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China’s COVID dilemma, curbing runaway needs, and where are you really from? The Cheat Sheet

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

Louise O'Brien/TNH

Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.

On our radar

Protesters force China’s hand on COVID restrictions

The Chinese government has relaxed some COVID-19 lockdown measures after thousands of citizens in cities across the country came out in mass protest against its restrictive policies. Meanwhile, 10 people were killed in an apartment fire in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, where protesters blamed strict local lockdowns for impeding firefighters’ progress. Protests in China aren’t nearly as rare as the mainstream media tends to paint them (Freedom House has documented hundreds in recent months), but the breadth of these demonstrations – and their focus on President Xi Jinping and the central government – is unprecedented. In response, the government has rolled out “emergency” level censorship on its already tightly restricted internet, though it is also set to further loosen its COVID restrictions. The country’s strict zero-COVID policy has led to protracted and often excessive lockdowns, with severe impacts on the economy at a time when urban youth unemployment is at a record high. Public health experts warn that China can’t afford the surge of hospitalisations and deaths that would likely accompany a complete rollback of restrictions, partly due to its relatively low vaccination rate and lower-efficacy jabs. The government has announced expanded vaccinations for the elderly, but it is yet to roll out its own mRNA vaccine, and it is still refusing to import foreign vaccines with higher efficacy rates.

Humanitarian to-do list: Shrink needs, so costs don’t break more records

As the UN unveils its eye-watering projections for what crisis response will cost in 2023 (a record $51.5 billion), a more unsung slice of the humanitarian world is meeting to finetune strategies its proponents hope will keep soaring needs and costs in check. The Global Dialogue Platform on Anticipatory Humanitarian Action runs 6-8 December in Berlin and online, bringing together backers of the buzzword-turned-policy known as anticipatory action. The idea – forecast risks and respond early so they don’t explode into a crisis – sounds simple. But it’s a lot more complex in practice. Which data will trigger the right response? What about harder-to-predict hazards like flash floods or rapidly intensifying cyclones? What about conflict areas? Many anticipation-tinged projects are in the pilot phase, and a handful tend to be repeatedly cited (cash/Bangladesh floods, any others anyone?). But it’s clear that humanitarian leaders and big donors are putting their weight behind anticipatory action. And with good reason. For now, re-tooling the emergency aid system toward prevention is one of the few levers they have to limit more broken-record funding appeals in 2024 and beyond.

Alleged M23 massacre overshadows DR Congo peace talks

A third round of peace talks between the Congolese government and local rebel movements opened this week. But the M23 armed group – which has seized large chunks of territory in recent months – was not invited. A government spokesperson said the insurgents must vacate occupied areas before they can join the talks. More than 50 armed and civil society groups are reportedly present at the dialogue, which is being held in Kenya under the auspices of the East African Community. Those attending have been told to cease hostilities and join a new programme to disarm, demobilise, and reintegrate combatants into society. Congolese officials say the process is progressing well, though events this week were largely overshadowed by accusations of a massacre and ceasefire violations by the M23. Almost six million people are currently internally displaced in DR Congo – one of the highest numbers in the world.

Aid access is slow going in Tigray

A month after the two parties signed a ceasefire agreement, the truce between Ethiopia’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is holding. But while aid flows into Tigray are scaling up, deliveries still aren’t matching needs. The World Food Programme said last week that access to some areas remain off limits, while analysts have detailed new procedures that may be slowing down relief efforts. Media reports have also highlighted cases of UN vehicles encountering security problems and army roadblocks. Essential services, including banking and electricity, remain switched off, with no date set for restoring them, according to the government. Progress appears to hinge on security arrangements, including the return of federal authorities to Tigray and the disarmament of TPLF fighters. But that process is complicated by Eritrean and Amhara forces, which were allies to the government during the conflict and are reportedly still committing atrocities in Tigray.

Rivals get reacquainted in Côte d’Ivoire reconciliation drive

An exiled former militia leader acquitted by the International Criminal Court has returned to Côte d'Ivoire amid a reconciliation drive between the country’s political elites. Charles Blé Goudé was the right-hand man of former president Laurent Gbagbo, whose refusal in 2010 to concede electoral defeat to current President Alassane Ouattara triggered a civil war that left thousands dead. Blé Goudé was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison for his role in the conflict, but Ouattara approved his return. Gbagbo was also invited home in 2021 (after another acquittal by the ICC) and was given a presidential pardon in the name of social cohesionGbagbo met with Ouattara and Henri Konan Bédié – another big-hitter in Ivorian politics – back in July for a dialogue supposed to ease tensions ahead of general elections in 2025. But Côte d’Ivoire’s old guard still harbour political ambitions, and broader social reconciliation remains elusive.

Venezuela talks yield much-needed aid boost

Negotiations barely got started in Mexico between representatives of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his political opposition before the United States announced the loosening of oil sanctions imposed on the regime. The move, allowing Chevron to begin pumping oil again, comes amid global energy shortages following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Profits would go to Venezuelan creditors in the US, not the state oil firm, PDVSA. No imminent rapprochement is expected between Maduro and the opposition, but the talks have yielded a “social protection agreement” that should unfreeze billions of dollars in state funds from the international financial system. The money is to be gradually released from a UN-managed fund for healthcare and the power grid, though few specifics have been provided. According to the UN’s latest humanitarian response plan, 9.3 million Venezuelans are expected to be in need in the coming year. Poverty and hunger are widespread, while 7.1 million have escaped since 2015 to try their luck abroad. Read our reporting for more on how the pandemic fallout has worsened the situations of the most vulnerable, both inside and outside Venezuela.

