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Wheat wars, US summit flop, and UK aid losers: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

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Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

Grain diplomacy falters as food crisis bites

An international effort to negotiate safe passage for millions of tonnes of grain stuck in Russian-blockaded Ukrainian ports is struggling. Any agreement would likely involve cargo vessels sailing for the Bosphorus under Turkish naval escort, and then onto a hungry global market, where food prices are surging. But a lot remains to be haggled over. The Black Sea’s waters are filled with mines that need to be removed – which would take months. There’s also the difficulty of shipping the grain before it rots. Transporting the estimated 20 million tonnes would involve an armada of 400 vessels. Russia has said it would help plug the gap in wheat and fertiliser supplies, if sanctions against it are lifted. Grain is the new currency. The US accused Russia this week of “pilfering” Ukrainian wheat, while Vladimir Putin earlier met Macky Sall, Senegal’s president and chair of the African Union, to assure him that his hard-hit continent would be helped. But the talks that need to happen to unlock the grain silos, Turkey’s Foreign Minister noted this week, are between Russia and Ukraine.

Who will lose out under the UK’s new development strategy?

Britain’s new strategy for international development focuses on issues including humanitarian crisis, women and girls, poverty targeting, and global challenges like climate change, health, and the environment. A new report by Development Initiatives (DI) delves into some of the humanitarian implications: The £3 billion pledge for humanitarian assistance over the next three years is a slight increase from 2021, but it doesn’t constitute a restoration of funding to 2020 levels (when the UK cut its funding 29 percent from 2019). The plan puts £286 million in 2022/23 towards Afghanistan, with Ukraine coming in second with £220 million pledged so far. That means half of the UK’s budget over the next three years will be allocated to these two crises. DI notes that compared to previous years, when UK funding was more evenly dispersed across more countries, this shift in concentration means that protracted crises with the greatest numbers of people in need – namely Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria – are unlikely to see British support recover close to pre-cut levels. 

US migration pact flounders amid summit no-shows

Thousands of migrants are on their way to the US-Mexico border, timing one of the biggest marches in recent years to coincide with the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The caravan of at least 6,000 people set off on 6 June from the southern Mexican city of Tapachula – where travel restrictions force many to wait for months with little support before they’re allowed to head north. Organisers hoped to press summit attendees, including the host, US President Joe Biden, to address the root causes of migration: the instability, poverty, and growing violence in their home countries. However, most leaders were not in attendance. Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua were excluded over political differences and human rights concerns, prompting Mexico’s president to pull out. A further snub came when the so-called Northern Triangle countries – Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras – also decided on a no-show. With record numbers of migrants and asylum seekers being apprehended at the US southern border, migration was a focal point at the summit, but proposals to improve the region’s economy and trade looked thin. And given the lack of attendees, US hopes of a meaningful pact to address the migration crisis appeared to be in disarray. For more on the dangerous journeys, migrants and asylum seekers undertake to try to reach the United States, check out our recent interactive.

Climate disasters drive louder calls for ‘loss and damage’

Climate-driven disasters are a “new normal”, repeatedly destroying agriculture, driving displacement, and pushing “millions to the brink”, two UN agencies said in a new briefing that warned of looming food crises in the coming months. Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen are among the most severe hotspots facing the risk of “catastrophic hunger”. Across the globe, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has compounded the fallout from conflict, climate, COVID-19, and debt. The UN warnings come as government representatives gather in Bonn for meetings and negotiations that will set the stage for the COP27 climate summit in Egypt. Campaigners are seizing on the food warnings to call for clearer political action on support to the countries hardest hit by the climate crisis, including movement on so-called “loss and damage” financing – often seen as compensation for climate disaster damages. “Poor countries cannot be expected to foot the bill,” said Gabriela Bucher of Oxfam.

UN reforms must go beyond a single agency, ambassador says

A relatively minor agency, UNOPS, is mired in a financial mismanagement scandal, but the need for clearer oversight stretches throughout “the entire UN system”, says the American official pushing for reforms at the world body. “Far too few UN agencies are willing to disclose serious problems until they’re pointed out by auditors and investigators,” Chris Lu, the US ambassador for UN reforms, said on 6 June at a meeting of the executive board of the UN Office for Project Services. UNOPS, as it’s better known, is under the microscope for what appear to be high-risk loans and grants in its impact investments programme, following reporting by Devex and The New York Times. UNOPS’ head has resigned, auditors are still unpacking what the current head calls a “large-scale business failure”, and the agency faces broader questions about a business model that has allowed it to amass some $360 million in assets. This may be a UNOPS mess, but secrecy and opaqueness are common throughout the UN system (and indeed the aid sector) – see investigations on sexual abuse, corruption, or unreported security breaches for examples. “All UN agencies have to be reoriented to prioritise transparency even when it might be less than positive,” Lu said.

Sri Lanka crisis spawns emergency aid appeals

The UN has issued an emergency appeal for Sri Lanka, calling for $47.2 million to address a rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis, while the Red Cross has called for more than $28.5 million. On 7 June, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told parliament that the country needs $5 billion over the next 6 months to meet the nation’s food and fuel needs. In recent months, Sri Lanka has struggled amid an economic and political crisis, which has seen skyrocketing food prices and a shortage of both medical supplies and fertiliser. Demonstrations have been ongoing for months, with protesters calling for the resignation and arrest of members of the powerful Rajapaksa family. In May, Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down from his position as prime minister, while his brother Basil Rajapaksa resigned from parliament on 9 June. Gotabaya Rajapaksa has remained in his position as president. 

