Oxfam's big cuts, WHO's consensus without US, and Cyclone Amphan collides with COVID-19: This week in development

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Oxfam staff members distribute mats and other nonfood items in Juba, South Sudan. Photo by: Anita Kattakuzhy / Oxfam / CC BY

Oxfam International announces big cuts to staff and country programs as COVID-19 causes financial woes, the World Health Assembly wraps up with broad consensus — despite one big outlier — and Cyclone Amphan pummels India and Bangladesh under lockdown. This week in development:

Oxfam International plans to end its presence in 18 countries and cut 1,450 staff as part of a strategic reform effort accelerated by the financing impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The organization is shutting down country offices in Thailand, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Paraguay, Egypt, Tanzania, Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Benin, Liberia, and Mauritania. It has worked in some of those countries for more than 50 years. “We’ve been planning this for some time but we are now accelerating key decisions in light of the effects of the global pandemic,” said Chema Vera, Oxfam International’s interim executive director. “In some countries, Oxfam will have a deeper footprint as we focus our program resources and strengthen our local partnerships to maximize impact. In others, we will focus more strongly on our humanitarian or influencing goals,” he added. Phasing out the charity’s presence in some countries could take months or years as it completes existing contracts and works to help some 700 local partner organizations secure funding from other sources. In an op-ed for Devex that accompanied the announcement, Vera said that the restructuring reflects a combination of financial pressure brought on by fundraising challenges during the pandemic and an effort to “concentrate our resources in the most complex and dangerous environments.” The news follows a high-profile sexual abuse scandal in 2018, which led to widespread criticism of the organization’s safeguarding policies, affected fundraising, and forced earlier budget cuts at the charity’s British affiliate.

The World Health Organization’s annual meetings highlighted stark divisions over the future of multilateral health cooperation, with the U.S. cementing its current status as an outlier and China angling to fill the leadership void. In a letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to make his temporary suspension of funding to the organization permanent and suggested that the U.S. might withdraw from WHO if it does not carry out “major substantive improvements within the next 30 days.” Separately, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s acting administrator, John Barsa, urged United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday to “remove references to 'sexual and reproductive health’” from the U.N.’s global humanitarian response plan for the coronavirus pandemic, saying that these services are not “essential” and that including them risks adding “unnecessary discord to the COVID-19 response.” Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a speech during the World Health Assembly’s high-level opening, pledged $2 billion over two years to help with the COVID-19 response, and said China will work with the U.N. to set up a global humanitarian response depot and hub in the country. As the annual meetings — convened virtually due to the pandemic — drew to a close Tuesday, member countries reached broad agreement on equal access to treatment and an independent review of the global response, though the U.S. dissociated itself from some elements of the resolution, citing concerns about trade and intellectual property.

Cyclone Amphan has collided with coronavirus containment efforts in South Asia, where responders have struggled to balance evacuation and shelter imperatives with the need to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The impacts of the storm — initially expected to be one of the biggest in a decade — are still coming into view, but evacuations and a weakening of the cyclone as it made landfall Wednesday may have spared India and Bangladesh from the worst predictions, according to reports. Still, the storm brought torrential rain to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, home to Rohingya refugees, and highlighted the challenges that responders could face as extreme weather intensifies in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic shutdown. Aid groups are already drawing lessons from Cyclone Harold, which struck the Pacific islands in April and saw response efforts complicated by travel restrictions and lockdowns preventing the movement of relief workers and supplies.

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.