report.

This research focused on some of the most troubled places in the world which are either experiencing situations of armed conflict or armed violence or suffering their aftermath: Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia and the Philippines.

This research was undertaken in countries that are currently experiencing or have experienced armed conflict or other situations of armed violence. The aim was to develop a better understanding of people’s needs and expectations, to gather views and opinions, and to give a voice to those who have been adversely affected by armed conflict and other situations of violence.

This research has been commissioned within the framework of the Our world. Your move. campaign. Launched in 2009, the campaign's goal is to draw public attention to the vulnerability and ongoing suffering of people around the world. The intention is to emphasise the importance of humanitarian action and to convince individuals everywhere that they have the ability to make a difference and reduce suffering.

2009 is an important year for the International Red Cross as it celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Solferino, which gave birth to the worldwide movement of Red Cross and Red Crescent that we know today.

In 1999, when I was moving as an ICRC delegate from an assignment in the Balkans to Afghanistan, we undertook a similar survey entitled People on War, which now serves as a good basis for comparison of trends over the last 10 years.

Suffering in armed conflict is extremely widespread

Almost half (44%) across the eight countries surveyed have personal experience of armed conflict – but even this does not fully reflect the impact of such events on their lives. The consequences of armed conflict are felt beyond those who are immediately affected.

In total, around two-thirds of persons (66%) have been affected in some way – either personally or due to these wider consequences – and this includes almost everyone in Haiti (98%), Afghanistan (96%), Lebanon (96%) and Liberia (96%).

Displacement, the separation of families, and economic hardship are day-to-day realities for many

Of all the people who have experience of armed conflict, 56% have been displaced. In certain contexts, this number is higher such as in Afghanistan, where 76% have been displaced, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) 58%, in Lebanon 61% and in Liberia, almost nine in ten (90%) of those interviewed responded that they had to leave their home.

Across the eight countries in this study, these figures equate to several millions of people having been displaced. Almost half of (47%) respondents who have experience of armed conflict say they have lost contact with a close relative. It is 86% in Liberia, 61% in Afghanistan, 51% in Lebanon, 47% in the DRC, and over one in three (37%) in Haiti.

Worse still, many people (28%) say that close family members have been killed by the fighting, including 69% in Liberia, a quarter of those in Lebanon (26%) and the DRC (25%) - and 45% in Afghanistan. People also face a range of dangers to their health, liberty, self-respect and state-of-mind. On average across the eight countries:

  • 18% have been wounded by the fighting;
  • 19% have known someone to fall victim to sexual violence, including 44% in Haiti and
  • 28% in the DRC;
  • 17% have been tortured, including 43% in Afghanistan;
  • 10% have been imprisoned and 10% kidnapped / taken hostage;
  • 32% have been ‘humiliated’, including 51% in Haiti;
  • 23% have been ‘psychologically hurt’.

As well as displacement, many have suffered serious damage to their property, or seen their homes looted. Lack of access to basic necessities and to healthcare is yet another widespread problem, particularly in Afghanistan and Haiti, where most people have suffered a lack of both.

Last but not least, there is an enormous economic impact for people. Many have lost their means of income due to armed conflict including over half in Afghanistan (60%) and Lebanon (51%) and two fifths in Haiti (40%).

People have many fears resulting from the traumatic events around them

Faced with so many threats, what do people fear the most in armed conflicts? Three top issues emerge:

  • Losing a loved one, mentioned by an average of 38% of those surveyed;
  • Economic hardship (31%); and
  • Displacement / becoming a refugee (24%).
  • Other common fears include physical injury (15%), sexual violence (13%), and living with day-to-day uncertainty (25%).

Beyond this, there are notable fears in individual countries:

  • Losing one’s house / belongings in Liberia (35%);
  • Limited access to basic necessities in the DRC (22%);
  • Being denied an education in Afghanistan (21%);
  • Imprisonment in Afghanistan (15%).

A comparison was made between people's fears and actual experiences. In many cases they are similar. Sometimes, people’s fears and experiences match. For example, displacement and economic hardship are a fear and a reality across the eight countries. There are also specific examples such as in the DRC, experience and fear of sexual violence are both very high, at (28%) and (36%) respectively. In other cases, fear and experience do not match. For example, across the eight countries the fear of being deprived access to basic necessities / healthcare is far less prevalent than the reality based on respondents’ feedback. Understandably, people more often fear the death of a family member than they do separation from them – but in reality, the latter is more likely.

