Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Preventing Afghanistan’s economic ‘freefall’
Can Taliban-ruled Afghanistan stave off total economic implosion with cash and basic income plans delivered directly through hyper-local community networks? A “rapid appraisal” by the UN Development Programme calls for “a paradigmatic shift” in how development funds are used to “prevent the imminent freefall of the most vulnerable households into near-universal poverty”. Its analysis warns 97 percent of Afghans could drop below the poverty line within months. Of course, the key variables behind any intervention include the Taliban itself, and the international donors that have already frozen public sector aid funding. Many humanitarian operations (let alone development projects) remain suspended as aid groups try to negotiate permissions and safety guarantees – especially for female staff. Taliban authorities, meanwhile, have tried to quash protests by Afghan women calling for their rights, and beaten journalists covering demonstrations. A 13 September UN-backed summit will push for donor funds to scale up emergency aid. But humanitarian relief can’t replace government systems on the edge of collapse, as Afghanistan’s acting health minister warns.
Accusations and acrimony in Tigray
Warring parties continued to trade accusations and insults this week as the 10-month Tigray conflict drags on. Officials and doctors in the Amhara region claimed Tigrayan forces killed more than 120 civilians in the area, which borders Tigray. A spokesperson for the rebels – known as the Tigray Defence Forces (TDF) – “categorically” rejected the claim. Addis Ababa, meanwhile, said the TDF had retreated from Afar having pushed into the northeastern region in July; the rebels offered a contrasting view. The UN was also forced to reject allegations – put forward by Ethiopia's foreign ministry – that rebels are being trained in refugee camps in eastern Sudan. And Khartoum and Addis Ababa continued their war of words amid tensions over a weapons shipment and the discovery of dead bodies that washed up in Sudan via a river that borders Tigray. With information hard to verify, a rare bit of welcome news came as the UN announced the completion of an investigation into human rights abuses committed during the conflict. A report is expected on 1 November.
No direction home for Syrian refugees
We’ve reported time and again on the rising pressures Syrian refugees face to return home, be it from changing European policies, deportations, or arrests and shifting rhetoric. Yet for many people who fled Syria’s decade of war, going back is not a viable option, with homes destroyed, key documents missing, and an economic implosion that has left many hungry. Then there’s the fact that the war isn’t over, and even parts of Syria where the fighting has calmed are not necessarily safe. On 8 September, Lebanon reversed a decision announced three days earlier to deport six Syrians it accused of entering the country illegally. Syrians who have returned have been detained, tortured, and disappeared by security forces, according to a new report from Amnesty International. The returnees told the watchdog group that they were targeted for abuse because they left in the first place — raising further questions about what will become of the more than six million Syrian refugees spread across the globe.
Guinea returns to military rule
An army colonel sidelined by associates of Guinea’s unpopular president has taken power in the coup-prone West African country. The colonel, Mamady Doumbouya, was a former soldier in the French foreign legion and commanded an elite special unit based in Guinea's capital. The unit had reportedly been marginalised after relations deteriorated between Doumbouya and Defence Minister Mohamed Diané. Many Guineans appear to welcome the coup, which ended 11 years of rule by octogenarian President Alpha Condé. The ousted leader was the first to be democratically elected in Guinea but became increasingly determined to remain in power. Last year, he won a contested third term by modifying the country’s constitution and brutally repressing street protests. Regional and international bodies condemned the coup – which follows similar power grabs in Mali and Chad – but none called for Condé’s reinstatement. Doumbouya has, meanwhile, promised a government of national unity, though the track record of Guinea's previous military rulers doesn't bode well.
A pandemic casualty: HIV and TB care
For the first time in 20 years, key progress indicators in the fight against HIV and TB have declined, according to a new Global Fund report that blamed the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of people treated in 2020 for “extensively” drug-resistant TB, in countries where the Global Fund invests, dropped 37 percent from a year earlier. There was also an 11 percent drop in HIV prevention programmes and services compared with 2019, and HIV testing fell by 22 percent. Efforts to combat malaria fared better. The number of mosquito nets distributed, for example, increased by 17 percent, while 11.5 million pregnant women received preventive therapy in 2020. Still, testing of suspected malaria cases fell by 4.3 percent from the previous year, and overall progress against the disease stalled. The Global Fund invests more than $4 billion a year for programmes in more than 100 countries.
Back to the brink in Somalia
A power tussle is underway in Somalia between President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” and Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble, threatening a fragile political accord reached earlier this year. This week, both leaders named different men to head the intelligence service and then argued over who should be the new internal security minister. It’s a dispute that started as a murder investigation into the death of a cyber security officer, with allegations of a cover-up. But it has escalated to a constitutional row, made all the more dangerous by the divided loyalties of the security forces. The renewed friction comes as indirect elections for lawmakers that are due this month could be postponed yet again – they were already delayed once – which would upset the timetable for the presidential vote scheduled for October. Somalia’s international partners have called on both sides to “de-escalate the political confrontation” and ensure the “completion of the electoral process without any further delay”.
In case you missed it
ASIA FLOODS: Heavy rains and a pair of storms have triggered floods across parts of Asia. Areas in northern Bangladesh, northeast India, and Nepal have been inundated this month. Parts of the Philippines are dealing with two successive storms, including the rapidly intensifying Typhoon Chanthu. Climate change makes extreme weather more volatile, but as The Kathmandu Post points out, poor preparation also amps up the damage.
