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Humanitarian aid more than just breaking news

 InDepth News 28 May 2019

(Originally published: 05/2010) “It's the bullets and the bloodshed that make people sit up and take notice, but the problems don't stop when public attention shifts elsewhere, nor does our work as humanitarians," says Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). (1594 words) - By Jaya Ramachandran

GENEVA, Switzerland - "The uncertainty that comes with not being able to return home for years on end or the monotony of walking for hours, day in and day out, to fetch water, is not breaking news…

"It's the bullets and the bloodshed that make people sit up and take notice, but the problems don't stop when public attention shifts elsewhere, nor does our work as humanitarians," says Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The ICRC's latest annual report points out that the victims of many modern-day armed conflicts face a complex set of pressures and problems linked to ongoing insecurity - from short-term and often recurrent needs, like safety, food, water, shelter and medical help - to chronic challenges, such as poverty, malnutrition, and a lack of schooling, work or health care.

The report offers just a snapshot of the decades of suffering people have faced in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the occupied territories, Somalia, Sudan, Colombia and the Philippines.

"When you look back at our annual reports from 10, 20 or even 30 years ago, you find that many of these same contexts were already embroiled in or on the brink of fighting. What worries me most is the devastating, cumulative effect this particularly pernicious set of conflicts is having on whole generations," said the ICRC president releasing the report on May 19, 2019.

Kellenberger said that by being "in it for the long haul" and maintaining an ongoing presence on the ground, the ICRC was able to understand and respond more effectively to both the acute and persistent needs of people in conflict-plagued countries.

He added that the "increasingly interminable nature" of wars and insurgencies meant that humanitarian agencies had to be "prepared to provide a diverse range of assistance over a longer period of time."

As part of its response in 2009, the ICRC strengthened its field-based cooperation with National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which are rooted in local communities, ensuring closer proximity to those in need, especially in hard-to-reach areas.

Presenting the annual overview in Geneva, Kellenberger called on governments to redouble their efforts to minimize the humanitarian impact of armed conflict and other violence on civilians, adding that more pressure had to be brought to bear to ensure that warring parties adhered to international humanitarian law.

In total, the ICRC spent 1.06 billion Swiss francs* (about 920 million U.S. dollar) in 2009, down just slightly from an all-time high of almost 1.1 billion francs (about 955 million U.S. dollar) in 2008.

Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan and Afghanistan were among the organization's biggest operations in 2009, representing almost a third of the ICRC's overall expenditure.

Kellenberger said the drawn-out character of modern-day armed conflicts and rising vulnerability among civilians were reflected in the organization's near-record spending in 2009.

He cited Afghanistan and Somalia as presenting "major operational challenges" for the ICRC, adding that, year after year, the chaos of war and uncertainty had slowly eroded prospects for economic, social, scientific, educational or political stability and growth.

"In addition to bombings and attacks, people have had to put up with decades of displacement, little or no health care, restrictions on movement, humiliation, unemployment, despair, separation from family members, a growing dependency on aid and competition for increasingly scarce resources," said the ICRC president.

"I wonder what Afghanistan and Somalia would look like today - how their economies and societies would have developed, how many more children would be in school - had there been peace and progress instead of bloodshed and devastation all these years," he added.

The report describes not only the harm that armed conflicts inflict on populations around the world, and what the organization is doing to protect and assist them.

In 2009, the ICRC distributed 88,515 tonnes of food to 4.07 million people. Its water, sanitation and construction projects benefited more than 14.2 million people - the majority of whom were women and children - while the number of patients treated at health facilities supported by the organization was close to 5.6 million.

ICRC delegates visited around half a million detainees in 74 countries and four international courts, and handled almost 509,000 Red Cross messages, enabling family members separated by hostilities and other crises to restore contact. Around 143,000 of the messages were exchanged between detainees and their families.

As the ICRC's director of operations, Pierre Kraehenbuehly (PK) explains in a web posted interview, assisting and protecting victims of armed conflicts requires flexibility, commitment and understanding.

