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Trends driving humanitarian need in 2024 (and what to do about them)

Composite image created using several photos in a collage style. On the bottom left is a boat with several people on it. On the top left are people standing in line outside a bakery that is partially collapsed in Gaza. At the center we see a woman carrying two yellow jerry cans, she is walking away from the camera. On the top centre we see Khartoum in Sudan during bombings with smoke in the air. On the top right we see people walking in front of a pickup truck and at the bottom right we see farmers in Perú.
Composite with images by Claudia Lacave/Hans Lucas, Dan Collyns/TNH, Ali M. Latifi/TNH, Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters, Max Hirzel/TNH and Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto

Here are seven key trends likely to leave millions of people in need of food, medical care, shelter, or other humanitarian aid over the next year; plus, some ideas on what governments, aid groups, or individuals might do differently so 2025 looks a little better. 

We publish this list against a backdrop of ongoing conflicts and violence – in Gaza, Ukraine, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; in Sudan, Haiti, and Myanmar; and in so many other places where humanitarian needs are growing or have become a way of life for many. We also publish it with the knowledge that women and children, as always, will bear the brunt of the impacts.

This random-order list draws from our reporting around the globe; interviews with researchers, aid workers, and policymakers; and, most importantly, from our discussions with people working to rebuild lives in the midst of conflicts and disasters.  

For a geographic take of humanitarian hotspots, look out – on 8 January – for our list of 10 crises that should demand your attention in 2024.

Efforts to deter migrants will drive up deaths and abuses

Two boats are seen, one on the left and another on the right. At the back the sun is setting and in the background is another boat.

Despite abundant evidence that “prevention through deterrence” isn’t working, the United States, the EU, and many others are doubling down on this strategy and increasingly trying to export it to the countries that refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants come from and transit through. The result in 2024 will almost certainly be a rise in the already staggering number of deaths in the Mediterranean and in the US-Mexico border desert; more and more people languishing in dismal camps along US and European frontiers; expanded human rights violations and humanitarian suffering in countries of origin and transit; and the increasing instrumentalisation of migration as a tool to exert political pressure on the United States and European countries. We’ve seen this all already in Tunisia, Mexico, Morocco, Türkiye, Libya, Niger, the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama, the Poland-Belarus border, the Russia-Finland border, and more. A better approach? Recognise that migration is both inevitable and frequently beneficial, especially when well managed.

Read more: Correcting the migration narrative

A good starting point is correcting the highly politicised public discourse about migration. In reality – even at the current elevated levels – irregular movement from the Global South to the Global North accounts for only a fraction of global migration, much of which takes place legally and towards economies in Europe and the United States that are hungry for immigrant labour. And much of the rest is because of the danger and desperation caused by conflicts, persecution, and disasters pushing millions around the world from their homes. There are some signs that it’s beginning to become clear to policymakers in the US and Europe that people will continue to risk their lives to try to reach safety, regardless of the barriers placed in their way. But attempts to increase options for people to move legally – such as safe mobility centres for asylum seekers in Central and South America – are so far intermittent exceptions to the overarching logic of prevention through deterrence.

Information warfare – with an AI twist – will put civilians at increasing risk

A graphic illustration showing a computer screen at the center. Above we see tangled cables hanging from the cieling. Below the computer we see crowds of people looking at the screen.

Misinformation and disinformation have always factored into conflicts and crises. But today’s tech, including easily accessible and rapidly evolving artificial intelligence – think image creators like Midjourney and insta-text tools like ChatGPT – multiplies the risks. Generative AI may be the equivalent of the next, big, mass-producible weapon, some analysts warn. Look at Gaza or Ukraine for snapshots of how information is weaponised. Examples of real-world harms are mounting elsewhere. In Sudan, both the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces have waged an information war on social media – endangering civilians fleeing conflict with false information about safe areas. Smartphone surveillance has also targeted asylum seekers; it’s pushed by countries seeking to limit their numbers. Tigrayan massacre survivors say Facebook algorithms amplified hate and led to killings in Ethiopia. Myanmar’s Rohingya know the consequences: Hate speech demonised an entire community, adding fuel to their genocide. Former tech CEOs are pushing for guardrails. Governments from the US to the EU are rushing to try and regulate AI. But change may happen more organically. Citizen sleuths and professional fact-checkers are debunking disinformation from Ukraine to Indonesia, and the skills they employ can be fostered.

Read more: The search for answers

Misinformation and disinformation are gendered and racialised, disproportionately affecting women and women of colour. Aid groups struggle to counter disinformation beyond restating their neutrality – from UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, in Gaza, to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine or Burkina Faso. Brigades of fact-checkers and verifiers abound, though it’s often a game of whack-a-mole. Platforms aren’t cleaning up their acts, critics warn. But simply deleting a post doesn’t get at the divisions that allow misinformation to take root: Pro-Russia sentiment in the Sahel may be cultivated, but this doesn’t negate genuine anti-colonial grievances. And state regulation may only go so far if it’s seen as an attempt to control the narrative, warned the founder of open-source investigators Bellingcat.

