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Humanitarian Spotlight: World Refugee Day 2015


Syrian Kurdish refugees cross into Turkey from Syria, near the town of Kobani. (UNHCR / I. Prickett)

This past Saturday, June 20, marked World Refugee Day 2015. This year’s events took place against a backdrop of worsening global crisis as the international community struggles to cope with record numbers of people fleeing disasters and conflict. In United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres’ World Refugee Day 2015 statement, he announced that the international community has “reached a moment of truth… in the wake of displacement on an unprecedented scale.” He goes on to urge global powers and nations capable of accepting refugees to acknowledge and respond to the plight of those who must flee their home countries due to natural disaster, war, or fear of persecution.

UNHCR’s Global Trends Report 2014: World at War estimates that a record 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced as refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs), or asylum seekers in 2014. 13.9 million individuals were newly displaced due to conflict or persecution in 2014, the biggest leap ever seen in a single year. According to the estimates, an average of 42,500 people were forcibly displaced each day, four times that of just four years ago. For the first time, Turkey became the largest refugee-hosting country worldwide with 1.59 million refugees.

Through the figures released and the statements issued, the international call to action is clear, yet there is ongoing debate as to which countries are able or willing to open their borders to the forcibly displaced. The refugee crisis, which is only anticipated to worsen in the coming year, will become even more internationalized as countries bordering prolonged conflicts grow overwhelmed by the needs of incoming populations. As stated by Mr. Guterres, the world “must either shoulder collectively the burden of helping the victims of war, or risk standing by as less wealthy countries and communities – which host 86 percent of the world’s refugees – become overwhelmed and unstable.” As it is now, and as it will be then, the situation of the forcibly displaced is not only a human rights issue demanding a compassionate international response, but also a global security issue that threatens to destabilize not only nations, but also the international community at large.

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Forum Spotlight: Global Forum for Improving Humanitarian Action



ALNAP’s Global Forum for Improving Humanitarian Action was held on June 4 – 5, 2015 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. Comprising hundreds of representatives from aid organizations, donor organizations and governments from around the world, the conference looked to examine, in a serious, collaborative, and substantive way, how we as a humanitarian community can adapt to current issues, increase the impact of our emergency response and do so in a way that preserves the human dignity of aid beneficiaries. IIHA Executive Director, Brendan Cahill (IDHA 9), was happy to represent the IIHA at the Forum.

The conference began with an opening address by US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who posed four areas of consideration for the conference to explore: Security, Modernity, Dignity, and Money. Other issues discussed included the importance of building local capacities, the need to reduce duplication in humanitarian efforts, and the contributions of technological innovation. Many of the improvements suggested throughout the forum are not new. What is new is the technology that now allows for greater impact, as well as an expressed desire to be more efficient and effective in an era of increasing human induced and natural disasters. As the new UN Aid Chief, Stephen O’Brien, mentioned in his closing remarks, “The world is changing and we must change with it.” The conversations, many among representatives who have been involved in aid work for decades, reflected this desire for transformation and evolution.

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Nepal: Who would we be if we did not try?


Basic health care clinic in Tatopani before second earthquake struck on May 12 (Photo by Kaustaubh Kukde)

May 15, 2015: Night falls in Kathmandu. We sleep in the streets, in the tents, in the parks. The last strong tremor still present in the body. Local or foreigner, it doesn’t matter. In the darkness, we are equally together and alone. All the senses are amplified, each sound is recorded, every movement in the ground.

The worst thing is the dogs’ howling just before an earthquake. Can you trust the warning or is it just one night-blind pooch that confuses itself into scaring us all?

Two new aftershocks last night confirmed the dogs’ premonition. It is the primary wave before the earthquake that animals feel. We humans are fleeing at the larger secondary wave. Yet only by imagining the unimaginable, we can predict the unpredictable. But when the instinct is up against the mind, usually the instinct wins. We run for our lives. No looking back.

I rejoice to hear the first call of the cuckoo at dawn. It’s a strange feeling to hear the cuckooing here in Kathmandu, as if it were in the wrong place. But as long as he calls, I feel safe. Even the birds seem to have their patterns before danger is approaching. They go silent.

Every day we share analysis on how our relief efforts are working. Every step forward is a motivation for us all. But beyond the graphs of tarpaulins, tents and water delivered, there’s always a deeper story…

Maude Froberg is a Communications and Advocacy Manager for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) South Asia and a graduate of the International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance (IDHA 19).

