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Ten humanitarian crises and trends to watch in 2020

A boy carries food aid he received from the local charity, Mona Relief, on the outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen. Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
Here’s our take on key concerns that will shape the aid industry’s work in 2020, from Yemen — where this boy received food aid — to dealing with urban displacement.

These 10 crises and trends will help shape our coverage in 2020.

Rather than a country-by-country rundown, this list for the most part offers a big-picture view of current and emerging concerns likely to drive needs across the humanitarian landscape.

As always, TNH journalists in 2020 will be on the ground in humanitarian hotspots around the globe – from Afghanistan to Syria, Colombia to Ukraine, Libya to South Sudan. In 2019, we reported from more than 60 countries, and this year we’ll continue to examine under-reported crises, long-running conflicts, extremism, sudden disasters, slow-burning emergencies, and the humanitarian consequences of migration.

Here’s why the crises listed below (in random – not ranked – order) have our particular attention and should demand yours.

Urban displacement: Shifting front lines

Eritrean refugees are still arriving in Ethiopia, despite the closure of the border.

The front lines of displacement crises have shifted from rural areas to urban centres, but strategies built for refugee camps are poorly suited to densely packed cities and towns. About three quarters of the world’s refugees and internally displaced now live in urban centres. Urban aid operations are more complex – more people, more levels of authority and competing interests, more potential responders – but the aid sector has been slow to adapt in an environment full of daunting challenges.


Why we’re watching


The January 2010 earthquake that flattened much of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, was a turning point for humanitarian response. Humanitarian guidelines built for rural camps were found to be “unworkable” in an urban environment, home to a complex array of actors and unfamiliar forces. And yet, almost a decade later, urban response experts say an attitude shift is still needed if aid organisations are going to adapt. Since Haiti, the case for developing a more suitable approach has only grown more urgent. Displacement caused by the war in Syria, in particular, flipped the rural-urban ratio in humanitarian responses. Today, more than 60 percent of refugees – and 80 percent of internally displaced people – live in urban areas. Responses in certain cities, like Kabul and Mogadishu, are under immense strain as drought and conflict have driven hundreds of thousands of people into fast-growing slums. The increasing volatility and severity of storms, flooding, and other hazards linked to climate change are also pushing people toward cities. But the pressure doesn’t only come from large influxes of people fleeing conflict and disasters. Cities with existing fragilities face a growing list of future shocks and stresses, from flooding to disease, from gang violence to heatwaves. Urban areas in several countries – Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen – have recently been the epicentre of full-scale conflict, while criminal and gang violence is blighting cities across Mexico and Central America.


Keep in mind


Reforming urban humanitarian responses intersects with several aid sector trends: cash-based assistance; the push for localisation, or locally driven aid; and the nexus – joining up programming between the often disconnected humanitarian and development worlds. Experts are calling for: more partnership-building with local authorities and improving collaboration with community groups, as navigating complex and often “informal” local support and leadership systems will be vital; gathering better data on risks and opportunities in urban responses; integrating emergency aid into broader resilience-building; reshaping donor expectations for traditionally short-term relief operations; and investing in training and new skills.



Read our most recent coverage on urban displacement →

DRC: A perfect storm

A perfect storm of disease and violent unrest hit the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019. With fresh conflicts raging and Ebola rumbling on, all that's certain for 2020 is that needs will again be sky-high in one of the world's longest-running humanitarian crises.


Why we’re watching


The second-deadliest Ebola epidemic in history stole the headlines in 2019 – but it was far from the only crisis afflicting Congo. In the northeastern province of Ituri, some 300,000 people were displaced by a poorly understood conflict, and hundreds of thousands more were uprooted in the remote highlands of South Kivu. A little reported measles epidemic took over 5,000 lives, while more than 470 people died of cholera. The country’s 17-month Ebola outbreak showed signs of slowing towards the end of 2019, but relief efforts were repeatedly suspended amid attacks on healthcare workers, militia violence, and protests by residents who say UN peacekeepers stationed in the region are failing to protect them. When the epidemic does finally end, continued support will be needed for survivors who face stigma and challenges finding work and reintegrating into communities. And the energy and resources mustered for Ebola will likely be needed to tackle other pressing needs around the vast country. Responding to these challenges may be further complicated by growing calls for the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo – known as MONUSCO – to leave, as it struggles to keep civilians safe from armed groups in the Ebola zone.

