While You Weren't Looking

The International Aid Sector Faces a Reckoning

Doctors Without Borders staff are pushing back against institutional racism, reflecting a growing debate in the aid community over the legacies of colonialism.

Two staff members of Doctors Without Borders wear protective masks during an emergency response training.
Two Doctors Without Borders staff members take part in an emergency response training amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 8 in Geneva, Switzerland. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Some 1,000 Doctors Without Borders staff have signed a statement accusing the organization of institutional racism, Russia cracks down on journalists and activists after last week’s referendum, and a new report implicates Burkina Faso’s security forces in extrajudicial killings.

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MSF Staff Condemn Institutional Racism

Some 1,000 current and former Doctors Without Borders staff members signed a statement, first reported on Friday, that describes the organization as institutionally racist and accuses it of reinforcing white supremacy and colonialism in its work. The group, known by the French abbreviation MSF, is one of the largest aid organizations in the world and provides humanitarian health care in over 70 countries. The letter calls for an independent review of the organization, as well as urgent reforms to undo “decades of power and paternalism.”

The Guardian was the first to report on the letter, which was signed by a number of senior staff and board members. MSF’s international president welcomed the statement as a “catalyst” to speed up the implementation of a series of commitments to tackle institutional racism within the organization that were outlined by the MSF U.K. Board of Trustees last month.

Global reckoning. The protests against racism and the legacies of colonialism triggered by the police killing of George Floyd in May has ignited debate within the international aid sector—long accused of perpetuating colonial white savior attitudes in the global south. Writing in Foreign Policy, Olivia U. Rutazibwa described the concepts of aid and international development as “built on a profound whitewashing of history” and called for a new kind of international relations that would engage with and repair the devastating legacies of colonialism.

Beyond foreign aid. The shortcomings of international aid efforts were highlighted in a withering report published on Monday, in which the outgoing United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, accused world leaders, international organizations, and economists of harboring misplaced optimism on declining global poverty rates based on World Bank metrics that use a definition of poverty set so low as to be almost meaningless. Alston takes aim in particular at the overreliance on private donors in international aid efforts, as well as tax havens: “Philanthropy is less likely to expose and tackle unjust underlying structures,” he writes.


What We’re Following

Blocks on Syrian aid. Russia and China have vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have allowed humanitarian aid to continue to be delivered into Syria via two points along the Turkish border. The council is set to vote later on Friday on a Russian proposal to approve aid deliveries from Turkey through a single border crossing. The U.N. described the aid deliveries from Turkey as a “lifeline” for the millions of Syrian civilians in the country’s mostly rebel-held northwest, which would be badly disrupted by reducing the number of border crossings.

If no agreement is reached by the end of the day, all aid deliveries across the Turkish border will cease. Russia and China, allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have argued that the region can be reached with aid deliveries from within Syria, a move likely intended to undermine rebel control.

Crackdown follows Russian vote. Since last week’s constitutional referendum that could extend Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power until 2036, a number of high-profile journalists, activists, and government officials have been arrested or sentenced in a sweeping crackdown on dissent. On Tuesday, the former defense journalist Ivan Safronov was arrested and charged with treason for allegedly passing classified defense information to the Czech intelligence services. Observers say the arrest is politically motivated.

And on Thursday, the governor of Russia’s far-eastern Khabarovsk region, Sergei Furgal, was arrested on suspicion of organizing the murders of his former business associates 15 years ago. Furgal beat the Kremlin’s candidate in tightly controlled 2018 gubernatorial elections—a rare upset. Aleksei Vorsin, who leads the local office of the opposition politician Alexei Navalny, told RFE/RL that he wouldn’t he couldn’t rule out Furgal’s involvement in the murders, but he pointed to possible political subtext of his arrest given his popularity.

Korean mayor found dead. Mayor of Seoul Park Won-soon, 64, has apparently died by suicide. His body was found on Friday in a wooded area on Mount Bukak, in the center of the South Korean capital, several hours after his daughter first reported Park missing. A police spokesperson said that there were no suspicions of foul play. Days before his death, the mayor’s former secretary filed a criminal complaint against him alleging that he had sexually harassed her since she began working for him in 2017.

A representative of the Park family quickly urged the public not to spread “groundless statements” about the mayor, who had governed the city for almost 10 years. Park, a member of the liberal Democratic Party, was seen as a possible future national leader.


Keep an Eye On 

Protests in Serbia. Belgrade was rocked by violent protests this week as the Serbian government announced plans for a second lockdown amid rising coronavirus cases. Dozens of protesters and police were injured. The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, Dunja Mijatovic, voiced concerns about the “violent dispersal of demonstrators” by police. The protests responded directly to the new three-day lockdown, but they were also seen as an expression of wider frustration with the government’s handling of the pandemic—and anger with the increasing authoritarianism of President Aleksandar Vucic, whose party won by a landslide in elections last month amid an opposition boycott.

Extrajudicial killings in Burkina Faso. Since November 2019, at least 180 civilians have been killed in the town of Djibo, Burkina Faso, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch on Wednesday. Their bodies were found in groups of three to 20 alongside highways, under bridges, and in vacant lots. Eyewitness reports gathered by Human Rights Watch suggest that government security forces may have been involved in the extrajudicial killings. “The Burkina Faso authorities need to urgently uncover who turned Djibo into a ‘killing field,’” said Corinne Dufka, the organization’s Sahel director.

Since 2015, government forces in Burkina Faso have fought militants aligned with the Islamic State and al Qaeda who have killed hundreds of civilians in executions and targeted attacks. But the Burkinabe army has also been accused of committing atrocities against civilians, fueling terrorist recruitment.

Poverty haunts Latin America. A U.N. report released on Thursday indicates that some 45 million Latin Americans could be pushed into poverty in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition to the region’s estimated 9.1 percent drop in GDP this year, a lack of adequate health care and access to potable water is expected to exacerbate the situation. To avoid this scenario, the U.N. has urged countries to implement an emergency basic income.

In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called for the international community to support an urgent rescue and recovery package for Latin America and the Caribbean, including financial assistance and debt relief.


That’s it for this week.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to newsletters@foreignpolicy.com.

Augusta Saraiva contributed to this report.

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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