Friday, November 18, 2011

Head Up, Eyes Closed

In February 2009, not long after I arrived in Geneva to work for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, I started this blog - mainly as a means to write about humanitarian issues that I felt needed discussion or greater awareness but also as an exercise in learning more about social media.

In no small way the discipline of writing a blog (over 200 original posts to date) opened up my eyes and provoked my curiosity about the power of citizen media and how new technologies can empower people who are often characterized (wrongly) as helpless victims.

The power of technology to empower is an issue that is becoming clear in political circles, slightly better understood in the corporate world and just about gaining attention in the aid and humanitarian sectors.

In recent weeks I moved jobs to pursue my growing interest in the role of technology in society - that is, not about my interest in technology per se (though I am partial to a few gadgets for sure) but in how technology can be used to bring about real change from the personal, community, organizational, national and even global levels.

In my new role with the International Telecommunication Union (the UN's specialized agency for information and communication technologies) I will be focused on how technology can be used for good, how we can work together to bridge the digital divide and how we can shape policies that guarantee not just people's right to communicate but their right to access the critical infrastructure that enables communication.

So, while I step slightly aside from humanitarian action and dip my toes into issues more related to development and technology I will also take the opportunity to close the Head Down Eyes Open chapter and wander into new blogging adventures. The plan is to create a new blog that focuses more directly on the centrality of technology in transforming the world. It will advocate for peoples right to communicate and champion access to critical communication infrastructure so these rights - as laid out in Article 19 of the bill of Human Rights - are to be respected.

In the coming days I will post a link to the new blog but in the meantime I wanted to thank everyone who I had the pleasure to engage with - more than 50'000 readers - to everyone who contributed comments and of course to JoeJoeBloggs who penned some fantastic posts for HDEO. I hope we all managed in some small way to contribute productively to important humanitarian debates and make a few new friends along the way. Thanks a million and hopefully see you all over on the new blog in the not-too-distant future. And remember, Head Down Eyes Open ;o)

Watch this space ..... 

Friday, September 9, 2011

Monsoon Misery for Millions of South Asians

A staggering 16 million people - as much as the entire population of the Netherlands - have now been affected by flooding caused by heavy and sustained monsoon rains falling across South Asia. The floods are causing massive displacement of populations across Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal - bringing widespread destruction to homes, livelihoods and agricultural cropland.

According to the government in Pakistan - déjà-vu from last year, when the worst floods in living memory wreaked havoc throughout the country - 
five million people have been directly affected by floods which have struck areas across most of the country. During the last month intense rainfall caused flooding in 20 out of 23 districts in the southern district of Sindh alone, while areas of Eastern Baluchistan and Punjab Provinces have also been badly hit. Close to a million homes have been damaged or destroyed and the current disaster has left thousands without food and shelter. Over 140,000 displaced people are now living in temporary relief camps and the numbers are rising.
“We cannot fail these communities”, says Senator Nilofer Bhaktiar, chairwoman of the Pakistan Red Crescent, “For the past year we have struggled to help thousands to recover from the 2010 floods. Just as their crops were ready to harvest, the floods have come again and literally taken the food from their mouths”.  

More rain to come in India

Heavy rains have also deluged many States throughout India, causing severe flooding which has resulted in large-scale population displacement in the north-eastern state of Assam and the northern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh as well as in Punjab and West Bengal. Entire communities remain marooned in some areas as flood waters have made it almost impossible for search and rescue teams to reach them.

Current government figures estimate that over 300 people have been killed and 8.6 million people have been affected across five States since the start of monsoon season. 

The numbers of people affected have doubled in just a few weeks and there is more rain to come”,
says John Roche, country representative for the International Red Cross in India. “Thousands have lost homes and livelihoods leaving many wage-earners with no choice but to migrate to nearby towns to find work“.

The monsoon has also caused havoc downstream in Bangladesh rains where several major rivers have burst their banks. The floods engulfed vast areas spanning the length and breadth of the country, causing misery for over 1.5 million people. 

Nepal too has suffered this year. This year’s monsoon rains triggered several flash floods affecting more than 2,600 families and claiming 90 lives, with 40 people reported missing.  


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pakistan one year on - what has been learned?

As Pakistan commemorates one year since the horrendous super-floods, chairperson of the Pakistani Red Crescent, Ms. Nilofar Bakhtiar, outlines what she believes are the critical steps needed to protect vulnerable populations against future risk.

