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Trends driving humanitarian crises in 2023 (and what to do about them)


The impacts of colonial powers and policies. Soaring public debt. A rise in gender-based violence. Record hunger, yet again. Here are some of the issues likely to drive humanitarian needs over the next year – and some ideas on what governments, aid groups, policymakers, communities, or individuals might begin to do differently so 2024 or 2025 could look just a little bit better. 


No, we don’t have a crystal ball. But we did report from more than 60 countries in 2022. This list is informed by our coverage from humanitarian hotspots around the globe and by our editors’ research and discussions with analysts, aid workers, and individuals whose lives have been upturned by conflict and disasters. 

Read more: What’s on our aid policy radar in 2023

Many of these trends cut across geographic boundaries. Some intersect, ready to deal a double or triple or worse blow in 2023 to people who were likely already vulnerable. They live in places where drought has sucked dry livelihoods; conflict has ravaged homes, schools, and hospitals; and faraway wars or stumbling governments closer to home have stymied their ability to feed their families. 


A few bright spots do shine through in efforts, or at least ideas, to address the impacts or root causes of these issues. Among them: Calls to reform a global governance system that is struggling to respond to mounting needs appear to be coming faster and louder, with some indications they are actually being heard. Or consider the EU’s response to Ukrainian refugees: When the political will exists, countries can mobilise a humane and dignified response to mass displacement and migration. Neither of these examples are solutions, of course. But they do begin to suggest that there’s a way forward, step by step. Which isn’t a bad way to enter the new year. 

For a more geographic take on this year’s likely humanitarian hotspots, look out for our list of 10 forgotten crises to watch in 2023, on 13 January. If you already have your own list or a crisis that you think needs to be on ours, share your thoughts on Twitter using #TNH2023Trends. 


Join The New Humanitarian this Friday for our event: Crises and Trends to Watch in 2023. Sign up now to be a part of it.

Soaring debt: Less to spend on preventing and responding to crises

drought in Somalia

Government debt, fuelled by borrowing during the pandemic, has been turbocharged by high interest rates on the back of hyperinflation aggravated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. From Burundi to South Sudan, from Haiti to Somalia, countries are spending ever-rising portions of their budgets to service loans. Faced with conflict and/or the effects of climate change, they have little left to invest in preventing crises from spiralling, laying the groundwork for increasingly lengthy emergencies.


Why it matters now

The global debt crisis isn’t some distant risk beyond the horizon. Dozens of countries – home to half the world’s poorest people – need urgent debt relief, the UN says. Near the top of the list is flood-besieged Pakistan, where a disaster-debt cycle is spinning in real time: In 2022, the country took on more in new debt than it received in humanitarian aid. Several countries with multi-billion-dollar aid responses are at high risk of debt distress in 2023. The country spending the most to repay its public debt? Somalia, which is already facing famine amid an unprecedented drought.


It’s tough for governments to spend on the things that help communities withstand crises – social services, healthcare, safer infrastructure, smarter disaster recovery – when they’re putting so much money towards paying off debt. Austerity measures also drive inequality and disproportionately hurt the most marginalised. Funding for gender-based violence (GBV) programmes, for example, is frequently the first to be cut when governments (or humanitarian responses) tighten the belt. (For more on that, see our entry on GBV needs and funding, below.) 


Public debt has ballooned because of the COVID-19 pandemic, geopolitical turbulence, and disasters made worse and more frequent by climate change. In 100 of the worst-hit countries, public debt as a share of GDP rose by some $2 trillion between 2019 and 2021, according to UN figures. The cost of paying down loans – largely held in foreign currency – is also climbing given high interest rates and a strong US dollar.


Debt and the climate crisis are deeply intertwined. Debt hampers response efforts, but countries also take on more loans as disasters multiply. That debt makes it even harder to recover and prepare for the next inevitable disaster, dragging out crises and leaving communities more dependent on aid. It’s no wonder humanitarians are joining calls for debt relief. The UN’s relief chief used a high-level meeting at the COP27 climate summit not to ask for cash, but to push lenders to restructure debt and unlock billions in inaccessible reserves.


