Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Rebuilding Haiti - obstacles and options

As many as one million people are still without a proper roof over their heads almost one year after a deadly quake struck Haiti. Journalists and VIPs will be arriving en masse over the next weeks to make their assessments and publish their opinions. They will see hundreds of thousands still under tarpaulins and makeshift shelters and wonder why all the money that has been raised - literally billions - has not been able to achieve more. It is a valid question, easy to ask but complex to answer.

Challenges to finding real shelter solutions have been many and are mostly linked to:

  • the fact that shelter is not just about structures, it encompasses important legal, economic and social aspects that must also be taken into consideration
  • the urgent priority and demands to continue delivering life-sustaining emergency services, including shelter, before proper reconstruction can start
  • land tenure and informal system of property rights (it is said that some 80% of Haiti's property is based on verbal contracts)
  • even when tenure issues are resolved the availability of adequate parcels of land is rare
  • sourcing sites to rebuild that are considered appropriate by the community especially in terms of access to local economy, schools and healthcare (the vast majority understandably do not want to move and prefer to stay in or around their destroyed homes - and forcible displacement to 'new' shelters is clearly not an option for humanitarian organizations)
  • the metropolitan sized task of rapidly removing rubble created from the destruction of an estimated 200'000 homes and buildings has been simply beyond the means of national and international agencies
  • the dilemma faced by aid agencies who despite being flexible are understandably reluctant to rebuild vulnerability i.e. returning people to known vulnerable areas (flood plains, seismic zones etc.) in structures that are are not resistant to hurricanes / earthquakes etc.
The video below, just released, attempts to provide some additional background to the shelter challenges and options.

Haiti, is yet another context which demonstrates, if need be, the limitations of aid. The generous billions donated by ordinary people and communities around the world have been, and will continue to be critical in providing life-saving care and support, restoring livelihoods and delivering numerous other humanitarian services to the people of Haiti. The shelter component however is a challenge of such enormous magnitude that it necessitates long-term and well-financed developmental solutions driven by serious political will, both nationally and internationally. 

The destruction wrought upon Haiti, and especially its capital Port-au-Prince, has left unprecedented challenges for the humanitarian, development and political communities. An entire capital city and all the basic services and infrastructure that its citizens expect and deserve, needs to be completely rebuilt from scratch - and to a standard that will resist future threats. This cannot happen overnight.

One year on, we cannot lose sight of the huge amount that has been achieved but we also know only too well all that remains to be done. In addition to the shelter challenges listed above, the seriously complicating factors of political turmoil, cholera outbreaks, floods and hurricanes have all conspired to stall Haiti's much-needed progress, but nevertheless progressed it has. The serious business of humanitarian aid will continue, and continue for the long haul. Patience and perseverance will be needed as ever. Indeed, the people of Haiti know this more than any of us - already from the first weeks the phrase I most recall was: C'est l'heure de la patience!


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Do No Harm - why clean needles are magic bullets

December 1st is World Aids Day. If government policies fighting the spread of HIV are to succeed, they must treat people who inject drugs through healthcare and not through law enforcement.

Someone, somewhere, right now is in a basement room with a needle and a spoon, trying to take away the pain. In fact, if the 16 million people who are injecting drugs were gathered in one place it would be equivalent to the entire population of Shanghai.

In the shooting galleries of the world, from Mumbai to Managua, the frequent sharing of dirty syringes and needles is providing easy passage for the transfer of tainted blood from one body to another. It is simply the most effective way to spread the transmission of HIV and reverse years of hard-won progress.

There are many reasons why people choose to inject drugs rather than snort, smoke or swallow. Chief among these reasons is the fact that injectable drugs are cheaper, easier to find, quicker to take (handy if the police are about) and reputedly produces a faster and more intense high.

Taking drugs by needle injection has escalated in recent years and it is a trend that is observed on every continent. When injecting drugs is combined with selling sex to pay for drug habits, it creates a cocktail that massively increases the likelihood of spreading HIV to an unsuspecting public.

In Sichuan province in China, for instance, we know that almost 60 per cent of the women who sell sex are also injecting drugs with shared, contaminated needles. In parts of the UK it is as high as 78 per cent, and in Syria more than 50 per cent.

Why people choose to take drugs is a long discussion, but most often it is to escape the hardship of their daily lives, to create an artificial high where they may feel safe and elated. It is a flight from reality, that regrettably often leads to a crueler existence that brings even more suffering and stigma.

But many governments around the world – indeed more than 80 per cent of them – are also inclined to live with an artificial reality, blind to the evidence that criminalizing people who inject drugs is a failed policy that even contributes to the spread of HIV.

Public health officials are deliberately ignoring the fact that to be successful in containing HIV, health services must start to provide what are known as harm reduction programmes to support and care for people who inject drugs. These programmes typically offer heroin-replacement syrups, sterile needles and a safe environment for those who are among the most vulnerable in our society.

Instead, people who inject their drugs are constantly demonized and detained with little or no regard for their rights or the healthcare that they so desperately need. Often, the best you can hope for, if you are hooked to taking drugs through a needle, is to be driven underground to live with your addiction in the dark back streets and abandoned buildings of our towns and cities. You are shunted out of sight, rendered invisible to society, and left alone with your HIV death sentence.

Misguided government policies are without doubt contributing to the growing rate of HIV transmission that is on the rise among drug-injecting communities. We know that more than 10 per cent of new HIV infections result from sharing needles and syringes. If we are to take sub-Saharan Africa out of the equation – where sharing drug paraphernalia is less common but nevertheless firmly on the rise – the new rates of infection from unregulated syringe sharing rises to more than 30 per cent.

