Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
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On our radar
Mergers and acquisitions
The British government abolished its development aid department, DFID, to the dismay of the UK political opposition, aid groups, and former prime ministers. The move will put DFID's work into a new body called the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (the acronym has attracted some snark). Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the move would “mobilise” the aid budget and expertise, “to safeguard British interests and values overseas”. Critics, including UK NGO group BOND, argued that that's exactly the problem: blurring the lines between political and development goals “will do nothing but hurt the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people”. Johnson said the UK would stick with spending 0.7 percent of Gross National Income (about $19 billion in 2019) on international development. Analysts noted that a quarter of that was already spent by departments other than DFID. Last week, the aid bureaucracy of the United States also restructured, merging the Office of Food for Peace and the Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance into one “Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance” within the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, which says it provided $6 billion of humanitarian assistance in 2019.
Migration has dropped by nearly 50 percent across West and Central Africa due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The closure of borders has left 21,000 migrants stranded, as well as 1,500 migrants quarantined, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM. In Mauritania, an estimated 2,000 pastoralist herders are blocked along the borders with Mali and Senegal. The travel restrictions include mandatory quarantining and health screening and, at a small number of border points, a medical certificate showing a negative COVID-19 test result. Among the thousands of stranded migrants are seasonal workers – typically from Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea – heading to farms and gold mines in the region. The border restrictions increase the health risks of those stopped, and are impacting local economies, especially in border areas. An estimated 164 million migrant workers worldwide are affected by COVID-19 restrictions. The loss of individual incomes means a downturn in remittances, with the World Bank predicting a 20 percent fall globally – affecting 800 million people reliant on the financial flows.
Delisting the Saudi-led coalition
The UN has removed the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen from its annual “list of shame” of parties that are harming children in war, drawing fierce criticism from rights groups who say the alliance continues to kill and injure children (222 last year, according to the list itself). The secretary-general’s “blacklist”, which has been the subject of behind-the-scenes politicking in the past, was released on Monday, the same day that coalition airstrikes reportedly killed 13 civilians, including four children, in the northern province of Sa’ada. Saudi Arabia denied the strike had killed civilians, saying it had hit a vehicle carrying Houthi fighters. The Houthi rebels, officially called Ansar Allah, remain on the list. The UN’s special representative for children in conflict stated that the coalition, which is also led by the United Arab Emirates, had been removed from this year’s list following “the sustained, significant decrease in killing and maiming due to airstrikes”. Adrianne Lapar, director of the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, said that by omitting the coalition, “the secretary-general sends the message that powerful actors can get away with killing children”.
Venezuelans are ‘forcibly displaced’
Good news, as the UN marks World Refugee Day on Saturday, for many Venezuelan refugees. Until the start of the pandemic, the exodus of some 4.5 million Venezuelans, fleeing their country’s political and economic crisis, was the largest the region had ever seen. But as they were considered a “mixed flow” of refugees and migrants, relatively few of them were considered by the UN to be among the world’s forcibly displaced. That changed this week with the latest Global Trends report from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. It includes as “forcibly displaced” some 3.6 million Venezuelans who it says “face protection risks, irrespective of their status”. Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said the earlier omission of Venezuelans was due to some “very specific specificities” of the population. Meanwhile, Miguel Barreto, Latin America director of the World Food Programme, told journalists in Geneva that the organisation was in talks with the government of President Nicolás Maduro to resume activities in Venezuela after a 45-year hiatus. Asked by TNH whether those discussions included the opposition, which recently reached an agreement with Maduro over humanitarian assistance, the official said only that the WFP did have “communication with the opposition also”.
AFGHANISTAN: A revised version of Afghanistan’s annual response plan says 14 million people now need aid – about 4.6 million more than the original pre-coronavirus appeal. The new ask totals $1.1 billion; more than a third is earmarked for coronavirus aid. The largest chunk – $370 million – is planned for food security and agriculture. Prices have soared since the pandemic set in, and there have been frequent protests over food.
EU: Asylum applications in the EU dropped by 90 percent in April compared to pre-coronavirus levels due to travel restrictions and social distancing measures. The drop illustrates the impact of the pandemic on the ability of vulnerable people to seek protection, and is the lowest number of applications submitted since 2008.
INDIA: Many rural migrants are reluctant to return to work in India’s cities after being stranded in sudden coronavirus lockdowns in March, research by Caritas India suggests. A survey in 10 states found only a third were willing to return. Other research by Caritas, the aid arm of the Catholic church, found nearly half of farmers surveyed reported dwindling food stocks.