What to do about it

Creative solutions are on the table for what is essentially a crisis driven by fiscal policy. Intent on breaking a cycle of disasters, rebuilds, and ruinous debt, countries like Barbados are pushing to overhaul the global financial system and retool it for what vulnerable nations really need. Such answers share much in common with broader social justice and decolonisation movements, yet there appears to be some appetite for change even among powerful Western nations and multilateral banks. Could it spark deeper reflection on other seemingly intractable issues – how the international aid system is funded, for one?

Colonialism: Old legacies and modern-day imperialism fuel new needs

Gangs have exploited the security vacuum since the July 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Police fire tear gas at protesters demanding the resignation of interim PM Ariel Henry after weeks of shortages in Port-au-Prince, in October 2022.

Colonial legacies continue to foster crises around the globe. Gang violence is often blamed for the rapidly deteriorating situation in Haiti, but its roots largely lie in the impossible debt France foisted upon the world’s first Black republic. Likewise, much of the calamitous situation in the Sahel can be traced back to the colonial era and misguided interventions since. But modern-day imperialism is creating new shocks, too. Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t hide the fact that imperialism lies behind his war in Ukraine, which has led to a massive new humanitarian crisis and worsened others. The world is also waking up to how “climate colonialism” has seen the resources of the Global South exploited by the Global North, even as industrialised nations resist paying the bill for the climate crisis.

Why it matters now

Haiti is a brewing humanitarian catastrophe which no one seems to know how to address. Understanding the colonial factors at play is one of the keys to finding a path forward. The Caribbean nation has long been a magnet for coloniserscapitalistsimperialists, and intervening troops – all of which have undermined its sovereignty and primed it for a cascade of problems, including extreme vulnerability to disasters and a near-total reliance on imported food. Now, escalating gang violence has rendered the capital, Port-au-Prince, lawless, leaving humanitarian groups at a loss to know how to respond to killings, rapes, displacement, hunger, and cholera. There’s little appetite for another foreign intervention or UN peacekeeping mission, but also no sign of a “Haitian-led solution”. Questions remain on how the international community and the aid sector can respond without repeating past mistakes, and on how any attempted solution might represent the will of Haiti’s 11 million people.


Such questions go well beyond Haiti. Take the Sahel – one of the fastest-growing crises in the world. More than 33 million people in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, and northern Nigeria are in need of lifesaving assistance – a 25% jump in the past five years. Although most of these countries became independent in the 1960s, former coloniser France has continued to wield influence in the region, especially in its military operations aimed at tackling jihadist extremists. Although some early French interventions initially had local support, they have since been widely criticised, sparked internal rifts, and led to hasty drawdowns.


France is, of course, not alone. The legacies of Western colonialism can be seen in the roots of crises from Yemen to Libya, from Afghanistan to Myanmar, while Putin’s war in Ukraine has sounded a fresh alarm about imperialism and great power competition (for more, read lower down this list). Amid a new trend of Western countries calling each other out for past colonial sins, a new “Cold War” has also seen Russia and the United States launch into neocolonial diplomatic battles in Africa that are only likely to intensify in 2023.

What to do about it

There are growing calls for the legacies of racism, colonialism, and imperialism to be addressed – both within the aid sector and at a geopolitical level. The aid sector has long claimed to push for localisation, putting more power and money in the hands of affected communities. Now there’s also a growing clamour for alternatives to troubling neocolonial policies – from abusive Western military interventions to financial institutions saddling poor countries with hefty climate debts. A COP27 commitment to set up a “loss and damage” fund – with the details still to be fleshed out – reflects some progress in addressing “climate colonialism”.

UN peacekeeping: A loss of faith leading to security vacuums

MONUSCO truck in DRC

In key conflict settings, peacekeeping operations face crises of legitimacy and confidence that look set to reach tipping points in 2023. From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Mali to Central African Republic, humanitarian crises risk being made worse because local populations and/or host states have lost faith in UN peacekeeping missions, paving the way for rebel gains, mercenary deployments, or security vacuums.


