Aid workers fail some of world's most vulnerable

Too many aid agencies are not good enough at fostering acceptance from warring sides in a conflict.

FILE:United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) workers stand near a rebel fighter in a street on February 8, 2014 on the second day of a humanitarian mission in a besieged district of the central city of Homs. Picture: AFP.

JOHANNESBURG - From Syria to South Sudan, humanitarians are failing to protect and reach some of the most vulnerable people caught up in war or hit by natural disasters, the United Nations' former aid chief Jan Egeland said on Wednesday.

Too many aid agencies are not good enough at fostering acceptance from warring sides in a conflict or investing in staff willing to work in particularly tough places such as Central African Republic, Egeland said.

"We, still, are not there at all for some of the most vulnerable communities on Earth. In Syria, we're still not reaching hundreds of communities," said Egeland, now the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

"It's the worst war on our watch. We're doing good work for refugees in neighboring countries but too few organisations are able and willing to go deep into Syria, the same in the Central African Republic, in South Sudan," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

"I would have hoped we would be in places where there's the greatest need and not just where it's easier to respond."

Syria's civil war has left some 10.8 million people, half the country's population, in need of assistance. More than 6 million have been uprooted inside Syria and another 3 million have fled the country.


Egeland was speaking from Washington DC where he is due to address an event marking 50 years since the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance, responsible for leading the US government's response to disasters overseas, was set up.

Egeland, who was the UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator between 2003 and 2006, said aid workers in the past 50 years had become better at saving lives, providing healthcare, education, water and sanitation to stricken populations.

He estimated that 50 years ago, about 5 percent of those affected by conflict or natural disasters received emergency relief, compared with around 80 percent today.

However, there had been "remarkably little" progress gaining access to all people in need of help, protecting them from abuses and preventing humanitarian crises including those exacerbated by climate change, Egeland said.

For example, in South Sudan, reports assessing the humanitarian response to civilians fleeing clashes between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy, Riek Machar, found that some camps for the displaced did not have separate toilets for men and women.

"They were not lit at night, there were no locks on the doors. Women were routinely abused when they went to the toilet," Egeland said.

He cited an initiative by NRC to teach students in religious schools in Afghanistan about humanitarian work as one way of building acceptance of aid work in local communities that could be replicated elsewhere.

Egeland, who as the UN aid chief dealt with conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, an insurgency in northern Uganda and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, called for a push to find political and diplomatic solutions to emergencies in hotspots such as Central African Republic, South Sudan and Gaza.

"It's an unmitigated outrage that we return with our blankets and with our relief to the same places every 5 years or 50 years," he said.