Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
India’s landmark G20 throws spotlight on power imbalances
This weekend India becomes the first South Asian nation to host the G20 summit – a meeting that has thrust power imbalances both inside India and globally to the fore. The run-up has been marred by accusations that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is so eager to impress that it has demolished or covered up parts of New Delhi’s shanty towns. The irony of Modi pitching his nation as a defender of the poor during the summit while also trying to sanitise India’s massive poverty isn’t lost on critics of the meeting, including supporters of We20, an alternative gathering that calls for greater south-south cooperation and condemns G20 countries for their harmful economic and environmental policies. The summit comes just weeks after the BRICS grouping of so-called emerging economies – all 5 are G20 members – announced a major expansion, bringing in 6 new nations: Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Reports suggest the G20 will soon announce it is granting membership to the African Union – seen by some as a step towards greater acknowledgement of the continent’s fast-developing economies as they rise from under the imperialist thumb of prominent G20 member states. But with the Chinese and Russian leaders skipping the G20, it’s also another indication of volatile and dynamic geopolitical times.
The (belt and) road to international aid engagement
Mirjana Spoljaric went to China for her first visit as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and stepped into a soundbite for China’s flagship global infrastructure plan. The “Belt and Road Initiative contributes to global humanitarian work, says ICRC president,” blared one headline by Xinhua, the state news agency. This may surprise critics who point to Belt and Road’s displacement-causing mega-projects, environmental fallout, and a whiff of neo-colonialism through questionable debt deals. Spoljaric’s actual quotes were more tempered. A spokesperson told The New Humanitarian that the ICRC isn’t commenting on whether the project is successful, but noted that the Red Cross has a footprint in 60 Belt and Road countries – many hit by conflict: “In general, there is a role for both development and humanitarian actors when it comes to local infrastructure.” While humanitarians weighing in on Belt and Road may still raise eyebrows, analysts say China has already shifted its multilateral engagement elsewhere to its “Global Development Initiative” – a newer plan focused more on aid than infrastructure. China’s relatively modest contributions to the UN-coordinated humanitarian system are front and centre in promotional documents, and met with flattering press releases by favoured recipients like the World Food Programme.
Did Africa’s first-ever climate summit miss the point?
The inaugural biennial Africa Climate Summit, which was attended by some 30,000 delegates including 17 heads of state, wrapped up in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, on 6 September following three days of discussions largely centred on the opportunities for green economic growth on the continent. The summit issued the Nairobi Declaration containing a slew of pledges and demands, including calls to accurately value the continent’s natural carbon sequestration assets (such as its forests), and for $600 billion in investment in renewable energy – a more than 435% increase – to produce at least 300 gigawatts by 2030. The declaration also called on wealthy countries to live up to their existing commitments to cut emissions and to deliver funds for adaptation – by properly launching, for example, the Loss and Damage Fund agreed to at least year's COP27 in Egypt. However, the summit was also dogged by controversy and protests, with more than 500 civil society organisations signing an open letter claiming its agenda had been hijacked to market “false solutions” such as carbon markets and carbon sequestration as African priorities. After attending the summit and related panel events, Senior Editor for Inclusive Storytelling Patrick Gathara wrote this take in which he questioned why the conversations focused so much on market solutions rather than the human impacts of the climate crisis. Watch the video below for more of Patrick's thoughts.
Soldiers tried over killing of anti-UN protesters in DR Congo
Six soldiers went on trial this week in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for their role in the killing of nearly 60 protesters demanding the withdrawal of a UN peacekeeping mission. Among them is a colonel who heads the Republican Guard in Goma, an eastern city where the protest took place last month. Videos of soldiers piling bodies onto a truck sparked outrage across DRC, yet the government has been hostile to criticism. One official said the march had been outlawed and that victims should be judged as much as perpetrators. Others described the attack as an isolated event carried out by individual soldiers. The army and state agents tend to be responsible for as many human rights violations as all rebel groups combined, yet the UN peacekeeping mission has long sought to consolidate state power, a paradox that has left it struggling to protect civilians. The blue helmets are now set to withdraw from DRC after a two-decade stay. Surveys suggest most Congolese will be happy to see them go.
Au revoir to some French troops in Niger
France looks set to begin a “limited” military withdrawal from Niger, after ongoing popular protests have made it clear its troops are no longer welcome. Niger’s new military leaders had given France a month to pull its 1,500 soldiers – plus ambassador – out of the country. But Paris, which does not recognise the legitimacy of the junta, had refused. Now, with the expiry of the 3 September deadline, talks are underway with Nigerien army commanders (not the putsch leaders, French officials stress) for an undisclosed number of French troops to be transferred to Chad. But France’s military presence is resented across West Africa. This week, there were demonstrations outside the French base in Faya-Largeau, northern Chad, after a French legionnaire killed a Chadian soldier. Meanwhile, the US is also “repositioning” troops and equipment in Niger – shifting from Niamey to its giant northern air base in Agadez. The Pentagon insists its fight against the Sahelian jihadist insurgency will continue.
Mexico decriminalises abortion, but getting one is another story
Mexico’s Supreme Court has decriminalised abortion, the latest Latin American country to ease restrictions even as the United States rolls back its protections for women, girls, and healthcare providers. Argentina, Colombia, Guyana, and Uruguay have also made similar moves to either legalise or decriminalise the procedure. Abortion remains illegal in 20 Mexican states, but the ruling means that women in those states can seek abortions in federally funded hospitals. Still, getting access to abortions or after care remains a hurdle in many Mexican states. Not all hospitals offer abortions, and the cost of abortion pills is still out of reach for many. Whether the ruling will usher in a new era of women’s rights in Mexico is unclear. At a time when Mexico will likely have its first female president, the country is also struggling with record numbers of femicides and gender-based violence. At the same time, women’s rights groups, safe houses, and clinics are struggling to secure promised funding that hasn’t materialised.