It has been one year since monsoon rains triggered landslides and flooding, the likes of which Pakistan has not experienced in 80 years. In its wake, hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, millions of acres of valuable farmland were left water-logged, and infrastructure such as roads and bridges were swept away. One fifth of the country was submerged, and a staggering 20 million people were affected (photo of Pakistani Red Crescent Chairperson, Nilofar Bakhtiar, left, compliments of AP).
With the next monsoon season on our doorstep, it is vital that collectively, we take the necessary steps to ensure people do not experience such suffering again in Pakistan, or anywhere else in the world when the next disaster hits.
We at the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) are taking this to heart as we assist survivors of last year’s monstrous floods in their recovery. Disaster risk reduction (DRR) and disaster preparedness programming are the common factors that bind our projects together. But we cannot do this alone. It is incumbent on all sectors of society to embrace these life saving initiatives; to make DRR and disaster preparedness part of the law of the land.
Our efforts must stem from the needs of the people. We are helping flood survivors identify challenges they currently face, and those they will encounter in the event of another disaster. We are organizing village committees and teaching them how to develop village preparedness plans. We will help these village committees register with the government to ensure they are linked in with early warning systems.
The monsoon floods in Pakistan took six weeks to travel the length of the country, yet Sindh province in the south was still the worst affected. If villagers had been warned about the oncoming flood waters, injuries, deaths and damage to personal property would have been far less. 

We are encouraging people to rebuild their houses on higher ground, and are training workers on the use of more construction methods.
But for this to work, those at the grass roots level must get on board and embrace the power they have to make a positive change in their own lives. They need to take ownership of such disaster preparedness programmes, and in the process, become more self-reliant. It is then – and only then – that we will be able to build stronger, more resilient communities.
Complex disasters are nothing new to Pakistan. We have endured massive earthquakes, floods, cyclones, and drought. In 2007, flash flooding triggered by cyclone Yemyin affected 1.5 million people. An earthquake in October 2005 left more than three million people homeless. Five years prior, a ten month drought affected 1.2 million people in Balochistan. And perhaps the deadliest of all, a cyclone in 1970 that killed 500,000 people. If history is any indicator of the future, Pakistan will fall victim to more large scale disasters. To not learn from them and improve responses in the future is inviting disaster.
Pakistan is learning from the disasters it has faced over the decades. In 2010, a National Disaster Management Act was adopted by Parliament, under which the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was formed. Similar bodies have also been created at the provincial, state and district levels. In 2007, the government of Pakistan joined 139 other governments in endorsing international guidelines that set out regulations and policies related to the provision of international relief during a disaster. We are currently working with NDMA to establish suitable guidelines for Pakistan. (Photo right Usman Ghani / IFRC)
Hundreds have been trained on disaster risk management, and plans to make villages more resilient to disaster are being developed. However, although institutional commitment has been achieved, the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR) states that achievements are neither comprehensive nor substantial and that many stumbling blocks remain to making any real progress.
The government, as an institution, needs to change its mindset from one that puts an emphasis on emergency response to one that makes disaster risk reduction an integral component of any sustainable development initiatives. Provincial governments, which are responsible for providing funds at the district level, have yet to make any substantial budgetary provisions in this regard. As a result, very little in the way of disaster risk reduction is taking place at the local level.
Natural disasters are indiscriminate and can strike any country. This is not likely to change as the impact of global warming grows stronger, the intensity of natural disasters increases, and more people are left living in precarious situations. No government or international organization is solely capable of responding to disasters of the magnitude we experienced last year. We need to support each other. To make that happen, the Pakistan government needs to put in place a transparent mechanism that facilitates international support and speeds our response to emergency situations.
We need to give communities the tools they need to rebuild their homes, their livelihoods and recover their dignity. We can no longer live in a world where disasters are forgotten, and with them thousands of people.

It is time for us all to take a stand and vow to do what we can. Villagers: participate in disaster preparedness initiatives, learn how to better prepare yourselves. Aid organizations: implement community-based disaster preparedness activities as part of your core programming. Private sector: stage discussion groups and disaster drills to ensure your employees know what to do when disaster strikes. Governments: enact disaster relief laws that clearly define roles and responsibilities of all players during a disaster, develop early warning systems and fund disaster prepared initiatives at the state/provincial and municipal levels.
We need to act, and we need to do it now.
originally published for

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Hunger & Hardship in the Horn

courtesy of BBC online

The Eastern Africa region, like the Sahel, is experiencing what has been described as the "most severe food crisis in the world today", with at least 10 million people affected in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 

Somalia is one of the hardest-hit countries in the region, with deaths being reported in some areas amid alarming malnutrition levels. 

"We are no longer on the verge of a humanitarian disaster; we are in the middle of it now. It is happening and no one is helping," according to Isaq Ahmed, the chairman of the Mubarak Relief and Development Organization (MURDO), a local NGO working in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia. 