If we drill down to country level, in Russia for instance, HIV transmission amongst injecting drug users is a staggering 83 per cent. In Ukraine, it is 64 per cent. In Malaysia, 72 per cent. In Vietnam, 52 per cent – you get the picture. These levels of HIV-positive people who inject drugs is so high that some countries are edging dangerously close to a generalized epidemic. Yet laws and policies continue with failed enforcement tactics singling out users for blame, incarceration and exclusion.

Left unchecked and untreated, injecting drug use constitutes a serious public health hazard that can only be addressed through rational public health services that act according to medical science rather than misinformed morality. Harm reduction programmes that combine free exchange of sterile needles, drug replacement therapy, addiction counselling and other forms of health and social support, work in the prevention and containment of HIV. This is worth repeating. Harm reduction works.

Treating drug addicts as criminals, subjecting them to stigma, punishment and censure may play out well on the evening news for tough-talking politicians, but it is a recipe for failure. Worse still, it is destined to fuel the rise of HIV infection not only among those unfortunate enough to have a serious drug addiction, but also for children born into addiction and ordinary members of the public who are not normally exposed to HIV risks. Injecting drug use is a public health issue. It is an issue of human rights. It cannot be condoned – but neither should it be criminalized.

One more thing before we go - we would like to show you a trailer of a documentary called "People Like Us" that shows the importance of treating people who inject drugs with dignity, and allowing them access to health care (access to their rights if you like). If you would like to watch the full movie you can click through from Youtube. You can also find a report and many more communication products on the topic on the IFRC's special webpage.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Seeing into the future - Kathmandu's nightmare

Last week I had the opportunity and privilege to spend time in beautiful, crazy Kathmandu. We were there as part of a gathering of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies from all over Asia Pacific. Colleagues from as far afield as North Korea, Mongolia, Maldives, Philippines, China, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, Australia, Thailand and East Timor, to name a few, were working together to try and improve our emergency response and preparedness.

Fail to prepare - prepare to fail, is what Roy Keane used to mantra all the time. And of course he's right. But in Kathmandu's case the future will inform us on the usefulness of foresight. We know for instance that Kathmandu tops the list of the world's most at risk cities in danger of being stricken by an earthquake.

Seismologists are certain. Indeed they agree that it is overdue and that the longer time passes without it happening the worse it is going to be. Right now there is general agreement that the would-be quake will register 8 or more on the Richter scale i.e. about ten times harder than Haiti's horrible quake. And this will happen in a city of 2.5 million people living in cramped, poorly constructed homes, with little or no awareness of the imminent dangers.

Aid agencies believe that the one-strip runway will be destroyed and rendered useless, possibly for weeks. Even if it isn't its capacity to cope with the aid that will be required is worse than Haiti's (which could take four planes an hour - and only if it had the resources at hand to unload the cargo fast enough - you may remember that particular controversy) - but Haiti had ports and Kathmandu is landlocked, mountainous, inhospitable terrain - especially for a massively urgent aid operation. Logistics experts who know the region say Kathmandu could be cut-off for more than one month.

Casualties in Kathmandu are expected to be huge, some say that they will 'incapacitate' 70% of potential workforce (working to rescue, evacuate, support the injured etc.). There are plans to evacuate survivors to flat areas which are safer from aftershocks and more accessible for air-drops and so forth. The only problem here of course is that most of these areas are high in the mountains far from any services such as water and sanitation.

These are the type of reality-based conundrums that local government, civil society organizations and other actors such as ourselves are trying to get our heads around in Kathmandu (and in Delhi, Istanbul, Tehran, Ecuador, Manila and other hot spots). Preparing now to mitigate loss of life and injury is important but massively complex. Preparing for the response likewise. It doesn't bear thinking about but think about it we must.


Wednesday, November 3, 2010

No Doubting Thomas - Hurricane Preparedness at full speed in Haiti

HDEO gives an update on preparation efforts in Haiti ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Thomas and the damage it is expected to wreak. The next 48hrs will be all about trying to save lives before disaster strikes.

Investing in preparedness against natural disasters and severe weather events is a hallmark of the Red Cross community-level approach which stresses prevention and preparation over the knee-jerk, parachute response. This investment before disaster strikes is about to be tested to the core as Hurricane Tomas threatens Haiti. Authorities are predicting that the storm will make landfall on Haiti’s south-west on Friday, and may come close to making a direct hit on Port-au-Prince and other earthquake affected areas on Saturday.

The country is on high alert. The government is already advising people to seek
shelter with families and friends over the weekend, or to take whatever steps they
can to protect their families and their assets.

Even if there is not a direct hit, the storm is big enough and strong enough to see heavy rains and strong winds affect communities across the whole of the country, particularly the South. We know from experiences in 2004 and 2008 that even tropical storms or heavy rain can be catastrophic for the country.

How is the Red Cross preparing

We have been preparing for this kind of event since the first weeks of the earthquake response. Historically we know that Haiti is disproportionately vulnerable to hurricanes, and that even tropical storms or just heavy rain can trigger serious disasters.

We have reached tens of thousands of people through disaster preparedness activities in dozens of camps. We have worked with communities to help them dig drainage ditches, sandbag hillsides and create evacuation routes. In addition, Red Cross volunteers have provided emergency first aid training, and handed out waterproof bags that contain safety messages and can be used to store and protect important documents.

We have sent 1.5 million of SMS to communities since Monday right across the country, providing people with simple and accessible information on the steps they can take to minimize hurricane danger. These important messages have also been relayed through our weekly, national radio programme (Radio Croix Rouge Haitienne), through messages carried through camps on ‘sound’ trucks, and through dialogue between communities and trained Red Cross volunteers.

What’s in stock…

We have enough emergency stocks in country for 17,000 families. These include emergency shelter kits (tarpaulins, rope, nails and tools), jerrycans, hygiene kits, and kitchen sets (for example).

