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Civil Societies
On August 8, 2022, the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken started his tour of countries in Africa to strengthen U.S. ties with African countries. The main goal of the tour is to highlight the benefits of a relationship with the United States, which promotes strong civil societies to tackle poverty in Africa based on democratic values. This is in contrast to having China as the main ally, which, according to U.S. officials, lures countries into a debt trap that hinders economic progress. Furthermore, a relationship with a democratic country such as the U.S. allows African countries, which have a dark history of imperialism, to improve their economy and empower their own people without feeling controlled.

Poverty in Africa

In recent years, African countries have been experiencing turmoil in the form of corruption, coups and authoritarianism, all of which have prevented them from achieving social, economic and political progress that can reduce poverty. For example, according to the World Bank, Mali’s poverty rate in 2020 was 41.9%, the latest poverty estimation of the country. However, the citizens in African countries have demonstrated willingness to achieve ambitious goals of reducing poverty through empowered, but fragile civil societies.

The people in these African countries are passionate about improving their countries and moving away from their colonial past. Secretary Blinken’s trip to African countries illustrated the desire of African countries to help their own people live better lives without a major power such as the U.S. or China dictating them. In other words, African countries believe that tackling poverty requires a vibrant civil society that democratic values powers.

Democratic Economic Assistance Improves Lives

Economic development is the most important goal for African countries considering the daily struggles of their own citizens. Thus, it comes as no surprise that African countries value economic aid from developed countries. However, the terms and conditions of the economic aid that developed countries hand down vary. According to the Council on Foreign Relationships (CFR), Chinese economic aid “sans the moral scrutiny and rigorous conditionalities associated with American assistance.” This opens the door to corrupt practices such as debt traps that hurt the average citizen in Africa.

The U.S. does not “direct state funds to roads and other projects” which could make countries vulnerable to debt, The Washington Post reported. U.S. economic assistance encourages strong civil societies to tackle poverty in Africa.

Security from a Democratic vs. Autocratic Ally

African countries such as Sudan and Mali have experienced violence that resulted in the deaths of innocent civilians. That is why African countries continuously seek security assistance from major countries such as the U.S. or Russia. However, countries define security differently from one another given how they implement it domestically.

For example, Russia provides security through the Wagner Group, a private group that deploys mercenaries that embolden repressive autocrats in return for “precious minerals like gold.” As a result, the Wagner Group committed “civilian killings” and launched “social media disinformation campaigns” which caused instability.

On the other hand, throughout Secretary Blinken’s tour in Africa, the White House emphasized “African contributions and leadership” in tackling security issues, paving the way for strong civil societies to tackle poverty in Africa.

Assistance with Governance

Some African countries have experienced turbulent coups that caused instability. Thus, countries such as Libya often request assistance with governance from other countries for stability. The issue of governance in Africa is delicate, however, with citizens in the region wanting to choose their own government without major powers dictating how they should rule. According to The New York Times, Russia, through the Wagner Group “props up autocrats,” such as General Mohamed Hamdan of Sudan in return for money and minerals that belong to the citizens.

According to The White House, the U.S. approach to helping African countries govern is by “backing civil society” and “centering the voices of women and youth” in determining the politics of their country. Thus, more democratic governance could make it easier for strong civil societies to tackle poverty in Africa.

The U.S. is far from perfect in terms of its foreign policy and aid to developing countries. However, Africans may finally get the chance to rebuild their countries and take control of their future after many decades of colonialism followed by turmoil after independence. U.S. policy favors civil societies which are the key to reducing poverty, empowering women and increasing the quality of life. Secretary Blinken’s tour reminded the world that “most Africans remain drawn to western values” and “the allure of the U.S. economic model,” The Washington Post reported.

– Abdullah Dowaihy
Photo: Flickr

Foreign Aid to Afghanistan
Some definitions of foreign aid provide a distorted vision of its purpose. This in turn drives citizens, government officials and donors away from supporting it. An accurate definition of foreign aid is one country helping to improve a recipient country’s standard of living through economic, military and various other services. Donors provide this type of support after war or natural disaster. The recent withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan is slowly concluding more than 40 years of conflict. However, foreign aid to Afghanistan remains necessary.

Afghanistan’s Violent Past

More than half of the population in Afghanistan lives on $1.90 a day. In headlines, history books and news stories, many do not see Afghanistan beyond the label of an economically developing country. This label often comes from a place of unfair judgment.