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Humanitarian Spotlight: Nepal Earthquake


On Saturday, April 25th, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the country of Nepal, leaving the shaken nation to recover from the worst earthquake to hit the Himalayan region in over 80 years. The death toll has now risen above 5,200 people, with over10,300 injuredfigures expected to rise as national and international response teams gain access to remote locations. Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala recently warned that the death toll could reach 10,000 people. Dozens have also beenkilled in India and Tibet, China’s state agency said, with at least18 people killed and 60 more injured around Mount Everest. Buildings have been decimated and cultural and historical landmarks reduced to ruinspast and present destroyed all at once. The UN Office of the Resident Coordinator in Nepal estimates that 8 million people, one quarter of the population, have been affected, with tens of thousands left homeless and1.4 million people requiring food aid.

Local communities – always the first responders in humanitarian emergencies – and Nepalese troops spent the first few days searching for trapped individuals and loved ones among the rubble and tending to the needs of the injured and the recovery of the dead. The international community responded promptly, offeringsupport and resources as the Nepalese government struggles tomanage a relief operation of this size and magnitude. Disaster Response and Search and Rescue Teams have been deployed fromIndia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Israel, and the UK, while several other countries have offered financial support.

In the days, weeks, and months to come, priority needs will includefood, water, shelter, and various health considerations toprevent the spread of disease. Many of the villages outside of Nepal’s capital and largest municipality, Kathmandu, where thedamage is thought to be the worst, have been difficult to access due to landslides and poor weather.

WFP is providing food and trucks for distribution, UNICEFis sending tents and healthcare supplies, and WHO isaddressing urgent health issues. IFRC and the Red Cross National Societies have also been heavily involved in the response along with the International Medical Corps and a number ofinternational charities already present in Nepal, such as Save the Children.

Relief efforts have encountered various challenges includingcrippled transportation systems, damaged communication infrastructure, overwhelmed health services, and airport capacity limitations. Due to the multiple aftershocks and desperate living conditions, more than 100,000 people have already left Kathmandu, with officials estimating the number could reach 300,000, more than a 10th of the city’s population.

In the immediate aftermath of the emergency, communications and social media have played a significant role in tracking the missing and connecting families. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was one of the first agencies to launch an online platform to trace thousands of missing people after the earthquake. Google also initiated its Person Finder that allows individuals to post information about their condition or to try to find missing family members, and Facebook activated its Safety Check, a feature that helps friends and relatives quickly find out whether their loved ones are safe.

Now more than ever, there seems to be a greater analytical foundation underlying the international humanitarian response, informed by the experiences of aid professionals and lessons learned from past crises. International Alert has issued a statement gently cautioning that humanitarian aid can go wrong if the aid workers don’t take into account the full reality on the ground. The organization believes the Nepal Earthquake is a crucial moment to ensure that post-disaster aid delivery and reconstruction efforts are carried out in an inclusive, sustainable and conflict-sensitive way. Aid professionals have also commented widely about the implications of impulsive international volunteering, and the dangers of donating goods, advising instead to send money to experienced and reputable aid organizations – or in one author’s words “choose a sector and do your homework.”

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Humanitarian Spotlight: DRR


Over the past decade, the international community has increasingly acknowledged the importance of disaster risk reduction (DRR) in relief and development programming. The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA), the ten-year plan born of the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Reduction in 2005, has served as the guiding document behind DRR initiatives to increase resilience and build the coping capacity of communities and nations around the world.With the HFA due to expire this year, the United Nations convened the Third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan this March to adopt a new way forward.

The conference welcomed over 6,500 delegates to its events and over 50,000 people to the public forum. Attendees included representatives from 187 States, 42 intergovernmental organizations, 236 non-governmental organizations, 38 UN entities, and over 300 private sector organizations. After almost 30 hours of intense negotiations, development leaders and government officials finally reached  agreement on a new global framework that will usher in a more “solid” and “people-centered” disaster risk reduction policy process and implementation program for the next 15 years.

