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UN barges in Sudan attacked

Another place where providing food aid is not easy:
At least 40 south Sudanese soldiers and civilians were killed when tribal fighters ambushed boats carrying U.N. food aid, the latest in a string of ethnic attacks threatening a fragile peace deal, officials said on Sunday. Members of the Jikany Nuer group opened fire on 27 boats loaded with emergency rations destined for an area controlled by the rival Lou Nuer tribe on Friday, the U.N. World Food Programme said.
It's long been a rather obvious point among Sudan watchers that the country's fate is tied more along the North-South axis than to the more prominent (and no, not unrelated) Darfur issue. A referendum on southern independence is scheduled for 2011, and there seems little chance, at least in the current climate, that South Sudanese won't vote for separation. If another war is then in the offing, a strategy of the government is Khartoum would almost certainly be to arm certain tribes in the south, in an attempt to sow internal strife among their adversaries. It's not a good sign, then, that the Sudanese government appears to have armed the group that carried out the raid on Sunday.
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No, providing tens of thousands of tons of food aid in Somalia is not easy

Quoting a Times of London article about sacks of food aid from the World Food Program disturbingly showing up for sale in a Mogadishu market, Ed Morrissey's unsurprising embrace of UN-bashing curiously omits the following from the very same article:
Many of the sacks for sale are marked: “A gift from the American people”, with the US government’s aid agency, USAID, providing $274 million last year in food and in humanitarian assistance for Somalia.
If food aid is not getting into the hands of those who need it, and is instead being re-sold for a profit -- whether the aid comes from the UN, the U.S. of A., or anywhere else -- that is a serious problem. It is also a problem that needs to be addressed in context; Somalia is the most difficult, dangerous, and complicated place for an aid worker to operate. Ensuring that every sack of food gets to the place it is supposed to go to is likely as impossible as accounting for every one of the ransom dollars that Somali pirates spend so recklessly. This is not an apology; it is a reality. Morrissey's indictment of the entire UN aid program in Somalia is all the less defensible because, again, the very article that he cites concludes with the WFP's Somali director characterizing the re-selling of food aid as a "minor phenomenon." This may go against the scandal-mongering tenor of the rest of the piece, but the fact is that the WFP does a lot of humanitarian aid work in Somalia, and the sacks that cannot be accounted for likely make up a very small percentage of this work. The WFP, though, is investigating the problem.
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Pakistan funding shortage

This is very bad news:

Relief groups in Pakistan will be forced to stop or cut back supplies of aid to more than one million people fleeing a military offensive in the northern Swat valley unless the worst funding crisis in a decade is resolved.

Nine aid agencies said on Thursday they faced a shortfall in excess of 26 million pounds, which was needed to provide food, medicine, tents and clothes to families uprooted by Pakistan's campaign to expel Taliban militants from Swat.

When both major international humanitarian organizations and the United Nations, which has received only $138 million (only $50 million from "rich countries") out of a requested $543 million, are coming up so short on their funding appeals, we have a major problem on our hands. Sure, there are bureaucratic difficulties, but the humanitarian organizations themselves acknowledge the importance of a UN coordinating role (and of continued funding through both sources).  The onus of this shortcoming should fall on donor nations (yes, especially the wealthy ones).

Why such a paltry response to such a devastating humanitarian crisis? Well, the economic contraction is surely one explanation. The fact that the Taliban-induced displacement in Swat is not, unlike the earthquakes in Pakistan and China last year, the 2004 South Asia tsunami, or last year's cyclone in Burma, a natural disaster also likely contributes, unfortunately, to people's willingness to donate.

But the particularly confounding factor of this crisis, as others have pointed out, is that much of the displaced population -- upwards of 80% -- is being absorbed into neighboring Pakistanis' homes. This is outstanding generosity, to be sure, but it neither obviates the need for humanitarian assistance nor creates a sustainable solution to the problem. And as I've said before, "even the most hospitable of families can only host 85 people in their home for so long."

(image of a refugee camp in Pakistan's Swat Valley, from Al Jazeera English under a Creative Commons license)

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Somalia’s iceberg problem

A day after representatives from more than 35 countries and international organizations met in Rome to discuss piracy off the coast of the Somalia, the UN today reports the astonishing figure that over 100,000 Somalis have been displaced in the last month.  Even by the standards of Somalia's recent turmoil, this is a shockingly high rate -- the highest, in fact, in "many, many years."  Amidst this gross displacement, all sides of the conflict have committed egregious human rights violations, with an appalling frequency of rape, impressment of child soldiers, and reckless shelling of civilians.