Why it matters now

In eastern DRC, a resurgent M23 rebellion has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, worsening one of the world’s largest displacement crises. But when the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, was renewed on 20 December, it was met with anger and disappointment in the region, where many feel it offers them no protection and – after 22 years of deployment – has left them worse off. In July, protesters calling for MONUSCO’s departure attacked mission bases in several cities. Dozens of civilians and four peacekeepers were killed.


In Mali, troop-contributing countries are abandoning ship as the junta’s alliance with the Wagner Group – a Kremlin-linked mercenary outfit used to project Russian influence – disrupts their operations. Almost a decade after MINUSMA deployed to counter an insurgency by jihadist and separatist groups, conflict continues to spread, while questions grow over the peacekeeping mission’s limited impact. With MINUSMA undergoing an internal review in January, and no signs of relations improving with the junta, these concerns are likely to come to a head in 2023.


In Central African Republic, where MINUSCA troops have embroiled themselves in abuse and smuggling scandals, Wagner now reigns supreme. Accused of stepping into the vacuum to plunder gold and diamonds, the mercenaries have also, some Central Africans argue, become more effective than MINUSCA at keeping the peace. But at what price? In Haiti, meanwhile, UN peacekeeping operations drew to an ignominious end in 2019 after a slew of sexual abuse scandals, as well as being widely blamed for a cholera epidemic that killed 10,000 people. All of which makes the idea of any foreign intervention to help restore security (see the colonialism entry, above) anathema to many Haitians.


That’s not to say there haven’t been successes: Peacekeeping remains a major plank of international conflict management. Yet the largest missions face uncertain futures. Populations are sceptical they can end wars even with robust mandates, and frosty regimes view them as sovereignty threats. As conflicts drag on, states are increasingly seeking alternative security arrangements, including mercenary deployments that pose a major risk to civilians. Is peacekeeping resilient enough to these challenges? Or will it end up another victim of a struggling multilateral system?

What to do about it

Common recommendations for improving peacekeeper performance include the need for increased resources, better-equipped troops, more women in military contingents, and stronger measures to prevent misconduct. Others argue that missions should focus more on local peace efforts, recruiting staff with contextual knowledge, and serving communities rather than host states.

Mismanaged migration: More people on the move, fewer protections

a group of people waiting in the border between Mexico and the US

The climate crisis, skyrocketing prices on the back of the pandemic, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drove millions to cross borders to escape conflict, disasters, poverty, and hunger around the globe in 2022. At the same time, many countries demonstrated an ever-more brazen willingness to erode protections for refugees and to violate rights in their efforts to erode irregular migration. The coming global economic slowdown will only increase the need for people to move in 2023, even as xenophobic policies take hold in key reception countries, from Türkiye to the UK, from EU nations to the US.


Why it matters now

Last year, the number of forcibly displaced people around the world surpassed 100 million for the first time – more than doubling what it was just 10 years ago. The increase was driven by a combination of often interlocking factors. Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine spurred nearly 7.9 million Ukrainians to seek safety outside the country and internally displaced more than 6.5 million. The war also exacerbated food shortages in countries already struggling with hunger and the effects of climate change, like Somalia, where one of the worst droughts in decades has pushed more than one million people from their homes since January 2021. It has also accelerated cost of living crises in places like Cuba, which saw around 2% of its population migrate to the US over the past year, in the country’s largest exodus in more than a half century. 


2023 is likely to bring more of the same – at a potentially accelerated rate. In Türkiye, which hosts the largest refugee population in the world, animosity and talk of expelling refugees and asylum seekers are reaching a boiling point ahead of elections in June. Instead of living in fear, some Syrian refugees, even those who have lived in the country for years, may attempt to reach Europe. They will join growing numbers of people from countries such as Tunisia and Egypt who are crossing the Mediterranean to escape increasingly dire political and economic situations. With social and economic upheavals ongoing throughout Latin America and Title 42 – a pandemic-era policy used to block asylum access and expel millions from the US southern border – slated to end, the numbers of people trying to cross the US-Mexico border (already at near-record levels) are also only likely to increase.


