Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence

Famine in Africa and Yemen: Médecins sans Frontières, Oxfam and Concern

9:30 am

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

In the next part of the meeting, we will hear from representatives of Médecins sans Frontières, Oxfam and Concern about the terrible famine that is currently happening across large parts of Africa and in Yemen. The witnesses are all very welcome. The members of the joint committee look forward to hearing their first-hand accounts of the developing crisis. I welcome Mr. Henry Gray, who is a senior emergency desk manager with Médecins Sans Frontières and has travelled from Brussels to join us today. I also welcome Ms Gillian Conway of Médecins Sans Frontières, who recently returned from nursing in South Sudan; and Mr. Sam Taylor, who is the director of Médecins Sans Frontières Ireland. I also welcome Mr. Jim Clarken, who is the chief executive officer of Oxfam Ireland; and Ms Marissa Ryan, who is Oxfam Ireland's head of advocacy and campaigns. I also welcome Mr. Feargal O’Connell, who is a regional director with Concern Worldwide. I understand they have agreed to speak on specific areas.

This latest famine is of grave concern. It seems from all the warnings that it is potentially the worst famine for 30 years. Famine causes starvation and death among millions of people and leads to mass internal and external displacement. It is vital for this committee to get an opportunity to hear first-hand accounts from areas affected by famine. Collectively, we need to ensure the international sector becomes fully prepared and mobilised to ensure every possible action is taken to try to minimise and alleviate the effects of famine in these regions.

I remind those present in this room to switch off their mobile phones.

I remind members of the committee of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I ask Mr. Gray to make his opening statement. He will be followed by Ms Conway, Mr. Clarken and Mr. O'Connell.

Mr. Henry Gray:

I thank the joint committee for this opportunity, which is greatly appreciated by Médecins sans Frontières. I hope the information we share with the committee will enhance its understanding of the difficult challenges that lie ahead in these two contexts.

I will begin by speaking about the Lake Chad crisis as it affects Borno state. Borno state is not a small dusty part of northern Nigeria. It is approximately the same size as the Republic of Ireland. Its population of 6 million is slightly bigger than the population of this country. It is a large part of Nigeria. It is poor and has a history of turmoil and poverty. The long-running political crisis in this part of Nigeria has been driven through a kind of disenfranchising of the north from the south. In recent years, this has been exacerbated by the ongoing conflict with the Boko Haram group, which has led to chronic food insecurity across the State and chronic insecurity in general. Data is very weak in Borno. We do not know exactly what is going on across the state because very little of this huge landmass is accessible. While we are able to access 15 or 20 towns within Borno state, there are huge blackspots where we have no idea what is going on. This is giving us cause for concern. We simply do not have enough data on more than a third of the population to be sure of their condition. When we are able to reach new areas or new populations, we often find that people are in extremely bad shape. We have new arrivals with severe malnutrition. We find among certain age groups that huge tranches of people, including children and elderly people, have been lost through death and disease. We are missing people.

There has been an improvement in the situation in recent months. This fragile gain is associated with the end of the growing season, when more food is available and arrives into some urban centres. While circumstances have improved as a result of the work of non-governmental organisations and UN agencies, we are approaching a very critical period because the hunger gap is arriving. Every year, there is a period when not as much food is available because the supply of food starts to dry up naturally. We expect to see more and more cases of severe malnutrition in the centres we operate from the end of April, through May and into June. The hunger gap will have potentially huge impacts towards the final quarter of the year.

I am aware that the Irish Government made a generous pledge at the Oslo conference in February in respect of the Lake Chad crisis. Representatives of MSF and I are not here to ask for money, which is refreshing for us and possibly the committee. However, we would like the Irish Government to use its influence to chase up other donors at the conference that pledged to give money. A huge amount of money was pledged but many have not yet delivered. We ask the Irish Government to use its influence to follow up on the pledges made in order that UN agencies and other NGOs will be able to access the money.

Our principal challenges are security and access. Boko Haram is not particularly supportive of activities carried out by NGOs, the United Nations or the Nigerian Government. The Nigerian Government also presents a challenge as it is not facilitating access to all areas which we should be able to reach. The lack of access leads to a lack of data which also leads to our missing potentially vulnerable groups. A small town in the region has a population of 100,000 people. Maiduguri, the state capital, has a population twice that of Dublin. These are not small places.

We understand the focus is on food and security and the word "famine" has been used. We have seen severe malnutrition across the regions. However, we also ask the Irish Government not to forget that there are other activities which are ongoing and need to be carried on. They include the prevention of meningitis, measles and malaria, three key diseases which affect people who are even mildly malnourished. If these activities are not carried on and supported, we will just be moving people who will die from measles or meningitis instead of malnutrition. This is not a funding issue of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Both need to be paid. There is an additional ask. There is an additional need to provide aid for the people of Borno.

The final point I wish to make which may be influenced at state level is that there are worrying humanitarian red flags. The Nigerian authorities are keen to return to normality where everyone lives in his or her local government area. That is the most worrying red flag. Approximately one third of the population are displaced within the state, while approximately 1 million are living in the state capital who should not be. The state authorities would like to move people back to from where they came. We are extremely concerned that forced relocation from urban centres back to rural areas or local government areas would increase humanitarian needs because those who require assistance are being forced into places where we do not have access. We do not want people to be forced to leave centres where organisations such as MSF and Oxfam are looking after them. We do not want them to be moved to the middle of nowhere where we do not have access or the necessary security guarantees to operate with a minimum degree of safety.