The longevity of the Afghan crisis is why aid is vital in transforming the country to work toward a better quality of life and future for the younger generations. The detrimental relationship between the state and citizens has damaged every part of what is necessary for a society to flourish. For example, the top-down monopoly with profiteers and warlords on top formed to control economic markets producing bottom-up violence is a significant barrier in the country flourishing. Understanding the nature of the conflict that has created a dystopian climate throughout the country is vital in producing foreign aid to Afghanistan because planning for the long term is what will produce change.

Antony Blinken’s Push for Reform

The U.S. is the world’s largest provider of foreign aid, but reform is necessary for providing quality aid for the future. During secretary of state Antony Blinken’s visit to Afghanistan on April 15, 2021, he spoke on several areas of reform to ensure the foreign aid sector continues to progress and attend to the needs of Afghanistan.

The U.S. is studying previous aid distribution models and methods to ensure that country receives the maximum amount of help. This also promotes other governments to continue the change. The U.S. plans on holding the Afghanistan government accountable to the pledge of acknowledging the basic human rights of their citizens. For example, traveling outside of the country has been nearly impossible for Afghan citizens. The U.S. will also hold the Taliban accountable for using Afghanistan as a base for formulating attacks on other countries. Neutralizing any form of threat prevents damage to other countries that would ultimately produce the need for more foreign aid and will push away allies.

The U.S. will ensure even aid distribution throughout the country. It will have clear communication with the Taliban in the coming years. The Taliban must allow aid groups to work on uninterrupted terms. Overall, the U.S. is enforcing long-term change through rectifying the relationship between the state and citizens that has been upholding the unlivable climate.

The Future of Foreign Aid to Afghanistan

The narrative of putting a stop to the current war or any war in the future is an unreachable goal. Foreign aid will not go towards a single issue. Instead, it will focus on changing the systemic problems that continue to produce wars. The U.S. often uses a militant approach, however, with the updated forms of foreign aid, it will not be using violence to overcome it. This includes $64 million in new humanitarian assistance which the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Health Organization (WHO) will distribute. This new surge of funding will provide a large range of assistance including shelter, essential health care, sanitation, food aid, hygiene services and more. These are forms of aid that will contribute to the overall building of a better livelihood for Afghan citizens.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)

The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which U.S. Congress introduced in 2004 is an agency separate from the State Department and USAID. It continues to abide by its mission statement of reducing poverty through economic growth by providing aid to countries like Afghanistan. The U.S. has also developed a range of grants and programs to assist Afghan women who the civil upheaval greatly impacted. USAID continues to provide grants in helping Afghan women gain access to universities through the Women’s Scholarship Endowment.

The US State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM)

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) funds several programs for Afghan women refugees and internally displaced persons. The programs include literacy training, gender-based violence prevention and mother-child health care. PRM works with various partners to ensure change including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

In large groups, varying interests can prevent the proper allocation of funds to aid. However, the government and donors continue to work closely together. The impact that aid has extends beyond providing food and emergency medical assistance. It has the potential to provide a hopeful future for those who have only known living in a war zone. It reconciles individual relationships within the society. As aid strategies are revised to adhere to current needs the long-term quality of life for Afghan citizens will improve.

– Maggie Forte
Photo: Flickr

USAID's Foreign Assistance
On November 3, 2021, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) celebrated its 60th year of existence. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 made the formation of USAID possible. USAID’s creation stems from President John F. Kennedy’s aim to consolidate the foreign assistance work of several organizations into one main agency. Today, USAID operates in more than 100 nations across the world, fully or partially manages $24.8 billion in accounts and employs roughly 3,450 U.S. citizens to help fulfill USAID’s foreign assistance mission.

Official Mission Statement of USAID

As an agency representing the foreign assistance interests of U.S. citizens, USAID aims to “promote and demonstrate democratic values abroad and advance a free, peaceful and prosperous world.” Ultimately, USAID plays an instrumental role in making a reality the foreign policy values of the U.S. As such, “through partnerships and investments” USAID aims to “save lives, reduce poverty, strengthen democratic governance and help people emerge from humanitarian crises and progress beyond assistance.”

The Birth of USAID

Coming out of World War II, the U.S. stood as the world’s preeminent superpower. However, not long after, in 1947, the Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union began. Looking to prevent the spread of communism, the U.S. realized its endeavors would require more than just military might — the U.S. would also need to win the hearts and minds of developing countries before the Soviet Union did.