The new framework, The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction: 2015-2030, builds on the lessons learned from the HFA and outlines several thematic areas and action plans that governments, communities and organizations can use to improve their DRR programs in the future.  It will focus on a more targeted approach to proliferate better and streamlined DRR efforts from the local to the international level, which will include setting concrete goals and targets – something that was sorely missing from the 2005 Hyogo framework. The Sendai framework outlines seven global (concrete) targets and also includes priorities for action, which focus on understanding disaster risk, strengthening disaster risk governance to manage disaster risk, investing in disaster risk reduction for resilience and enhancing disaster preparedness for effective response. It also highlights the concept of “building back better” – a catchphrase that has defined the post-Haiyan recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction in the Philippines.

The Sendai framework has been met with a combination of praise and criticism from experts, some of whom do not believe that the agreement will be able to keep up with rising international disaster risks. Although the agreement offers a wealth of opportunities for organizations dealing with displacement issues, disaster relief and development organizations such as Oxfam cite concerns about accountability and funding.

Want to learn more about Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)? Read the briefing and learn the terminology!

For more statistics and quick facts on the Third WCDRR, click here.  You can also read more about the Sendai Framework for DRR here.

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Humanitarian Spotlight: Pau Vidal, S.J

August 18, 2014
South Sudan: Innocence Suffers in Conflict
By Pau Vidal, S.J.

Maban, 13 August 2014 — Alvar and I, the two new Jesuit members of the Jesuit Refugee Service team here, arrived in Maban (Upper Nile state) almost a month ago. More than 127,000 refugees from Sudan came here in late 2011 — early 2012, and are living in four very large camps in a precarious situation.

These refugees find themselves caught between two wars, the one at home (Sudan) and the other one in the country that currently hosts them (South Sudan). Literally they have nowhere to lay their heads.

Amidst all the challenges, JRS managed to start a teacher training for about 150 teachers; the teachers came from the four refugee camps as well as the host community. According to recent data, more than 80% of the teachers in the camps have not finished primary school themselves, so there is still a long way to go to achieve quality education.

JRS has also launched a psychosocial programme to train peer counsellors, to support the extremely vulnerable population (so far, JRS has been doing regular home visits to 245 individuals) and to support youth in the camps with some sports activities.

One really thought that the lives of the refugees were tough enough and that things could hardly get any worse. But, in South Sudan, things seem to go from bad to worse, so last week it was the time for Maban.

In the afternoon of Sunday, 3 August, fighting started in Bunj town (the capital of Maban county) with gunshots and heavy shelling around the market area. Alvar and I were attending a funeral in a nearby village. Without delay, we walked, quickly, toward the nearest UN compound.

A wave of hundreds of terrified women and children running away from town overtook us. It was hard to believe that the people from the host community were running for their lives toward the refugee camps. A few months earlier there had been tensions between the refugees and the host community, but in this critical moment the Mabanese people were welcomed to safety by the refugees.

Running myself for my life amidst those women and children I felt a knot in my stomach and wondered who on earth gains anything from this senseless war that has already left enough victims? Up to now it is not too clear what exactly triggered the recent fighting in Bunj town. Some claim that a unit of government soldiers defected to join the opposition forces, but even that has not been confirmed. The sense of uncertainty is one of the most difficult things to cope with in times of conflict.

During the mayhem at least six humanitarian aid workers were targeted and killed due to their ethnicity. The Maban Defence Forces (an armed local militia) have been blamed for these heinous killings. These tragic events have brought strong condemnation from the international community.

After two days of uncertainty, humanitarian workers were advised to evacuate to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and to leave only behind a few staff. All JRS staff were asked to leave Maban. We were flown to safety to Malakal on a World Food Programme (WFP) flight and then loaded into cargo planes and brought to Juba. It is still fresh in my mind the large crowd of refugees congregated at the dirt airstrip near Bunj town looking at the spectacle of so many humanitarian workers leaving in haste. Their faces showed disbelief and fear of being left alone. That moment was a difficult one for us. We had just recently come to be with them, to journey with them, to accompany them, but we were leaving the refugees behind in their most difficult moment.

The evacuation of more than 240 humanitarian workers has catastrophic consequences for the refugees as well as the host community. Most activities came to a stand still, even the life-saving ones such as food distribution. For the refugees, who have no means of survival, the meagre food ration distributed by WFP is essential for their life. Mothers cannot manage hearing their children day after day cry of hunger.

The local government has assured agencies that events like this will not be repeated. That being said, unless the people responsible are brought to book, impunity will breed more violence as the recent report by Human Rights Watch has clearly demonstrated. In addition to this, if the South Sudanese leaders who have been at loggerheads for eight months do not finally find a compromise, the already critical situation in the country can turn into a real catastrophe. At local level the security situation in Maban seems to be improving bit by bit, thus JRS team hopes to be back on the ground very soon to restart the activities.

