Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
The Taliban’s cash flow problem
The Taliban says it controls Afghanistan, but can it govern? It’s unclear what Taliban rule will bring: Women fear a denial of basic rights, rights groups report reprisal killings, and many Afghans are scrambling to leave (more on that below). Beyond the immediate fear is another problem: Do the Taliban have the skills to govern an entire nation? One early issue is money: Most of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, which total at least $9 billion, are locked away in countries unlikely to send assets to the sanctioned Taliban. Ajmal Ahmady, the now-former central bank governor, estimated that the Taliban might be able to access “perhaps 0.1 to 0.2 percent” of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. The “Taliban won militarily, but now have to govern. It is not easy,” Ahmady said, unpacking the ripples in a Twitter thread: the afghani plummets, the economy crumbles, inflation rises, and food prices soar (in the midst of a severe drought). Afghanistan depends on foreign aid, but major donors are now reviewing or suspending development flows. Ultimately, the cash crunch puts even more pressure on the humanitarian sector, which has made voluble promises to “stay and deliver”. Western donors will find it more palatable to fund emergency aid rather than the Taliban. But this means aid agencies built for short-term relief will be responding to the fallout of long-term needs – while drawing from an ever-thinning slice of donor funding.
Mixed messages for Afghan refugees
The global response to a potential, large-scale Afghan refugee crisis following the Taliban’s return to power has so far been a mixed bag. The numbers leaving the country are still relatively small, but the UN is urging countries to welcome Afghans and refrain from deporting people to the country. The United States and its NATO allies are scrambling to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans who supported their presence, and more than 100 governments signed a letter calling on the Taliban to allow Afghans who want to leave to do so. Canada and the UK announced new resettlement programmes for vulnerable Afghans. But access to safe havens outside Afghanistan is also bumping up against tough global attitudes towards refugees. Afghanistan’s neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, already host large Afghan populations and are trying to minimise the number of new refugees crossing their borders, and Turkey is building a wall on its border with Iran to keep Afghans out. Many European politicians, fearful of a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis, have struck a less than welcoming tone – although their fears may yet prove to be unfounded.
Half a million in need after Haiti quake
More than 500,000 people are in need of emergency assistance in Haiti’s southern peninsula, where a 7.2-magnitude earthquake has killed more than 2,100 people and injured more than 12,200, according to Haitian officials. Aid and medical efforts are hampered by debris-strewn roads, rain from Tropical Storm Grace, a shortage of working hospitals, and gang violence. The private Bernard Mevs Hospital in the capital, Port-au-Prince, where some of the injured have been sent, was closed on 19 August as part of a two-day shutdown to protest the kidnapping of two doctors. In recent years, Haiti has been beset by violent gangs who patrol many of the country’s transport routes. Some villagers were also reportedly blocking aid shipments, saying they were also desperate for help. The southern peninsula has yet to recover from Hurricane Matthew, which killed at least 546 people in 2016. Prime Minister Ariel Henry has promised to speed up aid efforts – more than 30,000 families have been displaced, and there are fears of cholera due to lack of safe water, sanitation, and shelter. The United States has deployed several helicopters, aircraft, and the USS Arlington to help with relief efforts. France also sent a ship with humanitarian cargo, a helicopter, and more than two dozen soldiers.
Ethiopia’s widening conflict
The Ethiopian conflict is expanding. The Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), the main rebel group in the country’s largest region, Oromia, warned on 14 August that it was close to cutting off a major highway to Kenya – a move that would likely disrupt trade with the largest economy in East Africa. The OLA, which last week announced a pact with the government’s arch-adversary, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, claimed it was advancing on the western and southern fronts of the Oromia region, and held parts of the southern Borena zone bordering Kenya. Meanwhile, as the humanitarian crisis deepens and Tigrayan rebels push on into Amhara and Afar regions, there has been a relaunch of diplomatic efforts to halt the fighting. US special envoy Jeffrey Feltman arrived in the region last weekend, and Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok – rebuffed once by Addis Ababa – said he was still willing to mediate. Sudan, however, has its own dispute with Ethiopia over the contested Al-Fashaga border region – an issue Khartoum reiterated this week was non-negotiable.
Viral overload in West Africa
Côte d'Ivoire has reported its first Ebola case in almost three decades. The patient – an 18-year-old woman – was taken ill in the economic capital, Abidjan, after a 500-kilometre bus journey from neighbouring Guinea, where an outbreak of the virus was declared over earlier this year. Authorities in both countries have started contact tracing, while vaccinations are being rolled out in Abidjan, a city of around five million people. The outbreak comes just a few days after Guinea confirmed West Africa’s first case of Marburg – a severe haemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola – and as the region posted its highest number of COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began. “These new outbreaks are a clear reminder that other health emergencies will not go away just because we are busy fighting a global pandemic,” Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, said this week. “Fighting multiple outbreaks is a complex challenge.”
