Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
No end in sight to Sudan’s new conflict
The fighting between Sudan’s two most powerful military groupings – the army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces – had long been expected (we warned about it in Cheat Sheet last month), but that is of little comfort to those trapped under gunfire as the holy month of Ramadan comes to an end. Hundreds have been killed in a week of fighting triggered by plans to integrate the RSF into the army. Khartoum – a city of 5.5 million unaccustomed to war – has been besieged, and fighting has spread to other areas, including Darfur. Both sides are claiming to have the upper hand in a propaganda war that is hard to cut through. With air assets that have helped it pin down RSF fighters in the capital, the army has a tactical advantage. But the paramilitary group is a nimble, battle-hardened force that won’t go down easily. Ceasefire efforts have so far failed, and the generals – who have their own foreign patrons – appear locked into an existential conflict that risks morphing into a protracted civil war. That scenario could drag in other rebel and communal militias, spill over into neighbouring states, and shatter the democratic aspirations of many Sudanese.
What does it mean for civilians and humanitarian aid?
As fighting spreads across Sudan, civilians are bearing the brunt, with families trapped in their homes running out of food and water, and enduring power and telecoms cuts. Only five out of 59 hospitals are reportedly functioning in Khartoum. Those open are short of essential supplies and staff are exhausted. Ambulances have even been prevented from retrieving dead bodies from the streets. Across Sudan, at least four humanitarian workers have been killed in North Darfur, including three staff members from the World Food Programme and one from Relief International. Aid offices and warehouses have been looted and staff intimidated – especially in Darfur – and relief operations have been suspended in much of the country. Eleven million people were already facing food shortages before the violence. Food prices have now tripled in some areas, pushing even more people to the brink. The aid agency CARE has warned Sudan is facing “the possibility of an irreversible humanitarian disaster in the coming days”. People that can are leaving Khartoum and Darfur for safer regions. Between 10,000 and 20,000 refugees have already crossed into neighbouring Chad. For more, read our backgrounder on the pre-existing humanitarian challenges, listen to contributor Ahmed Ghouja give his view from Darfur, or watch below for wider analysis from Khartoum-based analyst Hala Al-Karib.
Women’s rights restrictions add to Afghan struggles
Afghanistan’s economy has shrunk by more than a fifth since the Taliban came to power in August 2021, according to a report released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It cites myriad factors for the spiralling situation, including the rise in global food prices due to the war in Ukraine and cutbacks in foreign aid. But it also stresses the impact of restrictions on women and girls, noting their effect not only on individual family income earnings but also on international assistance. Among the groups threatening to suspend aid funding is the UN itself, with the head of the UNDP this week saying it may reconsider its operations in the country if the Taliban doesn't remove restrictions. UN Secretary-General António Guterres is set to meet Afghanistan envoys in Doha early next month. His deputy, Amina Mohammed, initially suggested the meeting could involve discussion of the Taliban government gaining official recognition, but both Guterres’ office and the US government have been quick to row that back, insisting there is no such possibility. US President Joe Biden’s administration also came under fire after the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction said the Taliban was likely “syphoning off” US aid to the country. For more, read our recent reporting.
Will the new Darién Gap plan actually make things worse?
The United States has joined an ambitious Panama-Colombia plan to slash the growing numbers migrating through the Darien Gap in order, they say, to “prevent the risk of human life, disrupt transnational criminal organisations, and preserve the vital rainforest”. Through a two-month campaign that claims it will open up new regular migration routes, the three countries hope to stem the constant flow of asylum seekers and migrants navigating the 60-mile jungle corridor – considered one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world. The UN reported that 250,000 people crossed the Darién Gap in 2022 and expects as many as 400,000 to make the journey this year. The tripartite plan also seeks to create jobs and economic opportunities by launching new infrastructure projects. Few specifics, however, have been provided, and migration experts fear the plan will see further border militarisation and could simply force migrants and asylum seekers onto new routes that expose them to even higher risks. Last year, for the reality behind the numbers, we pieced together the route Will, an asylum seeker from Cuba, took – and which tens of thousands of people like him continue to take every month. Through face-to-face and phone interviews, as well as regular updates via WhatsApp, follow his footsteps and find out about all the different challenges along the way with our immersive look at what it’s like to cross the Darién Gap.
Emergency aid’s networking gabfest is back
The inaccurately named Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Week (duration: two weeks) begins in-person panels and discussions in Geneva on 24 April. Part trade show, school science fair, and TEDx, the sprawling conference brings together policy-centric sections of the humanitarian aid world for panel talks (and a few closed-door meetings) aiming to improve how aid works – at least that’s the hope. Did we mention there are panels? There are more than 100 face-to-face or hybrid ones scheduled for the week (on top of online panels held the week prior). There’s also a heavy learning component: Attendees can sit in on refresher sessions ranging from anticipatory action and digital humanitarianism to learning more about private militaries and changing organisational culture (the latter is meant to be a core theme). The New Humanitarian will be moderating a 26 April discussion on disaster risk reduction in emergencies.
