Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
UN declares Ebola emergency, looks to boost response funds
Escalating the threat level of the latest Ebola outbreak may shake loose funding the World Health Organisation says has been lagging. After a first case in the major city of Goma, near the Rwandan border, the WHO this week declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, or “PHEIC”. Despite receiving only $44 million of the $98 million needed for the response, WHO Director-General Tedros Adranom Ghebreyesus said the measure wasn’t enacted to boost funds. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said a new operations budget “would be in excess of $233 million”. Pledging an additional $63 million, Rory Stewart, the UK’s secretary of state for international development, has urged francophone countries to contribute more. More than 1,650 people have died over the past year in what is now the second deadliest outbreak ever. Conflict and targeted attacks on the response have thwarted containment efforts, with two more Ebola workers killed last week.
Ethiopia’s perilous road to democracy
The Ethiopian government has sidestepped a fresh challenge from its restive regions. Sidama activists had announced they would unilaterally declare a new regional state in the south of the country on Thursday. A potentially bloody confrontation was avoided when activists accepted a last-minute offer from the government to hold a referendum within five months. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s promise of wide-ranging reforms has emboldened minorities, and Ethiopia has been rocked by ethnic conflicts. A new report argues that the road to democracy requires security and a strong state, alongside an opening of political space under the guidance of a reformed ruling party. “Control needs to be reasserted in the face of contending ethnopolitical forces,” it says, calling for a radical re-organisation of the ruling party (itself being pulled apart by contending ethnic constituencies) to achieve internal agreement on a new democratic vision. See our Ethiopian coverage here.
Data discrepancies undermine polio effort in Pakistan
It has been a tough year for anti-polio efforts in Pakistan: cases are rising, vaccinators have been shot and killed, and a nationwide round of vaccinations was suspended. This week, health authorities confirmed 45 polio cases in 2019, after recording 12 all of last year. While incendiary rumours and vaccine refusals are often blamed, there’s also mounting scrutiny of Pakistan’s anti-polio efforts. This month, a top polio official acknowledged that vaccination data – the country’s polio eradication programme claimed 99 percent coverage – was essentially false. In some cases, vaccination teams allowed sceptical parents to falsely claim their children had been vaccinated instead of reporting the refusals, which would have triggered police action. “Polio eradication drives had been misreporting their own effectiveness,” Babar Atta, a political appointee on polio eradication, wrote in an opinion piece in Dawn, a national newspaper. Atta said the programme will step up efforts to counter community mistrust. An October report by the Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative offered a stark assessment: “The Pakistan Polio Programme is fooling itself into thinking that it has made any progress at all”.
Turkish sign language... and Syria returns
Officials have begun taking down Arabic-language shop signs in parts of Istanbul, to comply with countrywide regulations that require 75 percent of the writing on signs in Turkey be in Turkish. Signs have also been removed in Kilis, a city near the Syrian border that has a large Syrian refugee population. Politicians from various parties have been ramping up the pressure on Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees to return home, and there are inter-communal tensions too. Late last month, several Syrian-owned businesses in Istanbul were ransacked, reportedly after a false rumour spread on social media that a Syrian man had sexually assaulted a minor. Despite all this, and a border that is closed to refugees, Syrians with no place else to go are still trying to flee the escalating violence in and around the northwest province of Idlib by crossing over a heavily guarded fence into Turkey.
Localisation demands in Bangladesh
Foreign NGOs should be limited to "monitoring and technical assistance instead of direct operation", according to a convention of grassroots organisations in Bangladesh. A gathering of about 700 local NGOs and civil society organisations made the call for international aid agencies to be curbed at a 6 July "national convention". The event also released a "Charter of Expectations" based on a series of nationwide consultations. The local organisations say the government, foreign donor countries, UN agencies, and INGOs could and should rely more on local competence. The group also committed to a "Charter of Accountability", covering financial disclosure and transparency as well as the inclusion of the affected communities in programme decision-making. Bangladeshi NGOs have been campaigning to play a bigger role in operations to support Rohingya refugees. A recent study found that discussions about "localisation" were characterised by "highly polarised positions – often based on organisational rather than humanitarian interests".
The GBV attacks we know about
Sexual violence against female humanitarian workers occurred in eight percent of violent attacks last year, according to a new report from Humanitarian Outcomes. But the number of reported incidents – just 21 since 1997 – suggests that both victims and organisations may be vastly under-reporting the problem. Last year was one of the worst on record, with 399 aid workers affected by violent attacks: 126 were killed, 143 wounded, and 130 kidnapped. South Sudan, where a group of female aid workers were raped in 2016, continues to be one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian workers, along with Syria.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: Afghan refugees who returned home tended to be worse off financially than refugees who stayed behind in Pakistan, according to new research from the World Bank and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants return to Afghanistan each year, but there are few jobs available and little help to reintegrate.
MYANMAR: Floods caused by torrential rains have uprooted more than 9,500 people in Rakhine State, including thousands previously displaced by clashes between Myanmar’s military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic Rakhine armed group. Displaced people in multiple camps told The Irrawaddy newspaper they had received no aid. The government has shut down mobile internet in eight Rakhine townships, adding to already strict limits on humanitarian access.
SUDAN: The military and pro-democracy movement have signed a power-sharing deal after months of confrontation. But analyst Rashid Abdi points out that, faced with a repressive military, the opposition had little option but to agree to a deal that puts the army in charge for most of a three-year transition. “We should be under no illusions, 21 months is a long time and there is a lot of fear that the military will use this period to eviscerate the opposition and further consolidate power,” he notes.
SYRIA: Human Rights Watch says the Syrian government is freezing or seizing the assets of entire families of people it accuses of being terrorists, in an expansion of the country’s anti-terrorism laws that amounts to collective punishment. People affected by the law told HRW the government had taken their businesses, homes, and other property.
UNITED STATES: According to a report in Politico, President Donald Trump’s administration is considering reducing the number of refugee admissions to fewer than 10,000 next year, perhaps even zero. Any future move would come on top of existing cuts in 2018 and 2019.
With the World Food Programme halting certain aid deliveries recently in the Yemeni capital over the use – or not, in this case – of biometrics, we decided to put the issue in the spotlight this week. The impasse in Yemen centres on the WFP seeking to use biometrics to register aid recipients to counter the diversion of supplies, allegedly by local officials aligned to the Houthi rebels. The Houthis have refused to accept the WFP’s proposals, saying it is illegal for the UN to control the data. The question of who should be allowed access to recipients’ data is one of six we put to two experts on biometrics with experience in humanitarian settings. Their responses, in a head-to-head format, provide different perspectives on many of the complexities at play in this tricky and pressing conundrum for the sector. Oh, and quickly back to Yemen: WFP Executive Director David Beasley told the UN Security Council on Thursday that while the WFP and the Houthis now had an “agreement in principle” no deal had yet been signed to restart assistance in Sana’a.
Weighing the evidence
A malnourished person isn't always skinny – being too heavy is also counted as malnourishment, and it's on the rise, worldwide. Four million deaths and $2 trillion in losses, as well as a range of other health problems, stem from rising numbers of adults and children who are classified as overweight or obese. Some 38.9 percent of adults are overweight, and 13.2 percent obese, according to an annual UN report on food and nutrition. The same report estimates that 10.8 percent of the world is undernourished. Overall, there are about three billion overweight people compared to some 820 million undernourished people.
(TOP PHOTO: Residents of a ward in Kanungu district, Uganda attend a meeting on dangers and prevention of Ebola.)