Tag Archives: humanitarian crisis

Preventing a Global Pandemic

A polio vaccination clinic in Pakistan.

A polio vaccination clinic in Pakistan.

The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday warned that the increasing number of cases of polio in Nigeria, Syria, and especially Pakistan, threatened to undermine three decades of effort to eradicate the disease. Polio, which causes paralysis, muscle atrophy, and even death, was one of the most feared diseases of the 19th and 20th centuries. But the discovery of a vaccine against polio in the 1950s, combined with a massive global effort to vaccinate the world’s population against the disease, reduced the scope of the disease from hundreds of thousands to under 1,000 today.  Efforts by the Word Health Organization and various nongovernmental organizations had the world on the verge of eradicating the disease altogether. But a recent upsurge in the number of cases—and the difficulty in vaccinating some populations—has WHO concerned once again.

The biggest concerns center on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria. In Syria, the ability of WHO to address a polio outbreak in the contested region of Deir Ez Zour was undermined by ongoing fighting in the country’s civil war and complicated by the massive dislocation of people caused by the conflict.  In Pakistan, attacks against polio workers, often painted by militants as western spies, undermined the ability of WHO to vaccinate children, especially in the northern parts of the country.

To prevent the spread of the disease outside the country, the World Health Organization has established mandatory immunization checkpoints at Pakistan’s border crossings and airports. Anyone wishing to leave the country will have to provide proof of immunization or be immunized before leaving the country. Similar measures were also put in place in Cameroon and Syria, which are also believed to pose a risk of spreading polio.

What do you think? Can polio still be eradicated by the 2018 goal established in 2013? Why does the number of cases of polio appear to be increasing? How does the spread of polio highlight the complex nature of humanitarian crises in the contemporary era? And what might be done to prevent the disease’s spread?

The Media, Tipping Points, and a Massacre in Syria

Images of rows of bodies in Houla, Syria–many of them women and children–were publicized by many media outlets on Saturday.

It is difficult to predict when policymakers will decide that “enough is enough” and it is time to intervene to stop genocide, mass starvation, and other humanitarian crises. Some crises, such as the Rwandan genocide, never produce that level of commitment, or “political will,” from the international community (or at least from one powerful actor with the means to stop the carnage).  But widespread media coverage of particularly galling atrocities appears to be one catalyst for intervention.  For example, in 1995 the massacre of 8,000 civilians in Srebrenica, along with the subsequent shelling of a Sarajevo marketplace, galvanized NATO countries to take military action against Bosnian Serbs.

So there is some reason to believe that the news today that Syrian government forces have massacred approximately 100 civilians (perhaps as many as 50 of them children) in the town of Houla, together with the presence of graphic video and pictures to tell the story, could have the ability to shock world leaders into finally taking serious action on Syria.  So far, the UN has taken the largely ineffective steps of sponsoring an oft-violated ceasefire and sending unarmed monitors to watch the events unfold.  As discussed previously in this blog, the UN Security Council has failed to take stronger action at least in part because Russia, a staunch ally of the Syrian government, has veto power over any Security Council resolution that might authorize force or harsh sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Political scientists have noted both the agenda-setting and framing power of the media.  Agenda-setting refers to what the media chooses to cover (which can dictate what issues are on citizens’ and policymakers’ minds), while framing involves how the media chooses to cover an event (the “spin” that is given to the facts).  Grotesque images paired with a clear identification of the guilty party–whether the full story is given or not–can be a powerful incentive for policymakers to take notice, particularly in democracies where they are accountable to the public.  The rise of blogs, Twitter, cable news, and other outlets beyond traditional print or TV news outlets has made it more difficult for the media to act in conscious unison to promote an agenda, but has also made it possible for events and interpretations to travel farther and faster than ever before.  (The unprecedented Kony 2012 campaign is but one example of the potential such media hold).

Whether today’s events in Syria will set off the kind of media firestorm that might force world leaders’ hands remains to be seen, but some leaders are already calling for an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council, so it appears possible that we are approaching some sort of “tipping point” when it comes to Syria.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

A new report issued by the International Monetary Fund on Saturday suggests that the globally economy will contract by 1.3 percent in 2009 with a slow recovery beginning in 2010. While the United States has been pushing countries to expand stimulus spending, the IMF said that existing stimulus spending already committed for 2009 should be sufficient to address the crisis. A Friday meeting of the finance ministers of the G7 countries was more cautious, concluding that, “the pace of decline in our economies has slowed and some signs of stabilization are emerging,” but simultaneously warned that “downside risks persist.”

In news outside the global economic crisis from the last week:

1. The outbreak of a new flue strain has raised concern in Mexico, as 68 people have died and more than 1,000 have been infected. The World Health Organization is monitoring the situation to determine if it is likely to reach pandemic status. While the Mexican government is urging people to remain calm, authorities have already canceled more than 500 public events and many residents in Mexico City have opted to stay home rather than travel for shopping and work. Tests have also confirmed the virus has made people in California, Texas, Kansas, and New York ill.

