16 September 2009
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs


While donors had responded “remarkably generously” to United Nations consolidated appeals for emergency aid, they had nevertheless provided less than half of what was required this year to address the needs of people facing severe humanitarian crises around the world, the top United Nations relief official said today.


During a press conference at Headquarters today, John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, announced that the $4.6 billion collected in response to the mid-year review of the consolidated appeals this past July was the highest amount ever, in absolute terms, to be collected by the United Nations.


Presenting a general overview of the humanitarian situation, focusing on the Horn of Africa, West Africa and Yemen, among others, Mr. Holmes also said that figure represented 49 per cent of the $9.5 billion in appeals, also the highest ever.


While noting that donors had responded “remarkably generously”, particularly given the economic crisis that the world had been facing, he said that figure nevertheless left about $4.8 billion funding gap -- also the highest ever.  Humanitarian needs and demands had been rising not only from long-running conflicts but also from some new conflicts and, as a result, during the mid-year review, donors had been asked for $9.5 billion compared to $6.3 billion at the same time last year.  That represented an almost a 50 per cent increase, he added.


That amount was also included and upwards revision of consolidated and flash appeals by $1.5 billion since the start of the year, said Mr. Holmes.  That increase had been driven by extra needs in places such as Somalia, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, because of the recent Gaza conflict.  There had also been major new requirements in Pakistan, major new and rising needs in Sudan, including the deteriorating situation in Southern Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the conflict was continuing and almost a quarter of a million people had been displaced this year.


On the non-conflict side, Mr. Holmes said that while there had not been any new large natural disasters of the type seen in 2008, the climate change trend was producing more and more intense droughts and floods in some places.  Those trends were expected to intensify.


Turning to the Horn of Africa, he said that situation was deteriorating and was expected to worsen further this year before it would get better, possibly in the early part of next year.  Some countries in the region were facing a fourth or fifth year of failed or poor rains, which had sparked crisis in, among others, areas of food, nutrition, water and diseases.


Some 24 million people were currently in need of aid, including in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and parts of Uganda, he continued.  That number represented a significant rise from the 17 million about a year ago.  Further, drought had been compounded by conflict in some cases, particularly in Somalia, where the number of people in need of assistance had risen to 3.7 million this year, and where the response from donor Governments had been insufficient.


According to Mr. Holmes, phenomena like malnutrition and cholera were getting worse in some of those countries.  Although national Governments were trying to scale up their responses, more support was needed.  Recognizing that the problem was not a new one in that region, and that the risk of donor fatigue was real, the United Nations was doing its utmost to address the causes to the extent possible.


On West Africa he noted that there had been very bad floods in the last few weeks in various countries there since the regional rainy season had begun in June.  Some 600,000 people had been affected, with around 160 reported deaths, though the true death toll might be higher.  The affected countries included Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and, to some extent, Chad and Nigeria.  He said the situation was leading to needs of the classic kind, such as water and sanitation, hygiene, food, shelter and health care because of increased vulnerability to water-borne diseases.


Burkina Faso had been particularly hard hit, with at least 100,000 people displaced temporarily.  A flash appeal for some $18.4 million had been launched for the country last week to cover relief efforts to assist 150,000 people for six months.  A flash appeal was not being launched for the other countries for the moment, but the United Nations was helping with advice and providing cash crops where necessary.  The Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) would also be used in those areas when necessary, he added.


Turning to Yemen, Mr. Holmes said that there had been an exacerbated humanitarian emergency in the north of that country -- one that had been largely neglected by both the international community and the media.  The situation had been caused by conflict between the Government and Shia rebels, and while that had been ongoing since 2004, the fighting this year, particularly since July, had been worse.


An estimated 150,000 people had been displaced, in many cases for the second or third time, by the fighting, he said.  There was a considerable problem of access because of the fighting and because many of the main roads were blocked, which was one of the reasons an appeal had been made for the establishment of humanitarian corridors to allow the United Nations to get to the people in need.


That appeal had not been heeded but the Organization was still pressing, he said, adding that a flash appeal for some $24 million had been launched a couple of weeks ago in Geneva, in particular to assist the 150,000 internally displaced persons, but also the rest of the population affected by the conflict.  There had been no pledges so far, but some donors had indicated that they would be responding.  Some $2.6 million had already been given from CERF before the launch of the flash appeal, and the United Nations was prepared to use CERF again, if necessary, to make sure that immediate needs were being tackled.


In response to a question, Mr. Holmes said that donations to the appeals had come from a wide variety of countries, but mainly from a small group of countries, including the United States, Canada, major European donors, such as Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Germany and Spain, together with Japan, and Republic of Korea, in some cases.  The United Nations was trying to encourage a wider group of countries to contribute more through multilateral channels, since that fit better into the kind of planning system which the appeals represented.


To another question, he said that the Government of Southern Sudan estimated that about a quarter of a million people had been displaced by a combination of the activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army and tribal conflict in Southern Sudan.  Harvests had been poor and local agriculture systems had not been developed in a way that people might have hoped while food prices were high.  The resulting large scale food insecurity was becoming a “worrying” humanitarian situation.


On coordination of humanitarian response with other entities, he said that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (OCHA) preference was that donors operate through multilateral channels through the appeals launched by the United Nations and, therefore, be part of a coherent planned whole.  Recognizing, however, that there was a lot of bilateral aid given for various reasons, OCHA tried to ensure that the overall response was as coherent as could be.


On a question on Pakistan, he said that, while OCHA was aware of large-scale return of internally displaced persons to some areas like the Swat Valley, it was also aware that large numbers of people had not returned.  His Office was trying to help those who were still displaced, as well as those who had returned.  It was conscious of other areas, particularly Waziristan, where hostilities were continuing and had established operations in the areas where the displaced persons were going, although it was operating mainly through national non-governmental organizations.


Finally, on Sri Lanka, he said that the United Nations was extremely frustrated with the lack of progress in various areas since the end of the conflict there, particularly what had been happening to the internally displaced persons.  The Organization was concerned about the civilian nature of the camps, the lack of freedom of movement, and lack of progress with regard to early return, political reconciliation and the process of accountability.  He also expressed concern that United Nations staff were being held without charge, and added that Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe’s mission to that country was a reflection of how serious the United Nations was taking those issues.


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