Through diplomacy and goodwill, the U.S. hoped to spread democratic and free-market principles to as many countries as possible, and in return, not only stop the spread of communism but also open up new global markets for trade and shared prosperity. With this goal in mind, President Kennedy felt the U.S. needed a more strategic approach to foreign assistance. Therefore, he pushed Congress to pass the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which empowered him to then create USAID via executive order.

USAID Over the Years

USAID’s approach to international development has evolved over the years. In the 1960s, the focus was on large-scale capital and technical assistance projects in select countries committed to economic reforms. Gears shifted in the 1970s when the agency pivoted toward a more humanitarian approach that focused on widespread delivery of food, education and health services to the most impoverished populations. The 1980s brought about the increasing use of U.S. NGOs and for-profit contractors to fulfill USAID’s mission. In the post-9/11 world, development assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq would consume a large share of the USAID budget as the U.S. sought to rebuild these war-torn nations.

The Legacy

In the early years of USAID’s foreign assistance, the U.S. stood as the undisputed leader in international development aid. Through its innovative development and humanitarian efforts over the decades, it is clear that USAID has helped shape a better world with much less hunger, disease, illiteracy, child and infant mortality and all-around suffering than would otherwise be the case. Other advanced nations have since developed similar programs, with several countries now spending significantly more on official developmental assistance than the United States, proportional to their respective gross national incomes (GNI). However, the U.S. still leads in absolute spending, with $47 billion in foreign assistance obligations worldwide in 2019, of which, USAID obligations made up 45%.

In a November 3, 2021, tweet to mark the 60th birthday of USAID, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “Now more than ever, as we face historic challenges in global health, climate and other critical issues, it’s vital that our diplomacy and development go hand in hand. That’s why I’m so grateful to the outstanding public servants at USAID…” Ultimately, USAID’s foreign assistance transforms nations, improving the lives of millions of people while contributing to the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and reducing global poverty.

– Jeramiah Jordan
Photo: Flickr

Temporary Protected Status for YemenOn July 6, 2021, the Biden administration announced the extension of a program to support Yemeni individuals currently living in the U.S. as Yemen grapples with civil war and the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world. Even before the conflict, Yemen was the most impoverished nation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), with a poverty rate of more than 50%. Today, more than three-quarters of Yemen grapples with poverty. The Biden administration has extended the Temporary Protected Status for Yemen nationals in the United States due to deteriorating conditions in Yemen.

The Situation in Yemen

Since the civil rights crisis began, Yemen’s economy has unarguably collapsed. The conditions exacerbated citizens’ vulnerabilities and destroyed critical infrastructure, while famine-level food insecurity ravaged the nation. The political crisis coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic led to Yemenis living in increased poverty.

The World Bank notes that “more than 40% of Yemeni households that find it difficult to buy even the minimum amount of food may have also lost their primary source of income.” Additionally, 19.9 million citizens live without access to sufficient healthcare services. Proper healthcare is more crucial than ever considering the impact of COVID-19 and Yemen’s recent outbreaks of “cholera, diphtheria, measles and dengue fever.” Experts argue that rebuilding Yemen’s economy and mending “Yemen’s social fabric” can only happen with an “eventual political reconciliation.”

Temporary Protected Status

Congress created the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the Immigration Act of 1990, where it provides “temporary immigration status” to nationals of countries grappling with extraordinary conditions, such as ongoing armed conflict and violence. Also, the Secretary of Homeland Security may grant TPS to a country suffering an ongoing environmental disaster or epidemic.

Once granting an individual TPS, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cannot detain them based on their immigration status. TPS also does not impact an application for asylum or any other immigration benefits. Syria, El Salvador, Haiti and South Sudan are currently designated for TPS in addition to Yemen and several other countries. In the distant past, the U.S. granted TPS to countries like Lebanon, Kuwait and Rwanda.

The decision to extend the TPS of Yemeni nationals in the U.S. allows them to stay in the country without fear of deportation. Undoubtedly, the collapse of healthcare systems, sanitation and education services in Yemen bears influence on the decision. Furthermore, an unstable political transition compounded the need for this decision.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas announced the extended Temporary Protected Status for Yemen after consulting with interagency partners. Mayorkas stated that the U.S. has “decided to extend and re-designate Yemen for Temporary Protected Status. We will continue to protect and offer their individuals a place of residency temporarily in the United States.”

US Role in the Yemen Crisis

In February 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced an end to U.S. support for offensive operations in the Yemen war, including relevant arms sales. The move contrasts the positions of Presidents Obama and Trump. President Trump backed arms deals with the Saudi coalition, citing benefits for the U.S. economy even though the weapons led to the harm of civilians. However, the outflow of arms to the Middle East initially started under the Obama administration.