Additional supplies for 8,000 families are coming this week from the Red Cross’ regional hub in Panama. Supplies for 500 families have been sent from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes to bolster readiness there. Supplies for a further 500 families also sent tomorrow to Jeremie.

Red Cross volunteers will continue to visit camps across the earthquake affected area, working to make sure that as many people as possible are aware of the storm and have information on what they can do to protect themselves.

Eight emergency response teams (ERTs) are on standby in Jacmel, Leogane and Port-au-Prince. These multi-disciplinary teams, comprising representatives from all Red Cross societies in Haiti can quickly respond to the disaster, providing us with rapid assessments and guiding the crucial initial delivery of assistance.

We also have the capacity to quickly bring in additional resources from the region or globally. A team of highly-skilled disaster assessment experts (known as a Field Assessment Coordination Team – FACT) has been placed on standby.

As Thomas approaches, direct hit or not, we will be relying on the fact that intense preparedness for inevitable storms and hurricanes will pay off.


Note to Journalists - Broadcast quality b-roll, showing the disaster preparedness efforts of the Red Cross in Haiti can be accessed at

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is Urban the new Rural?

Recently, I returned from Nairobi where we launched this year's edition of the World Disasters Report. The report focuses on Urban Risk not least because for the first time in the history of mankind, more people live in an urban environment than a rural one and in just 20 years, over 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities and towns.

A fortunate minority will live in places like Turin, Tokyo or Toronto, where if your home catches fire or floods, you can call for emergency help and expect to collect on the insurance. Everyone in the house or apartment probably has their own space and clean water is on tap. You are connected to the sewage system and your garbage is collected.

A slum household is one where all of these things are absent. There is neither water nor sanitation. The living space is cramped and comprises poor quality building materials. And the inhabitants have no security of tenure.

In a slum, your house will burn down in front of you because the municipal government does not provide emergency services to ‘illegal’ settlements. And even if they did, there would probably be no access road. Your children are more likely to pick up a disease because there is no drainage system for the floodwater and nobody will have cleared the streets of garbage.

The childhood experiences of the Brazilian president, Lula da Silva, as quoted in this year’s World Disasters Report, are pretty typical for the 1 billion people who live in urban slums today:

“When our house flooded, I sometimes woke up at midnight to find my feet in water, cockroaches and rats fighting over space, and various objects floating around the living room … Every time it rained, we used to nail another piece of wood across the doorframe and dump another truckload of earth to reinforce the barricade. But the water level rose further. And the authorities never did anything.”

The real crisis in disaster risk reduction revolves around the so-called ‘vulnerability gap’ in urban communities where the authorities often lack the finance, the knowledge and the will to ensure a well-functioning urban environment and the communities have few resources and lack political influence.

Many of the 50,000 people who can die in an unexceptional year from earthquakes, or the majority of the 100 million people who might annually expect to have their lives turned upside down by floods, live in squalor on dangerous sites with no hazard-reducing infrastructure and no services.

Given the already large deficit in infrastructure and services that exists in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the urban risk divide is only set to grow wider as climate change brings on ever more severe disaster impacts in some of the world’s most vulnerable locations. Millions of people will be regularly marooned on rooftops in cities such as Dhaka competing for space with snakes. In Alexandria, Egypt, a 50 cm rise in sea levels will make 2 million people homeless.

Most population growth in the next decades will be in towns and cities of low- and middle-income countries. This urban expansion is conducive to more disasters because of the failure of governments, and many large international agencies and NGOs to adapt to the reality of urbanization.

The truth is that too many aid agencies lack urban policies and are slow to make the necessary shift from rural development, which is still very essential, to finding ways to better support vulnerable urban communities.

One of the great challenges of the 21st century for the humanitarian aid community is to learn how to work with the untitled, the undocumented, the unlisted and the unregistered that live on the edges of our cities in the flood plains and seismic zones of cities like Managua and Istanbul.

Forcible eviction is a constant threat to the urban poor who live from generation to generation without security of tenure. When disaster strikes and they lose everything, they are all too often at the back of the queue.

Fortunately, there are some examples of how good urban governance can support communities in slum upgrading projects which lead to disaster risk reduction. In Thailand, for instance, the Community Organizations Development Institute has channelled government funds for upgrading slums to over 2 million households over the last 18 years, an impressive achievement by any standards.

Much of the future direction of aid in urban settings could depend on the success or failure of the enormous humanitarian and political commitment to Haiti in the wake of last January’s catastrophic quake. A new universal way of working with the urban poor must emerge from the rubble of Port-au-Prince, which will ensure that building back better in the wake of disaster means treating owners, tenants and informal dwellers equally by emphasizing security of tenure.

If widely adopted, such an approach would be a huge contribution to risk management and a good first step towards motivating communities on the frontlines of disaster zones around the world to concentrate their energies on disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.

And, back to our launch in Nairobi. One of the most important parts of the event was a community video produced entirely by young people of Kibera which is reputed to be one of the world's largest slums - this video presents life in a slum by those who know best, the residents. The urban poor are the real experts and need to be put firmly at the center of all efforts aimed at improving life in informal settlements and reducing the vulnerability of the population. This, we hope, is at least a good start.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pakistan: When floods recede, toughest challenges begin

The Pakistan 'superflood' has continued to be the primary focus of our combined aid efforts over the last weeks. Haiti has for now taken a back seat and other massive 'disasters' such as Niger - where famine looms and more than seven million are 'food insecure' - struggle to get the needed attention and funds.

The devastation in Pakistan has been one of the worst natural disasters witnessed in recent times in terms of the numbers of people affected and the massive swathes of territory that are completely destroyed and cut-off. But that is not nearly the whole story.

The impact has not only been about loss of life and entire communities being uprooted. Arguably more significant, livelihoods, properties, income sources, assets, animals, machinery and food stocks of millions of people (many of whom were already living hand-to-mouth) has been washed away and swallowed by the mountains of mud.

