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140 characters to untangle the world's crises

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 19 Dec 2012 13:29 GMT
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By Megan Rowling

Q: What do you get when you cross U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, Twitter and the wider aid world? A: A lot of questions - far too many to answer in the 45 minutes or so allotted for our open interview. But an interesting peek at what keeps the aid chief awake at night nonetheless.

AlertNet - which kicked off Tuesday's Twitterview - asked which humanitarian emergencies are likely to dominate next year. "Crisis in Syria is v pressing & grabs headlines, but emergencies in the Sahel, Yemen, DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo), Sudan equally critical," she tweeted back.

Many people wanted to know what else the United Nations could do to help people in conflict-torn Syria, given the extreme difficulty of reaching an estimated 4 million in need, and the fact that some international aid workers have recently had to pull out.   

The U.N. earlier this month withdrew 25 of its 100 foreign aid workers from Syria as fighting intensified between government forces and rebels closing in on Damascus.

Amos replied: "security major concern but UN & partners doing everything poss to reach ppl (people) in need".

Responding to an AlertNet question, she said she hoped not all international aid workers would be kicked out of Syria. Is there any support for a humanitarian corridor to get relief supplies into embattled areas? "We are there to help all Syrians. We'll use all agreed measures," Amos tweeted.

Her latest visit to Damascus, at the weekend, left her "extremely worried" by the impact of violence on ordinary Syrians, who "urgently need protection", she said.

She has since urged the Syrian government to allow fuel imports for aid deliveries and give access to 10 more relief agencies.

In Tuesday's Twitter interview, she said she had heard horrific stories about the situation in Syria and neighbouring countries from women refugees. "Trying to protect vulnerable women & children," she added.

More specifically, the United Nations is "urgently working in refugee camps & in Syrian communities to help children deal with cold". "Needs are very great," she said.

The United Nations is monitoring violations of Syrian children's rights "to the extent possible", she added, in response to a tweet saying children are being "killed and tortured".


More widely, the way to improve safety for aid workers is to "constantly stress neutrality, build contact with communities, look after our people", Amos said.

She also urged an end to impunity for gender violence and lawlessness in eastern DRC, and praised the "positive political process" in war-ravaged Somalia, stressing the need to help people there rebuild their lives.

Another hot topic for questions was climate change, and how the United Nations is gearing up to respond to rising disasters caused by extreme weather. Amos was quite clear that this isn't just a job for humanitarians.

There is a need to "integrate disaster preparedness & local capacity building into wider economic and development discussions", she tweeted.

The U.N. aid chief also stressed the importance of people taking responsibility for reducing the risk of disasters where they live.

Her focus on the communities and individuals helped by aid efforts was a thread throughout the Twitter conversation.

To make humanitarian workers more accountable to them, "we must talk to people. they know what they need," she said.

Asked what it's like to travel to dangerous places, she replied: "Can be scary, but always remember this is where people are living, bringing up their children".

And her answer to what she has found most inspiring in her work this year was simple: "It's always the people that I meet."  


Despite her generally upbeat tone, there was a glimpse of the stresses and strains of being the world's humanitarian boss.

One participant asked how she takes care of herself so as to be able to keep on helping others. "Badly! But I try to stay healthy, eat properly and smile when I can," she tweeted back.

As for the wider reaction to the Twitterview, there was disappointment among some that the U.N. aid chief did not respond to questions about controversial casualty figures from the Sri Lankan civil war.

Another contributor pointed to the obvious constraints on tackling tough issues in a limited format: "answers to these Qs in 144 characters leaves something to be desired."

But Tom Fletcher, the British ambassador to Lebanon, tweeted that the interview was one of "two great bits of #Twiplomacy on region today". "Authentic, engaging, purposeful," he said.

To read the full Twitterview, go to #AskValerie, or check out the Storify account.


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