For art’s sake…

7 03 2014

Nor is it possible to devote oneself to culture and declare that one is ‘not interested’ in politics.

~ Thomas Mann

The divestment campaign against the Biennale of Sydney’s partnership with Transfield Holdings has ended in a win for the artists, workers & refugee advocates who withdrew their work, resigned and called for a boycott of the festival because its major sponsor is a shareholder in the publicly-listed Transfield Services.  Transfield Services runs Australia’s offshore immigration detention centre in Nauru and last week won the contract to manage the Manus Island centre.

The campaign claimed another scalp.  Chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, whose father Franco founded the festival in 1973, has resigned, ending his family’s 41 year association with the Biennale.

A school trip to the 1988 Biennale provided my first experience of contemporary art.  I remember walking through Walsh Bay’s Pier 2/3 & discovering Hermann Nitsch, Arnulf Rainer & the staggering, seminal installation from the Ramingining Artist Community, The Aboriginal Memorial (200 Hollow Log Bone Coffins), now permanently housed at the National Gallery of Australia.  I’m grateful to everyone associated with the Festival for opening my mind to great work.

The relationship between artist and patron has always been fraught, regardless of the source – papal favour, royal academy, oligarch or government.  Decisions to commission work, invitations to exhibit and grant funding… none are made without some return for the patron, whether it’s an overly-flattering portrait, religious or political propaganda.  Artists who refuse to yield have found themselves ostracised, persecuted and impoverished.

None of this is to say that creatives should compromise their vision or work; but as a writer who is sometimes asked to write for payment, I do so knowing that my work may be edited in a way that I don’t like.  It’s the price you pay for doing business.  I have the freedom to self-publish rejected work or pursue ideas that don’t appeal to others.  No one is charged to read what I write here.  Sometimes I accept commissions on subjects I have little passion for, and I reach for words that just will not come.

I believe BDS can be an effective strategy to weaken state and non-state actors whose principles, policies and activities you judge, individually or as a society, to be abhorrent.  There are some companies, countries and individuals my conscience tells me I cannot support.  I also have first-hand experience of the increasing squeeze on public ‘hands-off’ funding for creative workers and the experiences they can provide us.  The #bos19 campaign took aim at one festival and one patron.  If it’s good enough for people to question their involvement, attendance or support for the Biennale of Sydney, surely it is incumbent on them to apply their principles consistently?

I’m combing through a list of cultural institutions, companies and individuals who accepted government grant funding in the last year (disclosure: I was a staffer to a former NSW Minister for the Arts, however the grant information is publicly available).  It’s difficult to trawl through all of their connections, but here is a sample:

  • Accessible Arts – Sculpture Walk Podcast – Transfield Foundation (a joint initiative between Transfield Holdings and Transfield Services. (the project stems from a pilot programme with Sculpture by the Sea of tactile tours for the blind or vision impaired. The success of those tactile tours, which involve the opportunity to feel the sculptures accompanied by audio description, coupled with Accessible Arts’ desire to develop inclusive access in the Walsh Bay precinct lead to a conversation with Stephen Bradley and Transfield Foundation about improving access to the Walsh Bay Sculpture Walk and an audio description podcast, to complement a self-directed tactile tour. The audio description is a detailed description of the visual aspects of each sculpture, enhanced with background information about the artwork and the artist, and in most cases commentary from the sculptor.  Visitors to Walsh Bay can learn more about the art in the precinct through an immersive experience, which both increases access for blind or vision-impaired people, and enhances engagement with the often abstract sculptures for tourists or visitors to our neighbourhood).
  • Adelaide Symphony Orchestra – principal partner – Santos
  • Australian Brandenburg Orchestra – principal partner – Macquarie Group
  • Australian Chamber Orchestra – national tour partners incl. Total (oil & gas) & Transfield Holdings
  • Australian Museum – Rio Tinto
  • Bangarra Dance Theatre – production partners include BHP Billiton & Boral
  • Bell Shakespeare – leading partner – BHP Billiton
  • Black Swan State Theatre Company – Principal Partner – Rio Tinto; Education & Regional Partner – Chevron
  • Musica Viva Australia – Education Partners – Rio Tinto & BHP Billiton/ Mitsubishi Alliance
  • Opera Australia – Silver Partner – Exxon Mobil
  • Queensland Ballet – Principal Partner – QGC (coal seam gas)
  • Queensland Symphony Orchestra – Australia Pacific LNG (CSG & LNG)
  • Queensland Theatre Company – Programme Sponsors incl. Wesfarmers Resources (significant open cut coal miner, operating in the Bowen Basin & Hunter Valley); Season partners incl. Sibelco Australia (mines Alumina Hydrate; Barytes; Bentonite; Clay; Dolomite; Feldspar; Gypsum; Lime; Limestone; Magnetite; Mineral Sands; Manganese Dioxide; Natural Red Iron Oxide; Nepheline Syenite; Silica; Talc).
  • South Australia State Theatre Company – corporate partners include the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce
  • State Library of NSW – indigenous Australia programme – Rio Tinto; Australian-Jewish community & culture – Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce
  • Sydney Festival – 2014 Principal Partner – The Star casino
  • Sydney Symphony Orchestra – Platinum Partner – Tianda – multinational investment holdings company headquartered in Hong Kong, primarily engaged in pharmaceutical & biotechnology, fast moving consumer goods, packaging & colour printing, property development, mining & energy, as well as financial services. It is exploring several uranium projects in Australia & large scale coal mines in China; Major partners incl. Kimberley Diamond Company NL
  • Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s partners include Island Specialty Timbers
  • West Australian Ballet – Principal Partner – Woodside; Major sponsors include Wesfarmers (Wesfarmers crops up quite often – the company is a significant open cut coal miner, operating in the Bowen Basin & Hunter Valley and owns eight chemical, gas and fertiliser businesses, including Australia’s only manufacturer of sodium cyanide, which is used in the mining industry for gold extraction).
  • West Australian Opera – Principal Partner – Wesfarmers
  • West Australian Symphony Orchestra – Principal Partner – Wesfarmers; Platinum Partners incl. Chevron; concerto partners incl. ConocoPhillips Australia (operate two legacy assets: the Bayu-Undan offshore facility in the Timor Sea, and the Darwin LNG facility in the Northern Territory. Another significant operation is the Australia Pacific LNG project, a substantial coal seam gas to LNG operation in Queensland in which ConocoPhillips is a joint venturer and the downstream operator). Overture Partners incl. Mitsui & Co. (Australia) Ltd., the wholly owned Australian subsidiary of Mitsui & Co. In Australia Mitsui manages a diverse portfolio of businesses in industries including chemicals, coal, food, gas, iron ore, oil, power generation, salt, steel products and woodchips.

