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Africa/Global: Humanitarian Attention Deficits

AfricaFocus Bulletin
January 29, 2018 (180129)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The international system of response to humanitarian crises is flawed. And the often-repeated call to focus on addressing causes of crises and structural flaws in the system, instead of only providing short-term relief, is undeniably justified. But current trends, paralleling austerity programs and cuts in services at domestic levels in the United States and around the world, are not moving in the direction of fundamental reform. Instead, they are further diminishing the already inadequate resources devoted to saving lives.

These cutbacks, as is often noted, have disproportionate effects on the most vulnerable regions of the world, notably Africa. This effect is multiplied not only by racial and other stereotypes but by the structural flaw that funding depends not on reliably budgeted funds for timely responses, but on after-the-fact fundraising, itself reliant on media attention, with all its built-in biases and focus on sensational images.

Despite this reality, notes one of the foremost investigators of famine, Alex de Waal, the international humanitarian system developed in recent decades has in fact led to hundreds of thousands lives saved, in comparison with the record of the 20th century.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs ( is the lead inter-governmental agency coordinating such efforts. And the news agency IRIN News (, recently spun off from the United Nations as an independent non-governmental organization, provides regular first-hand coverage and analysis with priorities that prioritize understanding complex realities. This and other sources on-line mean that those who wish to do so do not have to rely only on the most visible "mainstream media" outlets for their news.

Despite such advances, the threat from U.S. attacks on multilateral institutions (though not only) leads de Waal to warn that the limited progress is both fragile and reversible.

This AfricaFocus contains several different sections related to this overaraching theme: (1) a set of key reliable links for updates on humanitarian crises and international responses, (2) brief excerpts from and links to reflections that go beyond noting the obvious racism in President Trump's "shithole" remarks, (3) excerpts from an interview with Alex de Waal, author of the new book "Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine," and (4) excerpts from IRIN's look ahead to 10 humanitarian crises in 2018, including 5 in Africa.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on humanitarian assistance and related topics, visit and

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Key Links

UNOCHA, Global Humanitarian Overview. 2018.

Includes humanitarian response plans for the following 21 countries, of which 13 are in Africa:
* Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar, oPt, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen
* Burundi, Cameroon, CAR, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan

This report also had a revealing chart of the proportion of funding raised for humanitarian appeals in 2017.
At the end of November, only 52% of the $24.0 billion needed for the year 2017 had been committed. – IRIN Africa page – formerly UN, now independent non-profit news service. Coverage that goes beyond stereotypes from on-the-spot reporting and careful analysis. - Detailed reports collated by OCHA UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Racism Beyond Trump: Not Just Attitudes but Also Structures

The links below include several recent short commentaries in direct response to Trump's remarks, but also two longer essays written more than a decade ago, one on the legal case for reparations for Africa as well as those of African descent, and the other on the structural persistence of race in the global world order as well as within nations. A common theme is the relevance of historical perspective and deeper analysis as well as acknowledging the racism in Trump's attitudes and policies.

Paul Tinyambe Zeleza, "On Trump's 'Shithole' Africa - the Homogenization and Dehumanization of a Continent," Nyasa Times, January 15, 2017

Trump's derogatory dismissal of shithole Haiti and Africa reflects enduring tendencies in the American social imaginary about Africa and its Diasporas. This is to suggest, as outraged as we might be about Trump's provocative and pusillanimous pronouncements, the Trump phenomenon transcends Trump. The specter of racism, whose pernicious and persistent potency Trump has brazenly exposed to the world, has haunted America from its inception with the original sin of slavery, through a century of Jim Crow segregation, and the past half century of post-civil rights redress and backlash.

The disdain expressed for Haiti and Africa in the President's latest vicious verbal assault is a projection of an angry racist project to rollback the limited gains of the civil rights struggle and settlement of the 1960s that has animated the Republican Party's Southern Strategy and politics ever since. ... The intersection of domestic and foreign affairs tend to reflect, reproduce, and reinforce national and global racial hierarchies.

Letter to President Trump from Former U.S. Ambassadors to Africa
From 78 ambassadors who served in 48 African countries

As former U.S. Ambassadors to 48 African countries, we write to express our deep concern regarding reports of your recent remarks about African countries and to attest to the importance of our partnerships with most of the fifty-four African nations. Africa is a continent of great human talent and rich diversity, as well as extraordinary beauty and almost unparalleled natural resources. It is also a continent with deep historical ties with the United States.


