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Aid strain in Syria, South Sudan power-sharing, and a ‘tired’ Taliban: The Cheat Sheet

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Internally displaced Syrians from western Aleppo countryside, ride on a vehicle with belongings.
Internally displaced Syrians from western Aleppo ride on a vehicle with belongings in Hazano near Idlib, Syria, 11 February 2020. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)

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

On our radar

Syria’s aid deficit

Despite a clamour of diplomatic pleas for a truce, the UN Security Council – thanks to Russian objections – failed this week to demand a ceasefire in Syria’s northwest, where violence has caused nearly 900,000 people, including an estimated 500,000 children, to take flight since 1 December. As we reported on Thursday, the UN says its agencies and partners on the ground are “working around the clock to address the increasing needs” in and around the province of Idlib, where the government forces of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian air power, are waging a drawn-out offensive against rebels. Desperate people are taking shelter wherever they can find it, which makes them harder for humanitarians to locate and has led to tragic outcomes: seven children have reportedly already died because they were insufficiently protected from the winter weather. But even if aid agencies manage to find every displaced Syrian in the northwest, the strained response simply can’t keep up with the sheer numbers of people who need assistance. 

South Sudan’s last-gasp deal

As the 22 February deadline loomed, the jitters increased, but South Sudan’s rival leaders have finally agreed to form a transitional government of national unity and put an end to six years of war. The breakthrough happened on Thursday when President Salva Kiir met rebel leader Riek Machar and agreed to appoint Machar as his deputy in a new three-year coalition government – part of a twice delayed power-sharing deal mediated by regional governments. Outstanding issues are to be thrashed out by the new administration, including the formation of a unified army. Kiir said he would be responsible for the protection of Machar and opposition ministers in Juba in the interim. Another politically potent issue revolved around the number of states. Kiir agreed this week to cut the number from 32 to the original 10, but controversially added two new oil-rich “administrative areas”, including much fought over Ruweng in the north. The war has killed at least 380,000 people and forced millions from their homes. UN human rights commissioners this week accused Kiir and Machar of potential “war crimes” – including deliberately starving civilians. Some 6.5 million people – half the population –  will be short of food by May. See TNH’s latest reporting.

The Taliban, ‘tired of war’, takes a crack at peace

Taliban insurgents and Afghan and international forces are set to begin a week-long “reduction in violence” that will determine the immediate future of a longer-term peace deal. Government and Taliban officials said the temporary truce would begin 22 February, Reuters reported. But it comes amid a deepening political crisis. After a five-month delay, President Ashraf Ghani was this week declared the winner of September’s presidential elections. But his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, also claimed victory. A similar stalemate after the 2014 election ended in a haphazard power-sharing agreement. The Taliban truce is a test for a potential US-Taliban agreement to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan. But there are lingering questions about what a peace deal would mean for the country, its people, and even aid operations dealing with multiple humanitarian emergencies. In a rare op-ed published in The New York Times on Thursday, the Taliban’s deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, spoke of resolving “intra-Afghan disagreements through talks”, and a continuing role for the international community. “Everyone is tired of war,” Haqqani wrote.

Leaks about leakage

According to a new paper, infusions of World Bank aid in the 22 most “aid-dependent” countries matched measurable increases in deposits in offshore accounts. The authors say their findings “are suggestive of aid diversion to private accounts in havens”, and imply millions of dollars are being squirrelled away from some of the poorest countries in the world. The Economist claimed the "sensitive paper", commissioned by the World Bank, was being suppressed. Soon after, it was leaked, and on 18 February the World Bank published it. "Elite Capture of Foreign Aid" has been downloaded 10,215 times in a few days. A 2014 study: “Which World Bank reports are widely read?” – a rare confessional about research impact – found its most popular report had been downloaded only about 3,000 times ever. Publicity aside, development economists are not all convinced that corruption explains the bump in offshore deposits. Even if it did, one said, leakage of just five percent of World Bank money would show “considerable effectiveness”.

A jihadist threat in Togo?

Togolese President Faure Gnassingbé will seek to extend his family’s half-century domination over the small West African nation in elections this Saturday – with stopping jihadist spillover from neighbouring Burkina Faso one of his key campaign messages. On a recent tour of the border region, the leader, who presents himself as a symbol of stability, told AFP, “the threat is real and the pressure is very strong”. But how potent the jihadist threat to Togo really is, remains to be seen. Last year, Togolese security forces announced the arrest of more than 20 jihadists who had come from Burkina Faso, while the International Crisis Group (ICG) claims militants may be using northern Togo as a rear base. Other countries on West Africa's coastline – Benin, Ghana, and Ivory Coast – face a similar threat, according to the ICG. But there have been no major attacks in Togo so far and few signs of a homegrown jihadist movement emerging. After repressing anti-government protests, and with the opposition divided between different candidates, what does seem clear is that Gnassingbé will win Saturday’s elections and potentially hold power for many years to come.

