The Little Peacekeeper

The Little Peacekeeper - photo by Sebastian Rommair

On a recent trip to New York, I was introduced to The Little Peacekeeper. Created by Sebastian Rottmair, The Little Peacekeeper “believes that we live in a world that needs a lot of small and big peacekeepers.” TLP goes around the world, taking photos of his various adventures, raises awareness about issues such as malaria or landmines, and symbolizes the efforts of peacekeepers around the world. He’s a small, endearing character. Sebastian says that he does not have any particular intentions with this project, but I think it would be a fun tool to educate young children about peacekeeping. While TLP doesn’t carry out actual peacekeeper duties (and doesn’t officially represent UN Peacekeeping), I find his simplified, poetic manners engaging. There’s something charming about this little fella, who travels to faraway places, reminding us of the role and importance of peacekeepers, with both gravitas and a good dose of lightheartedness.

You can follow him on Twitter/Facebook – he’s a very “web 2.0” peacekeeper.

I particularly love this video of him training:

Climate Change in Africa

I just skimmed through this 400 page study on the changing environmental landscape in Africa – it’s a truly remarkable report, that discusses everything from water resources, to the presence of phytoplankton along the coasts, to deforestation, arable land and urbanization, and provides a country-by-country analysis of the state of the environment on the continent.

400 pages is pretty long, but the press release is a good place to start and acts as an executive summary.

Interestingly, it had a section on the environmental impact and implications of refugee crises

Political conflicts tragically destroy lives and livelihoods. They also have adverse impacts on surrounding environments and signifi cant transboundary implications. Wars can destroy croplands, forests, waterways and their sources, and other natural resources, while refugees searching for safe havens can burden ecosystems and complicate environmental decision-making (Vanasselt 2003). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that there were 2.4 million refugees in Africa at the end of 2006 (UNHCR 2006a). Environmental degradation can exacerbate conflict, which causes further environmental degradation, creating a vicious cycle of environmental decline, tense competition for diminishing resources, increased hostility, inter-communal fighting, and ultimately social and political breakdown. Ecological warning signs related to confl ict and its impacts include limited habitable space, decrease in production of goods, and a heavy human “footprint” (Wolf 2007).

They also have a map that accompanies this paragraph, showing the location of refugee camps around the continent. You’ll notice that almost every country on the continent is home to a refugee population – and, as events in South Africa and Ghana have demonstrated recently – these uprooted communities tend to be catalysts of instability. Refugee and IDP camps in the Eastern DRC are known to have harbored Hutu rebels since the genocide in Rwanda, prompting international aid agencies to pull out or minimize their assistance – which means, among other things, that these communities need to live as scavengers in their environments.

As the paragraph above rightly notes, we are going to start seeing a lot more displacement due to natural causes, to environmental destruction – recently, events in Myanmar and China demonstrated this. The conflict in Sudan is in part due to a fight over the availability and sharing of natural resources, which are less abundant than they used to be. As a result, even if conflicts on the African continent tend to be diminishing, as this report highlights, we may see a shift in the causes that create refugee situations, particularly as the natural environment becomes further depleted.

In Guinea, the environmental consequences of population movements are of frightening proportions:

Less than one-third of Guinea is now forested,reflecting many decades of uncontrolled deforestation. The primary drivers include growing demand for agricultural land and dependence on wood and charcoal for 90 per cent of all energy needs. The humid tropical forests of southeast Guinea have been reduced to less than five per cent of their original extent (CBD 2002). This is in part due to an influx of at least 600 000 refugees from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire during the past 15 years, which has placed increased demand on forest resources. Refugees have expanded the local populations by as much as 40 per cent in some areas, resulting in local population densities close to 400 people per square kilometre (CBD 2002).

Overall, the report is slightly frightening. I encourage you to check out the amazing “before and after” satellite photos, which couldn’t be more clear in showing the high level and incredible pace of environmental destruction. The drying up of Lake Chad, a vital source of fresh water for the Sahel region, is testament to this.

Lake Chad, 1972
1987…and 2007

I really recommend checking out their satellite image gallery, which provides a vivid and thorough overview of environmental modifications on the continent in the last forty years or so. The images showing how the Catoca Mine has been exploited in Angola between 1990 and 2006 is another example (page 104 of the study)

It is encouraging, however, that this report was published, and that light is being shed on this issue. When it comes to socio-economic development, it is now absolutely clear that environmental constraints will have to be mainstreamed into development strategies if those are to be sustainable.

