Grim milestones, forgotten disasters, and paying for peace
Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors curates a reading list on unfolding humanitarian trends and developments from around the globe:
Milestones: one a headline, the other overlooked
Syria entered its eighth year of war this week, a grim anniversary marked by a rising civilian death toll and the complete failure of a UN-demanded ceasefire. Besieged Eastern Ghouta has made the headlines of late. As thousands flee their homes in that Damascus enclave, though, it’s worth remembering that the UN puts the total number of displaced inside the country at a staggering 6.1 million. Most of them don't sleep in the neat, tented camps you might see in pictures; their ‘homes’ are unfinished buildings, schools, and mosques. Another day not worth celebrating for most in the Middle East arrives later this month: On 26 March 2015, a Saudi Arabian-led coalition began bombing Yemen in an attempt to oust Houthi rebels from the capital. While Yemen’s war has never interested the world like Syria’s (check out this oldie-but-goodie for some musings on why), the country in the midst of a humanitarian catastrophe so severe – more than 22 million people need food, medicine, and other aid – that someone really ought to take notice.
North Koreans’ hungry détente
After a year of threats and sanctions, the still-uncertain prospects of a summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have led to an unlikely détente. Amid the speculation and intrigue, it’s easy to forget that the humanitarian situation in the country is as “precarious” as ever, as the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea reminded the Human Rights Council this week. Food security remains a “grave concern” and access to shrinking government food rations is “glaringly unequal”. More than 40 percent of the population is undernourished, according to the World Food Programme, and International sanctions erect roadblocks for groups trying to deliver aid. While this year’s “Olympic truce” between the two Koreas may hold promise, critics warn that it shouldn’t overshadow the still unfolding humanitarian problems. As Param-Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch said this week: “The human rights situation in North Korea remains dire, with those responsible for abusive policies operating under a blanket of impunity.”
Read IRIN’s recent reporting: Donors lose appetite for North Korean food aid
A disaster still unfolding in PNG
Is the strongest earthquake to strike Papua New Guinea in almost a century slipping under the humanitarian radar? Authorities and aid group still don’t know the full scale of the damage, more than two weeks after a 7.5-magnitude earthquake jolted the country’s remote highlands. The quake and a series of aftershocks triggered landslides that blocked main access roads, wiped out mountainside villages, and wrecked health clinics, hospitals, and water supplies. Emergency responders fear food shortages and the spread of disease will soon magnify the disaster, while the volatility adds new risks for women in a country that already had dangerously high rates of sexual violence against women. The country’s National Disaster Centre estimates more than 270,000 people may need aid, including more than 37,000 “most severely affected” living near the quake’s epicentre in Hela and Southern Highlands provinces. Papua New Guinea is one of the most exposed countries in a particularly disaster-prone region, where devastating storms, floods, and earthquakes often fail to capture international attention compared to crises elsewhere. “It’s just a shame that we don’t get the same level of attention on Papua New Guinea right now through international media that we’ve had on other disasters,” New Zealand’s defence minister, Ron Mark, told a local PNG newspaper.
Can peace be bought in South Sudan?
Once again mediators are trying to convince South Sudan’s warring parties, of which there are many, to return to the negotiating table to end a devastating conflict that began in late 2013 and that could well return famine to the country this year. Once again, enticements are being proffered in the form of senior administrative posts, but for some observers, including Daniel Akech Thiong, writing in African Arguments, this is a recipe for continued disaster. “Buying off violent elites with government posts simply ignores the root causes of the conflict as well as the concerns of ordinary people,” he warned, adding that the strategy tends to preclude tackling justice and accountability, without which sustainable peace is impossible. Such short-termism is “doomed to fail… anathema to democracy and allows dictatorship,” he wrote. A more effective way forward, he suggests, would be to remove the rewards of war by cutting off the financial channels that fund it and by more vigorously enforcing a range of sanctions.
Data for spies, and humanitarians
Palantir Technologies, a big data analytics firm best known for its work with US intelligence, says it is now helping the UN's World Food Programme "transform its data assets". WFP's supply chain supports some 80 million people a year and, with Palantir's help, the giant aid agency will save time and money on food purchasing, a WFP spokesperson told IRIN this week.
According to Palantir, WFP's internal data tools struggled with the demand for complex data insights, drawing from sources as diverse as weather patterns and market prices. Palantir is offering a software platform that allows WFP to combine those data sources and, starting with a focus on Uganda, South Sudan, and Somalia, will beef up an existing WFP system, Optimus.
Palantir is widely reported to be a key service provider for the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. The US spy agencies don't reveal contracts – though the Pentagon announced recently that Palantir had won a share of an $876 million US army contract – and Palantir is cagey about its finances, though the company has been valued at $20 billion by industry analysts.
Concerns about the perception of neutrality in conflicts, costs, and data protection had until now largely nobbled Palantir's ambitions in the humanitarian sector, as IRIN reported exclusively two years ago. Tim Shorrock, author of “Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing”, urged caution about data leakage: "Before embarking on a project like this, aid groups would be wise to seek assurances from Palantir that it would not under any circumstances transmit geospatial intelligence about its findings to US agencies, and to have an oversight system in place to ensure compliance". WFP says Palantir has no access to any personal data, and that its platform and engineers work on a firewalled WFP system.
Mercy Corps is another client of Palantir's philanthropy programme, and has used it for the last two years to analyse operational data in Jordan and Syria. Neither Mercy Corps nor Palantir responded to queries in time for publication.
In the UN family, WFP isn't the first to use technology from Palantir. The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, which among other things monitors Iran's nuclear programme, is a paying customer, as IRIN exclusively revealed in 2016. Palantir also works with a number of other non-profit groups, including the NGO Team Rubicon.
In addition to Palantir's pro bono partnerships, its billionaire founder (and backer of US President Donald Trump), Peter Thiel, has set up a foundation to pursue science, education, and research as a branch of philosophy called "mimetic theory".
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The unhappiest place on earth
Burundi’s government repeatedly insists the country is no longer in a state of crisis three years after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would run for a third term in office (widely deemed unconstitutional) prompted street protests, a heavy-handed response from security forces, and an attempted coup. Since then, tens of thousands of people have fled the country. The ruling party has just bestowed Nkurunziza with the title of “visionary”, and in May a referendum could extend his rule for at least a decade. The government’s rose-tinted glasses may have turned a bit greyer this week when the annual World Happiness Report, which ranks 156 countries according to “income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity”, demoted Burundi from second-last place to the unhappiest country in the world.
(TOP PHOTO: Four women await treatment outside the Surgical Ward at Tari Hospital in Papua New Guinea’s Hela Province. CREDIT: Jodi Bieber/MSF)