South Sudan is another country that has been flagged as being at risk of famine. It has a short but unfortunate history. It has been independent for nearly six years, but it has not seen more than six months of peace in that entire time.

As in the case of Borno, food insecurity and the potential for famine are created by political fighting among the political elite in Juba which has been inflamed and fed fuel to the ethnic fire. Ethnic groups inside Sudan which have never really got on are now standing toe to toe, with disastrous consequences for local populations. Civilians are not respected. The warring parties - the belligerents - have no respect for the sanctity of human life or even the basic right to live a peaceful life. This has meant that huge swathes of South Sudan have become inaccessible for humanitarian groups such as MSF and the UN agencies. This again has led to a paucity of good solid data to give us a clear picture of how bad the position is. What is sure is that it is bad, but it has been bad for years. We again ask that the focus not solely be on malnutrition, food insecurity or famine but that we continue to support the preventive strategies to provide for immunisation against epidemics, the provision of mosquito nets and such basic things to keep people alive. We also ask that the Government of South Sudan be taken to account. Without a political settlement, we will continue to save a life every day in South Sudan. However, rather than saving it once and having peace for six months, we will save that life the following week and subsequent weeks. There is no gain from the work we are doing. We are doing huge work at a considerable cost and risk to our people, but there is a need for a step change and a shift in the politics of South Sudan if we are to make progress.

To be frank, this is MSF's largest mission. We have 17 projects ongoing in South Sudan. There are well over 150 international staff, as well as a huge budget, but we do not see anything getting much better. We are not in the business of development. We are there to provide a humanitarian and an emergency response, in particular, but this is just an emergency on an emergency and nothing seems to get better. In terms of providing assistance in breaking the political impasse in South Sudan, I wish the Irish Government luck first because I do not believe this is a simple task. However, without it, someone from MSF, Oxfam or any major NGO that committee members wish to name will sit here every year or two years or as often as he or she is invited to tell the committee about the state of South Sudan. I will hand over to Ms Conway who is just back from a mission there, where she was working as a midwife. She will give the committee a short testimony.

Ms Gillian Conway:

Recently I returned from a brief mission as an MSF nurse midwife in Malakal and Wau Shilluk in Upper Nile State in South Sudan. In the current context, the medical and humanitarian needs are immense. In such precarious conditions providing health care is a major challenge, even more so because the local population are constantly fleeing from one place to another in search of safety. I witnessed first-hand not only the horrific consequences of the current conflict but also the continuing devastating effects almost three decades of war have had on the people of South Sudan, particularly women and children.

In recent weeks growing numbers of infants have been presenting at our clinics with severe malnutrition. This is a direct impact of having malnourished mothers and inadequate access to health care and nutrition. Sexual and gender based violence perpetrated on women and girls is becoming one of the more prominent and insidious features of the conflict.

Survivors as young as three and four years of age have attended our facilities for treatment. The true extent of these heinous crimes may never be known owing to the insecurity and logistical challenges which make rigorous data collection extremely difficult. Due to the volatile security situation in the area it is impossible for our teams to attend the clinic in Malakal town to assist the national staff outside daylight hours. On numerous occasions I have encountered women and children who have suffered the devastating outcomes of conflict for health care. One particular young woman was admitted to our facility in a critical condition after a seizure as a result of severe eclampsia and a life-threatening post-partum haemorrhage. This young woman had received no ante-natal care and had to attend an inadequately staffed and poorly equipped local health centre for her delivery. Thankfully, she and her baby survived but she is left with an extensive physical and neurological disability as a direct consequence of lack of access to health care. Her future will be very uncertain.

Another tragic example of the impact of sustained conflict in South Sudan came in the form of a newborn baby boy who was admitted to our hospital in a very poor condition after a difficult breach delivery and inadequate resuscitation at birth. Sadly this baby suffered irreparable brain damage and died when he was only 10 days old.

I was also involved in the care of an eight year old boy who was admitted to the MSF hospital in a critical condition after having a catastrophic seizure as a result of no access to essential anti-convulsant medication. This child spent eight days in a coma being attended to by his heartbroken mother before dying.

These examples of totally preventable deaths and disabilities highlight the injustices that in particular the children and women of South Sudan face on a daily basis. The inability to recruit national midwives has greatly affected the clinic's ability to provide round the clock, safe maternity care. Prior to the current conflict Malakal as South Sudan's second largest city had a large teaching hospital and university both of which have been looted and destroyed and are currently being used as a military base.