Extracts from an interview posted on the website of ICRC:

What does this (intricate situation) mean for aid agencies like the ICRC?

It's conventional wisdom that humanitarian work is essentially short-term and focused on emergencies. But these emergencies in armed conflicts almost always happen against the backdrop of prolonged crisis.

That's why we must be able to respond to a range of acute and chronic needs of people who have been both directly and indirectly affected by armed conflict. By this, I mean we have to pay attention to immediate and sometimes recurrent needs, such as medical assistance, security and water in the emergency phase, as well as long-term ones, like ensuring regular access to health care or providing those made vulnerable by armed conflict with opportunities to earn a living. It's about saving lives and safeguarding people's way of life and their dignity. No single humanitarian organization can do this alone.

What does drawn-out fighting do to people's lives?

It puts unimaginable pressure on them. This might seem obvious, but the problems are more complicated than you would imagine. Take displacement, separation, hunger, thirst, injury and anxiety, then add broken-down or damaged infrastructure, criminal activity, and the potential for environmental degradation, floods, drought and disease. If in addition there is some political, ethnic or religious tension, you have all the ingredients for long-term, widespread despair and decline.

Can you give a specific example of a country that's seen more than its fair share of long-lasting fighting?

Afghanistan, of course, comes immediately to mind. The ICRC has had a permanent presence there since 1987. Last year, we did a survey asking people about their experience of war. Virtually everyone (96%) said they had been affected in some way by armed conflict - either through direct personal experience (60%) or due to wider consequences.

Large numbers said they had been forced to flee their homes, suffered damage to their property or had limited access to basic necessities, but people's "greatest fears" were often of being undermined or losing control of their lives, rather than of direct physical harm.

For instance, a third or more feared economic hardship (37%) and displacement (34%), while one fifth (21%) worried about not being able to get an education or go to school. This type of data underscores just how complex the situation can be. Fighting or no fighting, life goes on, and no matter what, people want to build a better future for themselves and their children.

How has the ICRC adapted its operations to the reality of this kind of context?

Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, is a good practical example. It's the main referral hospital for 3.5 million Afghans… that would be like Geneva's cantonal hospital trying to provide care for half the population of Switzerland and without the backdrop of major insecurity. Believe me, what the Afghan and ICRC surgeons, doctors and nurses do on a daily basis at Mirwais is nothing short of heroic.

We support the hospital, which winds up treating a lot of emergency cases of people injured by gunshots, bombings and explosions. But it's not enough to just treat the war-wounded… we also see many expectant mothers and underfed children, whose access to health care is indirectly limited by the fighting. So, we try to ensure that everyone gets treatment and help, meeting both acute and chronic needs.

Does a long-term presence have any advantages?

Being there before, during and after a crisis means you gain a much deeper understanding of how things work on the ground and you already have the contacts you need when fighting flares up. In our case, this means talking to all sides of a conflict, as well as working with local authorities such as health and justice officials, and hospitals and prisons.

The conflict in Gaza at the start of 2009 is a prime example of why making a long-term commitment and being close to people really matter. When Israel launched its three-week military operation in Gaza just before the New Year, the humanitarian situation in the Strip went from bad to worse in a matter of hours and days.

Nowhere was safe for civilians, hospitals were overwhelmed and aid agencies had a very hard time getting in or moving about safely. The ICRC and the Palestine Red Crescent Society were already working on the ground, before the strikes started, and we were able to respond immediately.

Just to put things in perspective, the ICRC has had a permanent presence in Colombia, as well as Israel and the occupied territories, for more than 40 years. We arrived in Sudan back in 1978 to assist the victims of fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia and we've been active in Iraq, Somalia and the Philippines since the early 80s. Along the way, we've discovered that when you're in it for the long haul, it helps foster trust.

As a member of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, we are part of a very strong network that is ready to respond as soon as a crisis happens, and that's a major advantage too.


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