Here’s the IRIN team’s weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
A vote for stability in Afghanistan
This weekend, analysts will be keeping an eye on voter turnout for parliamentary elections – seen as a harbinger of public confidence ahead of presidential elections scheduled for next April – as well as signs of voter fraud, which has marred previous polls. Afghan authorities had hoped the 20 October elections would bring a measure of stability to the country after another year of tumult, but the lead-up to the weekend vote has only added to the uncertainty. On Thursday, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination of a prominent police chief in Kandahar Province. Earlier this month, a suicide attack struck an election rally, killing at least 14 civilians, in volatile Nangarhar – an eastern province where both the Taliban and fighters aligned with the so-called Islamic State have wrestled for control. The UN says hundreds of civilians have been killed or injured this year in “disturbing” attacks on voter registration centres, schools, and mosques set up for election-related purposes. This includes a 22 April suicide attack outside a distribution centre for national ID cards in Kabul, which killed at least 60 people. The election risks are adding to already pressing humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan. Conflict this year has displaced a quarter million people, and severe drought has uprooted even more. A survey this week from Save the Children looked at the effects of this instability on Afghan children deported from Europe. Most of the children surveyed had been unable to attend school in Afghanistan, while one in five said they had been asked to fight in combat or join an armed group.
How healthy in 2040?
In Afghanistan, the third biggest cause of death now is conflict. In 2040, it will be road accidents. In Côte d’Ivoire, heart disease will take over from malaria as the top killer. Progress, of a sort? A new study, from Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, published in The Lancet, estimates the toll of illness and likely life expectancy across the world in 2040. Non-communicable diseases like diabetes and lung and kidney conditions will become more significant. Winners? The Spanish and Japanese will live longest. Syrian life expectancy will jump back up (assuming peace). But Palestinians’ life expectancy is expected to drop the most relative to other nations – from a ranking of 114th in 2016 to 152nd in 2040.
Yes, another dark week for Yemen
We know the competition of misery doesn’t much help anyone, but every time we think it can’t get worse in Yemen – which the UN calls the world’s largest humanitarian crisis – it does. This week, the UN said at least 15 civilians were killed and 20 injured when airstrikes hit two minibuses in Hodeidah province, where a Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates-led assault against Houthi rebels is intensifying. The value of the Yemeni currency continued to plummet, causing the prices of food and fuel to skyrocket. That, in turn, brought more warnings of famine. Cholera has once again spread to almost all of Yemen (check back with us next week for more on that), and a tropical cyclone hit the coast near the border with Oman. Three people were confirmed killed; more are missing and injured. Homes have been destroyed, an estimated 3,000 families are displaced, and flood damage means aid workers are having trouble providing help. In short: not much good news.
Northward from Honduras
As a growing caravan of as many as 4,000 migrants continued walking from Honduras to the US-Mexico border this week, local groups and ordinary citizens offered support along the way. A bakery distributed bread, middle schools and migrant shelters opened their doors at night, and charity groups cooked meals for people who have been on traveling on foot for days. Those moving northward are often looking for economic opportunity, but they are also fleeing gang and other violence as well as political repression. Doctors Without Borders noted last year that the “unrelenting violence and emotional suffering” in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras is similar to that in conflict zones, and that migrants are “re-victimised” as they make the trek north. Yet governments on the migrants’ route have framed their presence as a security issue, not a humanitarian one, with US President Donald Trump describing the march in a tweet as “the assault on our country from our southern border.” He threatened to cut development aid to Honduras if the migrants reached the US border, echoing his campaign promise to stem immigration. Guatemala and Mexico drew fire from human rights organisations this week for sending hundreds of police officers to their borders. On Thursday, the situation seemed to take a turn, as Mexican president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the marchers deserve “humanitarian treatment” and announced a work visa plan for Central American migrants (as reported by the Mexican paper Excelsior) and that his government would ask the UN for assistance processing asylum requests. An Amnesty International report found, however, that 75 percent of migrants detained by Mexico are not informed of their right to seek asylum. There may be more news to come: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was headed to Mexico on Friday.
Deaths aren’t the only civilian toll in Somalia attacks
Last week, US forces launched their deadliest attack in nearly a year on Somalia’s al-Shabab, killing 60 of the militant group’s members, US Africa Command (Africom) reported on Tuesday. Last November, the US said another significant strike against the group killed 100 of its fighters. Al-Shabab has lost large swathes of territory to the Somali army this year, bolstered by US and African Union troops. Africom said no civilians were killed or wounded in last Friday’s air attack, near the al-Shabab-controlled town of Harardhere in Mudug region. Yet the ongoing cycle of violence has taken a devastating toll on many communities. Among them are current and former child soldiers, who are often forcibly recruited at age eight or nine. For more on this, watch for our piece next week by Somali-Canadian journalist Hassan Ghedi Santur, who recently travelled to Mogadishu and met with child defectors from al-Shabab.