A Worrying Trend

World food prices are soaring, and this is having serious consequences on people’s livelihoods in the developing world. In addition, for organizations and agencies involved in food distribution or aid, the spike in food prices is also having an adverse effect on their ability to meet the needs of their beneficiaries. In recent news:

USAID announced that the cost of wheat and other food had gone up by 41 percent setting its budget back by US$121 million, which meant it would have to reduce the amount of food aid sent overseas (more here)

With local and international food shortages, merchants in Kano’s Dawanau grain market, the largest in West Africa [Nigeria], have hiked their prices. The price of a 50kg bag of maize has doubled since September from US$21 to US$42 and a bag of millet rose from US$29 to US$42, according to Magaji Ahmad, one of the merchants. Cowpeas, which sold at US$58 are now US$100, he added (more here)

In Burkina Faso, which was badly affected by floods in 2007 and has this year been roiled by violent protests over high food prices, sacks of corn are selling for double the price they were a year earlier, setting back impoverished Burkinabe 15,000 CFA francs (US$30) a sack compared to 7,500 CFA francs (US$15), according to FCPN.

“Recent assessments indicate that that food and nutritional situation could deteriorate due to a continued rise in food product prices,” FEWSNET warned.

Food riots have also recently taken place in Guinea Conakry, Mauritania and Senegal. Those countries depend heavily on imported wheat and rice which are more affected by high global commodity prices than upheavals in the regional markets […] Stephanie Savaraud, West Africa spokeswoman for the World Food Programme (WFP) said that school feeding and supplementary feeding would be appropriate responses to help support Burkina Faso, but warned that WFP faces its own funding crunch. “Rising prices for basic commodities mean WFP needs 30 percent more money this year to feed the same number of beneficiaries,” she said. “If we don’t get that then we will need to give less food to people.”(more here)

Food Market in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso – August 07

These problems in West Africa are obviously not happening in a vacuum – this in the context of rising food prices worldwide , due to a combination of interrelated factors, like increasing transportation costs due to the spike in oil prices, or poor crop yields in some regions because of droughts or floods. However, as usual, the poorest will bear the brunt of the current crisis – the excerpts above reveal two major consequences: one, that people are finding it increasingly harder to provide for themselves; two, that international agencies and NGOs are going to face difficulties trying to fulfill their mission – their budgets are not increasing, while their expenses are. While finding a solution to the former is a global challenge – governments all over the world are trying to address this issue – the latter problem highlights a structural problem in food aid – the fact that most food aid programs do not use local agricultural products. USAID only sends US agricultural products overseas, tapping into the giant production surplus its industry has generated

(on that topic, I highly recommend a documentary called “Famine Business” – I saw this at a film festival in Cape Town in 2003, and since then, it has mysteriously disappeared…. The only quote available on Google: “Film-maker Jihan El Tahri travels to Zambia to investigate claims that food aid is not necessarily the altruistic way of helping the poor that it seems. With the current Agriculture Minister for Zambia describing food-aid as ‘the use of food as a weapon of mass destruction’, El Tahri asks just who benefits from the famine business in an era of genetically modified food.”)

In any case, it seems that international agencies and organizations involved in providing food aid should place the utmost importance on supporting local agricultural production by purchasing food from local farmers. The WFP has a yearly budget which reaches nearly $3 billion – and they also have some of the lowest overhead cost of any large international agency. If these funds could be used productively, by investing in local production, this could yield some large scale benefits for producers in developing nations.

Food aid could help feed people not simply through charity – giving food to the hungry. It could also be construed as a means to boost local food producers, who find it terribly hard to export on the world market. Not only would this galvanize local economies, but it would also cut down on transportation costs. As everyone not living in a cave knows, transportation costs are soaring. Not only that, but in a world where concerns surrounding climate change and pollution are becoming increasingly important, buying locally also provides food aid agencies the opportunity to do their part in protecting the environment….

I don’t have all the answers to this incredibly worrying issue of soaring world food prices – in the short run, this could fuel instability in the poorest parts of the world (it already has in Burkina Faso and Egypt, for example.) In places like Liberia and Sierra Leone, where poverty prevails and where the threat of political instability is all too real, this becomes a serious issue. The Food Crisis Prevention Network recommends building stocks in high risk zones, and commended Burkina for subsidizing certain food products. But in countries where warehousing and stocking is dependent on fragile infrastructure, and subsidies strain already exiguous budgets, these are only band-aid solutions and do not address the root causes of the problem – at all.

Meanwhile, Haitians are eating mud cakes.

Fasten your seat belt, we will be experiencing turbulence.

