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Congo evacuation, Macron mea culpa, and Grand Bargain 2.0: The Cheat Sheet

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(Louise O'Brien/TNH)

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

On our radar

Eruption, seismic storm, now poisonous gas?

Residents of Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, clogged highways and piled onto overcrowded boats as officials ordered an evacuation amid fears of a second eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, one of Africa’s most dangerous volcanoes. At least 32 people died and 20,000 were displaced when the volcano sent streams of fast-moving lava towards the city’s northern fringes on 22 May – stopping just short of its international airport. Hundreds of small earthquakes were then reported – an event known as a seismic storm – while magma flows were detected underneath the city centre and the adjacent Lake Kivu. In a worst-case scenario, officials say active vents could form in central Goma or in the lake, which contains vast quantities of gas capable of suffocating thousands if released. A previous volcanic eruption, in 2002, covered a fifth of Goma in lava and left 120,000 people homeless. Hundreds of families have been separated by the new eruption, while power and water shortages have been reported in Goma, which has a population of roughly two million and is the coordination hub for aid operations across eastern Congo.

A 95% victory for Syria’s al-Assad

In news that will come as a surprise to absolutely no one, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad won his country’s elections this week, securing his fourth term with what officials said was 95 percent of the votes cast. As with previous polls, Syrian critics and Western countries denounced the process as a sham, or, to put it nicely, neither free nor fair. This doesn’t appear to have rattled the leader, who said the West’s opinion counted “zero” as he cast his ballot in the former rebel-held stronghold of Douma, site of a 2018 chemical weapons attack. The positions of foreign countries – including al-Assad’s ally Russia – do matter in the diplomatic showdown on what will become of the UN’s ability to bring aid from Turkey into Syria’s rebel-held northwest. The Security Council discussed the issue on 26 May, and you can expect plenty more haggling before the resolution that permits cross-border aid expires on 10 July. Read this to get up to speed on a debate that matters to millions of civilians. 

The death of Boko Haram’s leader?

Is Boko Haram’s ruthless leader Abubakar Shekau dead? More than a week after he reportedly committed suicide by triggering his explosive vest, there was still no official confirmation. The Nigerian army says it is still investigating. The Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), the rival group that launched an attack on his base in the Sambisa Forest, has remained silent. But longtime watchers – including Ahmad Salkida – believe he is dead. We know that the rivalry between the two groups – an ideological split that began in 2016 – has been deep and violent. Last week, an ISWAP column managed to evade detection and make it to Sambisa, overpowering Shekau’s men. @HumAngle, with some of the most authoritative journalists on the northeast conflict, broke the news that they then demanded Shekau swear allegiance, which he refused. In the aftermath of his likely death we can expect a realignment of jihadist forces in northeast Nigeria: Many of Shekau’s commanders have agreed to join ISWAP. Also, expect the more than decade-long war to increase in intensity, and humanitarian operations – with aid workers already regular ISWAP targets – to be in even greater peril.

Rising attacks on Myanmar’s shattered health system

Myanmar’s military continues to crack down on healthcare workers suspected of opposing the 1 February coup. New research from Insecurity Insight and Physicians for Human Rights recorded at least 178 violent incidents against healthcare workers between 11 February and 11 May. The military has seized hospitals and arrested dozens of staff; at least 12 health workers have been killed, researchers said. Doctors were at the forefront of civil disobedience protests that have shut down much of Myanmar’s economy, and nurses are increasingly threatened with arrest. Aid groups say Myanmar’s healthcare system has essentially collapsed, months after the coup. Separate figures from 12 countries tracked by the World Health Organization show Myanmar accounts for nearly half of the global attacks on healthcare this year. 

Macron and Kagame reset relations

After three abrasive decades in Franco-Rwandan relations, French President Emmanuel Macron has offered a mini mea culpa for his country’s role in the 1994 genocide. He recognised France’s “responsibility”, asked for forgiveness, but stopped short of an official apology for the slaughter of 800,000 people – mainly minority Tutsis. That contrition, though, was enough for President Paul Kagame. “His words were something more valuable than an apology,” Kagame said, after the two leaders met in Kigali on 27 May. Kagame has long accused France of direct complicity in the genocide. A French inquiry in March denied official connivance, but faulted Paris for not recognising genocide plans were being laid by the Hutu supremacist government. The report’s findings cleared the way for this week’s relationship reset. But the new chumminess comes as Kagame – previously lauded for turning Rwanda into a development beacon – is increasingly viewed less favourably in Western capitals. His tendency to jail domestic opponents – not to mention hunt down and kill those exiled abroad – is now seen as less excusable. Even his development record, which had granted him some diplomatic immunity, is starting to be questioned. For more, check out this series The New Humanitarian ran 25 years after the Rwandan genocide.

The Grand Bargain gets a new leader, and an upgrade

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, will be stepping in as the new leader, or Eminent Person, of the Grand Bargain – an agenda of 51 commitments that humanitarian donors and aid responders signed up to five years ago. The change of leadership comes as the Grand Bargain is due for an upgrade – a 2.0 as it’s being called. Egeland’s tenure begins at the 15-17 June Annual Meeting, at which the bargain’s new draft framework will be hashed out among signatories. Stay tuned for upcoming coverage from The New Humanitarian, including a longread delving into whether stakeholders have lived up to their end of the bargain. And look out for an event too, as we gather leading advocates and critics to consider what has and hasn’t been achieved since the initiative was first launched at the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, and what might be in store for the future.

