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Gaza’s hunger crisis, cholera’s African surge, and peak Davos: 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

 

‘Fundamental change’ needed to prevent starvation in Gaza

 

After more than 100 days of war and Israeli siege, every single person in Gaza is hungry, and a quarter of the population – or around 500,000 people – is starving, UN experts warned on 16 January. The aid response is falling short of what is needed to prevent a deadly combination of hunger, malnutrition, and disease, four UN agencies said, calling for a “fundamental step change in the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza”. Without it, deaths from starvation and disease could soon surpass the already staggering toll from bombardment and combat, which has reached nearly 25,000 people, according to health authorities in Gaza. UN aid officials said there is still time to keep famine at bay, but that would require Israel to: allow more aid trucks to enter Gaza; provide humanitarian workers more freedom of movement; give safety guarantees to people seeking and distributing aid; and lift its total siege to allow commercial goods into the enclave. “This isn't just a question whereby setting up some soup kitchens and some mobile clinics will stop this humanitarian emergency,” famine expert Alex de Waal told The New Humanitarian in an interview. “No matter how much aid is provided, if the destruction of objects indispensable to survival continues, the risk of famine will continue.” For more on the unprecedented hunger crisis in Gaza caused by Israel’s military campaign, read the full Q&A.

 

Yemenis pay the price for US-Houthi escalation

 

US President Joe Biden acknowledged on 18 January that more than a week of US-UK airstrikes against Yemen’s Houthi rebels have not stopped missile attacks on ships in the Red Sea, but said they would continue. The Houthis, who have been at war with Yemen’s internationally recognised government and its allies since 2015, began hitting ships in November, in what the group says is a show of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. There is concern about the impact on global prices as it becomes increasingly dangerous and expensive to pass through the key commercial shipping route, but aid groups have also warned that the escalation could spell further disaster for Yemenis: A new statement from 26 NGOs working in Yemen says that “disruption to trade is pushing up prices and causing delays in shipments of lifesaving goods”, adding that some aid groups have had to suspend work in light of the airstrikes. 

 

Alarm raised over surge in African cholera cases

 

Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are facing an unprecedented surge in cholera cases, with the aid agency Oxfam warning that the situation could become “uncontrollable”. A shortage of vaccine supplies is complicating the response. Since October 2023, Zambia has recorded more than 9,500 cases and 374 deaths – a “devastatingly high” fatality rate in a country where most cases are children, according to UNICEF. Mozambique has also seen its deadliest cholera outbreak in decades, with over 37,000 cases and 150 deaths. In Zimbabwe, there have been more than 18,000 cases and 71 confirmed fatalities. In 2023, Malawi recorded the highest number of cholera deaths in a single country. As of August 2023, there were close to 60,000 cases and 1,700 fatalities. Those numbers fell at the end of last year, but are ticking up again, with cholera imported from neighbouring countries. Only  61% of people in the region have access to safe drinking water, and only two in five have adequate sanitation.

 

Don’t forget Ukraine, aid donors told

 

Ukraine once dominated headlines; now, aid leaders say they are “begging” for attention. At least, that’s how UN relief chief Martin Griffiths framed it in launching this year’s appeals for Ukraine and the region. The combined ask: $4.2 billion. Previously, “we begged for attention for places elsewhere,” he told reporters in Geneva. “But today, we beg for attention for the people of Ukraine.” The needs are significant in a crisis that is growing more entrenched, nearly two years after Russia’s invasion. Some 40% of the population need aid, a quarter are displaced, and needs are reaching “extreme and catastrophic severity” in frontline communities, the UN says. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, fresh from a Davos cameo, may be wary of “war fatigue”. But it’s hardly a forgotten crisis: For the time being, Ukraine still has strong political support among the donor nations that fund the bulk of the formal humanitarian sector. Last year, Ukraine’s appeal was among the most well-funded responses at about 69%. By contrast, the appeal for Sudan, where accusations of ethnic cleansing are resurfacing, was roughly 43% met.

 

Mind the hunger gap

 

Gaza famine warnings and starvation deaths in Ethiopia’s Tigray have put extreme hunger in the spotlight. But where are the worst hunger crises around the globe, and are those affected getting the help they desperately need? A report released on 16 January helps unpack this, while flagging that only 35% of the funding needs for crisis levels of hunger were met last year. Action Against Hunger analysed the needs of 17 countries whose hunger burden was at crisis level or worse in 2022 and for whom funding data for 2023 was available (Gaza was not included). Those where over 40% of the population faced crisis-level hunger or worse were Yemen, South Sudan, Haiti, Central African Republic, and Afghanistan. Levels were lower in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and Malawi, but their unmet needs reached above 80%. Yemen stood out as a country with both massive needs (55%) and low funding (68% unmet). Nearly 90% of hunger funding appeals received less than half of what they needed in 2023. The report called for multi-year funding and greater localisation efforts to close the nearly $9 billion funding gap.

 

Challenging in-tray for Guatemala’s Arévalo

 

After months of Indigenous-led protests aimed at preventing what they see as a corrupt elite from overturning his landslide election win, Bernardo Arévalo was finally sworn in as Guatemala's new president on 15 January – a day late due to last-ditch efforts to derail his inauguration by political opponents. Arévalo’s progressive agenda may yet be crippled by conservatives in Congress, who approved a slimmed-down budget in December. This could make it harder for him to tackle the Central American’s country’s growing humanitarian caseload. Guatemala was third to only Malawi and neighbouring Honduras in its unmet hunger needs in 2023 (see the Action Against Hunger report above), and the UN says almost 30% of its 18 million population will require some form of humanitarian assistance in 2024. Guatemala also ranks sixth globally in child malnutrition rates. Needs will be exacerbated by the impact of El Niño on crops in the Dry Corridor, a region deeply affected by climate change. During his campaign, Arévalo, the son of Guatemala’s first democratically elected president, promised to tackle corruption, and in his first speech he noted “the state’s historical debt” towards Indigenous people who have been systematically marginalised for centuries. 