The Humanitarian-to-Development Gap

“The situation in Liberia is a reminder that the international community has yet to come to grips with the humanitarian-to-development gap,” the OCHA [UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] report noted. “It would indeed be troubling were Liberians to be worse off now with peace than they were when humanitarian aid was reaching them in the immediate post-conflict period.”(read full IRIN report here)

Yes, it would be troubling, if you use the word “troubling” as a euphemism.

Stuck between a rock and a hard place – part 1

Rather, stuck between rockS and a hard place. Liberian refugees in West Africa have 3 – and only 3 – options available to them.

They can either:

  • go back to Liberia, although no longer through UNHCR, which has ended voluntary repatriation programs.
  • hope for resettlement in a Western country
  • stay where they are, ultimately lose their refugee status, and hope to become integrated into the local community

Now, my fabulous co-director Celina attracted my attention to a couple of news reports concerning the fate of ex-refugees – in Liberia and in the United States. This subject is both very interesting and quite important – it really begs the question: how should countries, international organizations, and civil society deal with protracted refugee crises? There is no set framework for dealing with these, particularly as refugee crises are sui generis and it would be difficult to develop a “one size fits all” model to work with.

My expertise is circumscribed to the Liberian refugee crisis, and I will not attempt to generalize at this point – below, I will simply try to unravel the different possibilities available to displaced Liberians, and indeed show how they are stuck between a rock, another rock, and a hard place.


The first possibility mentionned above, which is to repatriate to Liberia, seems like the most practical, sustainable solution. Indeed, as highlighted in the media, donor money is being channeled to reconstruction efforts in Liberia, and away from displaced communities – this is supposed to be seen as an incentive to go back to Liberia. With the withdrawal of UNHCR looming, it seems that going back to their country of origin is THE viable solution for refugees.

I highly recommend listening to this report entitled “Liberia repatriation dilemma” (4:45 min – you might need to use Internet Explorer, it doesn’t seem to work in Firefox for me)

According to this report, things are “fine” in Liberia. “Very fine”, as Liberians are fond of saying. But let’s look at some facts:

“[Raped?] Seek free treatment now at Benson Clinic,” reads another [sign]. It is run by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières.

With a queue outside her door, the head nurse told me that five to 10 people arrive there every day but half of them are not women. They are young girls between five and 12 years old.

And it gets worse.

Each month the clinic treats several babies for rape but, from all the cases that have been recorded by the clinic since 2003, you can count the number of men convicted on one hand.”

“Liberia had just emerged from 14 years of civil war, during which time women and girls experienced unprecedented levels of sexual violence, with 3 in 4 women in some regions, having been raped. But evidence suggests that violence against women remains an extensive problem during this post-conflict era. “

“One of Liberia’s most notorious rebel commanders, known as Gen. Butt Naked for charging into battle wearing only boots, has returned to confess his role in terrorizing the nation, saying he is responsible for 20,000 deaths.

Joshua Milton Blahyi, who now lives in Ghana, returned last week to face his homeland’s truth and reconciliation commission, this time wearing a suit and tie. His nom de guerre is derived from his platoon’s practice of charging naked into battle, a technique meant to terrify the enemy […]

Before he led his fighters into battle, wearing only a pair of lace-up boots, Blahyi said he made a human sacrifice to the devil.

The sacrifice was typically “the killing of an innocent child and plucking out the heart which was divided into pieces for us to eat,” he told The Associated Press on Saturday.”

Now, the IHT article does discuss the fact that a war crimes tribunal, rather than a Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems more appropriate for Liberia. There are hundreds of guilty war criminals roaming the streets of Liberia. In any case, the issue of justice and reconciliation has not yet found a satisfactory resolution, and, understandably, many Liberian refugees fear that they will face more violence, more retributions and more horror if they go home, knowing that a lot of those responsible for previous atrocities are free.

(General Butt Naked lived in Buduburam, where he preached. Yes, as the IHT article notes, he became a born-again Christian, and now has a congregation to whom he preaches. I knew he was on camp, and was tempted to go see one of his sermons, but decided against – I thought this might have been too emotionally taxing. One of the missionaries I met in Buduburam told me that he saw General Butt Naked weeping on his hands and knees, begging two brothers whose other brother he had massacred for forgiveness.)

I am trying to show here that there are a lot of psychological factors, as well as material ones, that make repatriation to Liberia very difficult for those who have been displaced. It’s not a matter of picking up their things and just “going”. It’s unfortunate that this is not taken into consideration by any responsible authorities dealing with repatriation efforts.