Category Archives: Emergency Aid

Bunj: Arguably, the Worst Place in the World Right Now

Here’s a grim parlour game: explain why place X is, excluding North Korean prison camps (which would otherwise “win” every time), the Worst Place in the World Right Now.

I nominate Bunj, in Maban County of South Sudan’s notoriously screwed up Upper Nile State. The miniscule village is really nothing more than a clump of maybe three dozen huts – here’s how it looks from the air:

from the air
Old Bunj. The village is of course dwarfed by the nearby UNHCR Refugee Camps.

Yet Bunj is the epicenter of such an unlikely accumulation of calamities right now it’s hard to think what else could go wrong.

In late 2011, the first of two waves of refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile State started arriving there en masse seeking refuge from a brutal air bombing campaign by the notoriously sociopathic Al-Bashir regime in Khartoum. The humanitarian response to the refugee crisis was always going to be chaotic because Bunj is in a logistics blackspot: it’s not just that there are no proper roads, and certainly no airports, it’s that there’s no river access either. You basically can’t get there from here.

So UNHCR had to scramble to set up camps for tens of thousands of refugees it hadn’t been expecting in a place nobody could get to. A supernatural feat of bureaucratic efficiency would’ve been needed for the response to be minimally adequate, but supernatural feats of bureaucratic efficiency were not forthcoming.

Instead, MSF has carefully documented a series of cockups in the 2011-2012 refugee crisis response. The result was refugee camps sited in places where the was nowhere near enough safe drinking water, nor any reasonable way to bring it. The mortality rate seemed to spike among refugees after they reached the camp, pointing to appalling sanitary conditions. And then, just as the humanitarian situation was starting to stabilize, South Sudan’s own civil war broke out.

So now you have 125,000 Sudanese refugees who left their own communities to escape war trying to survive in a series of refugee camps in another country that’s now also at war, and alternates between dust-bowl conditions and knee-deep mud on a six-monthly rotation.

Oh and did I mention it’s 43 degrees celsius?

The second half of 2014 is not turning out to be kind on Maban County. The rebel forces that the international media insist on saying are “led by former-Vice President Riek Machar” are increasingly evidently fragmented, with nobody really in command. In very isolated places like Bunj guys with guns roam around under loyalties that are hard even for the locals to discern.

Two days ago, one of these groups struck. Calling themselves the “Mabanese Defense Force”, they murdered six humanitarian aid workers hired locally purely because they were Nuers. In effect, the Mabanese Defense Force is now a roving death-squad picking off ethnic Nuers, even if they work for the agencies. And the agencies have freaked out in response, evacuating expat staff en masse, with 220 relief workers now on their way out.

Except this happens right as an outright famine is on the verge of being declared in Upper Nile State, where there’s been so much violence that neither the locals nor the refugees have had much chance to plant anything and the harvest this year is likely to come to very little indeed.

Don’t forget, 125,000 Sudanese refugees are stuck in the middle of all of this: with no roads, no river access, no food, no aid workers, no medical care, no blue helmets, no means of protecting themselves and any number of fly-by-night militias roaming the countryside.

That’s Bunj, folks. Quite possibly: the worst place in the world right now.


The Saddest PDF in the Whole Internet

Cross posted on the

Is it normal to find yourself getting weepie over data? That’s the question that stalked me as I leafed through this brutal PDF from the World Food Programme innocuously titled RESOURCE SITUATION UPDATE, 27 JUL 2014.

In unadorned table format, the PDF lays bare the alarming underfunding facing 20 out of the 22 Emergency Operations WFP runs (red in the map above) and 54 out of its 55 Protracted Relief and Recovery Operations (orange above.)

Resource Situation Update

These ops range widely in size: from punctual incursions like the $2.9 million operation in Cuba (just over half funded) to the mammoth $1.5 billion EMOP for Syria, which is $776 million short of its target. Only the Super-Typhoon Haiyan-hit Philippines and the geostrategically important operation in Iraq’s Al-Anbar province have reached full funding.

Altogether, WFP needs $5.55 billion to run the EMOPs currently underway. They’ve raised just $3.16 billion of that.

But the EMOPs aren’t actually the worst of it. The emergencies are largely “Brand Name Crises” that receive substantial media coverage, mobilize smaller (but also nimbler) International NGOs and have a potential to generate substantial private donations. They’re awful but, by and large, they are not forgotten.

