As Humanitarian Crises Escalate, Access Dwindles

January 18, 2018 By Abhik K. Pramanik

As the international community gears up to tackle the emerging challenges of 2018, two enduring problems must first be addressed: ongoing violent conflicts and subsequent humanitarian emergencies. Since 2010, state-on-state conflict has increased by 60 percent, and conflict within countries has increased by 125 percent. As a result of this dangerous trend, the number of people forced to flee their homes is at an all-time high since World War II. While at the same time, more than 20 million people are on the brink of famine across four countries that are home to armed extremist groups.

This violence has not only increased the number of people in need of assistance — the UN recently predicted that 135.7 million people will be in life-threatening danger in 2018 — it has also prevented humanitarian NGOs and the United Nations from reaching those in need. As the prolonged crises in Yemen, Myanmar, and South Sudan make clear, the U.S. not only needs adequately funded development agencies to help alleviate suffering, but also a robust diplomatic capacity in order to gain access to war-torn countries and facilitate political solutions to crises.

Yemen: The World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis

Nowhere is the problem of humanitarian access better exemplified than in Yemen, a country plagued by violence. Of the country’s 27 million citizens, 21 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. 60 percent of the population does not know where their next meal will come from, and the country was recently hit with the largest cholera outbreak ever recorded. The crisis has also taken a devastating toll on children — UNICEF recently declared that “virtually every child” in Yemen “is dependent on humanitarian aid to survive”.

While Yemen’s humanitarian needs are clear, how humanitarian aid can reach the Yemeni people is more opaque. For much of 2017, UN shipments of food, medicine, and other lifesaving assistance were prohibited from reaching the country’s most at-risk people due to a Saudi blockade. As a result, UN World Food Programme Director David Beasley pleaded with Riyadh to “give us the access we need so innocent people can feed their families and stay alive.”

The situation in Yemen even caught the attention of President Trump, who released a statement last month calling on “the leadership of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to…allow food, fuel, water, and medicine to reach the Yemeni people who desperately need it.” Despite recurring pledges by the Saudis to provide the international community with access to the country, Riyadh’s blockade of crucial Yemeni ports is set to begin again tomorrow.

Myanmar: The Fastest Growing Humanitarian Crisis

Since early autumn, more than 650,000 minority Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh to escape an ongoing genocide in Myanmar. Between August 25th and September 24th, Doctors Without Borders estimates that at least 9,000 Rohingya died in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. As documented by countless observers, Myanmar’s military has conducted a systemic campaign of violence against the Rohingya with civilians — including babies and the elderly — targeted en masse. Compounding these attacks, the Burmese military has placed landmines along the Rohingya’s escape route to Bangladesh.

At the same time, the Burmese military has closed off most of Rakhine state from the United Nations and almost all international aid groups. Mark Lowcock, the head of the UN’s Humanitarian Affairs office, has demanded “unfettered” access to northern Rakhine state, to little effect. Access to the region remains especially important not only so that vital relief can be delivered to the Rohingya still trapped in the country, but also to evaluate the extent of the crimes committed by the military.

Though the U.S. has few ties to the military leaders perpetuating these atrocities that it can use to leverage humanitarian access, the Administration must stay engaged. It’s vital that the U.S. continually press the Burmese military to open Rakhine State — using all economic and political tools at our nation’s disposal if necessary.

South Sudan: Crisis Averted?

As fighting in South Sudan enters its fifth straight year, the UN estimates that 7 million people living in the world’s youngest nation are in need of assistance and protection, while 2 million South Sudanese citizens have already fled the country. To deliver food aid to the country, some aid workers have been charged up to $4000 for a “work permit” to deliver supplies to people in need.

Recognizing these barriers to access, Ambassador Nikki Haley met with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir in late October to hold the government accountable for the violence it’s perpetuated and to push for the free flow of humanitarian assistance. Within weeks, the impact of Ambassador Haley’s visit became clear. In a written order to his government in November, President Kiir promised “free, unimpeded, and unhindered” movement for aid groups within the country.

As Ambassador Haley knows well, it will be important to hold Kiir accountable to his words. Speaking at the UN after Kiir’s order was announced, Haley said, “We encourage him to follow through on his commitment. And to help encourage him, we make this commitment in return: we will be watching.”

What Next?

In spite of these challenges, Secretary Tillerson has justified deep cuts to both the State Department and USAID by arguing that “part of this bringing the budget numbers back down is reflective of an expectation that we’re going to have some success in…getting these conflicts resolved”. But last year, the UN’s humanitarian appeals for Yemen, Myanmar, and South Sudan were only partially funded up to 71% by the international community. Even with adequate funding, international generosity will be unable to reach the most vulnerable without the effective diplomacy only the United States can provide, as Ambassador Haley demonstrated in South Sudan.

The White House’s new National Security Strategy pledges that the U.S. “will continue to lead the world in humanitarian assistance”. To fulfill this promise, the Administration must ensure those living in conflict zones have access to international assistance, in addition to providing robust resources for humanitarian aid. To truly alleviate humanitarian suffering, diplomacy and development must be properly deployed alongside one another in order to deal with the reality of ever-increasing global conflicts.

photo image credit: the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office