Political will to manage this rising global movement in a way that respects human rights is in short supply. The far-right is already enjoying a political resurgence in Europe, peddling anti-migrant rhetoric and capitalising on the tough economic times. Centrist governments in the Global North have track records of implementing policies that reinforce vast inequities, as the differing treatment of Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian refugees shows. As a result, 2023 is poised to see an intensification of the hardline policies and violence already being deployed by countries trying to keep people out.


What to do about it

The EU’s response to Ukrainian refugees has shown that – when the political will exists – countries can mobilise a humane and dignified response to mass displacement and migration. There’s also a global push by refugees and asylum seekers to have a seat at the table in deciding the policies that affect their lives. And more fundamentally, there’s a growing chorus of voices arguing that migration itself is not a problem and can actually be part of the solution to the myriad crises impacting the world.

The Ukraine effect: Driving up costs, driving away attention

A boy walks carrying flour and oil outside an aid distribution center in Yemen.

A myopic media and donor focus on the war in Ukraine is diverting attention and funding from a host of other settings where people are in desperate need. But the Russian invasion is also increasing needs around the world by limiting wheat and fertiliser supplies – leading to rising levels of hunger – and by helping to drive up the prices of food and fuel, making it more expensive for aid agencies to help crisis-affected communities. 


Why it matters now

From Yemen to Ethiopia, Myanmar to Afghanistan, and Syria to Somalia, other crises and the suffering of tens of millions of people are being pushed further into the background. There’s no question that the Russian invasion has been catastrophic for the people of Ukraine, especially those living near the front lines, under bombardment, or forced to flee the violence. But the vast majority of the 230 million people the UN proposes to help with the $51.5 billion it has asked for in 2023 do not live in or around Ukraine. 

Even before Ukraine, some of the world’s worst crises were badly underfunded, and now the concern is that places like Yemen, Ethiopia, and Myanmar will be pushed even further onto the backburner. When a country like Syria has been at war for 11 years with no solution in sight and needs hitting record highs, donors are just less likely to open their coffers.


Donor countries (and individuals) did step up quickly to help Ukraine, while likely shifting funds that would have gone elsewhere, despite promises to the contrary. The UN’s flash appeal for Ukraine in 2022 is 78% funded, with Sudan at 43% and Syria sitting at 47%. Afghanistan – big news for a while given the dramatic evacuation in August 2021 and the Taliban takeover – is less than 59% funded. 


The massive gap between donor funding and needs has led to slashes in food rations in places like Yemen, which was on the brink of famine for years and is chronically food insecure. Somalia narrowly avoided an official famine declaration in 2022, but drought and conflict have left at least 7.8 million people (almost half the population) in crisis levels of hunger, with 700,000 of them facing starvation in 2023. The UN has received 57% of the $2.3 billion it requested for Somalia in 2022, but much of the money came in late, and after the appeal was bumped up. 


The Russian invasion also helped fuel a third global food crisis in 15 years, driving up prices and disrupting wheat supplies to vulnerable countries reliant on imports through the Black Sea, including Lebanon, Yemen, and Somalia. In 2023, much will depend on how long the war in Ukraine continues to disrupt the global economy and suck up attention and resources, but a lot of damage has already been done.


What to do about it

The UN-brokered Black Sea grain deal (extended in November until 12 March 2023) has allowed for the free flow of Russian food and fertiliser – and Ukrainian grain – onto world markets. This is helping to ease some of the wheat scarcity in humanitarian hotspots like Ethiopia. It is also preventing acute shortages of fertiliser that would have further hiked food and farming costs, with potentially devastating effects for some import-reliant African countries. 

‘Great power’ rivalry: Geopolitical battles that upend millions of lives

A man walks in a destroyed street in Ukraine.

The global fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided a stark reminder of the devastating ripple effects great power rivalries and conflicts can have on humanitarian crises. With no end in sight to the fighting in Ukraine, and rising tensions between the US and China, confrontations between major powers will likely shape the global humanitarian outlook again in 2023 and beyond.


