Category: International

Pakistan: public health is the biggest threat

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Boy carrying a box of emergency relief items in PakistanI’ve just been catching up with Katy Attfield, our head of disaster management, who spent four days in Islamabad last week to find out how the British Red Cross can continue supporting the response to the Pakistan floods.

So far, the British Red Cross has committed almost £9 million to support the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement’s response. It has also sent a number of delegates who specialise in livelihoods and hygiene promotion and has deployed its logistics emergency response unit.

As with Haiti, recovery in Pakistan will most likely take a decade – although as it’s so vulnerable to disasters it’s unlikely to have recovered before the next one hits.

Katy said: “It’s good to remind people that assessing the scale of a disaster is not really about the numbers of people who died. It is more relevant to look at the numbers of people who survived but have been left in a desperate situation and need help recovering. With Pakistan the numbers affected are huge – more than 18 million people – which is why it will take so long and why so much effort will be needed.

“The Pakistan Red Crescent is in the lead of the Movement response, and is coping well. It highlights one advantage of our world-wide Movement, as they have at least some capacity in the south of the country, whereas so many humanitarian organisations have previously only been focused on the north and so are struggling to scale up country-wide.”

The biggest immediate risk to survivors in Pakistan right now is around public health, with malaria and waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea and cholera posing a major threat. The British Red Cross will be sending more hygiene promotion delegates and sanitation specialists, who will focus on getting people to behave responsibly about where they go to the toilet and designating appropriate areas for this.

Find out more about what we are doing in Pakistan

Red Cross young reporter competition: win an overseas trip

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Girl holding a container of clean drinking water on her head in HaitiIf you are aged 18-25, are passionate about humanitarian issues and fancy yourself as an international reporter – then this is your lucky day!

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is running a Young Reporter Competition and five lucky winners will be selected for an overseas trip to visit a Red Cross project in either Georgia, Lebanon, Liberia, the Philippines or Senegal.

The competition is open until 1 October and involves submitting a communication project on a humanitarian topic of your choice.

The prize involves a one-week mission in which the winners will investigate how fighting and armed violence affects young people.

Red Cross staff in-country will coach the young reporters, facilitating his or her contacts with local youth and introducing them to relevant programmes.

Each reporter will then produce a ‘story from the field’, which will be presented at a special event in Geneva around the time of World Red Cross Red Crescent Day next year.

The competition is open to all young people, including unpaid Red Cross volunteers and coincides with the International Year of Youth.

Visit the ICRC website for further details and the application form.

Writing tips

1.    Use clear and simple language.*
2.    Choose a subject you feel passionate about.
3.    Use the active voice rather than the passive voice.

*The biggest pitfall when writing about humanitarian issues is getting caught up with all the jargon. As a reporter your job is to cut through all the ‘development speak’ (beneficiaries, disaster risk reduction, resilience, PHAST methodology, food insecurity etc) and use language that the general public will understand.

For more guidance you could check out these guidelines written by the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

World Humanitarian Day recalls bomb blast

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Today is the first official United Nations World Humanitarian Day. It has been commemorated unofficially on the anniversary of the 19 August 2003 bomb blast against the UN headquarters in Baghdad, since soon after it happened. The blast killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s chief envoy to Iraq, along with 22 others.

Iraqi sisters Suhad (left) and Soodad (right) Al-Naib were also caught up in the same bomb blast. Suhad describes what happened and how it led to a new life in the UK and volunteering for the British Red Cross.

“We were both working for the UN the day of the bomb blast. I had gone to see Soodad at UN headquarters in Baghdad, where she was working. At 4.30pm she told me I should go home. She looked worried. She said afterwards she knew something was going to happen.

Suddenly I spotted a truck out of the ground floor window of Soodad’s office, moving very fast and in our direction. The next thing I heard was the explosion.

It was so loud. I felt a big silver wave go through me and come out again and a sudden heat surrounding us. Then there was silence. The truck, packed with explosives, had been driven into the building.

I was conscious throughout the bomb blast, yet I felt no pain. I kept saying “I’m alive. I’m alive”, but I knew something terrible had happened. I realised I was stuck. Then someone tapped me but I couldn’t open my eyes and I couldn’t move one of my arms. I felt flesh and blood all over my face. I realised afterwards that one of my eyes was out of its socket.

There was blood everywhere and the force of the explosion had thrown my sister onto my lap – it had been her tapping me to tell me she was OK.

Three hundred people had been injured in the blast and 23 killed. I ended up losing an eye (I have a glass one in its place). Soodad took the brunt of the blast as she was standing by a big window and was scarred all down her left side.

Injured UN staff were transferred to London for treatment in 2004. In total, Soodad has had 13 operations and I have had 11. Our status – until we were granted asylum – meant we couldn’t work, but one day we spotted a Red Cross office near where we were staying.

We remembered the charity as we had gone to the Red Crescent for help to get out of Iraq. However, even though they had not been able to help us on that occasion, they had comforted us.

We both started volunteering for the Red Cross in September 2007, in Palmer’s Green, north London. We were granted asylum after a few months. Now Soodad works part-time at UK Office. I still volunteer and help with fundraising and office administration amongst other things.