Uganda: apologies don’t stop landslides
The death toll from last week's landslides in eastern Uganda’s Bududa district has risen to 43, while the disaster has destroyed some 139 households. Of those affected, 278 are reportedly children under five. Following heavy rains, the Sume river burst its banks last Thursday, forcing large volumes of water and boulders toward peoples’ homes in the sub-county of Bukalasi. This week, the Red Cross launched an emergency appeal to support victims, warning that three other areas are at risk. Bududa is among the most disaster-prone districts in Uganda; in 2010, over 350 people died in landslides there, followed by similar disasters in 2011 and 2012. President Yoweri Museveni this week apologised for the delay in relocating communities from landslide-prone areas, while the government unveiled a plan to resettle those most at risk. But is resettlement the way to address landslides in the eastern mountainous region? Regular IRIN contributor Samuel Okiror explores this question next week, after visiting landslide-affected communities in Uganda. Stay tuned.
Humanitarian journalism: how are we doing?
Nearly 200 interviews, four years, three researchers, and countless thousands of words published by specialist and mainstream English-language media informed a new academic study on humanitarian journalism released this week. The State of Humanitarian Journalism is a report card of sorts on how the media covers humanitarian crises, what influences that coverage, and whether audiences care about any of it. (If you’re wondering whether IRIN News was included in the study, yes, we were.) The good news: readers care. Or at least they say they do. In a survey of readers in the UK, France, Germany, and the US, more respondents said they followed news about humanitarian disasters either “closely” or “fairly closely”, paying more attention to it than other international reporting. The not so good news: the high cost of practicing humanitarian journalism. The authors – Martin Scott of the University of East Anglia, Kate Wright of the University of Edinburgh, and Mel Bunce of City University of London – note that few mainstream news organizations cover humanitarian issues other than high-profile emergencies. And most humanitarian journalism is supported by government subsidies or private foundations, which, the authors say, “is worrying because claiming that particular actors or activities are ‘humanitarian’ is a powerful form of legitimacy.” They add: “It is important that media about the suffering does not become a vehicle for commercial or political interests.” Among the gaps in coverage the study identified were reporting on issues affecting women and girls and investigative reporting. We agree. We hope to do more of both as we look toward 2019. In the meantime, check out our latest investigations and reporting on women in Mosul, Cox’s Bazar, and Uganda.
Add riverbanks to Bangladesh’s disaster list
Cyclones, floods, drought, storm surge, and even earthquakes: Bangladesh is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries when it comes to disasters. Another frequent risk is soil erosion along the coastal country’s waterways. In September, five kilometres of riverbank along the Padma River collapsed, displacing more than 43,000 people. The European Union’s humanitarian arm, ECHO, says local food shortages have been reported as the erosion caused “significant damage” to cropland. NASA says more than 66,000 hectares of riverbank land along the Padma – a distributary of the Ganges River – have eroded over the last half-century. There are many factors that contribute to soil erosion, both natural and manmade. The Bangladesh Red Crescent Society says the September damage was exacerbated by heavy rains and the opening of a dam gate upstream.
One to listen to
Aid for arms
Twenty-five years ago, news broke of what’s now known as the “Pergau dam affair” - a secret agreement that linked the promise of UK development aid to Malaysia with arms sales. The scandal, named for an expensive hydroelectric dam project, ended up in headlines, select committees, investigations, a court case against the UK government, and eventually the creation of DFID, the UK government department that administers overseas aid today. Have a listen to this short look back at the furore with the BBC’s Witness for more from a senior civil servant who was at the centre of the whole thing.
In case you missed it:
Bangladesh: The risk of forced labour and abuse is rising for Rohingya children, as most families in Bangladesh’s packed refugee camps have few other ways to earn money, the UN’s migration agency, IOM, warned this week. Advocates for children have called the Rohingya camps “a child protection disaster waiting to happen”, citing a lack of economic opportunities for refugee families and a shortage of safe spaces for vulnerable kids.
DRC: The outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo does not constitute a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), an emergency committee convened by the World Health Organization decided on Wednesday. But it remains “deeply concerned” about the region and called for response to be “intensified” to ensure the situation doesn’t worsen. The WHO said nine neighbouring countries are at high risk, particularly Uganda and Rwanda. Burundi and South Sudan have also been supported with equipment and personnel in case the outbreak reaches them. The situation is particularly complex because the affected area is “in an active conflict zone amidst prolonged humanitarian crises," the WHO said.
