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Taliban quake response, Amhara massacre, and South Asia’s monsoon-hit millions: 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

Afghan quake tests Taliban-era aid response

A 5.9-magnitude earthquake struck a remote area of southeastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border early on 22 June, killing more than 1,000 people and destroying thousands of homes. The quake, the deadliest in more than two decades, is the first major natural disaster to hit Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover in August 2021, and comes amid an ongoing humanitarian crisis, with much of the country suffering from extreme poverty and hunger. International sanctions coupled with poor governance have raised concerns over the rescue effort and the treatment of thousands of injured, especially as the United States and other Western donors refuse to provide the Taliban with financial assistance. The UN’s emergency aid coordination agency, OCHA, is overseeing a foreign aid response that has been badly hampered by mountainous terrain, poor weather, and a lack of phone signals. Afghan civilian groups are mobilising to fill any gaps they can. Prior to the Taliban takeover, an estimated three quarters of government spending came from foreign aid. Taliban leaders called on the international community to provide more assistance. UN relief chief Martin Griffiths told the Security Council that while international sanctions continue to slow cash transfers, the Taliban, too, is interfering with aid delivery.

Millions displaced by monsoon floods in India, Bangladesh

More than 100 people have died and millions more have been displaced in northeastern Bangladesh and eastern India after monsoon rains triggered some of the worst floods and landslides in more than a century. Experts told Al Jazeera the scale of the disaster was made worse by pre-monsoon flooding as well as poor river and wetlands management that led to “clogged” rivers. As floodwaters slowly begin receding, officials are warning of possible epidemics of waterborne diseases, including diarrhoea, skin infections, and dysentery. Estimates of the numbers displaced run from 4 million to 9.5 million, with military, civilian, and aid agency teams struggling to provide stranded communities with enough food and drinking water. The floods have also caused severe damage to hundreds of thousands of hectares of paddy fields, maize, and other vegetables, as well as to fish farms, raising food security concerns at a time when food prices are already on the rise due to the Ukraine conflict. Low-lying Bangladesh is one of the countries most heavily impacted by climate change, but has seen some success in recent years in reducing cyclone-related deaths.

Hundreds of Amhara massacred in Ethiopia’s Oromia

The civil war in northern Ethiopia has eased since Addis Ababa declared a humanitarian truce in March. But violence still smoulders further southwards in Oromia, the country’s largest and most populated region. Hundreds of ethnic Amhara were reportedly killed in an 18 June attack that witnesses blamed on the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) – an outlawed rebel group. The OLA denied responsibility (blaming a militia supported by regional authorities) though its fighters are frequently accused of targeting Amhara. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is himself an Oromo, but many in the region feel he has done little to advance their interests. State crackdowns on Oromo activists and opposition figures have bolstered the OLA, as have abusive army operations. Last year, the OLA forged a military pact with Tigrayan rebels fighting the federal government. But Addis Ababa is now dealing with the two groups in different ways – announcing plans to negotiate with the Tigrayans, while taking the war path in Oromia.

Needs rise as aid funding flatlines, again

Each year, the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) devotes three days in June to humanitarian affairs – a forum for aid workers, diplomats, and partners to mull over today’s most pressing concerns. This year’s humanitarian segment marked unprecedented highs: more than 300 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, a 42% increase since before COVID-19 and a collective humanitarian ask of $46 billion for aid. At one of the many ECOSOC side-events, the UK’s Development Initiatives (DI) gave a preview of its annual report findings on aid resource flows in 2021, painting a grim picture: Total assistance grew marginally to $31.3 billion, maintaining a stubborn plateau in funding levels since 2018. While the two largest donors – the United States and Germany – increased their humanitarian contribution, as did Japan, which gave the most since 2015, this was offset by the UK’s nearly 50% funding slash since 2019. The preliminary figures also show disappointing results on some long-standing policy commitments: just 1.2% of funding went to local partners, a reversal since 2020; and unearmarked funding to UN agencies fell to 13%, the lowest in six years. However, cash assistance continued to grow, to $5.3 billion, and gender-specific funding more than doubled between 2018 and 2021. DI’s report, with the full set of statistics, is due to come out in the coming weeks.