Lebanon’s fuel crisis
As we noted in last week’s Cheat Sheet, Lebanon’s Central Bank announced an end to its unofficial subsidy for fuel importers on 11 August – after a slow (and disorganised) fade-out prompted by dwindling foreign currency reserves amid the country’s ongoing economic meltdown. The aftermath has been chaotic, to say the least. While politicians objected to the move and the bank stood firm, the army took control of petrol stations to prevent hoarding and the American University of Beirut Medical Center – one of the country’s top hospitals – warned it could be forced to shut down within 48 hours, putting the lives of patients on respirators and dialysis machines in immediate danger. The hospital has since managed to get enough fuel to keep the power running, for now, but other facilities in the north of Lebanon are struggling to do the same after a tanker carrying much-needed fuel exploded, killing 28 people. The state-run electricity company, meanwhile, said it had lost control of eight of its transformers – after residents “hijacked” the infrastructure in what appears to be an attempt to provide electricity to certain areas. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says an Iranian fuel ship is headed for Lebanon, setting off a potential confrontation with Israel, while parliament was meeting to discuss the escalating crisis. In the meantime, Lebanon’s population is left waiting, and literally in the dark about what’s next.
In case you missed it
CANARY ISLANDS: More than 80 people are feared to have died on the maritime migration route between West Africa and the Spanish Canary islands in two separate incidents in recent weeks. The route is considered the most dangerous sea passage for Africans attempting to reach Europe, and movement on the route has increased substantially since last year. At least 234 people are known to have died attempting the crossing so far this year, although the true number is likely significantly higher.
CUBA: As Cuba registers its highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths to date, a breakdown at the country’s main oxygen plant has forced the government to activate the military to transport its own mobile oxygen-producing equipment to hospitals – at a time when its often-praised healthcare system is facing a wider crisis. The spike in infections comes just weeks after Cuba’s biggest street protests in decades, which led the government to introduce new laws to allow the criminal prosecution of those who criticise the regime on social media.
IRAQ: A Turkish airstrike on 17 August on a clinic in the northwestern Iraqi region of Sinjar reportedly killed as many as eight people, although death tolls differ. Turkey regularly conducts raids in the area against the separatists Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it considers a terrorist group.
NICARAGUA: Six months after imposing a law that forced local NGOs to register as “foreign agents”, effectively cutting them from international funding, Nicaragua has withdrawn the registration of six European and US groups, including Danish Oxfam IBIS and Swedish faith-based organisation Diakonia. The move, ahead of general elections in November, comes amid the detention of a string of opposition leaders, rights activists, and NGO workers.
ROHINGYA: Journeys across the Bay of Bengal have grown deadlier amid coronavirus border closures, the UN’s refugee agency warned in a new report. At least eight percent of the 2,400 refugees known to have risked the voyage last year died at sea, the UNHCR estimated. Rights groups say deteriorating conditions for Rohingya, including in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, are pushing more women to risk dangerous smuggling journeys.
THE SAHEL: Attacks by suspected jihadists in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso – three countries with shared borders and problems – cost more than 100 lives this week. The highest death toll was in Burkina Faso, where 80 people were killed, including 59 civilians.
UGANDA: The government has suspended more than 50 civic groups – from rights watchdogs to women’s groups – for allegedly not complying with regulations. The announcement, made on 20 August, was to take “immediate effect”. Some of the organisations ordered to close included poll monitoring groups that had been critical of the conduct of presidential elections in January marred by state violence.
VENEZUELA: Two days after a new round of talks between representatives of the government of President Nicolás Maduro and the opposition resumed in Mexico City, Freddy Guevara, a key opposition figure, was released by police intelligence to join the discussions – a move seen as a concession by Maduro as efforts continue to resolve the five-year political stalemate.
ZAMBIA: The pundits got it wrong. The widespread expectation was that the ruling party would rig last week’s election. But instead, when the scale of the landslide became apparent, incumbent Edgar Lungu conceded to his main challenger, Hakainde Hichilema. His victory has energised hopes that political change can come via the ballot box.
A fresh surge of COVID-19 cases across the Middle East and North Africa is presenting a major challenge to outdated, underfunded, and short-staffed healthcare systems, and driving home just how serious a problem global vaccine inequity really is. Our weekend read zooms in on five countries – Libya, Lebanon, Tunisia, Iraq, and Yemen – that are fighting coronavirus against the backdrop of conflict, displacement, and economic catastrophe. Vaccine doses received via the UN-backed COVAX facility or other deals and donations are not enough to go around, and many people remain hesitant to get the jabs – or to even seek treatment – until it is too late. As one Yemeni doctor told The New Humanitarian: “A significant portion of the population is denying that COVID even exists.”
Where to next?
As the results of the botched Afghanistan pullout dominated this week’s headlines, you could be forgiven for having missed news of a new US (mis)adventure – in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. US special forces arrived in the country last week for a short mission designed to boost Congolese soldiers fighting the Allied Democratic Forces militant group, and rangers working in the national parks of Virunga and Garamba. Though their aims are unclear, the logic of the intervention is questionable. The United States considers the ADF a branch of the so-called Islamic State, but analysts say the links are tenuous. Past operations against the group have failed militarily and had dire consequences for civilians. A militarised approach to park conservation has deep pitfalls too: In Virunga, home to endangered mountain gorillas, researchers say heavy-handed guards have alienated local residents and fanned local conflicts to the detriment of conservation efforts.