Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Bracing for coronavirus
Humanitarian hotspots have so far escaped the worst of the coronavirus, but for how long? Aid agencies are juggling efforts to keep critical services going, look after staff health and safety, and prepare for the imminent impact of COVID-19. This week we revealed how even a partial lockdown presents a huge challenge to relief operations in Yemen (passenger arrivals by sea are not stopped). Public health systems are front and centre of concern, but a range of other issues are on the minds of humanitarian planners and specialists. Travel restrictions are demanding some new thinking; the conventional relief approach (planes, cars, international staff deployment) isn’t well-suited to respond, just when the disease is set to slam the so-called “Global South”. There is a lot to contend with: misinformation, funding, coordination, donor flexibility, appropriate technology, local versus international aid efforts, prioritisation. According to this week’s online conversation hosted by TNH, in some places there’s another problem too: aid workers are being accused, without evidence, of spreading the disease. Is “aidworkerphobia” a side-effect of COVID-19?
Rebels advance in Yemen
Houthi rebel forces continued their advance on Yemen’s city and province of Marib this week, leading to the reported deaths of at least 38 fighters and raising fears that the area – for years a stronghold of fighters loyal to the internationally recognised government and a bastion of relative calm – could become the site of the country’s next humanitarian disaster. Calls for de-escalation appear to have gone unheeded, and thousands have already fled the fighting. Keep an eye out for our reporting next week, as we explore how aid workers are having trouble reaching the newly displaced – a task made even more difficult by restrictions on internal travel related to COVID-19. Yemen has no confirmed cases and there’s concern its decimated health system would struggle to deal with the disease. Among the reasons for this decimation: direct hits on hospitals and healthcare workers. Check out this new report by Mwatana and Physicians for Human Rights for a carefully documented look at exactly that.
Local fundraising raises local ire
A heated discussion about in-country fundraising continues to simmer online, putting a spotlight on the aid sector’s stalled localisation reforms. Earlier this month, a group of local NGOs and civil society groups penned an open letter to international organisations, criticising the growing trend of big INGOs fundraising in the Global South at a time when most local groups still struggle to fund their operations. “All of this serves to weaken us locally,” the letter stated. “It keeps us in a master/servant relationship continuously begging for grants from your institutions, while we remain bereft of core funding ourselves.” Roughly 150 local organisations around the globe, from Bangladesh to Zambia, have signed the letter. The wider aid sector has promised to “localise” aid by shifting more power and funding to on-the-ground groups, but local NGOs say change has been glacial. Localisation will be increasingly on the radar in the coming weeks as the coronavirus pandemic builds. Facing closing borders and stretched resources, humanitarian analysts say the sector will need to adjust – in part by depending on local responders.
Sanitation and overcrowding: What COVID-19 means for displacement camps
There is mounting data that show faeces from COVID-19 patients may serve as another vehicle for virus transmission – a growing concern for overcrowded communities and places such as settlements and camps for internally displaced people and refugees that often lack sanitation. “This could be extraordinarily dangerous in those types of settings,” Jeremy Konyndyk, an expert in global outbreak preparedness and a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, said during a live Facebook panel discussion hosted by The New Humanitarian. The World Health Organisation has distributed infrared thermometers in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh where 855,000 Rohingya refugees are currently residing in 34 overcrowded, makeshift camps. Similar measures, such as setting up ways to report suspected symptoms and establishing monitoring points, are being taken in other camps in Kenya, Somalia, and South Sudan. On the Greek island of Lesvos, meanwhile, Médecins Sans Frontières has called for the Moira camp to be evacuated, while Greek authorities are limiting movements in and out. One patient in a camp in Iraq was feared to have COVID-19, but tested negative. Experts say measures being taken around the world to prevent the spread of the virus – handwashing and social distancing – are proving difficult in high-density population areas. In Qatar’s largest labour camp for migrants, police have quarantined workers after hundreds became infected with the virus. An estimated three billion people worldwide lack basic handwashing facilities, according to UN Water.
In case you missed it
HAITI: The Haitian president declared a state of emergency, introduced curfews, and closed the country’s borders after the discovery of two cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. The island nation struggles with a battered health system, political unrest, and food insecurity.
JOBS: Policy-makers should prepare for the loss of nearly 25 million jobs from the economic impact of COVID-19, according to the UN’s International Labour Organisation. The global financial crisis of 2008-2009 led to 22 million job losses, it reported.
