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Aid double standards, health sexism, and World Cup highs and lows: The Cheat Sheet

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

Louise O'Brien/TNH

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


Thank you for reading in 2022. The Cheat Sheet will be taking a break over the holiday period. It will return on 20 January but there’ll be plenty of year-end coverage in the meantime. Keep an eye out for our flagship 10 crises and trends watchlists, as well as for other pieces and collections looking back at this year and forward to 2023.


On our radar

$1bn for Ukraine, $1bn short for Somalia


Following a donor conference on 13 December, countries around the world have pledged to send an additional $1 billion in aid to help war-battered Ukraine through the winter. Convened in Paris, the conference was attended by representatives of around 50 states, including many non-Western countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Cambodia, and India. Attendees pledged to provide both money and equipment to help repair Ukraine’s electricity grid and healthcare infrastructure as well as support other pressing humanitarian needs. Following battlefield setbacks, Russia has taken to attacking Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, destroying about half of the country’s energy grid and damaging its heating and water infrastructure. Some aid organisations fear Russia’s goal is to make conditions in Ukraine unlivable to provoke another exodus of refugees to EU countries during the winter. While needs in Ukraine are acute, myopic focus on the conflict by donors has diverted attention, resources, and funding from other crises. In Somalia, for example, the UN’s humanitarian response fund for the worst drought the country has seen in decades is facing a funding shortfall of over $1 billion


Famine, just not yet


Staying with Somalia – it may look like a famine is gripping the country, but the IPC, the international organisation that monitors food security, has determined it’s not – at least not yet. But the situation remains catastrophic. The number of acutely malnourished people – a consequence of both two years of drought and the inability of aid agencies to access conflict areas in the centre and south of the country – has reached 5.6 million. That means hunger-related deaths in families that have seen farm or livestock-based incomes collapse. Some 214,000 people are already in “famine-like” conditions (see this explainer) – a highly technical term valued by donors, less so by the people that are starving. Next year is expected to be worse. The underlying conditions pushing people into crisis (drought, high food prices, displacement, slowing aid) remain, and between April and June 2023, will impact 8.3 million people – roughly half the population. That includes more than 700,000 people the IPC expects, by then, to be in famine.


Why are men top docs?


Women make up 70% of the global health workforce, yet men occupy most of the decision-making roles, leaving women more vulnerable to sexual violence and harassment at work, according to a new report. Men currently occupy 75% of all leadership roles in health, with women clustered into lower status, low-paying roles – a reality that was exposed in The New Humanitarian’s investigations into sex-for-work schemes by aid workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak. In the absence of hard data, researchers collected testimonies from 230 female health workers in nearly 40 countries, including women working within the aid sector. In one example, in Senegal, a woman doctor describes how she was locked in a hospital room by an older male supervisor who became sexually aroused. In another example in Mexico, a student doctor said she was offered good grades by her supervisor in return for sexual favours. “One of the reasons we did this report was to make it impossible to ignore women,” Ann Keeling, Women in Global Health’s senior fellow, told The New Humanitarian in a video interview. Organisations need to foster a culture whereby people can speak up, but they also need to start keeping track of numbers, she said. Some recommendations from the report: equal leadership representation of women in health, and addressing social norms and stereotypes on gender equality.

Afghans’ cold winter


Temperatures across Afghanistan are dropping as winter sets in, but an ongoing economic collapse due to sanctions, banking restrictions, and aid cutbacks means many more Afghans are struggling to deal with the cold. With up to 900,000 people having lost their jobs since the Taliban's Islamic Emirate returned to power in August 2021, families across the country are having a hard time affording enough wood and coal to heat their homes. In Kabul, the local municipality has provided subsidies to cut the cost of coal by 50%. That discount will help many Afghans in the short term. But the burning of coal will only add to the smog that plagues the city's air in the colder months. Worsening air pollution in previous years has led to spikes in hospitalisation for respiratory ailments, which puts more strain on the overstretched hospitals and clinics already struggling to cope due to the reduction in foreign aid.


Libya abuse protest outside UNHCR’s Geneva HQ


For years, refugees and asylum seekers in Libya have staged sporadic protests asking the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, to ensure their safety in Libya or evacuate them to other countries where they’ll be safe. Now, David Yambio, a 25-year-old South Sudanese asylum seeker, is taking that protest to UNHCR’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. According to a report by Al Jazeera, Yambio, a former child soldier, arrived in Libya in 2018. He spent four years stuck in Libya’s cycle of migration detention and abuse before making his way to Italy in June. Yambio was one of hundreds of asylum seekers who camped out last year in front of UNHCR’s office in Tripoli, seeking safety following a mass round-up of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in October 2021 – before the protest was violently dispersed by Libyan security forces in January this year. Now in Europe, Yambio is determined to make sure people still suffering abuses in Libya are not forgotten. More than 22,500 refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants have been intercepted by the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard and returned to detention centres in Libya this year. 


Deadly political unrest in hungry Peru


Peru’s defence minister has declared a nationwide state of emergency in response to protests over the ouster and arrest of former president Pedro Castillo. The emergency measures, which include restrictions on movement and assembly, were set to last for 30 days starting on 14 December. Castillo was detained on charges of “rebellion” and “conspiracy” after attempting to disband Peru’s Congress in an effort to forestall an impending impeachment; the former teacher and union leader had been targeted by two previous impeachment attempts since coming into office in July. At least six people have been killed during protests calling for Castillo to be restored to the presidency. During his short term in office, Castillo struggled to resolve a pre-existing hunger crisis driven by rising prices, government mismanagement, and an over-reliance on imported food staples and fertiliser. In September, a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said Peru had the highest rate of food insecurity in South America, with half of its 33 million people struggling to get three meals a day.