He said: "In the three districts of Qoryoley, Kurtunwarey and Sablale [in Lower Shabelle] our estimate is that some 5,000 families [30,000 people] have been seriously affected by the current drought." 

Ahmed said those who can are moving towards Mogadishu in hope of survival. 

"Those remaining in the area are the ones who cannot even afford transport to Mogadishu," he said, adding that a number of people had died due to a combination of hunger and related diseases. “Most of those who died were children, the elderly, and lactating and pregnant mothers," he said. 

Up to eight people a day were being buried in Lower Shabelle, according to Sultan Sayidali Hassanow Aliyow Ibirow, a senior traditional elder in Lower Shabelle. Most of them were cattle herders who had lost everything. 

"Three years of little or no rain have led to this disaster. People have not recovered from their previous losses and now we have an even worse drought," he said. 

Driest season since 1950 

In many pastoral zones, this is the driest season on record since 1950. Drought conditions in Somalia have had regional implications, with refugees flowing into Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. The irony is that these three countries in particular are also suffering from drought and food shortages and struggling to keep their own populations free from hunger.
According to Save the Children, children arriving from Somalia in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya are exhausted, malnourished and severely dehydrated. 

"Nearly every child or parent we have spoken to says they are not just fleeing fighting in Somalia - the drought and food crisis are equally perilous to them now,” said Catherine Fitzgibbon, Save the Children's Kenya programme director. 

Experts are warning that the situation could get worse in the short term if the delayed and poor rains cause the current crop to fail. 

In Ethiopia, the estimated number of people in need of emergency food and non-food assistance was revised upwards from 2.8 million to 3.2 million. Nearly two thirds of the requirements were in the southern Somali and Oromia regions as well as in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, where shortages of water and food were recorded. And if drought were not bad enough, cereal prices have continued to rise, with inflation rates close to 30 percent recorded in April. 

According to the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group, a regional forum, the rate of Somali refugees arriving in southern Ethiopia has jumped from 5,000 per month to more than 30,000 in the second week of June. Among new arrivals to the two camps in the Dolo Ado area, the Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate is 45 percent, way beyond the 15 percent emergency threshold set by the World Health Organization. 

In Djibouti, poor rains from March to May of this year hurt pastoral household food security and sent food prices shooting up. The average price of wheat flour increased by 17 percent between January and February 2011, to US$620 per ton, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Information and Early Warning System, GIEWS. 

Rising Prices and Falling Currency in Kenya 

In Kenya, rising inflation rates have also adversely affected poor households’ ability to buy food. Prices of the main staple, maize, have tripled from about 1,300 shillings (US$14.4) in January to 4,500 ($50) for a 90kg bag. 

Recently, the government announced the removal of tax on imported maize in a bid to cushion consumers. But millers say rising global maize prices mean the measure will have little impact on the commodity's prices locally. (
Noor Guhad stands in the middle of the dry Oda earth dam, where water would have reached over his head three years ago. Now he has to dig deep to find water. Photo courtesy of

"The problem has been compounded by the fact that the Kenyan shilling has been on a free-fall, trading at an all-time low [about 90 shillings to the US dollar] not experienced in the country for almost two decades. I do not see the cost of maize dropping any time soon," said one local miller. 

The recent March to May “long rains” in Kenya were poor for the second or third successive season in most rangelands and cropping lowlands, with many of these areas receiving 10-50 percent of normal rains, noted the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET). 

The consequences include declining water and pasture, and subsequent livestock deaths. In the predominantly pastoralist north, a low milk supply has contributed to malnutrition levels soaring above 35 percent. The GAM rate in northwestern Turkana has hit 37.4 percent, the highest ever in the district. 

Nationally, at least 3.2 million people are currently food insecure - up from a projection of 2.4 and 1.6 million in April and January, respectively. 

Even in Kenya’s coastal region, thousands are food insecure, says the Kenya Red Cross Society’s (KRCS) region manager, Gerald Bombe, who oversees a Drought Response operation run jointly with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


thanks to our good friends at IRIN or the original version of this post.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Haiti: a new chapter unfolds