Finally I would like to share a brief testimony from a national staff colleague, who works as an MSF nurse and who I had the pleasure of working with while in Malakal. He said that on 3 February he was on duty in the MSF hospital. The fighting was getting closer to the town and the remaining civilian population had started to flee. They carried on working until it was too dangerous to stay. They had patients who had been admitted that afternoon and the team did not want to leave the patients behind. It was a difficult decision to leave the hospital while they were receiving patients in a critical condition. He was the supervisor of the nurses in the hospital and they decided to load the patients onto a tractor and trailer and go with them to Kodok. On the way they saw people fleeing in the same direction with no water or means of transport. They picked up some of the wounded and the sick. Some of the staff jumped out to make space for them on the trailer. Unfortunately one of the patients died on the way. By midnight they arrived at the hospital in Kodok with 13 patients. When he arrived in Kodok he did not have a place to stay and ended up sleeping in the open with the rest of the people from Wau Shilluk. He decided to continue serving the sick and the wounded in any way he could. His future is very unclear and he does not know what will happen to all from Wau Shilluk. His family is in Yei in the greater equatorial region. He took them away in 2014 because he was afraid for them and wanted them to be safe. At the moment he is having trouble communicating with them. Last week he cycled 45 km to make a phone call to his wife and children. The telephone network was shut down in January 2017 and he is worried about their security. The situation there is incomparable with that in Wau Shilluk where they lived a few weeks ago. There is hardly any water, shelter or food. They are suffering.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank Ms Conway. She has outlined the horrendous circumstances facing so many people. People like her and her colleagues in their own and sister organisations, and elsewhere in the world, deserve enormous credit for working in the most difficult circumstances and with the most deprived and disadvantaged people in such circumstances. I say that on behalf of this committee.

Mr. Jim Clarken:

I thank the committee for giving us the time to highlight what the UN has described as the worst humanitarian situation in the world since 1945. That is very grim. The issues we have to face up to are enormous. It is an important moment and we are grateful to the committee for doing this and to Ms Conway for providing an account of the human impact of the things we are talking about because while I will talk about vast numbers and a big political and conflict-related problem at the end of the day it comes down to real people like the ones Ms Conway has described. It is important to always remember that and keep it to the forefront of our mind.

Famine has been declared in South Sudan. It is a word bandied around in public circles but not in our sector. It has a very specific and clear definition. The last famine in the world was over seven years ago. Now we face four over the next few weeks or months. That is on top of what is happening in Syria and other crises we are not hearing about.

I will speak specifically about Yemen, which has had two years of brutal conflict. The UN has designated it as the worst humanitarian crisis on the globe. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan warned that Yemen is in danger of becoming a failed state and that the number of people in need in Yemen now exceeds the number in Iraq or Syria. More than 3 million people have been forced from their homes, and over 46,000 women, men and children have been killed or injured since the escalation of conflict in March 2015. Political and military decisions made by all parties to the conflict have now led the country to the brink of famine, and 70% of people in Yemen are dependent on humanitarian assistance. Basic services like health, water and education are collapsing. The economy is in crisis, with food prices on average up to 22% higher than before the escalation of the conflict, pushing the basics beyond the reach of most people. We are now in a situation where nearly two-thirds of the total population, 17.1 million people, are hungry. Over 7 million of these are already starving and just one step away from that catastrophic determination of famine.

Despite this, Oxfam has been working to try to deliver life-saving assistance. Since 2015, we have been reaching more than 1 million people with clean water, hygiene kits and other essential aid. In the four governorates of Yemen, three of which are at risk of famine, Oxfam is supporting over 200,000 people with cash to buy food in local markets, or to purchase livestock as a potential source of income.

The devastating conflict in Yemen has been fuelled by official arms sales by some Western Governments, including the UK and US, as well as illicit arms transfers within the region and high levels of arms stockpiled in the country. Media reports carried last week claim that US Defence Secretary, Jim Mattis, has requested the White House to lift Obama-era restrictions on US military support to Gulf States engaged in the Yemeni conflict, such as United Arab Emirates, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. In a memo this month to the US National Security Adviser H.R McMaster, Mattis said that even limited support for operations being conducted in Yemen, including a planned offensive on the port of Hodeida led by UAE, would help combat a "common threat".

To put that in context, Hodeida Port handles 70% of Yemen's food imports as well as humanitarian aid. An attack on the port would prevent the majority of imports to the country from being accessed and would push people further towards famine with devastating impact. Rerouting supplies and overland transport would greatly increase the costs and further delay the delivery of much needed aid to the northern part of the country.

All land, sea and air routes to Yemen must remain open to allow the regular and consistent flow of food, fuel and medicines to the country to meet the needs of the population. Humanitarian law dictates that attacks targeting military objects related to supply routes and infrastructure, including ports, should not disproportionately affect civilians. Yet cutting off Yemen’s only lifeline, Hodeida port, is currently being discussed at the highest levels, potentially with support from the UK, the Government of which dedicated several hours to discussions on Yemen in Parliament last week. This is very pressing and urgent. Ireland and Yemen are not so far apart as one might think. We have strong trade ties in surrounding countries, as well as longstanding diplomatic engagement and opportunities to have an influence. The Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, visited the Gulf recently, and made Ireland’s opposition to the conflict clear, but more needs to be done.

