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Facebook’s troubles, rising hunger in Afghanistan, and decolonisation research: The Cheat Sheet

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

On our radar

World’s first malaria vaccine

The World Health Organization has recommended the rollout of the world’s first malaria vaccine. Decades in the making, Mosquirix by GlaxoSmithKline targets Plasmodium falciparum, the pathogen most prevalent in Africa, which especially kills young children. But the vaccine is not a magic bullet. Parasites are complex, and the vaccine prevents only around 40 percent of malaria cases – a limitation that has generated debate over its value. Success can be boosted by combining the vaccine with antimalarial drugs, potentially cutting deaths and hospitalisation by over 70 percent. Mosquirix is also complicated to administer. It requires four doses spread over the first two years of a child's life, although it can be delivered during routine immunisations. Funding its distribution will depend on whether Gavi – the global vaccine initiative – determines it’s a worthwhile investment. Malaria kills more than 400,000 people annually, and has rebounded in recent years. Another vaccine is potentially on the horizon. Developed at Oxford University, it has demonstrated an efficacy of up to 77 percent in initial trials.

Facebook accused of fanning hate

A Facebook whistleblower has accused the social network of “literally fanning ethnic violence” in places like Myanmar and Ethiopia. Testifying to US senators this week, Frances Haugen, a former manager, said Facebook’s algorithm optimises “high-engagement” content – posts that provoke the most extreme reactions, designed to keep users on the platform. She alleged the company systematically puts profit before the public good. Although Facebook has policies in place to prevent hate speech, an investigation in Myanmar by the rights group Global Witness found the algorithm incited violence during the military’s 2017 purge of the Rohingya minority. “What we saw in Myanmar and are now seeing in Ethiopia are only the opening chapters of a story so terrifying, no one wants to read the end of it,” Haugen told lawmakers. Her testimony follows her leak to the Wall Street Journal of scores of internal documents demonstrating how the company ignored its own research warning about the impact of its audience engagement policy on democracy, human rights, and public health.

The humanitarian ripples from rising hunger in Afghanistan

There were lofty donor promises during last month’s aid summit on Afghanistan, but humanitarian groups say they’re still waiting to see most of the cash. A $600 million emergency appeal is about a third funded, though donors purportedly pledged some $1.2 billion for Afghanistan’s spiralling crises. Near the top of a lengthy to-do list is a food crisis caused by the economic crash that followed the Taliban’s rapid takeover (and the equally swift stoppages of international aid funds). Food unaffordability – income has plummeted; prices have soared – will have knock-on effects throughout the humanitarian sphere, from rising malnutrition to pressure on migration. Aid groups are already reporting high rates of malnutrition (on top of measles outbreaks and confirmed cases of cholera). The UN predicts half the country’s children under five could face acute malnutrition by the end of the year. Aid agencies and donors have plans to prop up Afghanistan’s ailing health sector for the next few months, but the system itself remains close to collapse. One early sign of the depth of the food crisis: urban, middle-class families are among the newly hungry. As one analyst told The New Humanitarian this week, “the foremost need right now is food security”.

East Sudan protests trigger medicine, food shortages

Protests in eastern Sudan have led to shortages of medicine, fuel, and wheat, further underscoring the fragility of a democratic transition still unsettled by last month’s attempted coup. Tensions have been building for well over a year as parts of the local Beja community contest a peace deal they feel excluded from. In recent weeks, protesters have blocked roads and oil pipelines, and shut down the port that supplies Sudan’s interior. Protest leader Sayed Tirik – a staunch member of ousted President Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party – has also called for the dissolution of the civilian part of the joint civilian-military transitional government. Eastern Sudan was locked in a low-intensity conflict for years before armed groups and the former government signed a 2006 peace agreement. Key parts of the deal were not implemented, however, and grievances have long simmered in one of the country’s poorest regions. 

British Red Cross decolonisation research

Power imbalances between Global North and South, racism, localisation – all familiar themes in today’s humanitarian discourse. The Red Cross recently contributed new research to the debate, drawing on data in 23 countries since late 2020. The results paint a disappointing but not all too surprising picture: Despite heightened awareness of racism in the humanitarian sector, a reckoning with aid’s colonial legacies, and attempts to rebalance power between international and local groups – little has changed in practice. The challenges include ingrained ideas about capacity deficits among local actors in the Global South; overbearing due diligence and compliance requirements; and a lack of equal representation in coordination mechanisms and decision-making bodies. Where “locally led action” and “complementarity” are found, the report notes, they’re being delivered in a way that still ultimately benefits the interests of international actors. 

New evidence of pushbacks, and EU complicity

EU-funded security forces in Croatia, Romania, and Greece have been filmed beating and even shooting at asylum seekers and migrants, as well as illegally pushing them back across their borders. The revelations are part of an eight-month investigation by the journalism NGO Lighthouse Reports and a handful of European news outlets. The findings remove the plausible deniability some countries use to dodge responsibility for the mounting reports of the use of violence at the EU’s external borders. Meanwhile, concerns are also growing about the treatment of asylum seekers and migrants on Poland’s border with Belarus – a gateway for those trying to reach the EU. People denied entry by both countries are in limbo, reportedly stuck in woods in freezing conditions, and at least five people have died.

