Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
Massacre in Myanmar
More than 160 people, including dozens of children, were killed on 11 April after Myanmar’s military bombed the opening ceremony of a local administrative office in northern Myanmar’s Sagaing region, according to opposition officials and witnesses. The airstrike – the single deadliest attack yet by the ruling junta – is just the latest in a wave of violence that has seen more than 3,200 people killed and more than one million displaced by the military since it came to power in a February 2021 coup. With flyovers continuing, responders reportedly struggled initially to reach the victims. As reporters Rebecca Root and NuNu Lusan detailed for The New Humanitarian this week, health workers and medical facilities have also been routinely targeted as the military seeks to stamp out a civilian resistance movement that shows little sign of caving. Calling for an international action coalition similar to the one formed to support Ukraine, the UN’s special rapporteur for Myanmar, Tom Andrews, told VOA: “We’ve seen a significant uptick, a significant increase, in the use of fighter jets dropping bombs, the use of helicopter gunships descending on villages and opening fire… These are the characteristics of war crimes. These are the characteristics of crimes against humanity.”
A reality check for peace in Ethiopia
Violent clashes in Ethiopia’s Amhara region have left several people dead, including two Catholic Relief Services aid workers. Gun battles and mass protests began last week in a number of Amhara towns over the government’s decision to absorb regional special forces into the police or national army. Some units of the security forces in Amhara – Ethiopia’s second largest region – refused to disarm and clashed with the federal military. Businesses closed and aid workers suspended operations. Amhara’s security forces and allied militia played a key role in the government’s two-year war in northern Tigray. A peace deal signed in November 2022 was heavily criticised in Amhara, as relations soured with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, with some believing Tigrayan forces had not fully disarmed. The two neighbouring regions have long been rivals. Ethiopia’s constitution allows federal member states to provide for their own security. But some regional forces in an ethnically splintered Ethiopia resemble small armies. Abiy said last week that dismantling them is necessary for the sake of national unity, and vowed that integration would be carried out by force if necessary.
Debts pile up, but climate finance is slow and scarce
The global financial system needs a shake-up – that’s the message building for months from countries facing debt distress on the front lines of the climate crisis. But what will a revamp look like, and how far is a system invented and controlled by the Global North willing to change? As the powers-that-be met for the annual spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in Washington, new indicators added to the urgency. Dozens of countries are spending more on servicing external debt than they are on public education or healthcare, according to the UN’s trade and development body, UNCTAD. This number has roughly doubled in a decade. The IMF flagged that public debt distress could spread, with costs rising and economic growth expected to slow. The bulk of climate financing (some of it overseen by the World Bank) doesn’t reach where it’s needed the most, research from the Washington D.C.-based Center for Global Development warned. And this in turn, humanitarians say, ramps up the risk that manageable hazards will turn into disasters that spiral out of control. Case in point: Somalia, facing record drought and famine, receives little in climate financing. For more, revisit this Rethinking Humanitarianism episode on the ambitious reform plans coming out of Barbados.
Green shoots for fighting hunger in Haiti
With nearly half the population suffering acute hunger, finding solutions for chronic food insecurity in Haiti is vital. In the past week, two separate initiatives have reported encouraging results. Research from Partenariat pour le Développement Local, a Haitian NGO helping to implement agroecological practices in the Northern Plateau, found that scaling up this new farming model would provide a significant economic injection for rural communities, improving both livelihoods and climate resilience. Likewise, RESEPAG II, a World Bank project aimed at strengthening the institutional capacity of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development also reported promising results. Through the creation of 115 farmer field schools, financial incentives for infrastructure, irrigation rehabilitation – as well as training on agricultural extension techniques, nutrition, and animal and plant health – the project has allowed more than 78,000 farmers to increase their output. Irrigation and drainage services were also improved in more than 2,200 hectares of land, 3.6 million animals were vaccinated, and sales from producers supported by the project rose by 172%. It’s nice to have a Cheat Sheet entry about Haiti that isn’t focused on gang violence, but for a more constructive take on the ongoing security crisis in the country, here’s a thought-provoking piece from Nanjala Nyabola.
Despite the hype, building peace in Yemen looks like a long road
A first round of official peace talks between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels concluded this week in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, followed by the (previously announced, delayed, and painstakingly negotiated) release of 880 prisoners from both sides of the country’s eight-year war. It’s not the first time that Saudi Arabia, which (along with the United Arab Emirates) leads a coalition that backs Yemen’s internationally recognised government in its fight against the Houthis, has spoken directly with the rebels. But some see new momentum in this effort to end the war, particularly given the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has close ties with the Houthis. Still, getting a truce back in place (the last one expired in October) and sorting out the various sides’ grievances in order to move any peace proposals forward will not be easy tasks, especially as not all the groups vying for power in Yemen are represented at the talks: The government is notably absent, as are the powerful separatists of the Southern Transition Council.
Call to expand rescue operations as Mediterranean deaths soar
Italy declared a six-month state of emergency on 11 April to try to help its overwhelmed migration reception system cope with a sharp uptick in arrivals this year, and the UN human rights chief is calling for expanded search and rescue efforts in the central Mediterranean as asylum seeker and migrant deaths spiral. More than 30,000 people have landed in Italy so far this year, compared to around 7,500 over the same period last year. More than 500 have died attempting the journey, making the first three months of 2023 the deadliest quarter in the central Mediterranean since 2017, when the death toll for the year reached nearly 3,000. Italy’s far-right government took office last year promising to take a hard line on migration and has cracked down on NGOs carrying out search and rescue activities in the central Mediterranean. The increase in arrivals to Italy is being driven – at least in part – by increased departures from Tunisia, where sub-Saharan Africans have been facing a wave of rising xenophobia and violence. On 11 April, police violently dispersed an encampment of homeless Black asylum seekers and migrants (who had been asking to be evacuated) outside the UN refugee agency’s office in the capital, Tunis. For more context on what has been happening, check out this week’s round-up.