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In case you missed it

AID TO SAUDI-BACKED YEMENI GOVERNMENT: The Arab Monetary Fund, a regional lender based in Abu Dhabi, has signed an agreement to provide $1bn to help the Yemeni government stabilise its economy between 2022 and 2025. The expiry of a six-month UN-mediated truce in October has raised concerns of a new escalation in the eight-year war between the Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebels.

GRIM MIGRATION MILESTONE: Globally, more than 50,000 deaths have been recorded along migration routes since 2014, according to the Missing Migrant Project. Half of those deaths have occurred in the Mediterranean Sea, with over 20,000 taking place along the central Mediterranean route between North Africa and Italy. Around the world, more than 60% of those who have died since 2014 remain unidentified, making it difficult for families, friends, and communities to grapple with their loss.

HONDURAN GANGS: Nearly a year after taking office as Honduras’ first woman president, Xiomara Castro has announced a state of emergency in response to rising gang extortion. The illegal business amounts to 3% of the country’s GDP. In Honduras, as in neighbouring Northern Triangle countries Guatemala and El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele declared a state of emergency earlier this year, hundreds of people migrate on a daily basis due to violence, poverty, and the impacts of climate change.

MPOX: The disease formerly known as monkeypox has a new name. The World Health Organization said it would start using the term mpox, while phasing out the old moniker, which was created before guidelines intended to avoid racist or stigmatising names came into effect. A new name for the virus that causes mpox is still under consideration.

SOUTH SUDAN SEX ABUSE: UN experts have called on the Juba government to remove from office and investigate all officials accused of systematic rape. The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan noted a particularly gruesome case involving repeated offenses by a government-appointed county commissioner in Unity State, but added that impunity for sexual violence cuts across all political factions and parties.

TALKING TO PUTIN? On 1 December, US President Joe Biden said he is willing to speak with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin – provided Putin indicates he is serious about ending the war in Ukraine. While continuing to support Ukraine’s war effort, the US has been privately nudging the Ukrainian government to show that it’s open to engaging in peace talks. As the war stretches into its tenth month – with what will undoubtedly be a rough winter ahead – the chorus of questions about how it might end is growing louder. 

TÜRKIYE/SYRIA BORDER: US-backed Kurdish forces in Syria that helped defeat the so-called Islamic State have suspended joint counter-terrorism operations amid fears the Pentagon isn’t doing enough to ward off a feared Turkish ground invasion. Türkiye views the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) – in particular the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) that are its mainstay – as terrorists, and blames them for a recent deadly bombing in Istanbul.

TURNING THE TIDE ON INTERNAL DISPLACEMENT: There were more than 59.1 million internally displaced people living around the world at the end of 2021. That number is sure to rise this year due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa, and other conflicts and disasters driving people from their homes. Against this bleak backdrop, a new report from UNDP is turning a spotlight on development as a way to provide sustainable solutions to internal displacement, focusing on nationally owned and locally led initiatives.

US TO RELOCATE TRIBES AT FLOOD RISK: The Biden administration will pay $75 million to move three native American communities in the northwestern states of Alaska and Washington “at risk of being washed away” by rising sea levels due to climate change. Additional funds will be provided to other tribes to prepare for relocation and to support resilience efforts. A first climate fund, announced under then-president Barack Obama in 2016 – to relocate a mostly Indigenous village in Louisiana, resulted in long delays due to disagreements over where to locate their new community.

WAR CRIME TRIBUNAL FOR RUSSIAN LEADERS? European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has proposed an international tribunal to try senior Russian leaders – potentially including President Putin – for crimes related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The tribunal would need the backing of the UN, where it is likely to run into resistance. France came out as the first major country to back the idea. The International Criminal Court, which is already investigating war crimes in Ukraine, doesn’t have jurisdiction in Russia.

Weekend read

How India’s caste system keeps Dalits from accessing disaster relief

Dalits sit on the bottom rung of the world’s oldest hierarchical system – one which continues to have a strong hold over Indian society. Even though around 280 million people – some 20% of India’s population – are considered Dalits, they’re heavily discriminated against during disaster response, often barred from accessing shared water and sanitation facilities, and forbidden from entering certain shelters. But as Dalit journalist Suprakash Majumdar reports, caste “apartheid” doesn’t stop there: Many so-called “untouchables” are still ostracised – hit hardest by disasters because they have to live in unsafe dwellings in the most at-risk areas. After disaster strikes, they’re often also the last to receive assistance. Their cruel predicament is perhaps best exemplified by Binni Kandi in Odisha. When her mud hut home was blown away by Cyclone Fani in 2019, she was refused compensation because it didn’t exist anymore, and because she didn't have any documents to prove ownership.

And finally…

Lovely bronzes in Lewisham… but where are they really from? 

In a historic move that could push other museums to return looted art and artefacts, the Horniman Museum in Lewisham, southeast London, has agreed to release 72 bronzes stolen in 1897 by British troops from Benin City, present-day Nigeria. The Horniman said its move to return the relics to Nigeria in batches was a “moral and appropriate” response. It follows a decision by New York’s Met museum in September to return 16 pieces to Egypt. However, Egyptians haven’t been as lucky in getting the Rosetta Stone back from the British Museum. The stone, stolen by French troops in 1799 and acquired in 1801 as a spoil of war by the British, provides a roadmap in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The decision to return the Benin bronzes came the same week as royal fallout from claims of racism against Lady Susan Hussey. A close confidante of the late Queen Elizabeth II, Hussey resigned from her role as a senior Buckingham Palace aide after questioning Ngozi Fulani, a Black British charity boss, about where she was “really” from. The repeated questioning came after Hussey reportedly moved Fulani’s hair to see her name tag. Fulani, 61, was born and raised in Kilburn, northwest London. While we’re on the subject of the palace, what about all the precious gems that “belong” to Britain’s royal family? (hint: none come from Lewisham)

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