Water scarcity and drought will spur displacement

A girl carries yellow jerry cans during long hours searching for water after years of drought in Marsabit county, in northern Kenya, on 2 August 2022.

The Middle East and North Africa may be considered the worst-affected region, but water scarcity has become a global scourge, with droughts affecting everywhere from Peru to Kenya, from Syria to Afghanistan, from Honduras to Somalia. These events are only expected to proliferate as climate change worsens, with millions of people in fast-drying settings being pushed to cities for jobs that don’t exist. Children are particularly vulnerable to water scarcity, which is one of the main factors in preventable infant deaths. UNICEF says 739 million children – one in three globally – live in areas of high or very high water scarcity. Save the Children recently pointed out how water shortages linked to climate change increased the risks for children in Gaza. Conflict greatly worsens the situation, as in Yemen, where warring parties have both weaponised water and extorted citizens desperate for it. A lack of water can also cause crises in peaceful countries. A first-ever UN conference in 2023 dedicated to water security was a start to addressing the issue. But attendees left underwhelmed by the lack of concrete action and pondering why the next one won’t be until 2028.

Read more: An ‘existential issue’

A World Bank report in 2023 declared the issue of water scarcity to be “existential” in the Middle East and North Africa, with water systems on “the brink of collapse”. Amnesty International echoed similar concerns ahead of COP28, calling for urgent action. Water policy specialists know they have urgent work to do in making the broader humanitarian and climate policy spaces recognise the scale – and growing nature – of the threat. “We have seen hundreds of water-related events, important water initiatives have been launched, and financial commitments to water solutions have been made,” Karin Gardes, head of the Stockholm International Water Institute, said as she sought to drive the topic up the agenda at COP28. “This is good, but we must remember that these are only a few steps on what is no doubt a very long journey.” Part of the solution could be decentralising decision-making, suggests the World Bank report. If central governments in MENA are unwilling to disappoint populaces that expect prices to remain low, maybe local-level administrations would be better placed to make the difficult trade-offs required. 

Sieges will collectively punish civilians and cut off aid access

People queue for bread in front of a bakery that was partially destroyed in an Israeli strike, in the Nuseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, on November 4, 2023, as battles continue between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement.

Siege tactics are as old as war itself, but an uptick in their use is leaving millions of people hungry and complicating relief efforts. Israel turned its two-decade blockade of Gaza into a total siege in October, using electricity, food and water, and medical supplies as tools of war. The siege and accompanying bombardment will likely create humanitarian needs for decades to come. In Burkina Faso and Mali, jihadist groups have encircled dozens of villages and towns, leading to mass hunger and deaths from curable diseases. Elsewhere, Yemen’s Houthis are still laying siege to Taiz; while Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports continues to threaten global food security. In Myanmar, the ruling junta is routinely blocking aid and commercial supplies and may impose full sieges as armed resistance movements make major gains. Negotiating access into besieged areas is complex but still possible. Communities in besieged areas have also developed adaptation and coping mechanisms that aid groups might try to support.

Read more: The cost of impunity

Negotiating access can require different levels of diplomacy; speaking with governments and armed opposition groups (often complicated by donor anti-terrorism laws); and working with local and non-traditional humanitarian organisations that have strong contacts and understand the needs on the ground. International humanitarian law doesn’t ban the use of sieges but does prohibit the destruction of essential services and the starvation of civilians. The international community’s failure to punish atrocities in Syria, Ukraine, Ethiopia, and Myanmar has only emboldened further abuses. Take the example of hospitals, which have special protections in war. After the bombing of hospitals by Russia and by the Syrian government with impunity, Israel is now hitting medical facilities, healthcare workers, and ambulances in Gaza. The rules of war may sometimes prevent the worst possible behaviour, but critics rightly point to their spotty application. While regional tribunals and the International Criminal Court are widely seen as politicised, some states are turning to universal jurisdiction as a way to tackle impunity. The use of this principle has provided an avenue, albeit limited, for the prosecution of Syrian war criminals and members of the so-called Islamic State. 

El Niño will magnify hunger, displacement, and health risks 

Five farmers are pictured as they plough a field to sow native potatoes in Apata, Junín on November 14, 2023.

Already hotter than usual Pacific Ocean temperatures are heating up even more due to the El Niño weather pattern, which drives even fiercer floods, droughts, wildfires, and heat waves across the globe, climate scientists warn. After the hottest year on record, the humanitarian toll for millions will be all too familiar: magnified hunger in parts of an already hungry world; displacement; and health risks. As with most climate-induced crises, communities already grappling with conflict or with economies and healthcare systems upended by the pandemic will be least prepared to cope. A shift from aftermath response towards anticipation and preparation could save lives and money. The Peruvian government has said it will allocate more than $1 billion to prevent and contain climate-induced damage. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is prioritising early response and anticipatory action, such as reinforcing river embankments and distributing drought-tolerant seeds. But it warns that “the available financial resources are extremely limited compared to the expected effects of this phenomenon”.