Today marks a new chapter in Haiti’s political history as Michael Martelly becomes the country’s 56th President. Waiting in the wings will be hundreds of international organisations and bilateral government donors, supported by millions of dollars of investments, looking to the new government to drive forward their human development strategies based on the fundamental tenets of economic opportunity and poverty reduction. These strategies, pledged in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake, will be critical to the physical and economic rebuilding of Haiti.
But as a new vision for Haiti is created, how can we ensure it is an inclusive vision which recognises the needs of the most vulnerable, 680,000 of whom are still living under canvas in camps in and around Port au Prince? What impact will a new government have on the work of the humanitarian community and how will it approach the difficulties which have held back the recovery process? The weight of expectation on the new government will be heavy, but now is not just a time to ask what the politicians of Haiti can do. We must all step up and push for a more effective way of working with local communities to support them in their recovery.
Make space available
This will mean facing the challenges with a sense of collective responsibility. The inevitable truth is that tens of thousands are likely to remain in camps and some larger camps are likely to become permanent settlements, shantytowns or even slums. The Red Cross remains committed to providing some basic support but what is the long term strategy for the camp population?
Some people are in camps because they have no other option, some hope for better healthcare, some that they may get priority for shelter. But the simple fact is that camps will exist as long as people do not have a more viable solution. The Red Cross has provided over 8000 families with safe and improved shelter solutions, in addition to the massive emergency shelter programme which reached over 900,000 people, but we have been massively restrained by a lack of suitable, available, land. Creating incentives for land owners to make space available on the outskirts of towns in and around Port au Prince should be a government priority.
Priced out of the market
Estimates suggest 80 per cent of Port-au-Prince residents were renters or squatters before the earthquake and so large scale efforts to repair houses will be the cornerstones of transitional and permanent reconstruction efforts in the coming years. Yet too often we are hearing of houses being repaired only for rent prices to be hiked up by the owners meaning tenants are priced out of the market. Policies focused on protecting renters must be introduced, along with rent subsidies. Evictions are of huge concern and action must be taken, at government level. The interests of the overwhelming majority of Haitians who are tenants, not owners, must be safeguarded.
Community development is also needed so people have access to water, can take their children to school and have access to job opportunities. This requires community level engagement and the Red Cross, through its 10,000 strong network of Haitian Red Cross volunteers, is looking at all the services needed for a community to thrive. Urban masterplans must be rooted in local knowledge and we recommend the government empowers local mayors and authorities – recognising they are best placed to drive forward community level initiatives.
Abandoning the Parachutes
The humanitarian community must also improve, and commit to increasing collaborative working with government departments. Too many aid interventions have ‘parachuted in’ support and left, or have been unable to handover to the authorities. Having provided over 250,000 people with safe water each day the Red Cross is currently finalising an agreement with DINEPA, the Haitian Government water agency, to hand over Red Cross water trucks and support with capacity building and training of staff. This type of transition must happen more quickly and more often.
Much has been achieved by the humanitarian community in response to the earthquake, but expectations that Haiti’s problems will be resolved by humanitarian assistance alone are unrealistic. The current political transition must act as a catalyst for a reinvigoration of aid efforts, supported by a closer way of working between the Government, multilateral and bilateral aid agencies, NGOs, the Red Cross and – most importantly - local communities. Well funded and coherent development strategies, backed by a stable, transparent government, have the potential to create a positive and lasting impact for the lives of many. But improving the lives of the majority must not include overlooking the needs of the vulnerable minority. Measures must be put in place now to protect and empower these communities, so they have a chance to play their parts in the development of Haiti’s future.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Chernobyl: 25 years on

Twenty Five years to the day of the world's worst technological disaster, we post a video from HDEO's own Joe Lowry.

Humanitarian Workers and Technological Disasters

For many years, it was said that the next Chernobyl would be Chernobyl. The creaking sarcophagus seemed to be the world’s biggest risk of a civilian nuclear accident. Never did we think that Japan would have to deal with a level seven disaster at a nuclear power plant, which – like Chernobyl – would require setting up exclusion zones, moving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, putting all national emergency plans into place, and watching almost helplessly as radiation poured unseen into the surrounding environment.

Radiation poisoning is the most sinister, agonising way to die. The “liquidators” who shovelled sand onto the burning Reactor number 4 at Chernobyl in the hours after the disaster died horrible deaths, disintegrating as their families and doctors watched.

And now Japan faces a similar tragedy at home. No-one thought that Fukushima would be mentioned in the same breath as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Yes, the latter occurred in time of war, but the human consequences are the same – long-lasting medical effects, pollution of the soil, loss of home and identity, the stigma of coming from contaminated land.

Nuclear engineering and building safety had moved so far from the Chernobyl design that the world could declare that nuclear was the safest form of power for our future. Then came a massive wall of water, and our illusions were dashed. Now we can no longer say “never again”; we can see the impact of a civilian nuclear disaster on a country that is a word leader in disaster-resilient engineering. Japan has been brought to its knees by a few minutes of nature’s fury: would – to name but a few - nuclear Germany or the UK be better prepared? Or Pakistan? Or Armenia?