Why it matters now

Locally, Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion is about national sovereignty and the right to self-determination. Geopolitically, the war is the front line in a broader struggle over spheres of influence between Russia and the US, along with other Western countries in the NATO alliance. The fighting has taken a staggering toll. Around 35% of Ukraine’s pre-war population of 41 million has been displaced internally or as refugees; the country’s electricity grid, healthcare system, and other critical infrastructure have been decimated; the economy has shrunk by more than 30%; and tens of thousands of civilians have likely been killed or injured – although accurate estimates are hard to come by.


The impact of the geopolitcal jockeying between Russia and the US is also being felt far from Ukraine, in the war’s ripple effects on humanitarian crises elsewhere in the world (discussed above). Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine has also disrupted the balance of power in long-running territorial and border disputes in Armenia and Azerbaijan and in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, leading to flare-ups of violence. Beyond the impacts of the war in Ukraine, US-Russia competition for political influence is having humanitarian consequences in other parts of the world. For example, the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group has been accused of committing human rights abuses in Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, Sudan, Syria, and elsewhere


The US-Russia rivalry is not the only show in town. Tensions are high in US-China relations as well. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to speculation that China might soon follow a similar path and invade Western-aligned Taiwan. The US and China have both increased their military activity in the South China Sea, raising concerns about the potential for unintended confrontation and escalation. With both countries vying for influence in regions and countries around the world, the US-China rivalry will likely play a significant role in shaping war and peace – and the often-unforeseen humanitarian consequences – for years to come. 


What to do about it

The global fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could act as a cautionary tale for China and the US, encouraging a more responsible approach to navigating their rivalry. Weary of having their economic, environmental, and humanitarian fates decided in global forums dominated by great powers, smaller countries are also increasingly pushing for a more equitable and representative international system. 

Record hunger: Money can’t buy a way out of food shortages

wheat field in argentina

Much of the globe will be going hungry again in 2023, and parts will be even hungrier. That means the humanitarian system is under strain like never before: It needs to find a record $51.5 billion to cover the needs of 230 million people in 69 countries. And the money is the “easy” part: finding food will be trickier than ever. 


Why it matters now

Last year, the crisis was galloping inflation. This year it’s about not having enough food in the system, which will again push up prices. A fertiliser shortage is expected to persist, reducing food production; conflict and climate change will continue to wreck harvests; and stubbornly high food price inflation will make it harder for most families to keep themselves fed. 


The culprit? The invasion of Ukraine, once again. Russia is the world’s leading fertiliser producer, but supply has been squeezed by the indirect impact of Western sanctions. Fertiliser prices, already painfully high pre-invasion, have continued to climb. As a result, farmers are either applying less fertiliser or reducing the amount they grow – either way it means smaller yields across the globe. 


As always, less well-off countries will be more vulnerable than the wealthy – particularly those reliant on grain imports. The devaluation of local currencies against a strong dollar will amplify the hurt. It will also reduce the capacity of governments – in many cases still struggling with the economic legacy of COVID-19 – to intervene through social protection programmes. The hardship will fall heaviest on women and girls.


More climate shocks are also coming. In the Horn of Africa, over 36 million people are in need after five seasons of failed rains – a crisis that will extend into 2023, with the “F” word once again being (unofficially) applied to Somalia. In West and Central Africa, the number of hungry people could reach a record high of 48 million by June – a consequence of erratic weather, conflict, and the still-rippling impact of food price inflation. All told, the UN estimates one in 23 people will require help next year at an eye-watering cost of $51.5 billion – a 25% increase on the beginning of 2022. 


What to do about it

The UN-backed grain deal intended to free 20 million tonnes from blockaded Black Sea ports has helped ease prices (as noted above), but markets are volatile, and there is also a likely lag – possibly as long as a year – before regular consumers will feel any benefit. Governments need to be preparing now for what’s to come. 

Global health declines: Pandemic healthcare disruptions take their toll

Boy getting vaccinated against measles in DRC

The COVID-19 pandemic – which is still not over – reversed hard-won progress against various viruses and diseases, including tuberculosis, HIV, and malaria. The impacts of these shifts are now beginning to show themselves, and they are hitting communities differently based on gender, race, class, and where in the world you live. 