In case you missed it

BRAZIL: Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips remain missing in a remote part of the Amazon known to be the largest refuge for uncontacted tribes but also for illegal logging, mining, as well as drug trafficking. Pereira, who has received death threats, headed the regional office of the government’s Indigenous agency, FUNAI, before being sacked when President Jair Bolsonaro came to office.

CLIMATE CHANGE: A new report from the Center for Global Development underlines the extent to which countries like the United States and China will continue to dwarf lower-income countries in terms of carbon emissions. It projects that, by 2035, the share of global emissions from the 29 lowest-income countries will only rise from 0.5% to 1%.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: CODECO, one of the deadliest rebel groups operating in Congo’s volatile east, has ended its long-running insurgency following peace talks with the government on 6 June. The talks in Ituri province brought together representatives of various ethnic groups, including leaders of the minority Lendu community, linked to the rebels.

HORN OF AFRICA: Millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia face starvation due to an exceptional four-season drought, with concern rising that rains are likely to fail again later in the year due to an ongoing La Niña. There’s already a real possibility of famine in remote parts of Somalia. That remains a loaded term for some governments, with Ethiopia accused this week of playing down a man-made food disaster in Tigray.

LEBANON: A new report from Legal Action Worldwide says that various sides in Lebanon’s 15-year civil war carried out “systematic” sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls, including rape and sexualised torture. 

NIGERIA: Gunmen killed at least 50 worshippers in a church in Nigeria’s southwestern Ondo state on 5 June. The armed men entered St. Francis Catholic church in the town of Owo, spraying the congregation with automatic weapons, and detonating explosives. Security agencies have accused so-called Islamic State of being behind the attack.

SINGAPORE: More than 13,000 cases of dengue have been recorded in Singapore this year, more than double the total 2021 caseload. Scientists say the large-scale outbreak is due in part to a new strain and unusually warm and humid weather. But it also reflects climate change more broadly, raising concern for worsening outbreaks worldwide. 

UGANDA: More than 500,000 people in Uganda’s impoverished northeastern region of Karamoja – over 40 percent of the area’s population – are going hungry. A combination of drought, rising food prices, and rampant cattle rustling has deepened vulnerability in the arid region. See The New Humanitarian’s report on gun proliferation.

UKRAINE: More Ukrainian refugees are now returning home than leaving the country to seek safety in Europe, according to the EU border agency Frontex. Overall, some 2.3 million Ukrainians have entered Ukraine since the Russian invasion began, while more than 4.8 million have been recorded as refugees across Europe. Some of the most intense fighting of the war is ongoing, but it is concentrated in the east and the south.

YEMEN: An internal US government report says that the Departments of State and Justice have failed to keep track of civilian deaths in Yemen, according to reporting by The New York Times. The US provides weapons and logistical support to Saudi Arabia, which, along with the United Arab Emirates, leads a coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen. 

Weekend read

Most aid funds go to just a few disasters. What about the rest?

‘If you don’t tell the story to the world, they’ll never know.’

Not all disasters are treated equally, their number is growing, and far more money needs to be spent on prevention and risk reduction. These are the uncomfortable truths underlying this in-depth report from Latin America Editor-at-large Paula Dupraz-Dobias. Looking at case studies in Peru’s Amazonas region, where she visited in late April, and in Nepal, thanks to additional reporting from Rebecca Root, this weekend read exposes how the needs of disaster survivors are often neglected after the media moves on. In Amazonas, a November earthquake made a few headlines and initially saw quite an engaged government response. In the months since, though, this assistance has all but dried up even as a string of related landslides and floods have afflicted the same communities. In Nepal, emergency response experts complain that large-scale floods, landslides, and complex disaster risks are often overshadowed by events in places like Bangladesh, which tend to get more media attention, in part because they are more easily understood. With predictions of 560 medium-to-large disasters occurring annually by 2030, experts say it’s beyond time to rethink the usual approaches and end this cycle of disaster-response-recover-repeat.

And finally…

King Philippe visits the family’s former estate 

Belgium's King Philippe arrived in the Democratic Republic of Congo this week with a giant mask, which, like tens of thousands of other artefacts, had been looted during the colonial period. Yet rather than saying sorry and formally handing it back, the mask – known as Kakunga – is on “indefinite loan” to the country from whence it was stolen. That not-quite admission of theft extends to Belgium’s general attitude to the broader atrocities it inflicted during colonial rule. Before Phillippe’s visit, the question was whether he would apologise for the brutality of King Leopold II, the brother of Phillipe’s great-grandfather. The answer: barely. Philippe said Belgium was guilty of "paternalism, discrimination and racism”. But an actual apology, on Congolese soil, for the murder of millions, eluded him. Many countries have made strides in overcoming their colonial past, yet Congo has struggled. Belgium played a central role in the murder of the country’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba – and the hope that he represented. Lumumba was replaced by his antithesis, Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled for the next three decades. Belgium’s contrition remains a work in progress.

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