Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Albinos: Life under Police Protection in Burundi

Last June, Head Down Eyes Open posted two reports on the plight of Albinos in Burundi and Tanzania; one which dealt with Albinos being hunted for body parts and another which described life in an albino sanctuary in Tanzania. 

Since that time there has been widespread interest in the issue and even offers of financial aid which we have diverted to the Tanzanian Red Cross. 

Alex Wynter, who wrote the original posts, has now returned  to the region where he is putting together a comprehensive advocacy paper and video reportage on this disturbing story (which is planned for release in mid-November - watch this space).

Welcome to Baby Napolean

Napoleon Ahishakiye, a healthy boy, was born on Thursday 15 October 2009 – as far as anyone knows the first albino birth in one of the shelters still scattered around the eastern Burundian province of Ruyigi, near the border with Tanzania.

After the occult-based killings began here in August last year, the Ruyigi local authorities had to resettle 60 albinos in secure locations the police could guard.

And there at least 20 remain, including Napoleon’s albino mother, Emelyne Banteyineza, 18, who sits in the shade next to her grandmother, Candide Ntawenganyira, who is black and estimates her age at “about 70”.

Emelyne has seven siblings, including one other albino. Candide, whose own parents were black, says she puzzled for a while about the sudden emergence of albinism in the family, then decided “it’s God’s will” and dismissed the issue.

Candide, whose Kirundi name translates as “I have no one to take my worries to”, is clearly too delighted with her new great-grandson to think much about the shadowy albino-hunters – working for big-money buyers in Tanzania, most Burundians believe – who have killed 12 people in Burundi and caused the displacement of many others in several provinces.

For the moment, at least, in Burundi they seem to have melted away. The last killing of a Burundian albino was on 14 March, according to Kazungu Kassim, the director of Albinos Sans Frontières Burundi, and himself an albino. The picture shows Napoleon Ahishakiye, an albino baby born on Thursday 15 October 2009 and as far as anyone knows the first albino birth in a shelter, with his 18-year-old albino mother, Emelyne Banteyineza. (Photo: Alex Wynter)

Humanitarian response

But conditions in the stifling shelters are dreadful: children sleep on foam blocks on bare concrete; they are filthy and often hungry; and, lacking proper protective clothes, many are also badly sunburnt.

The Burundi Red Cross (BRC) was instrumental in coordinating the spontaneous humanitarian response to the albino crisis last year, which included local NGOs, UN-agency staff, churches and schools.

The BRC collected food, clothes and – as in the Kigoma region of Tanzania – cash that volunteers and others had donated from their own pockets.

At Emelyne’s shelter – a derelict building most recently used as a barracks during the war – BRC volunteers continue to manage vegetable plots on behalf of the albinos; they’re now productive enough to provide a small cash-surplus.

But it isn’t enough. And in any case the long-term goal is for albinos to be reintegrated into their communities.

“We’re forming a donor partnership with the World Lutheran Federation,” says Jean-Pierre Sinzumunsi, BRC regional coordinator for Ruyigi and Cankuzo provinces.

“We want to help our volunteers better understand the problems of albinism and to promote the integration and protection of albinos.

“We also aim to sensitize the local authorities, the police, the military, priests, local NGOs and village elders.”


In Burundi to an even greater extent than Tanzania, albinos are an unknown quantity. The lack of proper data is almost total: “We know so little,” says Kassim.

There are believed to be at least 1,000 albinos in Burundi and they suffer varying degrees of marginalization. With a mock cruelty not uncharacteristic of the very young, schoolchildren have been heard calling albino classmates marchandise or iboro in Kirundi, according to Sinzumunsi – a reference to the trade in their body parts for use as occult talismans.

But it is not their neighbours who pose the mortal danger. Quite the reverse.

The suspected albino-hunter who rode his bike straight at Marie Niyukuri’s eight-year-old albino son, Ephreim, last year was lucky: he was saved by the police from being lynched on the spot by her vigilant neighbours, who were jumpy since a small albino boy had been snatched and killed in the next colline (hill or village administrative-unit).

It seems the man had attempted to fake a road accident and make off with Ephreim’s body, but the boy was pulled away by his black friends.

In at least one other incident recorded by the BRC, police did not arrive in time to rescue an albino hunter from being lynched by his victim’s friends and neighbours.

Front row

Marie’s confidence seems, if anything, to have grown since last August. She, her husband Protais, Ephreim’s 14 year-old albino sister, Faustine, and eight black siblings live next to their plots on a hillside near Ruyigi town.

The family took refugee in a shelter in town with other albinos, but the fact that “people round here are on the alert now,” as Marie explains, is a large part of the reason why they returned home.

The children walk the three kilometres every day to school, unescorted, but Marie’s other concerns for her highly vulnerable son quickly reasserted themselves once the immediate threat to his life seemed to pass. “He’s struggling,” she says.

“He had to repeat his first year three times. While we were in the shelter and he was at school in town the teachers put him in the front row so he could see, but not here.” (This is the easily rectified problem facing so many albino schoolchildren.)

But perhaps most seriously, neither Ephreim nor Faustine, who speaks in a whisper with her head bowed, has had any medical attention for the melanomas that liberally speckle their faces and arms.

Neither child possesses a potentially life-saving wide-brimmed hat.

“We got married very young,” says Marie. “When I started having albino babies [another albino child, the first of the three, died in infancy] I was shocked and I looked for an explanation, but I gave up and just accepted them and treated them the same.”

Armed hunters

Twenty-seven-year-old Jeremie Ndayiragije’s story is very different – but thankfully far less typical.