Look beyond Ukraine, G7 leaders urged

The Group of Seven leaders’ summit opens on 26 June in Germany with the war in Ukraine and food insecurity topping the agenda. But aid groups are urging G7 leaders – the heads of the largest (and mostly Western) governments funding the international aid system – not to ignore other pressing issues, from drought and hunger in the Horn of Africa, to the climate crisis and humanitarian reforms. Big agencies, like the World Food Programme and UNICEF, have already queued up their funding reminders, wrapped in warnings of “starvation” or an “explosion of child deaths” (the two UN agencies already receive the most humanitarian donor cash). Others are taking a bigger-picture approach. For example, the Start Network, which advocates for aid reforms, is calling for humanitarian funding and strategy to be more closely tied to (and informed by) the climate crisis, and to rebalance the aid system itself. The aptly named C7 forum of civil society groups wants global leaders to shrink the need for emergency aid, in part by investing more in anticipating crises. In this sense, one of the more significant G7 policies emerged well before the summit. In May, G7 foreign ministers pledged to double down on so-called anticipatory action – part of the push to better plan for crises. The key now, proponents say, is to follow through with the funding and policy changes such a shift demands.

UN crowdfunds to avert environmental disaster

After years of negotiations over what to do with a decaying oil tanker off Yemen’s Red Sea coast that has been described as a “ticking time bomb”, the UN finally has a plan. It is hoping to move the million plus barrels of crude oil from the FSO Safer onto another ship that isn’t on the verge of breaking up or exploding, potentially causing an environmental and economic catastrophe. The UN says it needs $80 million to carry out the first phase of this plan (the cost will eventually be around $144 million), but has so far only raised about $60 million. It has turned to crowdfunding to make up some of the rest, asking the public to give $5 million by the end of June. So how much has the average person coughed up? When asked by The New Humanitarian at last weekend’s Yemen International Forum in Stockholm how much money had come into the crowdfunding campaign in the first five days, UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Yemen David Gressly said he didn’t know the numbers as he was waiting for an update from the UN Foundation. More soon…

In case you missed it

AID SECTOR RACISM: The UK’s International Development Committee has drafted a report on racism within the aid sector. Among its findings: Some UK aid staff are paid 10 times as much as local counterparts, diversity is lacking in leadership levels, and recent cuts to the UK aid budget took place with little or no consultation with partners in “low and middle-income countries.” The conclusion? International aid still reflects colonial power imbalances. 

BRITAIN: Vaccine-derived polio has been found in sewage samples in London, UK and global health authorities confirmed on 22 June. The wild poliovirus is endemic in only two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – but strains of vaccine-derived polio can spread in under-immunised populations. Global vaccine coverage has fallen in recent years, disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and misinformation.

COLOMBIA: On 19 June, Colombians elected their first leftist president, former rebel Gustavo Petro, and Francia Márquez, the country’s first Black vice president, breaking a long history of conservative political leadership. Mounting violence since a landmark 2016 peace agreement, and soaring poverty and food insecurity – aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic – have left Petro and Márquez with a long list of pressing humanitarian challenges.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO: The Congolese government has approved the deployment of an East African regional military force in its conflict-torn eastern provinces – but does not want the participation of Rwanda, given fraught ties between the two states. The planned force comes as DRC battles a new rebellion by the M23 armed group and other longer-running conflicts. A UN peacekeeping mission is already present in the region as are Ugandan soldiers.

ECUADOR: Deadly protests against spiking food and fuel prices continued into their second week in Ecuador, after the government rejected terms by Indigenous leaders for a dialogue. Demands by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), the country’s largest native group, include price caps on fuel, debt moratoriums, sustainable prices for agricultural products, and respect of their cultural rights.

