Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Zimbabwe’s government digs in
Zimbabwe’s season of discontent is reaching a critical point. Police banned and broke up an opposition demonstration in Harare last Friday, and then this week prohibited protest gatherings in Bulawayo and Gweru. The main opposition party, the MDC, described the bans as “a crude form of political asphyxiation.” When the government came to power in 2018, it pledged to fix the economy, but has failed. Driving the protests are the hardships and shortages, from bread to petrol. With the country teetering on the brink of hyperinflation, the government has banned the release of economic data. No international friends are coming to the rescue: Western donors turned their backs when it became clear that the post-Mugabe government was not reform minded, and Chinese creditors are signaling a similar frustration. As one well-regarded blogger pointed out: “The Titanic is sinking and there is no lifeboat in sight. People see this and they want change.” But the military, the power behind the government, is not yet ready to acquiesce. See our latest coverage of the crisis here.
Flight and fallout from Idlib offensive
Rebel fighters appeared to withdraw from the flashpoint town of Khan Sheikhoun in Syria’s northwest Idlib province this week, as Syrian government forces closed in on the strategic area. Khan Sheikhoun, which rebels have held for the past five years, lies on the M5, a north-south road that is an important supply route for rebels and has been one of the main focuses of a sustained Syrian and Russian bombing campaign. That campaign has killed more than 500 civilians since early May, forced 590,000 people into flight, and destroyed hospitals, schools, and homes. Earlier in the week, a Turkish military convoy in Idlib was hit by an airstrike, amping up tensions in the province that, along with nearby areas, is believed to be home to as many as three million people. Syria said the trucks were carrying weapons to Khan Sheikhoun. While rebels backed by Turkey said they had left the town, hardline Islamist rebel group Tahrir al-Shams said it was not giving up, portraying its own move as a “redeployment.”
Celebrating (cautiously) Africa’s polio success
In 2012, about half the world's polio cases were in Nigeria. Vaccine hesitancy, insecurity, and mistrust had allowed the disease to stage a comeback. Doubts about the vaccine arose from political, religious, and historical roots. But no cases of wild polio have appeared in Nigeria, or anywhere else in Africa, for the last three years. The World Health Organization, marking Africa’s provisional three year polio-free milestone, said celebrations should be “buttressed with caution” due to gaps in immunisation coverage. And while wild polio might be vanquished, children can still be paralysed by live polio, which mutates from the oral vaccine. That risk is avoided by a switch from oral to injectable polio vaccine once a country is free of the wild virus. Worldwide this year, there have been 66 cases of wild polio (in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and 53 cases of circulating vaccine-derived polio.
Two years and counting for Myanmar’s Rohingya
More than 700,000 Rohingya were violently driven from their homes in Myanmar in August 2017. Two years later, the refugee crisis is firmly entrenched as a long-term emergency, with nearly one million refugees stuck in limbo in Bangladesh. The two countries tried to kickstart voluntary returns this week. No one volunteered. The crisis has left a massive footprint on both sides of the border, from the razed Rohingya villages in Myanmar to Bangladesh’s crowded camps (see a bird’s eye view of the striking changes here). In Myanmar’s Rakhine State, hatred and distrust linger, and local groups trying to heal the divisions must do it quietly. In Bangladesh, refugees look to another difficult year in the camps, and women in particular face added threats of violence and struggles reaching healthcare. We’ll have more reporting on the crisis in the coming days, including a look at the opportunities – and the problems – facing emerging women leaders.
Listen up, Yemen donors
The UN is warning, not for the first time, that it will have to suspend more aid programmes in Yemen if donors do not make good on their pledges to a humanitarian response plan intended to help 20 million people. In a record-breaking pledge towards a historic ask, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – which lead an increasingly fractured and violently infighting alliance on one side of the war in Yemen – in February committed $1 billion to help Yemen. But as we reported in July, the money still has not made its way to OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body. And that is despite multiple meetings between aid officials and leaders of both countries. On Wednesday, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen Lise Grande said in a statement that less than half of the $2.6 billion promised by all donors in February had been delivered. She did not name names, but said “we are desperate for the funds that were promised… when money doesn’t come, people die.”