In case you missed it
HAITI: The UN has appointed a new envoy to Haiti, with María Isabel Salvador, a former Ecuadorian foreign minister and ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), replacing Helen La Lime. The Caribbean country, which currently has no elected officials, has been paralysed by unprecedented levels of gang violence and kidnappings. Gangs control most of the capital, Port-au-Prince, while humanitarian needs, including a malnutrition crisis, continue to surge.
IRAQ: Humanitarian groups are “concerned” after Iraqi authorities moved to shut down Jeddah 5, the last official internal displacement camp in federal Iraq. A statement by the UN’s humanitarian coordinator said 342 families were forced to leave the camp on 18 April “without adequate notification and preparation”. For more on the potential gaps as the UN looks to shift away from emergency aid and give greater responsibility to the Iraqi government, read last month’s news feature.
MALARIA: Warmer temperatures are expanding malaria’s reach, the Global Fund said ahead of World Malaria Day on 25 April – just the latest warning that climate change is amplifying health risks, including those posed by mosquito-borne diseases.
MEXICO: The head of migration in the Mexican state of Chihuahua was arrested in the latest fallout from the fire in Ciudad Juárez that killed 40 people last month. The arrest has put a spotlight on a broader pattern of abuse against asylum seekers and migrants by Mexican immigration authorities.
MYANMAR: At least one woman was killed in Myanmar’s Kachin state on 18 April after the Karen Independence Army attacked a truck full of junta troops travelling with dozens of civilians. Throughout the conflict, the military has been accused of using human shields. More than 3,400 people have been killed since the military took power in a February 2021 coup. For more, read our recent reporting.
NICARAGUA: In a new report detailing a litany of arbitrary detentions, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and deprivations of citizenship, Amnesty International warned that President Daniel Ortega´s repressive measures against dissidents, journalists, and human rights defenders amounted to a human rights crisis. The resulting economic and social instability is also driving a new flow of displacement.
SOUTH AFRICA: The World Health Organization launched its new vaccine hub in Cape Town on 20 April. South African biotech firm Afrigen Biologics is using the facility to mass produce an mRNA vaccine on the African continent for the first time, harnessing Moderna’s publicly available COVID-19 sequencing to deliver vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. For more on vaccine inequality in the wake of the pandemic, listen to our recent podcast episode.
TUNISIA: The arrest of Rached Ghannouchi, Tunisia’s main opposition leader and head of the Islamist-inspired Ennahda party, has been met with international condemnation. The United States, the EU, and Turkey all expressed alarm as President Kais Saied intensified his crackdown on opposition politicians, businessmen, and trade unionists.
WHO: WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has picked five new people for his senior leadership team in Geneva, in what Health Policy Watch described as a move to keep loyalists close, “while adding new faces that are a clear nod to powerful member states” China, France, and Japan. Mike Ryan, a frequent public presence through the COVID-19 pandemic, retains his role as executive director for health emergencies.
YEMEN STAMPEDE: At least 78 people were killed during a stampede in Yemen. The deaths occurred on 19 April as people crowded into a school in Sana’a, hoping to receive donations from merchants to mark the final days of Ramadan. Witnesses told AP the panic started when an overhead electricity cable exploded after shots were fired into the air to control the crowd.
What’s changed since #AidToo? Not much, say sex workers in Sierra Leone
‘It has to pay for the girls to leave sex work. If they cannot earn as much, then they will always go back.’
Most international aid organisations ban staff from paying for sex or engaging in transactional sex – restrictions that started after the Oxfam scandal in Haiti, where workers were caught paying survivors of the 2010 earthquake for sex. Enforcing the ban – or convincing workers to abide by it – is another story. The New Humanitarian spent several months speaking with dozens of sex workers in Sierra Leone. Most said they have stayed in the trade because there are few other work opportunities, and that aid workers remain a large part of their clientele. Sex workers in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo shared similar stories. “The men don’t realise many of us are homeless,” said Isata, a 17-year-old sex worker in Sierra Leone, which is grappling with rising costs on top of COVID-19 pandemic recovery, the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak, and an 11-year civil war. Some aid workers ignore the ban completely, saying that sex is often transactional. “Yes, we’ve been given the lectures about power imbalances and everything,” one UN worker said, “but if we don’t pay women for this type of thing, then realistically that means they or their children may not eat for the day.” Advocates of the ban say there’s no grey area when it comes to power disparities. Critics, like Charles Mukoma from the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA), say better protections are needed instead of a ban: “We believe sex work is work.”
Population growth myths for a warming world
Perhaps you’ve seen the population numbers splashed across the headlines: India will soon overtake China as the world’s most populous country. The projection (1.4286 billion people) has prompted a slew of analyses and hot takes about the implications – economic, sociopolitical, or geopolitical. The numbers are from a new report from the UN Population Fund, UNFPA. But there’s been far less focus on the agency’s accompanying warning: “Overwhelmingly fearful” rhetoric about population milestones leads to damaging government policies that attempt to influence fertility rates. Just look to any number of shocking forced sterilisation programmes for a sign of where this has led in the not-so-distant past. The rate of population growth is actually slowing, but restrictions on women’s decisions about their own bodies continue. Anxiety over the climate crisis is a rising source of misdirected blame. But countries with high fertility rates today have contributed the least to climate change, the agency said: “Blaming fertility for climate change will not hold the greatest carbon emitters to account.”