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In case you missed it

AI AND HEALTH: Artificial intelligence can improve healthcare, but tech companies and governments must account for the risks, the World Health Organization said in publishing new AI ethics and governance guidelines. These guidelines cover “large multi-modal models” (LMM), which allow users to input more than just text – imagery or audio, for example.

 

ECUADOR: César Suárez, Ecuador's public prosecutor, and the lead investigator in the TV station gang attack on 9 January, has been shot dead in a suspected assassination in the second city of Guayaquil, as a wave of gang violence continues to engulf the country. For more, read our early warning article from August.

 

ETHIOPIA: Around 225 people have starved to death since July in two towns in the drought-hit northern Tigray region, local authorities say. While the central government denies famine is looming, aid groups say relief is not coming fast enough. Most of those dying are children.

 

GREECE: In a rare case, the European Court of Human Rights has ordered Greece to pay 80,000 euros to the family of a Syrian man shot in the head by the Greek Coast Guard while it was trying to stop a boat carrying asylum seekers and migrants from reaching Greece in 2014. Holding EU countries accountable for deaths and human rights abuses at the bloc’s external borders is frequently difficult. Nearly 29,000 people are known to have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since 2014.

 

HAITI: Dozens of deaths were reported as Solino, a key neighbourhood of the capital, Port-au-Prince, came under a days-long siege from gangs, raising fears that levels of violence that claimed nearly 4,000 lives in 2023 could intensify further. A judge is due to rule on 26 January on whether Kenya can lead an international force to try to quell the violence.

 

IRAN/PAKISTAN: Iran carried out a missile and drone attack on 16 January in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, claiming the strikes targeted Jaish al-Adl, which it labelled an “Iranian terrorist group”. Pakistan said two children were killed in the attack and retaliated with a strike on “terrorist hideouts” in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan province that Tehran said killed three women, two men, and four children – all foreign nationals.

 

MYANMAR: The Arakan Army, which has been fighting the ruling military junta from its bases in Rakhine state, has claimed full control of Paletwa – a town in Chin state on the Kaladan river that is an important regional trading point near the borders with India and Bangladesh.

 

RWANDA/UK: Rwandan President Paul Kagame said there were limits to how long the country’s stalled deal with the UK to receive deported asylum seekers could “drag on”. The deal, which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hopes will deter migrant and asylum seekers from crossing the English Channel from France, passed the House of Commons on 17 January but is expected to face stiff opposition in the House of Lords.

 

SUDAN: The government of General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has boycotted peace talks convened by the regional bloc, IGAD. It accused IGAD of “violating” the country’s sovereignty by inviting Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the leader of the rival Rapid Support Forces, to the summit. Al-Burhan has been angered by Dagalo’s growing diplomatic profile.

 

SYRIA: President Bashar al-Assad has renewed permission for UN agencies to bring aid across its border with Türkiye into rebel-held northwest Syria for six more months. But aid groups are still worried about the “vulnerability and long-term sustainability” of a system that now relies on the Syrian government’s permission to bring assistance to millions of people. 

 

SYRIA: France’s highest court has ruled that a case for complicity in crimes against humanity against the French cement maker Lafarge can continue, rejecting objections by the company. The ruling is not about guilt, but means that a probe about the company’s activities in Syria can continue. 

 

UK/UN/DIEGO GARCIA: The UN said the remote British Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia, where around 60 asylum seekers have been left stranded in a joint US-UK military base – some since late 2021 – is “not a suitable location” for the group. Britain sent three to Rwanda for medical treatment, where they reported sexual abuse and harassment, raising further concerns over the UK government’s planned asylum deal with Kigali (see above). 

 

UNITED STATES: The Texas National Guard prevented US Border Patrol agents from rescuing a woman and two children who were attempting to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico on 12 January, Their deaths highlighted the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border as well as tensions between state and federal officials over how to handle migration, which will likely only escalate during what is a presidential election year. 

Weekend read

 

The Darién Gap migration crisis is six graphs, and one map

 

A record 520,000 migrants crossed the treacherous jungle corridor connecting Colombia and Panamá – known as the Darién Gap – in 2023. Less than a decade ago, that figure was only a few thousand, but the number has been doubling annually, and a further surge is expected in 2024. Here are six graphs (and one map) that show the scale and evolving nature of the crisis, with analysis to unpack those trends.

 

And finally…

 

Is Davos losing its lustre?

 

For more than two decades, the World Economic Forum in Davos has been where the global titans of industry and politics rub shoulders, united in a neo-liberal gospel that business knows best. But this year, alternative realities have gate-crashed the alpine party, upsetting that consensus. Have we reached peak Davos? What has been clear to much of the rest of the world is the market hasn’t delivered on better lives for all. Precarity seems to go hand in hand with liberalisation and free trade, and capital’s dominance these days feels less assured. COVID-19, for a start, underlined how government interventions still matter. And the supposedly corrective “invisible hand” of the market seems a ludicrous response to existential threats like climate heating and AI. Politically, the global “rules-based” order is also under scrutiny. Illiberalism is on the march; the touted dividends of multiparty democracy not apparent to all; and Gaza, for one, has raised difficult questions over who actually sets the rules.

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