Let us know what's on your radar for 2020


Keep in mind


January marks a year since the inauguration of Congo’s new President, Félix Tshisekedi, following disputed elections in December 2018. High expectations greeted Tshisekedi, but his political vision has been compromised by the lingering power of former president Joseph Kabila – who supposedly struck a back-room deal that put the new president in power.

Read our most recent coverage on DRC →

Infectious diseases: Antibiotic resistance and a stubborn anti-vaccine movement

Yes, infectious diseases was among our top 10 crises last year. But a deadly mix of factors – such as antimicrobial resistance, a reluctance to vaccinate, and attacks against health workers in places like Syria, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – will make it even harder in 2020 to contain outbreaks like Ebola and measles, and to prevent and treat diseases and infections with vaccines and antibiotics. 

Why we’re watching


Conflict, weakened health systems, and poor access to clean water and sanitation have contributed to the spread of infectious diseases. Those realities are unlikely to change in the year ahead, but emerging trends threaten to make the situation even worse. Last year, for example, measles outbreaks flared in Angola, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Nigeria, Pacific Island nations, the Philippines, and Ukraine. The number of global cases was three times as many as the year before, and in some places, like Samoa, low immunisation rates were linked to “vaccine hesitancy”. This pattern appears likely to persist in the coming year. Mistrust and misinformation about the Ebola virus, meanwhile, are fuelling attacks against health workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And such violence has not been isolated. In Pakistan, polio vaccination teams have been attacked, while healthcare facilities in Gaza, Libya, Iraq, and Syria continue to be targets amid ongoing conflict. But health and humanitarian workers are now encountering a worrying new reality: antibiotics used to treat minor infections, conflict-related wounds, and diseases like tuberculosis are no longer working. In parts of Iraq, for example, nearly one third of all patients are showing resistance to the most commonly available antibiotic drugs. Worries over antibiotic resistance, however, aren’t just about the overuse of last-resort antibiotics. There are global shortages of narrow spectrum antibiotics, such as penicillin and co-trimoxazole (notably used to treat and prevent bacterial infections in HIV patients). Added to which there are now reports of a crisis brewing in the antibiotic manufacture and research industry.


Keep in mind


Governments and aid groups face a doubly rough road ahead in tackling widespread disease outbreaks. Conflict, displacement, and weakened health and sanitation systems were already making it difficult to meet the medical needs of many communities. The rising threat of low immunisation rates and a reluctance to vaccinate against preventable diseases is exacerbating those needs. The situation is forcing urgent discussions about how to develop the right government health policies to reverse these worrying trends.

Read our most recent coverage on infectious diseases →

Macro-economic turbulence: More risk for the most vulnerable

Sovereign debt distress, stock market and currency volatility, negative interest rates, trade tensions, US elections, Brexit, “populist” politics, street protests, and authoritarian crackdowns make up a risky picture for 2020. Only the bravest trader would bet against some macro-economic shocks. Whatever they are, the ripples will be felt by the poorest and most vulnerable in the global economy, far from the trading floors.

Why we’re watching

Humanitarians are getting better at predicting flood and famine, but where does economic collapse and market contagion fit into contingency planning and needs assessment? Economic pressures, sanctions, and subsidy cuts have major political consequences, potentially driving up humanitarian needs. Any economic downturn in wealthier countries can reduce funding that might have been spent to meet those needs. A government in fiscal trouble introduces tax hikes, layoffs or subsidy cuts. Protests follow. The regime is toppled. Unpredictable upheavals ensue. It’s already happening: price hikes of basics (fuel, bread) triggered upheaval in Sudan; a proposed tax increase on internet calls sparked government collapse in Lebanon. A systemic market disaster could spark more of the same – but on a much bigger scale. Wider contagion could take unpredictable directions.


