Our editors’ weekly take on humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.
On our radar
ICRC announces job cuts as budget questions continue
The International Committee of the Red Cross is to slash at least 1,500 jobs worldwide – the first volley of cutbacks to cope with a budget crisis that has sparked staff outrage, accusations of mismanagement, and questions about the future scope of one of the world’s oldest humanitarian organisations. In a statement posted on its website, the ICRC also said 20 of its 350 locations would close, and that it will be “scaling back and closing” some programmes. Job cuts may be at least double what the ICRC announced when including non-renewed contracts and missions now cancelled before they started, reported Le Temps. The ICRC says it has some 23,000 staff. The shake-up comes after ICRC management in early March announced funding shortfalls of up to a quarter of this year’s 2.8 billion Swiss franc budget – weeks after approving it. Nearly 2,500 ICRC staff signed an open letter accusing leadership of mismanagement and calling for an audit. They continue to question how the cuts are decided and managed. “There are, clearly, serious lessons to be learned and clear improvements to be made in how we forecast and monitor our financial situation, and to avoid, also, overspending,” ICRC Director-General Robert Mardini said in an edited video sent to staff on 21 March, which promised an “independent review” of how the budget is managed. More changes are on the horizon, as the ICRC and other aid groups re-evaluate their roles in a sector that grew exponentially for years but is now struggling to pay for those ambitions. After approving cuts equal to 430 million CHF, the ICRC still has a 2 billion CHF field budget to raise funds for – and the organisation says donor aid budgets are expected to fall over the next two years.
Zimbabwe talks tough to stem medical exodus
The Zimbabwean government is threatening to criminalise the brain drain of its health workers. Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga said the recruitment of Zimbabwean health professionals was akin to human trafficking. More than 4,000 nurses and doctors have left Zimbabwe since February 2021, with the UK the destination of choice. However, last month Zimbabwe was placed on the World Health Organization’s “red list”, which reflects countries with dangerously low numbers of healthcare workers. As a result, the UK has stopped bulk recruitment. That hasn’t halted migration by individual medical professionals, but the Zimbabwean government made their journeys harder in February by slapping fees of up to $600 on the necessary paperwork. While the government argues it subsidises the training of health staff that richer countries then poach, medical workers struggle at home with wages that do not match inflation – currently around 90% – and with Zimbabwe’s broader economic collapse, which has gutted the health sector. In January, the government banned medical staff from striking for longer than three days, threatening them with fines or up to six months imprisonment for non-compliance.
Outcry as Taliban bans Afghan women from working for UN
On 4 April, the Taliban announced that Afghan women would no longer be allowed to report to work in UN offices, drawing immediate condemnation. The UN Secretary-General’s special representative for Afghanistan, Roza Otunbayeva, issued a particularly biting critique of the directive, saying, "In the history of the United Nations, no other regime has ever tried to ban women from working for the organisation just because they are women. This decision represents an assault against women, the fundamental principles of the UN, and on international law." It follows a late December edict forbidding Afghan women from working for national and international NGOs that led to disappointment and anger from Afghans as well as foreign workers and aid groups, several of which suspended much of their work. The UN, which currently assesses the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as the largest in the world, said banning women from participating in UN aid efforts will greatly affect its ability to reach the most vulnerable people in the country, particularly women and girls.
Calls for more assistance in eastern DR Congo
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has warned that a humanitarian disaster is unfolding in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and that far more aid is urgently needed. MSF said about a million people have been forced from their homes in North Kivu in the past 12 months as a result of violence linked to the M23 rebel group. Most of the displaced are living in appalling conditions, and MSF said its teams are “completely overwhelmed” amid increasing cases of measles and cholera. Meanwhile, with the arrival of the last batch of troops from South Sudan, the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) is now at full strength. The multinational military intervention is expected to occupy areas of eastern DR Congo vacated by the M23 as the group withdraws to designated cantonment sites. Amid ongoing local criticism of the intervention, the Kinshasa government this week downplayed fears of the “Balkanisation” of the east. It also ruled out the prospect of negotiating directly with the M23 at peace talks later this month under the regionally led Nairobi Process.
Al-Aqsa raid sees Israeli-Palestinian tensions spread to Gaza
The Israeli military carried out airstrikes against Palestinian targets in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip following dozens of rocket attacks against Israel, most of which were intercepted by the country’s defence systems. The escalation follows a raid by Israeli riot police on Palestinian worshippers at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque hours before Ramadan and Passover began to overlap. The police, who said they were chasing Palestinian youths armed with sticks and fireworks, fired stun grenades and tear gas inside the mosque and arrested 400 people. Tensions have been running high in the West Bank and East Jerusalem for months, and nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed this year already – the highest rate for two decades. The intensifying cycle of violence has only exacerbated the decades-long humanitarian crisis. Watch below to find out from Gaza-based journalist Maha Hussaini why so many young Palestinians try to leave the strip despite the risks.
Oil production and inflation: More volatility for aid budgets
Inflation and rising prices are pushing people further into crisis, and this economic turmoil is also making aid itself more expensive. The World Food Programme, for example, says soaring commodities prices have added millions to its monthly costs, and the ICRC says inflation is partly to blame for its budget woes. That’s why bean-counters are eyeing OPEC’s surprise decision to cut oil production for signs of the repercussions. The 3 April move by the oil-exporting giants caused an immediate spike in crude prices. This could add upward pressure on inflation, which had been easing slightly in recent months. There are many forces behind inflation, and not everyone agrees what the impact will be. But for an aid sector reliant on fickle, year-to-year donor funds for revenue, anything that adds to the other side of the balance sheet is an unwelcome development.