A good friend and fellow Jesuit working with JRS, Jaime Moreno, once told me that being with JRS often means touching the absolute failure of humanity. Following the inspiration of St Ignatius of Loyola we are invited not to avoid such experience, but rather to dwell in the failure of the world and to try to discover its deepest meaning. In the third week of the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius of Loyola invites us to contemplate Jesus on the cross. That silent and sorrowful contemplation opens up the possibility of finding God even in a tragic event such as the brutal death of an innocent victim.

Today in Maban, a remote corner of South Sudan, the victims of too many conflicts are the crucified people of our times, witnessing to the mysterious presence of God in times of darkness. They call us to be with them, to speak out and to take action. In an uncaring world where more than 50 million people are displaced, the JRS mission of accompaniment of refugees is needed more than ever. This is precisely why Fr. Arrupe founded JRS in 1980.

Pau Vidal, S.J. is Project Director for Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Maban and a graduate of IDHA 43.

*This article was first published by JRS on August 13, 2014.

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Humanitarian Spotlight: Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen (IDHA 9)

April 28, 2014


Is the international community helping or hindering?

Opinion Piece by Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen

 The storm clouds have gathered – this was the feeling, as the first major political rumbles of thunder echoed around Juba in early December of 2013.  Few doubted that the internal exchanges within the ruling party, Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM), were serious.  The subsequent fighting that broke out among the Presidential Guard, in South Sudan’s capital Juba, and rapidly escalated across into Jonglei State, exposing the major, known fractures within the national Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA), and the rapidly ensuing polarization that pitted the key communities in South Sudan against each other on a level unprecedented since the second civil war indicated that none of this came out of the blue.  The contours of these major fault lines were known to all South Sudanese and any international observer interested enough to read or ask questions.

The fall-out of this violence over nearly 4 months are catastrophic – an estimated tens of thousands dead, over 1 million internally displaced, over 250,000 refugees, a fractured army, a shaky cessation of hostilities that is hardly holding, a political dialogue nurtured by the Inter-Governmental Agency for Development (IGAD) that few South Sudanese have confidence in and a failed development project.  3 state capitals have been razed to the ground and the future of the world’s newest country is as insecure as it has ever been, even during its interim phase after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005.

Recent observers, disaster journalists, fresh-faced diplomats and eager humanitarians have expounded fluently on the crisis, waxing lyrical on the political fall-out and the latest clashes as well as the gossip around the talks in Ethiopia.  But the international community’s knowledge of the underlying causes of the conflicts in South Sudan, despite years of consecutive analysis, apparently fell short of predicting all this as one senior international official after another exclaimed surprise over the crisis – perhaps exposing over-confidence in their political leverage, recognition of their personal failures and ultimately need for professional self-preservation.

Now, the headlines seem to predict the trajectory of yet another failed state: committees investigating human rights abuses, demands for accountability, threat of sanctions, the call for justice, humanitarian appeals, accusations of international interference, trials against coup plotters…  The war of words between yet another entrenched African government and donors… Was independence a mistake, do the many birth attendants regret having being invited to bring it into the light of day, knowing that the parents were so frail and close to divorce?

Certainly, the humanitarian crisis will dominate the headlines again and for many months to come, as millions are food insecure and vulnerable, while the international community ruminates on its next steps, nursing bruised egoes and pulling out a more combative line to attempt to check what it sees as a potentially authoritarian state.

But perhaps this indicates a much more worrying set of issues too, besides those accompanying seemingly failed post-conflict states and one we are much less comfortable in talking about.

Bilateral engagements have tangled humanitarian and development programmes with wider economic and security interests, overemphasizing ‘stabilisation’ of a new state through investment in security only to find that a fractured army and police with weak command and control, discipline and cohesion have used these investments to turn on themselves or strong-arm those opposing it, putting into question civilian oversight.  A number of diplomats have privately admitted that this was a risky endeavor, but scaling down of similar programmes elsewhere around the globe offered an easy transfer of approaches and resources to South Sudan.  A more careful calibration should have been made given South Sudan’s predictable trajectory, focusing more on dialogue around nation building and bringing cohesion to the many communities and political groupings.