We urge the committee to take action. The Irish Government, specifically the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, should use Ireland’s influence at UN and EU levels to stop countries from being arms brokers and help them to become peace brokers, in line with the commitments made in our Constitution. We ask the committee to write to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to request an update on diplomatic efforts made by Ireland on the situation in Yemen. At the meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council last week, The Netherlands pushed for the inclusion of a reference to EU member states' arms sales to Yemen, which should take into account UN human rights obligations and recent reports on the humanitarian situation. Ireland supported this motion. We request committee members to use their authority to encourage the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade to raise the issue of Yemen in meetings with his UK counterpart and to strongly condemn the UK’s selling of arms to Saudi Arabia, which is a primary party to the existing conflict. We would welcome the committee recommending that the Minister direct his Department to use its embassy in Saudi Arabia to convene a meeting with his Saudi counterparts to make it clear that Ireland unilaterally condemns the country's devastating bombing campaign in Yemen at the highest level, and to reiterate the need for a comprehensive ceasefire. These are things that Ireland can do. As Ireland campaigns for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2021, we urge the committee to recommend to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that Ireland should support calls for a new UN Security Council resolution that endorses the proposal of the special envoy to Yemen, Mr. Ismaïl Ould Cheikh Ahmed.

Lastly, the Yemen donor conference will be held in Geneva on 25 April, hosted by the UN Secretary General and co-hosted by the foreign ministers of Switzerland and Sweden. The objectives of this conference are to raise awareness of critical humanitarian needs in Yemen, to mobilise resources for the 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan, to promote respect for international humanitarian law, human rights law and the protection of civilians, and to advocate for an end to hostilities. Attendance at the level of foreign minister is anticipated. We request the committee to urge the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, to attend and demonstrate Ireland’s concern on the scale of humanitarian need in Yemen, diplomatically and financially. While peace is the only lasting solution, humanitarian needs continue to increase and escalate, and the funds needed to address these are not being delivered. The 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan is only 7% funded as of 15 March, a couple of weeks ago. While we welcome the Irish Government’s commitment of €4 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen since 2016, we call on the Minister to work with other international donors. As was mentioned, Ireland can use the influence it has in those donor fora to encourage others to step up and, indeed, Ireland can increase its own level of assistance, because this is the largest humanitarian crisis on the planet right now.

A broader trend in Yemen and the other countries affected by the food crises and conflict which we are discussing is the significant displacement of people. We have spoken to the committee about this in the past. Conflict and famine are forcing an unprecedented number of people from their homes and contributing to the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. There are an estimated 1.1 million internally displaced persons in Somalia and over 1 million Somali refugees in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Widespread water shortages and pre-famine conditions in Somalia have increased migration and displacement among those affected by the drought, putting even more pressure on receiving areas. The conflict in Yemen has also meant that thousands of Somalis and Yemenis fleeing the crisis there are now arriving in Somalia, which is buckling under this new burden. It is a country which is already under tremendous stress that is receiving further numbers because of the crisis it is facing, and it goes both ways.

While facilitating the quest for peaceful solutions and funding for humanitarian response are vital in emergencies, the third pillar is to protect those forced to flee by greater global responsibility sharing. The six wealthiest countries in the world continue to host just 9% of the global refugee population.

It is worth reminding members of the committee that 86% of all refugees in the world are hosted in the neighbouring country, usually in a developing country. I think I have mentioned before that in Tanzania, for example, one of the poorest countries of the world, over 250,000 people are being hosted, and that is not even on any radar or being discussed. One can look at a country like Lebanon, which is hosting 1.2 million people, and it is the size of Munster. We have witnessed the systematic and systemic erosion of refugee protection worldwide within the last decade. The response of the EU to this growing displacement crisis has been pitiful. European leaders have introduced increasingly regressive policies that close the door on some of the world’s most vulnerable people. There will be fewer places for refugees to seek protection if these trends continue.

The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which is a fund created with the aim to address the root causes of instability, forced displacement and irregular management has been touted as a programme that will contribute to good migration management. This is hugely problematic in the context of an increasingly harmful EU migration management strategy, and let us remember the various deals that Europe is doing at the moment, with Turkey, Libya and a number of African countries. It is apparent that the EU trust fund is used for security and border management by states with repressive human rights regimes. As a founding member of the trust and vice chair of the fund’s board, we call on the Irish Government to provide greater clarity on the fund’s activities and to be transparent about those. We would welcome the committee requesting an update from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on how Irish funding is being used and how it will ensure that all projects funded with Irish taxpayers' money are compliant with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, development assistance committee, DAC, principles and compatible with international human rights law. There is a real concern that we are having a diversion of aid which is intended to be used to save lives and to protect people to build walls and put people in detention in poor countries. Those forced to flee their homes, be it from South Sudan or Syria, Yemen or Somalia, should be able to access safe and regular routes to Europe to seek asylum from conflict and persecution, as is their human right.

While we welcomed the Government’s commitment to host an increased number of refugees through the Irish Refugee Protection Programme, 4,000 refugees were supposed to have been granted protection in Ireland by 2016, yet less than half that number have safely reached our shores to date. We were also alarmed to see legislation enacted soon after this that significantly increased the obstacles for families to be reunited. In the International Protection Act 2015, the definition of the family for the purposes of reunification was narrowed by the Irish Government. This is something that we want to draw attention to. This means that grandparents are separated from their grandchildren, children over 18 are separated from their parents, and elder brothers and sisters are separated from their younger siblings.

In December 2016, the Tánaiste travelled to a refugee camp in Greece and experienced first-hand the testimonies of people fleeing their homes from war-torn and unstable countries. Our team in Greece raised the situation of family reunification with the Tánaiste, emphasising that many people in refugee camps in Greece are desperate to reach their family members in other European countries.

