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Does the Russia-Ukraine war overshadow other humanitarian crises?

June 03, 2022
topics: Humanitarian Aid
by: Robert Bociaga
located in: Ukraine, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Russia
tags: Ethiopia, food insecurity, humanitarian aid, Myanmar, Tigray War

While the world’s attention is focused on the war in Ukraine, humanitarian crises are happening simultaneously across the globe and it is objectively difficult to attribute equal attention to all of them. What propels the international community to prioritise some crises over of others? And could aid be provided in a more equitable manner?

Smoke plumes from the buildings obscuring the mountains in the distance. The sound of gunfire and bombing drowns out cries for help. Stomping uncertainly on the asphalt road, people grab what they can to survive in the woods. 

Myanmar has been in turmoil since the junta imprisoned the democratically elected representatives in 2021 and created their own council that took control of the country. 

UNOCHA claims that across the country more than 900,000 men, women and children have been displaced; of those, over half migrated due to the conflict and insecurity following the military takeover in February last year. 

Before the coup, drawing attention to Myanmar's remote areas where displaced persons were confined to camps had been even harder. Access was limited and human rights violations in the form of denial of free movement or hospital care were overshadowed by a plethora of other issues afflicting the country. 

COMPETING FOR ATTENTION

Torn by various internal conflicts, Myanmar has been labelled as a 'troublesome place': insurgencies have been ongoing there since 1948, the year the country, then known as Burma, gained independence from the United Kingdom. This problematic categorisation has made it difficult to convince foreign stakeholders that a different Myanmar is possible. 

The ongoing fighting has worsened the humanitarian crisis in the country. The military junta has been launching airstrikes and artillery fire, which, along with landmines, pose risk to the safety of the civilians. In the early days of the coup, these actions elicited broad condemnations, but as the fighting raged on for months, media attention has been sporadic.

James Rodehaver, UN Human Rights chief of Myanmar team, told FairPlanet that "the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar is suffering from the fickleness of news media attention span."

To date, only $6.8 million (or 2 percent) of the $286 million goal of OCHA's 2022 humanitarian response plan for Myanmar has been received for food security activities in the country, leaving substantial gaps.

Rodehaver pointed out that every country has its own list of priorities according to which they allocate aid. Importantly, Rodehaver explained, "aid deficiencies arise because member states do not fulfill their pledges of support," adding that currently "there are many different countries and regions competing to be in that priority list."

Donors’ role is to provide funding for humanitarian crises, receive and host refugees and asylum seekers and provide civil protection services. 

In today’s environment, donors are compelled to respond to a vast range of crises. These include natural disasters in middle income countries like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines or in impoverished ones that lack functional response capacities (such as Haiti's earthquake).

But they can  address complex crises with humanitarian access issues (Syria), smaller-scale disasters and slow-onset crises like chronic food insecurity in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel

Struggling after three seasons of drought, farmers and pastoralists in the Horn of Africa are on the brink of a catastrophe that could push an estimated 20 million people to extreme hunger. Calls for humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia totaling over $4.4 billion have largely gone unanswered, which is striking considering the amount of funding raised to respond to the crisis in Ukraine

Imagining EFFECTIVE HUMANITARIAN AID

Alem Gebre, a Tigrayan activist who fled a war-torn region, believes that "the war in Europe does affect the humanitarian aid situation everywhere, but especially in Africa."

Various factors keep the world’s attention fixed to the conflict in Ukraine. The war has geopolitical significance for Europe, and admittedly, the number of displaced persons as a result of the conflict is staggering. Furthermore, media outlets have practically unrestrained access to embattled regions of Ukraine with victims who are willing and able to share their stories and keep the interest in the conflict alive.

Importantly, this war has also sparked a colossal food crisis in the Horn of Africa and beyond, as rising fuel and grain prices exacerbated an already severe food shortages resulting from droughts. All the while, therapeutic food treatments for the most affected by the famine are also getting more expensive. According to UNICEF, children under five are particularly vulnerable to a lack of nutritious food, which can affect long-term growth and development.

Furthermore, the critical deficit in funding for global humanitarian missions - which existed long before Russia's invasion of Ukraine - is now exacerbated by mass media as it carries out disproportionate coverage of the war in Ukraine compared to urgent crises happening elsewhere in the world. 

Under these circumstances, some now raise the point that caring about the suffering in Ukraine should not preclude us from paying attention to and supporting people in less-high profile, crisis-stricken regions of the Global South. 

Tedros A. Ghebreyesus, Ethiopia's former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), recently said that world "is not treating the human race the same away," pointing out the fact that 83 percent of the population in war-torn Tigray is food insecure. 

Considering people's relatively short attention spans and the ever-tightening bandwidth of governments to extend help, many argue that solutions should be primarily developed regionally rather than globally. The African Union (AU) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), however, have been inefficient in handling their respective crises. 

"It is understandable that many countries would give extra attention to protect their doorstep," Nicholas Myo, a formerly active protester from Myanmar, told FairPlanet.  

"Our Asian neighbours are rather selfish," he lamented, referring to Japan and Korea. "Most support comes from the West, even though we don’t receive as much as Ukraine." 

Developing a more effective humanitarian aid allocation system is therefore difficult, given the different contexts of conflicts and the variety of stakeholders involved.

James Rodehaver argued that "in a lot of domestic political contexts, international aid for humanitarian causes seems not to be a winning issue for politicians at the polls." Therefore, he added, "many states seem to be unwilling to go 'above and beyond', especially if other states (including in their backyards) are loath to help out."

There is no single solution to humanitarian crises, and responses to them are by nature complex. Yet in the fight for more equitable humanitarian aid, the root-causes of crises must be addressed - a task that humanitarian agencies on their own are incapable of doing. A recent proposal by OCHA to establish an independent monitoring body over humanitarian agencies is looking to ensure that the voices of those affected by crises will not go unheard to to a lack of funding. 

Image by Peter Biro.

Article written by:
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Robert Bociaga
Author
Ukraine Myanmar Ethiopia Russia
Myanmar refugee children at a camp near the Myanmar-Thailand border in Nawphewlawl, Kayin State.
© STR/AFP via Getty Images
One of the world's biggest wheat importers, Egypt is wrestling with the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
© Islam Safwat/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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