Internally displaced children queue to have their hair cut by volunteer hairdressers, amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), at an IDP camp in Idlib. Syria. Picture: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
Internally displaced children queue to have their hair cut by volunteer hairdressers, amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), at an IDP camp in Idlib. Syria. Picture: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

Elite hold on to power at the expense of their citizens

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published May 24, 2020

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The world is increasingly beset by wave after wave of humanitarian disasters, from cyclones to droughts, raging fires to deadly pandemics. Many believe these are all signs of the times and that the challenges we face as humankind are only to increase in severity and frequency.

This means global humanitarian responses have to be far more co-ordinated, better financed, and disaster readiness will become the new national imperative.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) will face huge challenges co-ordinating relief efforts and helping countries assess future risks. Ocha organised the eighth Global Humanitarian Policy Forum five months ago, which focused on key trends that will shape humanitarian responses in future.

They are: the rise in nationalism and retreat from multilateralism, increased conflicts, the rise in political, social and economic inequality, the accelerating impact of climate change, new and emerging technologies and the spread of infectious diseases. All these trends depict a changing global landscape that presents serious challenges to nation states and global governance.

The increasing problems of climate change, migration, conflict and disease all require multilateral responses and solutions, but the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism around the world poses huge obstacles in addressing these challenges effectively.

Nationalist governments prioritise domestic concerns and tend to become insular, politicise their aid and are preoccupied with their own geopolitical interests. The rise in conflicts around the world is also a major challenge, particularly when there are weaker international efforts to resolve them.

Conflicts in Syria and Libya have become internationalised and complicated by the geo-strategic interests of major powers which finance, arm and provide political cover for their proxy forces.

There seems to be an increasing disinterest on the part of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to bring protagonists to the table.

The global norms associated with humanitarian and human rights law, which have been the bedrock of global governance since World War II, are now being violated with impunity, sending the message that violations have become acceptable. Increasingly we see attacks on civilians in armed conflict, on hospitals, aid workers and humanitarian facilities.

These travesties of justice have almost become the new normal, much to the detriment of civilian populations in dire need of humanitarian assistance. What we need as a community of nations is changes in leadership, the renewal of multilateral and peace efforts and the reinforcement of international norms and standards.

The rise of inequality has arguably had the greatest impact on humanitarian action around the world, and is an important driver of humanitarian needs.

Greater levels of economic, social, and political inequality have resulted in entrenched vulnerability and humanitarian needs. The World Social Report of 2020 shows that inequality has increased for 70% of the world’s population.

Wealth disparity, unequal access to technology, and climate change have exacerbated the situation of the world’s poor. Elites hold on to power at the expense of their citizens, and as we have seen in India recently, there is discrimination and violence against marginalised groups. Inequality has become the greatest impediment to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

What the UN and national governments need to do is to identify vulnerable communities to ensure they are not excluded from assistance and protection. We need to deliver humanitarian assistance so that it addresses inequality and does not exacerbate it.

Humanitarian organisations should collaborate and change the perception of those who receive aid as being clients, rather than victims.

Another major trend which will change the face of humanitarian efforts in the future is the accelerating impacts of climate change. Climate change has brought frequent diverse and intense weather in the form of hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.

These have increased the risk of disease and caused mass displacement. Not only has there been a loss of biodiversity, but also a loss of food security. It is estimated that the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance will soar to 200 million by 2022.

This necessitates a greater understanding of emerging climate risks and implications of global warming for vulnerable communities. We need to understand how increasing debt levels in Africa impede the ability to recover from climate shocks.

We need new skills and operating models to address risks we will face from heat waves, coastal flooding, health outbreaks and climate events in conflict areas. Greater investment will be required in local organisations and health systems, and we need improved predictive analytics.

The fifth major challenge identified by the Global Humanitarian Policy Forum is that new technologies are shaping the digital divide, as well as the character of warfare. Artificial intelligence, quantum computing and the Internet of Things pose challenges to those left behind in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

New technologies have positive and negative aspects for humanitarian work. They enable better needs assessments, response planning and aid delivery, but they also reinforce inequality and tensions.

Difficulty in accessing technology can often be along gender, race and socio-economic lines, and so the digital divide is playing a role in exacerbating inequality. New technologies are transforming the nature of warfare, for example cyber warfare and semi-autonomous weapons. This creates a far more dangerous and uncontrollable nature of warfare.

That brings us to what the world is currently suffering through: the spread of infectious and deadly pandemics. The spread of infectious diseases poses a huge challenge, and the average growth in disease outbreaks annually is 6.9%. Ebola, Sars, Mers, H1N1, zika, malaria, cholera and Covid-19 have brought about worsening humanitarian needs in emergencies. Out of the 32 countries for which the UN has launched inter-agency humanitarian appeals, 30 have had at least one disease outbreak.

Covid-19 is an unprecedented health crisis that needs a multilateral response, and humanitarian organisations need to access populations to provide essential health care.

We need to scale up vaccine programmes, provide access to clean water and sanitation, invest in health care and ensure the protection of health workers.

At the end of the day, the ability of governments to effectively respond to pandemics depends on how advanced they are in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

The goals call for robust health systems, fewer people in extreme poverty, less gender inequality and a healthier natural environment. If these goals are met then communities will become far more resilient in the face of pandemics and the plethora of other global challenges.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.

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