This list doesn’t begin to scratch the surface.  I’m not advocating a jihad on these organisations.  Make up your own minds.

Occupy This

16 10 2011

To steal from Network, Americans are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

The #Occupy movement, which began as #OccupyWallStreet, a protest against bankers, bailouts and corporate greed.

In my tiny mind, Americans have every right to be angry. They might be angry enough to consign Barack Obama to a one-term presidency – unthinkable a few years ago. The left is angry, the right is angry and the Tea Party is the small government, small tax version of the pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Christian base for this decade

A few fast facts on why I think Americans are mad:

The economy: No wonder President Obama is playing golf with President Clinton. The baseline in American politics is the economy, stupid. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics‘ latest release (7 October), seasonally adjusted unemployment in September 2011 was 9.1 per cent. That’s a 0.5 per cent improvement on September 2010. Breaking that down:

  • 14 million Americans are registered unemployed
  • Of that number, the long-term unemployed (people out of work for more than 27 weeks) make up more than 44 per cent, or 6.2 million)
  • 24 per cent of teenagers (16-19 year olds) are unemployed
  • 16 per cent of blacks are unemployed (c.f. with 8 per cent unemployment among whites; 11.3 per cent for Hispanics and 7.8 per cent for Asians)
  • The annual 2010 unemployment rate of ‘Gulf War II’ veterans (i.e. military personnel who have served post September 2001) is 11.5 per cent
Delving slightly deeper, while the labor force and employment figures lifted, the civilian labor force participation rate (64.2 per cent) and employment:population ratio (58.3 per cent) remain fairly static. Disturbingly, 9.3 million Americans are classed as involuntary part-time workers (i.e. their hours have been cut or they’re unable to find full-time work). In August 2011, the number was 8.8 million – an additional 444,000 people in one month. Those ‘marginally attached to the workforce’ – some 2.5 million Americans who have sought work in the last year, but not in the last four weeks, are not counted as unemployed. There are 1 million ‘discouraged’ American workers. These are the defeated and demoralised. They believe they cannot get a job, so they’ve given up. Average hourly earnings? $23.12. Average weekly earnings? $793.02.
‘Failed’ stimulus: President Obama signed The Recovery Act on 7 February 2009. The total package of $787 billion was increased to $840 billion in 2011. I bracketed ‘failed’ because it’s open to interpretation. There is certainly a perception that while some of the leading indicators have resulted in an improvement in certain sectors of the economy and regions, in my view, this is counterbalanced by one of the saddest statistics I think I’ve ever come across: $8 billion additional spend on food stamps to feed 38 million hungry Americans. (Reuters)
Dysfunctional government: the White House is caught in a pincer movement. President Obama has come out swinging at Congress recently, most notably on his jobs bill. He’s moving to Candidate Obama, criss-crossing the country selling a Bill which has no chance of passing. These people who were willing to play brinkmanship with the country’s credit card. It is pathetic.
The cost of foreign policy: President Obama got Osama bin Laden. Terrific. It doesn’t change the economic and human costs of the country’s operations in Pakistan and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among the key findings of a recent report from the Eisenhower Research Project based at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies:
  • The U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will cost between $3.2 and $4 trillion, including medical care and disability for current and future war veterans. This figure does not include substantial probable future interest on war-related debt.
  • More than 31,000 people in uniform and military contractors have died, including the Iraqi and Afghan security forces and other military forces allied with the United States.
  • By a very conservative estimate, 137,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by all parties to these conflicts.
  • The wars have created more than 7.8 million refugees among Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis.
  • Pentagon bills account for half of the budgetary costs incurred and are a fraction of the full economic cost of the wars.
  • Because the war has been financed almost entirely by borrowing, $185 billion in interest has already been paid on war spending, and another $1 trillion could accrue in interest alone through 2020.
  • Federal obligations to care for past and future veterans of these wars will likely total between $600-$950 billion. This number is not included in most analyses of the costs of war and will not peak until mid-century.
That’s just war. Don’t start me on the President’s broken promise to close Guantánamo Bay; conduct of extra-judicial killings and the disconnect between endorsement of the Arab Spring where it’s easy (Libya, for example) and wilful disregard for others (such as the Shi`a of  Bahrain).
The 99 per cent: Campaign finance reform; the disparity between tax breaks for the super-wealthy and the middle-class; corporate bailouts; out-of-control student debt it’s the beginning of a national conversation Americans haven’t engaged in for a long time.
So … it was with a general sense of irritation that I heard about the #OccupyPickAnAustralianCity protests that took place yesterday, for one reason: the great Australian propensity for whingeing. If whingeing was an Olympic sport, it would be, ‘GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!’ for Australia. I whinge, I hear others whinge and I read about people whingeing on a daily basis. It’s healthy to vent, to verbalise frustrations, irritations and feelings that systems, services and other people are failing us; but when you conflate whingeing into the #Occupy movement, you cheapen it. Yes, I am fully aware that Australia was only one of 78 countries to hold protests yesterday. I would also contend that people in Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece have legitimate fears and grievances against prevailing economic conditions and systemic corruption. Australia? Not so much. While many on the ‘left’ view Tony Abbott as the Nabob of No, the Occupiers of Australia are playing his game of fear and loathing:
The economy: 5.2 per cent unemployment in September 2011. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Measures of Australia’s Progress 2011 report shows, pretty much everything (barring productivity) has improved since 2000. Including unemployment. The bad news? That increase applies to threatened animal species due to climate change. The average weekly income per full-time employed adult is $1,305. The average hourly income is between $29.70 and$33.10 (the disparity? Female wages c.f. men) (Source: ABS)
‘Failed’ stimulus: I’m leaving this one to George Megalogenis
Dysfunctional government: I am not a cheerleader for the current Government, but I am thankful that there are some quality people in our Parliament. Not naming names, but as close to the bone it has come on major issues – especially in the last few weeks – it is functional. I may not like the politics, the policies, the poor communication and quality of political discourse, but it continues to roll on.
The cost of foreign policy: Defence estimates an approximate $6 billion spend in Afghanistan to 2014. Iraq Mk II, approximately $2.3 billion. To me, the irreparable damage is in civilian deaths, leaving Australian citizens in Gitmo, irregular migration flows (UN-speak for refugees), international reputation and pathetic policy reactions to the problems we helped cause. That said, I don’t think we’ve been breaking arms embargoes, killing people willy-nilly or uneven in our condemnation for despots the world over.
The 99 per cent: according to a new release into household wealth from the ABS, the top 20 per cent of Australian households have seen their average net wealth increase by 15 per cent to $2.2 million since 2005/06, accounting for approximately 60 per cent of total household wealth. The bottom 20 per cent’s average net wealth grew by only 4 per cent. They account for approximately 1 per cent of total household wealth. That leaves almost 30 per cent of Australian households with an average net wealth of $720,000, up 14 per cent since 2005/06 – almost on par with the richest in the land and 10 per cent ahead of the poor. I contend that there is no ’99 per cent’ in Australia. Of course there is disparity in wealth; but the two major assets of Australian households (property – $520-540,000; superannuation – $60-154,000) put ‘average’ Australia within striking distance of the top 20 per cent. This is not the case in the US. It never has been and never will be.
I hope this stirs some pots & kettles. It stirred mine.

