Explore the past, present, and future of emergency aid in our Rethinking Humanitarianism series

Syria’s new crisis, Africa’s neglected nine, and race and power in aid: The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

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

On our radar

Sanctions add to Syria’s economic crisis

Nine years of armed rebellion failed to dislodge it. But economic pressures, fuelled by new US sanctions, look the greatest threat to the Syrian government now. President Bashar al-Assad on 11 June fired his prime minister, Imad Khamis, and replaced him with water minister Hussein Arnous. The move comes in the midst of an economic crisis: the local currency has crashed and the UN estimates that the price of a basket of food and other basics has more than doubled in a year. Some shops and pharmacies aren’t opening as prices can’t be fixed. Public dismay about the cost of living and shortages is reflected in social media postings from many parts of the 60 percent of the country al-Assad controls, including some areas regarded as loyalist. In the northwest, rebel-controlled areas have decided to use Turkish currency. New US sanctions kick in on 17 June, exposing private companies worldwide to penalties if they engage in military, energy, or construction in the country.

Africa’s displacement problem

Nine of the world’s 10 most neglected displacement crises are in Africa, says the Norwegian Refugee Council in its new annual report. Top of the list is Cameroon, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Mali, South Sudan, Nigeria, Central African Republic, and Niger. Venezuela, ranked sixth, is the only non-African country. The table is based on three criteria: lack of funding, lack of media attention, and political and diplomatic neglect. Niger and Burkina Faso appear on the list for the first time – a reflection of the extreme insurgent violence in the Sahel and massively underfunded aid appeals. But there is a core of countries NRC flags each year. Among them is Congo, where investigations published this week by The New Humanitarian revealed an aid industry vulnerable to fraud with systems designed to detect corruption that have failed. COVID-19 is likely to drive new humanitarian needs in Africa. Cases are clustered in a handful of countries, but infection rates are accelerating, warns the World Health Organisation. South Africa, accounting for 25 percent of the continent’s cases, has seen a spike in numbers since the easing of its lockdown on 1 June.

‘Power shifts when forced’: Race, leadership, and localisation

Perhaps you’ve heard this one before: it has been about four years since many of the largest aid groups and donors made commitments to shift power and control to local responders, but change has been glacial. Another report analysing developments in local aid, this time from the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, finds that “the barrier to greater local action is not a dearth of capacity, but instead the reluctance of international actors… to cede power”. This sums up what many local groups have been saying for years. But the discussions around the sector’s “localisation” promises have also taken on new meaning as the #BlackLivesMatter movement forces a rethink of race and power across the board. People of colour are highlighting racism in the humanitarian sector (do continue to share your thoughts, by the way), and many responders see localisation as a matter of decolonising aid and fixing longstanding power imbalances between North and South. Although the HPG report doesn’t explicitly address race, its conclusions might sound familiar to veterans of social movements (or, perhaps, to people of colour waiting on that promotion). Often, disruptions or open challenges to the status quo have been more effective than waiting for change to trickle down. “Power shifts when forced, and not voluntarily,” the report’s authors conclude.

Storms hit Central America

While COVID-19 shows no sign of lagging in Central America, the hurricane season didn’t waste time to kick off. Tropical Storm Amanda, the strongest to have hit El Salvador since Hurricane Mitch in 1998, transformed into Tropical Depression Cristobal, a rare “crossover” storm, lashing the country twice in a week. Experts attribute the weather events to warmer oceans, which the World Meteorological Organization linked to climate change. Severe flooding and landslides in El Salvador affected nearly 150,000 people and left 27 dead. With the pandemic already affecting food supplies, the World Food Programme said some 340,000 Salvadorans may go hungry. The storms hit just as El Salvador’s leadership has become more authoritarian under President Nayib Bukele and his close family members. Under the state of emergency it imposed in March, all public information requests have been suspended, including for COVID-19 test results.

‘Registration’ raises concern at Syria’s Al-Hol camp

This week has seen a flurry of activity at al-Hol, the packed camp in northeastern Syria that is home to around 65,000 people, almost all of them women and children, including supporters of the so-called Islamic State and those who fled the extremist group. According to media reports and a well-placed source, the Kurdish authorities that control the camp are in the midst of a “registration” campaign in the highly-guarded “annex”. This part of the camp holds people who are not from Iraq or Syria, including those from European countries, Chechnya, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia – which, for the most part, don’t want to take their citizens back. The Kurdish authorities say the registration is necessary to improve security in the camp and interrupt any ongoing radicalisation in what they call “the most dangerous camp in the world”. But humanitarians are concerned the process has almost completely interrupted much-needed aid for some people, and note it has been accompanied by a much-boosted military presence, with no oversight. Once the registration is complete, it’s unclear what will change, but some wonder if people will soon be housed, and perhaps allowed different levels of (already extremely limited) movement, based on their perceived “level of risk”. 

COVID-19 news

ATTACKS ON HEALTHCARE: Violence against frontline health staff working on COVID-19 has risen dramatically since the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a pandemic in March, according to Insecurity Insight, a Geneva-based group tracking threats in crisis areas. The group has recorded more than 265 violent incidents related to the coronavirus. 

ETHIOPIA: Parliament approved an extra year in office for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after elections scheduled for August were postponed due to COVID-19. The ballot will go ahead once the coronavirus is no longer deemed a public health concern. The extension sharpens the split between Abiy and leaders in the influential Tigray region who have threatened to hold their own elections – raising fears over the future of Ethiopia’s democratic transition.

