It’s that time again – another year has gone by. In December, we journalists tend to look back and reflect on what made the last 12 months memorable for us professionally.
This year, of course, like a cloud that won’t disperse or a particularly malevolent groundhog that keeps popping up however hard we whack it, Covid-19 has dominated - not just our headlines, but our personal lives as well.
When I invited my colleagues Nick Cumming-Bruce, New York Times contributor, and Gabriela Sotomayor, of the Mexican current affairs magazine Proceso, to join me for this week’s Inside Geneva podcast (click on teaser below), I’d decided, at last, to have a face-to-face recording rather than the virtual studio we have resorted to for almost two years.
I had gleefully planned mulled wine and Christmas biscuits, something to cheer us up and get us in the mood for the festive season.
But no. As Gabriela pointed out wearily, last January “we were beginning with this lockdown and we were like ‘Oh my God not again’, and now here we are in December and Omicron, boom!”
We can’t plan for anything, we can’t work the way we like to as journalists: very few face-to-face interviews, no crowded late night press conferences when you can read up close the stress or stubbornness on the faces of the diplomats.
“No real perspective on where this is going to end,” Nick pointed out. “We had a kind of summer of hope, and then as Omicron comes along we have this question, where are we going to be in 12 months’ time?”
2021: So what were the good bits?
And yet in other respects 2021 started so well. As our analyst Daniel Warner points out: “Back in January, I’m going to say it was very positive. Trump was gone, Biden was in, and he promised that by July 4 everything would be ok.”
That should be a lesson to any and all budding politicians: never make promises you can’t keep. But here in Geneva of course, we were eagerly awaiting the return of the US to the multilateral stage.
After the Trump years, in which the US played no significant role in “International Geneva”, we were interested to see how the new administration would re-involve itself. After all, the new US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, was a self-confirmed multilateralist. He even, we reminded ourselves, spoke French.
But when Air Force One touched down in Geneva on that sweltering June day for Joe Biden’s summit with Vladimir Putin, there was no US ambassador on the tarmac to greet the US President. A key diplomatic post, the person who represents the US at the UN Human Rights Council, had not yet been filled. And, as December rolls around, there’s still no ambassador.
“I didn’t see the loud-and-clear voice of the USA defending human rights at the Human Rights Council,” Gabriella recalls. “They were there, but kind of shy. I thought it was going to be different with Biden.”
“We don’t hear the United States very prominently in the Human Rights Council,” added Nick. “It will return as a full member in 2022 but potentially without an ambassador, that’s extraordinary.”
What’s Nick’s interpretation? “It shows the extent to which the United States return to multilateralism is very much vulnerable to the partisanship that is dividing the US so profoundly.”
And then there was Afghanistan
For the humanitarian organisations in Geneva, President Biden’s announcement that all US troops would be out of Afghanistan by the summer was alarming. When the US was swiftly followed out the door by every other NATO nation, a humanitarian catastrophe was inevitable.
Aid agencies who have spent decades in Afghanistan knew the government in Kabul lacked the trust of ordinary Afghans, despite all the international support it had received. They also knew the Taliban had been making inroads, gathering support in rural areas for months. And they knew that traditional western donor governments, with long memories of the Taliban in the 1990s and the shelter it provided Osama bin Laden, would refuse aid and development funding for a country back in Taliban control.
Worst of all, aid agencies knew the Taliban was in no position to ensure continuity of the basic services necessary to life: health, water and sanitation, electricity and education.
As sure as night follows day, when the Taliban rolled victoriously into Kabul, most of that international money that had propped Afghanistan up for decades stopped. Development aid ended, assets were frozen and economic sanctions were introduced.
And predictably, salaries for health workers and teachers stopped, malnutrition levels shot up. When ICRC Director of Operations Dominik Stillhart visited Afghanistan last month, he said he was ‘livid’ at what he witnessed. Afghanistan’s suffering was man-made, he said: “Economic sanctions meant to punish those in power in Kabul are instead freezing millions of people across Afghanistan out of the basics they need to survive.”
(To hear more about aid agencies struggles in Afghanistan, please tune into our Inside Geneva episode on January 11, when Dominik Stillhart and other humanitarian workers will be our guests).
Dare we predict anything for 2022? One thing we do know, and Afghanistan is a big part of it, is that the UN has requested a record $41 billion (CHF37 billion) for its humanitarian operations next year. It estimates that 45 million people worldwide are at risk of famine.
As ever, the UN’s appeal will not be 100% funded, and certainly not next year when the big donor countries are struggling to keep their own pandemic ravaged economies afloat. But as Daniel Warner puts it, “Geneva’s aid agencies are doing the best they can in these crises. Perpetual crises.”
I started this article comparing the Covid-19 pandemic to Groundhog Day. For humanitarian workers, those endless crises, and the perpetual underfunding of humanitarian work, must seem like Groundhog Day too. That’s a question I’ll be putting to the UN Refugee Agency’s Shabia Mantoo, and UN Human Rights’ Rupert Colville when they join me on December 28 for an Inside Geneva special, looking at 2021 from a humanitarian perspective.
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