Notes from Geneva: Middle East & North Africa

23 06 2011

Annual Consultation with NGOs: 2009

Middle East & North Africa Bureau

The vast majority of refugees in the MENA region are in urban areas, where ensuring their protection remains a challenge for UNHCR and its partners. Against this background, the focus of the MENA regional session will be on the protection of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR in an urban context. The discussion will be geared towards identifying ways and means to maintain and further develop the protection space in the region.

Moderator: Zina Khoury, Jordan River Foundation

50 per cent of all refugees are in an urban context. 25 per cent of refugees are in the MENA region (more if you include the Palestinians under UNWRA).  The region is faced with political turmoil and security issues that make refugee protection more difficult. On top of this the vast number of refugees are hosted by developing countries, however all key players – host countries, UNHCR and NGO’s share the responsibility of urban refugees in this region.

Mr Radhouane Nouicer, Director – MENA Bureau

Key focus of UNHCR is to secure a safe space for refugees in this region, to develop and expand the humanitarian space.

You are talking about a region that is hosting millions of refugees; talking about a geopolitical and economic strain of hosting the largest numbers of refugees on earth. Refugees must be respected, not threatened with refoulement. How do we regard the situation? There is no political ideal. We hope the security and day-to-day situation will help refugees to return home.

There is a good, sound level of assistance in Syria and Jordan, but it is not preventing return. It is the security and social conditions in Iraq. We won’t encourage return unless it is dignified. That’s why we are not encouraging return, the conditions don’t allow it, but if asked, we will help.

  • Region is looking to build comprehensive protection mechanisms including in the areas of asylum developments, access to safety, border protection and rights once in a new country.
  • UNHCR is carrying prime responsibility for registrations and seeking of solutions.
  • Syria,JordanandYemen are hosting the majority of the refugees in the region who are originating from Iraq.
  • Urban refugee situations are costly, complicated and labour intensive for UNHCR in this region
  • UNHCR has few memoranda of understandings with States and lack comprehensive legal frameworks to work within, the majority of times they are working on an ad hoc arrangement with States.
  • The protracted situations in the region are placing undue constraints on States and creating negative attitudes of host communities. Integration is not an option and hence resettlement is the only option.
  • Access for UNHCR has become more difficult for UNHCR in some protracted instances.
  • Push back strategies of States receiving mixed flows of migrants and refugees is of great concern for UNHCR. As is new border control mechanisms that fail to allow a fair assessment of claims. International responsibilities are not being adhered to.
  • Statelessness continues to be a challenge in the region because of historical and political factors of the region.
  • Improvements have been made in same national legislation frameworks to improve asylum access (Syria,Morocco & Libya)
  • MENA Bureau wanting to work more closely with all organizations via increased dialogue, open transparency and State relationships to improve capacity building & refugee registration.
  • Progress made with SGBV especially inIraqandYemenbut more needs to be done for comprehensive AGDM mainstreaming and to bring the concerns to the centre of all operations.
  • Two key initiatives being undertaken by the bureau 1) Sensitization of Human Rights 2) A research study on statelessness commissioned and to be used as an advocacy tool to promote changes to legislation to reduce the incidents of statelessness.