We were so lucky to survive the bomb blast and are so grateful to be alive. I prefer to be optimistic and not to look back. So what…I lost an eye. I still have the other one.

We have managed to settle in the UK thanks to volunteering. It’s the least we can do to give something back to thank the community for accepting us.

Image © Harriet Armstrong/BRC

Robots in war

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I hated the Transformers movie. For me, it was just bad Eighties toys repackaged as a rubbish film, with the human actors every bit as tinny as their metallic counterparts. It comes to something when a talking car comes across as the most sympathetic character.

Besides, the idea of robots playing a meaningful role in a contemporary conflict is just ridiculous. Isn’t it?

Well, apparently not. According to the British Red Cross’ brand new Robots in war education resource, robots are playing an increasingly prominent role in modern conflict and throwing up all kinds of tricky ethical questions and dilemmas.

Take just one example: ‘pilots’ can now fly unmanned planes – and drop bombs on people – in perfect safety from bases thousands of miles from the actual conflict. Who can begin to guess the psychological effects of taking numerous lives while sat at a desk dunking biscuits in your tea?

As well as remotely-controlled planes, there’s also medical robots that retrieve the wounded from battle, the legendarily creepy big dog robot (below) and even armed border guard robots that can be programmed to automatically shoot on sight.

As an impartial organisation, the Red Cross remains, well, impartial on the topic of robots in conflict. But given our close interest in international humanitarian law, we’re understandably very interested in the questions raised by recent developments.

For example: could using robots make it harder to comply with laws of war? And who’s responsible if an armed robot mistakes a granny in a wheelchair for a tank and lets rip with both barrels? The whole mind-boggling topic has had me mulling over the rights and wrongs, the whos and whys, ever since I first came across the resource.

Robots in war – which includes lots of compelling video footage of robots in action – is designed for secondary-aged students and will hopefully be a big hit in the classroom. However, it’s well worth a look by curious minds of all ages.

The modern battlefield is changing beyond measure, from the Green Berets to Starship Troopers in the space of just 50 years. Who knows where we’re heading next?

Humanity in a high-tech age – Robots in war

Disasters do not discriminate – neither should the response

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Pakistan is often in the news and often for the worst reasons. Not only susceptible to terrible natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, the country has also been suffering from situations of internal violence and the impact of regional conflicts. Now, after this latest catastrophe, more than ever it is crucial that we focus on humanitarian assistance as our sole and overarching priority. When disaster strikes as hard as it has in this past week, humanity and impartiality are our best means of getting help to where it is needed most.

Woman, men and children rescued from the floods in PakistanFor many Pakistanis, the recent floods are only the latest disaster to impact their lives. Areas which have recently experienced insecurity are among the very worst affected. Many people in the North West had already been displaced as a result of violence, and had only recently returned home to rebuild their lives. Others have only just recovered from recent earthquakes, which shook the northern areas in 2005 and Baluchistan in 2008. The floods will also exacerbate chronic problems due to poverty, making people more vulnerable to malnutrition or disease. Thousands of acres of crops have been washed away, and there is a significant risk of an outbreak of waterborne diseases.

Political and security concerns – however legitimate they may be – must not be allowed to obscure the vital importance of getting life saving assistance to all of those caught up in this disaster. In the face of such a dire humanitarian situation, the profound suffering of many thousands of human beings must be recognised and addressed. The floods did not discriminate in their devastation, so neither should the response.

People affected by the floods hail from all ethnicities, sects, religions, political affiliations and regions of Pakistan. Distributing aid impartially among these groups is of utmost importance. In order to reach the most vulnerable populations, those that distribute aid must be close to affected populations and their personnel must be accepted by those they serve. In this respect, the role of politically neutral and independent organisations such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, is crucial and in many ways unique.

Preparing distribution of relief, PakistanThe Pakistani government, the UN, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, international NGOs and local organisations and individuals have mounted a swift response to the disaster. Assistance from the Pakistan Red Crescent Society has already reached some of the most isolated regions of the country, including the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Baluchistan. The Red Cross Red and Crescent Movement is gearing up to reach up to 250,000 of the most vulnerable individuals as soon as possible. In order to achieve this, humanitarian access and space to get to those most in need must be assured.

The comprehensive destruction of roads, bridges and vital infrastructure has focused attention on how we as aid agencies are managing to get physical access to the worst hit villages and those in the direst need of shelter, food and medical assistance. The access which comes with the trust and goodwill of all sides, particularly in a complex and rapidly changing political world, is even more valuable, and for this, it is impartiality and neutrality in word and deed that count the most.

Donate to the Red Cross Pakistan floods appeal

Pakistan floods survivors need your help

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Elderly people and children are rescued from Pakistan floods by boat

Back to work with a bang after the summer holidays.  While I was enjoying some south coast sunshine with my family, thousands of Pakistani families have been struggling through chest-high flood waters trying to salvage what’s left of their belongings.  Sadly, those could be said to have been the lucky ones.

The team in the office here had already begun the British Red Cross response, but the true scale of the disaster only became apparent this morning.  That’s why we’ve upped the ante, released an initial £50,000 from our Disaster Fund and launched the Pakistan Floods Appeal.