Pentagon leaks put UN grain deal under the microscope
Leaked files reportedly suggest US displeasure over UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ approach in renegotiating the Black Sea grain deal. The UN and Türkiye brokered the deal in July 2022 in response to the global food crisis, which has been amplified by the war in Ukraine. In March, Russia agreed to renew the deal, but only for about 60 days. The BBC, which said it had reviewed the leaked documents, reported that Guterres and his deputy, Amina Mohammed, wanted to keep the deal even if it meant bending to Russian interests. The United States reportedly said in one of the documents that Guterres’ approach was “undermining broader efforts to hold Moscow accountable for its actions in Ukraine”. Asked about the reports, the UN chief’s spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, said Guterres was “not surprised” that people are spying on him. “Our efforts, his efforts, have been to mitigate the impact of the war on the world's poorest. And that means doing what we can to drive down the price of food and the price of grain and fertiliser worldwide,” Dujarric added. The FBI, meanwhile, arrested a 21-year-old national guardsman, Jack Teixeira, on suspicion of being behind the leak.
In case you missed it
ATLANTIC MARITIME ROUTE: At least 11 people have died in a shipwreck on the treacherous migration route from West Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands. More than 3,000 people are known to have perished attempting the passage since 2014, but the true number may be much higher. For more, check out this impressive piece of reporting and storytelling: The Associated Press traced the fate of a boat full of dead bodies that was discovered drifting off the coast of the Caribbean island of Tobago in May 2021 after having set sail from Mauritania, around 4,800 kilometres away.
FOREIGN AID TRENDS: Foreign aid spent at home now outstrips what big donors give for humanitarian responses, the latest OECD figures show, in what critics say is another sign money is shifting away from where it’s needed most. Other highlights: Ukraine received bilateral aid worth 7.8% of major donors’ official development aid, while least-developed countries saw aid shrink.
GHANA: A new and highly effective malaria vaccine has won approval for use in Ghana – the first country to clear the R21/Matrix-M vaccine for general use among children aged 5-36 months. The vaccine, developed by Oxford University, exceeds the World Health Organization’s target of 75% efficacy, but questions remain over whether there will be funding in place for an immediate rollout.
IRAN: Sources have told Reuters that Iran used earthquake relief flights to send military equipment to the Syrian government. Flights with earthquake-specific aid supplies began landing in territory controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces shortly after the devastating 6 February quakes, the report said.
SOMALIA: At least 3,500 African Union troops have died in Somalia since its intervention in 2007 to support Mogadishu’s Western-backed government against the jihadist group al-Shabab, the head of their mission told VOA Somali. Hundreds more have been wounded, The AU’s Mohamed El-Amine Souef said troops from Burundi and Uganda – who had deployed early and during some of the hardest fighting – had suffered the heaviest casualties. For more, check out this 2011 film by The New Humanitarian reflecting that period.
SUDAN: The army warned of the risk of confrontation after its rival paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) began mobilising in the capital, Khartoum, and other cities. Tensions have been rising for months over the integration of the RSF into the military. The RSF wants to fall under civilian leadership as part of a two-year transition to elections plan.
US-MEXICO BORDER: Survivors of a fire that claimed the lives of 40 people locked in a cell in an immigration facility in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico on 27 March are alleging that those who were detained were being held because they did not or could not pay a $200 bribe to guards to be released. The head of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration (INM), which ran the facility, is facing criminal charges over the fire, but Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has so far elected to keep him in his post.
‘Everyone knew his only intention was the advancement of education and the betterment of our youth.’
The arrest on 27 March of Matiullah Wesa – an education activist whose charity Pen Path has for years been travelling to the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan to set up and restore schools – has left many Afghans nonplussed. As Ali Latifi explains in our weekend read, pro-Taliban propagandists have tried to make hay of pictures of him abroad, but Wesa eschewed foreign funding and was known to be more critical of the previous Islamic Republic and its Western backers than of the Taliban. His detention is part of a worrying trend. In December, citing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, the Taliban banned women and girls from all education beyond the primary level, preventing them from accessing parks, gyms, and public baths, and from working for NGOs. Last week, it stepped up those restrictions, forbidding Afghan women from showing up to work for the UN. Calling it an “appalling choice” to have to make, the UN then told all its staff – men and women – to stay home until at least 5 May. Coming on top of the suspension of operations by major international aid organisations following the earlier December edict, the humanitarian toll of these repressive policies on a country that now has the largest needs in the world has become significant.
Airport shelter in Argentina
Of late, passengers preparing to fly out of Buenos Aires’ Jorge Newbery airport have been confronted with a disheartening spectacle. A growing number of Argentines are using the airport as a homeless shelter. The trend started after the pandemic but has worsened since. As inflation has soared and poverty has risen, many simply can't make ends meet. “If I pay rent, I don’t eat. If I pay for food, I’m in the street,” Roxana Silva, one of those now living in the airport, told Euronews. At night, dozens of people of different ages sleep on the floor covered with blankets or cardboard, or across the airport´s chairs. Some are in wheelchairs, others have pets. Some only spend the night there to escape low temperatures, venturing out to soup kitchens during the day. For more on rising hunger and poverty in Argentina – Latin America's third-largest economy and agricultural powerhouse – read our recent story here, part of our Emerging hunger hotspots series.
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