External priorities have clearly been imposed for more than a few years onto a country and people struggling to draw themselves out of over half a century of violent conflicts (including two civil wars that stretched between 1955 and 1972 and again 1983 and 2005) – only as recently as last year has the international community agreed that its priorities needed to be aligned more closely to the South Sudanese priorities through the New Deal (an extraordinary confession), but meantime there has been bickering and competition over the choicest, most accessible places with little forethought to the implications of more emphasis in some areas over traditionally isolated, insecure and hence marginalized communities, thus entrenching conflict rather than preventing it.  Countering the cycles of violence that go back far beyond the crisis by investing in these marginalized areas is essential.

The over-tendency on quick fix projects with poor analysis of the context and conflict dynamics in South Sudan for many a decade has been well documented, steering from the complex and very real issues to those easiest to address in short, donor-dictated timeframes.  In a nation with 63 ethnic groupings and over 40 base languages, with 70% illiteracy, massive poverty and over 60% classified as youth, the challenges have barely been addressed.  Ignoring or simplifying the history, culture and social dynamics to suit external needs is ensuring that few if any of the investments will stand the test of time, and as long as these are furthermore based on limited information that is poorly researched and fuelled by the in-country ‘international gossip mill’ that excludes grassroots voices or uses only a limited, well-versed and often unrepresentative group of South Sudanese, the future of humanitarian action and development remains in question.

This latest outbreak of violence and the response to it indicates the unrealistic expectations laid on South Sudan in terms of what, among the many approaches, has taken root and impacted work ethic and social norms and behaviour.  Given the short-term focus, lack of patience and inability to stay the course by many in the international community, as well as a frequent mismatch of technical staff (all-too-often young, brash, impatient, lacking in compassion or too technical), the development framework is at risk of producing further failures.  Cutting and pasting from projects in Kosovo or Afghanistan, while broadly relevant, needs contextualization and since one size does not fit all, more advice needs to be taken from South Sudanese staff and more responsibility given them.

With little or no experience of and appetite for dialogue, reconciliation and peace building work, the international community with few notable exceptions has utterly failed (despite clear and consistent high level advice to the UN, diplomatic corps and NGO community) to shore up a functional, solid, wider conflict prevention strategy in support of existing and crucial national and local bodies.  Initiatives such as the Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation (established in April 2013 but only receiving minimal international support in December 2013 – the month of the crisis), the National Reconciliation Platform (which has been the subject of negative international opinion despite showing its independence) and the All-Jonglei process and conference (January – May 2012 which received minimal international support and maximum cynicism) are prime examples, but the absence of either a strategy or financial support by the international community speaks louder than words.  The adage ‘prevention rather than cure’ has, as yet, not infused the work of the UN or the NGOs in South Sudan, and a new, reflective strategy is needed with political and financial investments behind it.

The international community has reeled back from an ever-growing crisis, failing to ascertain where obvious longer-term emphasis can be placed to prevent further, deeper social and political fissuring, aiming its sights at blaming individuals rather than affirming its failure to help address the well-known root causes through conflict-sensitive approaches.  Humanitarian aid will be the sticking plaster over South Sudan’s gaping wounds, as the country bleeds before its divided leaders and unattended by a divisive and ineffective international community.  Attending to the proverbial plank in the international community’s eye may be the first order of business.  “Physician heal yourself!”

Ferdinand von Habsburg-Lothringen, a Swiss citizen, has been living and working in South Sudan for 16 years, as a humanitarian worker during the second civil war, as well as spending 6 years as an advisor to UNDP in Sudan and in Southern Sudan in focusing on Governance, Peace Building and Community Security and Arms Control.  Under UNDP, he was later seconded to the Sudan Council of Churches inter-communal mediation efforts in Jonglei in 2011, and supported the work of the Presidential Committee on Peace, Reconciliation and Tolerance in Jonglei.  He has also worked with the Ministry of General Education and Instruction and UNICEF supporting to conceptualise their programme on Peacebuilding, Education and Advocacy.  In the last two years Ferdinand joined the core team supporting the process of the Road Map to Reconciliation under the then Vice President H.E. Dr. Riek Machar in an advisory capacity.  His most recent appointment is as advisor to the Committee for National Healing, Peace and Reconciliation in South Sudan.  He is married to a South Sudanese and speaks colloquial South Sudanese Arabic. Ferdinand is a graduate of IDHA 9.

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