© Derk Segaar/IRIN
Daniel Toole, director, office of emergency programmes of the UN Children's Fund.
KHARTOUM, 13 Feb 2006 (IRIN) - Escalating violence, including attacks on two towns in South Darfur in January, has forced up to 70,000 people to flee their homes, often for the second or third time.
In an interview with IRIN, Daniel Toole, the director of the office of emergency programmes of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), talked about the humanitarian impact of the escalation of violence. Below are excerpts.
QUESTION: What is your take on the current security situation on the ground?
ANSWER: Darfur has been a security problem for the last two years. In some ways, access now is not horribly worse than we had in the past. It has just shifted location. Now, the insecurity is particularly along the border with Chad ... [where it is] very difficult to access communities and people in camps. There are other areas in Jebel Marra and parts of South Darfur where we have very difficult access.
Tensions with Chad are high, [and] mobilisation of troops on both sides of the border has increased. The situation will probably get worse before it gets better. It has not been good for a very long time.
Q: In what sense is it going to get worse?
A: I’m very worried about the tension at the border. When you have very large numbers of troops on the border, it increases risks for all things. It increases risks for HIV, prostitution, children being recruited to work as cooks and porters, in addition to straight security risks.
Q: What will be the main priorities for 2006 and what are the potential problems you anticipate?
A: The main priorities for UNICEF are to maintain services in the [internally displaced persons] camp areas. We are providing the lions share of water and sanitation; with our partners, NGOs and the national water supply and sanitation services. If that were to be disrupted, we would be in real trouble.
I don’t think the priorities have changed that much. What has changed is that over the last two years the whole humanitarian system has made enormous accomplishments in Darfur. We see now that 85 percent of the population has access to primary healthcare services in camp settings. More children are in school - something like 300,000, and 46 percent are girls. Water supply and sanitation is something like 70 percent of the population.
The huge challenge now is funding. Most of the donors have announced reductions in funding. Some of them are quite significant. We will work hard to make sure that the government picks up some services as they need to - be it water and sanitation or some of the health workers’ or teachers’ salaries - but we also know that is quite difficult. My message to donors is: Cuts in assistance may lead directly to child deaths.
UNICEF right now has money in hand for two-and-a-half months of operations. And we’re beating the bushes and pounding the table to figure out how to get more than that.
Q: What is the rationale for donors lowering their funding?
A: For some, they’re on a severely constrained budget. Darfur is seen as an emergency that is ongoing at very high costs. For others, they have allocated money to other emergencies. The pot is only so big. Some donors have maintained their level of contribution and that’s great. I don’t think anyone is stopping here for political reasons that I’m aware of. It is more that there are a bunch of constraints and there are legislative processes that perhaps are less willing now to give extraordinary levels to Darfur than there were two years ago.
Q: There are a lot of stories of NGOs having to withdraw from certain areas, and maybe UNICEF would have to take over these kinds of services. Do you expect the caseload to be the same as last year?
A: It is a big problem. I would say particularly in the water supply and sanitation area, where a number of NGOs have already withdrawn that were very key partners for us on support and delivery of water systems.
Q: Why did they withdraw?
A: Some of them have withdrawn for security reasons. A number of the areas are very difficult to get to and so they pulled out. A couple are starting to look at funding down the line and can’t guarantee the funding.
Last year we received about 60 percent of what we asked for. If we only receive, say 50 percent of the 60 percent, then we have to cut back. I have asked the office here to start looking at what those cutbacks look like. Something like water and sanitation will be one of the last to be cut, because it is life-saving.
Q: There was a lot of talk - until a couple of months ago - of expanding services in 2006 from camps for displaced people to rebel-held areas, remote rural areas, nomadic groups, et cetera. What has come of these plans?
A: We still have plans to expand, but cannot without funding. We are looking at reduced funding, so we have to give priority to maintaining the services that exist. What we know is that the camps are better serviced than the non-camp rural areas. There are two things. One, it creates a magnet for the camps and that’s something we’ve always been concerned about.
Second, it means that there is no impetus for people to return. If we can’t invest in water supply and sanitation or health facilities in areas where they’ve come from - which has always been part of our plan - then it is not possible to encourage people to go back, when they have gotten used to services for health, for nutrition, for water supply and sanitation, and education. They have also got used to a food ration.
There were lots of discussions two years ago about whether we were creating dependency. At that point myself, and others, said: We don’t have a choice. These people are in camps. If we don’t provide services, they will die of cholera and malnutrition et cetera. So we pushed to get a tremendous amount of services in those camps. Two-and-a-half years on, there is dependency.
Q: What are the implications? Are we looking at the perpetuation of the situation, where service provision is very much skewed towards the main towns and the camps?
A: If we can get out, vis-à-vis access, vis-à-vis security, and be funded for that, we would very much like to do that. On the one hand, we need to constantly look at how we help the government play the role it should be playing. That is a point of advocacy; it’s a point of policy work with government - really pushing government to take up that responsibility. They have oil revenue now. Granted, they have more demand on that money, but clearly Darfur has to be a priority.
Q: Until October-November, there were discussions about trying to start returning people to their homes. Do you think it is likely that this will start to happen in 2006? And is it mostly a security or a funding issue?
A: As of today, I would say it is unlikely. It is not a funding issue. Funding may force people to move, but it is rather a security situation that is perhaps on the whole not worse, but it is clearly deteriorating. Once that process starts it’s hard to turn it around. I hope the negotiations move forward, but the combination of difficult peace talks and increased border tension make me at least, from an emergency point of view, say that I can’t see a regularisation in the next 10 months.
We have just, for example, reinforced our office in Chad. We had actually planned to downsize it, partially due to funding, but partially due to the fact that we assumed that we would be starting a return process by now. It is clear that on the contrary there is still some outflow. And the tensions on the border make me think it would be very unwise to streamline our office in Abeche, where we are at the present time.
The key points, I think, are that we need enhanced security. And that’s about peace negotiations, about calming the tensions currently occurring on the border.
Second, we need to maintain services. That’s expensive. We are internally looking at how to cut costs. I think all agencies need to be doing that. At the same time we need to be looking at contingency planning should things go wrong, and we are doing that.
Sudan is very high on our priority list. If we don’t invest in Sudan this year, we will have serious problems next year. And that’s not just Darfur. It is also north-south, where people have very high expectations. We need to help fulfil at least some of those expectations in a very visible way to prevent frustration, anger and return to conflict.
Q: So Darfur has a dire year ahead?
A: I think so. It is a key year for Darfur. If we can’t get progress, people will be very used to being in camps. Whereas southern Sudan is important because people have to see progress for normalisation, in Darfur the people have to see progress so that they can start thinking of normalisation and start to move home. It is not looking very likely.