Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a global round-up of humanitarian trends and developments.
On our radar:
We’ve been banging the IRIN news drum regularly about Venezuela’s meltdown and how it’s causing regional problems as hundreds of thousands of hungry and desperate people flee south into Colombia and Brazil. Meanwhile, a bit further north another crisis has been brewing, and it hasn’t been getting nearly the attention it should. As Elizabeth Gonzalez points out in this podcast for Americas Society/Council of the Americas, more people (more than 300 in fact) have been killed in protests against President Daniel Ortega’s increasingly repressive regime in Nicaragua since April than were killed in similar circumstances in Venezuela during the whole of 2017. Again, the pressure is visible on the borders: this time, Nicaragua’s with Costa Rica, where 100-150 Nicaraguans are reportedly crossing every day through one point alone – that’s on top of some 23,000 who’ve already fled. What’s the problem? In a word: Ortega. Over the past 39 years he has carefully consolidated his power, largely propped up by Venezuelan oil money. He’s done that so successfully that the country now appears to be headed toward dictatorship. The current unrest was set off by his government’s April attempt to pass really unpopular changes to social security policy, but it soon morphed into broader anti-Ortega protests. The ensuing crackdown – killings, arrests, disappearances – has been extended from the students leading the demonstrations to the media and even the Catholic Church. As political analyst Javier Arguello tells Gonzalez: “We have a little North Korea now in Central America.”
Hooked and want an alternative listen? Check out “The Crisis and Politics in Nicaragua, Explained”, a podcast by The Daily Signal.
Zimbabwe: votes and hope
On 30 July, Zimbabweans voted peacefully in an election that the ruling Zanu-PF party had widely promised would signal a new start after nearly four decades of repressive rule by Robert Mugabe, who was ousted as president late last year. He left an economy in shambles and nearly 2.5 million people at risk of hunger. As the vote counting began, though, so did opposition charges of vote rigging. Fingers were pointed at supporters of the incumbent president and leader of the ruling (and military-backed) Zanu-PF party, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Protesters filled the streets, the army responded, and three people were killed. Not that anyone was surprised: a survey by Afrobarometer released 20 July found that more than 40 percent of the population feared election-related intimidation, violence, and military intervention. And claims of electoral corruption and manipulation were not hard to find leading up to the polling, including accusations of the ruling party using food aid to buy votes, as IRIN reported. The electoral commission has now declared Mnangagwa the winner, with 50.8 percent of the votes. As an International Crisis Group report noted, if “citizens accept credible results” the election could open a path toward the “country’s recovery from misrule.” Here’s hoping.
Basra asks, where’s our oil money?
Iraq’s much-needed post-war recovery is on shaky ground these days, as weeks of anti-government demonstrations that rocked the south and even reached Baghdad show no signs of slowing down. Protesters are frustrated by a lack of jobs, water, and electricity. Notably, while sectarianism is still part of Iraq’s system of governance and many people’s thinking (have you read “Searching for Othman” yet?), the unrest started in Basra – that’s the Shia heartland lashing out at a Shia-run central government. The protests started in early July, when Iran cut off its electricity supply to Iraq over unpaid bills, though some parts of the country had already been experiencing rolling blackouts. But there’s more going on here. As this helpful briefing from Crisis Group points out, many locals of oil-rich Basra are frustrated that the wealth their natural resources provide is not trickling down. A sample protest sign (above), courtesy of Babylon FM: “2,500,000 barrels per day; $70 per barrel; 2,500,000 x 70 = 0. Sorry, Pythagoras: we’re in Basra.”
Same old, same old: diversity in the aid sector
The leadership of humanitarian organisations is among the world’s most inclusive and diverse, right? After all, the global aid industry works to relieve suffering, improve lives, and protect some of the world’s most vulnerable — and diverse — populations. Well, maybe it’s time to think again, a new discussion paper from Melbourne-based Humanitarian Advisory Group suggests. After reviewing studies on leadership diversity published over the last eight years, the report’s authors conclude that “humanitarian leadership is not adequately diverse across gender, ethnicity, race, disability, or age”. This lack of diversity includes the conspicuous dominance of “Anglo-Saxon men” in decision-making positions, while women are “greatly under-represented” in leadership roles across the UN. One recent study found 80 percent of charities in the UK had no ethnic minorities whatsoever on their leadership teams. In addition, the aid sector as a whole has done little to track and understand diversity in its ranks. The researchers suggest that a lack of diversity can hinder effective humanitarian response. Over the next two years, they plan to study whether there’s evidence that more diverse leadership teams lead to better results on the ground during humanitarian emergencies.
In case you missed it, 30 July-3 August:
Afghanistan: Afghan staff employed by the International Organization for Migration and the International Rescue Committee were among at least 13 civilians killed in a 31 July attack on a government refugee office in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Officials are attributing the attack to fighters aligned with the so-called Islamic State, which also claimed responsibility for a January strike on the Jalalabad offices of Save the Children. There had already been a record-high 1,692 civilian deaths from conflict in Afghanistan through the first half of the year, according to the UN.