LEBANON: A new wave of protests is rocking Lebanon, as people take to streets over the country’s worst economic crisis in decades, a situation that was worsened by lockdowns intended to stem the spread of COVID-19. Demonstrators and security forces clashed in the northern city of Tripoli, and dozens of people were arrested.
PERU: The Peruvian economy sank by more than 40 percent in April, according to new government data. The vital mining industry was shuttered as Peru became one of the first Latin American countries to lock down due to COVID-19. Mining is now getting back into gear despite Peru’s new coronavirus infections – and deaths – still being among the highest in the region.
SAUDI ARABIA: Saudi Arabia is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases, raising new questions about how the kingdom will deal with the hajj, an annual religious pilgrimage that draws two million Muslims from around the world into crowded holy sites every year. The season is set to start in late July, and officials are reportedly considering either cancelling or massively scaling down the hajj for the first time since Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932.
In case you missed it
AFGHANISTAN: Médecins Sans Frontières said it will end services at a maternity ward in a Kabul hospital, a month after an unclaimed attack killed at least 16 patients, including new mothers, and at least nine others. “Higher walls and thicker security doors won’t prevent such horrific assaults from happening again,” MSF chief Thierry Allafort-Duverger said. The organisation has previously said it won’t reopen until the attack is investigated.
AID POLICY: Reforms to humanitarian finance since 2016 are “uneven”, according to the latest annual report on the “Grand Bargain” initiative. An executive summary suggests four areas need more attention: the coordination of cash-based aid, “localisation”, standardised donor reporting, and better-organised funding packages.
INDIA/CHINA: Tensions rose along India and China’s disputed Himalayan border region as clashes reportedly killed 20 Indian soldiers. China has not acknowledged casualties on its side. India claims Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin is part of its Ladakh territory. Parts of the broader Kashmir region are claimed by India, Pakistan, and China.
NIGERIA: Some 20 soldiers and more than 40 civilians have been killed in twin jihadist attacks in northeastern Borno state. The attacks on Saturday on the towns of Monguno and Nganzai came just days after the so-called Islamic State-linked group killed at least 81 people in Gubio. There is concern ISWAP is building up to capture a garrison “super camp” – which would be a significant blow to the government and the humanitarian community.
SOUTH SUDAN: Agreement has been reached over the selection of 10 state governors, clearing a key stumbling block to the country’s peace deal. President Salva Kiir’s coalition nominates six, vice president and former rival Riek Machar gets three, and a third party to the power-sharing agreement is awarded one governorship pick. The deadlock had created localised power vacuums, preventing an effective response to accelerating rural violence.
SYRIA: As part of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the United States has rolled out new sanctions targeting those who aid or trade with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The United States and other countries already have multiple types of sanctions against Syria, and some analysts believe that, even before its imposition, the Caesar Act contributed to a massive currency crash in the country, which has led to rising food insecurity and protests.
Remittance flows recently surpassed foreign direct investment as a source of money flowing into low- and middle-income countries, as expatriate workers sent home a record $554 billion in 2019. But that high is unlikely to last. The World Bank expects a sharp 20 percent drop in remittances to the same countries this year, thanks to the economic fallout from COVID-19. This will hit people in Yemen particularly hard, as the country’s more than five-year war and economic collapse has forced an increasing number of people to rely on cash from their relatives. With this lifeline now drying up, buying food could become a struggle for even more Yemeni families, in a country that has often teetered on the brink of famine. Many of the recent job losses come from the estimated 1.6 million Yemenis who work in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which has seen a crash in oil prices. Seventeen-year-old Mohammed’s father is among those out of work. He lost his gig as a delivery driver in March, leaving his wife and five kids without the monthly $265 he has transferred to them for the past 20 years. Now, the family is relying on Mohammed’s part-time job at a corner shop, which brings in $45 each month. The family, like many others in Yemen, worry it won’t be enough to get by.
US non-profit group Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is being sued for withdrawing health insurance for a staff member’s spouse. The husband of a gay man employed in 2016 in an information-management role was taken off the scheme after more than a year of employment, when CRS said it did not consider same-sex spouses to be eligible. The employee’s legal case relies on Title VII of the Civil Rghts Act, and was filed on 16 June 2020, a day after the US Supreme Court said the law forbids discrimination againt gay and transgender employees. CRS declined to comment when contacted by US media. CRS spends about $1 billion per year on international relief and development.
We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do
We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.
Our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation triggered this probe, demonstrating the impact our journalism can have.
But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking.
We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.
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