Compared with the widespread travesties faced by these thousands of Somalis, the international community's focus on piracy, whatever its impact on the global economy, seems almost an affront to human dignity.  Yet there are signs that leaders in Rome yesterday understand the connection between Somalia's humanitarian crisis and the headline-grabbing antics of pirates.  From Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini:

The minister said that piracy is linked to phenomena like the "criminality and infiltration of extreme elements easily recruited also by Al-Qaeda".

"Piracy is only the tip of the iceberg," Frattini said. "We are convinced that piracy is related to the political and socioeconomic crisis on land, not on the sea.

He said piracy and terrorism, illegal immigration, human trafficking are " a threat not only to Somalia but to the entire international community".

How they choose to address this larger problem is, of course, the big question.  Pirate courts and an enhanced Somali coast guard are nice steps, but the iceberg is much, much bigger.

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Aid Agencies Under Severe Pressure

Yesterday I wrote that a sad fact about life is that when things get tough, it's often those who can least afford more hardship who bear the brunt. I was pointing to this story about how the global economic crisis was exacerbating human rights abuses.

Here's more on how the dynamic works:

Aid funds are running short for worsening humanitarian emergencies in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa, as political complexities and the global economic crisis dampen the generosity of governments and individual donors.

Agencies in Sri Lanka, which are struggling to meet the basic needs of nearly 300,000 people displaced in the final stage of the country's civil war, are warning they only have enough money to keep their relief operations going for around another three months....

As of Thursday, funds donated to the U.N.'s $155 million appeal for Sri Lanka stood at $61 million, or 39 percent of the total, with a further $27 million in pledges that have yet to be firmed up.

For the crisis in Pakistan - where a government offensive against Taliban militants has sparked an exodus of some 2.3 million people in the north - aid agencies need around $543 million to provide food, water, shelter and other relief to displaced people sheltering in camps and with host communities.

So far, the appeal is only 16 percent covered. Donors have promised a further $224 million but it remains unclear how and when this money will be allocated.

The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) says it has received about a third of the funds its needs to provide food aid to around 1.5 million people in Pakistan, but desperately requires more.

"We have food and we have (financial) commitments, but we need cash to move the food," said Nancy Roman, WFP's director of public policy and communications. "In terms of lead times, you can't buy food with a commitment."

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HRC and BKM on Sri Lanka

The UN Human Rights Council is set to hold a special session on Sri Lanka next Monday. While that may not reassure critics of the institution, I think it's a good sign that the Council is engaged.  The more focus on the humanitarian disaster -- and its possible escalation -- in Sri Lanka, the better. This is what worries me:

Sri Lanka has said it needs to keep people inside the camps long enough to weed out potential Tiger infiltrators, and the United Nations has since said the camps meet international standards aside from the limited freedom of movement.

"Aside from the limited freedom movement" is a rather scary caveat, particularly when the Sri Lankan government is insisting it will be able to resettle the 250,000-plus displaced civilians in just six months. Combined with an ambiguous "weeding-out" program, this could spell danger.

Ban Ki-moon will be in the country tomorrow, and he better make sure that humanitarians and human rights activists have good access to make sure nothing goes wrong in the camps.

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2008 Deadliest Year for Aid Workers

There are many ways to help make a difference, from donating to important causes to raising awareness to pressuring elected officials. Each is a critical function and should be lauded.

A few courageous individuals choose to go out in the field and put their lives on the line. They deserve our utmost respect:

Soaring violence in Somalia and Afghanistan helped make 2008 the most dangerous year on record for aid workers, with 122 killed while carrying out their work, a report showed on Monday.

Aid work is now more risky than U.N. peacekeeping as attacks become increasingly politically motivated in some countries, researchers said.

Last year marked a surge in violence against international relief workers and local U.N. contractors such as the truck drivers who deliver food aid in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region.

There has also been a dramatic increase in kidnappings over the past three years. The latest in Sudan took place on Saturday when unknown armed men snatched two female aid workers, a French and a Canadian, from their compound in southern Darfur.

Altogether, 260 humanitarian workers were attacked in 155 serious incidents in 2008 -- compared with 27 incidents in 1998, according to figures compiled by the Center on International Cooperation (CIC) in New York and the Overseas Development Institute in London.