GRAND BARGAIN: The scorecard is in, and the marks are less than encouraging. An annual review of the aid sector’s “Grand Bargain” commitments for humanitarian reform suggests action has stalled on many of the pledges first made in 2016. Progress on localisation and participation – empowering local aid and better including affected communities – were particular pain points. Direct funding to local aid groups, a key component, even fell in 2021 to a miniscule 2 percent of donor flows. Read the full report here.

KIRIBATI: Facing severe drought, the Kiribati government on 13 June declared a nationwide State of Disaster. As a result of climate change, the Pacific island nation has been suffering from low rainfall for six months, leading to increased water salination. Australia has pledged $675,000 for solar distillation units, among other support, as a means of improving the island’s potable supply.

LIBYA: A photograph of the lifeless body of Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, a 19-year-old from Darfur, hanging from the ceiling of a Tripoli detention centre is the latest testament to the toll of the cycle of detention and abuse on asylum seekers and migrants in the North African country. Abdel Aziz, detained by Libyan authorities while peacefully protesting with others in front of a UN refugee agency office in Tripoli in January, asking to be evacuated from Libya, hung himself after being released and re-detained over the course of several weeks. 

PALESTINE/ISRAEL: It was bullets fired by Israeli security forces and not indiscriminate fire from Palestinian militants that killed Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while she was covering an Israeli army raid in the occupied West Bank town of Jenin on 11 May, the UN Human Rights Office, OHCHR, has determined, after monitoring photo, video, and audio material.

SYRIA: Belgium has flown back 6 Belgian women and their 16 children, born to members of the so-called Islamic State, from the notorious al-Hol camp in northeast Syria. The camp is home to around 55,000 people, including victims and supporters of IS, and has become known for violence and poor conditions. While most EU countries initially objected to repatriating their citizens from al-Hol and other detention camps, some have slowly begun to reverse course, at least when it comes to women and children.

WAGNER GROUP: Russian mercenaries have attacked civilians in gold mining areas between Central African Republic and Sudan, according to a report in the Guardian. Witnesses described massacres by fighters they identified as Wagner members. The Kremlin-linked group has also been accused of participating in recent killings in extremist-hit Mali.

Weekend read

Ukraine aid response shifts gears for the long haul

Over the four months since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, both the scale and the longevity of the humanitarian catastrophe it has unleashed have become painfully clear. As Sam Mednick reports in this in-depth update on relief efforts in the country, international aid agencies are now gearing up for a three-to-five-year response. What Mednick found, reporting from the eastern front line as well as towns and villages north of the capital recently abandoned by Russian forces*, was a collection of dynamic and overlapping crises. In frontline areas, the challenges were aid access and supply lines, but in heavily bombarded towns and villages further west, returning civilians need to rebuild fast before winter comes. Despite the vast outpouring of aid funding – which, as we have reported, dwarfs other humanitarian crises around the world – not everyone is getting the assistance they need, especially for costly reconstruction. Questions are raised, too, over some of the ways in which international aid groups are operating: charges of “safari” trips that don’t do a lot to help, and of not doing enough to collaborate with and empower local responders.

And finally…

Denmark’s hostile treatment of refugees

If you haven't read our story about Denmark’s hard line on asylum – and the role the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) had in its policymaking on Syria – watch it play out in this Guardian documentary about Aya Abu-Daher, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee in Denmark. “Sending Aya Back” tells the story of how the fresh-faced high school graduate – who arrived in Denmark with her family in 2015 after fleeing Syria’s civil war – lost her residency permit despite enrolling in school, becoming fluent in Danish, and doing part-time jobs to become financially independent. In its decision on Syria, the Danish government said there had been a decline in armed conflict in Damascus and its surrounding suburbs (there is still sporadic fighting, unrest, and instability due to years of war). The government’s key piece of evidence was a 2019 “Country of Origin Information” (COI) report co-written by the country’s immigration service and the DRC, Denmark’s largest NGO.

(*This item was corrected on 29 June 2022 to remove a reference to central and western areas having been recently abandoned by Russian forces.)

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