News : Dial A for Aid, Iraq's New Humanitarian Hotline
Erbil, Iraq, Aug 3, 2015 -- An angry man with a moustache gesticulates with a mobile phone. He is one of 15 mukhtars (community leaders) in a meeting with UN staff at a camp in northern Iraq. They are responsible for telling their neighbourhood what aid they can expect from humanitarian organisations. "Look," he shouts, "don't you know that the World Food Programme is giving food to Daesh?" (slang for the so-called Islamic State or ISIS)
It might seem far-fetched, but aid diversion, or worse, collusion with ISIS, is a real concern for both those whose lives have been destroyed by the Islamist militants and aid workers. If people have evidence that it is happening, they ought to be able to report it and be confident that someone will investigate their claims. Previously in Iraq, that channel didn’t exist.
A communication gap has grown between the 3.1 million displaced Iraqis and the organisations supposed to serve them. Individual NGOs all provide different telephone numbers and displaced people often have little idea who can provide what aid and who they need to call for what service. Imagine you're a displaced Iraqi trying to get help on a complex matter. If only there was one simple number to call and someone could help you find the right person to speak to.
A new hotline is supposed to provide this, helping the displaced report their needs and get a better understanding of what help is out there. But with drastic cuts to services, can it make a tangible improvement to the way aid is provided? Or will they be a voice telling people that their food aid has been cut?
According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 78 percent of Iraqis use mobile phones. Yet despite this network, "displaced people in northern Iraq live in an information vacuum which is hindering their ability to cope with the catastrophe," according to a report issued by a group of NGOs, UN agencies and media development organisations in September 2014.
Internally displaced people (IDPs) not only lacked information, they also had no way to explain what they really needed. "Nobody wants to talk to us," a displaced man living in Duhok told a community consultation session organised by WFP. "Mostly they come to ask questions and leave."
"We had various aid agencies coming and giving us different things like utensils, buckets, shoes, clothes, but we had no means to tell them about our special needs," added a woman who fled Mosul when it was overrun by ISIS in August 2014.
One solution, the report concluded, was the rapid launch of a call centre run jointly by all the different UN agencies to provide the displaced with information and to refer complaints, feedback and urgent needs to the correct part of the relevant organisation.
At the end of last month, nearly nine months after the report was published, the call centre was finally launched with funding from the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), WFP and the UN emergency aid coordination body OCHA.
The idea is that having one number (6999) to call that covers the entire humanitarian response will streamline an often bewildering system.
The displaced often assume the aid system is one joint effort, when in fact it more closely resembles a series of interrelated but independent ones. For example, there are 54 humanitarian organisations providing medical assistance across Iraq's 18 governorates, coordinating their activities through the Health Cluster. A displaced person might need help from any one of them.
Previously, Iraqis would need to figure out which organisation provided the service in their area and contact them directly, or be referred through another NGO – often a convoluted and opaque process involving follow-up on specific cases by completely unrelated agencies. Now, they should be able to call the hotline and be referred directly.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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Published: Wednesday, August 5, 2015