Throw into the mix the volatile political situation in-country and on Pakistan's borders and we have a cocktail for potential civil unrest and destabilization. Security concerns for the population and aid workers are growing and, in terms of media interest, these aspects of the disaster are now receiving more attention it seems than the actual human suffering - 'not getting aid through' is a much better story after all than 'getting aid through'.

I embed here for you a photo slide show we but together with our friends at Reuters in an effort to raise awareness (and funds - more than 50'000 hits so far). We will need to produce more of this type of product in order to dispell any misperceptions out there that when the floods recede the disaster is over - the opposite of course is the truth, the real problems are only starting.

A final word of recognition for the Pakistan Red Crescent - they are doing an incredible job and are leading the international effort of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement on the ground (for our latest update, if interested, check this). Years of dealing with large scale disasters and conflict-related population displacements has provided them with great experience and capacities. They will continue to receive our international solidarity, support and reinforcements as they strive to cope with the consequences in the years ahead.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

A day to commemorate (and celebrate) aid workers

Today. August 19th, is the second year of what is being called World Humanitarian Day. Who needs another international day you may well ask - there are so many at this stage that we can barely fit them into a full calendar year.

Like others, I was probably a bit cynical, or at least non-committal when WHD was introduced last year (you know it's got legs in the humanitarian world when we give it its very own acronym!). However, this year I have literally bought the tee-shirt and will probably take part in a quiet procession later on this evening in Geneva to remember colleagues who are no longer with us. Why the change of heart - maybe a gradual realization that we have more than enough cynicism in our 'business' and a to set aside one dignified day a year to remember slain colleagues is pretty decent actually when it boils down to it.

For me, unfortunately, this list of murdered colleagues, and colleagues who have died in the line of duty (to borrow a military metaphor) is too long. So today I will be especially thinking of Rita and the Jacaranda that grows in her honor in the DRC. I will be thinking back to my first mission with the ICRC when six colleagues were slain as they slept in Chechnya on 17th December 1996. And, some dear former colleagues will spring to mind from the long list of aid workers whose lives have been cut short as they tried to effect positive change in their homelands in places such as Iraq, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia and too many other locations. And, most recently, in Afghanistan, when ten aid workers were mercilessly executed - our Wayfarer-in-Chief, Bob McKerrow, has written a moving and personal account of this recent tragedy in his blog.

As long as WHD remembers those of all nationalities, expatriate or not, it will be worth commemorating. I posted the video here which has been put together for the day. It is especially gratifying to see a video that doesn't glorify 'disaster porn', that doesn't bastardize 'branding porn' and that focuses firmly on the principle of principles that binds us all together - Humanity.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Hunger is far from being History

On Tuesday Niger marked its 50 years of independence from France - but there is little or no reason to celebrate. Instead of fireworks, monuments, public holidays or parties, half of Niger's 13.5 million people are facing famine.

Niger has the dubious distinction of being known as the poorest country on the planet. Right now it is on the cusp of a famine. In the aidocratic world of humanitarian action people can get quiet hysterical about terminology: is Niger 'food insecure', is it suffering from food shortages, drought or famine. It is categorically facing famine and it is estimated that 1.5 million children are currently at real risk of death from starvation.

Why is it that despite all the awareness, despite the grand political ambition to rid the planet of hunger, despite billions being pumped into food aid and hunger alleviation programs - why is it that more than 35 years after the momentous World Food Summit (Rome, 1974) when Kissinger famously proclaimed a veritable war on famine and promised “that within a decade no child will go to bed hungry” - why is it hunger is a daily reality for a cool billion people? The fact is we have collectively failed to tackle hunger. We are - to our eternal shame - worse of now than we were in 1974.

I want to post a video here of Saray Amadaou, a mother of ten children, who struggles to keep the wolves of starvation from her door by feeding her family from grains scraped from the dry earth. The Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK posted the video on their Facebook page and it sparked some interesting debate. "Why", one lady asked, "Why do you have 10 children and if the Red Cross helps you, will you see this as the opportunity to have more children?". Others offered their opinion explaining that large families were actually coping mechanisms because of hunger and high infant mortality. Nevertheless, the fatigue, the frustration, the futility with seemingly never-ending food crisis is palpable (and understandable).

What do you think? Should the Red Cross Red Crescent and other aid organizations practice 'laissez faire' knowing that millions would die a horrible death or do we continue to provide 'emergency rations' keeping people barely alive as we seek out the magic 'sustainable solutions' formula and battle against a host of external factors such as currency fluctuations, bio fuels, epidemics, desertification, trade, conflict or weather and climate related disasters?

And, hunger, despite what we might think, is not solely an African problem. The situation is arguably worse in Asia. In Pakistan, hunger is now a direct consequence of the horrific floods that have decimated the region. Wheat prices have doubled this year and are set to rise another 30% before the year is out - food riots are again surfacing in North Africa and the Americas.

Global hunger is a reality.  Making hunger history is still a lofty ideal. Why are we so far from making hunger history?


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

World Cup Competition off-the-pitch

Am writing this post as the plucky Bafana go one up against the pitiful French. After the Henry affair, no prizes for guessing where my sympathies lie. I have been so far mostly watching the world cup on the BBC’s Match of the Day program and have been mightily impressed by thier welcome efforts to raise awareness about issues of poverty, inequality, discrimination and the shameful injustice of apartheid.

Alan Shearer has been dispatched as a no-nonsense interviewer and he has a refreshingly honest, unpretentious, from-the-hip style. Their short reports on the Robbin Island soccer team and the plight of a struggling rap artist from the townships were particularily good. Compare this editorial treatment to the drivel over on ITV where James “God I’m so bloody Hilarious” Cordon brings dumbed down TV to new depths of drivel (Bafana just scored again! Au revoir les Bleus).