The married albino father-of-two had just returned from a wedding reception with his albino brother Daniel when they heard noises outside. Daniel went to investigate and found himself confronting a group of armed albino-hunters.

“Daniel fought and stopped one of them,” says Jeremie, “but he had no chance – they shot him, cut off his arms and legs and left his torso.”

The awful twist in the brothers’ story is that it was a third, non-albino brother, who had betrayed them to the hunters in exchange for 300,000 Burundian francs (about US$ 250).

A number of men arrested in connection with the attack are now in jail.

Jeremie is in hiding.

/PC (note: blogger acting up - unable to post more than one photo - see more on

This story was originally written for IFRC.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ethics - not Evidence - can achieve real Climate Justice

The climate change debate gathers pace as the crucial negotiation horizon of Copenhagen lies only 50 days away. HDEO believes there is too much distraction and distortion endlessly debating whether or not this disaster, that drought, or the next typhoon is linked to climate change or not. The fact remains climate change is linked to human behavior, specifically behaviors that strive for unregulated economic growth - whatever the cost. At its most fundamental it is an ethical issue. An issue of climate justice.

We would appear to be living in an increasingly hazardous world. Over the last few weeks we have witnessed wildfires in California, typhoons in the Philippines and the continuation of devastating droughts in East Africa.

There has been a tendency, in the media and among the environment and development community, to attribute human agency to all meteorological hazards - basically, every time the weather "misbehaves" there are people who want to project human agency onto the catastrophe offering the event as "evidence" of climate change.

But unfortunately, it is impossible to link any single anomalous weather event to human-induced climate change.
I wish I could get on my soap box and tell people that their profligate resource-consuming behaviour is causing droughts in Kenya. But as a scientist, I know I can't do this.

While I firmly believe that some of the changes in climate being witnessed around the world today are a result of human-induced climate change, I cannot condone the slipshod analysis of non-specialists who use received wisdom, as opposed to science, to draw links between humans and climate.

There is a simple reason, however, why people are being forced to make links that cannot be proved conclusively by science: They are desperate to force change at all costs. And, frankly, who can blame them?

It would be nice to think that the science would speak for itself. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the current atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide far exceed the natural range over the last 650,000 years; the IPCC also states that warming of the climate system is unequivocal.

In Africa, for example, this warming could reduce yields from rain-fed agriculture by up to 50% and expose 75 to 250 million people to an increase in water stress by 2020.
But sience doesn't stir people's hearts and minds; scientific reason hasn't been a traditional basis for mass behavioural change.
If quantitative reason isn't enough then we have to try to make people realise what is at stake by doing what I have criticised above - linking human behaviour to specific weather events.

And finally, if that doesn't work, we have to speak to the innate sense of right at the core of most of humanity. We need to use moral philosophy - ethics.

Realising something is wrong should force action. What humans (mainly those in the industrialised North) are doing to the environment for short-term economic growth is wrong.

Indeed, the concept of justice makes everything very clear. Even if you're a climate change skeptic, you cannot deny the fact that if everyone in the world were to live like the average UK citizen, we would need the resources of three Earths simply to exist, let alone "develop".

This simple fact shows that our behaviour, and the economic and political systems that underpin and promote this behaviour, are wrong and unjust.

So climate change as a justice issue becomes much easier. We can move away from the uncertainties of the science that preclude action and we can focus on human behaviour. We can start to conceive of, and work towards, a more sustainable future.
Yet even when climate change is framed as a justice issue there are still barriers to progress. Amazing as it may seem, most people (in the countries that caused the problem of climate change) are simply too busy to worry about the environment and how their actions impact it.

So while I cannot condone ungrounded analysis and "untrue" messaging about climate change, I get why people do it. If facts don't work, if reason doesn't work, if ethics don't work, then what are you left with?

If we want to promote a more reasoned analysis of climate change and want to see "sound" science underpin all aspects of the climate change debate - from local campaigning through to international negotiations - then we have to take action today.

Taking action now will buy time to ensure the ways we mitigate and adapt to climate change are appropriate.
In order to buy time, and to create space for sensible, reasoned analysis of climate change, we need politicians to take concerted action. Unfortunately, most politicians value their economies above nature and therefore actions to address climate change are perceived as secondary especially at a time of global recession.


We are living through crazy times when the blind pursuit of economic growth - the cause of climate change - is perceived to be the solution. It is interesting to note that cancer cells (like the global economy) grow for growth's sake - but eventually destroy their host.

Politicians are going to meet in Copenhagen in December to decide a deal on global climate action. I reiterate the fact that it is impossible to attribute any single catastrophic weather event to human-induced climate change.
But the people I work with in Africa, Asia and Latin America are seeing changes to their weather that are destroying their livelihoods and their ability to flourish as human beings.

If there is even the remotest possibility that these changes could be the result of human activities then I have a moral obligation to take action - and so do you.

The photo above depicts Niuleni artificial islands, part of the Solomon Islands group and now the focus of a Red Cross disaster-preparedness effort that aims to protect against possible climate change impacts like rising sea levels and more intense storms: Photo, George Baragamu, Solomon Islands Red Cross.

This post was written by Mike Edwards and first appeared in Reuters Alertnet. Mike is the climate change adviser for CAFOD.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Wordle of the Day

I attended a conference on Online Communication at the end of last week where I came across this neat little tagcloud generator from Jonathan Feinberg (IBMer) - it can be accessed at - this example is for the Head Down Eyes Open Blog, pretty cool stuff. /PC

Wordle: Head Down Eyes Open Worldled

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Droning on, the Cubicle Warriors

War is peace, the party said, in Orwell’s prescient 1984. My first reaction when I saw Obama had won the Nobel peace prize was one of satisfaction, that this man of relative peace (compared to his predecessor) had been honoured, perhaps too soon, but honoured nonetheless. I was a bit peeved for Morgan Tvangirai, a mighty man if ever there was one, but Obama getting the Nobel call felt kinda good, fluffy, warm.

