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Inklings | Cyber-attack exposes UN data  

Notes and musings on how aid works, from The New Humanitarian’s policy editors.


Welcome to another 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 UN data breaches.

It’s also available as an email newsletter. Subscribe here.

Today: Who didn’t have a ticket to the big conference for Sudan, who shouldn’t be the next relief chief, and what’s different about the latest cyber-attack on the UN.

On the radar|

Data extortion attack targets a UN server: A cyber-attack on a server used by the United Nations Development Programme has exposed personal information belonging to past and current personnel, the agency said. UNDP said it learned of the attack on 27 March: “This was a data-extortion threat actor that identified themselves on the dark web,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement. The attack targeted a shared server at UN City in Copenhagen, a complex that includes 10 agencies. “For UNDP, the stolen data comprised mostly files relating to some past and current personnel, and procurement information relating to some suppliers,” the spokesperson said. “We are still taking a full inventory of all information that has been compromised.” The server has been “decommissioned”, UNDP said, and “there is no risk of further data loss” from the server. 

  • Disclosure: Cyber-attacks are common, and the UN is a frequent (and growing) target. What may be more unusual is that UNDP appears to be informing affected people relatively quickly (though it didn’t publicly release information until contacted by The New Humanitarian). In recent days, some current or former staff have received messages warning that their “personal identifiable information" may have been exposed, and advice on mitigating the risks. In the past, UN agencies have kept data breaches under wraps, even failing to disclose attacks to internal investigators. In 2019, for example, the UN did not disclose a major hacking attempt. Staff were asked to change their passwords, but weren’t told of the breach or that their personal information was at risk. At the time, one IT specialist called it “a fundamental misread of the seriousness of what’s just happened, or… a professionally irresponsible way to handle an issue of that magnitude”.

‘The system still does not have space for mutual groups’: An EU-hosted conference in Paris drummed up some $2.1 billion in aid promises for Sudan, a year into a sprawling conflict that looks set to worsen. But mutual aid networks on the front lines say they’re still missing from the conversation. Sudan’s emergency response rooms are grassroots, non-hierarchical, and present where big international aid groups are not, but they weren’t on the invite list to Paris, says Hajooj Kuka, a volunteer with the Khartoum State Emergency Response Rooms. “They believe in us enough to write us in their paperwork, but they still think that they negotiate and talk about it without us being on the table,” Kuka told my colleague Melissa Fundira on an updated episode of the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast.

  • Where will new money go: The international aid system is starting to recognise the value of mutual aid in Sudan, but it struggles to fund anything that doesn’t mirror the conventional humanitarian machinery. This week’s financial pledges for Sudan may not change the equation: “Most announcements seem earmarked for UN agencies,” William Carter, country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Sudan, wrote on X.

Who shouldn’t be the next UN relief chief? The UN’s head humanitarian, Martin Griffiths, will step down at the end of June. His replacement is likely to have a UK passport, if the UN’s horse-trading tradition has its way. Some of the people behind the excellent Blue Smoke blog, which tracks the opaque world of UN appointments, are weighing in early: The next relief chief shouldn’t be another Brit. “To arbitrarily restrict the search for the next [emergency relief coordinator] to nationals of any one state would be unconscionable and gravely irresponsible,” the non-profit UNA-UK wrote

  • Outer circle: The New Humanitarian took a similar position the last time the seat was up for grabs. “The next UN humanitarian chief should be picked on merit,” my colleagues wrote in a rare editorial in 2021, and not “plucked from the outer circle of British public life”. Griffiths was appointed two months later. Would he agree? “This is too crucial a job to be left to favouritism,” he said in 2022 on the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast – albeit while already ensconced as relief chief.

The UN’s cash problem: Geneva Solutions has a solid explainer on the liquidity crisis that has left parts of the UN with hiring freezes, slowed key rights investigative bodies from Sudan to Myanmar, and ripped pizza off the lunch menu at the UN’s Geneva offices.


GORaF: The Global Office of Research and Foresight – UNICEF’s research arm, otherwise and somewhat extravagantly known as Innocenti – is looking for a neurotechnology policy consultant. Neurotechnology lets digital networks be connected directly to the brain. As with other new and emerging tech, UN bodies and agencies are among those trying to get a handle on the implications.

UNCTAD: The UN Conference on Trade and Development has rebranded. It now wants to be called “UN Trade and Development”. Will a rare un-abbreviation follow? UNCTAD has taken a bigger public role in recent months, thanks in part to involvement in negotiations for the Black Sea grain deal (through its head, Rebeca Grynspan), and economic analyses of Israel’s destruction of Gaza.

ICF: The UK government is double-dipping, counting nearly £500 million in humanitarian aid as international climate finance, Carbon Brief reports. This includes funding for humanitarian work in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Data points|

The world’s biggest donors say they gave a record $223.7 billion in official development assistance (ODA) last year, but there are the usual gaping caveats behind the numbers. For the second straight year, for example, big donor governments spent more ODA at home – in the form of hosting and processing refugees – than they gave in humanitarian aid.

This also rivals what governments gave in aid to some of the world’s least wealthy countries. In other words: The amount of aid spent on home soil approaches the amount of development aid sent to developing countries.

End quote|

“In a world where you can be anything, be kind. Anon.”

Nothing warms the heart these days like a glance at Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s timeline. The World Health Organization boss has been posting soothing quotations in a smattering of treacly tweets. “World peace begins with each one of us. Let's prioritise empathy over conflict,” he wrote this week. 

Another recent one could decorate the wall of an Airbnb rental: “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” But the crowd on Elon Musk’s X hasn’t been the most welcoming. A volley of mostly sarcastic replies covers a staggering range of topics: Hamas, Israel, Ethiopia, China, the pandemic treaty, COVID-19, airborne pathogens, vaccines, and the moral underpinnings of veganism.

The Inklings newsletter: Have any tips, recommendations, or indecipherable acronyms to share? Get in touch: [email protected]

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