The hidden costs of Bukele’s gang crackdown
Lauded by some Latin American politicians and citizens for bringing gangs to heel, El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, is increasingly coming under scrutiny for human rights violations. Since March 2022, when he extended a state of emergency, Bukele has built a massive new prison and detained over 60,000 people to rid the streets of criminal groups. Salvadoran official data shows a 56,8% drop of crime in 2022 compared to 2021. However, in January, a report by Human Rights Watch and Cristosal condemned El Salvador’s authorities for a raft of abuses, including massive arbitrary arrests, the detention of more than 1,000 children, prison overcrowding, lack of due process, ill-treatment, and deaths in custody. This week, Amnesty international confirmed that Salvadoran “authorities are systematically committing human rights violations” and mentioned torture, enforced disappearances, and the death of at least 132 inmates who had not yet been found guilty of any crime – among other violations. Bukele’s security crackdown may also be causing the exodus of gang members to neighbouring Central American countries, Mexico, and the United States. According to a BBC report, Guatemala, Honduras, and southern Mexico are all strengthening their border controls.
In case you missed it
DENGUE: The global reach of mosquito-borne viruses like dengue, Zika, and chikungunya is expanding, driven in part by climate change, deforestation, and urbanisation, the WHO said. Half the world’s population is now at risk of dengue, the agency said.
ECUADOR: President Guillermo Lasso has announced he will allow the civilian use of guns to fight soaring crime rates, raising fears – among other unintended consequences – of a rise in arms trafficking from Colombia. Lasso also declared a new state of emergency in three provinces, including the port of Guayaquil – one of the world's most dangerous cities. Crime in Ecuador rose by more than 86% in 2022 alone.
HAITI: Haiti has seen a three-fold increase in kidnappings since last year, according to the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights (CARDH), a Haitian NGO. Between January and March, there were some 389 gang-related kidnappings, compared to 127 recorded in the same period last year.
MISSING MIGRANTS: In 2022, the Missing Migrants Project, run by the UN’s migration agency, IOM, registered 1,433 dead migrants in the Americas, the highest number since the project began in 2014. To try to prevent these deaths, the agency just launched the first network for missing migrants for the Americas, aiming to improve coordination between key actors, strengthen data collection, and support the families of survivors.
SANCTIONS: International sanctions are one thing; how banks interpret them are another. Despite humanitarian exemptions, banks continue to misunderstand and over-comply with sanctions aimed at the Taliban. This is crippling Afghan businesses, including those trying to import food, a new Norwegian Refugee Council report warns.
SOUTH SUDAN: A panel of UN rights experts has named senior officials and military leaders they say warrant criminal prosecution for their part in grave atrocities against civilians. A year-long investigation by the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan details the involvement of government and rebel leaders in widespread murder, rape, and sexual slavery.
THAILAND: More than 5,000 refugees fleeing fighting in Myanmar’s Myawaddy province have crossed into Thailand. Over 1.3 million people have been displaced across the country since the military junta took control in February 2021, unleashing a wave of violence directed both at unarmed civilians and armed anti-junta resistance movements.
TUNISIA: Strict water rationing has been introduced as the country struggles with a fourth year of drought. The agriculture ministry has banned the use of potable water for irrigating farmland and green spaces, while quotas will be introduced for mains supply to households until September. See more from The New Humanitarian on Tunisia’s wider governance crisis.
TÜRKIYE: Security forces have reportedly launched a major migration crackdown ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections next month, and the Turkish government says it has deported more than 26,000 “irregular migrants” in the first three months of this year. Refugees and asylum seekers in Türkiye have been living in fear, as anti-refugee sentiment has increased in the lead-up to the elections – a situation that has intensified in the aftermath of the deadly earthquakes that struck southern Türkiye in February.
WFP: American Cindy McCain started her five-year term as the new head of the World Food Programme on 5 April, warning that “ration cuts are coming if we don’t have the money to get food to those who need it”. Read more on the challenges (and opportunities) McCain faces leading one of the world’s biggest humanitarian groups.
YEMEN: After more than eight years, the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition fighting in Yemen is lifting restrictions on imports to the country’s southern ports. The blockade has been a major factor driving hunger, malnutrition, and starvation. The announcement is a sign that peace talks between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition are progressing and follows the restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran on 6 April, which had been broken off for seven years.
For aid workers locked into the annual “humanitarian programme cycle”, the process can feel bureaucratic, unwieldy, and lacking in the kind of accountability they know affected communities crave. But how else can you make sure donors get value for money, and that assistance gets to those who need it most? Some, at least, are daring to dream there could be another way. Importantly, one of them appears to be the UN’s top humanitarian official, Martin Griffiths. As Policy Editor Jessica Alexander reveals in our weekend read, he has thrown his support behind what is being called the “Emergency Relief Coordinator’s Flagship Initiative”. Currently being piloted in Niger, Colombia, the Philippines, and South Sudan, it aims to end laborious processes by giving more autonomy to country managers to make aid responses more accountable to the people they serve. For tips on how they might do that, read this accompanying opinion piece from Meg Sattler, director of Ground Truth Solutions.
Hunger analysis just became more accessible
For government decision-makers and aid workers, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, or FEWS NET, has long been a valued source of objective and evidence-based analysis. With a network of analysts in 20 field offices, the USAID-funded group works with scientists and the aid sector to produce forward-looking reports on more than 35 of the world’s most food-insecure countries, aiming to try to protect those who are most vulnerable from the worst impacts of hunger crises. This week, FEWS NET launched a new website, opening up access to its trove of data, and revealing some of the tools and resources the team uses. “For decades, we have collected a wealth of data on all of the topics that go into our analyses, including climate, conflict, markets and trade, livelihoods, nutrition and more,” FEWS NET’s Kiersten Johnson told AgriLINKS, an online community for food security and agricultural development practitioners. “Now, for the first time, those data are accessible to the public for wider use and innovation.”