We hope that you will reassess your views on Africa and its citizens, and recognize the important contributions Africans and African Americans have made and continue to make to our country, our history, and the enduring bonds that will always link Africa and the United States.

Howard W. French, "Trump's profane description disregards Africa's crucial role in making America a world power," Washington Post, January 14, 2018

President Trump's comments disparaging immigrants from Haiti and the African continent have stunned many in the United States and other parts of the world. I see this as an opportunity to challenge the American public to confront this reality: More than any other factor, it is the wealth derived from Africa, especially the labor of people taken in chains from that continent, that accounts for the rise of the West and its centuries of predominance in world affairs.

The facts of this history hide in plain sight, and yet Americans and others in the West have averted their eyes for 500 years. The West's ascension over other parts of the world has been attributed, instead, to innate Western qualities, including rationality and a talent for invention and innovation, or Western institutions. It is this distortion of reality — a delusion, really — that fuels attitudes of white superiority, whether subtle and pervasive, or as crude as those exhibited by someone like Trump.

M Neelika Jayawardane," The very American myth of 'exceptional immigrants,'" Al Jazeera, 20 Jan 2018

... Part of why Americans are susceptible to this violent, xenophobic, and nativist rhetoric is not because they are exceptionally thick, but because of how the national mythology of the US - one constructed on Puritan ideals of egalitarianism, "hard work" and perseverance against adversity - is constructed.

Americans are told, since childhood, that hard work and perseverance not only build character, but allow them to overcome obstacles, and achieve their goals and dreams. Because this powerful myth is repetitively drummed into their heads - be it through apocryphal narratives of kids who came from impoverished backgrounds who went on to become multimillion-dollar earning athletes, or women who beat the odds and attained positions of leadership in fields dominated by men - they learn to believe that their country is a meritocracy.


It is obvious that (white) Americans need to be disabused of the notion that the US's white population is special, and deserving, somehow, of privilege; it is time to get over the belief that they only received their privileges from having worked for it.

But just as importantly, those immigrants of more privileged backgrounds - those who are currently touting the percentage of people from their national group who have college and post-graduate degrees, as if waving these statistics and their material possessions are ways of proving that they are not, in fact, deserving of Trump's racism - also need an antidote for their misplaced smugness.

Lord Anthony Gifford, "The Legal Basis of the Case for Reparations: A paper Presented to the First Pan-African Congress on Reparations, Abuja, Federal Republic of Nigeria, April 27-29, 1993"

Once you accept, as I do, the truth of three propositions a. That the mass kidnap and enslavement of Africans was the most wicked criminal enterprise in recorded human history,
b. that no compensation was ever paid by any of the perpetrators to any of the sufferers, and
c. that the consequences of the crime continue to be massive, both in terms of the enrichment of the descendants of the perpetrators, and in terms of the impoverishment of Africa and the descendants of Africans, then the justice of the claim for Reparations is proved beyond reasonable doubt.

To those who may say that that is all very true in theory, but that in practice there is no mechanism to enforce the claim, or no willingness of the white world to recognise it, I would answer with a Latin legal maxim: ubi jus, ibi remedium: where there is a right, there must be a remedy.

William Minter, "Invisible Hierarchies: Africa, Race, and Continuities in the World Order," Science & Society, July 2005

21st Century Color Lines

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003) and other analysts, focusing on the current U. S. racial order, have posited an ideology of “color-blind racism,” which allows for continuation of racial inequality while firmly rejecting overt racial distinctions or discrimination. One of the key components of this ideology is to deny the link between past and present, so that people regardless of their background are seen as starting on a level playing field. This assumption fits well with the companion ideology stressing the virtues of the neutral market, which all are presumed to approach with similar possibilities of success.

Such an ideology gains credibility from the visible success of individuals from the subordinate group, which does in the case of race mark a break with earlier ideologies of rigid discrimination. With successful individuals in the foreground, and even celebrated as illustrating diversity, it becomes easier to view continuing structural inequality as relatively unimportant, or even to dismiss it altogether. Persistent poverty or other disadvantages can conveniently be attributed entirely to individual defects, and seen as unrelated to past or present discrimination. The dominant ideology thus diverts attention from the structural bases of persistent and rising inequality.

