Organisation that faced closure after UN funding was cut is rescued by $25m investment from Jynwel Foundation
Jessica Hatcher in Nairobi
Irin, one of the few media organisations dedicated to negotiating the complexities of humanitarian relief, will be relaunched next year after facing closure.
For 20 years, Irin was funded by monies channelled through the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha). This year, however, Ocha said it would stop funding the service on 31 December.
But all is not lost. With little more than a month to go before Ocha pulls the plug, Irin announced at a press conference in Geneva on Thursday that it will continue into next year and beyond.
It will receive $25m (£16m) over 15 years from the Jynwel Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Hong Kong-based international investment and advisory firm Jynwel Capital, which invests in global health, education and conservation. The organisation will have an office in Geneva and a presence at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a thinktank in London.
Jynwel is a family business that developed after the current CEO’s grandfather moved from China to Malaysia and invested in iron ore mining in the 1940s. The Jynwel Foundation applies its business principles it adheres to in business to social investment in its chosen areas of global health, conservation and education, making major long-term investments, promoting sustainability, and finding synergies that make those investments efficient with maximum impact.
“Investing big is the only way to go to ensure sustainability,” explains Jho Low, chief executive of Jynwel Capital. For this reason, they look to put money into projects over a 15-30 year term. They recently gave $50m to cancer research in Texas, and $20m to support the conservation of wild cats.
With a diverse portfolio of investments, conflicts of interest inevitably arise. Jynwel has interests in oil and gas, yet supports conservation, for instance. But Low says they work hard to ensure best practice across the board. For them, Irin’s appeal stems from Low’s grandfather’s personal interest in humanitarian crises around the world.
“Irin can work hand-in-hand with the major media in the common objective of dealing with humanitarian crises,” Low says. “We don’t see Irin as a competitor to the major media landscape – they’re a niche market, they’re an NGO.”
“It’s appropriate that we have a non-traditional donor,” says Ben Parker, co-founder of Irin, who was with the organisation when it was a newsletter distributed by fax, and is now overseeing its transition. Humanitarian aid is no longer dominated by the G8, he says; many key actors are now drawn from the private sector and emerging economies.
“We feel it’s truly astonishing that there isn’t a larger number of established news outlets analysing this enterprise, to have checks and balances in place,” adds Parker. “It would be a natural development in any industry – apart from the aid industry, which doesn’t have an advertising model to fund a media.”
Irin will continue to focus on humanitarian crises: analysis and on-the-ground reporting “at the emergency end of the development spectrum”, says Parker. Its content delivery platforms will diversify, and it wants to develop Spanish and Mandarin services. Whether or not it will change its name – Irin stands for Integrated Regional Information Networks – is still a matter of discussion.
The humanitarian news landscape is a more crowded space than it was at Irin’s inception, which led the UN to question its necessity. Irin was founded in response to the international community’s failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide, a failure in which a lack of knowledge and understanding were found to have played a key part. Since then, citizen journalism and services such as Reuters’s AlertNet have, to some extent, filled the gap. Despite a growing online market, traffic to Irin’s website had remained flat over the past five years, at roughly 20,000 unique visitors a day, according to a feasibility study.
However, the team behind the transition are confident that Irin is needed more than ever. The amount of foreign news on US television halved between 1987 and 2013, according to the Pew Research Centre, while the number of international reporters at US dailies declined by 24% between 2003 and 2010.
“Irin provides absolutely essential humanitarian news from places no one else goes to,” says Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.
Despite being a UN entity, Irin operated with “a significant degree of independence”, editor in chief Anthony Morland says. But there were limits. According to an investigation by Foreign Policy this year, Irin was effectively gagged on Syria, which the UN has since declared the humanitarian crisis of the 21st century with refugee numbers exceeding 2 million. “We don’t have the full picture but Ocha asked us to stop covering Syria and we respected that request,” Morland says. That this happened demonstrates why Irin will benefit from being an independent entity, he adds.
The ODI will act as an incubator for a leaner, more investigative and more business-like version of Irin from January. Irin will experiment with funding models: grants, subscriptions, advertising, sponsorship and events. As an ODI entity, it will continue to be able to receive support from bilateral donors whose operational guidelines would make it difficult to fund a new NGO.
“To ensure the financial viability of Irin is going to be challenging but we do believe […] that the 15-year commitment is sufficient time to ensure Irin’s financial viability”, Low says.
Key to achieving financial sustainability, he adds, is that Irin upholds complete editorial independence. “They must maintain editorial integrity. That is going to be a core pillar of why people support Irin,” he says. A multi-layered approach to oversight, with editorial and directorial boards, will ensure checks and balances, he says.
Dr Sara Pantuliano, director of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the ODI, to which Irin will be linked, hopes to see it become something that “every actor needs to read to operate in a crisis”. It shouldn’t be a service just for humanitarian workers, she says, but should also engage the private sector that is present in any emergency, so that businesses have a better understanding of the communities, issues and power dynamics to develop and focus their operations.