In case you missed it

AFGHANISTAN: A UN-appointed watchdog will track rights abuses in Afghanistan, following a contentious vote at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Rights groups say a new special rapporteur is an “important first step”, but falls short of calls to form a more substantial body to investigate past abuses and ongoing ones: On 8 October, a suicide bomber killed dozens of people at a Shiite mosque in northern Afghanistan’s Kunduz province.

DARIÉN GAP: A dangerous jungle route used by a growing number of migrants trying to reach the United States from South and Central America has become even deadlier, according to Panama’s Forensic Sciences Institute. It has reported over 50 migrant deaths to date in 2021, although the figure is believed to be far higher. But, as The New Humanitarian reveals this week, the risks migrants face begin even before they enter the jungle, in a region controlled by former paramilitaries-turned-mafia thugs.

LIBYA: At least 5,000 asylum seekers and migrants – including hundreds of women and children – have been rounded up in mass arrests that began on 1 October in a suburb of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. The number of people in detention centres in the city – already notorious for poor conditions and abuse – has tripled. Many of those rounded up are refugees recognised by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. 

PAKISTAN: A 5.9-magnitude earthquake killed at least 15 people and injured hundreds more in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, according to disaster management authorities. The quake was centred outside Quetta, near a main border crossing with Afghanistan.

SYRIA: Syria has been re-admitted to Interpol’s communications network, in a move some worry could be dangerous for refugees and dissidents. The country has remained a member of the international police body throughout its more than 10-year war, but was suspended from its information exchange network in 2012. 

THAILAND: Parts of central and northeast Thailand are submerged following sustained monsoon rains and regional storms. For now, authorities say they expect the damage to be less severe than the catastrophic 2011 floods, which swept into the capital, Bangkok, and inundated some areas for weeks. But this year’s floods have already affected at least 1.1 million people, and riverside communities in Bangkok are on alert.

US: Refugee admissions to the US hit their lowest number in the past 40 years in fiscal year 2020, which ended on 30 September. Just 11,411 people were let in, despite the Biden administration raising the resettlement ceiling to 62,500. The failure to reach anywhere near that number reflects the damage done to the US refugee resettlement programme during four years of the Trump administration. 

VENEZUELA: Nearly three years after Venezuela closed its land borders with Colombia due to political tensions over aid convoys and Bogotá’s recognition of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, crossings have reopened. The border closure didn’t stop Venezuelans from crossing informally – in both directions – as the humanitarian crisis continued to bite at home, and jobs dried up in the region as a result of COVID-19.

WATER: A new report from the UN’s World Meteorological Organization says that more than five billion people are expected to have “inadequate” access to water at least one month per year by 2050, up from 3.6 billion in 2018. The report adds that both flood-related disasters and droughts have both been increasing in frequency over the past 20 years.

Weekend read

Ethiopia conflict sees hunger and atrocities spread from Tigray to Amhara

Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced since Tigrayan rebels launched an offensive into neighbouring Amhara, Ethiopia’s second most populous region. In our weekend read, Maria Gerth-Niculescu reports from the ground on the destruction, looting, and abuses that residents blame on the fighters. “[Rebels] left after killing dogs, humans. Corpses are still lying behind the houses over there. They have not been picked up by anyone yet,” said a resident from the village of Chenna Teklehaymanot, who was searching for lost relatives when he spoke with Gerth-Niculescu. Aid groups are trying to scale up operations in the region, but with fighting still ongoing, they cannot reach all of those in need. Efforts to assist the 5.2 million people requiring urgent assistance within Tigray remains a challenge, too. According to the latest UN situation report, only 606 trucks carrying relief supplies have been approved to enter the region since 12 July – way below the 100 a day needed to avert famine. The rebels say their offensive in Amhara – and the northeastern Afar region – is designed to break Addis Ababa’s humanitarian blockade. But Amhara residents don’t see it that way: “Their plan is to create poverty in Amhara,” said a lecturer at a local college, who fled to the capital city earlier this month.

And finally…

Data, data, and more data 

There was a time when humanitarian decision-makers struggled to find reliable data to inform their work. Today, they’re swimming in it, with humanitarian analysts like ACAPS, quantitative data crunchers like Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), and the humanitarian document repository Reliefweb. The Data Entry and Exploration Platform (DEEP), relaunching next month, is yet another tool, but one described by those in the business as a “game-changer” for how qualitative humanitarian information is analysed and used. DEEP sifts through the almost overwhelming amount of material pumped out by the aid industry, using AI to help decision-makers find information related to a specific project, needs, or themes. The relaunch next month will give the platform a facelift – with updated dashboard modules and a more user-friendly interface. Look out for yet more innovations, including space for new sectors such as climate, rights, and development.

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