Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Unsurprisingly, more vows to address food insecurity
After 18 months of preparations, hundreds of discussions, and public disagreements, the Food Systems Summit finally got underway on 23 September, albeit virtually, as part of the UN General Assembly in New York. Heads of state from 86 nations vowed to transform food systems to become fairer, healthier, and greener – three key areas of change highlighted by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the gathering. Meanwhile, hundreds of civil society groups and grassroots movements boycotted the meeting over what they saw as undue corporate influence. They held a counter event to drum up support for their call to halt and transform corporate, globalised food systems, which they see as the root of humanitarian and ecological crises. During the UN discussions, the US pledged $10 billion over five years, half of which will be spent domestically, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which also provides funds to The New Humanitarian) announced $922 million to bring down stubbornly high malnutrition figures. Food fortification, scrapping agricultural subsidies harmful to human and planetary health, and the need for innovative technologies also featured high on the agenda. Guterres promised a stocktake in two years. Look out for our full coverage next week.
In Afghanistan, relief funds keep an ailing public sector on life support
The UN is drawing $45 million from its emergency response fund to keep Afghanistan’s health system afloat for the rest of the year. It may be good news for the collapsing health system, but it’s also another sign of how Western donor governments’ deep reluctance to engage with the Taliban is foisting even more expectations on the humanitarian sector (and its relatively small slice of donor funding). After the Taliban’s mid-August takeover, the World Bank and other major donors froze development funding flows that had supported the bulk of the public health system. Major donors say they’ll fund humanitarian aid, but not a Taliban-led government. Foreign grants account for 75 percent of Afghanistan’s yearly public sector spending of about $11 billion (emergency aid funds, by comparison, usually add up to a few hundred million each year). The impact of Afghanistan’s political upheaval is clear beyond the health sector. Cash shortages, job losses, and price hikes mean 95 percent of Afghan households don’t have enough to eat, according to World Food Programme surveys. The research also found women-headed households are skipping meals and cutting back “far more” than those headed by men. “Afghanistan,” the WFP warned, “is on the brink of economic collapse.”
Criticism and chaos at the US-Mexico border
Mistreatment of thousands of mostly Haitian asylum-seekers encamped in a small Texas town across the Mexican border has sparked strong criticism internationally and within the US. Filippo Grandi, the UN refugee agency’s chief, condemned the mass expulsions of migrants who had sheltered under a highway overpass in “deplorable conditions”, while President Joe Biden’s special envoy to Haiti quit in protest, calling the government’s policy “inhumane” and “counterproductive”. Since 19 September, more than 1,400 Haitians have been returned to Haiti, which was shaken by an earthquake last month and has been beset by widening instability. Images of US border officials on horseback corralling the migrants reminded some of historic slave patrols, while many blamed the US of double standards in dealing with asylum-seekers. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Rio Grande, Mexican officials have increased pressure on migrants separated from others by the cross-border interventions to voluntarily board buses before being flown to Tapachula, on the border with Guatemala.
First shipments of aid in six months reach Mozambican town
Emergency aid reached the northern town of Palma this week for the first time since it was overrun by jihadist fighters in March. The town, the hub of a multi-billion-dollar gas project, was recaptured in April, but continued insecurity in the region has limited access for humanitarian aid. Troops from Rwanda, as well as Mozambique’s regional neighbours, have been key to stemming the insurgency, but isolated killings have continued as the militants retreat into the forests of Cabo Delgado province. A senior aid worker told The New Humanitarian they welcomed the growing access to the more than 730,000 people uprooted by the three years of fighting – and the increasingly exhausted local population that hosts many of them. But they were also “wary of being used in a government stabilisation agenda” – especially if the grievances that helped drive the insurgency are not addressed. With the planting season approaching, “we are also alert to the risk of coerced or induced returns”, the aid worker said.
New camps, new controversy on the Greek islands
The first of five new migration reception centres being built on the Greek islands with 276 million euros of EU funding opened on Samos on 18 September. The EU has gone to great lengths to make sure the new facility doesn’t resemble the squalid, overcrowded camps that have existed on the Greek islands since 2016, equipping it with air-conditioned restaurants, recreational spaces, and special housing for particularly vulnerable people. But the facility on Samos is also surrounded by barbed wire fences and watched over by police. Access is controlled by fingerprint scanners and electronic badges, and asylum seekers are only able to enter and exit between 8am and 8pm. The centre is also in a remote part of the island, raising concerns that residents will be isolated from support organisations and local society. Critics say the new facility can only be considered humane in comparison to existing facilities, which shouldn’t be the standard. “Maybe the barbed wire is fancy and new... but this cannot be sold as an improvement,” Patrick Wieland of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) told the Guardian.
Readers react: What’s going on at the UNGA
We asked readers what they expected from this year’s UN General Assembly. Climate change and COVID vaccine inequality topped the list. Now that the UNGA is well underway, it turns out readers are a prescient bunch. It appears world leaders might be reaching an inflection point when it comes to acknowledging the gravity of the climate crisis, with the US-EU methane announcement, China’s announcement that it won’t build new coal plants abroad, and Turkey – one of the few holdout countries from the Paris climate accords – vowing to sign the agreement next month. This all might prove to be painfully optimistic, but hope dies hard. Despite the seeming consensus on the severity of the threat posed by the climate crisis, the UN Security Council could not agree about whether the role climate change plays in contributing to conflict should be factored into its mandate to maintain international peace and security. China, Russia, and India all objected. African leaders have been understandably vocal in the criticism of vaccine inequality. So far only 4 percent of the continent’s population is fully vaccinated. Big donor foundations have pledged billions so far during the UNGA to help tackle global issues over the next five years, such as curbing the rise in global hunger brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. But NGOs and civil society representatives can only participate in the UNGA virtually, raising questions about the extent to which the voices of people most affected by the issues being discussed are heard – something that is an issue under normal circumstances and that the hybrid model has only exacerbated. To catch up, read our still relevant background.