The Gambia: The Gambia this week launched a truth commission intended to shed light on summary executions, disappearances, torture, rape, and other crimes under Yahya Jammeh, who ruled the small West African nation for 22 years. President Adama Barrow, who was voted in to power in December 2016, said in a tweet: "I hope this exercise provides us the opportunity to forge on resolutely as one people, united in our diversity, with the common belief that we can set aside our differences and confront our past."
Indonesia: The number of people displaced by the 28 September earthquakes and tsunami in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi has jumped to more than 222,000, according to figures released Friday by the AHA Centre, a regional coordination body. It’s nearly triple the previous official tally. The official death toll stands at 2,100, but this is also expected to rise with large numbers of people believed missing.
Iran: Faced with a stumbling economy, Iranians are increasingly seeking asylum in European Union countries. Nearly 2,500 Iranians applied for asylum in the EU in August – the highest monthly total in two years and part of a rising trend, according to newly released data from the European Asylum Support Office.
Nigeria: The second medical aid worker in a month was executed in Borno State this week by a faction of the extremist group Boko Haram. The killing has appalled the international aid community and highlighted the exceptional dangers associated with bringing aid to over seven million civilians in the wider conflict-affected region.
Syria: The UN’s envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, announced this week that he would step down at the end of November. The diplomat has been on the job for the past four years and has vowed to focus the rest of his time working to assemble a committee to rewrite Syria’s constitution, as agreed at January talks. In news from inside Syria, the UN says Damascus will for the first time allow a convoy of aid to reach people trapped at Rukban, on the Jordan/Syria border next week. Next week IRIN will report on that desert pressure-cooker, the border area known as “the berm”. Have views or tips for us? Contact us on Twitter or [email protected]
Venezuela: Mexican companies and individuals will pay reparations to the UN Refugee Agency for speculating on food items sold to Venezuela, which subsidises basic goods. The scheme, which involved officials and businesspeople from several Latin American countries, has been said to enrich those who exploit the subsidies program while exacerbating acute food shortages in Venezuela.
The weekend read
As humanitarian aid is increasingly distributed, and streamlined using big data, privacy risks are piling up. Technologies are evolving quickly, and the aid sector is trying to catch up. It’s time for humanitarian organizations to ask themselves some serious ethical questions, a panel of humanitarian data professionals chaired by IRIN’s Ben Parker pointed out recently. Speaking at the first-ever talk on data security at the Humanitarian Congress Berlin, the panelists warned about the dangers of commercialising sensitive data, the perils of sharing data with irresponsible governments in emergency situations, and the need to avert a breach before it’s too late. Possible solutions to what one panelist called a “digital apocalypse” in terms of privacy and personal agency over data include a moratorium on new technologies like biometrics and alternative technologies (think blockchain and Bitcoin), and smaller privacy-by-design initiatives that minimise the amount of data collected and store it responsibly. If you’re doing the data collection, keep in mind the power you hold over the people whose data is in your hands. Think about rebalancing that relationship through moves like providing safe internet access to clearly explaining rights and conditions of consent. For tips, find some time this weekend to take a look at our excerpts from the discussion.
A new reading of rusty old aid signage
Burundi’s stunning landscape has an unusual feature – an infestation of sign boards marking aid projects and offering foreign-funded public service messages. Researcher Astrid Jamar, based at the University of Edinburgh, was struck by this aid signage and took out an analytical lens. The signs have become part of the landscape, she reports: “residents use aid billboards for various purposes such as drying clothes or as landmarks when giving directions – eg ‘Take the road on the right after USAID AIDS billboard, and then second left after the IOM billboard.’” She counted (and photographed) 20 signs in a 200 metre stretch of road in the town of Rutana. In a blog at the London School of Economics, Jamar reflects on what this might say about Burundi’s fraught relations with donors and foreign aid organisations. (From 1 October it has suspended most international NGO activities, requiring groups to re-register under new terms.) The boards, often years out of date, rusting and faded, symbolise the “cacophonic and disorganised nature of aid efforts”, and an appetite amongst aid operators for “visibility”, Jamar suggests. The signs occupy an ambiguous space, she argues, straddling the neocolonial tendencies of aid and “the current regime’s use of accusations of neo-colonialism to counter criticism of human rights violations”. And she points out that a number of billboards take a banal and paternalistic tone that belittles citizens. Two examples: “Let’s eat food rich in nutrients” and “Let’s avoid adultery because it has negative impacts on the family.”