But, as the New Yorker magazine reflected, Obama would probably have preferred to get the Olympics for Chicago as a present from the Skandies. “At least at the Olympics the judges wait till after the race to give you the gold medal. They don’t force it on you while you’re still waiting for the bus to take you to the stadium. They don’t give it to you in anticipation of possible future feats of glory, like a signing bonus, or an athletic scholarship. They don’t award it as a form of gentle encouragement, like a parent calling “Good job” to a toddler who’s made it to the top rung of the monkey bars. It’s not a plastic, made-in-China “participation” trophy handed out to everyone in the class as part of a program to boost self esteem. It’s not a door prize or a goody bag or a bowl of V.I.P. fruit courtesy of the hotel management. It’s not a gold star. It’s a gold medal.

Let’s remember that this is a wartime president. And this war is unlike any war that has preceded it. The Obama administration, according to the New Yorker in a different article, has carried out an may unmanned drone strikes in ten months as the Bush administration did in its last three years.

Drones are unmanned planes, effectively missiles, that are being used more and more in the lawless and impenetrable “Tribal Areas” of Pakistan. Last March the US government allowed Pakistani authorities to nominate its own targets.

Now, while Drones are touted as deadly accurate, more so than dropping bombs (or for that matter packing a car full of semtex and just driving right at the target), according to the New America foundation (which has links to the New Yorker magazine) as many as 320 innocents have been killed by these American robots since 2006:

And drones are working. Half of the top 20 most wanted Al Qaeda terrorist suspects have been taken out of service. But surely, the (presumably quite large) families of the 320 innocents are at risk of being radicalized when they see their loved ones vaporized by … well, by whom?

The New Yorker says that the job of piloting these missiles halfway round the world is, wait for it, outsourced. The joysticks are being wiggled by civvies sitting in cubicles in Bartfark Ohio (or maybe not even in the US at all, maybe in the Drone pilots equivalent of a call centre in Chennai, “hello, this is Raj, who can I help you kill today?”).

This makes for interesting dilemmas for the rules of war. Back to the New Yorker: “If the United States can legally kill people from the sky in a country we are not at war with, other countries will argue they can do the same thing.”

The cubicle warriors could be considered by international law to be engaged in warfare, when, viewed from the neighbouring cubicle, they are just jiggling an Xbox.


Monday, October 19, 2009

Social impact of economic crisis documented for the first time

At the end of this summer we started to receive intermittent reports from around Europe about more and more people coming to the local branches of the Red Cross for help. This in itself is not so unusual but we were witnessing a sudden upsurge in people not normally associated with seeking social support, namely middle classes. 

The indicators were such that we conducted a survey of some 50 national red cross or crescent societies across the EU, Eastern Europe and Central Asia and this culminated in a report which we launched today in Geneva to political and media circles. The report is best described as a 'barometer' of what we are witnessing in towns and communities across the region. It is an 'early warning' for policy makers at the national level to take into account.

As the data started to come in from our grassroots network certain trends became quickly identifiable such as:

  • Social and humanitarian needs are escalating as the resources needed to deal with them steadily decrease or, in many cases, simply evaporate.
  • Youth are identified as a particularly vulnerable group, mainly due to increasing inability to access labor markets - related to this is a clear rise in demands to enlist in Red Cross substance abuse and psycho social programs.
  • Social cohesion is under a stress not seen for decades mainly due to the fact that less privileged groups are now competing for scarcer services and, on top of this, more and more families are becoming 'newly' vulnerable and in need of external support from the Red Cross or similar organizations.
  • Development gains made across the whole region during the last decade stand to be completely lost. And this is as true for 'developed' economies as less developed ones.
All of this is underscored by the fact that there are almost 50 million people (including dependents) newly affected by unemployment across the euro zone alone. As mentioned youths are particularly at risk - in Sweden for example the unemployment rate for working-age youths has jumped three fold from 9% to almost 30%.

Incredibly, in the European Union we learned that more than two thirds of our member national red cross or crescent societies are now distributing food aid; an activity more associated with post-war Europe and food insecure Africa or Asia. In Spain for instance, more than half a million people receive essential food aid today from the Spanish Red Cross.

Furthermore, groups already vulnerable or marginalized, such as migrants for instance, are under considerable pressure to just survive and while 'reverse' migration is a reality for some, others are faced with the stark choice of emigrating to more robust economies.

The challenge now is to work together with national governments so that they can reassess the criteria they use for identifying vulnerable groups - current structures are no longer relevant in the new reality and groups such as youth and indebted middle-income families must also be considered for support and assistance either through domestic programs or with non-governmental humanitarian groups.

Interesting too were the reactions from our governmental partners today who noted the 'timeliness' of the report which focuses on social consequences (as opposed to economic consequences) of the financial crisis - a component of the global crisis which has been "curiously under communicated" according to one diplomat.