Above all, people caught up in armed conflict need basic provisions and protection

  • For basic needs, people primarily cite:
  • Food, cited by 66% across the eight countries and by 90% in Liberia;
  • Security/Protection, 48% overall and 66% in Haiti;
  • Medical treatment/healthcare, 43% overall and 48% in Afghanistan;
  • Shelter, 40% overall and 58% in Liberia.

There are other needs as well. People say that families must be kept together (18%), and that respect/dignity must be maintained (14%). Psychological support is mentioned by 12% overall. In individual countries, other factors also emerge. Economic help is reported as a particular need in Colombia (35%), and those surveyed in Georgia are especially focused on a resolution to the conflict (23%).

However, people face a number of barriers to receiving help

For people in need, receiving help is not always straightforward. Some 59%of respondents across all countries surveyed cite corruption as an obstacle to receiving help. This figure includes 85% in the Philippines, 82% in Colombia, 81% of persons in Liberia, 75% in Haiti, and just over half of those in Afghanistan and in the DRC. People also face restrictions due to social status/discrimination (37%) and black markets (33%). Other factors include inaccessible locations (39%), or a basic lack of knowledge that help is available. This latter factor is most cited in Haiti (50%), Colombia (41%), the DRC and the Philippines (37% each).

Some people also fear that accepting help may have repercussions for them, such as rejection by the community (13%) or the perception that they are aligned with the ‘wrong side’ (20%). However, aid is rarely refused because it is not needed or not wanted; fewer than 10% in most countries reported this.

Wide support for direct action by ‘the international community’

People are clear about what direct involvement they think that the international community should take. In particular, they would like the international community to:

  • Provide peacekeepers, cited by 42% across the eight countries;
  • Give emergency aid (42%);
  • Intervene militarily to stop the conflict (29%).

People also want peace talks/negotiations (34%), trials of leaders accused of war crimes (25%), financial support for humanitarian organisations (25%) and awareness raised of civilians’ plight (17%). These actions are supported in all countries. In Liberia, most people want peacekeepers (65%), and in the Philippines and Afghanistan, half call for emergency aid (52% in each). Military intervention is most widely supported in Liberia (37%), the DRC (36%) and Afghanistan (34%).

However, people generally do not want economic sanctions; just 10% of those surveyed endorse the use of economic sanctions. This perhaps reflects people’s fears of the financial impact both on their own families and on their countries’ economies. Nor do people want the international community to rebuild national infrastructure.

How can those living outside armed conflict zones (i.e. citizens in other countries) best help?

Respondents in all eight countries emphasise:

Donations of goods and money (45%). Those in Lebanon, Liberia and Georgia

particularly want to see donations of money; Support for organisations that help those affected by armed conflict/violence (48%); Volunteering cited by 33% on average, and by 47% in the Philippines and 43% in Liberia.

Some 39% of those surveyed support the idea of applying political pressure on legislators, including at least half of those in Colombia, Afghanistan and the DRC. Journalists and the news media, were also cited, and many people see them as having some role to play. This is particularly evident in the Philippines (42%), Haiti (32%) and Afghanistan (22%).

To download the full survey results, access footage, press releases, expert analysis and more, visit the landing page here.


Sunday, June 21, 2009

India's Quiet War

Maoist insurgents now control one quarter of Indian territory

India - land of staggering beauty, diversity, economic growth, technological innovation, Bollywood, yoga, Ganesh and ..... Maoist revolutionaries. Maybe not much is known or written about this latter aspect of Indian society but it is a story worth telling and following.

This weekend elite Indian paramilitary units, known as CoBRA, were dispatched to Lalgarh to quell a spreading Maoist insurgency in the state of Bengal in eastern India.

The Maoist insurgents are known as Naxalites, named after the small west Bengali village of Naxalbari which was the setting for a violent communist uprising in 1967. They have a major stronghold in Lalgarh, less than 100 miles from the sprawling Indian metropolis of Calcutta. Shockwaves are now rippling through the political extablishment as news comes out that that the army's special forces have failed in thier mission to oust the Naxalites.

