Photo: Televisa retrieved

This week the United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) announced it will send Venezuela a little over USD 9 million in humanitarian aid, placing it as the only Latin American country among the top 20 recipients of aid in 2018. The announcement comes as a surprise, as it contradicts government officials’ and agencies’ repeated mantra: that there’s no such thing as a humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

The decision is significant in several ways, but mainly because it’s the first time that Venezuela receives humanitarian aid since the CERF’s creation back in 2005.

CERF announced it will send Venezuela a little over USD 9 million in humanitarian aid, placing it as the only Latin American country among the top 20 recipients of aid in 2018.

It also signals a welcomed move within UN ranks, as it’s finally moving ahead with delivering humanitarian relief in the face of the deepening crisis. Up until now, the hands of the UN humanitarian machinery had been tied when it came to Venezuela as it didn’t fall into the general categories where they are usually mandated to act: natural disasters and armed conflicts. Also, the Venezuelan government has made it clear that it wouldn’t  tolerate the situation to be labeled as a humanitarian emergency, under the argument that it would open the door to a military invasion masked as humanitarian intervention. In fact, Maduro has systematically rejected whatever humanitarian aid is offered, even when faced with mounting demands by civil society organizations’ to accept it in order to contain the damages of the health and food crisis, and 22 experts from 12 international organizations acknowledging  the existence of a humanitarian crisis.

Thus, the UN has been limited to work in the margins of the crisis assisting those crossing the borders through Colombia or Brazil. To help with these efforts of dealing with the surge of Venezuelan migrants, earlier this year the CERF made another, also unprecedented, disbursement of USD 6.2 million to address what was labeled as the “Venezuela Regional Refugee and Migration Crisis.”

The $9.2 million approved for Venezuela will be channeled through the five UN agencies already on the ground (UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO, UNHCR and IOM) within their respective existing cooperation frameworks with the Venezuelan government. The biggest chunk (nearly 40%) will be directed to the deeply deteriorated health sector, followed by nutrition programs for children under five years old and pregnant and lactating mothers.

There’s no question that this decision made by the UN’s Emergency Relief coordinator comes as a respite to hunger and disease-stricken Venezuela. It’s also a de facto recognition of how dire the situation is on the ground, whether Maduro likes it or not. But my inner Debby Downer tells me we must look at this in perspective before we ultimately fool ourselves into thinking that this is some kind of “beginning of the end.

From a sheer numbers perspective, the amount is really a band aid for the many wounds Venezuela needs to heal. For example, the estimated first-year budget of a plan prepared by UNAIDS, WHO and the Ministry of Health to respond to the HIV, tuberculosis and malaria crises is $44.5 million, excluding costs associated to strengthening the structural capacities of the health system for providing services, something that will obviously require substantive investments. And according to UNHCR, the financial requirements for the Venezuelan migration crisis stands at $ 46 million as of November 2018.

It’s a de facto recognition of how dire the situation is on the ground, whether Maduro likes it or not.

We need to look at this for what it is: a helping hand to deal with the crisis. Susana Raffalli, leading nutrition and emergencies expert, warned us that the expectations of a general improvement of the health crisis should be kept in check, as the aid will most probably reach only those in need of urgent assistance.

The facts that the funds have been approved and, most importantly, that the aid was made public, open a number of questions:

Have Maduro and his acolytes finally come to understand that humanitarian assistance is not an appendix of their deeply-hated notion of humanitarian intervention?

Is Maduro finally recognizing the severity of a crisis he can no longer deny?

Or should we look elsewhere, to perhaps private meetings and talks, where he’s unashamedly using the humanitarian crisis as a bargain chip for political gains?

Was he put under pressure to accept the aid or is Maduro opening this window in exchange for something else?

For now, the UN’s decision to send aid and the regime’s tacit acceptance of it open a new chapter in the humanitarian emergency, one that brings a ray of hope to many. But perhaps it should be useful to remind ourselves that no amount of aid will ever replace the State’s role in addressing our social and economic problems and that the need for deep, structural changes is still there.

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