Can the ‘real’ economy please stand up

Off the pitch, the FIFA World Cup has seen a tense standoff between South Africa's formal and informal economies as they compete for their share of the spinoffs, but declaring a winner may be hard. FIFA itself has come under serious fire for it’s heavy-handed fiscal demands - aka greed - on the South African nation.

Cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg have struggled to balance the concerns of street traders, whose livelihoods depend on selling sweets, foodstuff and other goods at transportation hubs and intersections, with the demands of hosting the international competition.

As early as 2008, city officials started relocating traders away from traditional vending areas that would be near stadiums and fan parks; the traders mobilised in response, with varying success.

South Africa's official unemployment rate is around 25 percent but independent economists put it as high as high as 40 percent, so the informal sector has been a refuge for those unable to get a steady job. The Human Sciences Research Council has estimated that the informal economy accounts for about 7 percent of gross domestic product.

“Will my children eat soccer balls?”

Renovations to Cape Town's Green Point stadium, just outside the CBD, and to the main transport hubs and the Grand Parade – a plaza opposite City Hall where vendors have done business for decades - meant informal traders were relocated, several times.

The disruptions were bad for business; the new Green Point market is expected to accommodate only about a third of the vendors who previously traded there.

In Soweto, Johannesburg, the Soccer City Traders Association had been supplying food to construction workers at the flagship stadium since work began there. When the association received an eviction notice in February 2010, it banded together with 33 other similar organizations in Gauteng Province and marched on FIFA's Local Organizing Committee (LOC) headquarters.

Carrying banners and placards with slogans like "Will my children eat soccer balls?", traders demanded formal employment opportunities with FIFA affiliates, allocated vending sites at venues, and a stop to relocations. Similar marches took place in Cape Town. 

"You feel like they are taking away your job," said Soccer City Traders Association vice-chair Cecilia Dube, a widowed mother of four who also supports her sister's children and elderly parents. "This is the only way I am getting bread on my table."

This echos a widely held opinion that the informal sector has provided economic opportunities that the formal sector has not, including better wages and independence. According to the International Labour Office, about 70 percent of South Africa's informal traders are women.

Change of fortunes 

Dube said their luck changed just five days before the World Cup started on 11 June, when the City of Johannesburg told selected traders they had been allocated space in the stadium precincts, at FIFA-branded fan fests, and public viewing areas.

"Informal traders have been trained and accredited by the City's Department of Economic Development, and these are the traders who are trading in the designated areas," said Sibongile Mazibuko, head of the City of Johannesburg's 2010 department. She said these traders were largely those who had worked in the vicinity of stadiums during construction or renovation.

FIFA regulations stipulate exclusion zones, which mean traders have to be located further afield from the stadiums and teaming crowds.

I asked a friend just returned today about the benefits of the World Cup and he was quiet clear. “Infrastructure improvements benefit us. They don’t benefit people in the townships. You can now get from the airport to the centre of Joburg by high-speed train in ten minutes or drive on a new motorway to Pretoria in 25mins – that doesn’t mean diddly squat for people living in townships without running water or toilets”.

/PC with additional info from IRIN news.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

AIRSICK: An Industrial Devolution

The issue of climate change will not disappear just because a few skeptics have (misleadingly) dented the numbers. Our addiction to fossil fuels has led us to the brink (just witness the horrific eco-tragedy playing out in the Gulf of Mexico). 

Embedded here is a magnificent multimedia piece produced by Mediastorm and Lucas Oleniuk of the Toronto StarThis is a local story with a global message. Of the 20'000 images used in the production all but two were taken in the Ontario region. "My hope is that one day this film will be seen as the way we used to do things" says Oleniuk. "Don't let climate change fall from the political agenda" says HDEO! 

Airsick: an Industrial Devolution (the message):

We are upsetting the atmosphere upon which all life depends. 
The heat is on. 
It's the way we live. 
Coal is the single biggest threat to civilization and to all life on our planet. 
But it's not just coal. 
Nearly a quarter of the world's CO2 emissions now come from transportation. 
Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. 
The world's energy demands will rise over 40% by 2030. 
Do nothing? 
The metabolism of our planet is now on a collision course with the metabolism of our planet. 
Time is running out. 
The Time to Act is Now.

or, in Obama's words: "The issue of climate change is one that we ignore at our peril. There may still be disputes about exactly how much we're contributing to the warming of the earth's atmosphere and how much is naturally occurring, but what we can be scientifically certain of is that our continued use of fossil fuels is pushing us to a point of no return. And unless we free ourselves from a dependence on these fossil fuels and chart a new course on energy in this country, we are condemning future generations to global catastrophe."

Last December, we (the International Red Cross) released a co-production with Mediastorm and the Thomson Reuters Foundation to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, one of the worst natural disasters to unleash itself on our planet. The award-winning piece was called "Surviving the Tsunami: Stories of Hope".


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Yemen's elusive peace

Recent declarations of peace breaking out in Yemen seem to be a tad premature. A fragile ceasefire between the army and Houthi-led rebels in northern Yemen has been put under renewed strain following the deaths of three government followers in clashes with the rebels that left a dozen others injured, according to local witnesses from the Bani Awair area of Saada Governorate. (Photo: Waiting to go home - IDPs receiving aid in Al Ghubba, Yemen).

The Houthis accuse Bani Awair local authorities of giving fighters cash and weapons to attack their followers. 

“Local tribesmen, receiving support from the government, set up an ambush against many of our men, killing one of them and injuring another two,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdussalam has claimed, adding that the Houthis were determined to uphold the 11 February ceasefire despite provocation.

