Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Rural Afghan women on peace, war, and ‘our role in society’
Greater freedom, better education, more control over their lives – the push for women’s rights doesn’t stop at the city limits, according to new research from the Afghanistan Analysts Network. The Kabul-based research group interviewed rural Afghan women, including in areas recently overrun by the Taliban, about their hopes and fears as instability swells. “Peace can change how women are treated in our society,” said one woman. “We’ll be able to learn about our rights and find our role in society.” Women’s views have taken a backseat during months of stalled Taliban peace talks, and advocates fear they’ll backslide further as international forces leave and the Taliban rapidly gains ground. The reports’ authors say the research challenges the notion that rural Afghan women would be satisfied with supposed gender norms imposed by conservative groups or the Taliban – or that women’s rights are only a priority for an urban elite. “Dreams of greater agency for Afghan women are not the exclusive domain of those who can speak up publicly,” the researchers concluded. “The priorities of rural women are not that different from those put forward by the more well-connected women activists.”
Haiti assassination boosts aid concerns for 4.4 million
Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination has pushed the Caribbean country into a new crisis, prompting fears that humanitarian aid to some 4.4. million people may be thwarted because of the volatile security situation and border closures. “This is the worst humanitarian crisis the country has faced over the past few years, and it’s deteriorating week after week,” said Bruno Maes, UNICEF representative in Haiti. Police say an armed hit squad of mostly Colombian mercenaries killed Moïse on 7 July. Martial law has been imposed, flights suspended, and food and cargo delays due to border closures have been reported. UNICEF said more than 1.5 million children were at risk, while thousands of people have been displaced due to a wave of gang violence. The assassination, meanwhile, has also forced the question of who’s running the country: acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph or Ariel Henry who, before Moïse’s death, was appointed to replace Joseph? UN Special Envoy Helen La Lime says Joseph will remain in office until elections are held later this year, but Henry has said he’s in charge. Haiti, which has yet to begin COVID-19 vaccinations after refusing an initial shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines, has also seen a recent spike in coronavirus cases, despite reporting relatively few cases in the first year of the pandemic.
Lebanon’s growing needs: Petrol, food, and a government
Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab warned this week that the country is days away from a “social explosion”. With so many people already suffering from a devastating economic collapse, it’s not too hard to argue that his words have already come to pass. Last week, the government announced a 35 percent hike in fuel prices, a move intended to tackle severe shortages that have led to even longer than usual electricity cuts, queues for petrol, and even fights at petrol stations (where migrant workers often bear the brunt of drivers’ anger). Most of the country is in poverty, food prices have been rising for months, and it seems that every week the currency hits a new low. Diab says the country needs help from the international community, but most seem to agree that channelling assistance through the state would require a government. What politicians can’t agree on, in an increasingly dangerous deadlock, is how to form one; Diab and his cabinet have been serving in a caretaker capacity since they resigned en masse after last year’s deadly explosion at the Beirut port.
Ceasefire did not end the battle over Tigray aid access
The Ethiopian government said this week it had authorised humanitarian flights to northern Tigray – where 400,000 people are in famine and 1.8 million on the brink – but no aid has yet been flown in. The region remains largely cordoned off after eight months of fighting between government forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The UN says talks on access have made little headway. The destruction last week of a key bridge – allegedly by Amhara special forces – has also hampered humanitarian efforts, with growing cash and fuel shortages further compromising relief work in Tigray. The TPLF, which on 28 June drove government forces out of the Tigrayan capital, Mekelle, has labelled a government ceasefire a “joke”. It has demanded unfettered access by relief agencies to Tigray and the restoration of power and communications as a precondition to talks. It also wants the full withdrawal of Eritrean and Amhara troops, and investigations into alleged atrocities. Retaking control of western Tigray, contested by the Amhara region, could allow the TPLF to open an independent supply corridor to Sudan.
Tallying a deadly week in the central Mediterranean
Shipwrecks, questionable actions by the Libyan coast guard, and another impounded search and rescue vessel marked the past week in the central Mediterranean. Forty-nine bodies were recovered off the coast of Tunisia following four separate shipwrecks between 30 June and 4 July, bringing the death toll in the central Mediterranean to at least 734 so far this year. A reconnaissance plane operated by the NGO Sea-Watch filmed the EU-backed Libyan coast guard opening fire on a boat carrying around 60 asylum seekers and migrants on 30 June. The boat later landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, and prosecutors are seeking permission from the Italian government to open an investigation – a potential first by a European country. Meanwhile, the Italian parliament is expected to vote to reapprove and increase funding for the coming year for the Libyan coast guard, which has intercepted and returned nearly 15,000 people to detention centres in Libya so far in 2021. Italian authorities also impounded a search and rescue vessel operated by the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières on 2 July after it rescued more than 400 people in the central Mediterranean last month. It is the thirteenth time an NGO search and rescue vessel has been impounded due to “technical irregularities” since 2019.
A hotter planet amps up risk of mosquito-borne diseases
Ahead of the official release next month of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes’ dire climate report – which we already know a lot about thanks to an early leak – a new study in The Lancet Planetary Health now warns that billions of people may be at risk of dengue fever and malaria by 2080 if climate action is not taken. Once limited in geographical scope, the mosquito-borne diseases are projected to spread to new regions if temperatures rise unabated by 3.7 degree Celsius by the end of the century. Dengue, which was present in only nine countries before 1970, has since spread to over 100 and infected 5.2 million in 2019. That year, malaria killed over 400,000 people and infected 229 million, of which 94 percent of cases were in Africa. Meanwhile, a separate study in Mexico showed that data compiled on dengue hotspots in Mexico could provide predictive maps for future outbreaks of Zika and chikungunya, all transmitted by the aedes aegypti mosquito.
