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Pakistan floods – Unpopular thoughts by an aidworker on the sideline

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Pakistan floods

Watching the images on TV, and reading the reports, it is impossible to stay untouched by the misery caused by the massive Pakistani monsoon floods.

As an aidworker watching (for the moment), from the sideline, I have three thoughts that might make me unpopular in the aid community:

  1. Last year’s Pakistani Swat emergency was hugely underfunded, which, according to me, showed a donor fatigue towards South-Central Asia and Pakistan in particular. It also showed a political unwillingness from “the West” to assist Pakistan, other than the “minimum needed”.
    Unless some of the main donors take the lead and come up with big bucks now, the 2010 flooding will go into history as the worst international humanitarian response failure ever. Caused by lack of funding.
    And time is of crucial importance, as it always is for natural disasters: the response needs to be massive and immediate, as three months down the line, the accute need (and the majority of life saving actions) is no longer there.
    …Leaving alone that anyone would still hick up money for a natural disaster three months after the facts.

  2. As of yesterday, I see press reports popping up with cries like affected people may outnumber the tsunami, 2005 Pakistan and 2010 Haiti earthquake combined. And the worst disaster in the UN’s history. Both phrases were uttered by aid agencies, and not invented but eagerly picked up by the paparazzi… Reporters have been waiting for some exciting news stories in these slow summer months now that the Gulf oil spill is over.
    I would urge caution in using tabloid catch phrases like “the biggest ever”… Love is a drug. So are disaster figures, and crying foul. Like a drug, it is addictive, and numbs your senses on the longer term.
    Soon we won’t raise a penny’s donation anymore unless if the affected population is over the 20 million, and unless we make appeals over 1 billion (to get 100 million)…
    There has been a clear tendency to exaggerate figures in the past years. And the donors have happily played the PR game: Just as the aid community, donors have come out with billions and billions worth of pledges. Remember the billions promised for the Afghanistan rebuild? And the multi billions pledged as a response to the global food crisis. All pledges which never materialized, but were pitched at the press at the time. A press which eagerly took it over as “shock and awe”-reporting. A PR win-win for all those involved, but unfortunately as they sing in Italian: “Parole, parole!”
    This is what happens when aidwork reporting is taken over by tabloids.

  3. And most importantly. A subject very close to my heart. Staff security…
    A wise man once told me: “You can no longer reduce the threat, so reduce the risk”: we have gone beyond the point where we can reduce the external threat of terrorist attacks on aidworkers, so we should confine to reducing the risk. And the more aidworkers sent into a high risk environment, the higher the risk. Simple as that.
    Now that every single self respecting NGO, UN agency, nonprofit organisation will be scrambling to show its face and “plant the flag” in Pakistan, we should not forget: In the past year, the aid community has been directly targeted by bold terrorist acts several times: In March 2009, seven WorldVision staff died in an attack on their office. Mercy Corps had their staff abducted and in June 9 2009, the bombing of the Pearl Continental in Peshawar, destroyed the hotel where most aidworkers stayed. The bombing of WFP’s office in Islamabad, on October 5 2009, left five dead and several wounded.
    The Taliban has made no secret in targeting aidworkers in the whole region. A point made clear in this weekend’s killing of 10 aidworkers in Afghanistan.
    Every single relief agency should hold back on the impulse to “pump in as many people as they can” to respond to the emergency.
    As a matter of fact, many support functions (finance, administration, procurement, reporting, mapping, etc etc) can be done in a remote support base, keeping the strict minimum of people in harm’s way. In an emergency, more than half of the people needed on the ground can work remotely. And probably they would work more effectively too!
    I suggest for every single person any organisation sends in, the question is asked: “Do we really need this person to be there, on the ground?”.

I think it is appropriate at this point to repeat the disclaimer at the bottom of this blog: “This blog expresses my personal opinions, and not those of my current or past employers.”

Picture courtesy Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images, discovered via The Boston Globe’s “The Big Picture” series on the floods

Written by Peter

August 10th, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Posted in Ranting,Soapbox

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We lost 5 colleagues in a suicide bombing today

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WFP office bombed in Islamabad Pakistan

Today, it is my birthday. But not much reason to celebrate. This morning, someone got into our office in Islamabad, Pakistan, and blew himself up.

He took the lives away from Botan, Farzana, Abid, GulRukh and Mohammad. Our colleagues and friends.