Questions from the floor:

  • What will be the impact of the US military withdrawal from Iraq, what are UNHCR doing to monitor the situation and what impact with it have on UNHCR operations?

UNHCR Response: the situation in Iraq is due to 30 years of oppression and tyranny, not just the war. There are huge social re-structuring required. The strategy for Iraq is a) Priority given to establishing and maintaining asylum space in asylum countries and then providing assistance to those host countries b) Attention to returnees by preparing ground for safe and orderly return by helping the government to focus its attention to the problem of returning refugees by helping them to realize that this is in national interest c) Resettlement remains at the same pace because many will not be able to go home as their links have been cut. d) Refugees inside Iraq receive as much attention and protection. With regard to how UNHCR is monitoring the situation and impact their operations, they will take their orders from New York with regard to staff security.

  • How many Iraq refugees have been resettled? And how are the UNHCR helping the IDPS that are living in horrible conditions?

UNHCR Response: 75,000 Iraqis have been submitted for re-settlement, only 50 per cent have been resettled – this slow pace is a big concern.  The IDP’s are living in worse conditions and the same question should be directed to the Iraqi government.

Comment from Andrew Harper (Head, UNHCR Iraq Support Unit)

Strategy to improve Human Rights in Iraq; working with communities, working with NGO’s, more analysis on where they are from and where they want to go, more staff in Iraq and developing a more tailored approach to the activity

The security situation in Iraq is very difficult, creating a more challenging environment for UNHCR to fulfill its mandate. The ability to move around is restricted because of security concerns. There will be a vacuum, manouevering prior to the 2010 elections. The whole, displaced territory needs to adopt the UN as a whole; look at holistic measures and other players including the World Bank, IMF, European funding, for a much improved picture.

Red Cross / Crescent, Syria: That plan is perfect, but the reality is the global financial crisis will cut budgets. What is the UNHCR’s plan to fulfil its policy aims, especially for Iraqis?

UNHCR response: At the conclusion of our programme evaluation with Iraqi refugees in the urban context, we have a lot to learn regarding the engagement of the population; while we have helped the protection space situation, it is far from satisfactory; UNHCR officers rose to the challenge of identifying refugees; used mobile registration; surveys (IPSIS); working engagement with multiple actors more than used to; increased partnerships with national NGOs, so it’s not just an international competition. What is our service delivery in urban settings? We use cash, ATMs and other technologies; we resort to state services rather than duplicate. We have lots to show from two years of solid engagement. We bring to the table experience – MENA tested these new approaches when the book was not yet written sand there was a policy vacuum.

Red Cross / Crescent, Syria: How is cooperation between governments and UNHCR? There are 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, 800,000 in Jordan and a further 1.5 million IDPs. They are not refugees. They are our guests. How does UNHCR see the situation after the US withdrawal? What will Iraqis get? In Syria, services are good, they won’t give them up. How will you encourage return from Syria and Jordan? The problem in Yemen is they are not integrated and there are no services other than UNWRA, but there is no assistance for many. I believe you should train Palestinian staff.

Response from M. Nouicier:

Both 2007 and 2008 started slowly, but we fully funded our Iraqi programmes. We have shown results and people still understand that many millions are suffering. The budget for Iraq is $271 million. Iraqi government contributes $28 million; US commits 60 per cent of the total.

Notes from Geneva: International Protection

23 06 2011

UNHCR Standing Committee meeting, 2009

Introduction: Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller

The Global Needs Assessment (GNA) process has highlighted protection gaps and provided the opportunity to strengthen responses. Program design and monitoring will benefit. The Results Framework will provide the opportunity for comparative analysis & global consistency.

UNHCR is not the principle protection provider and can never be effective substitute for the exercise by States of their proper responsibilities.  UNHCR’s continued focus however is the building of effective national asylum systems through improved registration arrangements, expertise in refugee status determination or working to sensitise national legislative frameworks to age, gender and diversity considerations.

UNHCR’s protection mandate is delivered through protection staff with expertise and knowledge in a range of areas from refugee status determination, age/gender and diversity programming, Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) cluster co-ordination or protection capacity building.  Recent review of programs highlighted too few protection staff with low levels of knowledge and high turnover (due to temporary placements) which negatively impacts protection measures.

The GNA process illustrated the realisation by all offices of the implications flowing from UNHCR’s growing responsibility for Stateless populations.  The needs of Stateless persons feature more prominently in the plans than ever before. Some offices have found it difficult to move beyond advocacy and technical advice on statelessness issues to actual protection responses – this will be addressed through GNA planning and prioritization processes for mainstreaming of this population.

IDP’s are solidly integrated into planning, in the way of greater analysis of IDP needs, protection via documentation, land issues and other solutions.  Not all offices had sufficient budget to accommodate the needs of IDPs.  Further resources are needed to address the expanded IDP responsibilities of the offices, the GNA this has highlighted this as a key priority.

The offices have on-going dilemma of allocating the finite (and insufficient) resources between the competing protection objectives of all peoples of concern.  The GNA will highlight more protection measure gaps and act as an advocacy tool to secure more funds – if not, things will not get done.

