Biden's aid agenda, COVID-19 response failures, and South Sudan's secret famine: This week in development

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Refugees queue for water at a refugee camp in South Sudan. Photo by: Robert Stansfield / Department for International Development‬ / CC BY-SA

Biden turns the page on Trump-era development policies, an independent panel finds numerous failures in the global COVID-19 response, and experts spar with officials over famine in South Sudan. This week in development:

United States President Joe Biden was inaugurated Wednesday and moved quickly to reverse or replace a range of policies on global health, climate change, multilateral cooperation, and the federal workforce.

Two of Biden’s first moves were to initiate a 30-day process to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and to cancel the previous administration’s plan to withdraw from the World Health Organization, both of which Biden accomplished with letters to the United Nations secretary-general.

Biden also overturned former President Donald Trump’s executive order that required U.S. federal agencies to pause their diversity and inclusion training, replacing it with a plan to review and report on equity in the federal workforce within the next 200 days. He is expected to soon overturn the Mexico City Policy, also known as the “global gag rule,” and to broaden the White House’s support for global family planning programs.

Biden’s secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, told lawmakers prior to the inauguration that the White House plans to join COVAX, the global vaccine distribution facility, and that the new administration will review Trump’s decision to designate the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, which aid groups warned would have devastating impacts for humanitarian operations in Yemen.

The White House nullified a last-minute effort by the former administration to rescind billions of dollars in foreign assistance funding that was already appropriated by Congress. That — largely symbolic — effort by Trump’s administration to block funding was accompanied by another move to push funding priorities through, even without congressional approval.

Wednesday also brought a slew of new appointments within Biden’s administration, including interim leaders at government development agencies. Biden’s team announced that Gloria Steele, a 40-year veteran of the U.S. Agency for International Development, will serve as acting administrator until Samantha Power, Biden’s nominee to lead the agency, is confirmed by the Senate.

An independent panel offered a damning assessment of the world’s response to the global COVID-19 pandemic in its second report to the World Health Organization. The panel is co-chaired by former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark and former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. They described “a failure to take seriously the already known existential risks posed by pandemic threat” and pointed to inadequate adoption of public health measures, inequity in vaccine distribution and access, a “slow, cumbersome and indecisive” pandemic alert system, and an “underpowered” WHO as key factors in the poor response. They also could not explain why the Emergency Committee established under the International Health Regulations did not meet until the third week of January 2020, or why it was unable to agree on the declaration of a public health emergency of international concern until Jan. 30. The report arrived ahead of a meeting of WHO’s executive board, which saw Anthony Fauci, now Biden’s chief medical adviser, return to the table as the U.S. government’s head of delegation.

Food security experts in South Sudan are at odds with the government over the state of food insecurity in the country. Independent estimates of famine and starvation conditions put the number of people affected by hunger at 10 times what official figures suggest. Experts warned that the government’s refusal to acknowledge the scale of the crisis and to endorse the findings of an IPC Famine Review Committee report is creating a rift between South Sudan officials and aid groups involved in famine response. Some aid workers told Devex they want the U.N. to be more vocal about the scale of the crisis, after pushing the government to accept more accurate — and alarming — figures. “We’re defying the government to get this crucial information out, but no one’s willing to publicly stand behind it,” one humanitarian professional told Devex.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.