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Aid Group Names Top 10 Humanitarian Crises of 2008

December 22, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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The international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders has named the world's worst crises of 2008, including neglected medical needs in Iraq, Zimbabwe and Myanmar. Ray Suarez speaks with the group's executive director, Nicolas de Torrente.
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GWEN IFILL: And now a global view of human suffering in a grim ranking published today. Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: For the last 11 years, the international medical assistance group Doctors Without Borders has released its list of the top 10 humanitarian crises.

The group operates in 60 nations. Joining us to talk about this year’s list is NICOLAS DE TORRENTE, the executive director. Welcome to the program.

What are the top world’s top 10 humanitarian crises?

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS: Well, Ray, the list is compiled on the — based on the experience of our field teams, who are working, as you said, in about 60 countries around the world.

So, it’s actually tough job to select the ones that we think are the most severe. So, we look at the scope, the magnitude, and severity of the crises.

And ours is the humanitarian perspective. So, it is really what people are going through, what they’re experiencing, how they’re coping, how crises are affecting them.

So, this year, we are focusing on a number of entrenched and escalating conflicts, some of them in Africa, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sudan, the Somali region of Ethiopia.

We’re also looking at the — of course, the situation in Iraq, and in Pakistan, where conflict and violence has escalated in the past year.

We also have two countries where the issue is more the — the policy and attitude of the government, of repressive regimes. They neglect the basic health needs, basic needs of their population.

That is Myanmar and Zimbabwe. And then we have two really neglected health crises, major health threats that we think deserve a lot more attention, and they’re taking a massive toll, malnutrition affecting especially young kids, and HIV T.B. co-infection.

We know lot about HIV and AIDS and a lot of effort there, but T.B., tuberculosis, associated with AIDS, is really on the rise. And we’re fighting — it’s a disease that we’re fighting really with one hand tied behind our back.

Entrenched regions still reeling

RAY SUAREZ: If we look at the lists that Doctors Without Borders have compiled over the last several years, are some of those countries you just named there multiple times?

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Yes. And that's, you know, a bit of the sad and depressing part of the list, is that we have countries that -- where situations are very entrenched, and where the impact on the civilian population is really serious and longstanding.

So, what is going on right now in the Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, it's a country that is featured on a list for -- for many years.

There have been ups and downs. At times, we thought that things would improve. You know, peace deals were signed. An election took place recently.

But this year, in the eastern part of the Congo, in the Kivus, really, another war has ignited. We have hundreds of thousands of people on the run, as we speak.

And we have major health threats to their -- to their survival ranging, there from, you know, basic respiratory diseases, diarrheal diseases, violent trauma, sexual violence, to cholera and -- and other -- other kind of infectious outbreaks.

So, yes, this is -- you know, the situation has not improved over time there.

The Sudan, Darfur is on our list again, and the situation in Somalia again on our list this year.

RAY SUAREZ: Are workers from organizations like yours and many others working in the most heavily affected areas of the globe in more danger doing that work than they were in the past?

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, we think this is one of the trends that we wanted to highlight this year. I mean, there's -- there are -- there are a number of issues here, in terms of our ability to carry out the life-saving work that needs to done.

One is that governments, you know, either put more obstacles in our way, administrative and other obstacles, to prevent us from reaching people in need. And that is because either they don't want the assistance provided in the first place.

Perhaps they have something to do with the situation and the reason -- and that is the reason why they don't want us there.

They don't want foreign witnesses there to -- to expose what is happening. And, then, beyond the -- kind of the harassment, the administrative and other blockages, we do have security risks. Of course, we understand that these risks exist in conflict situations.

But the trend of now targeting humanitarian aid workers, directing violence at them, is -- is something that -- a trend that is on the upswing in the last couple of years, and one that bothers us very much, worries us very much, concerns us very much, particularly in countries like Somalia today, Pakistan.

There are a number of places where this is a really major concern.

Big response to natural disasters

RAY SUAREZ: As we have mentioned, you have been compiling these lists for years. Have you come to any conclusions yourself about which types of crises get the world's attention, spark a response, get some action, and which ones don't, and suffering just goes on year after year?

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, we do see more attention, media attention, public attention, public mobilization around natural disasters in particular.

And I think we all remember the incredible solidarity that was displayed -- displayed for victims of the tsunami.

You know, natural disasters, acts of nature, victims that are, by definition, innocent and could not -- could not defend themselves against -- against the elements, is something that really, you know, mobilizes public response.

We saw that this year again with the cyclone in -- in Myanmar. I think it is more difficult to attract attention and mobilize action around longstanding conflict, manmade disasters. You know, it seems to be more difficult to get -- to get political action around those issues and mobilize a better aid response, and, also, more invisible crises.

I mean, I mentioned malnutrition. I mean, this is a -- you know, this is a crisis that affects about 180 million kids a year.

You know, it contributes to half of the burden of child mortality. Yet, children are -- young children between the ages of 6 months 3 three years, the most vulnerable, are not able to speak up for themselves. They cannot mobilize. And, so, their plight goes virtually unnoticed and underreported.

And one of the things that we can do, because we see them, because we know they're particularly vulnerable, and also because we think that something can be done to really make an impact and -- and much and treat and prevent malnutrition on a much greater scale, we think that this is something we can mobilize around and hope to get more attention to.

Tackling damages from malnutrition

RAY SUAREZ: Are there bright spots? Are there places on the globe that have appeared on your list in the recent past where things have actually gotten better?

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Well, yes. I mean, as conflicts recede -- and there are places where political settlements are reached and things do improve.

We had focused a lot on the situation in Chechnya for the past years. And there is some -- there is some normalization there, although the long -- you know, the scars of war continue after even the war has ended. The psychological trauma, the injuries go -- go -- I mean, there's still a burden there. And the reconstruction needs are great.

But that has improved. And we do think -- on nutrition, we do think that, hopefully, by changing the way food aid is distributed and eliminating the double standard that we have in food aid today, where kids are not receiving the nutritional supplements that they -- that are required -- that they require, we can make a big impact.

And, hopefully, it's -- it is a crisis that we could see disappear from our list in the years to come.

RAY SUAREZ: NICOLAS DE TORRENTE of Doctors Without Borders, thanks for joining us.

NICOLAS DE TORRENTE: Thank you very much, Ray.