Introduction: Director of the Department of International Protection Services, George Okoth-Obbo

  • South and South West Asia, Middle East and Horn of Africa need special attention.
  • Humanitarian Space shrinking due to the changing nature of armed conflict, restrictions on access, attacks on staff, use of the sovereignty argument by States and side effects of failed peacekeeping efforts. 260 humanitarian aid workers killed, kidnapped or seriously injured in 2008
  • Staff security becoming greater priority for UNHCR
  • Access to asylum for asylum seekers has become more difficult because of interception, detention and restrictive procedures which is a growing concern for UNHCR
  • Need to transfer policies to practice.
  • UNHCR leads 15 of the 22 IASC protection cluster operations 
  • Goal of UNHCR to strengthen 1951 Convention, despite progress there is insufficient engagement by states, there remains a restrictive Refugee Status Determination system and national security is given priority over refugee protection.
  • Stressed the importance of the Conclusion on Protracted Situations and the hope that the wording could be agreed by ExComm, as durable solutions, international solidarity and burden sharing were critical for the issue.
  • Acknowledgement of the growing complexities of root causes of displacement – such as environmental, population growth, declining resources, inequality of access to resources, ecological damage, climate change, urbanisation, armed conflict, extreme deprivation
  • The legal implications of implications of displacement driven by forces other than persecution, human rights violation and war have yet to be seriously assessed
  • Whatever the cause of displacement the international protection process and response to provide asylum needs to be flexible to accommodate the varying needs and strengthen in areas where it is weak.  

Protecting Persons of Concern in Emergencies a particular focus of UNHCR – an overview

  • Afghanistan and Pakistan have over 4.7m people of concern, intensified conflict and restricted access has created further disastrous situations
  • Iraq witnessed greater security & co-ordination with the Government to create conditions for voluntary return and sustainable re-integration of refugees and IDPs. However, is still a fragile situation with over 4.3m displaced internally and in Jordan and Syria
  • Darfur continues to host over 3m refugees & IDPs, the forced departure of 16 NGO’s threatening the international community’s ability to respond
  • The Somalian situation continues to remain volatile with 1.3m IDPs and over 500,000 refugees hosted by neighbouring countries 
  • The Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo remain extremely volatile and are witness to SGBV and recruitment of children by armed groups
  • Sri Lanka’s cease fire allowed humanitarian forces in and seen 280,000 IDPs registered
  • Columbia has 3m IDPs and 300,000 in refugee like situations in neighbouring countries

Response from Australian Government Delegation:

  • Recognition of the complexity and frequency of global population flows, exacerbated by the global economic downturn, climate change and conflict induced IDP and protracted refugee situations.
  • Reference to the new situations of displacement (Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia) and improved security situation in Iraq
  • Requested that UNHCR clearly articulates its priorities for action for the various persons of concern
  • Increased focus on protracted refugee situations announced by Australian Government and an on-going commitment to provide durable solutions through a new 4yr re-settlement planning framework
  • Australia welcoming 13,750 people under its Humanitarian Program for 2009-2010, an increase of 250 places on 2008/9 (7,750 under the special humanitarian program and 6,000 under refugee component)
  • Increased the target for the resettlement of women at risk and their dependents under the re-settlement program from 10.5% to 12%.
  • Urge Nepal and Bhutan to work together to facilitate a return to Bhutan for those refugees who wish to take up this option
  • Congratulates Japan on the launch of a pilot resettlement program
  • Commends Indonesia for working co-operatively with UNHCR to build a strong framework to ensure protection and minimise irregular movements
  • Australia will continue to provide resettlement palces for those referred by UNHCR and will continue to fund projects to stablilise displaced populations, support sustainable return and build protection capacity in the region.
  • Pleased by the agreement reached at the 3rd Ministerial conference of the Bali Process to use an ad hoc group process to mitigate increased irregular population flows and the impact on victims
  • Australian Government announced its complementary protection model to give effect to Australia’s non-refoulment obligations within its protection visa framework.

Notes from Geneva: Kenyan Government & NGO views.

23 06 2011

Kenyan delegation, UNHCR Standing Committee meeting, 2009

  • Agreed with the Asst High Commissioner that dependence by governments on UNHCR makes governments passive partners. UNHCR should feel emboldened to challenge governments where they fail
  • Dadaab is the litmus test for camps – now hosting 300,000 displaced persons – capacity is 90,000
  • Committed to The Netherlands request to make land available to ease overcrowding
  • Inability of UNHCR to protect is an indictment on UNHCR – the ‘worst’ places for displaced persons have the largest populations – naming and shaming discourages governments from doing more.
  • Called on UNHCR to investigate root causes of risks – instigated by host communities or mixed migration flows where there is a lack, or complete absence of screening facilities – should be mandatory
  • Levelling risk at host countries is now a cause for complaint – “no longer passive” – as recent UNHCR / Kenyan Govt standoff at Kakuma last month demonstrated, situation could have been avoided
  • More displaced people from Mogadishu travelling 170 km to camps. In Kenya, there has been an increase in outflows; however, in Dadaab, the main concern remains tremendous overcrowding and congestion.

UNHCR Annual Consultation with NGOs – Africa Bureau

 Africa represents 50 per cent of UNHCR’s global activities.

Comment from the floor: refugees’ voices are being silenced in Kakuma. Refugees started a newspaper, UNHCR became concerned. A human rights lawyer has said the newspaper could go on under the right to freedom of association, however, UNHCR interfered and refused to provide a letter of support to the refugees as the Kenyan Govt had demanded. This is one way of ensuring refugees’ voices are heard, and bring awareness to the conditions in the camp.

Question from the floor (Kenyan NGO): I would like to raise the issue of the closure of the Kenyan Government closing its border with Somalia. Mogadishu is on fire; what is the intention of the Kenyan office; I understand the difficulties with the government but Mogadishu is not safe for anyone.

