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Mark’s manifesto, North Korean unknowns, and what drought response? The Cheat Sheet

A weekly read to keep you in the loop on humanitarian issues.

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

East African drought: Too little, too late from donors

One person is likely “dying of hunger every 48 seconds” in drought-hit Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, according to Oxfam and Save the Children. A decade after famine killed hundreds of thousands in Somalia, the world is once again failing to avert a catastrophe unfolding across East Africa, the two aid agencies warn. Nearly half a million people are facing famine-like conditions, and more than 23 million people are experiencing extreme hunger – victims of three consecutive droughts, with a fourth now underway. The donor response has been late and underwhelming, in stark contrast to the effort over Ukraine. Out of a $4.4 billion aid appeal for the region, just $93 million has been provided to date. And, although donors pledged $1.4 billion last month, only $378 million of that is new money. It’s not just people that are suffering. The livestock, on which most rural communities depend, are also dying; an estimated three million animals have perished so far. That not only deepens people’s poverty now, but also threatens their future recovery. See our latest film for more.

COVID-19 rips through North Korea

One week after North Korea announced its first-ever case of COVID-19 (the jury is still out on that), more than 2.2 million people are reported to be suffering “fever” symptoms. As of 20 May, the country’s official toll from the virus stood at only 65, but the real facts inside the hermit kingdom are unclear. While sealed borders had seemingly prevented a large-scale outbreak until this point, experts now fear the worst, for a variety of reasons: a weak healthcare system; an undernourished and impoverished populace; the highly contagious Omicron variant is currently the dominant strain worldwide; and, perhaps most tellingly, because North Korea’s authoritarian leader, Kim Jong-un, previously rejected millions of doses of the vaccine, leaving none of the nation’s 26 million people with any protection from the virus. Kim, recently seen in public wearing a mask, has ordered a nationwide lockdown and deployed the army. Experts also worry about the effect of a lockdown in rural areas during May’s crucial planting season: Domestic agricultural production is key to staving off hunger in a country that saw a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. Pyongyang has turned down a string of offers for outside help, while promoting unproven remedies. However, it did reportedly send some planes to China to pick up medical supplies. It may need a lot more assistance yet to avoid thousands of unnecessary deaths.

UN rapporteur scolds the WHO over Congo sex abuse

The UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, Reem Alsalem, has issued a stern rebuke to the World Health Organization over its handling of a sexual abuse scandal involving its workers – and others – during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation broke the story, which prompted the WHO to appoint an independent commission to investigate the claims. The special rapporteur’s admonishment, dated 14 March, was obtained by The New Humanitarian this week. In the letter, addressed to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Alsalem and others accuse the WHO of waiting too long to refer cases to the Congolese authorities for possible prosecution. She also takes aim at the independent commission itself, saying that it failed to protect the identities of several sexual abuse victims in the report it issued in September. Alsalem also questions why Tedros himself appointed the two commission chairs, and why its terms of reference weren’t made public. The WHO did not immediately respond to the latest criticisms, but it says it has initiated reforms to tackle sexual abuse and exploitation, and is providing “assistance” to women who said they were abused.

Will donor promises fuel a shift to anticipate crises?

With humanitarian costs at unmatchable highs, some of the world’s biggest aid donor governments say they’re doubling down on predicting and planning for crises before they hit. The pledge to strengthen what’s come to be known as anticipatory action was made at this month’s G7 foreign ministers’ meeting, tucked behind a heavy focus on Ukraine and the global food system. “We, the G7, commit to making the humanitarian system as anticipatory as possible,” the ministers said in a joint statement. Donor support for anticipatory action isn’t new, but the G7 statement adds a bit of flesh to previous pledges: There are nods to local responses, plenty of name-checking of broader risk reduction goals, and promises to “significantly increase” funding for anticipatory action. This last point in particular is music to the ears of those who have long pushed for change – and it’s also a challenge to a humanitarian system still built for responding to crises, rather than predicting or preventing them. A push to make the wider aid sector more attuned to risk is one of the underlying currents of this year’s Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, which starts 23 May in Indonesia. A 27 May session, moderated by The New Humanitarian, explores the issue with viewpoints from South Sudan, Pakistan, Tuvalu, and elsewhere.