2. Elections in Iceland have produced the country’s first center-left government. The previous government of Iceland had been forced to resign as a result of the devastating impact of the global financial crisis on the country. Preliminary election results give Johanna Sigurdardottir’s Social Democrats 30 percent of the vote. With their coalition partner, the Left Greens’ 22 percent of the vote, the coalition appears well-positioned to drive the political agenda in Iceland. Sigurdardottir becomes the first openly gay person elected head of state in the modern world. The first item on her agenda: Icelandic membership in the European Union.

3. While the Obama administration is hoping to resume the six-party talks with North Korea, the government of North Korea appears to be taking a more hardline stance. Earlier this month it test fired a long-range missile, sparking a confrontation with the UN Security Council. Last week, the government of North Korea last week announced it would put two U.S. reporters on trial, charging them with illegal entry and “hostile acts.” Additionally, after expelling international atomic inspectors two weeks ago, North Korea has announced its intention to resume plutonium extraction. It is widely believed that North Korea already possesses enough plutonium for six to eight nuclear bombs. According to some observers, the deteriorating relations between North Korea and the West may be part of the country’s efforts to force the United States into direct, bilateral negotiations.

4. The sharp upsurge of violence in Iraq, including two suicide attacks that killed 75 people outside a Shia shrine in Baghdad on Friday, have raised concerns that Iraq is sliding back into civil war. Recent attacks raise the concern of sectarian violence, suppressed by a strong U.S. presence over the past year, but never entirely defeated.

5. Reversing a longstanding policy of the Bush administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on Thursday that the United States would be willing to work with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas so long as the organization met international demands to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.  The Bush administration had refused to work with Hamas, which has effectively controlled the Palestinian government since it defeated its rival, Fatah, in elections in 2007. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under pressure to engage meaningfully in international diplomacy and to be seen acting.

And because it was such a busy week internationally, here are two bonus stories from this week:

6. The rebel Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka on Sunday declared a unilateral ceasefire, a move almost immediately rejected by the government. An operation launched by the government last month has effectively confined the Tamil Tigers to a small enclave in the northern part of the country, and the government is expected to announce the defeat of the Tigers any day. But the United Nations has described the situation as a humanitarian disaster, with more than 6,500 civilians already killed and as many as 100,000 refugees created as a result of the fighting.

7. It was announced on Friday that China has become the world’s fifth largest holder of gold reserves, with 1,054 tones of gold. Seen as part of a broader strategy to diversify its nearly $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the government of China has slowly been building its gold reserves over the several years. However, even with the recent purchases, China has a level of gold reserves (as a percent of its total reserves) far below that of the United States and other developed countries.

Five Stories You Might Have Missed

The global economic summit of the G20 countries concluded yesterday.  The meeting, intended to address the global financial crisis, concluded with a promise to take “whatever further actions are necessary” to address the crisis, but offered few concrete steps forward.  The summit was an opportunity to reconsider the international financial architecture, often referred to as the Bretton Woods system.  I’ll have a more detailed assessment of the summit tomorrow.  In the meantime, here are five other studies you might have missed:

1. Remember the timeline for withdrawal from Iraq that would have handed a victory to the terrorists?  Well, now we have one.  The Bush administration concluded a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government that requires the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by 2011.  The UN Security Council resolution which authorized the U.S. military presence in Iraq is due to expire in December, and without either a new Security Council authorization or an agreement with the Iraqi government, the status of American troops in Iraq would have been uncertain at best (and illegal at worst).  The timeline for withdrawal was a sticking point for approval of the Iraqi legislature. 

2.  The ceasefire between Israel and Gaza militants continued to come under strain last week.  An Israeli attack early last week resulted in the death of six Hamas militants.  Palestinian militants responded by increasing rocket and mortar attacks against Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip.  The Israeli government then closed Gaza’s borders, shutting down the flow of supplies.  The European Union on Friday called on Israel to permit the importation of food, fuel, and basic humanitarian supplies, but so far, the Israeli government has declined.

3.  The Eurozone has officially entered its first recession ever.  Established in 1999 and comprised of all European Union members which have adopted the Euro as their official currency, the 15-member Eurozone has now experienced two consecutive quarters of declining gross domestic product.  According to an FT editorial, the recession represents the first real challenge for European economic unity.  Already the European Central Bank has taken steps to address the economic downturn, cutting interest rates and increasing liquidity.  The effectiveness of these policies—and the difficulty of managing fifteen national economies through a single monetary policy—remains to be seen.

4.  Faced with oil prices declining below $55 per barrel and the lowest level of growth in demand for oil since 1985, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) scheduled an emergency meeting for the end of the month.  Most forecasters believe OPEC will try to trim global output in an attempt to increase world oil prices.

5.  The fighting in eastern portions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has resulted in the displacement of as many as 250,000 people, continued last week despite UN pressure to establish a ceasefire.  The United Nations is attempting to address the humanitarian crisis, but has so far been unsuccessful. But according to sources within the UN mission in the Congo, known as MONUC, rebel forces are attempting to force the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from the region.

And a bonus story for this week:

6.  The Mexican Congress passed its annual budget for 2009.  In an environment characterized by the global economic downturn and tight finances, the Mexican government will increase spending by 13.1 percent in real terms in 2009.  The budget—the first in six years in which the government will run a deficit—increases spending on infrastructure, security, and social development. The new budget represents a return to Keynesian-style counter-cyclical spending which the Mexican government hopes will permit the country to avoid the worst of the global economic crisis.