Response: Menghesha Kebede (UNHCR – Officer in Charge of Africa Bureau)

One issue, which is a collective challenge, is ensuring refugee voices are heard. I have heard about the situations in Namibia and Kakuma. While I fully support the NGO stance, there is one principle that should be followed regarding information disseminated by refugees – it must have refugees at the heart. It should reflect conditions but be for the use of the camp committee which can use this important feedback to improve its plans. I understand these communications have news value, but it should firstly form the basis for programme planning. I don’t agree that it can’t be used for raising awareness, but it should inform programmes. Information disseminated outside should follow the principle of agreeing to avoid challenges with governments – local laws need to be respected. If external people are going into camps, that information should report internally. We will press on, but we must respect the civilian nature of refugee camps given political concerns. I support the full dissemination of information by refugees for refugees.

 The situation in Somalia is very concerning. Despite Kenya’s decision to close the border, it remains porous, with 57,000 new arrivals at Dadaab. If the border was open at designated points, screening could be done; if armed elements are coming in, we could report them from the office and approach the Kenyan Government – and probably try and resolve the issue.

In Dadaab, there are three major issues – the Kenyan Government, the local community, and land. More than 280,000 are crammed into a camp that was built for 90,000 people. It is not conducive to protecting public health, sanitation etc. UNHCR has taken the protection discussion to the highest levels – the High Commissioner has met with the President; this was followed with discussions with the Prime Minister and two missions. One positive is that 2,000 hectares has been set aside for a new camp. We remain hopeful that we can improve the situation but we need NGO support. We are encouraging voluntary relocation from Dadaab to Kakuma, but we are feeling the pinch from the local community, which perceives that too much attention is paid to refugees at the expense of the host community – and after 19 years, the impact of environmental degradation, destruction of trees, and effects on water supplies are devastating. It’s appropriate, we appreciate that as far as resources are concerned, the situation is unfair and more needs to be done, so in July we are starting an integrated project over two years for both refugees and the host community. ExComm and donors will tell us to stay within our mandate and budget, to focus on life saving needs, but these needs are not being met.

Notes from Geneva: Fire & Water

21 06 2011

Notes taken during the UNHCR Annual Consultations with NGOs in Geneva, 2009.

Monday 29th June: Integrated Solutions to Cooking Needs and Safe Water


Patrick Widner, Executive Director, Solar Cookers International

Valentine Ndibalema, Senior Technical Officer, UNHCR

The focus of the meeting is to discuss how food preparation needs and the provision of potable water can be met through an integrated approach of using simple technologies. Approximately one third of the world’s population still cooks over open fires utilizing traditional fuels such as wood, charcoal and other forms of biomass. Through the utilization of solar energy and solar cookers combined with fuel efficient stoves, hay baskets or fireless cookers, dependence on traditional fuels can be substantially reduced while decreasing environmental devastation and drastically reduce smoke related illnesses. Furthermore, utilizing solar energy to pasteurize water by use of the solar cooker can reduce water borne diseases such as those caused by e-coli, Hepatitis A and Rotaviruses.

Notes from Session

Speaker 1: Patrick Widen, Executive Director, Solar Cookers International

The challenges:

One third or more than 2 billion of the world’s population cooks over open fires fuelled by wood or other biomass materials. This contributes to degradation of our forests, produces smoke related diseases that cause more deaths than malaria and puts women, in particular, in danger while debilitating their strength and enslaving them to fuel gathering.

Approximately 1.1 billion people do not have access to improved water and 2.4 billion have no basic sanitation. More than 4 billion serious cases of diarrhoea occur each year world wide and case more than 2 million deaths, most of them children.

 Challenges in introducing the technologies presented:

  • Availability of alternative fuels and water solutions
  • Cultural considerations including gender issues
  • Security, especially for women
  • Direct provision of fuel to residents and hygienic practices in refugee/IDP camps and dependency
  • Environmental degradation
  • Use of solar energy for other purposes such as lighting and pumping of water

 Achievements of solar cookers and integrated cooking:

  • The use of solar cookers by Solar Cookers International in humanitarian settings includes efforts in refugee camps of Aisha inEthiopia, Kakuma and Dadaab inKenya
  • 1800 solar cookers being prepared for Danish Refugee Council for Darfur region of Sudan. Training and follow up services  being provided
  • KoZon (Tchad Solaire) – successful manufacture of solar cookers and distribution of more than 15,000 inIridimi,Chadin addition to training. Replication has focused on camps of Touloum and Oure Casoni
  • Evaluation of all of these efforts are at
  • Solar cooking is only one of the technologies that can help to relieve the fuel shortage in humanitarian settings. There are limitations on its application due in part to climatic conditions and cultural acceptance.
  • Integrated cooking seeks to help alleviate these limitations by using a package of cooking methodologies including efficient stove, solar cooker and hay basket or heat retention device.

 Achievements of Safe Water:

The Solar Cooker International Water Project inKenyautilizes the Portable Microbiology (PML), the solar cooker, Water Pasteurization (WAPI) and ceramic water storage container. This group of technologies is known as the Safe Water Package.

