19th August, World Humanitarian day, what progress?

World Humanitarian Day is celebrated every 19 August since 2008. While humanitarians celebrated in their own way by implementing appropriate relief efforts, there was no shortage of official statements. We must first of all welcome them because these statements are useful to reinforce the need for solidarity with populations in danger. We must also take them at their word. Is humanitarian aid always equal to the needs and risks of the victims of war, disaster and epidemics against a background of extreme poverty?

On August 19th, Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that 303 million people were in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and that he had “great hope” despite “the depths of despair and division”. Joseph Borell and Janez Lenarcic for the European Commission applaud “…all those working on the front line, constantly risking their lives to save others and reduce human suffering”. Even US President Joe Biden from the White House said that humanitarians “…need our protection and support more than ever” and “It is therefore imperative that we collectively strengthen our humanitarian response”. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres recalled that “Far from the spotlight”, “against all odds, often risking their lives, humanitarians are alleviating suffering in the most dangerous of conditions”. He goes so far as to say that “Humanitarians represent the best of humanity”. I would add that we must humbly and convincingly demonstrate this every day if we are to live up to our mission to save lives!


Humanitarian emergency in Nepal after the earthquake in April 2015 @Alex Cauvin

The theme of this year’s day is “It takes a village”; between those affected, neighbours who help each other, local, national and international humanitarians with diverse and complementary skills and capacities. We cannot forget public services and states as the sustainable solution to be supported and promoted.

This recognition cannot fail to raise questions and to be useful to public opinion, governments and the various actors in political, economic and social life. However, in order to carry out our humanitarian mission, beyond the moral support of these leaders, we need above all concrete measures and an adapted and demanding policy on their part.

In welcoming their statement, this is the best they could do to give humanitarianism what it needs to be more effective in relief work.

Humanitarianism is based on the principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence. These principles apply to all and the partnership between humanitarian actors and state or inter-state actors must scrupulously respect and apply them. It is up to humanitarians to be the first to set an example in their daily work, avoiding any risk of partisan politicisation for purposes other than impartial relief.

Beyond commitment, humanitarian aid is about providing the means to meet the vital needs of people at risk. In 2020, we found that while humanitarian needs had increased rapidly, resources had stalled after a steady increase in previous years. This year, OCHA found that needs were estimated at $46.3 billion but only $15 billion had been mobilised by mid-year! What will happen at the end of the year when Ukraine requires immense resources that cannot be taken away from the victims of other crises, from the Sahel to the Middle East?

Humanitarian overview 2022 in needs by country.

Let’s face it, International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is in danger of being weakened, if not undermined, by anti-terrorism laws (COTER), which risk on the one hand “criminalising” humanitarians in the territories where they provide relief and where so-called terrorist groups operate and, on the other hand, by imposing administrative screening obligations on the populations they rescue. The mechanical and unintelligent application of these measures will have the effect of reducing aid to victims and putting humanitarians at risk. Who will take this responsibility?

Child with both legs missing due to bombing in Syria. @UOSSM

Similarly, at the 1st World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, one of the collective decisions had been to decide to simplify the administration of humanitarian action, which has the unfortunate tendency to become bureaucratized at the risk of weakening the responsiveness, adaptation, access and impact that are essential to relief efforts, and increasing their cost. But this does not seem to have happened. On the contrary, bureaucracy is thriving and becoming more expensive in all areas of aid to people. Why don’t the institutions do what they publicly commit to? Can we believe that more and more bureaucracy is always better humanitarianism? Which institution will set an example of virtuous, efficient and sufficient simplification for all?

Moreover, the industrialisation of aid is also a danger at the end of the humanitarian chain. In the face of major crises such as the food security crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, it is essential to massify the volume of international aid. However, at the other end of the chain, aid must be adapted as closely as possible to the needs of each population, lifestyle and capacity in order to optimise the quality of the aid for the benefit of the recipients. In this respect, the diversity and complementarity of actors is a major asset, whereas a “single model” designed to manage volume would ultimately weaken the humanitarian ecosystem which has been built up over time through a kind of organisational empiricism which is regularly revisited. As not everyone can do everything and a few cannot do what all the others do, the synergy of diversity is a key asset.

Food distribution in Haïti @Solidarités International

Beyond these messages to the leaders and partner institutions such as the United Nations, the States, the European Commission and others who are described as “donors” in the NGOs but who are first and foremost partners, I would like to conclude by placing all this in a more global context.

If humanity is one, humanity is also a diversity that deserves respect and recognition. A diversity of peoples, countries and nations, states, cultures, ways of life, religion, cuisine, music and many other “identities” inscribed in history. Conversely, massification is one of the characteristics of totalitarian systems or of a vision that would reduce human beings to the exclusive role of producers and consumers in a world that would resemble a vast supermarket.