And although we look on the behemoths of Chernobyl and Fukushima with dread, we must also consider non-nuclear events such as chemical disasters like Bhopal or Seveso. Or the fears of hazardous material from a terrorist attack like 9/11, or Hungary’s red sludge episode of last year. Psychologically and emotionally there is a great gulf between terror attacks and technological disasters (or viral outbreaks) but the effects are similar: sudden onset, mass panic, an overwhelming of infrastructure and huge disruption of normal life.

Research shows that between 2000 and 2011 some 10,000 people have been killed and 500,000 more affected by chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear disasters, where such data has been reported. (Chernobyl affected some 8 million people).

These figures show the pressing need for governments to invest in community-level preparedness. There are currently more than 400 nuclear power reactors in 30 countries, and the number is expected to grow rapidly. If accidents are to be treated as an unavoidable risk, there must be all-out preparations for this eventuality. Experiences gained through past accidents need to be widely shared, as well as guidelines created for a global standard in accident response and agreements reached on the process of international cooperation.

Of course the elephant in the room is nuclear weaponry and the devastation that one act of war or terror could wreak on our world. People may say that humanitarian workers have no place in a nuclear disaster, that we have no voice in the debate. But as we have seen from Fukushima, and as we see 25 years after Chernobyl, the comfort we bring to survivors, the services we provide to evacuees and the long-term efforts to restore human dignity are as relevant as they are in our better-known responses in Haiti, Pakistan and other “natural” disasters.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Twitter plus Work equals Blog deficit

Poor Head Down Eyes Open (HDEO) is a neglected blog child these days. Only four posts so far in 2011 compared to 26 this time last year and a mighty 44 posts between February and April in 2009 (we didn't start till February that year). Why the downturn? We're still passionate about blogging and sharing information and ideas but the reality of work and twitter are the most likely culprits for the blogging deficit (Left: A woman and her baby in the village of Sawien. The child is covered with a white paste to fight the skin infestion that is very common with the water from the river they have to use. Photo: Benoit Matsha-Carpentier / IFRC).

This period of pretty much unprecedented natural disasters, civil unrest and conflict has resulted in an equally unprecedented workload in the disaster management sector. The horrific triple disaster in Japan was round the clock media relations for one whole month helped especially by the amazing work being done on the ground by the Japanese Red Cross (you might like to check out our Japan Flickr pix which have registered more than a million hits to date). Then there is the still unraveling story throughout the Middle East and North Africa which has seen Red Crescent societies fully stretched and mobilized from Syria, Bahrain and Yemen to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. The serious political violence in West Africa is also of ongoing concern which required ramping up of operations in both Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia. Then we have serious epidemics in several countries like Chad and Paraguay. Then there was a major initiative advocating a way forward to rid the world of the ancient killer, Tuberculosis. And so it goes on. All of this has also required an extra effort on the social media front, especially Twitter, where we are increasingly engaged and dependent - HDEO are serious converts.

However, it is the 'business as usual' activity of World Malaria Day that prompts me to renew HDEO today. The  Malaria folks are looking to reduce malaria deaths to zero by 2015! A noble cause or a lofty ideal? You decide. But don't underestimate the passion, talent and dedication of these guys - their focus is something to behold. We are in the process of putting up some new videos this weekend ahead of the day itself on the 25th of April and we already have our press release, opinion piece and some web stories posted on our special page (do keep on eye out for the Liberia videos coming soon).

Anyway, great to be back. Onwards and Upwards and of course Head Down Eyes Open!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A day in the death camp

Joe Lowry spends a harrowing last day in Belarus, at the site of the Maly Trostinets extermination camp

Partizansky Prospect, Minsk 2004.
“Over there is a wonderful bread factory”, said the octogenarian chairlady of the city Red Cross branch. “And there’s the tractor factory” (its ornate entrance recalling more a Mogul palace). “That was the tank factory, and there’s where they made rifles.”

Will she ever say anything bad about her city, I wonder.

“And over there, in those trees, was an extermination camp where a quarter of a million people died”. The words hit me like a stone.

Partizansky Prospect, Minsk 2010
Six years pass. Six years connected to Minsk through my wife and her family, who, like every family in Belarus shrank by 25 per cent during the war, the great patriotic war, which was neither great nor patriotic for many. The same partisans for whom the long, dull prospekt was named, hated by many, worse than the Nazis for their brutality, their oppression of peasant families.

But I read (present tense) more about the war. I read a massive tome on Stalin and another on the Nazis and on Hitler. The war, I begin to realise, may have spared Ireland’s soil but it splashed Belarus’ in blood. Every inch of the fertile land bubbled and oozed with rotting entrails, brain material, and bright red blood of soldiers and civilians. It soaked into the land, forever permeating it, befouling it, cursing it with a greater poison than even the millions of tons of radioactive waste dusted onto it in 1986 when nearby Chernobyl spilt its guts on the jinxed land.

