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El Salvador’s Bitcoin flop, bank heists in Beirut, and searching for hope at the UNGA: The Cheat Sheet

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(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

Afghanistan’s dollars headed for the Alps

The US announced this week it will move $3.5 billion in seized Afghan reserves into a Swiss trust that will disburse the money “to help provide greater stability to the Afghan economy”. The fund – managed by a board that includes a US official and Afghanistan’s former finance minister – was created to return the money while sidestepping the Taliban government. The move is being lauded by many, but critics contend that it doesn’t go far enough. The US alone holds $7 billion out of $9 billion in Afghan reserves frozen outside the country since the Taliban took over in August 2021. Some 75 percent of the previous government’s budget was funded by foreign donors. Without that money, the Taliban government has struggled to make up the difference. The economy has been in freefall for the past year – leaving an already struggling population of 40 million in dire straits. The Taliban’s desire for global aid and assistance has been particularly stymied by its continued repression of women and girls. The UN this week said that its female staffers faced regular intimidation and harassment from Taliban authorities. 

South Sudan opposition in-fighting sparks new displacement

Four years ago this month, South Sudanese leaders signed a peace agreement that was supposed to end the country’s devastating civil war. Today, thousands are again fleeing their homes as disagreements between military-political elites spark renewed violence. The latest clashes stem from internal tensions within a splinter group of the SPLA-IO, the country’s main opposition movement which is also a member of the transitional government. The conflict pits forces aligned to Simon Gatwech (a member of the Lou Nuer community) against fighters led by Johnson Olony (a prominent leader in the Shilluk community). Last week, Nuer fighters attacked a group of Shilluk at a displacement camp on Adidiang island, causing hundreds of injuries and reported drownings. Tensions between Shilluk and Nuer also surfaced at the nearby Malakal Protection of Civilians site – which is guarded by UN peacekeepers. Elite power struggles have consistently undermined South Sudan’s transition, which was recently extended by two years due to the slow implementation of the peace deal. Experts say the agreement is actually doing more harm than good, though diplomats still consider it the only game in town.

Flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh

Renewed fighting this week between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh has sparked concerns about a potential escalation in the long-running conflict. More than 170 soldiers were killed during two days of clashes that began on 13 September and ended with a ceasefire. The fighting was the most intense since the end of a 44-day war in 2020 that claimed over 6,000 lives. The flare-up is linked to broader geopolitical developments. Azerbaijan is backed in the conflict by Turkey while Armenia is supported by Russia. The Russian army is currently bogged down in Ukraine, whose forces have launched a surprise counter-offensive and reclaimed territory in the country’s northeast (more on that below). Experts say Azerbaijan – which is emerging as a key gas trading partner for an EU cut off from Russian supplies – is looking to take advantage of Russia’s woes to strengthen its hand in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Searching for ‘hope’ at the UN General Assembly

UN officials are calling for countries to bridge divides and seek solutions to pressing global issues. But geopolitical tensions are as high as they’ve been in decades as world leaders meet at the UN General Assembly general debate beginning on 20 September. Humanitarian crises will be a key topic at the sprawling forum, which combines leaders’ summits and sideline negotiations with carefully worded speeches and public spectacle. The global fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, food systems, and the climate crisis are among the main issues in the spotlight, while others may struggle for attention. Quick fixes and cash windfalls aren’t likely in the cards for a humanitarian sector struggling to keep pace with the world’s increasingly interconnected emergencies. Instead, some humanitarians will be looking for signs of progress on whether there’s an appetite to prevent conflicts and crises in the first place and to change how the international humanitarian aid system is funded. “This year’s general debate must be about providing hope and overcoming the divisions that are dramatically impacting the world,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said.

Bank heists trending in Beirut

In what is starting to look like a trend, a Lebanese woman successfully held up a Beirut bank on Wednesday. Accompanied by activists and brandishing what she later said was a toy gun (and possibly gasoline), Sali Hafiz demanded she be allowed to withdraw money from her own account. She left the bank with the equivalent of $13,000, and told the media that previous attempts to take out money to pay for her sister’s cancer treatment had been unsuccessful. Hafiz wasn’t even the only person to hold up a bank in Lebanon that day, but she went viral fast. Some are hailing her as a folk hero in a country where banks have imposed strict limits on withdrawals of foreign currency due to a massive economic collapse. Food delivery driver Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein took hostages at a Beirut bank a month ago, releasing them after seven hours in exchange for $35,000 of his savings, which he said he needed to pay his father’s medical bills. Hussein emerged from that heist as an emblem of the frustration many feel in a country that can’t provide basic services anymore: Just this week Lebanon stopped subsidising fuel, after a gradual and painful withdrawal.

El Salvador’s Bitcoin flop and pseudo war on gangs

A year ago, El Salvador’s baseball cap-donning president Nayib Bukele declared Bitcoin legal tender in the country – a global first that has been a flop. Since then, Bitcoin has lost half its value. Many Salvadorans, who were lukewarm on the plan to begin with, cashed in on a $30 government bonus offered as an incentive to download a dedicated Bitcoin app, only to delete it once they received the money. The lack of enthusiasm may have protected people from losses due to Bitcoin’s volatility. But many in the country have still sunk deeper into poverty in the past year. One reason – in addition to the country’s overall financial struggles – is a crackdown on gang violence by the self-described dictatorial president that has seen more than 52,000 alleged gang members rounded up since March. Instead of catching criminals, innocent people are being arrested to meet quotas. The majority of those detained may not even have links to gangs, according to local media, and the arrests have left many poor families without breadwinners. 