More carnage in Cameroon

The UN’s human rights office has called for an independent investigation into the massacre of 23 people – including 15 children – in a village in Cameroon’s anglophone Northwest region on 14 February. Witnesses said some 40 armed men, a mix of security forces and state-sponsored militia, attacked the village of Ngarbuh. The raid reportedly followed an earlier ultimatum to hand over separatist rebels operating in the area. The army at first denied the killings, but later said the deaths and the destruction of homes was an “unfortunate accident” in an operation to hunt down rebels. The secessionist conflict has intensified over the past three years in Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions, where many accuse the largely francophone government of deliberate neglect. Both sides are accused of killings, torture, and the destruction of villages. See TNH’s briefing on the conflict.

In case you missed it

CORONAVIRUS: Iran has confirmed 18 coronavirus cases and four deaths, while authorities in British Columbia said a new case – Canada’s ninth – is a woman who recently returned from Iran. China says the outbreak may be slowing within its borders, but health experts say it’s too soon to be certain. There’s also growing concern for emerging clusters in Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, which saw infections quadruple this week – fuelled by dozens of cases at a church in the city of Daegu. Track the latest data on our updated page here.

LIBYA: The internationally recognised government of Libya announced on Tuesday that it was halting its participation in UN-led Geneva peace talks, after eastern forces led by general Khalifa Haftar shelled Tripoli’s port. Fighting has been closing in on the capital since April, and six civilians were reportedly killed and 24 injured in clashes in the first two weeks of February.

MALI: A militia group killed at least 31 people last Friday in a central Malian village that was the scene, in 2019, of one of the worst massacres in the country’s recent history. The attack on Ogossagou, a Fulani village, is the latest in a string of ethnic killings that have left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands displaced in central Mali over the past two years.

SOUTH SUDAN: The locust outbreak sweeping East Africa has reached South Sudan, with a swarm spotted in southern Equatoria State. A government official said the country was short of chemicals and sprayers and needed aircraft to tackle the insects, which are now at the egg-laying stage. South Sudan is already facing an acute food crisis.

YEMEN: At least 31 civilians were reportedly killed in airstrikes in northern Yemen last weekend in an attack that may have been retaliation for the Houthi rebel downing of a Saudi plane. Al Jawf, the province where the crash and subsequent airstrikes took place, has seen an escalation in fighting in the past few months. 

Weekend read

In Colombia, a community displaced by war welcomes Venezuelans with open arms

As Venezuela’s exodus rivals that of Syria, it’s easy to forget how relatively prosperous the oil-rich nation was not that very long ago. When Colombia was mired in war in the 1990s and early 2000s, hundreds of thousands of Colombians fled east to a warm Venezuelan reception. This, to some extent at least, explains the role reversal we now see, as Colombians open their doors to the tide of humanity coming the other way. But in Las Delicias – a humble suburb of border town Cúcuta – Venezuelans have been receiving an extra-special welcome. The community was founded by Colombians displaced by war, and their empathy pours through this weekend read by regular TNH contributor Marta Martinez. “They know what it’s like,” explains community leader José Luis Zabaleta. “That you may have something today, and tomorrow you have nothing.” This locally led initiative to house hundreds of Venezuelan migrants has proved so successful that the UN refugee agency has seized on it and is replicating it in four other Cúcuta neighbourhoods.

And finally…

UN aid worker campaign sparks online controversy

The latest humanitarian campaign from the UN, #WhatItTakes, might be a winner, or at least a “succès de scandale”. Digital campaigners (and many online publishers like The New Humanitarian) value “engagement” more than raw audience numbers. If your content hits the spot, then it will be shared, discussed, argued about, and commented upon. And that engagement matters if you intend to spark conversations and get your message across. Many online viewers felt that the UN video featuring a Haitian aid worker and her son hit the wrong note, as our review reports. A script intended to be a “creative play” on the grit, sacrifice, and determination of aid workers was accused of recycling sexist tropes. Supplementary material about the campaign has been removed from public view by the UN following the controversy. 

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