We urgently request that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence host a meeting with their counterparts on the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality to assess the progress of the Irish Refugee Protection Programme. We also ask that the Committee write to the Tánaiste, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to request an update on the obstacles that are being put in place that prevent safe passage for families to come. The fact that an announcement was made of 4,000 people, which is a small number in the greater scheme of things, was a good step in the right direction and we welcomed it at the time, but progress has been painfully slow.

What we are witnessing is unprecedented. If these crises are left unresolved, malnutrition and deaths will continue to rise. We can stop the worst from happening. It is not too late, but it is getting there very quickly. We need a fully-funded humanitarian response, the resolution of conflict and for Ireland to play whatever role it can in that space, safe and secure access for those that are forced to leave their homes, and greater responsibility sharing by the global north for those in need who are currently languishing in camps in developing countries. Humanitarian agencies cannot do this alone. It will take a combined and collaborative effort and Ireland can and should play a role. We have the credibility globally to do that. We ask members of the committee to use their personal and political weight to join with us and protect these people in the world’s forgotten crises as well as the many situations we have highlighted this morning.

Mr. Feargal O'Connell:

I am delighted to be here today.

I am joined by my colleague Conor O'Loughlin, who is the operational humanitarian manager from Trócaire. We are here very much in the spirit of partnership. We are representing Dóchas, the association of non-governmental development organisations. We are here in a spirit of partnership with this committee, the Government and Irish Aid. Dóchas members are currently programming €2.5 million worth of funds in Somalia to try to avert what, at the moment, seems to be developing into a famine. The scale of the problem demands partnership at national and international level.

Famines are a matter of choice, they do not necessarily fall out of the sky onto our lap. We can see them coming and we have early-warning date and have a choice as to how to respond to that. In my lifetime we have eradicated smallpox, mapped the human genome, put the entirety of human knowledge in our pockets and landed a rover on Mars. However, in that same 38-year period we have now have had 12 famines and we have the prospect of the 13th, 14th and 15th, which is simply unacceptable given that we have the technology and know-how to prevent these things. In many cases we are lacking funding. Last year the global humanitarian budget was only 54% funded. This year the humanitarian appeal for Somalia is currently 44% funded at a time when we know there is a real risk of famine on the horizon and 6 million, more than half of the country's population, are in need of humanitarian assistance. It is not inevitable. There are things that are outside our control such as the gu rains which fall in April and May. If the gu rains fail, we will really face an uphill battle.

If funding is mobilised now, it will make a huge difference. Access is obviously a huge constraint, but we have islands of access throughout the country where we can operate securely. We are seeing huge displacement into those islands of access because large parts of the country are inaccessible and we do not have the ability to work there. There are very striking similarities with what we saw in 2011 which was the last famine the world faced. It is important to remember that that famine brought about the death of 260,000 people in Somalia. We simply cannot allow that to happen.

There are, of course, people and stories behind these astronomical figures. Yasmine is a five-year-old girl who presented to a Concern nutrition centre two weeks ago. She and her family had to walk for over a week to get there. They had to leave their village because they were bereft of further options. One of her siblings died along the way. When she was weighed on arrival, she was 12.5 kg. As I am not a person who recalls figures off the top of my head, I looked up the standard weight-for-age charts, but I could not find her weight on the chart. She was not even in the first percentile. I had to look at the chart for children aged between one and two to find her weight - and Jasmine is five years old.

People are forced to endure extraordinary and despicable levels of hardship. We are hearing stories of people digging in riverbeds. The Shebelle river and the Jubba river, which are usually flowing at this time, are dry. People are digging into the riverbeds but are unable to get our one bucket of water. We heard a story of a herder, called Yusuf, who had to leave his family, bring his two eldest sons with his herd to try to find some forage and some fresh water for them. His herd died along the way. One of his sons had to be admitted into a nutrition centre. He heard word that his family back home were also in a desperate situation and his children's lives were on the line.

We often talk about funding levels. The numbers in need of assistance are in the millions, but there are real people behind them and we have to do everything we can to help them. They are completely blameless, caught up in a terrible and complex crisis in Somalia. We congratulate the Irish Government on all it is doing to help in Somalia. We applaud the recent allocation of €11 million which was provided for UN pool funding and UN agencies. We believe, however, that additional funding is warranted at this stage because the crisis is so grave. Most importantly, it needs to be leveraged at EU and international level with more countries stepping up and shouldering their responsibility in the same way the Irish Government has done time and again.

We want to see child protection as a key focus of Irish Government responses in Somalia and elsewhere. Children are the first to bear the brunt of famine, food security problems and conflict. It is important that our efforts be very much focused on them.

It is very clear that climate change and conflict are the twin root causes of what is going on in Somalia. There have been three significant climactic events one after the other and there is also conflict. Ireland has the moral authority to lead on these issues. It is a country that has come out of conflict and famine and is now a generous humanitarian aid donor. We need to leverage this moral authority at international level. We need to put Somalia back on the international agenda. It has dropped off it and not enough people are talking about it. More needs to be done to address the root causes of the crisis. Once it abates eventually, it is very important that long-term resilience funding be mobilised in Somalia. Dóchas members are seeing how this type of programming and funding can have an impact. In villages where we have invested for many years that smart money for smart programming is having an impact. These villages are the most resilient. People are displacing into them because they have higher levels of resources and are the last from which people displace.