Furthermore, on March 1, 2021, Secretary Blinken announced $191 million in humanitarian assistance to Yemen, making the U.S. one of the largest donors for relief to Yemen. To promote more aid, Blinken urged parties at the virtual 2021 High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen to follow in the footsteps of the U.S. by helping to “end the conflict in Yemen.” The Biden administration’s action to extend Temporary Protected Status for Yemen “will allow approximately 1,700 Yemenis to keep their status through 2023” and will also enable another 480 Yemenis to apply.

Overall, the TPS extension to Yemenis in the U.S. shows the United States’ commitment to safeguarding the well-being of vulnerable people whose lives would be at risk in their home countries.

– Alysha Mohamed

Photo: Flickr

Flooding Devastates North KoreaIn August 2021, more than 1,100 homes in the Asian country of North Korea were swept away by flooding. The flooding threatens both crops and access to food supplies. As flooding devastates North Korea, both state and world media depict homes flooded up to the roof, along with bridges and dikes washed away. According to Ri Yong Nam, deputy head of the State Hydro-Meteorological Administration, parts of North Hamgyŏng recorded more than 500 millimeters of rain in three days, while in South Hamgyŏng, some areas had more rain in three days than in an average month. Much of the flooding began due to the widespread collapse of rivers. Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, described the situation as “tense,” attesting that many are depending on the year’s harvests. He has ordered the military to enter the worst-affected areas to undertake relief work.

Isolation and Restricted Foreign Aid

While severe flooding is devastating for any nation, the nation’s isolation exacerbates the problems flooding presents for North Koreans. This isolation is in part self-imposed, restricting foreign aid due to fears of a COVID-19 outbreak. The country has, for example, imposed a three-month quarantine on all goods entering its borders, increasing food supply-based uncertainty.

The nation attempted to prepare for the flooding, but due to its poor infrastructure, the country was unable to do so adequately. This is, in part, a result of severe sanctions that countries such as the United States imposed. On August 6, 2021, Jeong Ui-Yong, South Korea’s Foreign Secretary, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed foreign aid to North Korea, but details were not public.

North Korea already has a precarious situation when it comes to agriculture and these floods simply exacerbate it. While flooding devastates North Korea like it does all other nations, it only takes more minor disasters, like a bad harvest, to upset the balance of the agricultural system.

Aid From China

North Korea has so far rejected aid from countries such as its capitalist neighbor, South Korea. However, North Korea receives a great amount of assistance from China, especially foodstuffs and fertilizer to help ease the burden of the agricultural sector. The regime relies heavily on this aid from its more prosperous neighbor to stave off famine.

It is not just the Chinese government that provides a struggling North Korea with aid. Chinese residents do so at a more grassroots level and even North Korean dissenters. Groups of Christians in China who escaped from North Korea, a country that tops the world’s list of the most dangerous places to be a Christian, sometimes smuggle “holy rice” across the border to feed their starving fellow countrymen.

Looking to the Future

While the flooding devastates North Korea, its effects merely exacerbate the more long-term disruptions of the nation’s struggling agricultural sector. It is uncertain whether sanctions will relax or whether the leadership will ease their distrust of offers of aid from capitalist countries. But, nevertheless, aid from both governments and grassroots groups provides hope to struggling North Korean citizens.

– Augustus Bambridge-Sutton
Photo: Flickr

direct aid in El Salvador
On May 1, 2021, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador removed the nation’s attorney general and all members of its Supreme Court. This sudden action sparked concern regarding the separation of powers in El Salvador’s government, with human rights organizations viewing it as a power grab by the country’s president, Nayib Bukele. USAID acted on the concerns by pulling all foreign aid funding previously dispersed through the Salvadoran government. The funding is now promised as direct aid to El Salvador’s civil society groups. Direct aid in El Salvador will ensure the most vulnerable El Salvadorans receive the help needed.