We now aim to follow up individually with governments, through existing national structures, to improve our understanding of this new vulnerability and to ensure that the response is timely and effective, especially as the severe European winter looms in the near distance.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Bountiful Flood for Mosquitoes

With all the significant and simultaneous disasters occurring in Asia in recent weeks the extreme flooding in southern India went relatively unnoticed. The capacity of India to respond and evacuate its people without needing any significant international support also meant that it remained an issue more of national rather than international interest. I remember being astounded by the first satellite images (which I cannot post here) which showed the entire southern area of India completely submerged coast to coast. Millions were uprooted and more than 200 lost their lives. Then TV images came out as the floodgates at Jurala dam on the Krishna river were opened and the sheer, raw, terrifying power of water was on display, up close and personal. 

My intrepid friend and colleague, John Roche, veteran of dozens of conflicts and disasters over the last 20 years was on the spot within hours to support the relief effort. As the floods now recede John has taken a breath to put some reflections on paper and consider the massive road to recovery that lies ahead. The stench of decay and the lucrative flood-bounty for mosquitoes are just some of the lingering images. John has long-threatened to post for Head Down Eyes Open - let's hope this opens the floodgates (no pun intended). 

The first thing one notices as you drive into the Andhra Pradesh district of Kurnool, which was badly affected by South India’s recent floods and was inaccessible for several days, is the stench of decaying debris. Almost two weeks after the disaster, the devastation in this area is of major proportions. 

As one local government coordinator told her district officers: “This is a time to be practical. We are battling to support the communities that have been crushingly affected by this disaster and, with the Red Cross’ help, we can bring a human touch to this misfortune.”

As the clean-up operations here reach maximum capacity, one can get a picture of how much suffering this community has been witness to.

Indiscriminate flooding

“It happened so fast and we were unprepared,” says Dr Reddy, district branch secretary for Kurnool. “The flood waters have been so indiscriminate and almost everyone has been affected - poor, rich, businessmen, prominent personalities almost 90 per cent of the residents. Andhra Pradesh has not seen any floods on this scale in more than a hundred years – the region is normally associated with droughts.

“Residents walk around in a state of shock. The extent of the damage runs into millions and the thick black sludge left by the receding water poses a dangerous hidden threat to health – it’s a fight against the clock to prevent a serious outbreak of infectious diseases,” Dr Reddy adds.

With tears in his eyes, Kurnool’s mayor also has that shocked stare. All he can say is: “We need help … don’t forget us.”

Washed away

While a kind of normality is returning to this once thriving town, the crisis is far from over. Not only have so many livelihoods been lost, but people’s lives have been washed away in a flash. Their memories - the photographs of loved ones and the lifetime possessions – are gone and cannot be replaced.

As the devastating consequences of this disaster unfold, a new danger - the increased exposure of outbreaks of infectious disease - is lurking in the mist. Mosquitoes seem to be the only ones to benefit from the disaster, as the remaining floodwaters provide a happy breeding ground in this malaria-prone region.

As one travels outside of Kurnool into the heart of the rural communities in the neighbouring district of Mahaboonager, one sees more despair and desolation. People’s homes have either been washed away or are now unliveable. As a result, community members have been forced to move out of the areas they have lived in for so long, and take refuge in makeshift settlements exposing them to further danger. Women are particularly vulnerable as no adequate sanitation facilities are available in these open areas.

Needs are overwhelming

With touching solidarity, unaffected communities are providing assistance to flood-affected people, and there are lines of trucks on the highway distributing cooked food. But the needs are overwhelming despite all the goodwill.

The Indian Red Cross Society (IRCS) has been closely monitoring the situation along with its State branches since the disaster began.

The IRCS Control Room (Flood Operations) has been activated to receive and consolidate information from the disaster areas. Family packs amounting to INR 11.88 millions released, and enough relief items for 5,000 families were sent to Andhra Pradesh in the first days following the flooding. These items include stoves and blankets and kitchen sets, and were sent to Karnataka State branch.

Health education

The society’s national headquarters also deployed four water and sanitation units that are capable of producing 5,000 litres of water each hour for drinking and hygiene purposes. Trained Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers have been supporting and leading health education discussions in temporary camps to help reduce the risk of disease among those displaced.

The IRCS has launched an appeal to boost its relief efforts with technical support from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

The initial appeal aims to meet the needs of some 250,000 persons, providing temporary shelter, replace crucial kitchen materials that have been washed away ,support the promotion of hygiene and provide a safeguard from health hazards such as malaria. 
(this post also appeared on the mother ship at


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Hope trickles through

Today is World Blog Action Day for Climate Change and Head Down Eyes Open tries to do its small bit by bringing you a report from the ground in Senegal and Burkino Faso which are suffering from the devastation caused by extreme flooding. 

In the suburbs of Dakar and various regions in Senegal affected by floods, thousands of people are fighting for survival. Most are living in flooded houses in stifling humidity and deplorable sanitary conditions, and are exposed to the risks posed by waterborne diseases and reptiles running rife in some areas. 
In Kaolack, in the centre of Senegal, the fact that people are living amidst rubbish-laden water has sparked fears of outbreaks of infectious diseases. In the region of Saint-Louis, in the north of the country, some neighbourhoods and several villages are now deserted as a result of the floods.

“It has rained non-stop for three days. Even the permanent houses were unable to withstand the heavy rains, not to mention the ones made from straw and bamboo. We have never seen anything like this before,” says Amadou Abdoul Ba, the chief of the village of Lougdemis in the north of Senegal.

Wreaked havoc

In the city of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, the situation is gradually stabilizing more than a month after floods wreaked havoc on 1 September 2009.

“After the emergency aid provided to the people affected by the floods, we have focused efforts on helping them to recover and adjusting our assistance programme to their needs and the funding raised in response to our appeal,” explains Brigitte Gaillis, head of the Red Cross Red Crescent flood operation in Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Aid is now being organized, with the support of the international teams specialized in water and sanitation, logistics and relief who have come to lend a helping hand to the National Red Cross Societies of Senegal and Burkina Faso. 