Most importantly, as humanitarian organisations, we must ensure the safety and security of our staff. If we cannot ensure our teams can go into these areas day in and day out with a guarantee of safety, we cannot do anything and will not be able to avert the crisis. We call on the committee and the Irish Government to continually press for all parties to respect their obligations under international humanitarian law and guarantee the safety and security of aid workers.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The delegates have painted a very grim and stark picture. There was one positive mentioned by the last speaker about smart money having an impact and the communities in question being the most resilient. There is a lack of public awareness of this fact, which contrasts with the publicity Live Aid received years ago. Even a couple of years ago an RTE team in the Sahel streamed pictures every evening. However, there is no public awareness of the extent of what is happening.

I am struck by the irony. We have been discussing the impact of the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union on the level of humanitarian aid provided. The United Kingdom is selling arms to Saudi Arabia to be used in Yemen. On the effects of internal displacement, I am struck by the fact that, despite Kenya's vulnerable position, it is the country coping with Somalian refugees.

There are criticisms of where the money from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is going and the purposes for which it is being used. How can we push this aspect? I know that the delegates have made some suggestions, but there may be something else that could be done.

My second question relates to political involvement in Africa. I am aware of the difficulties in this regard in South Sudan, but where are the African political voices on these issues and, equally, the voices of protest in these countries? People are so accepting of their horrible lives. In regard to Ethiopia, we know there is concern in terms of people in particular areas there being under threat of famine yet the voice of protest is being repressed excessively by Government forces. The voice of opposition and independent media is not being allowed to express its concerns. I would welcome a response on the role of African politicians, the media in Africa, civil society in Africa and the EU Emergency Trust Fund. It is appalling that people are committing funding and it is not being paid over.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I visited Somalia in the mid-1990s. At that time, we had Irish troops based in Baidoa who were responsible for bringing aid from Mogadishu to Baidoa. I had never in my life been in a place that was so deprived of basics. I recall that there was an orphanage there where the only food the children got was one bowl of rice per day. To hear today that little progress has been made in Somalia since 1994-1995 when I was there is appalling. It begs the question of what type of progress, if any, is being made under the aid programmes. When I returned from Somalia I was unable to explain to people what poverty meant. We talk about poverty in this country but we do not have a clue what poverty is when compared with the lives these people are living. I have often wondered what happened to the children in the orphanages. I am disappointed to hear first hand about what has not happened in Somalia. It begs the question of whether we are going in the wrong direction in terms of aid to these places. There is a willingness to give money and to take action, but we do not seem to be making any progress. It is a case of money out and no progress made, which is horrific. I could not explain to people what I saw when I was in Somalia. It could not be explained to people because they could not imagine it.

As I said, the Irish troops based there were engaged in bringing food from Mogadishu to Baidoa, protected by the Indian troops who were based in the camp next-door. I would like a response on where we are going wrong and on what, as politicians and as a country, we can do. We cannot continue to just commit to giving more money such that our consciences are clear but nothing is happening. I have outlined what I saw in Somalia over 20 years ago. In terms of what I am hearing today, the situation is the same as it was then. I hope that in the short time we have available to us today we might hear what we as politicians and members of this committee can do to help. Is there a need for a review of our involvement in this area or should we continue to just give money and consider that our bit is done? The Irish people are willing to help but there is a lack of direction in terms of how to resolve the problem.

I am aware of the situation in other places such as South Sudan and so on, but I am concentrating on Somalia because I was there and saw what was happening first-hand. I have often thought about the orphanage I visited and wondered what became of the children who, as I said, were given only one bowl of rice a day. It is difficult to explain this to people. That 20 plus years on no progress has been made is appalling. As politicians, what we are doing wrong?

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I have a different view. In the areas where they have been involved Irish Aid and the other NGOs have made a difference. I would not like the message to go out that there has been no progress made. As mentioned by the delegates, there is commonality among all of the countries about which we are speaking, including conflict. Who causes it? It is caused by people and countries. The scale of the problem is so shocking that we must wake up. In Yemen alone, 17.1 million people go to bed hungry and 7 million are starving. Do any of us believe the conflict there cannot be resolved? It can be. The first step is the removal of weaponry, while the second is to encourage people to come together to discuss their difficulties. There are villages and towns in Somalia that have shown resilience when the right actions are brought to bear.

This is also about climate change. There are people in Ireland who do not believe climate change is an issue. Perhaps somebody might talk to President Trump about his views on the matter. There are things we could do. I am shocked to note that this meeting is not being covered by the mainstream media. Why is that?

Reference was made in one of the opening statements to the pledges which had been made by various countries. Why would a country make a pledge and then walk away from it? I cannot get my head around it. Is it because that people get caught up in the excitement of a meeting that they make a pledge, only to walk away from it later? Is it possible for the committee to obtain a list of the countries that have made pledges and walked away from them? I would like these countries to be identified. I would also like to ask their ambassadors why they made these pledges and then walked away from them. It does not make sense. It was stated the Somalia appeal was 44% funded. What is the reason for the delay? Is it that people are waiting for the conflict to be resolved? What is happening in Yemen, including the bombing of funerals and hospitals and so on, is barbarism and beyond understanding.