Keep in mind

The humanitarian fallout may not be immediate, but its impacts may be deep and long-lasting. Rating agency Moody’s is pithy: “unpredictable politics create an unpredictable economic and financial environment.” And it includes top refugee hosts Lebanon and Turkey among its countries of concern. It joins a chorus of alarm about debt: the UN points out that 40 percent of people already in need of international assistance are in countries in or near sovereign debt “distress”. Developing and emerging economies owe a record $55 trillion, leading the World Bank to say “the size, speed and breadth of the latest debt wave should concern us all.” World trade is at its shakiest for 10 years, and economic turbulence is widely predicted. Whether it’s down to predatory “debt-trap diplomacy” or irresponsible borrowing, public assets could be on the block in lieu of debt payments. A slump off record-breaking US stock market highs could depress employment and trade globally, while shrinking tax revenue available for foreign aid. 

Read our most recent coverage on macro-economic turbulence →

Central America: Trapped in gang violence

A friend carries a coffin of someone murdered by suspected gang members in El Salvador.

Homicide rates driven by gang violence in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have long been among the world’s highest, but new migration trends and policy changes mean the extreme violence in the region demands the renewed attention of humanitarians in 2020.


Why we’re watching


Changes to US policies mean that in 2020 thousands of migrants and asylum seekers from Central America will likely be sent back to regions where gangs hold sway, while thousands more who might need to escape will feel increasingly trapped – raising protection concerns and increasing the need for humanitarian response where they live. There are other roots to the exodus of people from Central America, in particular the lack of economic opportunity and drought in the Dry Corridor, but gang violence, intimidation, and extortion are major drivers. Migration across Mexico’s northern border to the United States used to be largely young Mexican men; it is now often families of asylum seekers from Central America. The number of Central Americans aiming to migrate to the United States in 2019 was projected to be on track to double compared to 2018. Among those joining the so-called “caravans” that caught the headlines earlier in the year were many women – the Northern Triangle has extraordinarily high levels of gender-based violence – and children. But family migration in fact fell 85 percent in the course of the year. For example, US border agents recorded 34,303 Guatemalans travelling as families in May but just 2,368 in November. Why? US President Donald Trump’s policy changes mean many of those waiting for asylum claims to be heard now have to do so in Mexico, not the United States. The Mexican authorities, meanwhile, have been deporting thousands back to the Northern Triangle, where brutal murders are commonplace and child recruitment, extortion, and sexual violence are on the rise. The “maras” and the “pandillas”, as the gangs are known, control the prisons – even schools and hospitals are not free of violence. It is often very difficult – sometimes impossible – for aid organisations to reach those in need.


Keep in mind


The asylum systems in the Northern Triangle countries are ill-equipped to deal with the expected surge of claims due to Trump’s new policies. And the humanitarian response in the region is seen as fragmented at best, with aid agencies needing to develop strategies for complex and dangerous urban responses that are not their traditional strength. 

Read our most recent coverage on the impacts of gang violence in Central America →

The Sahel: Rapidly escalating extremism

Terrible as it may have seemed in 2019, the situation in the Sahel looks set to worsen in 2020. The deaths of 35 civilians in a jihadist attack in December in Burkina Faso – where more than half a million people are now displaced, compared to 80,000 at the beginning of 2019 – was just the latest escalation of violence that is cutting off swathes of territory from aid, driving up humanitarian needs, and undermining the legitimacy and stability of the region’s governments.

Why we’re watching

There has been an acceleration in extremist violence in the region, from around 180 incidents in 2017 to 800 in the first 10 months of 2019. That surge has forced around one million people from their homes in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger – three countries with shared borders. The upheavals, in a region that has long been food insecure, have left 2.4 million people in urgent need of food aid. A similar mix of jihadist groups operate in all three countries and have proved adept at manipulating local grievances and profiting from inter-communal violence. They have also capitalised on the well-documented human rights abuses of the security forces and allied ethnic militias against populations accused of being close to the jihadists. In some regions under militant control, these alternative administrations are seen as less corrupt and more locally accessible. Regional governments have been shaken by the military setbacks and have responded by pulling troops out of the vulnerable tri-border region, ceding yet more territory to the jihadists. West African leaders are increasingly worried that Burkina Faso – not long ago held up as a regional example of peaceful co-existence – could become a launchpad for jihadist expansion further south into the Gulf of Guinea. As violence increases, there seems to be no purely military solution to the crisis. Yet the international community, with troops in all three countries, remains heavily focused on counter-terrorism – to the detriment of humanitarian action. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that significant funding shortfalls are undermining the aid response. 

