Niger + 3 more

Highlights of the press conference by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs on 22 July in Geneva

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Jan Egeland, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, in his opening statement to a press conference held today at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, said that as Emergency Relief Coordinator, he found one of his most difficult missions was to bring attention to the most neglected and forgotten emergencies. For each one that received funding and profiling, there were a dozen neglected emergencies, some of which turned, despite early warnings, into full-blown catastrophes, such as in Niger and the sahel in Africa.
The World Food Programme, the Government of Niger, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other UN organizations had warned of the situation in Niger in November 2004, as by then the locusts had eaten everything green in the country. In February and March the drought had killed what the locusts did not eat, and the warning had been repeated. In May in this room and in other places, he had said that Niger was one of the biggest and most uncontrollable of the developing humanitarian emergencies. Over the last few days, the world had finally woken up, but it took graphic images of dying children for this to happen.

More money had been received over the last 10 days than over the last 10 months, and $ 6.6 million had been recorded in response to the United Nations appeal. Humanitarian colleagues and the Government had received another $ 7.6 million outside that appeal. Additionally, European and other donors had pledged more than $ 10 million, bringing the total to about $ 25 million. He was hopeful that most of what had been appealed for would be received - the United Nations had so far asked for $ 30.7 million, and this figure would be revised. This was not much money; in fact it was only 20 minutes of the world's military spending, and it was for the 800,000 malnourished children of Niger and the 2.5 million people in critical condition in Niger.

The world could afford this sum, but the system needed reform. If this year the Central Emergency Fund of about $ 500 million proposed by the Secretary-General Kofi Annan was established, then it would be possible to jumpstart operations when humanitarian organizations received early warnings from colleagues in the field in neglected places like Niger. Operations would therefore begin earlier, saving lives as well as saving the world millions of dollars. The operation was picking up in Niger, but it was much more expensive.

Mr Egeland was hopeful that this would be the year of reform of the humanitarian system at large so that there would be more funding in the Central Emergency Fund and in the various agencies and NGOs working in this field. There would also be an effort to make humanitarian response more predictable, as the humanitarian agencies and organizations also needed to reform. It was not only the donors who were slow, so were the agencies and organizations in many respects. A humanitarian response review had been taking place, led by Yvette Stevens, Assistant Emergency Relief Coordinator and Director of the Geneva branch of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which indicated that there needed to be a more predictable global capacity in water and sanitation, in camp management, in protection of internally displaced persons and in providing shelter for them.

The Organization was good, when it had resources, at bringing food, vaccination drives, schooling to refugees, assistance to refugees, but it was not as good with the internally displaced, and this was what was being addressed. A more effective level, especially at the country level in the field, was also needed. During the tsunami crisis, it generally was good, but it could have been better. In other cases, it was not enough to coordinate within the United Nations and between the United Nations and other humanitarian partners.

What was also needed was to be more aggressive in the advocacy for a predictable response of the world outside the humanitarian system, and Darfur was a case in point. The lack of political and security progress remained in that area, and the effective humanitarian operations may be becoming the world's alibi. He was very proud that there was now one third of the mortality in Darfur that there had been last summer. This was a triumph for the field colleagues, who had worked courageously, bringing the situation somewhat under control from the humanitarian side. However, the militias remained outside the camps, and the world had not been able to secure the future.

Humanitarian operations had to deal with a number of complex emergencies, where a number of factors combined, for example in Zimbabwe, where millions were food-insecure, 70 per cent of the population was unemployed, and 1 million were AIDS orphans. One quarter of the population was HIV-positive. On top of that, the Government had undertaken a campaign of driving poor people out of their improvised homes. The Executive Director of HABITAT, Anna Tibaijuka, was the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General to Zimbabwe, and would release her report today at 11 a.m. (New York time) at a press conference in New York. The report would say that hundreds of thousands had become homeless. His own concern was that this was continuing. The United Nations would appeal to the Government of Zimbabwe to stop the evictions immediately, and allow the UN system to help. The report would also appeal to donors to contribute.

In reply to a question on whether there was a humanely understandable reason why the Government of Zimbabwe was throwing people out of their houses, Mr. Egeland responded that the upcoming report by Ms. Tibaijuka was a huge report, and it should answer the question fully, but it appeared to be a wide-spread campaign in which the authorities believed that they were cleaning up urban areas and improving them, but as there were no plans for those who were in irregular dwellings, so it was a human tragedy.

Answering a question for elaboration on how many people were being fed in Zimbabwe, what was the need and what were the plans to feed more, Mr. Egeland said that at the moment the World Food Programme was feeding something in the excess of 1 million persons. More than 5 million persons had been fed during the peak in 2003, 4.5 million persons last year, and so far this year, between 1 and 2 million. This figure would have to increase, but there was a desperate lack of funding for operations in Zimbabwe. Mr Egeland said his heart went out to AIDS victims and orphans in Zimbabwe, who received a fraction of the assistance that went to Zimbabwe's neighbouring countries. The humanitarian principle was to help those who needed aid, wherever they were, at the same time as speaking very bluntly about the policies of countries which trampled on human rights. The report would be very frank on this point.