And I move to Minsk. I know all about Babyan Yar in Kiev, where I have spent many years, how the Nazis threw sweets to the children they had machine-gunned, how the voices under the bulldozed dirt cried “Mummy, the sand is in my eyes”. I saw and gasped – really, my breath left my body in a whoosh - at the doll monument, whose limbs, akimbo, are welded on at unnatural angles. A broken doll, tricking the eyes.

The Holocaust is alive and well in Kiev. Well chronicled. Unforgettable. With a Jewish lobby noisily keeping the memory, even with the Holodymyr, the great Stalin-created famine of the 30s arguably claiming more lives.

But in Minsk, poor Minsk, where not a wall seems to have survived the neither great nor patriotic war, only clues remain. An internet site shows some horrors, and reveals that the pretty, re-antiquated main square in the old town was once Adolf Hitler square. That the Nazis brained Jewish babies against street corners in the Minsk ghetto (right).

But no memory seems to remain of that abysmal place, buried now under hotels, tower blocks, malls. (No Polanski films, no anniversaries a la Warsaw). Where people were allocated two square metres each, not including children. Which was cleared in a massive mass murder.

And I realise, that the smiling faces, or the strife-worn faces, the pretty faces and ugly ones I see every day on the Metro, at work, in the local shop, are the same – two generations on - as the ones that had the foulest, scariest, most repugnant jobs of all. When the Nazis left Minsk, civilians and prisoners, were used to find and burn up to 100,000 bodies.

Maly Trostinets. As fell and as foul Belsen, as grim as Auschwitz, this was the last generation of concentration camps. A death camp. While some sites pronounced “Arbeit Macht Frei”, there was no need for such an illusion in Maly Trostinets. A train went into the forest, disgorged its human cargo (many of whom were already dead) and the work of extermination began. (The condemned were transported from the “General Governorate” directly, or via a spell in the squalid Minsk Ghetto).

From “The killing process was conducted as follows: most of the victims were lined up in front of pits, 50 meters long and 3 metres deep and shot to death. After the executions the pits containing the victims were levelled by tractors. The operation was conducted by a unit of thirty to one hundred SS men commanded by an officer named Rider.

“Beginning on the 10 May 1942 and continuing every Tuesday and Friday Jews were brought to Minsk from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Austria, Germany and driven by truck towards Maly Trostinets. Some of the trucks were gas vans, and after they had been gassed a sonderkommando took them out of the gas vans and threw them into deep pits.

“One such transport destined for Maly Trostinets was from Theresienstadt in Bohemia Moravia. On the 4 August 1942 a train with a thousand Jews left the Theresienstadt camp. Six days later it reached Maly Trostinets where it stopped in open country.

“Forty “experts” were removed from the train at Minsk. The remaining 960 deportees were ordered out of the train and into vans for the next stage of their journey, and were driven off towards the Blagovschchina forest. The vans were gas vans, once they reached the forest the doors were unlocked and the bodies of the gassed deportees were thrown into open graves.

“Of a thousand Jews sent from Theresienstadt to Maly Trostinets in a further deportation on the 25 August 1942 only twenty-two of the younger men were taken to work at an SS farm. The rest entered the gas vans and were murdered.” (photo above called "Tormenting Jews in Minsk" from the Holocaust research project archive).

My time in Minsk passes, and I vow, before I leave, to see Maly Trostinets, or what is left of it. We set out on an early autumn day, the leaves still green at the edge of the city. Jouncing over the unkept asphalt we get lost several times before stopping at the end of the road. In eyesight are the 70s apartments that ring every former Soviet city, almost overlooking these anonymous scruffy few fields, lanes, hedges.

And then I see it. A simple concrete structure, that from a distance looks almost plastic. “Dedicated to the Soviet citizens that perished here”. There are flowers, someone still cares. (I am glad to have had my phone to take a picture; there is nothing on Google.)

It’s one of those moments. The sun is warm, a light breeze stirs some dust, a rangy dog mooches around. There’s plastic bottles scattered hither and yon, and the poplars sway gently. The sort of day when I first saw the World War One graveyards as a teenager, the sort of day “The Green Fields of France” was written for:

“But young Willie MacBride it all happened again, and again and again and again and again.”

No drums beat, no fife plays. The silent soundtrack in my head a poignant reminder that genocide, or ethnic slaughter surrounds us all, marking the worst our species is capable of. Defining us. From Ireland to Armenia, from Ukraine to Belarus, Poland to Rwanda, to the countless flashpoints – Kashmir, Casamance, Palestine, Darfur, the Niger Delta, Kyrgyzstan.

