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Behind the Headlines: 10 Crises to Watch

TNH editors discuss the crises and trends that should be on everyone's radar.

Behind the Headlines

Watch and listen to an edited version of Behind the Headlines: 10 Crises to Watch, or read the summary to catch up on the highlights. 

Josephine Schmidt, Executive Editor

With this webinar, we’re taking a close-up look into the process and thinking of our annual 10 Crises to Watch feature, which is always one of our most read items of the year. We will spend some time discussing why we chose this year’s entries and why we think they should be on your radar for the coming year. 

We aim to flag issues we believe will play a role in the business of humanitarian aid in 2020. We want to be forward looking and provocative and to challenge you and ourselves to think more expansively about what drives humanitarian need. 

Behind the Headlines

Obi Anyadike, Senior Africa Editor, on extremism and the Sahel crisis

The reason we included The Sahel and Burkina Faso this year was because of the speed and scale of the problem. In 2019 at the beginning of the year, there were 80,000 IDPs, and now we’re up to more than 500,000 displaced. We’re seeing increasing attacks in the north and the east that are really emptying the regions. Violence has been intense. The last traumatic attack saw 35 civilians killed.

We’re seeing an IDP crisis without any formal IDP camps; a food crisis and difficulty with access for aid workers; and an aid operation that is being forced to swap hats from a historically development-type model to an emergency response. There’s also a money problem as the donor appeal is roughly 50 percent underfunded. 

Burkina Faso has not always been a violent place, but is in a bad neighbourhood, sandwiched between Niger and Mali, which have been in turmoil for many years. We’ve seen a rise of militant groups, linked to the more transnational so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda, but some are home grown. 

The jihadists have proved adept at manipulating local grievances and profiting from inter-communal violence. They have also capitalised on the human rights abuses of the security forces and allied ethnic militias.

In terms of impact beyond Burkina Faso, Mali has been the centre of this and we’ve seen a spread from Mali and Niger, but it’s more than the Sahel. We’re seeing a militancy movement in at least 12 countries, from long established jihadist violence in Nigeria to more shadowy groups in Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

For some groups their frame of reference is a pre-colonial “golden age” of sharia law. They see themselves in competition with the state – setting up alternative administrations, providing services, controlling prices. In some regions in the Sahel under militant control, these anti-Western alternative administrations are viewed as less corrupt and more locally accessible.

How does this all end? There are growing calls for dialogue amid increasing popular disenchantment with French military intervention. But rather than political solutions, the push by regional governments and Western partners seems to be for increased militarisation. 

Annie Slemrod, Middle East Editor, on Yemen

Most media coverage of Yemen, which isn’t so easy to come by, includes the phrase “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”. What exactly does that mean with 80 percent of the population in need of some sort of aid? That means 24 million people need support of various kinds.

The needs they have overlap. The economy has collapsed; the healthcare sector is in a bad state; people can’t afford to buy food; and trash isn’t being collected at the same time as it’s raining. People can’t afford to get to a clinic even if treatment is free. 

Last year we spoke about peace talks and a possible breakthrough in Yemen — and we’re talking about that again this year, but with new deals and talks, and also different players involved. We were rightly sceptical last year. The war didn’t end. UAE has pulled almost all of its troops and Saudi Arabia has taken a bigger role in negotiations in the south.

We will be asking whether any of this will open up avenues for humanitarian access and perhaps more importantly for commercial trade. As much as people say Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, it could certainly get worse. Over the weekend, there was a missile that hit a military parade in an area that has been touted as a sustainable and self-governing part of the country.

The country is already fragmenting. There are parts of the country with their own weapons and sources of funding and power. That ongoing fragmentation impacts the people who live there and how they live their lives. 

Irwin Loy, Asia Editor, on climate change

Communities in Asia are on the front lines of climate change. In 2019, we included climate displacement in our 10 Crises list; this year, we’re looking at how climate change is a risk multiplier.

There’s a tendency to think of climate change as a distant, apocalyptic scenario. But that overlooks what’s already happening today and how humanitarian response and planning can adjust. When disasters hit, there’s a rush to pronounce whether climate change is to blame and to what degree – but there are more nuanced ways to look at it.

Climate change as a risk multiplier means that it exposes vulnerabilities, drives up response costs, and adds new fuel to existing crises, including many that we identify on our list and cover day in, day out. 

You certainly see it when disasters grab the headlines, like last year’s two powerful storms that battered Mozambique. The signs of climate change are there in terms of how unusual these two storms were, but there were already existing problems made much worse by cyclones Idai and Kenneth. Conflict and climate change are combining with food crises — eight of the world’s worst food crises are linked to both. Climate change doesn’t necessarily create these crises, but it prolongs them and injects new risks that make them harder to respond to, and harder to end.

On the ground here in Asia, we deal with floods on a seasonal basis, but it feels like it’s getting worse each year. Last year in South Asia, millions were affected, hundreds of thousands displaced; in the Mekong region, drought has already set in even though the dry season is just underway. The line between these seasonal challenges and humanitarian crises is growing increasingly thin every year. Climate change plays a big role in that, but it’s not the only driver.  

In the media, it feels like the way we report on climate change is still at a baseline level. There’s awareness of how it impacts some disasters, but how will our reporting become less reactionary, to move beyond simply pointing out that climate change is here? And for the aid sector, how will humanitarian response and planning shift to account for climate change? What needs to happen to prepare – beyond just identifying it as a risk?