He accused the government of fomenting tensions just as life was gradually returning to some sort of normality in the war-ravaged north, a charge the government denied and lobbed back at the rebels. 

Abdullah Dhahban, a Saada council member, said the government was determined to restore peace and stability to Saada and blamed Houthis for hindering the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their homes. “Efforts to promptly return IDPs have stopped as a result of ongoing violations committed by Houthi gunmen,” he said. 

According to aid agencies on the ground, more than 250,000 people have been displaced by the six-year-old conflict and very few have returned due to the volatile situation in Saada. 

According to the UN’s Humanitarian Affairs office (OCHA), progress in implementing the six ceasefire conditions of the “sixth Saada war” since 2004 is very slow and the situation remains fragile. 

“There is some concern that unless the underlying causes of the conflict are addressed with a comprehensive peace agreement, there may be further unrest,” an OCHA spokesperson said. 

Many analysts expect a seventh war to erupt at any time because the real causes of the dispute have not been addressed by the government. 

Check out here a previous HDEO blog post about Yemen's geo-strategic importance

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Haiti's Camp from Hell

Alex Wynter, a good friend of HDEO (check out his great posts on Albinism and Rwanda) has been working for us in Haiti for most of the last months since the earthquake struck. He has been regularly doing media interviews and posting stories. Alex is now en route out of Haiti for a well-deserved break - here is one of his latest and one of his best stories from Britzon Camp 6 otherwise known as the camp from hell. Photos from colleague José Manuel Jiméniz. 

Many quake camps in Haiti are unpleasant because they’re next to rubbish dumps; or dangerous for being on flood plains or at the foot of unstable slopes; or isolated and possibly forgotten for being in the middle of nowhere or buried at the end of side streets. 

But for sheer hellish living conditions nothing beats this place: Camp Bizoton 6, Route Raille.
“I’ve worked in at least 35 camps now, and none was anywhere near as bad as this,” says Jens Poul Madsen, team leader of the International Federation's Danish Red Cross relief emergency response unit, which has just done an assessment there and now plans to expedite a distribution.

Madsen, by common consent one of the most experienced and determined of the relief delegates who have worked in Haiti, uses his words advisedly.
 (Photo: A mother and child in their shelter at Haiti’s Bizoton 6 camp. The backs of the shelters face the eastbound side, their fronts the westbound).

The Bizoton 6 “camp” consists of a single file of shacks nearly a kilometre long on the central reservation of Route Raille – the busy coastal highway leading west out of Port-au-Prince.

Tyres and stones

The front of the shelters face the westbound side; their backs the eastbound.

The quake-affected residents – 965 of them according to the local committee – have placed tyres and stones on the road to force traffic to stay a couple of metres from their doors.

Even just standing outside one of the shelters is an ordeal.

Every truck that roars past spews dust and diesel exhaust right into the doors and windows. Should any vehicle linger, it’s immediately blasted forward by a cacophony of horns – standard practice in the Haitian capital.

It’s difficult to talk and – many residents say – impossible to sleep. The combination of noise, dirt, heat, fumes and stress is overwhelming.

Every trip to the toilets involves darting through the traffic. As does any trip anywhere for that matter.

“Last resort”

Parents are permanently terrified for their children, choosing simply to lock them in the shelters for much of the time.

Occasionally, they’re run down, like nine-year-old Emmanuela Mondesir was recently; she had a lucky escape, losing only a front tooth after she was knocked onto her face.

“For three days after the quake we looked for somewhere to take refuge,” says Luma Ludger, 30, the head of the Bizoton 6 camp committee.

“There was no open space at all, so in the end on 16 January we came here. It was a last resort.

“Now the camp is actually growing again. People who’ve been evicted from other quake sites are coming here.” The central strip is packed with shelters from one end to the other.

Clearly the Bizoton 6 residents need to be moved as urgently as any quake-affected people in Haiti. But asked what their most urgent daily needs are, Ludger says only, “protection from the rains”, which are intensifying, and “a safe place for children”.

“There’s just no peace,” says 31-year-old Jean Kempez, yelling above the tyre roar he and his neighbours live with round the clock.


“We live like animals,” he says, with considerable understatement as there is no developed country in which animals could legally be kept in the conditions that prevail at Bizoton 6.

Pierre Betty, 26, says that last week a car left the road and demolished a shelter that was mercifully empty at the time. “People just ran in all directions, but thank God no one was killed.”

Somewhat miraculously the camp from hell has retained a sense of community, even though there is no place to gather safely; people wander up and down the line of shacks dodging cars and trucks to meet and talk.

“My husband would like to find a job that would pay enough for us to be able to leave this place,” says Judith Sinnew, 38, who shows off the huge scar covering much of her calf muscle from the messy fracture she suffered in the quake.

What can be done?


“The first priority is to get them some proper family supplies,” says Jens Poul Madsen, “but we don’t want to provide full shelter kits because these people have to move from here – it’s just too dangerous to stay.

“The logistics of distribution will be very difficult,” he adds. “We can’t stop the traffic or assemble beneficiaries near their homes, so we’ll have to find some neutral territory where we can set up.”

Bizoton 6, it has to be said, slipped through the humanitarian net. Anyone who’s been working in Haiti for any length of time will have driven past it at some point.

Yet even here, in this nightmarish place, people smile, are welcoming to outsiders, and patient with each other.

In Bizoton 6, probably not for the first time, the foreign aid worker cannot but wonder: surely the equanimity of the Haitian people must be deceptive?

ps: this post originally appeared on with more photos - for some reason blogger won't let me post more than one photo here - gotta find a new blog platform methinks, too many glitches /PC

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Stereotypical Stigma

An image on the cover of National Geographic in a shop here in Minsk caught my eye today. It was of a young Masai woman, with her breast exposed. This in a town where soft porn is not on the shelves.