Keep in mind

Domestic opposition to French military intervention under the banner of Operation Barkhane is now a political factor in all three countries. Yet in Mali – in many ways the heart of the crisis – the government has failed to implement a 2015 peace accord based on greater autonomy and development in the north. It is also resisting calls for dialogue with jihadists operating in the centre of the country – a position backed by some of its foreign supporters and elements of the political class.

Read our most recent coverage on the Sahel →

Extreme weather and climate change: The risk multiplier

Mutua resettlement site used to be forest land before roughly 2,000 residents arrived here in May.

Global humanitarian needs are soaring, and weather extremes fuelled by climate change are injecting even more volatility into the mix. Apocalyptic predictions for a warming world overlook climate change’s sizeable supporting role in today’s emergencies. Climate change is a risk multiplier: it exposes vulnerabilities, drives up response costs, and adds new fuel to existing crises. 

Why we’re watching


Eight of the world’s worst food crises are tied to both conflict and climate shocks, according to the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm, OCHA. And climate change can prolong existing conflicts by exacerbating poverty, inequality, and food insecurity, according to a recent study by the Norwegian Red Cross. Its marks are scrawled over recent emergencies, from unprecedented twin storms hitting Mozambique, to the agonisingly slow barrage of Hurricane Dorian over the Bahamas, to drought that’s driving crisis-level hunger for 45 million people in parts of Africa. Early forecasts for the number of people who would need aid in 2019 had been surpassed by more than 20 million before the year was over – a trend driven by conflict and extreme weather, according to the UN. But the traces of climate change are also found beyond headline-grabbing humanitarian appeals: in abandoned villages, emptied two years after extreme rains wiped out harvests; among families migrating for good after a storm destroyed their livelihoods; or among drought-hit communities competing for dwindling resources.


Keep in mind


The entire aid sector – both local responders and international players – will have to figure out how to plan for climate change, even though response needs already far exceed existing funding. Anticipating future and current migration, some Pacific Island nations have passed laws governing village relocations and climate displacement policies. Yet many short-term humanitarian responses are less proactive. An upcoming study from Yale University, for example, found only three percent of proposed aid projects in five disaster-hit countries were linked to climate change. The majority of disaster deaths happen in fragile states, but research from the Overseas Development Institute found little funding for disaster risk reduction in conflict areas. And, according to a December report by the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation, there needs to be a deeper understanding of the ways in which climate change hits women and men differently – and better efforts to build this into response planning.

Read our most recent coverage on the impacts of climate change →

Yemen: A glimpse of peace?

This time last year, following a much-hyped deal centred on a key port city, it seemed the world was finally paying attention to Yemen. That moment has passed: most parts of the agreement never really took hold, and the country is more fragmented into disparate centres of power and alliances than ever before. But the chatter is once again about new diplomatic efforts to end – or at least change the face of – the devastating war, which has caused what the UN still calls the “worst humanitarian crisis in the world”.


Why we’re watching


The UN now says 80 percent of Yemen’s population – 24 million people – will need humanitarian assistance in 2020. That’s the same number as last year; not exactly a great indicator of progress. Last December’s UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement managed to avert a potentially catastrophic coalition offensive on the Houthi rebel-held Red Sea city of Hodeidah, but that’s about it. There was no large-scale prisoner exchange as promised, nor was there relief for the long-suffering city of Taiz. But there has been a shift on the ground. The United Arab Emirates, a key partner in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting the Houthis, has pulled almost all of its troops out of Yemen, leaving Saudi Arabia as the main power in the alliance. So far, Riyadh has brokered a deal that ended intra-coalition clashes between southern separatists and the government of President Abd Rabbu Manshour Hadi, and is in the midst of talks with the Houthis that are starting to bear fruit (something Hadi’s government may not take kindly to). Some believe all these efforts could be wrapped up into a countrywide move towards peace, leaving a chance, albeit small, that things could finally change for the better. A breakthrough could make it easier for aid and trade to get in and around the country, but diplomatic manoeuvring takes time, and things could still get much worse. While Yemen is no longer on the brink of famine, hunger still stalks millions of people.


Keep in mind


Yemen’s crisis is made worse by the fact it’s incredibly difficult, and often dangerous, for aid workers to do their jobs. It’s something few people are comfortable speaking up about, for fear of jobs, their lives, or jeopardising precious access. After recent attacks and repeated diversion, aid agencies and the UN are finally starting to say it out loud: the parties to Yemen’s war are actively obstructing humanitarian work, making it harder to get help to the many people who desperately need it.