Ben Parker, Senior Editor, on macroeconomic turbulence

This was a new entry for our 10 Crises list. China-America trade, Brexit, strange patterns in the bond markets — clearly there’s enough going on to make even the most bold market trader worry somewhat about 2020. As you look through that lens, so many recent eruptions seem to come from relatively minor economic triggers.

Sudan, for example, is somewhere where economic pressures seem to have produced something good. The increase in the price of fuel and bread caused protests which were unsuccessfully suppressed by the former regime, paving the way for new leadership. 

On the other hand, how could anyone have predicted an attempt to tax WhatsApp would lead to three months of chaos in Lebanon and 200 percent bond interest rates?

We intend to ask the best economic brains what we should be watching this year. We are curious to know to what extent the aid enterprise is able to prepare, predict, and analyse this field as we buckle up for a tricky year ahead. 

Ben Parker, Senior Editor, on digital misuse and abuse

We think this will continue to occupy the agenda for responders and for the management of humanitarian action. And secondly we believe that the use of data and networks for malicious purposes will be seen more in the fragile countries that we cover.

In the example of Myanmar, ethnic cleansing was fuelled by use of Facebook, according to Facebook's own analysis. We’re also watching the election in Ethiopia where there are dozens of languages Facebook doesn’t have translation capacity on, which makes it difficult to spot the already well-established patterns of misinformation, hate speech, and ethnic derogatory language. As we track malicious uses of communication in conflict and politics, we expect that issues of data protection and cyber-security will continue to surface in operational humanitarian response. 

Which of these crises or trends will have the most impact on your work in the coming year?

Before the Q&A, we asked our audience which of the crises or trends on our list would be driving the agenda in their own work. 

Select questions from the session

What are the most pressing issues in the Sahel in 2020? 

Obi Anyadike: It’s more of the same unfortunately. We intend to do more reporting on the crisis, going back to the Sahel to look at the humanitarian implications of the insurgencies. We’re trying to learn how humanitarians can provide appropriate levels of support to tackle these really huge problems. 

Will food security become a bigger issue as displacement increases?

Obi Anyadike: The whole urban space will be a new challenge area for humanitarians. In southern Africa, we’re seeing the impact of climate change. Some of the mitigation measures this year will be around social protection, including for the urban poor. But how do you set in place these kinds of social protection measures when humanitarians don’t really like operating in a difficult urban environment?

That’s part of the challenge we’ll be seeing along with the displacement of people out of rural areas and into cities. Then there’s the whole issue of urban planning and how you satisfy the needs of the most vulnerable people – often excluded by governments, their rights not respected.

Read: Building a safety net for Zimbabwe’s urban poor

Irwin Loy: I find the issue interesting from a migration point of view. Last year in Bangladesh, we did a story looking at links between climate change and extreme pre-monsoon rains that struck in 2017. Two years later, many of the villages in the key rice-growing northeast region were emptying.

The cost of rice soared when imports increased as domestic production fell, all of which affected the community and the country to some level. As you get more of this sort of migration with or without climate change, access to food is going to become an increasingly prevalent issue. But, of course, migration is already a coping mechanism for many families either way.

Militias in the DRC is one part of the DRC ‘perfect storm’ – the militia-instigated violence in the Ebola response areas and elsewhere. Many of these conflicts in DRC are ongoing. Why highlight them – and the other ingredients of the perfect storm – now?

Obi Anyadike: Democratic Republic of Congo is a vast country with vast problems. Some are joining militia groups to make money, some for self-defence. And that’s layered with terrible human rights violations by the security forces, a weak government, a measles epidemic that’s claimed 6,000 lives, a cholera outbreak, and, of course, the Ebola crisis. 

What is The New Humanitarian keeping an eye on in Syria?

Annie Slemrod: In Idlib, there are 350,000 people who have been displaced since December. The word displacement doesn’t really capture how horrible it is when you have to flee your home in the middle of violence.

We reported that when people were fleeing, they really felt it was different than past times. They brought their doors, windows, water tanks, faucets because they thought this was really the end.

The aid situation is ever-changing. In the northwest there are an estimated 2.5-3 million people, many living in camps. There’s a sense of chaos on the ground. We are also looking at people who are returning and if they can do that safely and what kind of aid they get.

What does the emergence of new crises mean for the stretching of the efforts of humanitarian organisations? 

Irwin Loy: We’ve done a lot of reporting about local aid responses. When we’re talking about new crises and stretching of budgets, we’re also talking about new responders: the different types of people who are responding to crises, but who often aren’t viewed as being humanitarians.

That’s going to change slowly, but this happens in any crisis: the first responders are the people who live there. As international aid dollars continue to fall short of needs, people will have to think more about how various groups and communities are incorporated into responses. Local women and women-led organisations are often left out of the equation, and we’re interested in how donor policy affects this.

What’s the project you’re most excited about in the coming months?

Obi Anyadike: Our Drought Diaries special report, documenting how drought impacts lives. 

Annie Slemrod: Reporting on and reviewing humanitarian menstruation products. Provider, vendor, user or have a connection to what are often called dignity kits, please get in touch. 

Irwin Loy: Exploring new ways of presenting our reporting through multimedia and more visual formats. 

Ben Parker: We very much hope that the culture of transparency and whistleblowing could find a home with us and other news outlets. 

Keep the conversation going. Share 10 Crises and Trends to Watch with your networks, @ us on Twitter or email [email protected].

Additional audience questions from the audience will be answered in an upcoming feature. 

This summary was edited for length and clarity.

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