  • The PML, combines two scientifically vetted tests to detect the presence of e.coli in water. The tests used are the Colilert MPN Test by IDEXX and the e.coli Count Petrifilm by the 3M company.
  • No formal education is required to learn these technologies; most people can be taught in two to three hours
  • The WAPI is used in combination with the tests to determine when water has been heated sufficiently in a solar cooker or in another manner to pasteurize the water. Heating water to a pasteurization temperature of 65 Degrees Celsius will kill Hepatitis A virus, Escherichia Coli, Shigella, cholera, typhoid, rotavirus, worms, Giardia, Ehtamoeba and cryptosporidium.
  • Training and use of the PML and WAPI has been implemented in a number of countries through government ministries and local NGOs.
  • This past year, representatives of UNHCR and UNHABITAT from a total of ten countries took part in training.
  • Application of the PML was used in Water Resources Management Authority inKenyain 2008 following an outbreak of cholera. 

Utilization of the PML and pasteurization of water is only one method to make water safe. Chlorine and products such as AQUATABS are other examples. The Global Water Initiative through eight major partners is also supporting efforts to make portable water available to all.

The way forward:  

Some of the issues to be considered are:

  • Promotion of integrated development with a focus on health, income generation and education
  • Relationships with local communities and host governments
  • Integrating cultural considerations into product design
  • Distribution and required extended services design to assist in adoption levels

 Speaker 2:

Valentine Ndibalema, Senior Technical Officer, UNHCR

  • Main challenges from UNHCR perspective are primarily community education, on-going extension services, capacity building of implementing partners, securing long term funding partners and cultural adaptations and adoption. 
  • Aside from the environmental benefits of solar cookers other benefits include time saving for women which allows them time for income generating activities, protection mechanism as women do not need to leave the camp as frequently to collect the fire wood
  • Solar cookers are just one of a diversified array of technologies using renewable energy sources in the humanitarian context – UNHCR is also using solar technology for lighting (lanterns and flashlights); and the Safe Water Package is used in water purification and pasteurisation.
  • Today we will look at where we stand vis-à-vis the application of these technologies, which began in the humanitarian setting in the early 1990s.

 Question: Which areas are these technologies being used in?

Response Patrick SCI: Used in Ethiopia for years. Going back toKenya (Dadaab and Kakuma). Next field programme –Darfur, in conjunction with Danish Refugee Council. Send trainers for two weeks, but constrained by security concerns.

Question: Why is the programme no longer ongoing inKenya? Is it being used elsewhere? Is UNHCR in talks with UNITO about its technologies?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: UNITO is still struggling with the issue of where to start. Solar cookers can be made by communities. The Danish Refugee Council trainers will go to Kenya, see what is being used, manufactured and disseminated, and take that learning toDarfur. As to the question of the programme not working, there are different types of programmes but still pilot sites. The cooker could not be distributed in all settings. Firstly, it involves cultural and behavioural change on the part of refugees – cultural relevance is important and if not matched to needs will mean that the technology is not adopted. Also, in Kenya, UNHCR distributes firewood and solar cookers. Where there is no shortage of firewood, refugees do not see the need to use the new technologies. However, in Tchad, there is literally nothing. UNHCR needs to distribute kerosene and wood – and both must be imported. So the programme is working where there is a shortage of biomass, and where there is resistance, there is wood. The program is likely to work in environments where there are restrictions by governments on collecting fire wood.

Question: Why is UNHCR is still distributing wood in Kakuma?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: UNHCR can only meet 30 per cent of total refugee fire wood needs, and now the Kenyan government has put in place new laws to ban firewood collection, so UNHCR and beneficiaries will be forced to use alternate methods of energy. Cooking technology alternatives should go hand-in-hand with strong extension services to increase level of community understanding and adoption.

Response Patrick Widner SCI: Solar cooking also provides income generation opportunities in Tchad through time savings in not collecting fire wood. Women are producing salt, woven products, etc.

Valentine Ndimbalema: Income generation in Tchad also includes the manufacture of cookers by women in camps.

Question: In Darfur, is UNHCR intending to use the solar cooker (CookIt)?

Response Patrick Widner SCI:  It may be more appropriate to use box cookers.

Question Why would the solar cookers not be culturally accepted?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: The main issues are: 1) reflected heat, the people think the cookers might be too hot to touch 2) that the reflection could damage the eyes and that 3) food can’t be stirred which makes some people think that cultural foods such as ’ugali’, which require regular stirring doesn’t taste the same, this seems to be unacceptable to men, but not women, who say food doesn’t taste any different. However, the technology is encouraging men to become involved in cooking. This issues stresses the need for extension services to support the role out of the new technology.

Comment With regards to the acceptance of the technology, we worked with it in Dadaab. The Somali refugees didn’t like it. Cultural foods cannot be cooked, need to look at the way it is used.

Question What is the sustainability of the continued education and extension services?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: It depends on the situation. In Tchad, for example, there are established leaders within the camp. They worked to increase awareness of the technologies to overcome resistance, starting with small groups. After a few months, the response was overwhelming. It depends on common mobilisation and awareness building – and also on variable factors such as the weather. If there is no sun, there is no option to use the solar cooker. In one camp in Tchad, we were able to demonstrate the technology in one day. The next day, the weather turned bad and the refugees questioned how they could cook if the sun wasn’t out, so the dependence on weather conditions provides another challenge for the adoption of this new technology. UNHCR is encouraging use of the solar cooker as part of an integrated alternate energy approach. For example, the solar cooker can’t be used in the early morning (lack of sun), so in Ethiopia, we are encouraging people to use kerosene to make their breakfast, use the solar cooker during the day and keep food warm in a hay basket, made locally, for the evening meal. If you consider the range of cooking and energy sources used in homes inNairobi, people don’t just rely on a single means to cook – they have choice of a stove, or a microwave, which is particularly important due to the power cuts. 

Question: How does solar technology affect income generation?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: It decreases the time women – who are the ones looking for firewood – have to spend on that activity – anything between 4-6 hours in East Kenya is saved if they use the solar cooker. That time is then available for women to develop livelihoods via income generating activities. Also, the solar cooker doesn’t require as much watching as a pot.

