Author Archives for Grant Montgomery

After a decade of war, the plight of Syrian refugees is only getting worse

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Ten years ago, protesters clamoring for political reform in Syria took to the streets, hoping for change. Instead, there has only been ruin and chaos.

The past decade has shattered the nation and scattered its people. More than half of the population was forced to flee.

“The United Nations stopped counting the dead in 2016 at 400,000. Six million Syrians fled their homeland, escaping across its borders into neighboring countries,” writes correspondent Liz Sly. “Five million are still stranded, barely surviving in substandard conditions. A million climbed into flimsy boats to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.”

Even as foreign humanitarian aid dwindles, millions still languish in limbo in countries bordering Syria, living on the margins of the societies hosting them but too afraid of the grim fate that may await should they try to return. And conditions are only getting worse. “Poverty and food insecurity are on the rise, school enrollment and access to health care are shrinking, and the COVID-19 pandemic has wiped out much of the informal work that refugees rely on,” noted a recent report from the U.N.’s refugee agency. “People are at a breaking point,” said UNHCR senior communications adviser Rula Amin. While “the attention of the world has shifted from the Syria crisis and people tend to think that maybe it has become easier, with every passing year, it becomes more difficult, not easier for Syrian refugees.”

[Washington Post]

Nations wrangle over COVID vaccine patents

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The richer members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) blocked a push by over 80 developing countries to waive patent rights in an effort to boost production of COVID-19 vaccines for poor nations.

South Africa and India renewed their bid to waive rules of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement, a move that could allow generic or other manufacturers to make more vaccines. South Africa argued the current system does not work, pointing to the failure to secure life-saving medicines during the HIV/AIDS pandemic that had cost at least 11 million African lives.

The proposal was backed by dozens of largely developing countries at the WTO. Medecins Sans Frontieres in October had also put together a letter signed by over 375 civil society organizations supporting the waiver.

The proposal was opposed by Western countries, including Britain, Switzerland, EU nations and the United States, which have large domestic pharmaceutical industries.

[Reuters]

Countries call on drug companies to share vaccine know-how

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In an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of Bangladesh’s largest city lies a factory with gleaming new equipment imported from Germany, its immaculate hallways lined with hermetically sealed rooms. It is operating at just a quarter of its capacity. It is one of three factories that The Associated Press found on three continents whose owners say they could start producing hundreds of millions of COVID-19 vaccines on short notice if only they had the blueprints and technical know-how.

But that knowledge belongs to the large pharmaceutical companies who produce the first three vaccines authorized by countries including Britain, the European Union and the U.S.—Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Across Africa and Southeast Asia, governments and aid groups, as well as the WHO, are calling on pharmaceutical companies to share this patent information more broadly to meet a yawning global shortfall in a pandemic that already has claimed nearly 2.5 million lives. Pharmaceutical companies that took taxpayer money from the U.S. or Europe to develop inoculations at unprecedented speed say they are negotiating contracts and exclusive licensing deals with producers on a case-by-case basis because they need to protect their intellectual property and ensure safety.

Critics say this piecemeal approach is just too slow at a time of urgent need to stop the virus before it mutates into even deadlier forms.

[Associated Press]

US seeks return to UN human rights body

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The United States will seek election to the U.N. Human Rights Council later this year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, marking the Biden administration’s latest international re-engagement.

Under former President Donald Trump’s more isolationist approach, Washington quit the council in 2018 but the Biden government has already returned as an observer.

“I’m pleased to announce the United States will seek election to the Human Rights Council for the 2022-24 term,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the council by video. “We humbly ask for the support of all U.N. member states in our bid to return to a seat in this body.”

Blinken, addressing the council by recorded video, also said that President Joseph Biden’s administration would work to eliminate what he called the Geneva forum’s “disproportionate focus” on U.S. ally Israel. The council, set up in 2006, has a stand-alone item on the Palestinian territories on its agenda every session, the only issue with such treatment, which both Democratic and Republican administrations have opposed. It routinely adopts resolutions condemning alleged violations by Israel in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

[Reuters]

Global vaccine inequality

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As the coronavirus pandemic rages, WTO representatives have periodically gathered around a virtual table and clashed over how to more equitably increase global access to vaccines.