Devastated by floods

In Rosso, situated in northern Senegal, the inhabitants of Lougdemis, a village completely devastated by the floods, are starting a new life. Thanks to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and its partners, 127 tents have been erected to provide shelter to flood victims, with the help of volunteers from the Senegalese Red Cross Society.

Amadou Abdoul Ba, the village chief, has just moved there with his family. In an attempt to put the nightmare of Lougdemis behind them, he and the members of the community have renamed the new site Medina Mountaga Daha Tall.

“With the camp and the support of the Red Cross, we are going to try and get our livestock farming activities started again and find good sites to grow rice in the surrounding area,” explains Amadou Abdoul Ba, who just a week ago was sleeping out in the open with his family and all the members of his village.

Restoring hope in Burkina Faso

In Burkina Faso, it was decided to relocate all the flood victims staying in schools to alternative sites when classes resumed. According to the Burkinabe Red Cross Society, almost 60,000 people have to be moved to the new sites.

At the new alternative sites, volunteers from the Burkinabe Red Cross Society are organizing educational campaigns to prevent waterborne diseases and help people to hang mosquito nets in the tents. They have already installed two 10,000-litre water tanks at the racecourse site housing 5,000 people, and built 14 blocks of six latrines at five other sites.

Basic necessities

In the district of Nongr Massom, where one of the alternative sites is located, the Burkinabe Red Cross Society has organized the distribution of basic necessities to 1,000 families with the help of the IFRC. Distribution operations are also being carried out at other sites.

This initiative has restored hope to many people affected by the floods, such as Ouédraogo Alizèta, a widow aged more than fifty who has benefited from the assistance provided.

“My thanks to the Red Cross,” she said, visibly moved.

Like her, thousands of people affected by floods in West and Central Africa have received assistance from the IFRC through National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and other donors.

Safer houses

In addition to the assistance programme, some 2,500 families in Burkina Faso will receive shelter kits and be taught how to build safer houses capable of withstanding floods. Similar activities will also be carried out in Senegal.

As the rainy season starts in Central Africa, the IFRC is on maximum alert.

“In a few days, we will have the seasonal forecasts for Central Africa from the African Centre of Meteorological Application for Development (ACMAD). Meanwhile, our emergency stocks are being replenished in Yaoundé (Cameroon) and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to ensure that we are ready for every eventuality,” stresses Youcef Ait-Chellouche, the disaster management coordinator at the IFRC office in Dakar.

Emergency appeals

On 10 September, the IFRC launched two emergency appeals for a total of 4.8 million Swiss francs (4.6 million US dollars/3.2 million euro) to help the National Societies of Burkina Faso and Senegal provide assistance to people affected by flooding in these two countries. Previously, the IFRC had launched an “early warning, early action” appeal based on meteorological forecasts in order to ensure, through the National Societies in the region, that populations at risk are prepared and that emergency stocks are pre-positioned at strategic locations.

Operations in Senegal and Burkina Faso and in the subregion were supported by OPEC and various governments through the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of the United States, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, the German Embassy in Dakar and the Global Health Workforce Alliance at the WHO headquarters in Geneva.

My good colleague Mustapha Diallo wrote this piece for

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Decreasing the Destructiveness of Disasters is our only choice

It's been regrettably all quiet on the Blog front over the last days due mainly to mounting work committments coupled with picking up the backlog that continued to expand during the full focus on the Asia disasters in recent weeks. As a great and oft-inebriated Irish playwright might once have said "Work is the Curse of the Blogging Classes!" 

Having said that I do want to post a few thoughts today on what is officially marked as International Day for Risk Reduction. I know this is not going to have you out protesting on the streets but, although an admittedly banal-sounding name, disaster risk reduction is an extremely noble endeavour - it is basically about getting people out of harm's way when we know disaster is about to strike. It is about supporting communities to adapt to known climate and disaster risks. It is about using our knowledge on forecasting and understanding disaster patterns and getting this into the hands of the people who need it most. It is plain and simple a moral imperative. Below a few thoughts on the topic - on the day that is in it. There is also a three minute video embedded which shows what effective disaster reduction policies can mean in real terms to the lives of real communities.

Decreasing the Destructiveness of Disasters is our only choice
Today, as Asia Pacific reels from one devastating disaster after another, more than 12million people have been extensively affected. Typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis and flooding have uprooted millions, left them homelessand strippedthem of their livelihoods. The countries’ National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies have sprung into action with massive emergency assistance.Loss of life is always tragic, but ample investment in preparedness and early warning systems - including the training of community-based volunteers as first responders - have clearly contributed to minimizing the loss of life across the disaster areas.

These disasters remind us that although we have made progress in the field of risk reduction, a much greater global commitment must be reachedto make many, many more communities safe and strengthen their resilience, particularly in the disaster-prone regions of the world.

If we – as an international community of partners – do not step up risk reduction measures significantly, then we will fail to achieve the targets set by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals to decrease poverty, hunger, disease and deaths. In a globalized world, buffeted by the severe humanitarian impact of ever more extreme and frequent disasters, often linked to climate change, our mission to help the most vulnerable populations becomes ever more vital.

But a properly resourced global strategy is needed - one which is fully supported and respected by governments and decision-makers, and implemented at the community level.