NIGERIA: Doctors in the capital, Abuja, have gone on indefinite strike to demand two months’ back pay, despite a steady rise in coronavirus cases, with 12 now confirmed. Nigeria has shut its borders to 13 countries – including the United States and the UK – and this week ordered the closure of all schools and universities.
SAMOA: The Pacific Island nation of Samoa has also shut its borders and declared a state of emergency. The order, which takes effect 21 March, comes days after the country announced it’s investigating a suspected COVID-19 case. Samoa is only months removed from a measles outbreak that killed dozens and infected some two percent of the population.
SUDAN: The transition to civilian rule is in trouble. A priority was peace talks to end the conflicts in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan, but one deadline has already been missed, and the process has become muddied. The fear is that the generals, who share power, are trying to undermine the transition.
SYRIA: Two Syrian Arab Red Crescent offices in the country’s northwest were occupied by armed men last weekend, and, according to the ICRC, “staff and volunteers were temporarily detained, property was damaged and humanitarian aid was taken”. TNH could not independently confirm which group the men belonged to.
THAILAND: A twin-bombing outside a government coronavirus planning meeting injured at least 25 people in an attack Human Rights Watch blames on the separatist Barisan Revolusi Nasional. Elements of the BRN have held peace discussions with the government. Since January 2004, more than 7,000 people – mostly civilians from Malay Muslim and Thai communities – have been killed by the conflict in southern Thailand.
UNRWA: Swiss UN official Philippe Lazzarini will head the UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA. The appointment, announced 19 March, fills a vacancy left by fellow Swiss national, Pierre Krähenbühl, who resigned during a wide-ranging probe into mismanagement.
USAID: The next head of the US international aid department will be John Barsa, a USAID official who formerly worked for President Donald Trump’s transition team. Barsa will take over on 10 April. His predecessor, Mark Green, had steered USAID through threats – largely blocked – of major cuts from the Trump administration.
The politicisation of aid is not a problem unique to any one country, taking on different forms from place to place. In Cameroon, as our weekend read explains, aid agencies have increasingly found their work woven into the government’s narrative against pro-independence groups, at a time when their efforts are needed the most. The four-year conflict between pro-independence groups and the military took a turn in November 2019, as clashes in the country’s Northwest and Southwest regions increased dramatically. Our recent report on an “execution-style” massacre chronicles just one case of violence against civilians. To date, over 3,000 people have died and 900,000 have been made homeless. Now, 1.3 million people affected by the conflict need aid, and a majority of them cannot receive it because funding shortages and government obstruction continue to make humanitarian access ardorous and difficult. “Many NGOs have clearly revealed themselves as enemies of our country,” the head of Cameroon’s Ministry of Territorial Administration (MINAT), Paul Atanga Nji, has said. Aid workers see things differently. “The government is trying to jeopardise our work and tarnish our image,” Mobido Traore, head of the UN’s aid coordination body, OCHA, told TNH reporter Jess Craig. “They don’t want external eyes there to see what is happening.” More, in our weekend read.
UN sex abuse and exploitation: Total number of allegations increases
The number of allegations of UN sexual abuse and exploitation rose from 56 in 2018 to 80 in 2019, according to the UN Secretary-General's annual report formally released last week. Allegations against civilian personnel in peacekeeping operations and political missions also nearly doubled from 13 in 2018 to 25 in 2019. The majority of the allegations – roughly 70 percent – came from the UN mission in Central African Republic, although more than half dated back to 2017 or earlier. Horrific abuse involving young women and children in CAR has made headlines for years and was the source of a recent TNH investigation that exposed a series of blunders in probing claims from victims. In his report, Secretary-General António Guterres cited CAR as an example where new “rights advocates” recently had a “positive impact” in helping victims access services and assistance. The TNH investigation, however, found that many victims’ accounts had been dismissed by investigators from troop contributing countries. Neither Burundi nor Gabon responded to TNH queries on whether some of those cases would be re-opened in light of TNH’s findings. Jane Connors, the UN’s Victims’ Rights Advocate, said such abuse and exploitation has an impact on victims and communities, but it also fractures trust. Connors has been working to support victims around the world in places such as Haiti, where she said the UN has been supporting women who have been left to raise children fathered by UN peacekeepers. Still, there is “a lot more work to do”, said Connors.