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In case you missed it

AFRICA-US SUMMIT: US President Joe Biden promised dozens of African leaders at least $55 billion in government funding and private investment over the next three years at a gathering in Washington. Biden said the investments would help modernise technology on the continent, as well as contribute to clean energy and women’s equality. White House officials later rejected the notion that the summit was an effort to counter the influence of China, which is Africa’s largest trading partner and provider of foreign direct investment.

CERF: Donors promised $409 million for the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund at a December pledging event. It’s less than what was raised last year, and far short of the $1 billion target humanitarian officials were hoping to hit. Aid planners see the CERF as a more flexible funding source for quicker responses.

CHINA COVID: A surge in COVID-19 infections in China continues, though the government said the rapid spike in asymptomatic infections made it impossible to accurately track figures. After protests broke out in numerous cities amid strict lockdowns and the economic downturn, the government rolled back its strict zero-COVID policies earlier this month, including eliminating mass PCR testing. The government has opened hundreds of ‘fever clinics’ for outpatient treatment, but interviews with health workers suggest hospitals are quickly becoming overwhelmed and funeral parlours are reporting days long backlogs.

CUBA DEPOPULATION: In the largest exodus in the country’s history, nearly 250,000 people have left Cuba to migrate to the US in the past year, according to The New York Times. That amounts to around 2% of the Caribbean island’s population. Deteriorating living conditions fuelled by tougher US sanctions and continued economic fallout from the pandemic are pushing people to take often dangerous journeys to try to reach the US

IOM RACE: The jockeying to lead the UN’s migration agency may be unusually public. The current director general, Portuguese national António Vitorino, has confirmed he will run again, and a Portuguese delegation’s visit to Geneva this month includes a push to rally support, Geneva Solutions reported. In October, the US took the unusual step of announcing its own candidate, current deputy Amy Pope, well before Vitorino indicated his plans.

KINSHASA FLOODS: The worst flooding in years has left more than 120 people dead in the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government declared three days of national mourning and blamed climate change for the disaster, which has affected entire neighbourhoods and cut off major roads.

MELILLA COVER-UP?: Spain and Morocco have failed to adequately investigate the deaths of at least 37 people during a mass attempt to cross the border between Morocco and Spain’s North African enclave of Melilla in June, according to a new Amnesty International report. Seventy-seven people remain missing following the incident, and there’s growing evidence that the use of “unlawful and lethal force” by Spanish and Moroccan authorities contributed to the deaths. The failure to investigate “smacks of a cover-up”, Amnesty said. For more, read our report: What’s behind the deaths at Morocco’s land border with the EU. 

MYANMAR/IRAN EXECUTIONS: Political prisoners in a Myanmar prison began a hunger strike to protest the latest death sentences. In late November, 12 university students were sentenced to death, reportedly for killing a bank manager and a local official. Nearly 140 people have received death sentences since the military junta came to power in February 2021, and more than 13,000 remain in prison. In Iran, roiled by months of protests, a football player arrested in November became the latest to be sentenced to death by hanging. 

YEMEN: UNICEF says more than 11,000 children have been either killed or injured over the course of Yemen’s more than seven-year war, and the true toll is likely higher. A truce that led to a “significant reduction in the intensity of the conflict” expired in October. 

Weekend read

Haiti offers glaring example of aid sector’s growing urban response challenges


It’s a common conundrum in the aid world – wanting to do more and being blocked. From gender-based violence to hunger and displacement, humanitarian needs in urban areas are growing around the world. And in some countries, such as Haiti, rampant gang violence is exacerbating those needs – and making it even harder for aid groups to respond. The Caribbean country’s colonial past, coupled with the sting of previous foreign interventions and botched UN peacekeeping missions, has given Haitians pause when it comes to asking for international help. More than 155,000 people have now been displaced by the insecurity in the capital, Port-au-Prince, as Jessica Alexander and Jess DiPierro Obert write in their latest dispatch, with compelling reporting from the ground, including interviews with vulnerable women pushed out of an informal camp in a public park. The Haitian government has been reluctant to set up formal sites, fearing people will become dependent and be slow to return to their neighbourhoods, some of which are overrun by gangs. In the meantime, cholera, which has claimed hundreds of lives since October, continues to spread. A first shipment of oral vaccines arrived in the country this week. 


And finally…


A double-edged World Cup


Dramatic football has sometimes eclipsed this World Cup’s terrifying backstory: Tens of thousands of migrant workers who built and staff the stadiums, hotels, and infrastructure that allowed Qatar to host the tournament have for years been subjected to rampant abuse, including wage theft. There’s no clear count of how many people have died doing this work, but some estimates put it in the thousands. The spotlight is on Qatar right now, but policies that endanger migrants are frighteningly common, as is mass displacement related to sports mega-events like the World Cup and the Olympics. 


But sport also has a way of bringing people together, and for many in the Middle East and wider Arab diaspora, watching Morocco’s rise through the tournament to the semi-finals has been a source of pride and joy for a region many think of as synonymous with conflict. Morocco’s team members have waved the Palestinian flag after their victories, celebrated with their mums, and prayed on the field. The first African and Arab team to make it to the semi-finals was ultimately beaten by France, a team (and country) with its own complicated history of multiculturalism, xenophobia, and racism. Two great teams, with truly great players, battled it out for the trophy. But the Cinderella story of Morocco’s Atlas Lions, who came into the tournament ranked 22nd in the world and ended up winning hearts as well as headlines, made some important history too. 

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