During the earlier session we discussed the importance of conflict resolution and Ireland having a role to play in that regard. This is an area in which we have some experience. It is an issue on which we cannot adopt the position that something cannot be resolved. We have seen other countries move from conflict to peace and stability. We also discussed the amount being pumped into countries and the amount going out the backdoor via taxation and so on. We need to think of what we could do differently.

There are so many questions we could put to the delegates, but I do not think we should walk away thinking there is nothing we, as a people, can do.

There are people in Ireland who reject the idea that we take in 4,000 people but we should look at the scale of refugees in these countries, where people are going to bed hungry but yet take people in as neighbours. It should be a wake-up call for us all. We need to do things differently and use our money better. We must not walk away from this and all human beings on the planet have a responsibility to pull together, to get us away from the darkness of which we have heard today.

Photo of Noel GrealishNoel Grealish (Galway West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the witnesses for outlining what is happening in the world. We are living in very challenging times and, having visited countries in Africa, we have all seen at first hand what Ms Conway has outlined. I acknowledge the tremendous work the witnesses are doing but a lot more can be done because every morning I wake up to hear there is another conflict in another part of the world. Unfortunately, the arms trade involves big money and unless Governments curtail that trade we will have conflict. Another big arms deal was done with Saudi Arabia recently and there is a problem in Yemen. Many refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere want to go back home again. They do not want to be a statistic in Ireland, in Tuam or somewhere else. Is there any sign of an end to this conflict? Are the major players trying to find a resolution? The Americans and the Russians seem to be battling in Syria but are they involved here?

How many Irish citizens are working for Trócaire and MSF? How do the organisations guarantee their safety? I am sure they would love to send people into towns and villages to help but that, because of security concerns in certain parts of the country, they cannot. How do they determine where they can go and how do they ensure they are safe?

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Mr. Gray mentioned the lack of data preventing aid getting to some regions. Are there are also security and violence issues which prevent aid from reaching the most vulnerable?

Mr. Henry Gray:

Absolutely. Borno State is a good example, as is South Sudan. We are unable to access some areas because of fighting and we are blocked by one or other of the belligerents in South Sudan, whether it is the Government army who does not want us to see what atrocities it is carrying out or the opposition group, and there are very few good guys in the places we work. My team is focused on conflict areas. Getting our people and materials in and out safely is a huge challenge. Getting data to shine a light on areas in the media is very important but without political engagement from the political masters of these countries, and without them actually wanting peace and stability, it is not going to happen and we will be constantly swimming against the tide. There has to be an engagement and better governance in these places for us to stand a chance. We are born optimists, as one has to be to do our job.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

We have to be born optimists in our job, too.

Mr. Henry Gray:

The challenges we face are enormous and we cannot guarantee safety for everyone. There have been security incidents where UN officials and NGO workers have been attacked and killed. Off the top of my head, I can think of three UN staff in Congo about two weeks ago, six people from ICRC in South Sudan and a couple of MSF doctors in Syria. There is a long list of people who have lost their lives working for us.

It is not safe work. It needs to be done but unless there is political buy-in from the people who are responsible for the running of these countries and their conflicts, our job is much more difficult.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I ask witnesses to address each issue raised by members.

Mr. Jim Clarken:

I echo what has been said. Despair is not an option. In 2015, we signed the declaration for the sustainable development goals for the next 15 years, marking the moment we acknowledged the reduction in extreme poverty across the world by 50% over the previous 15 to 20 years. It may not feel like it today, but the world is making some progress on development. It is important to acknowledge this as we move forward. The common themes in all areas are conflict, shockingly poor governance and irresponsible leadership, international interference and climate change, and all of these have nothing to do with the populations themselves. Ireland is not a huge country but we can play an important role as we are quite influential for our size. We co-chair the sustainable development goal programme and last year we co-chaired the refugee and migration conference. We chaired the successful convention on the banning of cluster munitions so we have an important role. We also need to look at ourselves and sometimes that is the hardest bridge to cross. We need to look at our responsibility to refugees and our climate responsibilities because what we do here has an impact in developing countries.

Investment in advance of a crisis is far more cost-effective, as well as preventing shocking levels of human suffering. It is expensive to do what we do because it is difficult, dangerous and very late and we can save many lives and make the situation much better by investing earlier, when the flags have been raised.

Deputy O'Sullivan asked why this has not gone further. We are all trying to make a breakthrough in the media space, together and as individuals. We are being blanketed with our own priorities, such as Brexit and the US, but we have to ask what is the biggest global problem. The former issues are big and important, to us and to the world, but this famine is the biggest story in the world right now and we need to face up to it. We can do so and the world usually responds well when we do that. I am not saying it is simple because we have huge political and conflict issues but if one ignores them, they will just get worse. Every conflict has a resolution, though it might not feel like that today, and if anybody knows this, we in Ireland do. We have to keep focusing and look at the angles from which Ireland can engage, of which there are many. We need to look at the influence we can have, whether through donor conferences or at UN or EU level. We need, for example, to be brave enough to say we cannot accept a particular policy being advanced at EU level, having seen the damage it is doing. We have to invest political capital, which is hard, but we can do it.