USAID Projects in El Salvador

USAID’s most recent foreign aid projects in El Salvador are designed to address the root causes of migration from Latin America to the United States. In January 2021, President Biden issued an executive order that set aside $4 billion to address immigration from the Northern Triangle countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The order states that improving livelihoods in these countries eliminates the need for migrants to flee to the United States. In May 2021, USAID launched an official Northern Triangle Task Force. The task force laid out a strategy for improving livelihoods by targeting three areas:

  1. Prosperity – USAID will fund economic development to prevent poverty in El Salvador. This strategy includes improving infrastructure, investing in higher-value industries to create job opportunities and fostering entrepreneurship. The Salvadoran organizations receiving aid to implement these programs are primarily private sector actors.
  2. Security – USAID will target crime and corruption as another root cause of migration. This strategy includes increasing government transparency and making justice systems more responsive to citizens’ needs. Originally, the governmental National Civil Police and Institute for Access to Public Information were involved with the implementation of USAID projects related to this target. However, the shift to direct aid requires non-governmental organizations in El Salvador to replace government actors.
  3. Governance – USAID aims to make governments in the Northern Triangle more effective at responding to citizens needs. This strategy includes increasing accountability for government spending, improving government delivery of services and promoting citizen engagement with democracy. Civil society is the main recipient of direct aid for this purpose.

Civil Society in El Salvador

Direct aid in El Salvador builds upon a preexisting robust civil society landscape. Civil society in El Salvador first rose to prominence in the 1960s by providing humanitarian services. The Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s saw the organizations taking on economic and social welfare work to replace overextended governments. The constitution of El Salvador protects the right of assembly and the Ministry of Interior and Territorial Development registers civil society organizations under that protection. Previous administrations promoted the creation and smooth functioning of civil society organizations. However, President Bukele mistrusts civil society organizations and his government stigmatizes them.

Civil society organizations previously received direct aid in El Salvador from USAID. In 2020, $7.5 million out of $60 million in USAID funding for El Salvador targeted improving governance and involving civil society. Experts had been lobbying for civil society organizations’ increased involvement with the distribution of aid long before President Bukele incited USAID’s action and many activists in Latin America praised USAID’s adjustment. Activists expressed hope that civil society organizations from other countries in the Northern Triangle would also secure larger roles in upcoming projects.

Strategy for El Salvador

While foreign aid from the United States circumvents the Salvadoran government, foreign policy officials continue to pressure the Bukele administration to restore the separation of powers. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Costa Rica in June 2021 for an annual meeting with the member states of the Central American Integration System. During the gathering, Blinken met privately with the Salvadoran foreign minister to discuss the issue of aid. The Biden administration also decided to bypass the lengthy appointment process for an ambassador to El Salvador and instead sent former U.S. ambassador Jean Manes to El Salvador as charge d’affaires to handle diplomatic relations with El Salvador immediately.

While the programs in El Salvador that will receive direct aid are currently unspecified, the United States has successfully committed domestic private actors to invest in El Salvador. For example, Vice President Kamala Harris announced that Microsoft will give internet access to three million citizens in the Northern Triangle countries, including El Salvador. This demonstrates how private actors fulfill roles that governments traditionally perform, such as infrastructure expansion, when governments fail to provide services. USAID hopes to utilize civil society organizations to run similar programs for democratic reform in El Salvador.

Moving Forward

The Salvadoran government’s decision to remove its top judiciaries led USAID to retract its trust in the country’s government with regard to aid funding. USAID chose civil society organizations to receive aid instead and also set aside direct aid to further democratic reforms. Official plans for redirected aid funding have yet to be released, but U.S. government officials have historically seen success in engaging private actors in tasks that governments usually complete. As the United States continues to pressure the Salvadoran government to increase accountability, foreign aid to El Salvador fosters more civil society engagement.

Viola Chow
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

The Impact of COVID-19 on Poverty in the Palestinian Territories
The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in the Palestinian territories has been extensive. COVID-19 devastated the previously struggling economies of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In the last quarter of 2019, the Gaza Strip had a 43% unemployment rate while the West Bank had a 14% unemployment rate. Moreover, the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel, lasting from May 10, 2021, to May 21, 2021, further disrupted the Palestinian economy.

COVID-19 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

In March 2020, the Palestinian Authority (PA) identified the first cases of coronavirus in the Palestinian territories. Surges in cases since August 2020 have resulted in intermittent lockdowns and stressed an already burdened Palestinian healthcare system. The Palestinian healthcare system’s already limited capacity and dearth of specialized medical care workers means the Palestinian territories have an insufficient ability to handle large influxes of COVID-19 patients. Also, Israeli-implemented movement restrictions between the Palestinian territories and Israel have constrained Palestinian efforts to combat COVID-19 by delaying the Palestinian territories’ acquisition of necessary medical equipment.

