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Afghan attacks, Raqqa redux, and plague in Madagascar: The Cheat Sheet

(Delil Soulaiman/UNICEF)

Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:


AU and EU: new BFFs?


African and European leaders are scheduled to meet in a summit in November at a time when relations have reached a turning point, the International Crisis Group says in a report released this week. The African Union has launched potentially transformative reforms that will shake up its peacekeeping operations and should increase its financial self-sufficiency. Because of Brexit, the EU is losing one of its most influential and internationally engaged members – with implications for Africa. One component critical to reshaping AU-EU relations is the Cotonou Agreement, a partnership between the EU and 79 countries from sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific that expires in 2020 and will be renegotiated over the next two years. It’s unclear what shape the post-Cotonou settlement will take, and the future of the linked European Development Fund is equally uncertain. The AU’s reform of its peace and security architecture also has consequences for the EU – its chief funder. There are many points of friction: For the AU, the EU’s “paternalism” grates, while Brussels worries that it’s perceived as a “cash machine” – not to mention serious divergences over the migration issue. But there are deep-shared strategic interests. Both sides “must confront key areas of disagreement and frustration,” says the ICG. “In this context, the AU-EU summit comes at a particularly opportune moment.”


Biggest plague outbreak since 2008 (probably)


In Madagascar, 94 people have died in the worst outbreak of plague since 2008. Since 1 August, there have been 1,153 suspected cases, according to the WHO. This outbreak is nearly three times bigger than the typical seasonal outbreaks the island has every year, and it's reached the capital city, Antananarivo. Also bad: The pneumonic variant that can spread directly from human to human is responsible for two thirds of the cases. Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Ibrahima Soce Fall, the WHO’s emergency director for Africa, said the outbreak could be contained quickly and that all strains tested so far are treatable with standard antibiotics. The likelihood of international spread is minimal, he argued. However, the WHO's own literature admits the pneumonic form can produce "terrifying" outbreaks. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has appealed for 5.5 million Swiss francs to support its work on the outbreak, which “involves illness, fear, stigma and discrimination”. Justifying the hefty investment, IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy said: “we are adopting a ‘no regrets’ approach to this response”. In recent years, Madagascar has reported three quarters of the cases of human plague worldwide – a sign, according to a study, of the "deteriorating fabric” of the country’s health system. However, not all cases are reported to the WHO: Weak surveillance in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, another endemic country (it reported 1,962 cases in 2008), may hide continuing outbreaks there. 


New lows in Afghanistan


It has been a deadly week in Afghanistan: Multiple attacks claimed by the Taliban have killed at least 100 people and injured hundreds more. Taliban militants targeted an Afghan Army base in Kandahar Province, killing 43 soldiers — the majority of the troops stationed there, according to media reports. Separate attacks in Paktya and Ghazni provinces killed at least 60 and injured at least another 200, according to the UN mission. These attacks are just the latest signs of Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation. More than 8,000 civilians have been killed or injured in conflict through the first nine months of this year – a figure that has Afghanistan on a path to near record-high levels of casualties. The violence also underscores the Taliban’s mounting influence in certain parts of the country. It’s estimated that the government now only has control or even influence in less than 60 percent of the country’s districts. With a mild winter expected in the coming months, observers are predicting even greater insecurity as the country hobbles toward parliamentary elections scheduled for July 2018. This week, IRIN crunched some numbers that show the costs of Afghanistan’s increasingly fragile security situation. Next week, we’ll take a look at how this instability is impacting the health system – and some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable groups.


Raqqa redux


After more than four years, so-called Islamic State is finally on the back foot in Iraq and Syria. This week, US-backed militias declared victory in Raqqa – the Syrian city that has been called the caliphate’s capital. Raqqa has been under bombardment by an international coalition for years, but the endgame has been particularly brutal, resulting in a disturbing uptick in civilian casualties. While Raqqa is not the last territory IS holds in Syria or Iraq (see: al-Qaim), it is a symbolic one, and there’s reason to worry the group’s territorial losses will lead to a proliferation of attacks elsewhere from a spreading network. The end of these battles also marks the beginning of a whole host of new challenges: There will likely be conflict over who will control the Raqqa area, and – not unconnected – who will make money off its reconstruction. More than 312,000 people have been displaced inside Raqqa province in the past year – Save the Children says camps in the area are “bursting at the seams”. With much of the city reportedly damaged or destroyed, it’s unlikely they’ll be able to go home anytime soon.


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Bleak outlook for South Sudan


This week, Norwegian Refugee Council head Jan Egeland wrote in an IRIN op-ed that “an air of possibility” now hangs over South Sudan as belligerent parties gather for another round of peace talks. Conflict since 2013 has claimed untold thousands of lives, created almost four million refugees, and left two thirds of the population – some 7.6 million people – dependent on humanitarian aid. Egeland noted that the international community’s support for South Sudan had “waned” since it midwifed a landmark 2005 deal that halted an earlier conflict. However, in a paper just published by the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based think tank, Canadian academic John Young is less optimistic. A year after President Salva Kiir and the opposition, led by former vice president Riek Machar, signed a peace agreement, “international peacemakers are reduced to making appeals to end the violence that are ignored.” Young argues that South Sudan is still at war partly because the mediators of the 2005 deal misread the dynamics of a conflict that first began in the mid-1950s, and consequently came up with an ill-fated formula to resolve it. Young concludes that “none of the belligerents has demonstrated the capacity to conclusively defeat the other, and without strong and effective international interlocutors there is no credible track to end the war.”



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