And the horrible, sickening thought – if the gun was in my hand and it was them or my family…

I mutter a prayer. No tears come. This place is not for the living.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Putting Power into the Hands of People who Need it Most

I was lucky enough to be invited to TEDxGeneva to give a talk recently on the topic of using new technologies to better involve and engage people affected by disasters - a truly enjoyable experience for me - below is a sort of written summary of the main points of the presentation but if you prefer to see the presentation on YouTube and if you have 20mins to take a peep you can find it here. 

What's in a name? 
Head Down Eyes Open returns again to one of its favorite topics - or obsessions - the growing (and welcome) trend to harness the power of new technologies to improve the way we conduct humanitarian operations. And, the growing recognition that people affected by disasters and crises are not helpless victims but potential first line responders. They need to be treated not as objects of aid (mere beneficiaries benefiting from their benefactors) but as part of the team. They need to be what they are - the true owners of aid outcomes (more eloquently reasoned in a blog post from the wonderful Tales from the Hood).

One of the less welcome aspects of this development is the typically aid-wonk (of which I plead guilty) inclination to assign awkward nomenclature to perfectly straightforward activities. Thus, we have (the horrible) 'beneficiary communications' or (so long it's not even a descriptor anymore) 'communicating with disaster-affected populations' (or its cutesy acronym CDAC - that's see-dak folks). 

I'm increasingly leaning back towards my eighties education when we studied participatory video and dreamed about community outreach but also drawn to some terminology re-energized by social media such as engagement - which to me at least, is true to the essence of communication regardless of the technology. So, for the sake of simplicity let's call this wonderful new love affair between technology and aid - community engagement (this definition also allows for the continued and necessary inclusion of more traditional communication means such as radio, posters or even town hall meetings). Now I know there's nothing terribly original about this term and maybe that's why I like it. It has its roots in pure communication as well as in humanitarian (esp. public health) aims. And it stands a chance of being understood across a few generations. Sold?

Power (back) to the People
Anyway, community engagement, for me, is in essence about empowering people by strategically employing a range of readily accessible communication devices, technologies and channels to connect humanitarian programs with the people they are designed to support. It's another welcome symptom of the democratizing power of the social web. (Photo left from - he need's to be on the team!)

Community engagement must work right across the disaster environment from preparedness; early warning; disaster and post-disaster to monitoring, evaluation and so on. It has to also result in a greater quality and accountability of aid delivery and promote enhanced proximity, engagement and understanding between program managers and their clients (people in need).

Community engagement straddles the spectrum from (lo-tech) face-to-face communication to (hi-tech) SMS-based crowd sourcing. New innovations in social and mobile technologies are especially important factors that are driving the resurgence of interest in community engagement - why? Because they suddenly make it very cheap, easy, and possible - they even help us measure the value (donors are you listening?) They are taking away all previous 'excuses'. 

At its core, community engagement is a participatory approach that empowers communities by delivering potentially life-saving information into the hands of the people who need it most. Importantly, it is also about enabling disaster-affected populations to channel critical data about their situation and needs to aid agencies, thereby increasing the speed, relevance and effectiveness of aid. 

It's a truism that crucial information is often in the hands of aid agencies but remains unshared with those who need it most. Conversely, local populations often have critical knowledge at their finger tips but no way to share it for the greater good, or maybe even no clue about the value of the local knowledge that they possess. 

Community engagement therefore is about fostering and making systematic a genuine two-way communication flow and interaction that is as much about listening as disseminating. 

How might new technologies change disaster response?
The prevalence of new approaches that utilize, inter alia, 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? Indeed, is it efficient for aid agencies to organize themselves to respond to individual calls for help when maybe they would be more effective focusing on the urgent 'known knowns'? (photo Reuters / Eduardo Munoz)

Future Challenges and Opportunities

Here is a summarized version of what we can consider the main challenges/opportunities ahead if we are to truly be more effective at humanitarian aid by using available technologies to ensure people affected by disasters are more involved - that they become genuine partners in their own recovery. There are many more 'internal' institutional-type challenges which I won't go into here. If you feel some crucial points are omitted or contest those mentioned do join the discussion.

Some of these points are taken/inspired from a recent UN Dispatch blog post on a great new initiative that I'm sure will quickly become the basis for providing best practice, guidance and support for the aid community and communities affected by crises. Exciting times.

Relevance: is information being received directly from people – which includes third party curators – relevant information that is actionable? Can we do something with the information or is it just wasting valuable time?

Privacy: much of the personal information gathered by aid workers in the course of their duties is personal and confidential information. In some contexts, more than we might imagine, such information needs to be treated with utmost sensitivity and confidentiality. Protocols on the handling of personal data gathered and disseminated by SMS technologies (for instance but others too) should be developed much in the way confidentiality is practiced by the time-tested protocols of the ICRC's Tracing Agency.

