Yemen's port, Zimbabwe's future, and Myanmar's shame: This week in development

Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president for 37 years. Photo by: JC McIlwaine / U.N.

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson points to ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, aid groups warn against celebrating Saudi Arabia’s new port policy in Yemen, and the World Health Organization looks to kickstart its new program of work in Geneva. This week in development.

Robert Mugabe, who had been Zimbabwe’s president for 37 years, resigned Tuesday, the result of a military takeover and prolonged negotiation with the controversial strongman. The end of Mugabe’s reign — and the lack of violence in bringing it about — has been met with celebration in the streets of Harare, and with a sense of optimism that Zimbabwe might be at a turning point, toward democracy and openness. While welcoming the opportunity for change, some observers also caution that Mugabe’s ouster will not automatically transform this long-struggling country into a bastion of freedom. “This was not a revolution to bring liberal democratic principles into government. It was about power,” wrote Fergal Keane, the BBC’s Africa editor. The military has ushered Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president who fled the country in fear for his life, into office. “His instincts are authoritarian but he will not have the same scope for repression as Robert Mugabe,” Keane wrote. Aid donors have already signaled their willingness to assist the new government, which faces a difficult task of overcoming an economic crisis — and meeting the expectations of citizens who believe a significant change is coming.

World Health Organization member states have convened in Geneva to discuss the WHO's draft 13th program of work. Several U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations were also present to provide interventions. The two-day special session by the executive board is meant to fast track discussion — and, ultimately, adoption — of the proposed draft program, allowing the organization ample time to mobilize resources ahead of its implementation between 2019 and 2023. Member states in general welcomed the ambitions and some of the proposed new ways of working set out in the draft program of work. But they’ve started to ask the secretariat to provide more details on key elements of the proposal, including on how WHO has arrived at its “triple billion” target and how that will be distributed across different regions and countries; what WHO’s resource mobilization strategy is; and clarity on what the organization meant by being more operational and its implications on its core functions of setting norms and standards. Specific discussions on the different issues will be taken up by the board on Thursday.

Humanitarian groups are cautioning that Saudi Arabia’s decision to reopen the Hodeidah port and the Sanaa airport to humanitarian aid, while necessary to prevent widespread famine, is not cause for celebration. “We cannot celebrate this partial easing of access restrictions. Even though tomorrow's reopening of ports to humanitarian traffic will ease the flow of aid, it will still leave the population of Yemen in a worse situation than they were two weeks ago before the blockade started,” wrote Paolo Cernuschi, Yemen country director at the International Rescue Committee, in a statement. The Official Saudi Press Agency announced the Saudi-led coalition’s new policy for Yemen’s crucial port and airport on Wednesday. Oxfam called the move an “empty gesture” in a statement and the organization’s Yemen Country Director Shane Stevenson said “Reopening the ports to aid but not to commercial imports is pitiful bartering with people's lives. We're facing the worst famine seen in decades, and that won’t change unless commercial shipments of food and fuel are allowed in. This brinksmanship has to stop. All sea and air ports must be fully reopened immediately to both humanitarian and commercial access to save millions of innocent Yemeni people."

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson officially declared Wednesday that the violence against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state amounts to ethnic cleansing. “After a careful and thorough analysis of available facts, it is clear that the situation in northern Rakhine state constitutes ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya,” he said in a statement. Tillerson reported on his visit to Naypyidaw, Myanmar, last week and his separate meetings with State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Tillerson added that the U.S. is considering “targeted sanctions,” but State Department officials have told reporters that broader economic sanctions will not be part of the U.S. policy response. For humanitarian aid groups, access to Rakhine state remains an obstacle — as does hostility from some groups who resent international organizations’ attempts to assist the Muslim minority.

The 23rd Conference of Parties — or COP23 — concluded in Bonn, Germany, around dawn on Saturday morning. Negotiators continued to hash out some of the stickiest issues in the discussions while the closing plenary session was pushed later and later into the night. COP23 was always seen as a technical step in the Paris Agreement implementation process, with issues around setting the rules for climate change action at the forefront. The negotiation saw progress on a few long-sought issues — delegates adopted a gender action plan and an indigenous people’s platform, both aimed at improving the Paris Agreement’s responsiveness to vulnerable populations. A big question leading into the conference was what role the Trump administration would play in its first foray into international climate change negotiations. The answer — at least within the official delegation — turned out to be more of the same. U.S. delegates continued to participate in discussions as they have for years, and they pressed many of the same U.S. interests that past administrations have also espoused. Climate risk insurance emerged high on the agenda at this conference — though developing countries were quick to warn that buying insurance is not their idea of a sufficient solution to the global climate crisis.

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.