Why it matters now

While the world focused much of its attention on getting and making COVID-19 vaccines, 2019 to 2021 saw the “largest sustained decline in childhood vaccinations” in three decades, with supply chain issues, vaccine hesitancy, and a single-minded focus on containing the pandemic all contributing to the downward trend. In 2021 alone, 25 million children did not receive one or more doses of the jab against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough) – an important marker of childhood vaccination levels. HPV and measles immunisation rates also dropped. Measles outbreaks are now cropping up across the globe, mostly (but not exclusively) in low to middle income countries with strained health systems. There have been at least 744 measles deaths since April in Zimbabwe, and cases are spiking in places like India and Gambia too.


It’s not just about measles. Pandemic-related disruptions in malaria prevention and treatment led to additional 13 million infections and 63,000 deaths. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) rose in the US, but drug resistance is a global threat; sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest AMR-associated death rates, at 99 deaths per 100,000 people.


Cholera is now surging through HaitiSyriaLebanon, and Malawi. The drastic rise in cases and deaths of this preventable disease can be tied to conflict, displacement, and climate change more than the pandemic, but cholera is a “disease of poverty”. It thrives in communities without access to clean water or sanitation, and COVID-19 did lead to an increase in extreme poverty and inequality. In December, the World Health Organization announced that it had run out of cholera vaccines, renewing questions about who should make, pay for, and get doses first. 


And, last but not least, rates of anxiety and depression shot up in recent years, too.


What to do about it

Prevention ought to be the best medicine, for current outbreaks or future pandemics, and COVID-19 showed up the consequences of years of under-investment in healthcare systems. Major players are calling for an investment in primary healthcare, and ideally equitable universal health coverage, to better weather future storms. It’s not clear where that money will come from, though. 

Perhaps there’s a silver lining in lessons learned: WHO member states are working towards a treaty to protect the world from future pandemics, with an early draft calling for regional vaccine production and technical knowledge-sharing. How exactly will that work for intellectual property, profits, and the role of pharmaceutical companies is still for the diplomats to debate. 

Gender-based violence: New needs add to pandemic surge

A protest against gender based violence in Venezuela

As COVID-19 took hold back in 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged a “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence (GBV). In response, 146 governments and UN observers committed “to making prevention and redress of gender-based violence a key part of our national and global responses”. Yet nearly three years on, rising needs are outpacing upticks in funding, and new funds are failing to reach the local groups that are closest to women who need help. 


Why it matters now

As pandemic-related hardships slow in some parts of the world, the incidence of GBV has not necessarily fallen – especially for women in the midst of other crises, who are particularly vulnerable.


In the first quarter of 2022, amid Somalia’s drought and food shortage, the number of women who reported intimate partner violence rose to 50%, up from 43% in the same period in 2021. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, UN Women estimates rising rates of GBV, as well as a decline in services for survivors. The UN also recorded incidents of GBV amid political crises in Haiti and Venezuela in late 2022.


That all comes on top of the pandemic-related burdens women faced and often still confront, including an increase in unpaid care work, reduced access to sexual and reproductive health services, and higher risks of GBV. UN Women found that roughly 50% of women in 13 crisis-affected countries had experienced violence or knew someone who had experienced violence during the pandemic; rates were as high as 69% in Morocco and 80% in Kenya.


In the years since the UN and donors acknowledged GBV as a “shadow pandemic”, funding to address GBV rose in absolute terms, but the proportion of funding received for GBV in the UN’s appeals has dropped. And that translates into yet another humanitarian-needs-outpacing-funding story. 


Studies suggest that new funds to combat GBV often fail to reach organisations on the front lines. Only 3.1% of gender-specific humanitarian assistance listed by the UN went to local or national actors in 2020, down from 4.8% in 2018. Similarly, a 2021 survey of 200 feminist organisations in 41 countries found that 75% had received no new funding to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.


None of which bodes well for 2023. The amount requested for GBV as part of UN-coordinated emergency response plans dropped from 1% of the total in 2021 to 0.5% in 2022. With much of the world on precarious financial footing as the year begins, it’s worth remembering that funding for GBV programmes is frequently the first to be cut when governments (or humanitarian responses) make cutbacks (for more on austerity measures, see the debt entry, above).

