UNGA 74, Ebola vaccine battles, and Trump's Central America deals: This week in development

A scene from the opening of the 74th United Nations General Assembly’s General Debate. Photo by: Laura Jarriel / U.N.

Climate, health coverage, and politics dominate UNGA; MSF and WHO spar over Ebola vaccines; and the Trump administration negotiates aid to Central America. This week in development:

The 74th United Nations General Assembly has seen leaders pivot from climate change to universal health coverage to financing and countless other issues over the course of a busy and — at times — tumultuous week in New York. Against the backdrop of political crises in two of the world’s largest development donor countries, delegates managed to secure new climate change commitments — though not at the scale some had hoped — and to hash out a new political declaration on UHC — though not without some drama and controversy. On Monday, Secretary-General António Guterres hosted the U.N. Climate Summit, which saw some significant pledges, including the African Development Bank’s public statement that it will no longer finance coal projects, and will instead invest in transitioning countries to renewables. While Guterres drew praise for excluding world leaders with nothing to bring to the table, the lack of movement from major emitters made clear how far the world still has to go. U.N. member states unanimously adopted the new declaration on UHC, which calls on countries to take action at home, including dedicating at least 1% of their budgets to health care. The United States and a handful of other countries objected to the inclusion of “sexual and reproductive health and rights” and the word “gender” in the document. On Thursday, member states returned to the question of financing the Sustainable Development Goals. This is the first high-level meeting on the topic since the conference in Addis Ababa in 2015 and takes place as the development community reckons with the fact that with 10 years left, the world is way off track on achieving the SDGs.

Médecins Sans Frontières is sparring with the World Health Organization over Ebola virus vaccine regulations, as the groups try to contain the epidemic. MSF argues that vaccination should be expanded and that the regulations in place amount to arbitrary roadblocks. "Every morning when our teams go to get the vaccines and try and vaccinate people, they face these quite arbitrary rules from the WHO," Natalie Roberts, MSF emergency coordinator, told Devex. WHO argues that the rules are necessary to ensure the effective use of the vaccine. The organization has instituted a combination of a “ring strategy,” which targets Ebola contacts — and contacts of contacts — and “targeted geographic vaccination,” which involves vaccinating entire neighborhoods or villages. According to MSF, responders should be vaccinating at least 2,000 to 2,500 people per day, while WHO argues that having a targeted vaccination number “does not have scientific value.” “Both Ebola vaccines currently being used are experimental and therefore their use is strictly governed by an approved protocol to ensure that ethical and scientific oversight is appropriate to protect individuals being vaccinated,” said WHO spokesperson Margaret Harris. In Tanzania, the effort to take an evidence-based approach to response has been further complicated by concerns the government may be concealing incidences of Ebola in the country. Over the weekend, WHO issued a strong statement expressing its concern about the lack of transparency. “The limited available official information from Tanzanian authorities represents a challenge for assessing the risk posed by this event,” it reads.  

The Trump administration plans to resume funding to Central American countries, which it previously cut off due to concerns over migration. The head of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Kevin McAleenan, said on Monday that the administration has seen “a real sense of ownership, of innovation — which is new, frankly, in the last year from the region.” As a result, McAleenan said that the administration will now “look at how do we restart aid programs that are working, that are supporting our interests” — though the criteria that will be used to make those decisions remains unclear. At the same time, the Trump administration has been negotiating migration deals with the three Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — which provide technical assistance funding in exchange for commitments to stem migration. Given the ongoing insecurity in these countries, those agreements — which have not been made public — have come under criticism. “With one of the highest homicide rates in the world, the Guatemalan government cannot even protect its own citizens. Guatemala’s obvious lack of capacity to carry out this agreement will only fuel more regional instability,” said Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, in a hearing on aid to Central America on Wednesday.

About the author

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    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.