A dollar spent on prevention saves four dollars in emergency response

Risk reduction is cost-effective – early warning and early action, as well as other preparedness measures, savesmore lives and livelihoods per dollar or euro spent than traditional disaster response.Recently, together with United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes, we stressed that the G20 must lay the foundations for bold action in the upcoming Copenhagen conference on climate change.Whether at the global or local levels, we must help communities better adapt toclimate change impacts and integrate this into existing disaster risk reduction programmes.

In the photo above Maximino Virtudazo, 59, a volunteer of the Philippine National Red Cross, stands before the sea wall he helped to build to protect his village from storm surges. “If the Pacific continues to rise,” he says, “the wall will be destroyed and then only God knows if my children will still live here in the future.”

Early warning must strive to guarantee that communities receive the information they need. We have the technology to make seasonal and long-term forecasts to help farmers better plan their planting, as well as weekly and daily forecasts to warn coastal communities of incoming typhoons, but we need to make sure people are ready to react to this information. And we must ensure that this potentially life-saving information gets into the hands of those who need it most.

There is thankfully growing evidence ofthe effectiveness of disaster preparedness. In Samoa, when church bells rang out as a tsunami warning, Red Cross volunteers – well trained in tsunami preparedness drills - helped villagers evacuate to pre-identified sites on higher ground. This low-tech example illustrates the importance of reaching the grass-roots level, of making sure the information provided by advance warning systems reaches people urgently.

In west and central Africa, when warnings arrived last July of heavy rains and subsequent severe flooding, evacuations and evaluations took place quickly and pre-positioned stocks of essential relief items were distributed to the affected people in record time. The real work of protecting communities and preserving livelihoods can be done beforehand, but we must be ready to invest in preparing communities that are habitually exposed to disasters.

It is clear that much remains to be done to increase community safety and resilience, and that many challenges loom ahead. On this International Day for Disaster Reduction, let us remember that disasters like those currently happening in Asia and the Pacific are everybody’s business and that, working together, we can make communities all over the world safer and better prepared to face and overcome natural disasters and their consequences


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Disaster Response: Failure in not an Option

As the world continues to tune into the news of an ever growing death toll in the Asia Pacific region, questions are being asked about why more deaths could not have been prevented. This, the most disaster prone region in the world, has once again been torn apart by a series of natural disasters which have killed hundreds.  

The photo here shows a Samoan Red Cross volunteers directing school children to higher ground during evacuation of Apia during a tsunami warning on the 3rd of October 2009. A practical example of how early warning through local action can save lives in real time.

In response, a massive global emergency response operation has been mounted to help reach those in need. But questions remain about why some of those communities affected were not effectively pre-warned. In a world of technological advances - when experts predict tsunamis and typhoons before they occur - why do the messages not reach everyone at risk in time to get them out of harms way?

The Red Cross Red Crescent has been active for many years in supporting communities to reduce vulnerability, and increase their resilience to natural disasters. This was put into practice on Tuesday as scores of Samoa Red Cross volunteers took to the streets to warn people in coastal settlements to stay clear of beaches. These dedicated, trained, and prepared volunteers helped evacuate people in and around the island of Apia, opening five temporary shelter sites across Samoa. In Vietnam, Red Cross volunteers also sprung into action, helping to evacuate more than 160,000 people before Typhoon Ketsana hit. This people centred approach was crucial because technology alone will not save lives.

In many poverty stricken areas there is no access to TV or radio to help communicate warning messages. Aid agencies must work with communities to find out which methods of communication work for them at the time of an emergency and run simulation exercises to put this into practice. Often mobile phone text messages or even sending people out into the streets with megaphones, as was the case in these emergencies, prove to be most successful.

But despite the progress made the number of lives lost this week underlines that much more needs to be done. Early warning, early action in high disaster risk countries needs to be seen as a mindset, not a mechanism or technology, and works best when it spans timescales, anticipating disaster by days, hours, months, years and even decades. It must also be firmly linked to early action by decision-makers, and must cover 'the last mile' -linking early warning mechanisms not just to the most 'at risk' communities, but to the most vulnerable people within those communities.

Strengthening community capacity to prevent and/or cope with the impact of disasters and crises is a concrete way to save lives and better protect livelihoods, and prevent such shocks from crippling development within the poorest countries. Early warning and early action is also more cost effective than traditional disaster response and saves more lives per pound spent: public money buys four times as much humanitarian 'impact' if spent on preparation and risk reduction, rather than on relief items. Rightly, we are currently focussed on meeting immediate emergency needs in the aftermath of these disasters.

But we must take time to reflect and learn. We have made great progress in ensuring early warning and early action is part of our programmes in countries which are vulnerable to emergencies. But we need a global strategy that integrates governments, NGOs and most importantly, local communities. Sadly, experience has taught us that this won't be the last emergency of this kind in this part of the world. Next time we must all be better prepared.

This blog is written by colleague Mike Goodhand who is Head of Disaster Management at the British Red Cross. For further information and backgrounders on Disaster Management please visit the relevant web section in the IFRC's website.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dispatches from Disaster Zones

An extremely intensive week and more trying to support four near-simultaneous disasters in Asia Pacific. I just wanted to post some links to daily diaries from a number of friends and colleagues who are on the ground, supporting local Red Cross societies and coordinating international relief efforts. With this wonderfully wired world it is a real bonus to be able to get first hand accounts so readily from the field.

Rosemarie North is a Kiwi who has been on the ground in Samoa since the early hours. She is a long-time Redcrosser and her diary captures very well the upset and shock that comes when communities have to grapple with the aftermath of an natural disaster - a disaster which ranks up there with one of the most feared i.e. an earthquake followed by a tsunami. Rosemarie's diary is here. Rosemarie is also tweeting on a regular basis. Check back on the site for further updates during the week.

