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African water woes, Pacific measles, and Ethiopian social media militancy: The Cheat Sheet

A Somali boy stands on a junk vehicle after heavy rain flooded their neighbourhood in Mogadishu, Somalia 21 October 2019.
A Somali boy stands on a junk vehicle after heavy rain flooded their neighbourhood in Mogadishu, Somalia 21 October 2019. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

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

On our radar

Millions hit by drought, floods in Africa

Too much in the east, not enough in the south – Africa’s water woes are affecting millions. First the deluge: in South Sudan, 420,000 people have been washed out of their homes by floods. In Ethiopia, 200,000 have been displaced, and a similar number in Somalia after the country’s two major rivers, the Shabelle and Juba, broke their banks last week. In Kenya, at least 29 people have been killed in flash floods. And it’s going to get worse. A tropical storm is approaching Somalia’s northern coast and, more generally, the rains will continue to fall in an already saturated region into December. In Southern Africa, the problem is the reverse. Drought scorched the region earlier in the year – leaving millions in need of food aid until March 2020 (five million in Zimbabwe alone). Although this is now traditionally the dry season, it has been abnormally hot, with soil moisture content lower than normal, which could impact the next harvest. For more, read our story on the climate phenomenon behind the extreme weather, and our coverage of South Sudan’s floods.

Measles surge reaches the Pacific Islands

The Pacific Island nations of Samoa and Tonga have both declared measles outbreaks, as the vaccine-preventable disease continues a global resurgence. Samoan health officials say three people have died among at least 300 suspected cases, and the government is mulling country-wide school closures. There have been more than 100 suspected cases in Tonga. Fiji is also warning its citizens the disease could spread due to international travel. The Samoa and Tonga outbreaks may be linked to New Zealand, where there have been at least 1,960 measles cases this year. Measles has spread rapidly in 2019: the World Health Organisation says there are three times as many cases compared to last year, and the most in 13 years. There have been major outbreaks in countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Ukraine, Angola, Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria, the Philippines – and the United States has seen its highest number of cases in a quarter-century. The WHO says misinformation about vaccines is one of many causes, as are unequal health access and conflict. Read more on the complexities of countering falling vaccination rates: How Ukraine is grappling with a rapid uptick in measles.

Where Facebook’s platform governance matters

Can Facebook avoid being misused by extremists in Ethiopia as it was in Myanmar? The Horn of Africa giant is vulnerable to incendiary postings and misinformation online, according to analyst Endalk Chala. Ethiopia's long-suppressed political life is bubbling up again under the reforms of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But freedom of speech and political debate have unleashed a dark side. Unrest whipped up over local politics, resources, identity, religion, and land has led to millions being displaced. The government reported 78 deaths and 409 arrests after a spate of new troubles this week. The violence was linked to alleged threats to activist Jawar Mohammed. Violence erupted after Mohammed posted online that his government security detail was being withdrawn. Chala mentions several cases, including another involving Mohammed, of online media fuelling suspicion ahead of elections. Ethiopia will be a key test of “platform governance”, according to a new essay by Kenyan analyst Nanjala Nyabola. She has a suggestion: “[social media] platforms should not be allowed to operate in a country until full content moderation in all the major languages of that country is operational”. 

Yemen death toll passes 100,000

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) said this week that the number of deaths it has recorded in Yemen’s conflict has now surpassed 100,000, including 12,000 civilian fatalities since the monitor began counting in 2015. It is yet another sign that little progress has been made in ending the conflict, although the UN said last week that four observation posts had been set up on front lines in Hodeidah, the northern port city that is the focus of the long-delayed Stockholm agreement and ceasefire. Also this week, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen admitted it had hit a Médecins Sans Frontières-supported hospital in early 2016, in an incident MSF says killed six people. The coalition’s joint assessments team said a shell had hit the hospital by accident because of Houthi-rebel fire nearby, an explanation MSF said “follows a pattern of avoiding meaningful accountability for its violations of the laws of war”. And, really not needed, a cyclone is headed towards the southern coast of Yemen. If it makes landfall, it could flood displacement camps and damage homes.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: Afghan paramilitary units backed by the CIA carried out summary executions – and possible war crimes – against civilians, including local health workers, Human Rights Watch reported this week. The 14 documented cases include the July raid of a health clinic run by aid group Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, where soldiers allegedly “executed” at least three civilians. 

THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: A woman who survived after contracting Ebola in eastern Congo fell ill again with the virus and died, the World Health Organisation confirmed on Thursday. The case puts into question the widely held view that survivors of the deadly virus – many of whom work in treatment centres caring for other Ebola patients – cannot be reinfected. The number of new cases has fallen sharply in recent weeks, but the outbreak still constitutes an international public health emergency, according to the WHO.

IRAQ: More than 250 people have been killed across Iraq in anti-government protests that resumed last Friday, and the country’s prime minister has now said he will resign if a replacement can be agreed. Masked men gunned down demonstrators in the city of Karbala, and Amnesty International said security forces are using types of tear gas grenades that kill, rather than disperse, protesters.

LIBYA: Hundreds of migrants and refugees were released from a detention centre in Libya’s capital on Thursday and, amidst the ongoing fighting, many made their way to a UN facility for people awaiting evacuation or resettlement. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said the Tripoli facility was already “severely overcrowded”, and it was “actively working to find solutions” for the 200 people at its doorstep.

SYRIA: Talks among a 150-strong committee went into a third day on Friday as Syrians met in Geneva to discuss the country's constitution. Opening speeches on Wednesday hinted at the distance between the sides: Ahmad Kuzbari, speaking for the government, said it was engaged in an ongoing war against terrorism, rejected foreign interference of any kind, and praised the national army. The opposition co-chair, Hadi al-Bahra, emphasised the need for justice, the release of detainees, and UN resolutions for an inclusive political settlement.

UKRAINE: Rival Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists began withdrawals from frontline areas as part of confidence-building measures aimed at kickstarting four-way peace talks to end five and a half years of war in the eastern Donbas region that have claimed more than 13,000 lives and displaced 1.5 million people.

Weekend read

EXCLUSIVE: Blunders in Central African Republic sex abuse probe detailed in internal UN review

In 2015, the UN vowed to do better after being slammed for “gross institutional failure” over its lax response to sexual abuse allegations in Central African Republic involving French peacekeeping soldiers. When new claims against UN peacekeepers from Burundi and Gabon emerged in the remote CAR town of Dekoa in 2016, it seemed like a bad case of déjà vu. This time, surely, it would be handled properly. Alongside Burundian and Gabonese probes, the UN deployed 21 investigators and interviewed 435 people. But it didn’t all go according to plan. TNH’s Philip Kleinfeld spent five weeks reporting from CAR in March-April 2018 and found that few if any of the women and girls knew the status of their claims, and that the UN had commissioned an internal review. In mid-October 2019, TNH Investigations Editor Paisley Dodds obtained the draft report from that review. It details a litany of mistakes: from flawed interrogations to DNA samples allowed to rot. “No proper work plan was prepared,” one UN respondent said. “We made things up as we went along,” recalled another. The draft report catalogues a host of errors, but it fails to address one key question: Why, if evidence was indeed found to substantiate several of the more than 130 claims, have half been “dismissed”, half been listed as “pending”, and no one prosecuted? The governments of Gabon and Burundi have not responded to our questions.

And finally…

Hallowe’en horrors

What's scary for aid types? Well, amongst a rich crop of toe-curling spooky puns, stunts, and ads, one hashtag each year proposes ways to dress up consistent with a career in NGOs: #NonProfitHaloweenCostumes. Suggestions include several ways to be a demon donor or grumble about tedious paperwork. Forgive us if this is a bit insidery, but managers, fundraisers, and board members may appreciate this one from Twitter user @NonprofitAF (you can spell it out): "Tape various coins on your clothing. Walk around pontificating about different coins, their origin, why a dime is smaller than a nickel, etc. You are a... Theory of Change."


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We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do

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