Tussling for control of Somalia’s Jubaland
Jubaland, a small region in southern Somalia, is the centre of a regional power struggle over an election won yesterday by the state’s incumbent President Ahmed Madobe. Mogadishu has warned it will not accept the result. Regional neighbours Kenya and Ethiopia – which both have troops in Somalia – have picked opposing sides in the stand-off. At its core, the crisis is over the nature of the Somali state. The federal government in Mogadishu wants more control over the regions (from security to aid delivery) and supported a rival to Madobe. Kenya and Ethiopia have been long-standing partners in Somalia, and the Jubaland buffer state was a joint initiative in the shared battle against al-Shabab, a conflict that has displaced millions. But Ethiopia has recently aligned with Somali President Mohamed “Farmajo” Mohamed’s centralisation project, which now has Jubaland in its sights. See our Somalia coverage here.
In case you missed it...
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: Two people have now died of Ebola in Congo’s South Kivu province, a conflict-ridden region that shares a border with Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania. The deadly virus was previously contained to the eastern provinces of North Kivu and Ituri.
KASHMIR: Five UN rights officials called on India to end a near-total communications blackout in Kashmir, saying an ongoing crackdown would exacerbate tensions in the volatile region. Indian-administered Kashmir has been on lockdown since early August, when India abolished special status for Jammu and Kashmir state – a move critics say could lead to radical demographic changes in the Muslim-majority state.
SUDAN: A former UN economist, Abdalla Hamdok, was sworn in as Sudan’s new prime minister this week, as the country transitions to civilian rule more than four months after the overthrow of its longtime president, Omar al-Bashir. The announcement follows the signing of a landmark power-sharing deal between the civilian opposition and military junta last Saturday.
US/MEXICO: The US will be able to indefinitely detain families who cross the US-Mexico border instead of abiding by the current 20-day limit if a new rule proposed this week by President Donald Trump’s administration is put in place. The policy must be approved by a federal judge, and officials expect court challenges to any approval.
VENEZUELA: The Trump administration has been in secret talks for months with representatives of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to find a way to ensure his departure and allow free and fair elections, Venezuela confirmed this week. Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country’s political and economic breakdown in recent years, creating both an internal and a regional crisis.
Ten months before elections in Burundi, there’s trouble on the horizon. It’s unclear how President Pierre Nkurunziza might seek to use last year’s constitutional referendum to extend his tenure, but every sign suggests that the ruling party has no intention of relinquishing power. Sam Mednick is one of the very few foreign journalists to have gained access to the country recently, and her analysis raises a host of concerns – increasing repression, yes, but also malaria and a drought-induced food crisis. One in two Burundians has had malaria over the past year and yet the government won’t declare an epidemic. The government is also yet to endorse the findings of a UN report that said 291,000 people need emergency food assistance. As one mother struggling to feed her 12 children told Mednick: “When a government ignores the issues, it’s frustrating.”
A win-win-win for women in humanitarian crises
Can women’s economic empowerment be achieved in humanitarian emergencies? Yes it can. Moreover, it can help build resilience to deal with crises and contribute to safeguarding against gender-based violence. A CARE community-led women’s savings group project in Niger found that women’s economic empowerment is not a luxury – a common perception in some humanitarian responses. The savings groups provide loans to women to set up small business ventures or to cope with personal emergencies. The research, based on a CARE programme known as “Mata Masu Dubara”, or Ingenious Women, showed that a combination of earning, growing self-confidence, and changing attitudes contributed to better protection against GBV. Once crises subside, savings groups also pave the way to more gender equitable recovery. “The success of Mata Masu Dubara shows that what begins as a gender-sensitive humanitarian response can evolve into a gender transformative movement,” the study concluded. See our Niger coverage here.
(TOP PHOTO: Zimbabwe anti-riot police guards stand at the Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) headquarters in Harare on 16 August 2019.)