The war in Ukraine, beyond freedom and independence, is also a global geopolitical war that will change the existing order and balance of the world. Some believe that this is the end of “globalism”, or even “universalism”, and the affirmation of localism, nations, peoples, religions and history as the frameworks of collective belonging necessary for the sovereign governance of each people and for the security of human communities. If humanitarianism has worked in ‘globalism’, it can just as easily be adapted to these frameworks, which are equally in need of humanitarianism in times of crisis.

On the condition that we pay more attention to “others”, in particular small peoples, small countries and minority cultures, which are all the more in need of our attention, our respect and our help because they are small and often the object of domination and great misfortune in their history. In this context, which could be described as “human relocation”, humanitarian actors can and must also alert, mobilise and act in the face of increasingly threatening global risks such as climate change, extreme droughts and floods, and the increasing scarcity of water and biodiversity, which humanity, in all its diversity, urgently needs to live. Will humanitarian aid be able to contribute to this, that is the challenge.

Finally, I would like to thank all those who make this edition of Humanitarian Challenges possible through their donations, however small (make a donation). Thank you.

Alain Boinet.

A global run for life!

Refugees from DRC waiting in line at the Nyakabande Transit Center in Kisoro, Uganda. BADRU KATUMBA / AFP (7 June 2022)

Refugees, conflicts, DRC, Ukraine, NATO, wheat, BRICS, humanitarian action!

130 days of war in Ukraine has already resulted in 5.5 million refugees and 6.28 million internally displaced people (IDP) out of a total population of 44 million. And the fighting is raging in the Donbass, driving people out of the frontline areas.

On June 20th , for the “World Refugee Day”, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) announced that there were 89.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world at the end of 2021, but this number had risen to 100 million by May 2022. At the same time, in a positive development, 5.7 million displaced people returned to their country of origin in 2021.

Note that more than two-thirds of all refugees, not counting IDPs, come from just five countries: Syria (6.8 million), Venezuela (4.6 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.4 million) and Myanmar (1.2 million). All five countries are experiencing civil wars or serious unrest.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for example, more than 700,000 people have had to flee their homes since the beginning of the year, and there are 5.9 million internally displaced people in the country. But these raw figures need to be supplemented to better understand the human toll.

The United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in DRC, Philippe Lemarquis, denounces the 11 IDP sites attacked in Ituri by armed groups, in North and South Kivu, and the 15 health structures and schools targeted since the beginning of the year. In Ituri alone, 128 health structures have been put out of action. And what can be said about the 116 security incidents that have targeted humanitarians and their equipment!

In the DRC, as elsewhere, if we know that humanitarian work is never without risk, it is essential to constantly remind ourselves with strength and conviction that civilians must be protected and that humanitarians are not targets!

To put the figures into perspective, as Humanitarian Challenges suggests to its readers, in order to anticipate future crises and the humanitarian capacities needed to deal with them, let us stress that the number of refugees and displaced persons has more than doubled in ten years (2010-2020) and that conflicts and demography in Africa will further increase the number of people to be helped in the years to come if crisis prevention and political solutions are absent or ineffective!


Will we experience the “hurricane of famine” that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres fears?

Annia Ciezadio writes in The Washington Post (1) that 28% of the world’s wheat exports come from Ukraine and Russia, but that in total, exports only account for 30% of world production! Meanwhile, 22 million tonnes of grain are still blocked in Ukraine. And if Russian wheat is not subject to sanctions, these apply to the logistical and financial chains needed to sell and transport it.

When you consider that a third of the wheat imported by the Middle East and Africa comes from Russia and that half of the wheat of the WFP (World Food Programme of the United Nations) was coming from Ukraine and Russia in 2021, there is reason to be concerned. Since our last edition of Humanitarian Challenges, concerning the concept of “humanitarian corridors” or “wheat corridors”, nothing has really materialised yet in early July. While Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and Rebecca Grynspan, Secretary-General of UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development), are preparing a comprehensive agreement including “safe export of Ukrainian grain by sea and access to Russian food and fertiliser on world markets, particularly for developing countries”, the countdown to hunger is already well underway in July.

The Covid-19 pandemic had already caused serious disruption to supply chains and an increase in prices. For the record, hunger threatened 811 million people in 2005, 607 million in 2014 and 811 million in 2020. How many will there be this year?

Already in Egypt, the world’s largest importer of cereals, which covers 80% of its needs, General Al-Sissi is calling for a national dialogue to anticipate the dangerous consequences of galloping inflation and bread shortages.

In Kenya, according to the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg, the price of a 2kg bag of wheat has increased by 25% and the price of cooking oil by 42% since April 2021.

Even more seriously, according to The Guardian, the global food system is in danger of collapse. A complex system 90% owned by four large global groups with a constant flow logic, the food system has developed along the lines of the banks that prevailed during the 2008 crisis and, as was the case then, “a disruption can topple the whole thing”.