Patrick Fuller, another colleague with heaps of experience working in natural disasters in on the ground in Padang. His daily diary has been picked up by the BBC online and will continue for the rest of the week. Also, on his own blog, our Red Cross colleague (who is head of operations in Indonesia) and sometimes contribute to Head Down Eyes Open, Bob McKerrow, is blogging his experiences from the quake zone on his own blog.

Another disaster zone in Viet Nam has received relatively less attention but where the floods and destruction left in the wake of typhoon Ketsana as uprooted hundreds of thousands of people and caused more than a hundred million dollars worth of damage according to initial assessments. Our colleagues Nguyen Hungha and Lasse Noorgard are trudging though the mud and reporting back in their daily diary.

I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I have. For more up-to-the-minute accounts of what is happening in the disaster zones you can follow the official Red Cross twitter stream as well. Would love to get your opinions and feedback on this type of real-time reporting.

Also - if you have a moment do take a look at these incredible and moving photographs from the Boston Globe. They really drive home the power of good photography and bring us extremely close to the suffering and devastation wrought by Ketsana.


Friday, October 2, 2009

Vote Yes and Throw the Dog a Lisbone!

After putting forward its arguments yesterday for voting No to Lisbon, today, in a fairly forced effort for balanced blogging, Head Down Eye's Opener Paul Conneally puts the case for voting Yes to Lisbone (sic).

It's Friday, 02 October 2009, and the people of Ireland shuffle to the polls to vote for the much debated but little understood Lisbon Treaty. The Lisbon Treaty markets itself (badly) as a tool to tighten up ineffective and costly administrative mechanisms, enhance greater coordination and promote a 'one Europe' culture.

Ireland of course has already voted "No to Lisbon" back in June of 2008, a result which infuriated many EU states, not least our French and German friends. And, because the 4 million voters of Ireland tried to derail the Lisbone, because we voted contrary to what our European masters advised, (are those democratic values I see running out the door?) we are being (t)asked again to go back to the polling booths and 'to try to get it right' this time.

This time of course the world, and especially Ireland, is a radically different place. We have been pounded and plundered by economic crisis; panel-bet into a reality check that could well be the (convenient) decisive factor that strong-arms the pliable Irish into doing what Brussels wants.

Last time out I closely followed the Lisbon debates, weighed up the pros and cons and, early on in the campaign, came out on the Yes side. By the time voting took place however, I had both feet embedded in the No camp.

Bullies and Bulldozing Bureaucracy

Without too many details I remember that I became angered by the arrogance and condescension of the Yes camp whose arguments basically involved nothing more sophisticated than "vote Yes because we are telling you to". The blackmailing language, the subliminal threats of being excluded from the EU, the insulting innuendo that Ireland had gotten enough cash out of Brussels and now we should just shut up and put up; Ireland by the way is a net contributor to the EU i.e. we put in more than we get out – all of these conspired to expose a raw Irish nerve.

Then, in the weeks running up to the vote, as I sat firmly on the fence, I had a long discussion with a French acquaintance (who is politically active in Paris). I was told if Ireland voted No we would end up in the stone age where we belonged! I was fairly taken aback by what I considered inherent racism and not a little lack of solidarity with a supposed fellow European citizen. Is that what the great powers in Europe really think of Ireland? Is our annoying habit to put such major decisions democratically to the people really so Neanderthal? Should we just ignore what our people decide (after tireless debate) as happened in the Netherlands (and France).

How would other EU states cope if they had the actual courage and commitment to allow their citizens to exercise their democratic rights? Instead of development through democratic evolution the EU has opted to construct from the centre with a cosmetic consultation with the people. It is correctly perceived as a bulldozing and bullying bureaucracy.

Sarkozy Sycophants

Ireland should not have been punished and criticized (even by non-EU wannabes like Croatia) for informing its people and allowing them to vote on a treaty which would define their future relationship with the EU. Irish people are stubborn at the best of times but when Sarkhozy sycophants are barking threats then you call their bluff. And we did (Sarkhozy was de facto ‘President of Europe’ at the time you may remember) and we rained on Sarkhozy's parade and not a small amount of EU fury emanated from that shallow, low-lying, cultist perspective.

Sixteen months down the road there are still good reasons to vote No and only a brainwashed ideologue would not be incensed by the dishonesty and deceptiveness of Brussels. But that does not make it OK for the No side to falsely propagate that young Irish people will be conscripted into a European army; that our treasured (if delusional) neutrality will be compromised (get real, that happened years ago); that we will lose our voting powers (isn't this normal when the EU expands to twice its original size? It's called proportionality which can be countered by forming strategic alliances and voting blocs).

It is incredible that despite the major upheaval (and not a little glee) caused during the last vote that the Yes side are still unable to convincingly argue their point. It is the best indicator by far on the complete abstraction that is Lisbone. The Yes-sirs are asleep at the wheel and prefer to intimidate Irish voters with economic punishment if they vote No. And, the Irish voters, by the way, know very well that this is not a vote for membership of the EU; it is a vote for Lisbone alone - so why oh why are the Yes side not simply promoting the positive sides of Lisbon rather than portraying the entire EU project in dark and simplistic Bushian terms - you are either with us or against us - Why not reassure instead of bluff and bully?