And another image, sent electronically by Reuters is really haunting me today. It’s of a black woman in Sao Paolo smoking crack. She’s hugely pregnant, surrounded by other users, sprawled on the ground, mouth open, belly out, legs akimbo.

Later in the series we see a pic of the photographer, secreted away in an overlooking building, working under a black cape that hides him and the camera.

The series of photos told me crack is a problem for black people, and if you want to film them you’d better make sure they don’t catch you.

But hang on. There’s no attempt to hide these people’s identity. They are committing a crime and their faces are revealed. They have not given any consent to be filmed. And their addiction is treated as grubby, filthy, scary.

They are portrayed as somehow sub-human. Slumped against the wall, eyes rolled back, crashed out on the manky pavement.

Sure, the life of a crack addict is a vile, miserable one. I think we know that. But I don’t think any young black Brazilians seeing this will say “that’s it. No crack for me thanks”. Worse, white Brazilian kids may  say “I can smoke a rock or two. It’s only the blacks that can’t handle it.” (Only stupid people get trafficked/AIDS/addicted).

Where’s the public good?

Where’s the photo series of Japanese businessmen falling out of karaoke bars, barfing on the street? The twenty-something alcoholic student nurse in Newcastle pissing in the gutter? The Russian comatose in the snow? The coked-up Wall Street investment banker driving his Merc through a shop window?

It seems its ok to portray black people as miserable, criminal, feral. Or as corpses. Starved in Somalia, mutilated in Rwanda, piled up on the streets in Port-au-Prince. Bloated and floating in New Orleans after Katrina.

What am I supposed to think, when I see this pregnant woman, crack-pipe in hand, feeding her unborn baby poison? Bringing a child into Cracolandia. Blame her? Forbid her to reproduce?

That’s this thinking that allows nice white people to go to Haiti and cherrypick “orphans” to export. That’s the thinking that says “oh, their life would be terrible. Their parents would jump at the chance to let them have an American education.”

That’s the logic that says “It’s not slavery. ALL African kids work on the farm during the holidays. Their parents can’t afford to keep them so they have to work on the cocoa plantations”. Here’s a song for anyone who believes that.

Aid agencies, led by the IFRC, came up with a code of conduct in the mid-90s which we still live by. Occasionally we sail close to the wind, but essentially our code is sacrosanct and it says: “In our information, publicity and advertising activities, we shall recognise disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects”.

The irony is, of course, that we have to show the picture before we can criticise it.

And, knowing many excellent people in Reuters, I know they don’t just wake up and say “let’s dump on the black Brazilians today.”

I am sure they agonize on the merits, artistic, journalistic, humanitarian. And maybe, maybe they’ve thrown a stone that hit home. The truth is there is no dignity in crack addiction. But all of us, you, me, President Obama, Lady Gaga, Prince William and the entire cast of Lost were born naked, scared, but with the same right to life and dignity. And without Fernando Donasci’s photo essay I might not have had that thought today, and you might not have read it. 

Photo rights - it was not possible to use the Reuters photos referred to but we did link to the slideshow provided by Reuters for potential purchase. The photo used in this post is from the infamous Cracolandia but this time from AP and another photographer called Mauricio Lima. Interestingly, this slideshow also features the pregnant woman spoken about here. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Haiti: the first Digital Disaster

Its been over four months now since the killer quake destroyed much of Haiti's capital city, killing an (under)estimated 250'000 people in the process, decapitating government institutions and wrecking an economy that was already near rock bottom. Haiti's humanitarian impact has resonated around the world resulting in an outpouring of support and a near-unprecedented mobilization of aid agencies to a single country. One facet of the Haiti disaster response has been the pervasive and effective use of SMS technologies combined with new social media tools. Indeed, even Obama was tweeting - surely a first for an American president. Here are some reflections for you to ponder on a topic that is evolving so fast, with so much untapped potential that its manifestation and role in future disaster scenarios will surely surprise us all.

Texts and Tweets

“Hotel Montana at Rue Franck Cardozo in Petionville collapsed. 200 feared trapped.”

“We are in the street Saint Martin below Bel Air near the hotel. We are dying of hunger. Please bring us aid.”

These desperate pleas were sent by text message in the first few days after the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince. They were sent through the Emergency Information Service, a disaster communications project established by the Thompson Reuters Foundation, as a way to get information quickly to and from survivors of natural disasters. (Photo: a man rents mobile phone chargers by the hour in downtown Port-au-Prince . (REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/courtesy

It’s not your traditional cry for help. But in Haiti, with traditional media and phone systems destroyed, text messages and Twitter were often the only way desperate, hungry or hurting people could signal their distress.

The Emergency Information Service was then able to locate the callers by GPS, plot their location on maps, and referred the call to volunteers on the ground. Concrete examples include directing injured Haitians via text message to one of the few city hospitals with room to treat more patients.

The system also helped search-and-rescue teams find people trapped in the rubble. Red Cross teams on the ground received dozens of messages from people trapped in the rubble. This information was relayed promptly to evacuation teams supported by Haitian Red Cross first aid volunteers.

In addition, the Haitian Red Cross National Society and the IFRC teamed up with Voila mobile phone company to text more than 1.2 million subscribers a day with messages about vaccinations, shelter, sanitation, public health information and other vital data. The push of a button achieved what would normally take an army of volunteers days.

From ‘victims’ to first responders
The idea of using cell phone technology in disaster management is not new. After the 2004 Tsunami, it became clear that modern wireless communication could play critical role in systems for both early warning as well as crisis management.

Digital communications are only a small part of a broader strategy to give greater voice to those most affected by natural disasters. The approach recognizes that people affected by disasters are not 'victims' but a significant force of first responders who need to be empowered and engaged as part of the overall aid effort. After all, it is their recovery, their future, their lives and livelihoods at stake.