What to do about it

Recommendations are consistent: To reduce the number of women left behind, donors should provide direct, flexible, multi-year funding to local women-focused organisations that promote gender equality and work to prevent GBV. Such groups are trapped in a vicious cycle, where an inability to meet donors’ strict requirements, as well as unfounded presumptions of risk and corruption, often prevent them from securing long-term, direct, flexible funding. 


Women-focused organisations are eager to break this cycle. A 2021 report by the International Rescue Committee described a local women’s rights organisation that began supporting GBV survivors on a voluntary basis. This earned them an international prize and some funding, which enabled them to recruit more staff, build a headquarters, and solidify their reputation as an organisation responding to GBV.


In July 2020, more than 500 GBV-related organisations asked the UN’s emergency relief coordinator to include a “standalone specific objective on GBV” in the UN-coordinated plan to respond to COVID-19. They received no formal response. A 2022 third-party evaluation of the response plan found that despite the plan’s acknowledgement of GBV as a problem, “the necessary high-level commitment, programmes and resources to collectively mitigate and respond to the risks of GBV were lacking”. Such discrepancies between rhetoric and action represent a wider trend in how GBV is handled in humanitarian action in general. 


According to research by CARE USA and ActionAid International, the failure of donors and aid organisations to fund local, women-led GBV work contradicts the localisation commitments of the Grand Bargain, as well as the evidence that local involvement is especially crucial to GBV prevention. Their 2019 report attributes this persistent failure to patriarchy in the humanitarian system, “with positions of power occupied predominantly by men, limiting space for women and [women-led organisations] both at the local and international level”.


Their recommendations remain applicable to 2023: Include women leaders and women-led organisations in all stages of decision-making.

Youth activism: Risks of upheaval as illiberal regimes face calls for change

Activists protest in Iran

Democracy is retreating in many countries; illiberal regimes are consolidating. That’s bad news, given the well-documented correlation between authoritarian rule and humanitarian crises. Yet in Iran, Sudan, and China, defiant decentralised protest movements have sprung up to resist. Even in the face of mounting instability, the nastiest regimes tend to tough it out. And while activism may prompt positive change down the road, upheaval can, in the shorter term, trigger various problems like violent crackdowns, hunger, and instability.


Why it matters now

In Africa, the continent with the world’s youngest population, smart and energetic youth engagement could help loosen the stranglehold of unaccountable ruling elites, turning political disillusionment into bread-and-butter demands. 


Worldwide, a surge in youth-led activism is lifting some of the gloom around the reactionary drift. Passionate and digital-savvy, employing constitutional paths to reform, young people have had a direct impact on elections in BrazilColombia, and the US – and in 2021 in Zambia, a surprise upset for the incumbent. Gen-Z mobilisation, typically issue-based, is also leaving its mark on broader global campaigns, from the climate to reproductive rights. 


In 2023, much-needed reform is on the ballot in elections in Nigeria and Zimbabwe, two countries whose humanitarian crises are very much linked to governance failures. In Nigeria, presidential candidate Peter Obi seems to have inherited the mantle of the #EndSARS campaign – a youth-driven phenomenon, initially about police brutality, which morphed into a remarkable political movement. Obi may not win at the polls in February, but his run has shaken an establishment ruled by “godfathers” and money. In Zimbabwe, a militarised regime of old men refuses to relinquish power – despite the disaster they have made of living standards. The ruling ZANU-PF party, which has led the country since independence, will employ the same violent tactics it has always done to stop the momentum of Nelson Chamisa, a young political challenger. Both elections will be highly charged, with the fallout when the “official” results are unannounced uncertain.


What to do about it

It’s worth remembering that youth aren’t always the (politically progressive) future. People want change – and that can be by unconstitutional means, especially when political elites control the political process. For Africa’s youth, routinely ignored until election time, demands for change don’t always follow a democratic path; jihadist recruitment or just plain banditry are real concerns. Young people have been at the front of crowds cheering the military coups in Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso in recent years. There’s also a worrying disengagement by many young people from mainstream politics when the stakes are not particularly high.


But a growing number of young people see civic engagement – not always channelled through conventional structures – as a way to shape political outcomes.

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