In case you missed it
BRAZIL: President Jair Bolsonaro held on to power throughout the pandemic even though his country had the second highest COVID-19 death toll globally and one of the highest turnovers of health ministers since the start of the outbreak. But now his popular support is being dented amid vaccine corruption allegations – which he denies. The supreme court authorised a criminal investigation into his involvement in irregularities in the procurement of Covaxin, a jab developed in India.
ESWATINI: There’s an uneasy calm after weeks of violent protest over the rights denying, money-guzzling absolute rule of King Mswati. A “national dialogue” has been promised, but further unrest is feared without significant political reforms. At least 20 people died when the security forces used live ammunition against protesters and looters.
MYANMAR: The military is blocking humanitarian access to some 100,000 people displaced by clashes in parts of Kayah State, as well as thousands sheltering around Mindat in Chin State, aid groups told The New Humanitarian. Authorities have long restricted access, but military checkpoints are increasingly thwarting aid to the newly displaced. Roughly 230,000 people have been uprooted since the 1 February coup.
PALESTINE: A new report from Medical Aid for Palestinians details a “burgeoning mental health and wellbeing crisis” due to COVID-19 for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank. Anxiety and fear for their safety and that of their families is widespread, as healthcare professionals treat patients in stressful conditions and with limited resources. It’s concerning reading, and the research was done before Israel’s bombing of Gaza in May.
SOUTH AFRICA: A nation watched transfixed on 7 July as former president Jacob Zuma finally handed himself over to police and was driven off to begin a 15-month jail sentence. Zuma, an anti-apartheid hero to many, is not behind bars for the corruption that tainted his 2009 to 2019 administration but for contempt of court over his refusal to appear before a graft inquiry into “state capture” – the siphoning of public funds by the politically connected Gupta family.
SOUTH SUDAN: It’s been ten years since South Sudan gained independence from its northern neighbour, Sudan. But the anniversary is set to pass without fanfare as hunger levels soar and localised violence uproots thousands. The long-fought struggle for statehood quickly soured as civil war broke out in 2013, leaving an estimated 400,000 people dead. A peace agreement in 2018 – the second of its kind – led to a unity government last year. But key parts of the deal have not been implemented amid entrenched distrust between political elites. See our archives for more.
SPAIN: Around 2,100 asylum seekers and migrants are estimated to have died trying to reach the Spanish Canary Islands from the West African coast already this year – nearly matching the number of deaths all of last year. The Atlantic maritime route is considered to be the most dangerous sea passage for those trying to reach Europe and has seen a sharp uptick in activity in the past year.
SYRIA: The mandate authorising a UN relief operation from Turkey for 2.4 million people in rebel-controlled northwestern Syria was extended for six months in a 9 July UN Security Council vote, with another six-month extension possible pending a review. The authorization had been set to expire on 10 July. Russia, which can veto the Security Council’s authorisation, has argued that aid to Idlib should come via government-controlled areas. Humanitarian groups say Damascus doesn’t allow aid to flow across the front line.
UK: The government submitted its proposed overhaul of the country’s asylum system to parliament as legislation this week. If approved, the overhaul would create a two-tiered protection system that rights groups say will discriminate against asylum seekers who arrive in the country irregularly. The UN’s refugee agency has said the changes “will undermine the 1951 [Refugee] Convention and international protection system, not just in the UK, but globally”.
“The safety, security and dignity of refugees is at severe risk, and lives may be lost,” a group of Western embassies and donors charged in a letter calling out the UN-led relief operation for Tigrayan refugees in Sudan and leaked to The New Humanitarian. As Africa correspondent and editor Philip Kleinfeld details in our weekend read, the letter to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, is unusual for its frank criticisms, accusing the organisation of a lack of leadership and failing to act on prior donor warnings about gaps and delays in providing aid at the camps – as raised in another letter sent by the group earlier this year. Tens of thousands of refugees have fled the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region since last November. Around 40,000 live in two official camps – previously used by Ethiopians fleeing famine in the 1980s. Another 8,500 are sheltering in transit centres close to the border with Ethiopia. The UN has responded that it is doing its best, stating that the pace of arrivals was the highest seen in eastern Sudan over the past two decades. But senior aid workers on the ground told Kleinfeld that the camps are poorly sited, communication with refugees is spotty, and a dearth of senior officials has led to slow and chaotic responses. “I have never seen a humanitarian response with such little human dignity,” said one, who leads an international aid group working in the camps. In recent weeks, severe storms damaged some 4,000 of the 10,000 shelters in the two official camps, forcing women into survival sex work, an aid worker said. The good news is that the latest donor letter seems to be breathing new life into aid efforts; the signatories called on UNHCR to make immediate improvements ahead of the upcoming rainy season. As aid workers warned The New Humanitarian, things will turn even more sour if changes aren’t made before heavy rains set in.
The UN’s pandemic-year spending
The UN’s spending increased in 2020, with at least $2.1 billion, or 11 percent, going to COVID-19-related goods and services. The UN’s annual procurement report – based on public data on 36,594 contracts – shows that purchasing of PPE and other COVID-19 supplies pushed up spending by UNICEF and the UN Development Programme, while WHO’s buying almost doubled, to $1.7 billion. Overall, health-related purchasing represents the largest slice of the UN’s $22.3 billion outgoings. But that’s not new. Three pharmaceutical companies top the list of suppliers by value: GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and the Serum Institute of India. These firms were already major suppliers of childhood vaccinations, and the purchase of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021 will likely see pharmaceutical firms top the list again in 2021. The pandemic did reduce some UN spending: Travel and accommodation went down by nearly half, to $668 million.