Read our most recent coverage on Yemen →

Central Africa: Benighted neglect

Photo of a mother holding a child in Central African Republic

Apart from regional proximity, what connects Burundi, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic is the extent of the international neglect of their deteriorating crises. Violence, displacement, and hunger stalk all three central African countries, yet they get far less media attention – and humanitarian funds – than many other emergencies.

Why we’re watching

Because somebody should. In Cameroon, the three-year conflict between rebels in the two English-speaking regions demanding independence from the majority francophone country has affected 1.9 million people and closed more than 80 percent of schools. The government’s olive branch, freeing political prisoners and offering greater autonomy for the two regions, has been dismissed by the separatists as too little too late. In Cameroon’s Far North Region, the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram still kills and abducts civilians. In neighbouring Central African Republic, a peace deal between the government and rebels at the beginning of 2019 has largely failed. The six-year conflict has left a quarter of the population displaced, either internally or into neighbouring countries, and roughly 2.6 million of the country’s 4.6 million inhabitants are in urgent need of humanitarian support, which is hard to deliver because of the violence – despite the controversial presence of UN peacekeepers. Over in Burundi, although not in open war, state-led torture and disappearances against the opponents of President Pierre Nkurunziza remain a terrifying reality. The government’s economic stewardship has seen growth shrink to just 0.4 percent, and with elections due in 2020, it has tried to obscure the extent of food shortages and a deadly malaria outbreak.

Keep in mind

It’s an election year. Nkurunziza pushed through a referendum to change the constitution, enabling him to stay in power until 2034. Few believe he won’t stand in May 2020. If he does, the ruling party’s Imbonerakure militia will act as political enforcers. Cameroon’s elections are likely to be a trial of strength in the anglophone regions. Separatists have already abducted at least 40 candidates for parliament and local councils to derail the poll set for February. And, in CAR, with the peace deal fraying, tensions are growing ahead of the country’s vote at the end of the year.

Read our most recent coverage from Central Africa→

Digital misuse and abuse: Hate speech to data breaches

Social media. For generic use

As the humanitarian sector becomes more dependent on data and online propagandists refine their techniques to deadly effect, 2020 stands to be a year of digital dangers. Misinformation, hate speech, and polarisation travel well online with devastating effect, as the experience of the Rohingya of Myanmar can testify. Manipulative propaganda, whether it spreads organically or via advertising is not just a rich-world problem. Neither is the responsible use of data. People at risk of destitution, violence, or persecution need help, but in 2020 they need the highest standards of personal data security, too. If their details are badly handled, they could end up even worse off. 


Why we’re watching

Today’s social media propaganda toolkit puts Rwanda’s Radio Milles Collines – a driver of genocide – in the shade. Negative forces can swing public opinion, whip up violence, and deepen suspicion. Electoral manipulation is a familiar issue in the United States, but the humanitarian consequences of online information “weaponisation” in weaker states has been blamed for communal violence in Ethiopia, inflammatory politics in the Philippines, and radicalisation and mob violence in India.


In parallel, as humanitarian operations accumulate giant volumes of personal and sensitive data in conflicts and situations of human rights abuse, the risks of misuse grow. Humanitarian data security in the past was insecure and porous: Excel sheets, emails, USB drives. But the aggregation of millions of records into large datasets, combined with photos, biometric data, and geolocation, supercharges the potential of the data to be used for good or ill. Predatory states or individuals could exploit information that includes the names, ages, gender, and needs of millions of people requiring assistance.


Keep in mind

Breaches, bugs, and bots will become a more significant feature in the humanitarian risk landscape. A high-stakes tradeoff between free speech and conflict prevention will continue (“keep it on” or try to shut misinformation down?), with tech companies facing rising demands for social responsibility in fragile states. Elections in Ethiopia will be one example where online discourse could fuel division, with real-world consequences on a dangerous scale. The risks of data abuse in the aid sector are as yet mainly hypothetical. But the safeguards in aid systems lag behind international benchmarks, regulatory oversight is patchy at best, and the incentives to cover up mistakes are powerful.

Read our most recent coverage on humanitarian technology →

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