Congo: In a Cheat Sheet item last month, we drew your attention to the overturning on appeal of the 18-year sentence of ex-Congolese vice president Jean-Pierre Bemba at the International Criminal Court. After a decade in prison in The Hague, the former warlord returned to Kinshasa this week to a hero’s welcome and threw his hat into the ring for the presidential election in December. Currently, there are more questions than answers. Will the country’s courts allow his candidacy? Will Joseph Kabila, the current president, stand himself? Will leading opposition figure Moise Katumbi be arrested if he tries to come back and stand? What is clear is that Congo is deeply unstable and facing huge humanitarian challenges, from Kasai to Ituri to the Kivus.
India: Up to 4 million names have been left off a list of citizens in Assam in northeast India, raising fears that authorities are in effect stripping citizenship from the state’s Bengali-speaking minority. State officials in Assam say the move is an attempt to identify migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. But rights groups say there are troubling parallels with Myanmar’s treatment of its Rohingya minority, who were stripped of rights and citizenship over decades. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh last year following a military purge.
Somalia: When ICRC, an organisation designed to work in war zones, is forced to reduce its work, it means things are bad. On 26 July, ICRC announced it has suspended food, cash, livelihoods and prison monitoring in Somalia due to poor security. A staff member was killed in Mogadishu in March and another, a German nurse, was abducted in May and is still missing. The statement said ICRC will continue to support hospitals in Mogadishu, Baidoa and Kismayo, but Simon Brooks, its Somalia head of delegation, warned: “if we cannot work in safety, then we cannot reach victims. We will only resume operations fully once we have clarity on the security and respect of our staff.” One of the largest operators in Somalia relief, last year ICRC helped 582,000 people with cash grants and 624,000 with food and other items.
Yemen: Airstrikes hit a sanitation facility and water center in Hodeidah province this week, and the UN is now warning that cholera could be poised to make a comeback in Yemen. The waterborne disease was taking one life an hour at the height of an outbreak last year, with a total of 2,310 killed and more than 115,000 infected since April 2017. Cholera should be easy to treat, but Yemen’s decimated healthcare system made it hard to identify and contain, especially at the start of the epidemic. Now Lise Grande, the UN’s humanitarian chief in Yemen, says the country “could be one airstrike away from an unstoppable epidemic.”
UN OCHA: under (some) new management
The UN’s humanitarian coordination body, OCHA, is assembling a new management team after a period of budget cuts and reorganisation going back to 2016. In an email obtained by IRIN, three senior appointments were announced: US citizen Lisa Carty is to be director of humanitarian financing and resource mobilisation; Reena Ghelani will be director of operations and advocacy; and Ramesh Rajasingham will become director of coordination. Carty comes to OCHA from a career in the State Department and UN agencies, while Ghelani and Rajasingham are long-serving OCHA staff promoted from within. OCHA’s chief, Mark Lowcock, told IRIN in December he had set up five new senior positions and was recruiting “the world’s best people“. Additional appointments in the areas of policy, information, and communication are expected to be announced before a September management gathering, staff told IRIN.
Our weekend read:
In the first instalment of his special report from a remote part of western Cameroon, Emmanuel Freudenthal introduced the Ambazonia Defense Forces, or ADF, the main separatist group fighting an intensifying war for independence. The first journalist to live with the anglophone fighters and report from inside their camps, he revealed how most of them used to be farmers and are now taking on the heavily armed, US-trained, French-funded Cameroonian army with old hunting rifles. In his newest article, he reveals a conflict waged with a bizarre mix of the old and the new – where WhatsApp is needed to receive orders from political leaders in Europe but magical “Odeshi” amulets are called upon to protect the fighters from bullets. His piece offers a first-time and up-close glimpse of who the fighters really are, what they believe, what motivates them, and what their lives are really like. With the UN Security Council reportedly beginning to take notice, and this under-covered conflict likely to flare up with presidential elections looming in early October, this is the weekend to get up to speed.
8 million tons of fact checking
A dispatch from Euronews caught our eye recently. It claimed that the UN says there are 8 million tons of explosives in the rubble of the Iraqi city of Mosul. That seems, despite the battering the city took, well, an absolute sh*t load. The report was part of a segment called Aid Zone, funded by the European Commission’s humanitarian aid department, ECHO.
We decided to have a comb through the rubble behind this alarming “fact”. To back the figure, the EuroNews report, “Mosul and its people rise from the ruins”, cited an 11 July press release by NGO Handicap International, which aids the disabled in humanitarian crises. That release stated that “8 million tons  of explosive remnants still contaminate the city”. The reference, footnote , cites “UN Habitat and the United Nations Environment Programme”.
After some searching, we found the original source. And it doesn’t say 8 million tons of explosives.
In a March 2018 report, UN Environment stated that there are “colossal volumes” of debris that is “highly contaminated with unexploded ordnance, booby-traps and potentially other hazardous materials.” The report explains that UN Environment worked with other groups to devise that figure by using “satellite image analysis and field surveys” to estimate “that the city has around 8 million tons of conflict debris [our emphasis] which is equivalent to three times the Great Pyramid of Giza.”
While the number is exaggerated, the threat is real. From January 2017 to April 2018, the UN cleared 45,000 explosive remnants of war (such as mines, homemade bombs, or unexploded weapons) in Mosul. That’s in addition to those the Iraqi military cleared.