Monday, March 1, 2010

As UN Accused of Cover Up of Zimbabwe Cholera, Belated Response, Memo to Holmes Unaddressed

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, February 25 -- The UN often sides with and even pays money to authoritarian governments, either as a cost of remaining in the country or simply out of habit, as a social club of governments. But in Zimbabwe, former UN humanitarian worker Georges Tadonki has alleged in a case in the UN Dispute Tribunal in Nairobi, the UN falsely predicted only 2000 cholera cases, when nearly 100,000 resulted, with 4000 deaths.

On February 23, Inner City Press asked for the UN's response to the

Inner City Press: exposé by George Tadonki, who is OCHA’s head in Zimbabwe, saying that he tried to raise the alarm about up to 30,000 cases of cholera in Zimbabwe and was told by Mr. [Agostinho] Zacarias, as the country team leader, to downplay the number, such that it was projected here that it would only be 2,000. I’m assuming that you’ve seen it and I’m wondering what the UN’s, since this really seems to say that the UN radically underplayed the number of people that would die in Zimbabwe, what the UN’s response to what this former UN employee is saying.

Spokesperson Nesirky: Well, on the specific details of the case, as the proceeding is under way at a tribunal in Nairobi, we cannot comment on the specific details. As for the broader question of “did the UN cover up the scale of this cholera outbreak”, OCHA has given fairly detailed guidance, which I have here. I don’t propose to go through absolutely everything, but I’m sure if you contacted them they will be able to give you more details. It’s fairly extensive guidance.

While it seemed strange to have to separately request from OCHA a document that UN spokesman Nesirky said that he had at the February 23 noon briefing, later on February 23 Inner City Press emailed OCHA's spokesperson asked to be sent the guidance.

But another OCHA spokesman responded, saying to call to be spoken to. Inner City Press sent another email, asking for the "detailed guidance" in writing. The next day, the OCHA spokesman still declined to provide the promised guidance, asking Inner City Press what question it wanted answered.

Back in May 2008, Inner City Press had reported that

In Harare, the Herald newspaper controlled by the Robert Mugabe government this week quoted UNDP's "Resident Representative Dr Agostinho Zacharias that 'We welcome reports that the authorities are intensifying the anti-violence campaign, we encourage them to continue to do so and ensure that violence is totally removed in all parts of the country... there are also reports indicating that MDC supporters are also resorting to violence and intimidation. This state of affairs is unacceptable to the UNCT.'"

For the UNDP's resident coordinator to be, on behalf the rest of the UN, "welcoming" the Mugabe government's "anti-violence campaign" seems more than a little strange. The UN Spokesperson said that Zacharias' written statement is available, but did not answer if the UN or UNDP has sought any correction of Mugabe's newspaper's use of Zacharias' comments. The Spokesperson called Zacharias' comments "balanced." But in some cases, particularly of violence, balance is not what's called for.

On February 24, 2010, Inner City Press forwarded the above quoted question, from the UN noon briefing transcript, and asked again for the answers.

UN's Ban and Zim's Mugabe in Feb 2009, cholera deaths not shown

Finally, on February 25 the following arrived from OCHA's Deputy Spokesman:

As Martin said, we cannot comment on any specific aspects of the case.On the general allegations about the UN’s response in Zimbabwe, the facts in this situation clearly showed that there was an acute crisis on the ground and the UN and its partners responded accordingly. There was never any attempt at covering up – the WHO surveillance which informed all decision making was publicly available, as were the OCHA sitreps and those of other agencies involved in the response. The prevailing situation was described starkly in the 2009 Appeal document launched in November 2008.

On the question of why the November 2008 appeal predicted 2,000 cholera cases, this appeal was launched when the cholera outbreak was just starting. Zimbabwe’s last cholera outbreak before this one was in 2002, when 3,125 people were infected and 192 died, so the prediction of 2,000 was realistic when it was made. The appeal document spoke very clearly about the possible risks posed by the situation in the country.

The UN responded actively as the worsening assessments came in through late 2008 and early 2009, repeatedly revising upwards the 2008 appeal for Zimbabwe which ultimately reached a total of $502 million, reflecting the changing circumstances on the ground. The 2008 Zimbabwe CAP became the third best funded CAP in the world that year. The surveillance showing the increasingly alarming figures was widely published - and the UN and its partners advocated widely and regularly as the figures increased.

A brief timeline of what was done by the UN around the appeal launch time is:

September 2008 - the humanitarian partners led by the UN put out a “Emergency Humanitarian Gap Analysis” requesting US$ 250 million, of which cholera was $37 million and food security was $186 million.

November 2008 - Zimbabwe 2009 Consolidated Appeal was launched requesting $550 million including $67 million for health and WASH sectors, a large part covering cholera response

December 2009 - The Minister of Health & Child Welfare (MoHCW) declared a national emergency and called for international assistance to respond to the cholera outbreak. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator and WHO played a critical advocacy role in influencing the Zimbabwe MoHCW to declare the out outbreak.

December 2008 - The Cholera Command and Control Centre (C4) was established.

January 2009 - The Cholera Operational Response Plan was developed in November and December was issued, requesting a total of USD 17 million in addition to USD 24 million already received.

Combined with the logistical and financial challenges of mounting a response in this environment, there were problems of access for humanitarian organisations, an unstable political environment, and significant difficulties in getting proper assessments of the situation. Taking all these factors together, that the cholera epidemic was brought under control and that there is now almost no cholera in Zimbabwe was a major achievement. We would always like to have saved more lives – that is the raison d’etre of humanitarian work – but the significant challenges that had to be overcome to make that happen must not be minimized.

But back on April 7, 2008 Tadonki sent to OCHA Undersecretary-General John Holmes an assessment that the UN "not prepared to face the consequences of an emergency silently in the making" and cited "hesitations of the U.N. in responding to acts of political violence," warning that the coming months would see "dire consequences." How doesthat figure in the timeline OCHA has provided?

Some noted that on February 24, the UN's Anthony Banbury when asked about three rapes in a UN camp for IDPs in Haiti said "three rapes? I'm almost elated." Nesirky was asked about this on February 25, and said that Banbury was "in the air" but that a statement from his was expected. Eleven hours later, no statement had been provided. Watch this site.

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