Syrian families are running out of food

The issue

The United Nations announced yesterday it will have to cut down on food aid to Syrian families in need because of a lack and delay of funding from donor countries. It is estimated that half of the Syrian population currently needs humanitarian aid for survival and that 6 million persons are internally displaced.

Last January 15, relief agencies organized a second “Pledging Conference” under the auspices of the UN to rally financial support for the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria. The donor countries initially pledged US$ 2.3 billion at the conference which took place in Kuwait, however, UN officials claim that they have received only 1.1 billion so far.

As a result, the standard food basket for a family of five, which is composed of rice, bulgar wheat, sugar, salt and wheat flour, has now been cut by 20 percent in March, according to officials from the World Food Programme (WFP).

UNHCR also claims that it has experienced delays in donor pledges to Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. The agency expressed concerns over worsening economic and security conditions in many refugee camps.

Why should you care? Or more practically, how does this affect you?

  • Aside from the obvious ethical reasons, many ordinary Syrian citizens might die of hunger – especially when war, conflict, and political violence traps innocent bystanders and strips them of their livelihoods. So, maybe we could all gain to help the hungry and the helpless – whether they are in our immediate circle or not –  and make the world a better place (a somewhat better place).
  • The more civilians suffer from conflict, the more likely they are to turn to violence as a survival strategy. It’s no secret that economic hardships, unemployment, and deprivation breeds violence and instability (and turns ordinary individuals into terrorists or extremists). The more innocent Syrians suffer, in and outside of Syria, the more likely the conflict will endure and radicalize the rest of the region. Accordingly, neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey have already witnessed spillover effects from the civil war in Syria. The international community does not stand to benefit from an increasing volatile and turbulent Middle East, which may – or may not – develop hostile attitudes towards the US, Russia and the European Union.
  • The increasing economic pressures on Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, as illustrated by the head of UNHCR, pushes refugees to flee to developed countries in search of better opportunities. Sweden, the U.K., Norway and other European countries have already received waves of resettlement requests from Syrian nationals. If these requests are accepted, it will add further economic pressure on European economies.

What you can do

  • Donate! So you make sure that the funds get directly distributed to the beneficiaries. You can either make a monthly or a single contribution to UNHCR or the WFP. Your contributions will provide a number of Syrian families with drinking water, vaccinations and tents.
  • Click here to donate to UNCHR and here to help the WFP.

OR you could:

  • Send a letter to your country’s delegation at the UN to comply with their pledges. The main donor countries are: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the U.K., the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, France and Canada. Click here to find out whether your country took part in the 2014 pledge for humanitarian assistance in Syria.

Finding data on the Syrian conflict

Finding credible data on the conflict in Syria has been a difficult endeavour for both journalists and policy-makers. One approach many have been finding useful is the use of crowdsourced maps. Syria Tracker and the Women Under Siege Syria chapter are the most noteworthy crowdsourcing initiatives that aim at mapping the conflict in Syria with the help of local volunteers.

Syria Tracker has considerable geospatial data on the number of civilian deaths, recorded by volunteers, and “resulting from the Assad regime” since March 2011. Although this dataset must be taken with a grain of salt, as it only represents the work of activists working again the government, it gives detailed accounts of the causes of deaths (either through air strike, gun shot, bomb or the use of chemical weapons) and the victim’s identity (gender and age).

Women Under Siege monitors acts of sexual violence which are reportedly committed against men and women. Open Street Map is another crowdsourcing initiative, on a global scale, which geospatial experts contribute to for the sake of good mapping. In Syria, Open Street Map offers comprehensive maps on the country’s main roads, natural resources and facilities location (such as hospitals and schools).

By translating this geospatial data into a GIS (geographic information system) software (known as ARC Map), one can visualize if there is a correlation between different aspects of the conflict.

The following map, for example, shows the location of refugee camps surrounding the Syrian borders, the major border crossings into the country and the main IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps within the country.  All camps are obviously close to transit points and to major roads.