As of June 2, 2021, the vaccination campaign across the Palestinian territories has vaccinated 344,260 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or 7% of the population. Thus far, COVAX has heavily supported the Palestinian vaccination effort and aims to vaccinate 20% of the Palestinian population.

State of the Palestinian Economy

Coronavirus-induced social distancing and lockdown measures have further weakened the fragile Palestinian economy. Even before COVID-19, political instability, periods of violence and Israeli restrictions on human and material movement in and out of the Gaza Strip were already causing a state of humanitarian emergency in the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank, the PA’s suspension of coordination with Israel between May 2020 and November 2020 intensified the impact of COVID-19 on poverty. The suspension led Israel to suspend tax transfers to the PA, which account for the majority of the PA’s budget.

Due to the health and socioeconomic crisis, the Gaza Strip’s unemployment rate jumped to 49% by the end of 2020. Likewise, the pandemic has caused wages to decline by 50% or more in nearly 40% of West Bank households. In the West Bank, the pandemic and tax revenue crisis caused the PA, the territory’s largest employer, to cut its staff’s pay in half.

The pandemic also intensified Gazan food insecurity. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported that “food expenditure declined in 40% of surveyed households in Gaza once lockdowns went into effect.” As of early 2021, 68% of Gazans were food insecure.

Altogether, the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in the Palestinian territories has been drastic as experts project the pandemic will push many households below the poverty line. Specifically, estimates indicated the proportion of Gazan households living in poverty would jump from 53% in 2019 to 64% by the end of 2020 and the proportion of West Bank households living in poverty would rise from 14% to 30% in the same period.

Israel-Hamas Conflict

The May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas worsened already dire living conditions in the Gaza Strip and may increase COVID-19 cases in the territory. The conflict damaged 57 Gazan educational facilities and 29 Gazan health facilities. Moreover, the conflict damaged the Gaza Strip’s water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, which serves 1.2 million people.

When the conflict caused the number of Gazan internally displaced persons to temporarily spike to 77,000, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) raised concern that the displacement may spread COVID-19. Following the conflict, positive cases in the Gaza Strip increased and now account for 84% of all COVID-19 cases in the Palestinian territories.

Renewal of US Aid to the Palestinian Territories

The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in the Palestinian territories has been stark. However, the Biden administration recently ended a nearly three-year U.S. hiatus on aid to Palestinians. On April 7, 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced an aid pledge promising $275 million. The pledge dedicates $150 million to fund UNRWA, which serves nearly six million Palestinians across the Middle East.

The Biden administration earmarked another $15 million to aid the Palestinian response to COVID-19 and provide food assistance. Furthermore, the aid plan will provide the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with $75 million to fund economic and development assistance projects and $10 million to fund peace-building programs. USAID will use more than half of the $75 million to improve access to water and sanitation and upgrade Palestinian infrastructure.

During Secretary Blinken’s visit to Ramallah, he announced another $112 million of aid to Palestinians. Specifically, the U.S. will provide another $32 million to fund UNRWA. The pledge will also provide another $75 million in economic and development assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and $5.5 million in immediate assistance to the Gaza Strip. During the visit, Secretary Blinken also outlined the United States’s goal to procure 1.5 million COVID-19 vaccines for Palestinians.

Future Outlook

While the U.S. only recently announced its Palestinian territories aid plan, the pledge will contribute to combating COVID-19 and provides a hopeful outlook for reversing the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in the Palestinian territories. Additionally, international efforts to procure vaccines and support COVAX have the potential to increase Palestinian access to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Zachary Fesen
Photo: Flickr

Involvement in the Tigray Region

At the northernmost border of Ethiopia is the Tigray Region that stretches for more than 19,000 square miles. Tigray is home to about seven million Tigrayans, an ethnic minority that accounts for only about 6% of the country’s population. The region is now experiencing a humanitarian crisis that requires urgent aid. U.S. involvement in the Tigray Region aims to end the conflict and protect the human rights of Ethiopians.

Conflict in Tigray

Decades of conflict regarding the self-determination of the Tigrayan population boiled over in 2020 when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed postponed the election due to COVID-19. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a leftist party in control of the regional government, deemed this an “unconstitutional extension” of Ahmed’s term and held elections anyway.

The Ethiopian government declared the election void, leading to an outbreak of violence between the two sides. As the Ethiopian government and the TPLF wage a war against each other, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis has arisen. Ethiopian forces have killed thousands of people in indiscriminate shootings. The conflict has left more than two million people displaced as of January 2021. The violence on the part of the government has been described as a “campaign of ethnic cleansing.” This crisis has caught the world’s attention, with the U.N. and other international organizations working to address it. However, U.S. involvement in the Tigray Region also aims to bring resolution.