Mass starvation as a political weapon, January 19, 2018

by Heather Stephenson, Tufts University

Mass starvation killed more than three million people in Stalin-era Ukraine in the 1930s and more than 18 million in China during Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yet by the start of this century, famines like those were all but eliminated, Alex de Waal says in his new book, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine ( The number of people dying in famines around the world has dropped precipitously, particularly over the last thirty to fifty years.

Those gains, though, are fragile, and could be starting to be reversed, says de Waal, who is the executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor at the Fletcher School. For his book, he compiled the best available estimates of global famine deaths from 1870 to 2010, and used that data to analyze trends. Tufts Now sat down with him recently to find out what he learned.

Tufts Now: In the popular imagination, famine is often connected with too many people and too little food--that is, with overpopulation and low agricultural production due to natural disasters such as drought. How does that line up with reality?

Alex de Waal: That is nonsense. Famine is a very specific political product of the way in which societies are run, wars are fought, governments are managed. The single overwhelming element in causation--in three-quarters of the famines and threequarters of the famine deaths--is political agency. Yet we still tend to be gripped by this idea that famine is a natural calamity.

You can actually show that the population theory of famine is wrong. Not just wrong at a global scale--because famine mortality has gone down precipitously while world population has gone up--but also at a country level. In the countries that have historically been very prone to famine, like Ethiopia or India, famine mortality has gone down and continues to do so even while population goes up. This is not to say that there isn't a problem of resource consumption in the world. It's just to say famine is not part of that.

Tufts Now: You say that mass starvation was almost eliminated, with famines becoming less frequent and less lethal. How did that happen?

de Waal: There are multiple reasons: the background economics, the improvements in transport systems, information systems, massive improvements in public health. The big historic killers in famines used to be infectious diseases. Those are now much less likely to kill large numbers of people.

One big factor is the international humanitarian industry. The humanitarians are much better at addressing the symptoms than the causes. But nonetheless if you can reduce the lethality of famines to a small fraction of what they used to be twenty, thirty, fifty years ago, even if you're not addressing the causes, you're still doing something substantially positive.

The last reason for the decline in famines is undoubtedly the decline in wars, the decline in totalitarian rule, and the spread of democracy and liberal values. There's something very tangibly precious to be held onto about democracy, liberalism, and humanitarianism. You can demonstrate that this has saved tens of millions of lives. It shouldn't be treated lightly.

Tufts Now: In addition to sending humanitarian aid, outsiders have sometimes argued for intervening with military force to protect civilians who are suffering during famines in conflict zones. What do you think of that?

de Waal: I think it's a terribly bad idea--it's very likely to go wrong. Twenty-five years ago, when President Bush the elder sent his troops to Somalia, I resigned from Human Rights Watch over it. I was asked to support it, and I refused. I still think it's a bad idea. Almost every instance where you see troops sent in, it has not worked out well. These are not problems that can be solved by the military.

Tufts Now: You say that the success in combating famine is now stalling and that world leaders should help by making the act of starving people a war crime or a crime against humanity. Isn't it already against international law?

de Waal: Lawyers will argue about this. Some will say there is no law that outlaws faminogenic acts--acts that create famines--and there are so many loopholes in international law that you can fly fighter jets through it, as the Saudis are doing now in Yemen. Others will say the law is there if interpreted correctly.

What can't be denied is that it's an issue that we collectively don't care enough about to make the criminalization work.

Let me give a parallel, which is sexual and gender crimes. Rape has always been unlawful, but it was only relatively recently that the international community-- global public opinion--cared enough about criminalizing rape to actually make it into an issue that could be stopped. In the same way, I think we need to care enough about starvation, in places like Yemen, Syria, Nigeria, and South Sudan, to make it an issue that is so toxic that it is stopped.

Tufts Now: You mention Yemen, where an ongoing armed conflict and blockade imposed by a Saudi-led coalition have left millions in need of humanitarian assistance. What should be done about the people starving there?

de Waal: Yemen is the greatest famine atrocity of our lifetimes. The Saudis are deliberately destroying the country's food-producing infrastructure.

The United States and the European countries, if they cared about it enough, have enough leverage to get the Saudis and the Emeratis to stop bombing agricultural, health, and market infrastructure, open the ports, and have a much less restrictive definition about what food is allowed in. They also need to start a peace process. This is not a war that is going to be won in any meaningful sense. It's a political, created famine and it will have to be solved by political, created means. One can ameliorate the impact by enabling a humanitarian response, which would save many lives, and allowing the economy to regenerate a bit, but a proper solution has to be a political one.