Botan Al-Hayawi (41) was Iraqi. He leaves behind a wife, two sons and a daughter. Botan was on mission in Peshawar when suicide bombers blew up the Pearl Continental Hotel in June. I met Botan several times back in 2002 and 2003 when I worked in Iraq.

Yesterday, Botan posted something on the Interagency ICT discussion forum:

I arrived to Islamabad last Monday morning with a busy day planned. I had just returned to Islamabad after recovering from the Peshawar blast on June 9th, 2009, which left me with some minor injuries but did not break my spirit.

He wrote this less than 24 hours before someone took his life away.

Farzana Barkat (22) was an office assistant. She worked in our logistics office, right next to where the suicide bomber blew himself up. A young woman at the start of her life.

Abid Rehman (41) was our senior finance assistant. He leaves a wife, two daughters and two sons. I worked with Abid when I was based in Islamabad from 2000 to 2002. We always exchanged friendly and teasing jokes as I stretched the finance unit with my urgent requests.

GulRukh Tahir (40) was our receptionist. She leaves behind a husband.

Mohammad Wahab (44) was our finance assistant. He leaves a wife, two daughters and two sons.

I am a bit numb at this moment. I think back of all the people I have known, and who lost their lives in the line of duty. Abby, Saskia, Pero, M.….

I think how it is possible to be close to those we want to serve, without having to isolate ourselves with barbed wire and sand bags. I think how we can still work in places we are still needed, but know we are at risk. Algeria, where our offices were bombed in 2007. Somalia, where we lost two colleagues earlier this year. Sudan, where we lost several drivers over the past years… Only to name a few.

It is strange.. It is only after the hours go by that the cruelty and the reality of the act today really seeps through… And the consciousness that if we are to work in a higher risk environment, there actually is not one place, where one is totally safe. Where would that be? In the office? They drive a truck through the gates and blow it up. In the guesthouse or the hotel? Same thing…
You can restrict the movements of staff and reduce field visits to minimize the risk, you can drive armoured cars – as we do in some operations – but then again, what holds them from blowing up an anti-tank mine underneath your vehicle as you stop in front of the traffic lights? What holds anyone from gunning you down when you get out of the car. Even when you think you are safe in the office compound.

Security for humanitarian workers has been more and more restrictive on what and how we can do our work. “Protecting ourselves” is a must. But how far does that conflict with being able to do our work, which entails having direct contact with those we serve? Should we all pack and go home?

I do not know the answers. I know one thing. This is not a happy birthday for me…

This song keeps on playing in my mind…

Picture courtesy The Nation

Written by Peter

October 5th, 2009 at 7:21 pm

Humanitarian aid and the power of the media

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During major humanitarian crises, 13 British charities often raise money jointly under an umbrella organisation called the Disasters Emergencies Committee (DEC), with appeals shown on all the major television networks.

But the DEC had its fingers burned when the BBC and Sky decline to cooperate on its last appeal for the Gaza conflict, fearing the media’s involvement would compromise their political neutrality as news organisations, a story we reported previously on The Road.

The consequence of the BBC’s Gaza decision seems to have a deeper impact then we anticipated: it was a precedent of how the media could “make or break” a humanitarian appeal effort. The Gaza media incident spilled over into the current humanitarian catastrophes in Sri Lanka and Pakistan as now DEC is still contemplating whether or not to launch appeals for Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

“The issue is whether the broadcasters will support an appeal and my impression is that they won’t, for perceived reasons of (aid) access in either case, and for perceived reasons of political complexity in either case.” (Full)

So, let me get this straight: because the media decide not to provide coverage for an appeal, a humanitarian organisation decides NOT to launch an appeal? Eh? Would that make DEC’s decision not to appeal for Sri Lanka and Pakistan as revolting as the BBC’s decision not to provide media coverage for the appeal? Are soon humanitarian organisations ‘picking and choosing’ which operations to support, based on ‘the possible support by the media’?

Current balance: Humanitarian organisations’ resources already stretched because of the current economic crisis, are left close to depleted. Not because the need was not there – Pakistan’s war in Swat Valley uprooted close to 3 million people – but because of lack of support and attention from the media.

The phenomenon is known amongst aidworkers as “The CNN Effect”: If an emergency gets the spotlight on CNN, humanitarian wheels start rolling. If it is not featured on CNN, the emergency is forgotten and hushed in a corner. You might just as well not start an emergency operation if you feel you won’t be able to fundraise for it, right?