MALAYSIA: Authorities allowed a boat carrying 269 Rohingya to dock this week after turning back previous vessels. Hundreds of Rohingya have been stranded on the Bay of Bengal for weeks or months at a time as countries shut borders during the pandemic. Another boat carrying some 300 people remains at sea, Human Rights Watch said.

NEPAL: Quarantine centres housing migrants returning from India are poorly equipped to protect women at risk of violence, an assessment by the UK-based Voluntary Service Overseas reported. The survey of 46 centres found nearly three quarters did not provide menstrual hygiene products; half did not have any medical workers; and most lacked female security staff. Some 172,000 people are in mandatory two-week quarantines in Nepal after the economic shutdown in India forced millions of migrants out of work.

NORTH KOREA: Coronavirus containment is exacerbating food shortages and malnutrition in North Korea, the UN’s special rapporteur warned this week. North Korea was one of the first countries to close its borders, causing trade to plummet, as the coronavirus outbreak erupted in China in January.

US AID DELAYS: The US government has pledged over a billion dollars for international efforts on COVID-19 but has only granted $386 million in new money, according to The New York Times. Aid projects are held up, in part, the 7 June report says, because of a policy blocking aid money being used for protective equipment like masks and gloves.

In case you missed it

BURUNDI: It may be customary not to speak ill of the dead, but the demise this week of Burundi’s outgoing president, Pierre Nkurunziza, set that rule aside. There was an outpouring of emotion for those killed and brutalised under his 15-year rule: the gang rapes; the destruction of the independent media; and even the detention of school kids for drawing on his image. But what is not clear is how Burundi reforms in the short term.

CÔTE D’IVOIRE: Twelve Ivorian soldiers were killed on Thursday in an attack on their post near the northern border with Burkina Faso. It is unclear who carried out the attack, but last month soldiers from both countries conducted their first joint operation against jihadists inside Burkina Faso, killing eight suspected militants. As the insurgent violence in Burkina Faso spreads, there are growing fears of strikes aimed at the country’s southern neighbours.

NIGERIA: All 36 state governors have declared a state of emergency over rape and sexual violence against women. The move follows growing protest over a recent series of assaults and murders, including the death of 22-year-old student Uwaila Vera Omozuwa – killed inside her church – and the rape and killing less than a week later of another student, Barakat Bello.

THE PHILIPPINES: Counter-insurgency laws aimed at uprooting communist fighters in a decades-long conflict have escalated humanitarian needs among indigenous communities, the UN human rights office warns. Civil society groups that help these communities risk being branded “terrorists” under executive orders President Rodrigo Duterte passed in 2018.

THE SAHEL: Al-Qaeda’s leader in the Sahel, Abdelmalek Droukdel, was reportedly killed in Mali last week in a French military operation. The 50-year-old Algerian was one of the most significant al-Qaeda figures in Africa. News of his death came amid protests over the government’s inability to quell armed violence in the country.

SUDAN: Darfur militia leader Ali Kushayb will appear before the International Criminal Court on 15 June following his surrender to authorities in Central African Republic and subsequent transfer to The Hague. The court issued an arrest warrant for Kushayb in 2007, accusing him of murder, rape, and pillage during the conflict in western Sudan between 2003 and 2004.

SYRIA-TURKEY: EU fraudbusters OLAF have demanded an international NGO pay back €1.5 million of EU grant money because of procurement fraud in Syrian relief aid. A statement said the investigation started in May 2016 and two suspects connected to the unnamed NGO were “on the run”.

TUNISIA: The toll from a migrant boat that sank off the Tunisian coast has risen to at least 53, most of them women and children from sub-Saharan Africa. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says four times as many people tried to reach Europe from Tunisia by sea between January and May this year than in the same period in 2019.

Weekend read

Libyan doctors battle on two dangerous fronts: COVID-19 and war

Managing a public health crisis like COVID-19 takes coordination, planning, and communication. It’s hard to get right in the best of times – look no further than some of the peaceful countries hardest hit by the global pandemic for evidence – and it’s even harder in the worst of them. In Libya, which has been at war for more than a year, doctors and nurses are trying to treat coronavirus patients and the war-wounded while they go unpaid for months at a time, dodge bombings at work, and sometimes deal with fighters inside their hospitals. One doctor in Tripoli told TNH that “armed groups can enter the hospital with their weapons, asking you to resuscitate their members while they hold a gun to your head”. While there’s a chance that renewed peace talks may bring about a ceasefire, the country is likely to remain divided and, in many places, dangerous. In all this chaos, it’s hard to get the many parts of Libya’s overburdened public healthcare system on the same page, and to tell just how bad the outbreak really is. But Libya’s healthcare workers are doing what they can, and as of late last month they have a little bit of help in the form of a new app that analyses symptoms, and tells patients if they need treatment or can wait out the virus in isolation at home. 

And finally…

It’s almost always sunny in Malakal

A new solar electricity system will save money and reduce pollution at a shared office used by 34 aid agencies in a South Sudanese town. Malakal is sunny almost five hours a day, even in the rainy season, but, until recently, generators at a “humanitarian hub” compound run by the UN’s migration agency, IOM, were burning through 1,200 litres of fuel a day. They should now use 400, as IOM has agreed a multi-year contract with Norwegian firm Kube Energy to provide solar power for about 80 percent of its needs. The deal is expected to save 18 percent on costs. Kube Energy, set up by former aid workers, told TNH it was negotiating for a more ambitious “energy as a service” project in Somalia – a rare arrangement in the aid sector. If agreed, the UN would be its “anchor client”, and it could also extend renewable energy to a nearby town.

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