Refugee Camps and border

The next map shows the location of all of the IDP camps and the location of the main waterways (rivers and lakes) within Syria. This is important because it shows that the livelihoods of the internally displaced is closely linked to access to water (as you can see most camps are situated near a waterway).

IDP Camps and Water.j

In the end, the availability of geospatial data on conflict areas, (and in this case on Syria), is bountiful. However, this type of data is not available to the general public. I was able to acquire all of the data above for free but one must acquire technical skills to be able to make sense of the data. GIS is one way, among many others, to spatially visualize data.

Mapping the conflict in Syria

For the data story assignment, I would like to present data that I found on the current conflict in Syria while working on a GIS project. I will be using crowdsourced maps such as Syria Tracker and Open Street Map, which are based on the work of local volunteers, to map the conflict in Syria.

I am currently leaning how to use GIS, which is the study of geospatial information, and I thought it would be interesting to use the geospatial data I am currently working with, to tell a story, a story of conflict and its link to geographic features.

Syria Tracker has geospatial data on the number of deaths “resulting from the Assad regime”, recorded by volunteers on the ground since March 2011. Although this data must be taken with a grain of salt, it gives a good overview of patterns such as female as opposed to male casualties, and the location of casualties amongst the opposition forces and the population living within opposition control.

Open Street Map on the other hand, gives an overview of the main roads, waterways and land cover in Syria. By overlaying different data sets, one could visualize if there is any link between conflict density and proximity to roads for example.

Below is an example of a crowdsourced map which shows the main roads in the country. I plan on producing a more comprehensive map for this assignment but please let me know if you have any suggestions for improvement.

—  Elissar


Death of a Canadian journalist in Syria

Last Sunday, a young Canadian freelance photographer was killed in Aleppo while covering the civil war in Syria. Ali Mustafa was one of the few journalists in the country as the time.

Mustafa and seven others were killed after regime aircraft dropped barrel bombs in the Hadariyeh area of Aleppo, which is apparently under opposition-control, according to the Associated Press.

Mustafa’s family reportedly learned of his death through social media after his Facebook page lit up with remembrances. His family was apparently not aware that he was in Syria according to Time Magazine. He wrote on his Twitter page on February 14 that he was in Syria.

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Three days earlier, Mustafa’s last post on his Facebook and Twitter accounts showcased the type of work he did for The Guardian, The Times of London and other major publications.

On Twitter, many fellow journalists and political activists in the region lamented his death and praised the quality of his work:

This is one of the first tweets to announce his death, by Borzou Daragahi the MENA correspondent for the FInancial Times.

The accidental death of journalists occurs often in conflict areas but Mustafa’s death last Sunday sheds light on the precarious working conditions of freelancers in countries such as Syria, which are literally closed off to international media. In these conflict zones, freelancers are required to take greater risks to report the situation on the ground because traditional news outlets refuse to send their staff and offer them a certain degree of protection.

This Post on Facebook by renowned Arab commentator Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, refers to Mustafa’s flatmate in Cairo, who gives a picture of the financial and emotional difficulties the journalist was going through at the time.

His death also sparked outrage from Syrian Anti-Asaad and leftists groups, which strongly attributed full responsibility to government forces for the attack. The Syria Freedom Forever blog, which describes itself as “dedicated to the struggle of the Syrian people in their uprising to overthrow the Assad authoritarian regime”, posted the following eulogy in honour of Mustafa and the attacks’ victims. The author of this post is unclear.

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In response, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) issued an open letter saying the organization was “deeply troubled” by Mustafa’s death, saying it served as a reminder that “Syria is the deadliest country for the press, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.”

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According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 63 journalists have been killed in Syria since March 2011 and another 37 are being held by rebel groups or are missing.


Starbucks and Israel: A conspiracy theory?

For the past eight years, the coffee mega-giant’s reputation has been smeared in the Middle East. Leftists activists across the region have claimed that the organisation is a “Zionist entity” which gives direct support to the Israeli government – and even to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). Pro-palestinian groups have called for a boycott of the group and staged protests outside Starbucks franchises in Beirut, London and in the Palestinian Territories. Although the global firm has tried to refute the claim many times, its reputation remains tarnished as many potential clients, in the Middle East and abroad, refuse to go anywhere near the Seattle-bred giant.