Tufts Now: How hopeful are you about the possibility of ending famine?

de Waal: At any time up to a couple of years ago, I would have been extremely hopeful. The default mode of the national and global governance systems was in favor of humanitarian systems and against faminogenic actions. That was the way history was going. That was the direction of global politics.

Now I'm much less certain about that, as we are seeing some of this introverted, xenophobic, transactional, zero-sum politics. It's not just here in the U.S. You also see it in Europe, with Britain as a particularly sad example.

Humanitarianism cannot cope with the political causes of famine. Humanitarians know that. But there's still an assumption by political leaders, who are somewhat culpable, that if we put the humanitarians on the case, we don't need to deal with the politics. That is wrong.

Ten humanitarian crises to look out for in 2018

IRIN’s editors sketch out the gloomy-looking horizon for next year

Geneva, 31 December 2017 - direct URL:

From the Rohingya to South Sudan, hurricanes to famine, 2017 was full of disasters and crises. But 2018 is shaping up to be even worse. Here's why.

The UN has appealed for record levels of funding to help those whose lives have been torn apart, but the gap between the funding needs and the funding available continues to grow.

And what makes the outlook especially bad for 2018 is that the political will needed to resolve conflicts, welcome refugees, and address climate change also appears to be waning. What a difference a year, a new US president, and a German election make.

Here's our insider take on 10 crises that will shape the humanitarian agenda in 2018 (See 2017's list here):

Syria's sieges and displacement

As Syria heads towards seven years of war and Western governments quietly drop their demands for political transition, it has become increasingly clear that President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power, at least in some capacity.

more in original article

Congo unravels

Democratic Republic of Congo. Sylvain Liechti/UN Photo.     

You know the situation is bad when people start fleeing their homes, and it doesn't get much worse than the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Here, violence in its eastern provinces has triggered the world's worst displacement crisis – for a second year in a row. More than 1.7 million people abandoned their farms and villages this year, on top of 922,000 in 2016. The provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu, Kasai, and Tanganyika are the worst affected and the epicentres of unrest in the country.

New alliances of armed groups have emerged to take on a demoralised government army and challenge President Joseph Kabila in distant Kinshasa. He refused to step down and hold elections in 2016 when his constitutionally mandated two-term limit expired – and the political ambition of some of these groups is to topple him. These rebellions are a new addition to the regular lawlessness of armed groups and conflict entrepreneurs that have stalked the region for years. It is a confusing cast of characters, in which the army also plays a freelance role and, as IRIN reported this month, as an instigator of some of the rights abuses that are forcing civilians to flee.

As we enter 2018, more than 13 million people require humanitarian assistance and protection – that's close to six million more people than at the start of 2017. Over three million people are severely food insecure in the Kasai region alone, their villages and fields looted. Aid is only slowly trickling in. The $812 million appeal for Congo is less than 50 percent funded. That lack of international commitment represents the single largest impediment to the humanitarian response.

Yemen slips further towards famine

If we repeat the words “world's worst humanitarian crisis” so often that they starting to lose gravity, here are a few numbers that might help hammer home just how grim life has become after more than two and a half years of war in Yemen, a country of more than 29 million: 8.4 million people are on the verge of starvation; 400,000 children have severe acute malnutrition (that's as bad as it gets), and more than 5,500 civilians have been killed.

more in original article

South Sudan – it could get even worse

South Sudan. Diana Diaz/UNHCR.     

A much-anticipated ceasefire in South Sudan didn't last long.

It came into effect at midnight on Christmas Eve, and a few hours later government and rebel forces were fighting around the northern town of Koch in Unity State. The violence hasn't derailed the peace talks underway in Addis Ababa, but it does point to how difficult it will be for the internationally-backed diplomatic process to shape events on the ground.

The ceasefire is between President Salva Kiir and several rebel groups, but confidence is low that negotiations can bring a quick and decisive end to a war entering its fifth year.

South Sudan has fragmented, with a host of ethnic militias emerging with shifting loyalties. The various members of this so- called “gun class” all want a seat at the table, in the belief that any future agreement will be based on a power-sharing deal and a division of the country's resources along the lines of the last failed settlement.

The international community lacks leverage and neighbouring countries don't have the unity of purpose necessary to achieve a broad-based and sustainable peace agreement.