On one side are the United States and other mainly wealthy Western democracies, where the major pharmaceutical companies developing key vaccines and related medical technologies are based. They want to maintain the status quo, in which the trade secrets of their vaccines—i.e. intellectual property—remain in their hands to preserve profits and the incentive for future development.

On the other side are South Africa and India, leading the charge on behalf of the vast number of countries without any—or a limited supply of—vaccine doses and other equipment for fighting the virus. They argue that the rest of the world cannot keep waiting for the lifesaving shots, which Western countries have monopolized by buying up existing supplies and pre-purchasing future rounds.

Given the gravity of the global public health crisis, the latter camp wants to resort to an emergency waiver mechanism, whereby the intellectual property rights for making vaccines and related medical supplies would be temporarily suspended, which would lead to production and distribution ramping up more equitably in factories worldwide.

[Washington Post]

U.S. to resettle more child refugees fleeing violence

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As part of its overhaul of U.S. refugee policy, the Biden administration is planning to offer humanitarian refuge to more children fleeing violence around the world, according to a government report. “Given European countries’ limited resettlement slots, the United States will be a key-partner to increase resettlement for URMs,” the report said, using the acronym for unaccompanied refugee minors.

The commitment is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to rebuild the country’s long-standing refugee program, which was gutted under former President Donald Trump. The Biden administration’s report to Congress noted that this pause in the resettlement of unaccompanied refugee minors comes “just as the global need increases,” noting the plight of minors from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other African countries plagued by conflict and political instability.

Founded in the 1980s, the U.S. Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program has been a relatively small initiative, but it remains the only one in the world designed specifically for refugee children who can’t be resettled with their parents. More than 13,000 children have been resettled under the program, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The program places refugee children in foster homes across the U.S., connects them with social workers and provides them financial support, as well as educational, legal and recreational services. All refugees receive medical and health examinations before being resettled in the U.S. 

Advocates welcomed the Biden administration’s plan, saying refugee children around the world are facing life and death situations. “These children are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” Ashley Feasley, the director of policy at the Migration Refugee Services branch of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CBS News. “These are children in refugee camps or in urban refugee situations who don’t have parents or guardians or even extended family who can suitably care for them.”

Feasley’s group and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service are calling on the Biden administration to allocate 1% of all refugee spots to unaccompanied children. This would translate to 625 spots if the administration follows through on its proposal to institute a 62,500-person ceiling for the current fiscal year, and 1,250 spots during fiscal year 2022, when Mr. Biden has pledged to set a goal of resettling up to 125,000 refugees.

After President Barack Obama set an ambitious goal in 2016 of admitting 110,000 refugees, President Trump slashed the annual refugee cap every subsequent year, setting a historically low 15,000-person ceiling before leaving office.  Trump also narrowed who could be eligible for resettlement.

[CBS News]

US President Biden set to announce major foreign policy shifts

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President Joe Biden is expected to announce an end to all American support for offensive operations in Yemen, and will appoint an envoy to focus on the long-standing conflict.

The President “will talk about the United States playing a more active and engaged role” in ending the war, according to National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

Biden is also expected to announce his intention to increase the number of refugees admitted into the United States after years of historical lows under the Trump administration, and fulfill a campaign promise in doing so, two sources familiar with the plans told CNN.

The President is anticipated to use a speech not only to unveil policy changes, fulfill campaign promises and reverse Trump administration policies, but also to reassert US global leadership and realign foreign policy.

Biden has spoken by phone to more than a half-dozen foreign counterparts since taking office, while his Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been working the phones intensely to do outreach to his counterparts around the world.

A source close to both men has said that they are aware that there is serious repair work to be done after four years of the Trump administration left allies wary and bruised — and uncertain about how reliable an ally the US will be in future.

“There’s a real sense among allies is, ‘How long can we count on them?'” said this source. “We have to address that.”

[CNN]

PlayStation 5 launch gets more coverage than 10 humanitarian crises combined

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Humanitarian crises are largely swept aside by other relatively trivial news:
-The launch of PlayStation 5 received 26 times more news attention than 10 humanitarian crises combined in 2020, according to a Care International report.
-The Eurovision song contest and Kanye West’s bid for the US presidency each received 10 times more online news attention than the humanitarian crises in question, the report also found.

The report points to violence and conflict in Burundi, CAR and Mali; hunger and drought in Madagascar and Zambia, and poverty and climate concerns in Malawi. Only one country in Europe – Ukraine – featured on Care’s list, where about 5 million people needed humanitarian aid last year and women hired out their wombs for money. Food insecurity in Guatemala, conflict in Pakistan and hunger and earthquakes in Papua New Guinea also saw these nations make the ranking.