I’ve said this before, but it’s impressive when our media and fundraising teams work so closely alongside us to publicise this appeal and give people the opportunity to respond.  Media outlets want to know what the Red Cross has got to say about disasters of this scale and it’s a part of the job to fit these in among the more routine aspects of decision-making around what form our support is going to take.

Today for me it’s been ITV and BBC News 24, and already some of the more difficult questions are emerging around access to regions where there has been fighting in recent years.  It’s important to remember that these floods have affected a huge part of the country, covering a variety of different challenges.  With our partner, the Pakistan Red Crescent, having branches and volunteers throughout the country, they have been well placed to respond.  Indeed, they have a long history of utilising our neutrality to work in even the most difficult locations, including those affected by conflict.

With more rains forecast, we’re worried about the risk of diarrhoea and cholera. We’re also worried that – with so many roads and bridges damaged – aid is going to be difficult to move around.

What I do know is that the local team on the ground will be doing everything to find a way around these problems. Using helicopters will be one pricey, but probably needed option to reach those who desperately need our help.

I would never wish a disaster like this on anyone, but it’s given me an immediate reminder about why we work in disaster response, rather than the usual post-holiday blues.

Donate to the Pakistan Floods Appeal or text DONATE to 70700 more info here: http://bit.ly/bmqcu3

Read more about the Pakistan floods

Image © REUTERS/Adrees Latif/courtesy www.alertnet.org

Is aid to drought-stricken families in Niger a good idea?

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A new Red Cross film is causing huge debate about whether or not it’s a good idea to provide aid for families affected by severe drought in Niger.

In the film Saray Amadou talks about her daily struggle to survive and to feed her ten children. But when one viewer commented – Why do you have 10 children and if the Red Cross help you, will you see this as the opportunity to have more children? – a raging debate began on the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Facebook page.

The drought has led to a food crisis meaning half the population has limited access to food. The Red Cross is providing food and seeds to help 385,000 people.

We believe more support is needed – what do you think?

Half way through my American Red Cross internship…

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One moment its day 3 of a three week internship, then suddenly you check reality (after seeing the sights, gorging on the food, and exploring cultural diversity) and you realise you’re half way through your time living in an amazing city. Which, to be honest, is a bit of a kick in the gut.

It also means time is running out to complete a presentation, which is going to be viewed by almost every Red Cross individual you’ve met during your trip. That thought is a wee bit scarier.

However, while time may be ticking away for finalising power point presentations, the fun and games which come with an America-based internship definitely haven’t stopped delivering.

For example, the other night we went to see the musical “Wicked” (the story behind the witches from “the Wizard of Oz”) and Sunday gave way to patriotic celebrations as we partied our way through Independence Day. We’ve seen San Fran city on a number of ocassions, and we are still working our way through all the different types of food available in the Bay Area. Which would explain why several members of the Red Cross staff are desperate to join us for lunch and supper every day. And yes, we do have a checklist of food to eat, which we are rapidly working our way through and has now led to me gaining a few pounds…

Personally, I also managed to organise a meeting with one of the British Consulates, and together we had very interesting coversations on the purpose of the British Consul General how the British Red Cross ties in with the UK society.

The American Red Cross has been incredibly kind to us. The team – who have quickly become friends more than work colleagues – have been so accommodating and enthusiastic to show us their world of the Bay Area, and it has only impressed me and captured my admiration. The classic song lyrics of “I left my heart in San Francisco” are starting to become all the more applicable as the days go by.

Of course, that learning curve is continuing to meander through the internship too. Sitting through a disaster services meeting today gave a greater insight into how the Bay Area Red Cross prepare for, respond to, and resolve disaster situations; the principles of which I am greatly interested in. But what really grabbed my attention this time was the scope for the Youth to get involved.

While there is no set programme for youth involvement in disaster  services here (yet), maybe it is something which will be considered. Theories which were bounced to and fro were setting up programmes for the youth involving education about disaster response, which, if interested, they could work through from the beginning of their Red Cross episode until the age of 18 years when they can physically be deployed as part of the disaster response team. A more indepth look into this reveals the idea of youth being informed about the different areas of emergency response, such as logistics/communications/public speaking/media relations/etc. Then matching the individual up to their desired interest. Perhaps this could be established as early on as during the interview process, when it comes to choosing what area of Red Cross you want to enter into.

Ok, so that may seem very complex and political, but it is certainly something which could work well, being mutually beneficial for the Red Cross area and the young individual. It’s almost like fine-tuning the volunteer, so that when the moment comes to act, they do so with every bit of knowledge and confidence needed in such a situation.

And speaking of youth… wouldn’t it be great to host a few American Red Cross volunteers over here? Just so we could show them how different the British Red Cross is? Because after all, we’ve got our good points too! That was also something eagerly enquired about today, so perhaps I’ll open that question up to the big guys?

Now, aside from Red Cross tactics… the rest of this week has a trip to the Golden Gate Park and Alcatraz Prison in store. Who needs to focus on official stuff when you’ve got that kind of line up ahead of you?

Find out more about international youth volunteering and internships