How might new technologies change disaster response?

The prevalence of new approaches that utilize, among others, SMS and Twitter; crisis mapping and crowd sourcing, raises a number of important questions for future disaster response and provides us with an important dilemma.

In an evolving emergency (such as during the first days of Haiti) when data is scarce but it is clear that the needs are both urgent and massive how can aid agencies organize themselves to respond to individual requests for help? Should aid agencies even contemplate to organizing themselves to respond to individual calls for help? In Haiti, because of the widespread devastation, the Red Cross was faced with a situation where we did not even have water and sanitation or shelter for ourselves, no telecommunications and no electricity in the first days. Because of its self-sustaining Emergency Response Units however it could still manage to set up surgical field hospitals, mass water distributions and basic health care clinics.

That is, we promptly tackled the ‘known knowns’ based on our experiences from decades of disaster response. This experience informs the type of relief provided for known urgent needs that surface in the wake of large-scale disasters. Relief distributions of essential household items such as shelter materials, hygiene kits and kitchen sets quickly followed the emergency medical and water aid, as did reuniting separated families. That is how humanitarian organizations are currently organized.

To effectively respond to tens of thousands of individual cries for help however is currently ‘impossible’ today. There are two immediate challenges to overcome. Firstly, and most importantly perhaps, is to verify the needs. To confirm that received information from individuals relates to actual needs takes resources and takes time; and time is the single most important and scarce resource in the early days of emergency response. (Photo: In the chaos of the camp at Leogane’s footbaal stadium, two hours drive south of Port-au-Prince, this man has set up a mobile phone recharging business.)

Second challenge is the diverse range of needs – in Haiti the Red Cross received urgent requests for help such as: food, blankets, blood, evacuations, tracing missing children, contacting relatives abroad, dialysis treatment, psychological support, money, tents, water, baby food, diapers, protection from looters, mobile phone chargers, clothes, prescription and off the shelf medicines, fuel for vehicles and generators, spare parts, flash lights etc. etc. etc. It takes enormous time to sift through this information, verify it and respond to it – even if it were possible it is arguably much less efficient and effective than the current emergency response mechanisms to the known urgent and life-saving medical, water and shelter needs.

Mapping a crisis has powerful potential

However, this virtual hosepipe of customized information about individual needs cannot be ignored and does have value. It is currently possible to ‘crisis map’ this crowd sourced data and categorize it into useful trending data that can then be shared with and responded to by organizations who specialize in the specific needs requested such as shelter, child protection or blood supply. But we are not there yet and it would require nothing less than a full reorganization of how emergency response is conceived and conducted today.

One challenge for instance, relates to the ‘risks’ potentially associated with crowd sourcing which must first be mitigated and dealt with. Without getting too detailed here there is real potential for vested interests to manipulate data (particularly in a politically-charged context) by mass blasting misinformation via text or twitter to attract aid into their neighbourhoods or worse, to wrongly signal widespread sexual violence with the intention of sparking off reactionary but unwarranted violence by the offended ethnic group. Unproven allegations of this have been made in DRC for instance where the ground-breaking crowd sourcing mapping tool Ushahidi is widely used.

But hasn’t information always been the first casualty of conflict? An indication of desperation. Such known risks of information abuse, with potentially lethal outcomes, should not detract from the massive good and value that a tool such as Ushahidi can bring. Indeed, people learn quickly – in Chile during the earthquake that struck almost 3 months ago, citizens quickly developed their own version of a crowd-sourced crisis map using freely available Google mapping softwardGoogle themselves quickly launched an online person finder application which has been widely used (almost 80’000 people registered to date) to excellent effect (note: this is of course a ‘traditional’ area of the Red Cross – tracing – being increasingly ‘challenged’ by media companies such as CNN and Google).

Nothing New, not really

And then of course there’s Twitter – perhaps the most powerful crowd sourcing tool out there; at least the one whose huge potential is simultaneously being tapped and explored. Information is so easily transmitted via SMS or online that it can transmit and filter millions of data messages per second. In Chile in particular the speed and efficiency of, for example, search and rescue information channelled through Twitter was hugely impressive.

Chile Twitter lists #terremotochile and #fuerzachile (labeled after President Bachelet's message of strength to the Chilean population) served as central repositories, not only of information but of connections. There have also been two main search and rescue lists distributed via Twitter and later on Facebook, blogs, media and beyond Ayudemos a Chile (Helping Chile) and Terremoto Chile (Chile Earthquake)

Why is Twitter so popular – in my opinion because it is nothing new: Spread the word, let others know - unite in difficult times. And that’s the bottom line. New media, new online tools must be used and adapted to increase humanitarian impact and relevance during times of disaster (and also during times of quiet, by improving early warning systems or enhancing accountability to people affected by disasters for instance).

Twitter, Facebook, Skype and Youtube, to name a few, have also greatly improved and changed the way aid organizations are communicating to the media, donors and the general public. These social media tools enable a two-way conversation. The days have passed when organizations can rely on controlling their message and mass broadcasting it in a uni-directional fashion via traditional print and broadcast channels.

Today its about engaging with your audience; about trying to communicate your message to guide, encourage, engage and influence your stakeholders and, importantly, enlist them as active supporters. Social media in an instant breaks down the staid, clinical, impermeable boundaries that institutions have a tendency to create. Instead, it strips away the divisions and demonstrates clearly that your organization, your national Red Cross society, is about real people; real people who can be easily connected with and maybe even supported in terms of promoting your humanitarian message, fundraising or advocating in the interests of the most vulnerable. This evolving ‘humanization’ of organizational culture and increasing engagement of ordinary citizens into political and business thinking, which is being unwittingly and undeniably achieved by online media, may be one of the reasons why it’s not so ridiculous after all that the Internet has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize!