A Crisis Humanitarians Can't Ignore

I spent years reading the IRIN website for news about the world's absolutely worst places. Now, they run news about Venezuela.

From 2013-2015, as I took a break from actively managing Caracas Chronicles, I worked on a couple of projects in East Africa. That’s why I know about IRIN — a newswire focused on humanitarian that was part of the UN system back then.

IRIN was the place you went to to find out the latest about conditions in the infamous Dadaab Refugee Camp, about atrocities in South Sudan and disease outbreaks in Eastern Congo. It’s pretty hardcore stuff, the kinds of news UN relief agencies needed to plan operations in the world’s absolutely worst-off places.

Which is why it was such a jolt to find this story, by Sofia Barbarani, on the IRIN website this morning:

It’s barely dawn and the streets of Caracas are largely empty, except for heavy-eyed commuters heading to work and hungry Venezuelans scavenging through the rubbish for breakfast.

The men and women meticulously pick their way through foul-smelling black plastic bags in the hope of finding some edible scraps. Passers-by don’t give them a second glance. This is an increasingly common sight in Venezuela’s capital.

Despite having one of the world’s largest oil reserves, years of government mismanagement along with a tumble in oil prices have led to the catastrophic collapse of Venezuela’s economy, food supply, health system, and basic services, leaving a population desperate for help – more than eight in 10 Venezuelans now live below the poverty line.

NGOs treated like spies

The government’s stance means that international and local NGOs attempting to alleviate the crisis face numerous obstacles.

“It’s been a while now since we began seeing an increase in threats, harassment and even physical attacks on activists and NGOs,” said Inti Rodriguez of local NGO, PROVEA.

PROVEA tackles the complex issue of human rights in Venezuela, including citizen’s rights to medicine and food. Like other non-profits, the government has accused PROVEA of receiving financial backing from foreign organisations, including the CIA, and of being agents in an international conspiracy to oust President Nicolas Maduro.

“This was a constant [problem] during [the administration of former President] Chavez, but it has increased with Maduro,” said Rodriguez, who was abducted in February 2014, allegedly by a coalition of government-affiliated guerrillas and the Venezuelan intelligence services, SEBIN, who beat him and questioned him about his humanitarian work.

NGOs in Venezuela have felt particularly vulnerable since 2010 when the Supreme Court ruled that individuals or organisations receiving foreign funding “with the purpose of being used against the Republic” could be prosecuted for treason and sentenced to up to 15 years in prison…

There’s a powerful sense of two worlds colliding as I read about Venezuela in the key of IRIN.