In case you missed it
BELARUS/POLAND: The bodies of four asylum seekers – three men and one woman – were found along the Poland-Belarus border in recent days. The three men, thought to be from Iraq, died of hypothermia and exhaustion. The deaths are a testament to the human cost of asylum seekers and migrants being used as pawns in a political dispute between Belarus and the EU.
EL SALVADOR: Known for his frequent tweets and increasingly for his authoritarian style, President Nayib Bukele recently updated his Twitter profile description to “Dictator” before quickly changing it to the “Coolest dictator in the global world”, presumably in an attempt to mock protesters opposing his concentration of power. Thousands of people took to the streets just days after the controversial introduction of Bitcoin as legal tender.
LIBYA: Of more than 24,000 asylum seekers and migrants intercepted at sea this year by the EU-supported Libyan Coast Guard, only 6,000 are accounted for in Libya’s official detention centres, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told The Associated Press last week. The fate of thousands of others returned to the country remains unknown. Read our report from last year: What happens to migrants forcibly returned to Libya?
NAMIBIA: Traditional leaders from the Herero and Nama communities are furious over what they say is the government’s failure to properly consult them over a $1.3 billion compensation offer by Germany for the genocide it committed as a colonial power from 1904-1908. The communities have also criticised the offer, to be used to fund infrastructure projects, as too small. An estimated 65,000 of the 80,000 Herero and roughly half of the 20,000 Nama died during the period, after resisting German rule.
RWANDA: Paul Rusesabagina, a former hotel manager who inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda”, has been convicted of terror charges by a court in the East African country. An outspoken critic of President Paul Kagame, Rusesabagina was found guilty of forming and financing an armed group which carried out attacks in Rwanda in 2018 and 2019. Rights groups said the trial was “flawed” and have criticised the way in which Rusesabagina was arrested.
SUDAN: A failed coup by army officers allegedly linked to former president Omar al-Bashir has underscored the fragility of Sudan’s transition to civilian rule. Military leaders from the country’s power-sharing government blamed their civilian counterparts for neglecting public welfare and opening the door to the coup plotters. Civilian minister Khalid Omer Yousif called the army’s comments “astonishing” and “a direct threat to the transition”.
VACCINES: The US is doubling its COVID-19 vaccine pledges, promising to donate more than 1.1 billion doses. Vaccine equality advocates, however, say sharing excess jabs isn’t enough: They’re often delivered too close to expiry after domestic needs are met. One recent study suggests 241 million extra doses now held by G7 and EU countries will expire or be wasted by the end of the year. Rights groups say Western governments and manufacturers have resisted attempts to share vaccine technology, which has cemented wildly unequal vaccine access.
When it comes to protection for victims of gender-based violence, countries such as Canada, Sweden, or the UK have codified rules in granting asylum. The US has not. This means it is exceedingly difficult for victims of gender-based violence to be granted asylum in the US. That includes many of the tens of thousands of women from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who have fled their countries in recent years. Violence against women – exacerbated by the pandemic – is one of the factors driving a sharp uptick this year in the number of people from the region, and elsewhere, attempting to enter the US. In our weekend read, journalist Meredith Lawrence follows the story of attorney Emily Heger and a team of immigration lawyers in Texas working to establish a US legal framework to protect women fleeing gender-based violence. Could the US asylum system change for good? Women like María, a Salvadoran whose asylum case has already dragged on for five years – and who Heger and her colleagues are now working with – are waiting to see.
What we’re listening to
In a small, southwest German town, the first trial against Syrian officials for crimes against humanity is drawing to a close. The team behind the Branch 251 podcast breaks down the global importance of the day-to-day proceedings and brings you to the heart of the matter – if you start listening now you just might catch up before the gavel comes down. Get more background to the trial, listen to Branch 251, and watch for our look at who is actually served with international justice trials, who is left out, and what this case means for Syrians themselves.
The curious case of a former Oxfam director who went to work for UNFPA in Guinea
In April, The New Humanitarian reported about what Oxfam staff called a “rotten work culture” in the Democratic Republic of Congo after senior staff were accused of fostering an environment that allowed for sexual abuse and exploitation, fraud, and other misconduct. Oxfam’s UK funding was frozen, and then Oxfam sacked several workers and suspended its country director, Corinne N’Daw (the investigation is still underway, according to Oxfam). So, how does an Oxfam director under investigation become the UN Population Fund’s (UNFPA) representative in Guinea? UNFPA says N’Daw was interviewed by a panel in January, her hiring was approved in April, and onboarding finished in July – all while N’Daw was still on Oxfam’s payroll. UNFPA said it is “following up internally”, noting the vetting process “turned up nothing unusual”. Oxfam even gave her a reference, UNFPA said. Oxfam declined to comment on the details of reference, but said it had been unaware of N’Daw’s new role. “As our priority has been to complete the investigation, we continued to discuss this with her and had not ended her contract,” Oxfam said, noting her resignation in late August. N’Daw’s lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, maintains that N’Daw had been “wrongly suspended”.
We uncovered the sex abuse scandal that rocked the WHO, but there’s more to do
We just covered a report that says the World Health Organization failed to prevent and tackle widespread sexual abuse during the Ebola response in Congo.
Our investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation triggered this probe, demonstrating the impact 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.
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