In case you missed it

BENIN/RWANDA: A senior Beninese police delegation arrived in Rwanda this week to discuss strengthening security cooperation. It follows a request by Benin for “logistical support” in its fight against jihadism in the north that the Beninese officials insist will not include Rwandan troops. There has been an uptick in insurgent attacks in the northern border region – a spillover of the Sahelian crisis.

CHINA: Hundreds of Uyghurs were detained in Xinjiang earlier this week, according to RFA, after staging a rare street protest against the strict COVID-19 lockdown measures in place in the city of Ghulja. The lockdown, which has been ongoing for 40 days, has seen residents complaining on social media of inadequate food supplies and increasing hunger.

DARIÉN GAP: Panamanian authorities reported alarming new records in the numbers of people en route to North America crossing the dangerous Darién Gap that bridges South America to Central America. In August, over 30,000 migrants – including some 23,000 Venezuelans – crossed the jungle region. Last year, a record 133,000 people crossed the Darién gap. So far this year, more than 100,000 have already made the journey along one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes.

DENMARK: Following in the UK’s footsteps, Denmark has signed a statement of cooperation with Rwanda as a step toward establishing an outsourcing programme for asylum seekers. Those arriving in Denmark – which has made headlines in recent years for some of the EU’s harshest migration and asylum policies – could be sent to the East African country to have their claims assessed.

ETHIOPIA: Government airstrikes hit the Tigrayan capital of Mekelle this week, leaving at least 10 people dead and a dozen more injured. Tigray’s leadership called for a ceasefire on 11 September and said they would accept talks mediated by the African Union – potentially removing one obstacle to negotiations. But Addis Ababa has not responded to the announcement and fighting – which resumed in August after a five-month truce – continues.

PAKISTAN: As Pakistan continues to cope with devastating floods, the government says it is facing a severe food shortage with much of the country’s agricultural lands hard hit by the monsoons. Health officials, meanwhile, have warned that surging rates of dengue and malaria could prove catastrophic.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA: At least 10 people died after a 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck Papua New Guinea last weekend, injuring hundreds and levelling numerous homes. The remote nature of the impacted highland villages, many of which lack medical facilities, has made for a slow aid response that has been heavily reliant on airlifts.

SYRIA: The Syrian Ministry of Health has declared an official outbreak of cholera, with eight deaths and nearly 1,000 cases of “severe acute watery diarrhoea” between 25 August and 10 September. Fifteen cases and one death have been confirmed by laboratory tests. The outbreak is believed to stem from people drinking and using unsafe water from the Euphrates River, and cholera was also reportedly found in an ice cube factory.

UGANDA: An instalment of $65 million was paid this week to the Democratic Republic of Congo as reparations for Uganda’s occupation – and looting – of the country’s eastern regions during the 1998 to 2003 civil war. The International Court of Justice ruled earlier this year that Uganda must pay a total of $325 million in annual instalments.

UKRAINE: At least 440 graves have been found at a mass burial site in the Ukrainian city of Izium, recently recaptured from Russian forces, according to Ukrainian officials. The discovery echoes the uncovering of mass graves in villages close to the capital Kyiv following Russia’s withdrawal from the area in April. Around 6,000 square kilometres of Russian-occupied territory in northeastern Ukraine have been brought back under Ukrainian control in recent weeks.

Weekend read

The international community must own its role in Haiti’s food crisis

Violent protests are spreading across Haiti over fuel prices that are set to double, rising inflation that is teetering at nearly 30 percent, and gang violence that left two journalists dead and paralysed the capital of Port-au-Prince for more than a year. Protesters are also angry over the rising cost of food at a time when some 4.5 million people are already facing acute food insecurity. While the war between Russia and Ukraine, gang violence, and rising fuel costs have contributed to the Caribbean country’s food crisis, so has centuries of foreign intervention. Such foreign meddling has taken Haiti from a country that could once feed itself, to one that is almost entirely dependent on food imports. For example, in 1985, Haiti was importing less than 5 percent of the rice it consumed – or 7,337 tons – from the United States. In 2005, it imported nearly 260,000 tons. This was partially due to a series of “trade liberalisation” policies that international financial institutions and donor countries have expected Haiti to maintain. One solution? Acknowledge the harm that has been done to Haiti in achieving food independence and start listening to Haitians on how they would like to chart a better food future.

And finally…

Can a clothing company’s new ownership model help fight the climate crisis? 

An eccentric rock climber spent his life building an outdoor apparel company that strives to be ethical and environmentally friendly. The effort turned him and his family into reluctant billionaires. Now, they’ve given it all away to fight climate change. Yvon Chouinard founded Patagonia in 1973 in California. It has since grown into a multibillion-dollar company with around $100 million in profits each year. Confronted with the question of succession, Chouinard, now 83, didn’t see any good options: Taking Patagonia public would likely result in undermining the company’s ethical values in the pursuit of short-term profits; there was no guarantee that new private owners would adhere to Patagonia's principles; and Chouinard’s children were not interested in taking over or becoming billionaires. The solution the Chouinard family found is to transfer ownership of the company to a trust designed to protect Patagonia’s ethical approach to business and a nonprofit organisation that will receive the company’s profits and use them to combat the climate crisis. “This family is a way outlier when you consider that most billionaires give only a tiny fraction of their net worth away every year,” David Callahan, founder of the Inside Philanthropy website, told The New York Times. 

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