The US Takes Action

On May 26, 2021, President Biden released a statement on the crisis in Ethiopia. Biden urged Ethiopian leaders to work toward “reconciliation, human rights and respect for pluralism.” Furthermore, Biden called for a ceasefire, citing a warning from the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs “that Ethiopia could experience its first famine since the 1980s.”

The administration has also implemented visa restrictions targeted at Ethiopian and Eritrean officials responsible for the conflict. The restrictions press for the resolution of the conflict. U.S. involvement in the Tigray Region involved months of failed diplomatic talks between Ethiopia and the U.S. The administration heeds warnings that further action may be taken if Ethiopia does not take steps to address the humanitarian crisis. The actions could include halting U.S. security and economic assistance and possibly leveling sanctions against Ethiopian officials.

In March 2021, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that additional humanitarian assistance of $52 million would be provided to the region. This brings the total of U.S. aid to the region to nearly $153 million since the beginning of the crisis. The aid aims to help nearly 4.5 million people in the region in need of shelter, healthcare, food, water, sanitation and hygiene services.

Concerns of Congress

The concerns of members of Congress call for greater U.S. involvement in the Tigray Region as well as greater involvement from the international community. An op-ed by Senator Bob Menendez and Congressman Gregory Meeks called attention to the tragedy unfolding in the region. Menendez and Meeks call for more decisive action to be taken to address the Ethiopian crisis.

The representatives suggest that the U.S. lead “an international arms embargo on the Eritrean regime.” The U.S. should also implement “targeted economic sanctions” and “must oppose the assistance from international financial institutions that would flow to the Ethiopian government.”

On May 28, 2021, Representative Karen Bass introduced H.Res. 445, titled “Condemning all violence and human rights abuses in Ethiopia.” The bill calls on “the Government of Ethiopia and the Government of the State of Eritrea to remove all Eritrean troops from Ethiopia.” The bill also calls for other armed groups to cease hostilities and uphold the human rights of Ethiopians while allowing humanitarian access to provide aid.

Meaningful Action

As the crisis continues, U.S. involvement in the Tigray Region continues to be a topic of discussion. Both the Biden administration and U.S. Congress will have to move forward with policy decisions to ensure meaningful action and outcomes. Every action from the U.S. and other international actors will ensure that the fundamental rights of Ethiopians are protected.

Taryn Steckler-Houle
Photo: Flickr

Examining The Ukrainian Path ForwardIn 2013, tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens took to the streets to protest the government’s decision to abandon an agreement with the European Union. Ukrainians saw this move as a political realignment with Russia after years of economic and political grudges had nearly pushed the country in the opposite direction towards the E.U. and the West. There did not seem to be a Ukrainian path forward; for many, this was a step backward. The protests sent a clear message of the Ukrainian people’s deep-seated frustration with their government. This frustration compounded with Ukraine’s choice to remain more closely tied to Russia than with its western neighbors. By February 2014, then-President Yanukovych had fled to Russia and the opposition government stepped in. Then, in March 2014, the fate of Ukrainians turned irrevocably grim as Russia began a thinly-veiled invasion.

Invasion, Annexation and Occupation

Many still regard Russia’s annexation of Crimea as a breach of international law according to its membership of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its signing of the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. It met with harsh sanctions from the U.S., E.U. and several other nations, many of which targeted Russia’s lucrative oil and gas exports. Despite international condemnation, Russia was at it again the next month.

Pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine. They soon received military assistance in their fight against the Ukrainian military. Support came in the form of what has become widely known as “little green men.” Russian troops had already occupied Crimea, but they were also assisting the separatist movements in the newly-declared autonomous zones in the Donbass region. They supplied light and heavy arms, troops and tactical assistance. All this has led to a conflict that remains unresolved to this day. The conflict remains frozen in constantly-violated ceasefires without a clear end in sight. Russia still receives much of the blame from the international community.

The Kremlin Strategy

The war claimed 14,000 lives since 2014, displaced millions of Ukrainians and sent Ukraine’s economy in turmoil, begging the question of why Russia has been willing to commit to this volatile conflict. The answer lies in defense. Ukraine is one of the key former Soviet states that form a buffer zone around Russia’s eastern border. The border has seen numerous invasions throughout history and, according to “The Red Line” podcast, “after World War II, Russia decided that it never again wanted to be only 1,200 kilometers from [its] enemy’s position.”