Which turns the Rupert Murdochs and Ted Turners of this world the Gods deciding between life and death for thousands.

Written by Peter

May 29th, 2009 at 5:13 am

Posted in Ranting

Tagged with , ,

Airport Security… Eh?

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When coming back from Kuwait, checking in for our flight to Rome, we went through the first security control, at the entrance of the airport departures building. I put my bags through a large Xray machine, and stepped through the screening frame. It beeped, as I still had my mobile, wallet and coins in my pockets. I had not even taken off my heavy overcoat. The security guard did not blink, gave me a quick superficial frisk while was smiling at Liz, one of my travel companions: “Hey habiba, where are you from?” I could have carried an AK47, he still would have had more attention for my blond (female) colleague.
The second security point was just a check if you had a boarding pass, after which you got into the tax free shopping area. After immigration, came the second Xray check. I was about to take off my overcoat, and the security guy waved me through ‘Habibi, jalla, jalla!’ (My friend, fast, fast!). When he saw I hesitated, he smiled at me ‘Come, come. It is ok!’, referring to the overcoat I had half-pulled off. Of course the ‘thing’ beeped. This time, he did not even frisk me. Just smiled at me ‘It is ok, habibi!’
It seemed the real security check was to happen at the boarding gate where two guards with utterly bored faces, asked me to take off belt, shoes, and coat, but only gave the Xray screen an occasional look…
Hmmm… security is only as good as the people who have to enforce it.

Or maybe not… Maybe the machines also play an important role in the dis-security. I remember in Islamabad, Pakistan, shortly after 9/11, we had to push our stuff through a monster Xray machine as soon as we entered the airport building. The machine hardly ever paused, and the security guards seemed to enjoy to see stuff jammed off the belt at the end. A guaranteed mess, certainly as people there were not known for “travelling light”.
One day, I could see the screen of the Xray machine, reflected in the glasses of the guard. I thought I saw the screen flickering as if it were defective. I got suspicious, and while I was grabbing my bags from the pile, I bent forward to see the actual Xray screen. It was as I had expected: the screen did not work, apart from ‘snow’ it only had large horizontal stripes scrolling over it, like an old TV which had lost it signal. The thing was defective, and the whole security setup was only a show..!

Talking about pre-flight security. The funniest was in Teheran-Iran, where during one visit, I had to take national flights regularly. The pre-boarding screening was done manually. You disappeared, with a guard, in a small cubicle, with curtains at two sides, and the guy would frisk you. It seemed it was always the same guy, who frisked me. And he did it very… eh… thoroughly. He clearly liked the body contact, and would hold me really close when frisking my back, standing in front of me – rather than having me turn around… The last thing he always did, was softly squeezing my private parts, while giving me a wide wink and smile. Hmmm…

Anyways, on the flight from Kuwait to Rome, the view from the plane onto the remote areas in Iran was astonishing. Some were like we were looking at the world, from a space ship.. A sample I wanted to share with you…
Iran from the airIran from the airIran from the airIran from the air

Written by Peter

January 21st, 2008 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Stories

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Lost Connection

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Dubai airport at night

Dubai International Airport – October 7, 2001.
I step out of the plane and look at my watch. 10 pm. Two hours to shop in the Dubai Tax Free before boarding my connecting flight to Islamabad, Pakistan.
I follow the stream of arriving passengers moving along on the first floor of the airport, overlooking the shopping area. I look at the vast crowd below. A dense mix of every possible Dubai Duty free shopping arenationality, religion and ethnicity in the world, expressed through a myriad of dress codes. From formal western suites, the traditional Arab dishdashahs, women in mini skirts mixed with those fully veiled. Rough Afghani chupans, expensive Indian silk sari’s, Berber djellabas, Australian safari shorts, Sudanese turbans, American baseball caps and Arab hijabs. This crowd seems to represent the world within one space. But the crowd is not strolling along from one shop to another in its usual way. The people are talking in groups, some with raised voices and expressive hand gestures, and others whisper. There is no laughing, nor joy but a nervousness makes the tension in the air so thick one could cut it with a knife. You do not have to be a clairvoyant to feel something is wrong.

