This is the first edition of Inklings, where we explore all things aid and aid-adjacent unfolding in the wilds of Geneva, on the front lines of emergency response, or in the dark corners of online aid punditry.
It’s also available as an email newsletter. Subscribe here.
Today: What aid costs in 2024, the Gaza effect, and Mia Mottley fires up her quote machine.
On the radar|
Israel’s siege of Gaza is driving internal tensions among aid staff in a way few crises have. There’s a growing stack of letters and petitions, heated internal meetings, and “listening sessions” for those able to speak up – but also silence, for those afraid of saying the wrong thing. The most public backlash is against World Food Programme chief Cindy McCain, who attended a pro-Israel security forum (while reportedly skipping a UN-wide moment of silence to honour aid workers killed in Israeli airstrikes).
- The Gaza effect: Like Ukraine before it, Gaza could spark new discussions on oft-debated issues like interpreting humanitarian principles, double standards, and even funding. Could it also shine another spotlight on the opaque appointment system for UN leadership roles? That McCain or UNICEF boss Catherine Russell – also facing internal criticism – have close ties to the US political machinery is no secret. But when Western powers are able to horse-trade key seats in the UN system, then their appointees may step in lugging a bit of baggage.
- On the nose: Humanitarian principles – or subtlety – were not the theme of that security forum McCain spoke at. Each of the eight plenary sessions was titled: “Victory in Ukraine”.
What happens to ever-ballooning humanitarian appeals when donors have been warning of cuts for months? We’ll find out by 11 December when the UN’s emergency aid coordination arm, OCHA, launches its “global humanitarian overview” – a bird’s eye view of how much money the sector will ask for in 2024.
- The lowdown: There’s always internal wrangling about the figures among UN agencies and NGOs. But knowing that donors are tightening their belts, there’s more pressure to keep the ask low. One official I spoke to worried aid groups would self-censor – holding back on asking for enough money for gender programmes or education, for example.
- New money: Daydreaming about rich new donors is a popular pastime for humanitarian fundraisers. The United Arab Emirates is a frequently cited target. Dubai is playing COP28 host for the next two weeks, and not everyone in attendance is there for climate alone.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies elects a new president on 11 December. The new boss will head a federation that is in urgent need of restructuring, a clear new strategy, and some honest self-reflection, writes Mukesh Kapila, a former under secretary general, in this opinion piece.
Our acronym decoder is back for the COP28 climate summit. Here are a few other gems spotted in the wild:
CRINKs: McCain may have witnessed the birth of a new acronym at that security forum: China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. It’s reportedly the brainchild of the forum’s president, and served as the title to a plenary session: “Victory in Ukraine = Message to the CRINKs”.
NTCPs: New Technologies intended for Climate Protection (the “i” is implied). Among the many issues on the Human Rights Council’s plate are the rights implications of the emerging tech that aims to geo-engineer humanity out of its climate conundrum. Examples include ocean fertilisation, “enhanced weathering”, and solar radiation modification – which, in theory, would cool the planet by reflecting light back into space. What could go wrong?
P5: You can’t spell “power differential” without a P or a D. It so happens that both letters keep popping up on the World Health Organization’s online dashboard tracking sexual misconduct investigations. P5, P6, and D1 are among the most senior job categories for international staff in the UN system, and they represent the majority of the entries listed as perpetrators on the misconduct dashboard as of a November update. In other words, the abuse cases the WHO is publicising largely involve very senior male staff (with one exception), while victims and survivors include interns, volunteers, and staff on lower grades.
Where debt and crises collide
The governments of 25 countries spent at least a fifth of their revenue on servicing external debt, according to a briefing published by the UN Development Programme earlier this year.
There’s a clear overlap with crises and future risks: Half are countries with active humanitarian responses. More than a third are considered to be at high or very high risk from emergencies that could overwhelm response resources:
Read more: Debt payments or social services: Some countries have to choose
Why is that debt map newly relevant? COP28 is underway in Dubai, and leaders like Mia Mottley of Barbados have led the charge connecting debt and the imbalanced financial system to the climate crisis.
When the ever-quotable Mottley offered up this nugget on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly back in September, there was little choice but to prove her right.
My colleague Will Worley is at COP28 with a pen at the ready. He’ll have no shortage of fodder for copy; he’s keeping an eye on humanitarians’ fresh interest in climate policy (or climate cash), the next steps for loss and damage, and who’s making waves.
This is the first edition of the Inklings newsletter. Have any tips, recommendations, or indecipherable acronyms to share? Get in touch: [email protected]