The Ukrainian path forward is currently at a crossroads. If the country aligns itself with the West, Russia would face a major geopolitical loss. Russia maintains the conflict largely because it provides for the existence of three territorial disputes within Ukraine. This bars it from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a country cannot join the Western alliance if it has any outstanding territorial disputes or conflicts. A similar strategy has worked for Russia in Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan. This does not, however, mean that there is no hope for an end to the violence.

Peace by Any Means

In the seven years following the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, a long brigade of ceasefires, peace agreements and mounting international pressure to end the violence have occurred. Perhaps the most notable successes were the Minsk Protocol of 2014 and the subsequent Minsk II Agreement in 2015. The Minsk II Agreement included steps towards a ceasefire, monitoring from the OSCE and the assertion that economic recovery was necessary in the regions the conflict affected the most. The latter attempted to build upon limited successes from the past year, but the ceasefires have followed a consistent pattern of violations along the so-called “security zone.” Aside from two prisoner swaps, increased humanitarian assistance and successive ceasefires in the past two years, a clear Ukrainian path forward to lasting peace still appears blocked.

A Shift in Foreign Engagement

The leaders of Germany and France have spearheaded the majority of peace talks and negotiations. However, the Biden Administration brings hope to the international community that the U.S. will become more involved in negotiations. Increased involvement would help the Ukrainian path forward, rather than Ukraine continuing to rely on defensive aid to its government. Antony Blinken’s nomination to Secretary of State has garnered even more speculation about the possible benefits for the Ukrainian people. The Atlantic Council maintained that “Blinken played an influential role in the imposition of sanctions against Russia over the 2014 invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.” It is true that the ratcheting up of economic sanctions could force Russia back to the negotiating table. Hopefully this time with genuine aspirations of cooling the conflict down.

Scott Mistler-Ferguson
Photo: Flickr

Yemen's humanitarian crisisCaught in a civil war rife with ongoing violence costing thousands of lives, Yemen is currently the most impoverished country in the Middle East and is experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is a matter of urgency as roughly 24 million Yemenis depend on foreign aid for survival.

Houthis Terrorist Designation

On January 10, 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Yemen’s Houthis group would be designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department. The designation went into effect on January 19, 2021, only a day before the new presidential administration would see Pompeo exit his position. This decision has drawn international concerns and criticisms as it is feared that the label would pose major challenges to U.S.-Yemen relations.

As foreign aid must go through the Houthis in order to be allocated to the people of Yemen, this act would further complicate the distribution of essential aid from the U.S. and exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Meanwhile, it has equally evoked a necessity to put the spotlight back on Yemen’s dire state of relentless and unforgiving civil war.

Conflict and Corruption in Yemen

Since North and South Yemen unified in 1990 to form the present state of Yemen, the country has struggled with internal unity due to the inherent religious and cultural divide among citizens. However, these differences became increasingly visible in 2014, when Yemen experienced a period of unrest throughout its population after Yemen’s president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, lifted fuel subsidies, threatening an aggravated state of poverty and food insecurity throughout the nation.

Frustrated with the pervasive corruption within the administration, widespread protests would encourage the Houthi rebels to consolidate power and take over Yemen’s Government the same year. In an effort to regain control over the region, Saudi Arabia utilized military intervention to overthrow the Houthis with the aid of foreign powers such as France, the United States and the United Kingdom. However, this conflict only set the stage for the calamity to come.

Since the Houthi takeover and the Saudi-led intervention, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has seen more than 200,000 fatalities recorded as a result of direct and indirect effects of the country’s civil war.

Signs of Promise

While the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization throws a wrench into the already complex relationship dynamic between the United States and Yemen, there are three signs of promise:

  • Following Pompeo’s announcement, the United States exempted organizations such as the Red Cross and the United Nations to continue essential aid to Yemen and allowed for exports of agricultural commodities and medicine.
  • On January 25, 2021, the United States approved a month-long exemption that would allow transactions to take place between the U.S and the Houthis.
  • The new secretary of state, under the Biden Administration, Antony Blinken, has pledged to review the terrorist designation of the Houthis — a reassuring statement for the stability of aid to Yemen’s people.

Despite this setback, the designation has nevertheless raised an opportunity to bring our attention back to Yemen’s tumultuous state. Revitalized efforts of diplomacy may inspire more substantial action in order to address Yemen’s growing humanitarian crisis.

Alessandra Parker
Photo: Flickr