Read more: After the drought, the floods

El Niño, a periodic climate phenomenon that usually brings drought to large stretches of the globe and wetter weather elsewhere, is expected to persist for the first half of 2024. Australia, Southeast Asia, and North America could see a repeat of the heat waves and wildfires of 2023. In southern Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, El Niño typically brings below-average rainfall. Crop yields there may suffer, which makes bridging the shortfall in funding for the World Food Programme crucial in addressing anticipated high food assistance needs. Across the Horn of Africa, El Niño has already generated catastrophic flooding. That comes on the heels of a rare 3-year La Niña weather pattern that led to five dry seasons, killing off livestock, ending livelihoods, and increasing hunger. Scientists suggest that cyclical weather patterns may intensify in the coming years as sea surface temperatures continue to “smash records”.

The shunning of ‘pariah’ states and groups will deepen humanitarian crises

A family is pictured walking in front of a pickup truck that is stacked full of packages.

Aid organisations are grappling with how to provide assistance without appearing to legitimise governments and groups accused of wide-scale abuses. It’s not a new dilemma, but it is poised to take on a new urgency in 2024 as humanitarian needs spiral upward in Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Sahel, and in many other settings around the globe where donor governments and international aid groups are tested by political, ethical, and legal constraints. A mindset shift may be under way. The UN and the government of Venezuela have agreed to a plan to use millions of dollars of Venezuelan assets frozen by sanctions for emergency aid. In Latin America and the Caribbean, lessons learned by peacebuilders are being offered to aid groups that have to engage with gang leaders. And calls from within Afghanistan for greater engagement with the Taliban in order to bolster aid efforts are getting more of a hearing from international leaders: As the head of the UN mission there told the Security Council: “Dialogue does not legitimise.” 

Read more: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Does the greater good lie in serving as many people as possible or in limiting engagement (and aid) in a stand against civilian abuses – a stand that may backfire and harm the very people most in need? In Afghanistan, disagreement among international governments and aid groups on whether to engage with the Taliban since it took back power in 2021 has hobbled aid, with nearly half the population estimated to be in need in 2024. However, In Myanmar, international aid groups are being urged to stop coordinating with the junta that came to power in a 2021 coup. Some see increased support for local response groups as the answer, but international organisations and the UN continue to tentatively engage with a military leadership accused of restricting aid and inflicting massive civilian casualties. This hesitancy is opening up gaps in food, healthcare, and other assistance at a time when one third of the population is in need and fighting is on the rise.

‘Transitional’ regimes in the Sahel will put aid access and funding at risk

Pictured here is a makeshift displacement camp set up in in West Darfur state after a 2021 militia attack. The houses in the camp are made of sticks and pieces of fabric. You can see a few people walking between the houses.

The aftermath of a spate of recent coups in the Sahel – driven by poor governance and dysfunction, but also by legacies of colonialism – is worsening already significant humanitarian crises. Juntas in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have left the violence of militant groups unchecked and failed to turn around dwindling economies. 2024 is likely to be rougher still, as debt distress, stumbling growth, climate emergencies, and tighter aid budgets further test the solidity of constitutional rule elsewhere. Sanctions by Africa’s regional organisations have been the standard – and ineffective – reaction to military takeovers. In Niger, they have been particularly blunt, hurting both people and aid operations. “Transitional” military regimes are now entrenched as political players. A more nuanced international approach is required. It needs to both recognise the conditions that have led to interventions and work to solve them – while at the same time encouraging punctuality in the return to civilian rule.

Read more: Tackling the roots of the dysfunction

After seven coups in Africa in three years, some fret that military interventions are now habit-forming. That’s all the more disconcerting given Africa’s post-COVID fiscal troubles and resilient insurgencies – conditions young military officers say only they can fix. The reality is that putsches often worsen economic and political emergencies – and by extension, humanitarian crises. Aid workers in Burkina Faso say the junta there has restricted relief access. Citizens rights and freedoms have also been curtailed. Yet broad “democracy under threat” headlines are alarmist. The recent coups have been driven by specific local problems, largely in a group of former French colonies. In the main, support for democracy across Africa remains robust. Military takeovers are also a symptom of broader dysfunction. It’s a structural crisis, but its disruptive fallout is largely ignored by Western governments, focused instead on their own security interests. For some citizens, the men in camo are the solution to rigged polls or a president’s indefinite stay – hence the street celebrations welcoming them. The failure by political elites to improve people’s lives – regardless of who wins elections – has also been seized on by jihadist groups preaching a sharia-based, anti-corruption alternative, rooted in pre-colonial histories. Their extreme violence – unchecked by the new juntas – continues to expand the map of humanitarian needs.

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