Question Do you have any evidence of the impact this new technology has on SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence) incidence and to what extent has this driven the roll out of the product?

Response Patrick Widner SCI: Yes, we have undertaken an evaluation of a particular project and its impact on SGBV, it is available on our website.  I am particularly moved by the stories of the violence against refugee women as they collect firewood, not just perpetrated by the military outside of camps but by local host communities. I know of cases where women out collecting firewood who have had their feet stoned.

Valentine Ndimbalema: There has been a reduction in tensions between host communities and refugees, where the reduction in the supply and distribution of firewood has become a cause of SGBV incidents. However, firewood collection is also an income generating activity and despite women adopting and using the solar cookers they are still leaving the camps to collect firewood to sell.  So if solar cookers can reduce the movement of women in and out of camp environments it has the potential to reduce the incidents of SGBV.

Question: What about the implications for public health? Is there a corresponding decrease in the number of accidents, with fewer trips being made to collect firewood? Do you have any studies on indoor pollution?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: Not on the solar cooker, on ethanol and coal briquettes inNepal. We are carrying out an assessment inEthiopia, but that is with regards to quality control. Where the solar cooker is used, cooking is done outside, or the kitchen is open. Where smoke inhalation problems are encountered is where kitchens require a chimney.

Question Can you point to a success story? We have had problems promoting best practice.

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: Yes. In Tchad, and also in Nepal, where it has been shown that two families can share one stove. InKenya, the success is on and off. The government’s new restrictive rules on firewood collection will have an impact on the project success. Also, implementing partners like GTZ were receiving cookers from promoters but no extension services. We need to go to local staff and ensure they are well grounded in the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of the solar cooker. In Tchad, they can be provided for 8 euros including staff training, or 6 euros for the cooker itself. The cookers have a lifespan of six months, so we make a budget allowance of 16 euros per family per year.

Question At last week’s standing committee, the Kenyan delegation spoke at some length on environmental degradation associated with hosting large refugee populations. How is that impacting on UNHCR’s job?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: Energy is politics. InKenya, refugees will be affected by the new guidelines. Environmental degradation is not only an energy issue. The Kenyan government is making land available for a new camp, but it is only a few kilometres away from Dadaab, which was intended to host 90,000 refugees – current population now stands at almost 300,000. It also depends on the partner. We will have to draw water form the same aquifer. There are challenges from all perspectives. In Darfur, we had the funds to start the project, but then the partner was no longer working there. Now we are working with the Danish Refugee Council, but we need to build capacity, which is why we are conducting the two week training course. There are other factors at play too. In Tchad, UNHCR has to import fuel from Cameroon. There are impacts and costs from transportation, distribution, storage.

Question: Do you see a corresponding decrease in tensions between host communities and refugee populations?

Response Valentine Ndimbalema: In respect to host communities, what you have are great disparities in the size of populations, particularly around Dadaab. In Tchad, you are talking about 500 villagers compared with 20,000 refugees in a camp. Water sources are a cause of tension, as are livelihoods. If there is no development programme, you cannot build in an ongoing way; progress doesn’t tally between humanitarian and development planning. We need long-term thinking especially in protracted situations. For example, will donors continue to buy kerosene of 10-15 years?

Patrick Widner SCI: We have just met with UNHCR inKenya and will work on a joint programme for camps and local communities, but we are talking about nomadic societies in many cases, so the answer may be to start a mobile program.

Question: With regards to water sanitation and pasteurisation, when you are boiling water it’s easy to know when you reach boiling point, but what about pasteurisation – it’s more difficult.

Response Patrick Widner SCI: We use an enclosed pasteurisation indicator made of wax; it melts at pasteurisation temperature and can be used over and over again. It’s an effective tool that I have seen an eight-year-old girl train a community to use.

Valentine Ndimbalema: One of the challenges we face is that refugees may think water is safe, but in the event of a flood, even clean water becomes dirty.

Comment: In Dadaab, the water provided is clean, but the containers used by refugees and the way they are handled means the water becomes contaminated.

Patrick Widner SCI: That’s why we have a ceramic water container with a small opening at the top; it’s too small to put a container in. The water must be sourced from the tap at the bottom.

Question: Given the cultural issues which have been raised, to what extent do you involve refugee communities in the design of the cookers?

Response Patrick Widner SCI: In Tchad, a group called Tchad Solare is involved in all major decisions. The camp is divided into zones. Refugees voluntarily went to the local Tchad women; they speak the same language and have formed their own NGO, Tchad Solare. There is also a Dutch engineer who has addressed the difficulties in cooking traditional Sudanese food. He has adjusted the design to match the needs of the local population. UNITO is looking into what he has done. His name is Derk Rijks; he is from a Dutch non-profit called KoZon.

Valentine Ndimbalema: In conclusion, dissemination is still a big problem; uniformity is not there between NGOs, which is something the Women’s Commission is trying to do – standardise household energy needs. But we need your advocacy. Energy is “nobody’s business”; but if we want to move beyond the environmental discussion, if we want to protect women, we are left hanging, there is no agency – we depend on our mandates, we started talking with UNITO but it is a question of commitment, a question of working with NGOs and individual institutions.

Patrick Widner SCI: Outside of the camps, we have been working with UNHabitat very well.

Valentine Ndimbalema: This is everyone’s issue. In Dadaab, the problem is still there, but the energy agenda is not a high priority, even though we have had to go from 60 to 100 kilometres away to get firewood, and still then, we are not meeting demand.