What that means is that more refugees – on top of an existing two million – will continue to pour across the country's borders as the fighting season resumes.

It also means some seven million people inside the country – almost two thirds of the remaining population – will still need humanitarian assistance; hunger will also continue to threaten millions as a result of the war, displacement, and collapse of the rural economy. And yes, there will be the threat of renewed famine.

One final ingredient in the brew of despair is that the humanitarian community's access to those in need will be constrained by both the prevailing insecurity and the government's cynical taxation of aid operations.

CAR – where humanitarians fear to tread

Central African Republic. Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN.      

There are many reasons why Central African Republic was officially the unhappiest country in the world in 2017.

You can start with the 50 percent increase in the number of displaced, bringing the total to 633,000 people. Then there are the more than two million hungry people, and the half a million who have figured it's just too hard to stay and have left for neighbouring countries.

It's not much fun being an aid worker either. In November another humanitarian worker was killed in the north of the country, bringing to 14 the number to have died this year. The level of violence has forced aid agencies to repeatedly suspend operations as their personnel, convoys, and bases are deliberately targeted.

Behind the insecurity is a four-year conflict between competing armed groups that neither a weak government nor an under-staffed UN peacekeeping mission can contain. It pits mainly Muslim ex-Séléka rebels against Christian anti-Balaka, but some of the worst fighting has its roots in the splintering of the Séléka coalition and a feud between former allies.

The violence across the country boils down to the lucrative control of natural resources and the taxes the groups raise from checkpoints. Such is the insecurity that the government's writ doesn't even cover all of the capital, Bangui.

Rohingya refugees in limbo; forgotten conflicts simmer elsewhere in Myanmar

more in original article

Afghans return to flaring conflict

more in original article

Venezuelan exodus to strain neighbours

more in original article

Libya: Africa's giant holding cell

Libya. Alessio Romenzi/UNICEF.     

An AU-EU summit at the end of 2017 seemed to offer a glimmer of hope for the 700,000 to one million migrants stuck in the nightmare that is Libya.

It produced a plan to repatriate those who want it, and to move others from squalid detention centres into better conditions.

Some flights home did subsequently take off, and a first group (of 162 refugees and migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Yemen) was even evacuated by the UN on 22 December from Libya to Italy. But we've yet to see how this scheme will play out, and there are some serious obstacles. Many migrants have nowhere safe to return to, and it's not clear how a UN-backed government that controls little in the way of territory or popular support will manage to move and protect migrants in a country with multiple governments, militias, and tribes.

That the meeting even got press (in large part thanks to a CNN film of what appeared to be a slave auctions) in an oft-ignored country is a sign of how little the world cares about the mostly sub-Saharan African migrants in Libya, for whom kidnapping, extortion, and rape have become the norm.

European policy has largely focused on keeping migrants from boarding boats in the Mediterranean or reaching their shores – creating a situation that is bad enough for Libyans and shockingly worse for Africans. At the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron mooted a military and police initiative inside Libya, plus UN sanctions for people-smugglers. How this could actually work is anyone's guess, and it seems unlikely to get at the source of many migrants' woes: the lack of legal avenues to get out of the desperate situations that brought them to Libya's hell in the first place.

A year of turmoil in Cameroon

It's taken just over a year for political agitation in Cameroon's anglophone region to turn into armed opposition against the government of President Paul Biya.

Separatism was only a fringe idea until the government cracked down hard on protesters demanding greater representation for the neglected minority region. Now, government soldiers are being killed, Biya is promising all-out war, and thousands of refugees are fleeing into neighbouring Nigeria.

Anglophone Cameroon is becoming radicalised. Refugees recounting experiences of killings by the security forces talk of revenge, and commentators worry that the opportunity for negotiations with more moderate anglophone leaders – those pursuing a policy of civil disobedience and diplomatic pressure on Yaoundé – may be rapidly shrinking.

If the government believes there is a military solution to the activists' demands for an independent “Ambazonia”, made up of the two anglophone regions of western Cameroon, they may well be mistaken. Where the separatists' training camps are being established, next to the Nigerian border, is a remote and heavily forested zone – ideal for guerrilla warfare.

Biya, 85 in February and in power for the past 35 years, is standing in elections once again in 2018. The “anglophone crisis” and the potential of an even larger refugee exodus will not only leave him politically damaged but could be regionally destabalising, especially as Nigeria faces its own separatist challenge.


AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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