Mr. Feargal O'Connell:

Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan and Seán Crowe talked about media interest and this is very important. The day famine was declared in South Sudan, the top headline across all media outlets was President Trump talking about something that did not happen in Sweden. These are editorial decisions and maybe the wrong people are before the committee to talk about why these terrible crises are not being given enough media attention.

Concern and all other Dóchas member organisations issue press releases and offer trained professionals who can deal with the media for interview in Dublin and the affected countries, but our offers are turned down. I will leave it to members to decide how they want to address that issue.

To respond to Deputy Crowe, Ireland's journey out of poverty, oppression and violence did not happen over 20 years. We have to be realistic about timeframes. Mr. Clarken stated there has been progress on a global scale. Extreme poverty rates have declined significantly in the past 50 years, as have maternal mortality rates and preventable childhood diseases. Progress is being made and Dóchas members such as Concern are working very closely with Irish Aid to the extent that we have rigorous scientific evidence to show that our programmes are having an impact on poverty. We are lifting people out of poverty and making people healthier and more resilient in the long term. We need to bring this progress to scale and we require funding to do so.

On aid worker safety, we have been doing this work for nearly 50 years and we have tried and tested mechanisms in which we can, as far as possible, ensure our teams' safety on the ground. We invest a large amount of time in training for staff and undertaking analysis to develop standard operating procedures and security management plans. The most important thing that keeps us safe, however, is acceptance at community level, which is created by ensuring we have quality programmes that are appreciated by the communities we work with and by operating in a spirit of openness and transparency with communities. Moreover, we stay in communities for the long haul rather than leaving after a year. The communities we are working in have a long-standing relationship with us, which affords us a great deal of security.

Mr. O'Loughlin, who has experience of political involvement in the region, will now contribute.

Mr. Conor O'Loughlin:

In relation to Deputy Barrett's particular concern or frustration about the current position in Somalia, the remit of the agencies represented here is around humanitarian relief and development within contexts such as Somalia. I assure the Deputy that funding provided by the Government through Irish Aid is going towards alleviating suffering and saving lives in Somalia now. This does not detract from the Deputy's concern about political developments in Somalia and where we find ourselves. Since the state collapsed and civil war ensued in 1992, the country has experienced recurrent humanitarian crises. I can relate to the Deputy's frustration in that regard.

We have been working in Somalia to try to raise awareness of the position in that country and find political solutions or at least advocate to the international community to find a political solution to this crisis. What is required is political engagement at the very highest levels in the international community. The concern is that there will be a retreat from international co-operation in the current environment. The Government can play a role at the highest levels in the United Nations to raise awareness and alleviate the situation in Somalia which has become a forgotten crisis. Some incremental progress has been made in that a president has been installed in the country. Ultimately, however, time and patience are needed. We also need commitment from the international community. In the meantime, the focus and humanitarian mandate of agencies working in Somalia, including Concern and Trócaire, mean we are compelled to save lives and alleviate suffering immediately. I assure the Deputy that the funding provided by the Government and citizens is going towards that end.

Photo of Seán BarrettSeán Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I was not in any way being critical. Mr. O'Loughlin should not think that for one moment. I was expressing frustration that the crisis in Somalia has continued for such a long period and asking if anything could be done that would have an impact, no matter how small, on the situation. It is frustrating when one considers the long period involved.

Mr. Feargal O'Connell:

Mr. O'Loughlin described Somalia as a forgotten crisis. That is the issue and we need to take that angle on it. Essentially, all of these crises are forgotten. What can we do to elevate the profile of Somalia? How can Ireland leverage its moral authority on all of these issues to bring these crises back to the top of the agenda at the top tables in all of the international forums? That is how to take the issue forward.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Has famine reached Somaliland yet and is the issue on the radar of any of the non-governmental organisations?

Mr. Feargal O'Connell:

We classify areas on a scale of 1 to 5 and Somaliland is currently placed at between 2 and 3 on the scale, whereas south central Somalia is closer to 4 and in danger of reaching 5 on the scale. However, we remain concerned about Somaliland, as there is a significant level of food insecurity in the area. We are directing resources in the region because there is a possibility that it will tip over from 2-3 into 4 on the scale very easily, particularly if the upcoming rains fail.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I sincerely thank the delegates for their presentations on what are awful circumstances. The message we must send to private donors and taxpayers who provide funding for overseas aid is that those areas that have been the focus of long-term resilience programmes have been able to mitigate the effects of drought and famine. It is important that the message get across that progress is being made. We all share the delegates' frustration which was well expressed by Deputy Seán Barrett at the awful circumstances faced by millions of people throughout the world.

We will communicate with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on the specific issues raised and seek a response on each individual matter. With regard to Mr. Clarken's comments on the relocation programme, committees do not meet jointly to discuss specific issues such as this. As the Department of Justice and Equality is responsible for the matter, it comes within the remit of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. Perhaps Mr. Clarken might request an opportunity to make a presentation to the committee or meet some of its members to discuss the important issue he has raised.

I commend the work of Médecins sans Frontières, Oxfam and Concern and their sister agencies. Ms Conway's presentation clearly illustrated the human aspects of issues we often discuss at a macro level. When we hear about them at a micro level and the way in which they affect individuals, it brings home a stark message to all of us. I again thank all of the delegates for their presentations.