(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Syria deconfliction, Myanmar mobiles, and slow local aid reform: The Cheat Sheet

Photo of woman in Idlib near a destroyed building after air strike
Omar Haj Kadour/AFP

Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

Warnings over Syrian ‘powder keg’

This week saw more death and destruction in Syria’s northwest, along with more warnings: UN relief chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council on Tuesday that 32 civilians were reportedly killed and injured by airstrikes and shelling last weekend, and Special Envoy Geir Pedersen said the situation in and around Idlib province is “a potential powder keg of regional escalation”. The UN has scaled back its support for the “deconfliction” system that shares the coordinates of health facilities with Russia and Syria after several listed clinics and hospitals in opposition territory were hit. In a new report on Friday, Human Rights Watch argues that aid projects, in particular reconstruction, should avoid being manipulated by the government and becoming complicit in rights abuses. However, its proposed measures, including “independent and full needs assessments; maintaining confidentiality of beneficiary lists; and insisting on full, unimpeded and regular access to all areas,” have so far proved impossible to set up. 

Myanmar’s internet blackout

A government-ordered mobile internet shutdown in Rakhine State could risk lives and make it even harder for humanitarian aid to reach people trapped by conflict, rights groups warn. On 21 June, Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications ordered operators to shut down mobile internet in nine Rakhine and Chin state townships – where the military is battling the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group. The UN says clashes have displaced some 30,000 people this year, and humanitarian access and freedom of movement are severely restricted. Rights monitors and journalists frequently communicate with affected civilians using online messaging apps. Rights watchdogs say the military could use the internet blackout as a cover for human rights violations. “I fear for all civilians there, cut off and without the necessary means to communicate with people inside and outside the area,” said Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur for Myanmar. Amnesty International has warned of a looming food insecurity crisis in Rakhine. Rights groups say Myanmar’s military tactics against the Arakan Army follow patterns of previous abuses, including its long-running campaign against armed groups in the north, and the 2017 purge of more than 700,000 Rohingya, also from Rakhine State, into Bangladesh.

‘Grand Bargain’ gains limited traction

In 2016, donor countries agreed to channel 25 percent of emergency aid to operators based in the countries affected. "Localisation", it was hoped, would foster more legitimacy, relevance, efficiency, and self-reliance. New figures released this week suggest only 3.1 percent went directly to local bodies in 2018. But it depends how you count. Knowing there would be a range of habitual and administrative barriers (as well as a chicken-and-egg problem of finding enough established local NGOs), the 25 percent target had a key proviso: the increased cash could flow via intermediaries (typically UN agencies and international NGOs). A new analysis of Grand Bargain signatories by Local2Global Protection found the target a long way off, with about 14 percent reaching local actors by any route. A third study, the annual progress report on the Grand Bargain, states that few signatories have embraced the "radical changes in policy and operations that localisation requires”.

A man, a plan, Manama

This week, a White House-led workshop in Bahrain saw the launch of the economic part of Donald Trump and Jared Kushner’s “deal of the century” for Israel-Palestine peace. Kushner has said his $50 billion investment plan for the occupied Palestinian territories will boost development and reduce dependency on foreign aid, but the proposal has been roundly knocked as unworkable without a peace deal. The White House says the political component of its plan will be released in the future, but no date has been announced. Kushner said the Manama conference demonstrated that the long-running conflict “actually is a solvable problem, economically”, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said investment in the territories was “going to be like a hot I.P.O”, but most influential members of the Palestinian business community declined to attend. Other key players for any future peace were also notably absent: the Palestinian Authority boycotted, there was no official Israeli representation, and Hamas, which rules Gaza, was not invited. 

The US abortion effect

Abortion rates in sub-Saharan Africa rose by 40 percent in countries most reliant on US aid in the wake of anti-abortion measures put into effect under US administrations, according to a new study from The Lancet Global Health. The study examined changes that have occurred between 1995 and 2014, and found that countries that perform or provide counselling on abortion are also key in providing other methods of family planning. The US government policy – backed by the Trump administration and often referred to as the Mexico City policy or the Global Gag Rule – restricts funding to organisations that perform or support abortions. This week, the United States tried to insert anti-abortion language into an annual UN resolution on addressing humanitarian needs, including access to healthcare. US negotiators suggested that countries should offer “voluntary and informed family planning, and other options to avoid abortion… as components of humanitarian response.” The suggestion was rejected, with a vote of 30 to two, and nine abstentions. Only Jamaica voted with the US.

In case you missed it

INDIA: An outbreak of acute encephalitis has killed more than 150 children in the northeast Indian state of Bihar, but health officials and Indian authorities aren’t sure what’s causing it or even what to call it. Researchers have previously tied the illness to a chemical in lychees, which are prevalent in the area. 

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: At least 11,000 people were evacuated after PNG’s Ulawun volcano erupted this week, shooting ash plumes 20,000 metres into the air. The Friday eruption of a separate volcano on Manam Island, to the north of PNG’s mainland, has also sparked concern.

SAFETY: The risk imbalance between local and international aid workers continues to widen, according to new data from the Aid Worker Security Database. The vast majority of aid workers killed are local, but the per capita rate at which they are killed is also higher – and growing – compared to international staff. Researchers say it’s one clear sign of how international groups are transferring risk to their local counterparts in dangerous areas.

UNICEF: Chief Henrietta Fore has announced 12 initial steps to repair UNICEF’s unhealthy work culture, including “matrix management” and more investigators. This came in response to an independent study that found ”unchecked favouritism”, “fiefdoms”, and a “broken complaints system”.

US/MEXICO: Under pressure after a photo went viral of a drowned father and daughter, the US Congress passed a bipartisan $4.59 billion humanitarian aid bill to alleviate the crisis on the southern border. Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly won private assurances over notification of child deaths in custody within 24 hours, and a 90-day limit for keeping children in temporary facilities.

Weekend read

Ebola response in Congo leaves locals at greatest risk

In early May, the World Health Organisation’s panel of experts published new guidelines for the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Amid a spike in cases following suspensions of operations due to attacks on healthcare workers and clinics, the guidelines amounted to a strategic overhaul. Part of it involved vaccinating a lot more people, and, to save limited stocks of vaccines, reducing doses – a recommendation the WHO began rolling out last week. But another recommendation was to double down on the deployment of local responders to combat distrust. In our weekend read, Vittoria Elliott finds that local responders face the lion’s share of risk but receive little protection or recompense. The reality is that local workers often have to return to their own fearful Ebola-stricken villages at night. Transferring responsibility to them is fraught with danger.

And finally...

NGOs, vaccines, and trust

Rwandans overwhelmingly trust NGOs. At the other end of the scale, among developing countries, Colombia has the least trust in non-profit organisations. Overall, a large opinion poll commissioned from Gallup by the UK's Wellcome Trust found that 52 percent of people had confidence in charitable organisations and NGOs in their countries. Nearly a third in the 140-nation survey, however, said they had no such confidence. The results come as part of a wider review of attitudes to science. On immunisation, Bangladesh and Rwanda have the strongest confidence in vaccines. The country with the least trust that vaccines are safe? France. The full dataset is available for download

(TOP PHOTO: A woman salvages items from a destroyed building in the town of Kafranbel in the rebel-held part of the Syrian Idlib province.)

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