While it is becoming urgent to diversify global production and to strengthen “the factors likely to prevent a systemic collapse”, it is also necessary, first of all, to supply wheat to the countries and populations that urgently need it today.

NATO Summit in Madrid during which Turkey signed an agreement with Sweden and Finland for them to join NATO. ©NATO (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Military escalation in Ukraine.

Since the end of June, it seems that we have entered a new phase of escalation of the war in Ukraine. The G7 meeting with its reinforced sanctions, the NATO summit with the membership applications of Finland and Sweden, the tensions around the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, the delivery of long-range heavy artillery and, soon, of American medium- and long-range NASAMS surface-to-air missiles demonstrate this. This is undoubtedly a case of reinforced military support in the face of the Ukrainian army’s difficulties in the Donbass.

Russia’s response was not long in coming when Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that the war against Ukraine “could be over in a day, if Ukrainian forces lay down their arms and comply with Russia’s conditions”. Nothing less.

On the ground, the Russians have seized the city of Severodonesk and Lyssychansk. Already strikes are being carried out on the new targets in Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. The Ukrainians are increasing their firepower, notably with the help of French Caesar guns and American M771 howitzers and, soon, HIMARS rocket launchers with a range of 80 km.

French César canons delivered in Ukraine. June 2022

In other words, the priority on both sides is the war and it will last at least until the winter, which freezes the fighting and the positions. This represents more than a doubling of the war’s duration, from 4 to 9 months and, consequently, of the destruction of the population and the infrastructure. The Ukrainian army is in a difficult situation in the Donbass, but it can hope to wear down the Russian military machine as it is fighting at home and can mobilise large numbers of motivated soldiers. The next front line will be established during the summer in front of the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk and we will experience new displacements of populations, injuries, deaths and demolished cities, not to mention war crimes. Therefore, humanitarians should increase their emergency and long-term relief efforts.

A changing world

The rupture now seems to have been made, and for a long time to come, between Russia and what can be described as the Western world, with Europe in the front line. Seen from Paris, Washington, Brussels or Berlin, we can think that Russia is isolated, with a few exceptions, and as the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, says, that it has committed a major strategic error that some would like to make it pay for at the highest price through defeat.

But seen from Beijing, Delhi, Pretoria or Dakar, it is quite different. As proof, at the same time as the G7 and NATO were meeting, the BRICS Group was meeting in Beijing. This group brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, representing 41% of the world’s population, 24% of GDP and 13% of international trade. Among the topics discussed was the reform of the multilateral system. Chinese President Xi Jimping denounced the “expansion of military alliances” on the podium and said that sanctions were a double-edged sword that would come back like a “boomerang”. This makes some commentators say that China has clearly chosen its side!

14thBRICS Summit in Pékin 24/06/2022. Jairus Mmutle/GCIS (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wong Yi, has also called on a number of countries to join the BRICS, particularly Indonesia, where the next G20 meeting will take place in November, which Vladimir Putin is expected to attend.

At the same time, China has increased its crude oil imports by 55% between May 2021 and May 2022. And India has multiplied its crude oil imports by 9, even though it is seeking to diversify its purchases of mainly Russian military equipment.

Russia is therefore less isolated, and other alliances are being forged that will shape international relations, if not crystallise them into competing alliances. We are witnessing a change in the world, with Ukraine as a trigger, or rather as an accelerator!

And humanitarian action in all this ?

The world is becoming antagonistic, more uncertain and conflictual. The rules that were once commonly accepted are being challenged. The period that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the USSR, some thirty years ago, is turning the page and we are entering the unknown of new international power relations.

Are we not already in a world war for hydrocarbons and gas, for grain and fertiliser supplies and between opposing political models, a war of memories and ambitions?

Will the war in Ukraine last, escalate, spill over or will it lead to a negotiated solution? Is a new cold war beginning when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Labrov declares that a new iron curtain is coming down on Europe? In any case, Vladimir Putin will have succeeded in strengthening NATO and the European Union, in stimulating their spirit of defence.

It is in this context that a conference bringing together 40 countries and numerous international organisations mobilised to define the conditions for the reconstruction of Ukraine opened in Lugano, Switzerland, in early July. This may seem to come at a bad time, but reconstruction will be long and costly. So we might as well start preparing for it now.

In any case, humanitarian action will have a lot to do with a less globalised, less multilateralist world, with more sovereignty and a desire for independence and recognition. If humanitarian action is not to emerge exhausted from the great laundry of history at a time when the need for relief has never been so urgent, we will have to apply our principles without compromising on the substance, while adapting a great deal on the form, so as not to leave victims alone in the face of adversity and cruelty, to save lives, to rebuild and to promote a future of hope and the right of peoples to be free and to develop.

I hope this article will be useful to you, and I would like to thank you personally for the support you can give us (makeadonation) to enable the regular publication of Humanitarian Challenges.

Thank you and see you in early August for the next edition.

Alain Boinet.