World's Aid Agencies Stretched To Their Limits By Simultaneous Crises

Aug 19, 2014
Originally published on August 19, 2014 7:35 am

For the first time, the United Nations is handling four major humanitarian crises at once: refugee crises in Syria and Iraq as well as civil wars in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, where millions are at risk of famine. Meanwhile, West Africa is experience a devastating Ebola outbreak.

The world's aid agencies are stretched to their limits. Leading the U.S. response to these crises is the U.S. Agency for International Development, whose assistant administrator for the Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, Nancy Lindborg, spoke with Morning Edition.

"We are probably at a near-historic level of humanitarian need right now," Lindborg says. "We have, for the first time in the history of USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, four disaster assistance response teams deployed ... to high-tempo, big crises around the world at the same time. And this is in addition to ... ongoing needs that are being met in Nigeria, Gaza, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the emerging crisis in Ukraine."

Lindborg noted a striking contrast between addressing all the current crises and the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last November and December. "It was up and over in about a month," she says. "However, what we have now...are really complex, difficult crises that are fundamentally the result of non-democratic governments." In the Philippines, "Nobody was shooting anyone. And so, for humanitarian workers to be able to go in after there was a clear beginning and move progressively toward a better outcome, there's something very satisfying about that in contrast with the kind of crises we're seeing."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's stay in this part of Syria and hear about efforts to get help to civilians who are caught in this conflict. We heard Kelly mention earlier a border crossing into Turkey that is in danger of being taken over by militants from the Islamic State. Nancy Lindborg is the assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development which spearheads the U.S. government's aid efforts around the world, including in Syria. And she says if militants control that border crossing, it will be much harder to get aid in.

NANCY LINDBORG: It will have a huge and devastating impact on the ability to reach - quickly and directly - a population. What we're also seeing, however, is that a lot of families are moving out of the Aleppo area as the conflict becomes closer and more intense.

GREENE: But this means if that border crossing is controlled by militants, people escaping Aleppo will have much more trouble getting to a safe place. Now we also spoke to Lindborg about the area of northern Iraq where USAID has also been active helping people fleeing these Islamic militants.

LINDBORG: What we've seen with the advance of ISIS in northern Iraq has been a huge uptick in displacement, in violence, in conflict that really came to a head with those Iraqis who were literally stuck in the Sinjar Mountains.

GREENE: These were the Yazidis and other religious minorities we're talking about?

LINDBORG: That's correct. There's been a real targeting by ISIS of the many minorities who live in that part of Iraq - Christian communities, Yazidis, Turkomans. So we are looking at about 1.4 million displaced people in Iraq right now.

GREENE: And while many of those 1.4 million people want to go home, the safest passage for them is often through Syria.

LINDBORG: It indicates a level of desperation that your point of refuge is Syria.

GREENE: Syria, Iraq - these are only some of the humanitarian crises Lindborg and USAID are confronting right now. I just want to step back here. Your agency is trying to help people in Syria, in Iraq. We also have West Africa and the Ebola outbreak now. We also have South Sudan where there's a bloody civil war and talk of a potentially devastating famine. How much is USAID strained right now?

LINDBORG: Yeah. This is - let me say it this way, we're at probably a near historic level of humanitarian need right now. We have, for the first time in the 50 year history of USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, four disaster assistance response teams deployed. We call these darts. And this is the first time that we've had four darts deployed to high-tempo crises around the world at the same time. And this is in addition to significant response in places like Central Africa Republic, Gaza, Burma, DRC, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the emerging crisis in Ukraine.

GREENE: Do you see something in common here or is this just a coincidence that we have so many humanitarian crises globally?

LINDBORG: That's a good question. You know, what is interesting is of all of these crises, one that I didn't mention was the typhoon in the Philippines in November and December which is the only one of these that's a real natural disaster. And that was up and over in a matter of about a month. However, what we have now with the currently deployed darts are, fundamentally, the result of nondemocratic governments that have resulted in these complicated crises.

GREENE: There's something stunning about hearing you say that a deadly, horrific typhoon was the easy crisis to deal with compared to some of these other ones.

LINDBORG: Isn't it? You know, and it's true because nobody was shooting anyone. And so for humanitarian workers to be able to go in and move progressively toward a better outcome, there's something very satisfying about that in contrast with the kind of crises that we're seeing with our four deployed darts.

GREENE: Thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.

LINDBORG: Thank you.

GREENE: Nancy Lindborg is the assistant administrator for the Bureau of Democracy Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.