Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors curates a reading list of humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe.
UN blinks first in Congo conference showdown
Next week the UN is scheduled to assemble donors in Geneva to seek $1.7 billion to fund humanitarian operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But on 23 March the Kinshasa government suddenly announced it wouldn't attend. Cue dismay, confusion, and, some now say, capitulation.
Wooing new investors and shoring up its political reputation, the government of President Joseph Kabila objected to being lumped in by the UN with the likes of Yemen and Syria as a state with skyrocketing emergency needs. Following this threat to skip its own pledging event, which doesn't help prospects for donor largesse, the UN will now upgrade Congo’s humanitarian status.
Later this month, Congo will no longer be classified as a "level three" situation: a demarcation of the worst crises in the world. A senior NGO official close to the process said the decision was rushed through in 12 hours and was "very rash", as it sets a bad precedent. "If we can't stand up to the government of DRC... good luck with [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad", the official said, adding that the UN had skipped consultations with other aid groups that collectively agreed the designation last October.
However, Mark Lowcock, the UN aid chief who heads the Inter-Agency Standing Committee that decides on "L3s", stated in a 4 April announcement that benchmarks had largely been met, and the six-month designation would not need to be renewed. An L3 designation can be agreed by the IASC to signal the urgency and priority of the most serious situations, and thereby unlock extra resources to mobilise a bigger and better response. Several NGO staffers said Congo wouldn't be the first country to shake off the L3 designation and that Nigeria was among several countries that had successfully lobbied behind the scenes to avoid the label altogether.
Congo is on a tense path to delayed elections while trying to ram through changes to taxes that have irked mining firms. It also has multiple conflicts, widespread hunger, and huge numbers of displaced people (numbers now disputed by Kinshasa). Whether lifting the "L3" status operationally makes much difference now, the NGO staffers weren't sure. But they all agreed that the timing looked unhelpfully like a UN climbdown. "With the government contesting the numbers and saying the L3 was not justified... it just looks very publicly like they are giving in to the pressure," said one aid worker in Goma.
Mirror, mirror: gender and pay
This year, for the first time, new government regulations required UK charities and companies with over 250 employees to report on female and male staff members’ relative pay scales and seniority — an effort to document the so-called “gender pay gap.” The results, released on 4 April, make for uncomfortable reading. British NGOs that promote gender equality abroad need to take a good hard look in the mirror: the UK's largest international charities, like most British companies, all pay their men more than their women on average, according to the new government dataset. However, eight of 13 in IRIN's sample do have more women than men in the top jobs. Among the NGOs listed are Oxfam, Save the Children, World Vision, and the British Red Cross. Commenting on the findings, Tamsyn Barton, chief executive of UK NGO alliance BOND, said: "As a sector that works to tackle gender inequality... in the Global South, it’s time we do the same at home." The reporting does not analyse equal work for equal pay: rather it shows the overall spread of men and women across all pay bands.
World Vision has the largest gender pay gap of major NGOs in IRIN's sample of non-profits with a significant international footprint (see table): there, women's hourly rate of pay is on average 24 percent less than men's. In its formal report, the Christian NGO stated that it is "not complacent" and would strengthen management tools to tackle the issue. Its average is brought down by the fact that women make up 84 percent of the staff in the lowest pay band. In senior management, UNICEF UK and Islamic Relief (IR) are opposites: UNICEF's leadership is 80 percent women; at Birmingham-based IR it is 79.5 percent men. In a statement, IR said it was working on its career advancement, training, and flexible working arrangements to narrow the gap. UNICEF in a statement said "it would strive to make improvements."
Many NGOs say their work improves the lives of women and girls around the globe, but "I don't see how they can seriously do that" without a "proper exploration" of their internal gender imbalance, said Alexia Pepper de Caires, co-leader of the Women's Equality Party in the London borough of Hackney. Pepper de Caires, an ex-aid worker involved in exposing harassment and abuse at Save the Children, said NGOs appear to be confident about "what happens in other places", but are unable to see "what happens here... it's a double standard."
Facebook and hate speech in Myanmar
Already dealing with a scandal over the misuse of user’s data, social media giant Facebook this week faced renewed questions over how it handles hate speech in volatile countries like Myanmar. Multiple media reports shed light on how hardline nationalists in Myanmar used the platform to spread incendiary messages during last year’s Rohingya crisis – and how Facebook is failing to address the problem. An analysis published in the Guardian shows that Facebook posts from influential anti-Rohingya nationalists escalated dramatically last year leading up to 25 August, when Rohingya militants attacked border areas in northern Rakhine State. The spike in anti-Rohingya posts continued as Myanmar security forces launched a violent crackdown that drove hundreds of thousands of Rohingya out of the country. In a separate report, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company is focused on the problem in Myanmar. But in an open letter to Zuckerberg, civil society groups in Myanmar that previously warned Facebook of the threat of hate speech said the company had failed to react quickly to incendiary messages and appears not to have a system to address the problem. “Our community continues to be exposed to virulent hate speech and vicious rumours,” the groups stated. UN investigators barred from entering Myanmar recently warned that hate speech is running rampant and largely unchecked on Facebook.
Watching: Ethiopia and Eritrea
When Ethiopia and Eritrea went back to war in 1998 – after the latter seceded from the former in the wake of a protracted struggle for independence – the trench warfare conflict, in which tens of thousands of troops on both sides died, was fatuously described as “two bald men fighting over a comb”. The war, ostensibly stemming from a border dispute, only lasted two years, but relations have never recovered, cementing a stand-off that threatens regional security and development. Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, proffered an olive branch earlier this week, saying “we are fully committed to reconcile with our Eritrean brothers and sisters.” We too, came the swift response from Asmara, as long as you finally honour your peace treaty obligations. The big question now is whether Abiy will pull Ethiopian troops from land around the frontier town of Badme, which an international commission in 2003 determined belonged to Eritrea. Such a concession would be a risky move public relations-wise for a man facing a raft of monumental challenges, but it could also mend one of the most combustible fences in Africa. One to keep an eye on.
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New Ideas Needed: Aid and armed conflict
Despite better funding, greater professionalism, and improved early warning mechanisms, the humanitarian system continues to fall short when meeting the most urgent needs of people caught up in the early stages of armed conflict. That’s the conclusion of the Emergency Gap Project, conducted over the past two years by Médecins Sans Frontières, an agency known as much for its aloofness towards other key players in the humanitarian world and their coordination mechanisms as it is for the intrepidness of its frontline aid workers. In the 75 pages of Bridging the Gap, the last in a series of reports on the project, MSF unpacks the factors behind the “inadequate levels of response” and, at a time when the boundaries of what “humanitarianism” is are becoming more porous, calls on donors, the UN, and NGOs to keep a much more focused eye on the specific needs arising from acute crises. “This cannot be done by tweaking the existing system,” MSF insists.
Scenes from a week with civilians displaced by the battle for the Syrian-Kurdish enclave
In case you took a holiday or had an especially busy week, be sure to spend some time this weekend with our latest photo essay, After Afrin: No Safe Haven. Photojournalist Afshin Ismaeli chronicles life for civilians displaced from the Syrian-Kurdish enclave who are now finding shelter in the remains of 12 villages that until recently were nearly ghost towns.
(TOP PHOTO: Joseph Kabila Kabange, President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly at a previous session in 2017. CREDIT: Cia Pak/UN Photo)
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