COVAX: The UN-backed COVAX vaccine facility said on Wednesday that the “global picture of vaccine access is unacceptable”, with only 20 percent of people in “low- and lower-middle-income countries” having received a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 80 percent of people in what it classifies as “high and upper-middle income countries”.
DENMARK: The government has proposed a plan to require refugees and migrants to work 37 hours per week in order to continue receiving state welfare benefits. The proposal is specifically targeting women from the Middle East and North Africa and follows a series of policies aimed at discouraging asylum seekers and migrants from entering the country – including revoking the residency permits of hundreds of Syrian refugees earlier this year on the dubious grounds that it is now safe for them to return home.
EGYPT: The security forces have routinely killed detainees in executions masked as shootouts with alleged terrorists, according to Human Rights Watch. It detailed an alleged pattern of extrajudicial assassinations between 2015 and last year – a period in which 755 people were killed in exchanges of fire with security forces, according to the interior ministry. Some of the named individuals appeared to have been in custody prior to being killed, HRW said.
EL SALVADOR: Protests erupted in the capital on 7 September as the country became the first to make bitcoin legal tender. The government of President Nayib Bukele announced the purchase of an additional 200 bitcoin, equivalent to roughly 0.3 percent of the national budget, allowing citizens to each own $30 worth of the currency. But the inability of most people to access an official phone app needed to use the currency, and a sharp drop in its value following its launch, added to scepticism.
THE GAMBIA/EU: The Gambia has said it will no longer cooperate with EU countries looking to deport rejected asylum seekers. Cooperation with deportations from the EU is deeply unpopular in the West African country, where 20 percent of the GDP comes from remittances and a presidential election is scheduled for later this year. The EU is considering imposing visa restrictions on The Gambia in retaliation — a strategy it has said it will use to pressure African countries to cooperate with deportations.
LEBANON: A new plan to ease the massive power crisis could see natural gas shipped to the country from Egypt, via Jordan and Syria. While the proposal could ease dangerous shortages of electricity in homes and hospitals, political hurdles remain and experts say it is not a long-term solution.
MOZAMBIQUE: There are fresh allegations of aid workers sexually exploiting women fleeing the jihadist insurgency in northern Cabo Delgado province. Zenaida Machado, Human Rights Watch senior researcher, said she interviewed a woman last month who described being offered accommodation in return for sex by a relief worker just after she’d arrived in Pemba, the provincial capital. It’s the latest in a string of detailed accounts of sex for aid (see here, here, and here) stretching back to 2019. “The UN has declared zero tolerance, the government has promised to do something, but nothing’s been done,” Machado told The New Humanitarian. “And there’s no clear messaging on what women and girls, exposed to such practices, should do.”
MYANMAR: The parallel government formed by the pro-democracy movement called this week for a “defensive war” to revolt against the February military coup. A group of former UN rights investigators warned of escalating violence, but said people in Myanmar have been “forced to react” because of international inaction.
SYRIA: France’s top court has overturned a decision to dismiss charges of complicity in crimes against humanity against cement company LaFarge, which is accused of paying the so-called Islamic State and other armed groups at least 13 million euros to keep its factory in northern Syria running in the early years of the war.
UK: Border Force teams may start turning back migrant boats that cross the English Channel. If used, the new tactic would be “safe and legal”, according to the government. This week alone, more than 1,500 people have crossed the Channel by boat. France says the move could put people’s lives in danger. The UK, meanwhile, has said that unless France steps up patrols, the UK could withhold some of the £54.2 million it promised France to help pay for extra patrol measures.
Lebanon has more than its fair share of problems right now. Some, like the 20-hour-a-day power cuts many people are enduring (see above), are well publicised. Others, like the impossible price of menstrual products for women, less so. Lebanese journalist and researcher, Zainab Chamoun, tries to remedy that with this weekend read exploring efforts to tackle the worsening menace of period poverty. With prices of sanitary pads soaring 500 percent due to Lebanon’s imploding currency, local shops and charities are flagging alternatives that can be washed and reused. But, as Chamoun found, these can still be prohibitively expensive for many women and girls, and there is cultural opposition in some quarters too. However, awareness on this sensitive issue is growing, as shown by Jeyetna – a festival that is going door-to-door, offering everything from advice in a safe space to menstrual cups and period panties.
When school’s out forever
Only about a third of refugee learners receive secondary education, according to this year’s UNHCR Education Report, released this week. It presents data from 40 countries that together host about half of the global refugee population. Whereas enrolment for primary school level children averaged 68 percent between 2019-2020, the corresponding rate for secondary education was half of that, just 34 percent. The comparison between post-primary refugee learners and those from the host country is even more stark. In Jordan, for example, the secondary enrolment rate for host learners was 65 percent whereas for refugees it was 25 percent. Despite thousands of new refugees being enrolled in school over the reporting period, the continued rise in the global population of forcibly displaced individuals, which topped 80 million at the end of last year, means that close to half of all refugee children – 48 percent – remain out of school.
Our journalism has always been free and independent — and we need your help to keep it so.
As we mark our 25th anniversary, we are launching a voluntary membership programme. Become a member of The New Humanitarian to support our journalism and become more involved in our community.
It was The New Humanitarian’s investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation that uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led the World Health Organization to launch an independent review and reform its practices.
This demonstrates the important impact that 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.
The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and shine a light on similar abuses.