US troops return to Somalia, welcomed by new president

US troops are returning to Somalia to battle the jihadist group al-Shabab, 18 months after they were withdrawn. The roughly 500-strong contingent has been welcomed by Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, as a positive step in the “fight against terrorism”. Although troops were pulled out at the end of 2020 by then-president Donald Trump, the US continued to conduct controversial drone strikes against the al-Qaeda-linked group. Human Rights Watch this week urged US forces to make civilian protection a priority, “to avoid repeating past laws of war violations and promptly and appropriately respond to civilian loss”. Al-Shabab controls much of the countryside, and has killed at least 113 people since the beginning of the year in a stepped-up insurgency. It’s one of many issues in Mohamud’s bulging in-tray. Elected by lawmakers on 15 May, he is the first president to win a second term (previously in office from 2012 to 2017). Seen as a technocrat, he has promised reconciliation and consultation – a departure from the rancour and division of his immediate predecessor.

The evolving US positions on Cuba and Venezuela

US President Joe Biden has eased sanctions on both Cuba and Venezuela, but it’s civilians of the former who are more likely to feel any immediate impact. The relaxation of measures towards Havana was framed as an effort to “build bridges with the Cuban people”. Protests last year, triggered by shortages of food and medicine, saw record numbers of Cubans leaving the country as many sought to escape the ensuing political crackdown. For more on the often perilous routes they take to reach the United States, see our recent interactive. This week’s decision will lift limits on remittances from the US to families in Cuba, allow donations to non-family members, and relaunch family reunifications. Meanwhile, Venezuelans continue to flee the ongoing humanitarian and economic crisis in their country, with record numbers reaching the US. However, Washington’s announcement is unlikely to change those dynamics in the near-term. The deal, which removes a nephew of Venezuela’s first lady from the sanctions list, also allows greater access to European and American oil companies – reportedly a nudge to President Nicolás Maduro’s government to restart talks with the opposition. Within hours, representatives from both sides were photographed shaking hands.

In case you missed it

DISPLACEMENT: Nearly 60 million people were displaced last year, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre – a record high. Natural disasters rather than conflict forced most from their homes, with some 24 million people – mainly in Asia and the Pacific – fleeing weather-related events that included floods, storms, and cyclones. Violence uprooted 14.4 million people – a nearly 50 percent increase over 2020.

GIRLS AND EDUCATION: Despite progress, many girls around the world are being left behind by education systems, according to a new report that looked at access and learning. Although access has increased in many low- and middle-income countries since 1995, one of every three girls in sub-Saharan Africa does not complete primary school, whereas it is one in every 14 in South Asia. On the learning front, only 34 percent of girls in Uganda in grades three to seven achieve reading competence. In rural India, only 44 percent of girls between 14 and 16 years old are able to solve a simple division problem.

INDIA: A new Lancet study has found that air pollution was responsible for 1.6 million premature deaths in India in 2019. Studying the causes of premature deaths, the Lancet Commission on pollution and health found that air, water, and lead pollution is “responsible for approximately nine million deaths per year”. But nowhere has been harder hit than India, whose air pollution deaths totalled nearly a quarter of the 6.7 million global deaths.

LIBYA: Fathi Bashagha, one of two rival Libyan prime ministers, entered the capital, Tripoli, at dawn on 17 May only to retreat hours later after his support dwindled amid clashes with military opposition. As fears grow of a return to civil war, Bashagha said his government was now based in Sirte, a city 450 kilometres east of the capital.

MEXICO: The interior ministry announced that the number of people missing in the country had risen to over 100,000. The grim milestone, which rose by 27,000 over the past two years, highlights spiralling drug-related violence in Mexico amid what one UN rights report described as “varying degrees of participation or omission by public servants”.