In case you missed it
BANGLADESH: Bangladesh is facing its highest rates of dengue fever since authorities began keeping records in 2000. Since April, there have been at least 618 deaths as a result of more than 10,000 reported cases. August has been the deadliest month so far, with more than 300 reported deaths.
BURKINA FASO: More than 50 soldiers and vigilante fighters were killed in a clash with jihadists in the country’s northern Koumbri region. The army said security forces were trying to secure the area to allow displaced people to return. Since the 2022 coup, the number of people killed by jihadists has nearly tripled, compared to the 18 months prior to the putsch.
DARIÉN GAP: An all-time record of more than 330,000 people have crossed the perilous jungle stretch at the Colombia-Panama border this year, overwhelming reception centres. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned that it cannot cope with the increasing needs, while Panama announced a “national security issue”.
EDUCATION: State and non-state armed groups carried out over 3,000 attacks on education facilities in 2022, a 17% increase from the previous year, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA). Ukraine, Myanmar, and Burkina Faso accounted for nearly a third of these attacks. More than 6,700 students and educators were killed or harmed, marking a 20% increase from 2021. GCPEA called on governments to sign the Safe Schools Declaration and limit the use of schools for military purposes.
ETHIOPIA: Eritrean soldiers have continued to commit war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity in northern Tigray, according to Amnesty International. A new report documents extra-judicial killings, rape, and sexual slavery in Eritrean-held border areas. It also calls for the soon-to-expire mandate of the International Commission of Human Rights Experts on Ethiopia to be renewed. Meanwhile, a hunger crisis continues to be worsened for millions of Ethiopians due to an international food aid freeze. For more, watch this video.
FLOODS: A cyclone killed at least 37 people and displaced thousands more in southern Brazil, where flooding submerged dozens of towns. Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey were also hit by catastrophic floods that killed at least 14 people, while record rains paralysed much of Hong Kong, killing two and injuring more than 100.
GREECE: In a rare legal win, an Afghan refugee was awarded thousands of euros in compensation after a Greek court found he was wrongfully imprisoned for two years on people smuggling charges. Campaigners say the case is just the tip of the iceberg and that asylum seekers are regularly given long prison sentences after being convicted of smuggling-related crimes they didn’t commit. For more, read our report: How European courts are wrongfully prosecuting asylum seekers as smugglers.
HAITI: The United States handed the UN Security Council the first draft of a resolution that would authorise an international intervention in Haiti, calling it a “multinational security support mission” and not “a force”. For more on concerns over the nature of the intervention and Kenya's potential leadership of it, read our analysis here.
ICRC: Robert Mardini won’t run for re-election as director-general of the International Committee of the Red Cross when his term ends in March 2024, Le Temps reported. Mardini, who faced internal criticism after overseeing major budget cuts this year, said the decision came after careful consideration with his family.
UKRAINE: A Russian missile strike on a market in the Ukrainian city of Kostiantynivka killed 17 people and injured dozens more on 6 September. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was visiting Ukraine at the time, bringing pledges of an additional $1 billion in military and humanitarian funding. The aid package includes controversial depleted uranium munitions, which could have potential health effects on civilians.
UNITED STATES: Eighteen years after Hurricane Katrina, a UN report has found that ethnic minorities, poor communities, and those living with disabilities face a disproportionate risk of catastrophic flooding in the United States as ageing and substandard levees have left millions vulnerable. Two thirds of Americans rely on levees – many over half a century old – for flood protection.
WAGNER GROUP: The UK government is set to declare the Russian mercenary Wagner Group a “terrorist” organisation. The decision could impact aid agencies since Wagner operates in several humanitarian settings, supporting parties to different conflicts. Aid groups need to communicate with armed actors in war zones in order to negotiate access to people in need.
Almost two years ago, we published this interactive story that sought to explain how exactly it was that EU actions were contributing to the deaths of migrants and asylum seekers in the central Mediterranean. Unfortunately, the situation has only deteriorated. The EU has since doubled down on policies that can have fatal and abusive effects, even as deaths have skyrocketed so far in 2023 to more than 2,000, up more than 40% already on last year’s 12-month figure. Freelance photojournalist Max Hirzel spent four weeks this summer aboard an NGO search and rescue vessel in the Mediterranean to see for himself what was happening. This account of his time on board Humanity 1 paints a revealing picture of the haphazard way in which EU states are tackling rescue efforts and confirms the blind disregard for human suffering of policies only intended to prevent desperate people from reaching European shores.
What drives David Beasley up the wall
Count David Beasley as a Grand Bargain naysayer. The former head of the World Food Programme has a few choice words about the aid sector’s sprawling (and mostly unrealised) 2016 reform pact: “Sometimes headquarters drives me up the wall with the bureaucracy and the red tape,” Beasley said on the Humanitarian Fault Lines podcast. He was expecting the Grand Bargain to deliver “more money and less red tape”, he said, but “all we got was more red tape, more bureaucracy, more regulations, and it was a bunch of junk”. At their heart, the dozens of pledges crammed into the Grand Bargain were aimed at making aid more efficient, more local, and more responsive to the people who use it, rather than simply shovelling more cash to already large agencies (WFP gets more humanitarian funding than anyone else). The Grand Bargain lives on today, dubbed 3.0 and squeezed into a far leaner package. It began its third iteration in a Geneva meeting room in early September, with calls to take the local aid message “outside our circles” and “to the decision-makers”. As Beasley’s post-WFP comments suggest, that message may still have a long way to travel.