No, the real Valley of Tears is further down in the PDF, when you get to WFP’s list of 55 – fifty-five!“Protracted Relief and Recovery Operations,” the chilling bureaucratic euphemism for a forgotten crisis.

Here we’re dealing with places where hunger is chronic, WFP engagement long-running, and news coverage basically non-existent. These are places we long ago forgot faced chronic food insecurity, if we ever knew it in the first place: Kyrgyzstan. Senegal. Ecuador. Western Algeria. Myanmar. Mauritania. Yemen. When was the last time you read a story about the humanitarian crises there?

It’s hardly surprising that WFP’s PRROs suffer funding shortages that are much worse than its EMOPs. Together, WFP figures it needs $10.56 billion to attend to its PRROs. It’s raised less than half of that: just $4.5 billion.

In some cases, the funding gaps are just abysmal:

The standard advice in advocacy circles is to “put a human face” on the crisis you’re dealing with, to humanize it, to turn it narrative and personal so it’s compelling and “connects”. I understand why professional fundraisers come to that conclusion, yet you really have to wonder at the ethics of it. Any one crisis you focus on means shunting 76 other Emergencies or Forgotten Crises out of the spotlight. Seeking to raise money crisis by crisis quickly turns into a battle royale for clicks, sympathies and dollars. And it’s not hard to see what it takes to “win” that competition: light skin, telegenic hunger and media coverage.

It is not humanly possible to “engage” with 77 stories at the same time. It just isn’t. The engagement model of donor mobilization isn’t tenable. It really has to go.

Shouldn’t Humanitarian Aid Come First?

Last year, the world spent $135 billion on International Development Aid. It also spent $22 billion on Humanitarian Aid.

Is this the right balance?

Let’s see: development aid is controversial, its effectiveness is contested and its impact ambiguous.

Humanitarian aid enjoys consensus, its effectiveness is beyond the slightest doubt, and its impact visible to the naked eye.

An army of econometricians have been out trying to measure the contribution of development aid for a generation, and agreement seems farther than ever. Second-order impacts on macroeconomics and on the politics of both donor and recipient countries are intractable. In some cases, the impact is actively negative, in many more, merely wasteful.

Some of the best minds in the business – by no means just the usual right wing  suspects – have concluded development aid is trapped in a paradox: countries that need it most don’t benefit from it, and countries able to benefit from it don’t really need it. Even some long-time campaigners for the developing world favor a gradual tapering off of development aid.

At the same time, the world is seeing an explosion in demand for humanitarian assistance, with climate change threatening to make it all much worse in the near future. While emergency aid spending is rising, it’s not rising anywhere near fast enough to keep up with the growth in demand. Events that used to be once-in-a-century, like the monstrous typhoon that devastated parts of the Philippines in November 2013, could start happening once a decade.

And chaotic weather patterns have already started to fuel conflicts in Central Africa, generating a series of crises international agencies can’t seem to cope with.

In this context, the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid tells us we should “get used to it” when it comes to not enough resources for Emergency Response. People starving inside UN facilities is, we’re told, “the new normal.”

This situation strikes me as perverse. The rich countries spend plenty in the developing world, it’s just that 6 out of 7 aid dollars are directed to programs where it’s hard to tell if they’re doing any good.

What’s clear is that the macro-trends driving demand for humanitarian response are not abating. Just the opposite. And demand is already outstripping supply to wild, unacceptable degrees (…or, well, degrees we would recognize as wildly unacceptable if we could find editors who cared about hundreds of thousands of starving people as much as they care about one asshole planting a flag in the middle of the desert.)

What’s so strange about this situation is that while “Foreign Aid” is highly unpopular with first world voters everywhere, Humanitarian Aid is popular enough that people give substantial sums voluntarily: of the $22 billion spent on humanitarian aid last year, $5.6 billion was given by private entities, not governments.

In the last 12 months, the world’s seen what happens when three “Level-3 emergencies” (a.k.a., big-time humanitarian crises) hit at once. The Humanitarian Infrastructure buckled under the weight of Syria, the Philippines and Central Africa. The system can’t cope. People starve.

And the people who should be out there agitating for more money to face up to the simultaneous crises instead turn to us and tell us to get used to it.