Hundreds of people are lining up at the transit counters, below large displays listing numerous cancelled and delayed flights. The atmosphere is grim. Utter grim. I grab hold of someone in an Emirates Airlines uniform and ask her what is going on. She answers: “Have you not heard? The US started bombing Afghanistan a few hours ago. They closed the airspace above Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and all Gulf countries. No civil plane will be flying anymore for a while!”.
For a moment, I feel like the ground is pulled away from beneath my feet. “The US started bombing Afghanistan… This, we have feared since 9/11, a month ago. Retaliation. The beginning of the turmoil in the region, which will last for years. What will happen with Pakistan? How will the government react, how will the people react?”, thoughts flash through my mind as the lady explains the airline has booked hotel rooms, and buses are waiting outside.

I act like a robot: I walk through immigration, pick up my bags, and walk outside. The heat, humidity and mere mass of people crowded at the airport exit cuts off my breath. I get onto the bus and let myself fall into a free seat. I look at the crowd, the stuck traffic,…
- “Not flying tonight, are you?”, a voice says. I wake up from my reverie and look at the guy next to me. American accent.
- “No, apparently not!”, I mumble.
- “Harry”, he says as he holds out his hand.
- “Peter”, I answer, “where were you supposed to fly to?”
- “Oh, I was supposed to fly to Uganda”, he says, “my wife works there.”
- “Oh, really”, I answer, “I worked there too, left two years ago”. I try to make conversation, killing the time waiting for the bus to leave..
- “Really? You work for the UN?”
- “Yes, I do, for WFP”.
- “Oh, my wife works in the same building.. Cathy Ashcroft, maybe you know her!”. It turns out Harry is the husband of Cathy I know since years, the same Cathy I helped setting up the OCHA office in Kampala. We engage into a vivid conversation of Kampala, life in Africa, relief work and of course come back to the subject of the US bombing campaign.

After checking into the hotel, Harry and I walk to the night club, the only place we can still get a drink. In the mean time, it is already 1 am. A few men and a couple form the meagre audience, spread over a dozen tables. A small live band is playing without much enthusiasm. We take a seat in the back, and order a drink. I really really need a drink.
US bombing campaignI tell Harry about how we feared for the retaliation, how we feared how the whole region was going to react. No matter how much everyone hated the Taliban, it was still an attack on a sovereign country. A Muslim country. Would countries in the region now choose sides? Be forced to choose sides? Above all, it would mean that masses of people would be killed. Tens, if not hundreds of thousands would start moving within the country, trying to find refuge. It could possibly cause an exodus into all countries around Afghanistan: Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran,… Working for a front-line humanitarian organisation, I know what this would mean for us: we would go and provide aid, close to the line of fire. I think of all our national staff who is still in Afghanistan.
All of a sudden the band changes beat and a belly dancer starts her act. There is something wrong with this picture… A war has started tonight. A big one. And here we are in a dark bar, watching a belly dancer…

Tomahawk missile launched from a war shipI find no joy, pay for the drinks, say good-bye to Harry, and walk outside. Sitting on a bench near the hotel entrance, I lit a cigarette. I close my eyes, and imagine the infernos of fire, explosions, shrapnel in the black night around Kabul, Jalalabad and Kandahar. All places I have visited in Afghanistan. I can see families trying to seek refuge in their homes. I can see their fear not knowing what is going on, how long it would last, and what this would mean for them, and their livelihood. I can smell their fear even where I was sitting.
I look up. The night sky is clear. I imagine the Tomahawks launched from war ships close by. I imagine war planes rushing overhead, ten miles up in the sky. The pilots looking down at Dubai, this city of light and splendour, as they bank left and turn the direction of Afghanistan.

I was blocked in Dubai for three days. Spent the whole time in my hotel room, on email and telephone, coordinating with my team in Islamabad and with my counter parts in Rome. After three days, the air space was re-opened. I got onto the first plane that flew from Dubai to Islamabad. People were so anxious to get back home, they started a fight while boarding.
One month later, I landed in Kabul. As the Taliban retreated, they suffered quite some losses. People took the turbans from the bodies and threw them up in the trees. The turbans unruffled and for months long strips of shiny turban cloth were weaved in between the branches, floating in the wind.

It made me think of the start of the war and the belly dancer. The same contrast I found in dead bodies and their turbans floating in the wind, dangling from a tree. There is nothing poetic about the horrors of war. I understood what Marlon Brando meant in “Apocalypse Now”.

Pictures courtesy (bombing), CNN (Tomahawk), (Duty free zone)

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Written by Peter

October 23rd, 2007 at 11:08 am