Verification: is the information accurate? Is it true? Is it a ruse? Could it create a security problem?

Duplication: are we the only ones who received the info? Is someone else dealing with it? Do we need (yet again) new coordintion mechanisms?

Access: do the people who own the aid outcomes i.e. the most vulnerable people, do they have access to the information channels created by new technologies, better use of SMS portals etc?

Expectations: Are we creating excessively high expectations which we will not be able to manage? That is, by gathering so much date and info from people are we contributing to a misperception that all these needs will be addressed?

Proximity: Mobile technologies and satellite communications are bringing everyone—humanitarian organizations, international institutions, volunteer technical communities, and the affected populations—ever closer together. More often than not, victims of disasters and conflicts have cell phones and can communicate via SMS in real time. 

Speed: As a result, information flows are accelerating, raising expectations around increasing the tempo of information management and coordination in emergency operations.

Duality: At the same time, the methods for data and information exchange are moving from document-based systems to flows of structured data via web services. This movement from the narration of ongoing events in long stretches of unstructured prose to streams of data in short, semi-structured formats require humanitarian staff to perform double duty. They are simultaneously working within an existing system based on the exchange of situation reports while filtering and analyzing high volumes of short reports arriving via SMS and web services.

Thanks for reading this far. A last word - there is nothing really new here except the momentum driven by new opportunities. But it's not about technologies only. It's about how we use them to really put power into the hands of the people whose destinies we (as aid workers) directly influence. Would love to hear your comments. Power to the People! 


Monday, January 24, 2011

Sudan: looking to a new future

Southern Sudan is voting for its future and is widely expected to usher in full independence from Khartoum, splitting the largest country in Africa and the Arab world in two. The referendum that guides this process is the culmination of years of peace talks and treaties – especially the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of January 2005 brokered chiefly by the UN and IGAD – that sought to end decades of violent and divisive conflict.

Whatever the final outcome of the referendum, expected to be announced between the 07th and 14th of February, the fact that it has happened at all is already a triumph for the Sudanese people. Many observers - including Head Down Eyes Open - feared the worst but thankfully the dominant, dire predictions of a return to war and violence have been largely disproved.

The mostly trouble-free lead up to the referendum did bring with it some unforeseen developments however, including a larger-than-expected movement of Southern Sudanese people from the north to the south which presented a range of logistical, health and humanitarian challenges. Masses of people decided to return for the referendum and will now possibly choose to remain to build the world’s newest country.

Returnees are reported to be still journeying south in a jubilant mood, sensing the historic era of a newly independent state, but with little else to sustain them. The end of voting is of course only the beginning. It is going to be a massive challenge to provide people returning to the South with the health and social assistance that they need, not to mention assisting them to secure ways of earning a living. The existing vulnerabilities of the local population also need to be factored in so a balanced support is provided that avoids triggering tensions between returnee and resident populations.

Strong Civil Society 
Our partners working with the Sudanese Red Crescent (est. 1956) are quiet possibly the only civil society organization that has remained unified and operational throughout the entire territory of Sudan, including in the Red Sea State in the east and the troubled region of Darfur. Continued partnership and support to this national society will be a top priority now and, we would argue, should also be for the international community.

When, as expected, independence is chosen by the electorate, the process of transition will start – a period of some six months. Special attention will be given not only to the process of forming a new state but a brand new national society which is poised to become the latest member to the Red Cross and Red Crescent global network of 186 national societies.

Any future national Red Cross society in an independent Southern Sudan will need to be fully resourced and supported as they will play a grassroots role in building stability, supporting communities as well as being a key contributer to peace-building south and north of any future borders. There will be enormous legal, logistical, resourcing and political challenges but an ‘amicable divorce’ is certainly achievable.

Caution instead of Complacency
Although indications at this stage are that we will not be facing a large-scale humanitarian emergency triggered by the referendum’s result, the situation remains fragile and unpredictable. This is Sudan after all - big country, big problems. Numerous unresolved issues between Sudan’s north and south – from citizenship to oil exploration - may lead to escalated crises or localized conflict, and violent tensions between some fifty tribal communities within Southern Sudan itself can also be easily exacerbated.

The people of Sudan are pointing the way forward. They have taken an incredibly difficult road to get to this juncture. The vital political milestone of the referendum has passed and this needs to be celebrated as a victory for peaceful dialog - of which, importantly, a regional organization (IGAD) played a major role. But it is only the start. We would be wrong to deceive ourselves into thinking that the toughest test is over – any complacency now would be a mistake. Let's hope, after the Jubalation calms down, that the world resolves to stick with Sudan - north and south - for the long haul.