The cheat sheet: Somalia famine, Trump orders, and chemical weapons in Syria

Every week, IRIN’s team of editors takes a look at what lies ahead on the humanitarian agenda and curates a selection of some of the best reports, opinion, and journalism you may have missed:

What’s coming up?

Somalia – lessons learnt from 2011 famine?

At some point this month, famine may again be declared in Somalia. Whether or not the “f” word is actually invoked, the country is facing disaster. Five million people, roughly 40 percent of the population, do not have enough to eat because of four consecutive years of drought, exacerbated by fighting between the jihadist group al-Shabab and the Western-backed government.

The emergency has all the hallmarks of the 2011 famine in pockets of Somalia that killed 260,000 people. Have lessons been learnt? We now know that early warning is not enough. Incentives for early action are needed. “There is consensus that the humanitarian response to the famine [in 2011] was mostly late and insufficient, and that limited access to most of the affected population, resulting from widespread insecurity and operating restrictions imposed on several relief agencies, was a major constraint,” said an FAO and FEWSNET study.

The 2011 crisis was politicised by both al-Shabab and donor governments. The various agendas of donors, regional powers, and the warring authorities within Somalia were incompatible with the prevention of famine and hindered the ability of the UN-led cluster system to operate independently and effectively. The bright spots? Market-based interventions (cash and vouchers in particular) worked reasonably well, and non-traditional donors contributed at unprecedented speed and volume, according to a desk review by the Feinstein International Center.

The fate of Trump’s ban

The Trump administration’s efforts to restrict US admissions of refugees and visa-holders from certain Muslim-majority countries were dealt a blow on Thursday when an appeals court upheld an earlier ruling that the travel ban was unconstitutional. Although most coverage has focused on the impact on people from the seven countries affected, the legal wrangling also has major implications for the US refugee resettlement programme, which had been suspended for four months by Trump’s executive order but is now running normally again. A spokesman from the International Rescue Committee, one of nine NGOs contracted to manage resettlement in the United States, told IRIN his organisation had received 350 refugees this week and was expecting 350 more next week. That could change if the Trump administration successfully appeals the ruling at the Supreme Court. With one seat still vacant though, and four Democrat and four Republican appointees, there’s a high chance no majority decision will be reached.

To conflict-free or not to conflict-free?

If you haven’t been reading a lot about the Democratic Republic of Congo and conflict minerals, you better start now. There are reports of another imminent Trump executive order, this time rolling back a rule aimed at reducing violence and promoting “conflict-free” minerals in Congo. The rule in question sits inside section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, the law that overhauled financial regulation in the wake of the 2007-2009 global meltdown. The draft executive order, obtained by The Guardian and Intercept, claims to be acting out of concern over “mounting evidence” that instead of preventing minerals from fuelling conflict, the law is actually causing harm and contributing to instability in the region. International aid and activist groups, including Global Witness, are in uproar, claiming Trump’s move will embolden criminality and corruption. But many experts beg to differ and suggest the president may actually have a point. Stay tuned. Next week, we'll be publishing a months-long IRIN investigation into this issue. Good timing indeed!

Syria’s new “red line”

Next week's also a good time to keep an eye on the UN and Syria: On 16 February, the secretary-general issues his monthly report on the humanitarian situation in the country – generally a long catalogue of where aid has and hasn’t made it, plus an updated official list of sieges (if you look hard enough). The day before, expect a report from the Joint Investigative Mechanism – that’s the panel meant to investigate chemical weapons use in Syria. It has so far investigated nine cases, concluding that the government of Bashar al-Assad used chlorine gas three times, and so-called Islamic State mustard gas once. It said there wasn't enough information to make a call on the rest. All this comes a month after the United States blacklisted 18 Syrian officials for their involvement in the chemical weapons programme, and France and the UK pushed a resolution to sanction al-Assad for using the prohibited weapons. Russia, no fan of the JIM, reportedly circulated its own draft that focuses on use by non-state groups. It's not clear if any of these drafts will come to a vote in the politically paralysed Security Council, but, with a new sheriff in town in Washington, Obama’s old “red line” is once again one to watch.

Changing Humanitarian Action?

Finding references to Buddha and Heraclitus in humanitarian literature is rare, but so opens the background paper to the 20th anniversary conference of the humanitarian learning and effectiveness network ALNAP. Themed around change in the humanitarian sector (Buddha said that “all component things in the world are changeable” and Heraclitus that “change is the only constant in life”), next week’s meeting of aid agencies, donors, and others in Stockholm takes something of a different spin on the now common mantra of change in the humanitarian sector. Rather than repeat the long list of changes that should take place, organisers aim to zero in on the anthropology of change: “Despite the time, money and energy that is spent on change, there has been little attention paid to how change actually happens,” they note. Against the backdrop of efforts to implement reform agendas introduced at the World Humanitarian Summit, the conference takes a reflective approach to creating systemic change, hitting on everything from localisation to accountability, from information technology to country-based pooled funds along the way. Full agenda here, including a panel moderated by IRIN Director Heba Aly; audio recordings will be available on ALNAP’s website after the conference.

Did you miss it?

Afghanistan’s land problem

Millions of Afghans have been forced or pressured to return home over the past couple years, mainly from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. Aside from the obvious moral issue of sending people to live in a war zone, the influx of returnees has raised a very practical question: where can they live? Funded by the United States, the Land Reform in Afghanistan Program was meant to help resolve this. But according to the latest report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which is mandated by Congress to track US reconstruction aid, it’s been a dismal failure. Hundreds of thousands of people who’ve been unable to claim land they left when they fled the country are now squatting in the outskirts of urban areas. Land values have shot up and “many current and former members of the Afghan government, including judges, ministers, and parliamentarians, have stolen public and private land.” Already crippled by a war that killed record numbers of civilians last year, Afghanistan’s land issues are a source of even further violence. Ownership disagreements are “involved in approximately half of personal and communal disputes”.

For more on Afghanistan’s migration crises, see our in-depth page.

What to do with refugees?

As global refugee figures continue to climb, NGOs and the UN have been pushing wealthier countries to increase resettlement – currently a solution for less than 0.5 percent of the total refugee population. Although the fate of Trump’s executive order, issued late last month, is unclear, his administration still looks set to reduce the US intake dramatically this year – a major setback for those efforts. The timing of the latest issue of the Forced Migration Review could not, therefore, be better. It features 33 articles on the theme of refugee resettlement, written mainly from the perspective of the agencies that facilitate resettlement programmes around the world, and academics who’ve studied them. Several articles challenge the assumption that resettlement is the most effective or desirable durable solution, even for the tiny percentage of refugees for whom it is an option. For example, Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, points out that 70 percent of 100,000 Syrian refugees approached about resettling in Canada in late 2015 said they weren’t interested. Other articles consider the question of who gets resettled. Lewis Turner, from SOAS University of London, finds that in the case of Syrian refugees, it is rarely single men, despite their often highly vulnerable and insecure situations in neighbouring host states, while Katherine Knight, from Queen’s University, Belfast, looks at how the US’s broad definition of providing material support to foreign terrorist organisations has excluded many victims of terrorism from resettlement. The issue also includes several articles on the issue of post-deportation risks and monitoring.

(TOP PHOTO: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Fountain Park in Fountain Hills, Arizona. CREDIT: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

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