In case you missed it

CYBER: Hackers sent out a fake newsletter to about 3,000 addresses through a USAID mailing list system on 25 May. Microsoft’s cyber-security unit said the incident “targeted many humanitarian and human rights organizations” and could expose readers’ computers if they clicked links that install malware. The attack is blamed on a group codenamed by Microsoft as NOBELIUM, allegedly linked to Russia. 

CYPRUS: An uptick in boats departing from Syria and arriving in Cyprus has prompted the Cypriot interior minister to say the island is experiencing a “state of emergency”. In recent years, Cyprus has received the highest number of first-time asylum applications per capita in the EU, with people reaching the island from Turkey and occasionally by boat from Lebanon. The sustained arrival of boats from Syria, which is experiencing a severe economic crisis on top of a decade-long civil war, appears to be a new trend.

FRAUD: A US court sentenced a former employee of Irish NGO GOAL to 40 months (of a possible maximum of 10 years) for aid-related bribery and corruption on 24 May. Ernest Halilov paid people working for GOAL and other NGOs in Turkey to help his favoured firms win tenders for relief supplies destined for Syria. A long USAID investigation ended with his extradition from Ukraine.

FRONTEX: Three NGOs have filed a lawsuit against the EU’s border agency, Frontex, at the European Court of Justice, the bloc’s top court, over the agency’s alleged complicity in the pushback of asylum seekers in the Aegean Sea. Frontex is facing a number of scandals and investigations following media reports detailing its involvement in human rights violations at the EU’s external borders. The case at the Court of Justice represents the first time the agency has faced legal action over alleged abuses in its 17-year history.

INDIA: Cyclone Yaas battered parts of India’s eastern coast, forcing mass evacuations and damaging thousands of homes. The storm struck coastal Odisha on 26 May and sent strong winds and heavy rain inland. At least 15,000 people were also displaced in Bangladesh. Yaas is at least the fourth powerful storm to hit the same area since 2019.

MALI: A second coup within a year has plunged Mali into a new phase of political turmoil as violence continues in northern and central parts of the country. The coup was led by the same men who seized power last year, and followed a disputed cabinet reshuffle that would have replaced two putschists.

PERU: Two weeks ahead of the final round of voting in Peru’s presidential election, a splinter faction of the Shining Path extremist group killed 18 residents in an eastern region where it is believed to provide security to drug-traffickers. The attack, and warnings to villagers not to vote, were reminders of the massacres the Maoist group routinely perpetrated before being largely defeated by 2000 after a ‘dirty war’ with the government of president Alberto Fujimori that left some 70,000 people dead or disappeared. Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, will face off against Pedro Castillo, an Indigenous school teacher, in the 11 June polls. 

ROHINGYA CAMPS: Parts of the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are on lockdown as COVID-19 cases rise after staying relatively flat through much of the pandemic. The WHO has recorded more than 1,100 cases in the cramped camps – but this tally has nearly doubled over the last month. Bangladesh’s government earlier suspended vaccination plans for refugees, saying it needs more supplies from the COVAX vaccine-sharing programme.

SOMALIA: Crisis averted, it seems. Somalia’s federal government, and leaders of its semi-autonomous states, reached agreement after talks this week on long-delayed national elections, heading off a political conflict that threatened all-out civil war. The deal, announced on 27 May, sets out a plan for parliamentary elections to begin within 60 days, with the selection of the president by clan leaders thereafter.

SUDAN: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok met with rebel leader Abdel-Aziz al-Hilu in South Sudan’s capital this week as a new phase of peace negotiations got going. Al-Hilu did not sign up to a 2020 peace agreement between Sudan’s transitional government and armed and opposition groups.

Weekend read

Digital divide hampers COVID-19 responses in India

As COVID-19 cases and deaths surge in India, unequal access to vaccines and healthcare is causing an information gap and compromising response efforts. At first, those aged 18 to 44 could only book a vaccine in English using a centralised online system – the Cowin app – that requires access to a smartphone or computer and a strong internet connection. But a sharp digital divide meant only a few elite, tech-literate city dwellers could get jabs. Identity requirements and English literacy posed further problems. In response, India’s health ministry announced last week that states can offer on-site registration in government-run clinics for all adults. The government also promised to roll out the Cowin app in Hindi and 14 other languages this month. Even if this is done, as Bhavya Dore explains in our weekend read, the government would still have to deal with vaccine hesitancy and misinformation being spread online. With ongoing vaccine shortages, activists say more must be done to ensure doses are available to all. Individuals, civil society groups, and local administrations are trying to bridge the digital divide in underserved areas. But locals worry that it won’t reach everyone who needs help.

And finally…

Who’s the best aid donor?

Three in every ten dollars (at least $45 billion a year) of reported “development assistance” never reaches low- or middle-income countries – it’s spent in the giving country or on administration. This is one gloomy finding from a new study that says there are few signs that aid is improving in quality. According to the Center for Global Development think-tank, the Rome-based International Fund for Agricultural Development, or IFAD, is the best international aid donor in the world, and Greece is the worst of 49 major funders. The Quality of Official Development Assistance measures 17 indicators in four broad criteria. IFAD scores highly in transparency and not attaching strings (on that one, the International Monetary Fund is the worst). Sweden is the best at paying attention to the impact of its spending, while the Asian Development Bank is best at fitting its work to the receiving country's priorities. The fourth dimension is related to transparency: 16 donors don't publish their spending in the industry standard aid data format, and 11 only release details of less than half of their outgoings.

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