What and when: Pro-Zionist rhetoric and funding

The conspiracy theory exploded in July,11, 2006 when a fake letter, allegedly written by Shultz, the CEO and founder of Starbucks, confirmed the company’s active support to the state of Israel. The satirical letter was originally written by Andrew Winkler, the editor of a anti-Zionist website called ZioPedia. According to NOWLebanon, the statement was read by over 100,000 users on the site alone. Screen Shot 2014-03-04 at 11.42.48 AM

Starbucks-boycotters claim that Shultz himself, a  businessman “born to a Jewish family”, has made anti-zionist remarks at Jewish congregations such as the Temple De Hirsh SInai in Seattle in the past. They also point out to the fact that he received ‘Israel’s 50th Anniversary Tribute Award’ from the Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah in 1998 for “playing a key role in promoting a close alliance between the US and Israel“, according to his Wikipedia page. Activists also argue that “Schultz made donations to the charity the Jewish National Fund, and that this used to be posted on [Starbucks’] website”. As such, boycott campaigns claim that the organisation financially supports the State of Israel, and has deliberately deleted that information from its website, but with not other evidence.

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The verdict is…. FALSE.

With some thorough-fact checking, it appears that the Starbucks’s CEO might have pro-Israeli tendencies but this does not imply that his company financially supports Israel, or that he personally benefits from the company revenues. The company is indeed publicly traded and as such all of its financial statements are publicly available.

Potential counter-strategies

Rather than publish statements which reiterate and refute the conspiracy theory, Starbucks should pursue a more pro-active strategy by emphasizing on its positive role in the Middle East. Indeed, the company has in the past tried to distance itself from the CEO’s actions by releasing the following statement (which is for some reason currently unavailable on its website):

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The coffee giant has also released anti-libel statements regarding its activities in the Middle East in 2010, in which it repeats and refutes more than 3 times (!) the Zionist claim.

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Effective PR strategy for the MENA region

The company should reinforce the impartial and maybe positive role it plays in the MENA region by highlighting the following points:

  1. Buff up its MENA page by highlighting the revenue, employment, and growth it is creating in the Arab world. Starbucks needs to make the argument that its franchises generate growth for local markets, and do not completely go back to the conglomerate.
  2. Capitalize on the fact that Starbucks has actually shut down all its operations in Israel/Palestine since 2003 and that all its Middle East branches are operated by a Kuwaiti-based group called Alshaya. While the company publishes this on its website (“We are also committed to hiring locally, providing jobs to thousands of local citizens in the countries where we operate.”), it should do a better job at outlining its Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy in the MENA region.
  3. Finally, the company should be aware of the complexities and the context it operates in and distance itself from Shultz if the CEO persist in making politically incorrect -or sensitive- comments. The company should, and can, publicly release its financial statements to demonstrate its impartial nature and hold critics at bay.

Getting the Backstory: From Karachi to Caracas

Political analysts Ali Jafri and Gustavo Perez speak about recent developments in their countries of origin, Pakistan and Venezuela respectively, and look at how mainstream media has covered these events so far.

The idea behind this initiative is to give context to news stories that may have been covered by international media, but in a way that has been shallow or sporadic at some instances. We asked two of our colleagues from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to comment on recent developments in their regions of expertise and give us the backstory.

Ali Jafri, a specialist in international security matters in South Asia, speaks about the worsening security situation in Karachi and its relevance to Pakistan’s overall security.

Gustavo Perez, a student activist from Caracas, who has previously worked in anti-corruption organizations in Venezuela, gives an overview of the past week’s protests against the incumbent government and the rising crime and homicide rates in the country.

Watch the video here.

Start time: 5:30 (brainstorming, developing interview questions).

Finish time: 9:11(video-editing over dinner).

Produced by: Alexandra Taylor and Elissar Harati.