The lack of media coverage adds to existing burdens for these 10 countries in crisis, including the effects of pandemic restrictions and the growing impact of climate change, said Care’s humanitarian advocacy coordinator and UN representative Delphine Pinault.

“Covid-19 has shown us that humanitarian crises can occur anywhere, but for so many people, especially women and girls, Covid-19 is just another threat on top of what they must face already,” said Pinault. “We must not be silent while the world ignores crises that started long before Covid-19 and yet still have not been addressed.”

An estimated 235 million people globally are expected to need humanitarian aid this year, an increase of 40% from 2020, according to data from the UN.

Care is urging governments to allow journalists better access to report “forgotten crisis” stories, and calling on global media to amplify the voices of women and girls and to partner with smaller, more local organizations to pay attention to news on the ground.

“When a crisis doesn’t make headlines, it often doesn’t receive sufficient humanitarian funding, either,” the report warns. “The publication of Care’s neglected crises report is therefore a call to action to the humanitarian and donor community to not turn a blind eye.”

[The Guardian]

COVID-19 has exacerbated inequalities that already existed

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In May 2019, when MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, signed the Giving Pledge—a commitment by some of the world’s wealthiest couples and individuals to give away their fortunes—she made an additional vow to swiftly dispense of her billions: “I won’t wait,” she wrote.

Based on the past 18 months, we should take her at her word. The nature and rapid pace of Scott’s giving are nearly unheard-of in the philanthropic world.

“She’s disrupting the norms around billionaire philanthropy by moving quickly, not creating a private foundation for her great-grandchildren to give the money away,” says Chuck Collins, director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Still, Scott is accumulating wealth faster than she can give it away. Her fortune, totaling $60.9 billion, has grown by $23.8 billion this year, making her the world’s 18th richest person.

The COVID-19 crisis, as we well know, has exacerbated inequalities that already existed. Scott is one of the few beneficiaries of the pandemic to acknowledge—even indirectly—this ugly truth; that she’s gotten richer because of a crisis that’s devastated so many.

She says as much in her Medium post: “This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling. Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires.”

Scott could let her money do all the talking, but she seems determined insert herself into the conversation about mass wealth and inequality.

[Fortune]

MacKenzie Scott gives away $4.2 Billion in four months

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MacKenzie Scott is giving away her fortune at an unprecedented pace, donating more than $4 billion in four months after announcing $1.7 billion in gifts in July.

The world’s 18th-richest person outlined the latest contributions in a blog post Tuesday, saying she asked her team to figure out how to give away her fortune faster. Scott’s wealth has climbed $23.6 billion this year to $60.7 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. with Amazon the primary source of her fortune surging.

“This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,” she wrote in the post on Medium. “Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires.”

Scott’s gifts this year approach $6 billion, which “has to be one of the biggest annual distributions by a living individual” to working charities, according to Melissa Berman, chief executive officer of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Berman said Scott’s donations show that it’s possible to give large amounts quickly without requiring nonprofits to “jump through a lot of hoops to get the money.” The size of Scott’s gifts also disprove a common theory that’s it’s hard to deploy vast amounts of money without running into trouble or proving wasteful.

Scott’s advisers zeroed-in on 384 groups to receive gifts, after considering almost 6,500 organizations. Donations were focused on those “operating in communities facing high projected food insecurity, high measures of racial inequity, high local poverty rates, and low access to philanthropic capital.”

Recipients include more than 30 institutions of higher education, including several tribal colleges and historically Black colleges and universities. More than 40 food banks received money, as did almost four dozen local affiliates of Goodwill Industries International.

Betsy Biemann, CEO of Maine-based Coastal Enterprises Inc., said it received $10 million, equivalent to the size of their annual operating budget. It’s a show of how powerful Scott’s enormous fortune is, especially when she decides to give to smaller organizations. “It’s an amazing day at the end of what’s been a very challenging year,” said Biemann, whose nonprofit provides financing and advice to small businesses and entrepreneurs, especially those from rural areas or disadvantaged groups.

Scott, 50, who was formerly married to Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos, signed the Giving Pledge in 2019, promising to give away the majority of her fortune.

[Bloomberg]