Vote No for Idaho

Despite all this, I am advocating for the Yes vote (recognizing that there are many unanswered questions). Why? Put simply, I think Ireland is good for Europe. We belong in Europe. We have contributed much, gained much and the journey has only started. Ireland can be far more constructive and proactive by shaping the future of the EU from within, through collaboration, debate and influencing policy. Ireland does not belong on the fringes of the EU. We probably have more citizens scattered around the EU than any other member. We have embraced the great mobility and advances made possible by the EU ideal and we owe it to ourselves (not to Brussels) to remain fully on board. We have earned it. We have prospered. We should fight the good fight from the very core of the center.

Realpolitik dictates that Europe will anyway find a way to circumvent a No vote (if it happens) to make Lisbon work for the EU's remaining 496 million citizens (admittedly defeatist but this is what realpolitik can mean). They could also hold a spiteful and begrudging disregard for a once blushing partner and inadvertently convert Ireland into an economic backwater. I will vote Yes because I don't want to risk Ireland becoming the Idaho of Europe, where we educate our young only to feed them to the big cities and industries of the European mainland. A country reduced to an identity of emigration that lays waste the EU vision that it helped shape.

At the end of the day, despite all the concerns, it has to be Yes (and, remember, voting Yes is not a vote for those hoodlums that run the country - they will be dealt with in a proper election in the near future; an election where they won't have the luxury to say "ah, excuse me there lads, that wasn't the vote we wanted. Ye wouldn’t mind, ahem, doin that once more there again, wouldya? Thanks". Besides, with the latest breaking news, our good beer-drinking, beer-brewing fellow European travellers in the Czech Republic could yet take the heat off us.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

"Vote Yes and you'll never have to vote again"

With just 24hrs to go before the Irish people go once again (obediently) to the polls, Head Down Eyes Opener Joe Lowry enters the fray and argues why we should Vote No to Lisbon (but Watch this space for the Yes argument to be put forward later in the day).

I’m pro-Europe and proud of it. And I call for a No vote. We voted No to Nice and to Lisbon, how often do we have to say no? I was and am all for an expanded Europe, and am delighted to see countries like Poland finally getting a fair deal rather than stomped on, as has been its fate for hundreds of years.

I’m glad that intelligent, poetic slavs (and Maltese and Romanians and Balts) are part of our visa-free Europe, enriching our land. I’d like to see a wider embrace (my current job forbids me being explicit) but I think the European Union is a good thing, nay a great thing. It’s kept the traditional warmongers in Europe (the British, the French, the Spanish, the Germans) in line and made the sort of carnage we saw twice in the last century all but impossible.

It’s given us equality of the sexes, greater human rights, richer farmers, good roads, safer workplaces and so much more. It’s even given us a sense of an identity as Europeans, proud of our cultures, values, cuisine, art and non-aggression.

But I am against this treaty for several reasons. One, let’s stick with what we chose. The yes lobby are scaremongering, telling us Europe will somehow go away if we vote no. There’s damn lies being told… investors don’t come here because we are European, they come (came) because we are (were) cheap, stable, educated, white and English speaking. And because the tax laws made it possible.

God, I remember so well multinationals raping the ten year tax-free status and upping sticks on the 364th day of the final year, leaving communities shattered. If they move away now it’ll be because Cowen and his predecessor, the untouchable Bertie, and their cronies banjoed and bled the economy. And now they want us to make them look good to the boyos that pay for the nice hotels and troughs in Brussels and Strasbourg.

You’d think Cowen would be secretly praying for a No vote. It won’t save his bacon, but it’ll give him an excuse to blame the voters.

What sickens me most is the I’m-all-right-jackery of voting against greater powers for Europe when times are good, but come a recession we go all mé féin and think our kids will somehow end up in the poorhouse
suppin’ thin gruel if we don’t do Barrosso’s bidding. Barrosso? That teen Marxist?

What sways me (in fact it knocks me off my feet) is the common European defence policy. We’re neutral dammit, and although we are not as proud of it as we should be (Shannon used for refuelling planes on
the way to bomb Iraq and kill kids we had no quarrel with), we either are, or we are not. You can’t be a little bit neutral, or neutral when it’s expedient.

But I draw the line at a common defence policy. Should Irish taxes fund a European army? Armies need arming. Who's going to pay for that?

Article 25b(d)(3) (TEU) “The Council shall adopt a decision establishing the specific procedures for guaranteeing rapid access to appropriations in the Union budget for urgent financing of initiatives in the framework of the common foreign and security policy.”

No, sorry, but no.

And here’s a few more random reasons. That dickhead O’Leary, the man who thinks it's funny to promise “blowjobs in business class” (and then harrasses the female translator for not translating it for the German media) is advocating a yes vote. That union buster, monopolist and ultimate mé féiner.

Charlie McCreevy, our dear commissioner, admits it’s a crock of chaic. In an address to the institute of Chartered Accountants in a Dublin hotel in June, he said (presumably through a mouthful of fois gras): "I think all of the politicians of Europe would have known quite well that if a similar question had been put to their electorate in a referendum the answer in 95 per cent of countries would have been 'No' as well."

The Lisbon Treaty, in its earlier form of the EU Constitution, was already rejected in the summer of 2005 by the people of France and the Netherlands. However, the European Council and Commission ignored this
democratic rejection. In response they fashioned the Lisbon Treaty, which is essentially the same document.

As Bertie Ahern said, "Thankfully, they have not changed the substance… 90 per cent is still there." And we ought to remember "he's the most skillful, the most devious, the most cunning of them all," as said a famous leader of the Republican party. (The Irish one).

We have a vote, but a vote Yes will take away the democratic powers that we’ve built up (through war and struggle) and hand them over to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

I’m reminded of the election slogan for the Ukrainian Fascist Party in the 90s: “Vote for us and you’ll never have to vote again”. Hello-o-o Lisbon!