NIGERIA: Gunmen abducted an estimated 20 passengers this week on the notoriously unsafe highway linking Abuja to the northern city of Kaduna. The “bandits” blocked the road and made off with their captives before the security forces could arrive. Kidnapping is a lucrative industry: In March, gunmen – believed to be linked to a jihadist group – attacked a Kaduna-bound train, killing nine people and abducting an unknown number of passengers.

PAKISTAN: An outbreak of cholera in Balochistan province has killed at least six and infected more than 2,000 people. Residents have pointed to an ongoing lack of potable water as the likely cause of the outbreak, with some noting that water sources have dried up due to insufficient rainfall. For more on Pakistan’s worst heatwave in decades, read our story.

UKRAINE: More than 1,700 Ukrainian soldiers – among the last holdouts in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol – surrendered after the Ukrainian government declared an end to its combat mission in the southeastern city on 16 May. Mariupol’s devastation has become emblematic of the humanitarian impact of Russia’s invasion. With Russian forces consolidating control, there are concerns that evidence of potential war crimes – such as the bombings of a theatre serving as a civilian shelter and of a maternity hospital – will be covered up. 

UNITED STATES: Title 42 – a heavily criticised, pandemic-era policy that has severely restricted access to asylum and paved the way for US border patrol to carry out nearly two million expulsions at the US-Mexico border since March 2020 – is set to expire on 23 May. However, 24 US states have brought a legal challenge aimed at preventing the policy from being rescinded. The judge hearing the case – who has expressed sympathy for arguments put forward by the states – is expected to rule on the case before the 23rd. 

YEMEN: The first commercial flight to leave Yemen in six years took off from the capital, Sana’a, on 16 May, carrying 137 passengers headed to Amman, Jordan. The resumption is part of a truce struck last month between the internationally recognised government and the Houthi rebels, who hold Sana’a. 

Weekend read

Scant hope for relief as repeated heat waves scorch Pakistan

Temperatures reached 48 degrees Celsius in the Sindh province of Pakistan this month, nearing the 50.2 degrees in 2018 that set the world record for the hottest-ever day in April. The heat wave is being felt across South Asia, causing disastrous floods, water shortages, and heatstroke, with temperatures expected to continue rising throughout May. And while extremely high temperatures are not uncommon in Pakistan, researchers this week said the climate crisis is making heat waves 100 times more likely in a country consistently ranked as one of the most vulnerable to climate change. Without a dramatic global course correction, sea level rise, water stress, crop yield reductions, ecosystem loss, and drought will force 1.2 million people in Pakistan to migrate by 2030. Local activists say the government isn’t helping either, claiming that it lacks a contingency plan and any real understanding of the public health effects of prolonged heat stress. “We have crossed 50 degrees already [in Larkana],” said Junaid Ahmed Dahar, an activist based in the northern Sindh city. “As climate change picks up pace in the years to come, I doubt human survival will be possible in this region.”

And finally…

Lowcock’s highs and lows

Part memoir, part manifesto, the “Relief Chief” hit the shelves this week. The author, Mark Lowcock, served in the eponymous role as head of the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, between 2017 and 2021 – which he describes as an “unusually challenging” period in terms of the “quantity, scale and complexity of humanitarian crises”. Readers gain insights into the dilemmas and complications of operating in those crises – from the “Tragedy of the Rohingya” to “The Stupid War in Yemen” – before the book heads into more yawn-inducing territory: meaty chapters on coordination and financing. The UN (shock, horror) is found to be “bureaucratic and inefficient”, with “byzantine procedures and fragmented structures”. Lowcock touts himself as a reformer who “created a better OCHA”, and he puts up a decent defence of his record. Not known for his people skills, he offers a post-mortem on his own reforms, from widely unpopular decentralisation to the more progressive anticipatory financing. He says he tried to address the “control-freakery” within OCHA, and despite staff morale being at one of its lowest points during his tenure, claims that under his leadership “fewer people spent their days bad mouthing their colleagues”. To be fair, Lowcock does admit his own limitations. The three objectives he set out for himself on day 1 – upholding international humanitarian law, reducing crises related to food insecurity, and finding solutions for refugees and the displaced – well, he says, “things did not turn out as I had hoped”.

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