Red Cross: Yemen situation ‘is probably as bad as Syria’

Dr Jemilah Mahmood of the International Red Cross warned a Brussels audience that the situations in Yemen and the Lake Chad basin were "unseen and unheard". [Matt Tempest/Flickr]

Unseen and unheard crises, such as in Yemen and in the Lake Chad basin in Africa, are probably as bad as in Syria – where the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has already lost 57 aid workers, Jemilah Mahmood says.

Dr. Jemilah Mahmood is the Under Secretary General for Partnerships with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), which has 190 member organisations and 70 million volunteers around the world.

Mahmood spoke with’s development correspondent Matthew Tempest after her keynote speech at the opening of this year’s AidEx conference, in Brussels.

Picking up on your keynote speech here, and the theme of the 2016 AidEx conference as ‘localisation’, what are the four ‘T’s of localisation you recommend?

 The first thing you need is a ‘Tailored’ approach to localisation. In the sense that, what does it mean in the locality – when there is strong local government, strong local Red Cross/Red Crescent, those will be your best partners for localisation. But where there is no local civil society – and that’s rare, because there is National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in 190 countries, there are local churches, local mosques so a tailored response has to be contextualised.

The second ‘t’ is Trust. How do we build trust? How do we build it between the international community and local actors? Because there’s a lot of suspicion on both sides. You need to have trust that local action can work. A lot of scepticism prevails – ‘it won’t work because there will be corruption, donors think the risks are too high’. Why is the international community just not ready, even with smaller amounts of money, to build that trust.

The third ‘t’ is Time. It does take time to build that partnership, it does take time to build that trust, it does take time to understand context. But the time is ‘now’. Because we live in a world where there are a lot of geopolitical shifts and protracted crises where international actors get sidetracked and don’t have access like the local Red Cross/Red Crescent and churches [or mosques] do.

Fourthly, ‘technology’. Technology will get us to a point where local action is very easy to transact. Because of mobile phones, because of blockchain technology for cash. That gives us a way to transfer the money, but also follow it in a transparent way. Technology also gives local communities a voice to express their dissatisfaction with the international actors! It makes them more heard, and more visible.

You mentioned that in localisation, of course, the ‘locals’ never regard themselves as local. There are advantages to using local actors in terms of speed of response, and knowledge of local customs – such as in the Ebola outbreak – and they can be cost-effective, and resilient. But the problems were corruption and data.

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Not only corruption but reporting. If you subject local actors to the same stringent conditions as the international community, it becomes just paperwork after paperwork. They may not have that capacity, even if they have the capacity to respond. So how do you make it more simple? Especially when all the international donors have their own reporting systems? It’s unsustainable.

Secondly, are local systems set up to receive international funding? This is very important. For the Red Cross/Red Crescent this is not a problem, but for some local NGOs, this is a problem – their countries just don’t have the legislation.

And the third challenge is this perception of corruption. Which I think is sometimes a bit unfair, because we know that corruption occurs in all countries, and in all settings. And we don’t always have the quality local data to show what risk there is in local action. It’s not there, it’s patchy or anecdotal.

And for the IFRCRC, you’ve already lost 57 staff  and volunteers in Syria alone?

Yes. Local actors bear the brunt. And sometimes that is too distant from the international actors, they are just used as subcontractors. They need a better deal.

Generally, there has been much better understanding of international humanitarian law, protecting aid workers.

Syria is the obvious crisis point at the moment. Where else is the IFRC involved – what at the other major global flashpoints?

Everywhere is! We are involved everywhere. But the unseen and unheard crises are in Lake Chad basin, and in Yemen. It’s probably as bad as Syria, but not receiving the attention. The whole drought in southern Africa. Food insecurity and the impacts of climate change. These are real, every day, things that are Red Cross and Red Crescent societies face.

And some countries, you must remember, are subject not to ‘mega-disasters’, but small, recurrent, events, such as floods, that actually erode capacities, erode local economies, and lead people deeper and deeper into abject poverty.

Where we play a role is in building the resilience of communities. For example, in Bangladesh, we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of people to cyclones. But it was the work of the Red Crescent in Bangladesh, on bicycles, with megaphones, warning and preparing people for the next cyclone, meant that they lost much less.

We never really celebrate that, but investment in preparedness and resilience has actually a lot of economic benefits.

You talked in your speech about the funding gap and the ‘Grand Bargain’ – what do you think the EU could do better, or more of?

The Grand Bargain was led by Kristalina Georgieva, an EU Commissioner [at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May.]

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But there are other elements people forget. One is ‘reducing need’ – which means investment in preparedness. The EU should invest in preparedness. There’s enough evidence now that one dollar spent on preparedness saves five to seven dollars in response. We know that. But why aren’t we putting the money in? And it creates much more resilient communities.

‘Reducing need’ also means ‘reducing conflict’. Which means political action, so the EU has to show leadership, especially on the UN Security Council, to really push for ending conflict and protecting civilians.

And how do you get much more solidarity funding? Whether it’s through taxes, or contributions from the private sector, or more innovative financing.

Finally, the Grand Bargain. The Grand Bargain itself has 10 parts to it. Localising aid is just one. The other parts are just as important, for example looking at multi-year funding. How can you talk about building resilience when funding is on a year-to-year basis?

How do you increase transparency? Looking at cash as a transformative tool for humanitarian action – how do you look at the humanitarian-development nexus? We know that in the EU and in many governments, the humanitarian bucket and the development bucket are separate, whereas some things may qualify for development action – but where does resilience work fall?

There’s a lot EU and member states can do. And certainly in terms of the funding by DG ECHO and the like, really embracing the ten elements of the Grand Bargain, and putting them into action.

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