A combination of rebel fighting, sabotage and civilian demonstrations forced the CoBRA to turn back and regroup some 30kms outside Lalgarh. “Naxalism” now affects some 180 of India's 630 districts—a “red corridor” down a swathe of central India from the border with Nepal in the north to Karnataka and Kerala in the south and covering more than a quarter of India's land mass (see map at end of post).

For Indian government officials it is no longer possible to ignore that Naxalite cadres have cut deep into India over the last forty years or so and are now beginning to hold sway in areas dominated by deeply marginalized, landless and impoverished communities. Naxalites claim to fight a "people's war" and advocate for Maoist staples such as equal distribution of land, abolishment of abject poverty, education for all and ridding local government of corruption. Given that India is home to one third of the world's poor, the Naxalities have quiet a potential constituency.

More civilian deaths than even Kashmir

According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights in New Delhi the Maoist violence between 2004 and 2008 claimed 1'965 civilian lives; compared to 1'195 in the northern wartorn region of Kashmir during the same period.

The rising toll of casualites and the growing geographic spread spurred Indian PM, Manmohan Singh, to label the Naxalities as "India's biggest internal security challenge ever". In the same breath Singh shocked many by confirming that the insurgents now control approximately one quarter of Indian territory where government administators are absent or banished or both.

Last week, M.L. Kumawat, special secretary for Internal Security, gave an interview in which he reported that Maoist rebels in India are rapidly expanding their insurgency and could move from remote rural areas to cities. The rebels are estimated to have 22,000 armed fighters.

Equipped with automatic weapons, shoulder rocket launchers, mines and explosives, the Maoists last year carried out at least 1,000 attacks, but most of these were in remote jungles and villages. The Naxalites also control some of India's mineral-rich areas and operate in large sweeps of the eastern, central and southern countryside.

At the time of writing the Indian army and its special forces are camped in west Bengal reviewing tactics and drawing up new assault plans. The effectiveness of the military option to uproot the Naxalites and address the cause of their grievances is questionable of course, but neither can real development take hold if government officials have no access to Maoist areas of control. Meanwhile, yet another 'quiet' conflict simmers in India. Dialogue anyone?


Friday, June 19, 2009

Developing countries paying an enormous price for climate-related disasters

I am just back from NYC where we launched this year's edition of the World Disasters Report to major donors, international media, humanitarian forums and, importantly, member states of the United Nations, including the wonderfully named UN office for the least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing states - or OHRLLS for short.

This last grouping is an extremely important constituency for the Red Cross not least because these states represent the vast majority of people 'on the receiving end' of climate change, which was a central theme of our report.

Called "Early Warning, Early Action", the report advocates for improving early warning systems, taking action in advance of disasters and especially, working closely with communities at risk to improve our knowledge about the humanitarian impact of climate change while sharing forecasting data in a way that can be understood and used to alleviate or avoid disasters.

It is an accepted fact these days that while the 'developed world' has created the circumstances that have led to climate change it is the 'developing world' that bears the cost, particularily in economic and humanitarian terms.

Our report shows how this cost has become truly disproportionate and alarm bells are now ringing to take responsibility and redress the balance. Here is a sample of some of the outcomes of the research:
  • 213 million people were affected by 329 natural (and 259 technological) disasters at a global cost of U$D181 billion.
  • Developing countries are by far the most affected bearing the brunt of 76% of all disasters.
  • 99% of people affected by disasters (through death, displacement, loss of livlihoods or assets for example) are from the developing world
  • 65% of economic losses occur in developing countries (this shows that economic losses are somewhat more equally distributed, especially compared to human costs).
  • 1% of economic losses are insured in developing countries (demonstrating why the Red Cross is often called the insurance company for the uninsured).
  • People living in developing countries have a 44 times higher chance of being killed by disasters than their counterparts in the developed world.
  • In the 1990's there were approximately 200 weather-related disasters per year; between 1999 and 2008 this had risen steeply to an average of 350.
These figures (and there are many more pages of similar stats) show that there is a moral imperative and responsibility to invest in developing countries' efforts to reduce the risks of disasters. Not only will this protect lives and livelihoods but it will safegaurd development gains for future generations.

Note about the picture above: In Haiti, church bells are rung to sound the alarm when storms and hurricanes approach. This is a good example of the types of effective early warning practices which the report advocates for.

Note about "Developing Countries" - definition of developing countries is a combination of medium and least developed countries in accordance with the UNDP's human development index.