A journalist noted that on Niger, when Jean Ziegler, the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, gave his press conference, he had said $ 19 million was needed, and now Mr. Egeland was using the figure of over $ 30 million, and asked for clarification on the figures. Niger was a big emergency, Mr. Egeland responded; the United Nations worked as a system with some NGOS, and others worked outside the system. The United Nations had appealed so far for $ 30.7 million, and this would be revised upwards. The country team would be meeting this week and would make further plans. A number of Governments had come forward to make pledges, but the revised sum of donations was not yet available. Regarding the apparent imminent locust invasion, this would be devastating, but the world was better prepared for this. The Food and Agriculture Organization had a bigger system in place, and some money left over from the last locust invasion would be used to control the new one.

Regarding the protection of internally displaced persons in Niger, Mr Egeland said the humanitarian coordinator system was being strengthened so that the coordinators were better trained, serviced, and empowered to be better leaders. There was a need for more predictable response capacity in the various sectors. As in Darfur, early on, more than half the IDPs had been fed, but there was only water and sanitation for a quarter. There was also a lack of clarity as to which organization should provide them with shelter. He did not foresee that one agency would take total responsibility for IDPs in the future, however; it was more probable that different agencies would be in charge of the different sectors such as sanitation, shelter, camp coordination, and others. This was the optimal system due to the wide-spread nature of crises.

In response to a question on whether contributions would be better in the form of cash, than in kind, Mr Egeland said that cash would be more useful, but if the system did not accept bulk food contributions, then there would be no food for emergency situations.

Again on Zimbabwe and regarding the figures of those who were being fed, as these figures had dropped, a journalist asked why this was the case, and whether it would be possible to do what was needed as the crisis was reported to be getting worse. Mr Egeland said it was his job to be optimistic and believe that all needs would be met. There were problems concerning Zimbabwe on many fronts. There was too little money for too few donors, and often with too many strings attached. The Government had restricted access to many areas, and there had been too few agreed-upon needs assessments, in particular due to lack of cooperation with the Government, but it was hoped that this would improve. Zimbabwe was one of the countries in the world with the greatest number of vulnerable people in need of assistance, and there was a need to build up a coherent programme.

A further question was raised on why so little had been pledged by Governments and whether this was due to perceptions of the Mugabe Government and how many people actually needed help. Mr. Egeland said that the peak of the drought had been in 2003; since the peak of the drought, the situation had improved, but now it was worsening again, and the needs were increasing according to the World Food Programme. There was too little money, too little access, and too little cooperation on needs-assessment from the Government. Those who were on the receiving line in Zimbabwe were not receiving enough, he added.

Going back to the comment that as much had been received over the last 10 days as over the last 10 months, a journalist asked whether a situation of crisis had to be reached for the international community to respond. Mr Egeland said that it depended often on the right way of describing and advocating for a crisis. For example, better funding had been received in Ethiopia than in Niger. The Government of Niger and the few agencies present in the country had tried to warn about the situation, and Mr Egeland said he had also tried to warn the international community. In general donors were more and more responsible, giving money earlier and earlier, but in Niger the system had failed. There should not have been so many children dying in Niger. It could have been averted.

It defied common sense, a journalist commented, to ask for more aid for Zimbabwe, if the Government hampered the distribution of that aid, and asked if this could not be solved if the United Nations appealed to the African Union to resolve these political obstacles. Responding, Mr Egeland said there were access problems systematically in many places, but the humanitarian organizations did not punish the women and children among the refugees because of the Government, instead they persevered, as they were doing in Zimbabwe, where it was not impossible to work, but difficult. Mr Egeland said he felt a great sense of frustration, but the work would continue to tend to those in need, as well as to stop harmful governmental practices.

By feeding up to 2 million Zimbabweans, was not an evil system being propped up, a journalist asked. This was a political dilemma, Mr Egeland responded, saying that it was wrong to pick up the pieces of bad Government practices, but it was a humanitarian imperative to help, and Mugabe would not be punished by not giving assistance to those who had been evicted, as this would only punish the latter. However, the report that would come out would be very outspoken, and would appeal to the world to help humanitarian operations in campaigning for durable solutions.

A final question on how many children had died in Niger was not known, Mr Egeland said, as there had been no comparable surveys, but it was in the thousands. Niger had already been listed before the present crisis as one of the two poorest countries on Earth according to the United Nations Development Index, and the child mortality rates were very high to start with, but now it was well over the emergency threshold, with more dying than in Darfur, to give a comparison.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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