The Humanitarian Times

Leap Day, February 29, 2000

 

A HUMANITARIAN REVIEW OF THE MILLENNIUM

- Forty percent of all humans, who ever lived, lived during the last 1,000 years. The human species now numbers 6B, compared to 50M when humans began to shift from migratory gathering to agriculture, 10,000 years ago.

- It was the millennium of globalization. The Mongol empire (1200 to 1380) arranged the first trade & information (mail) exchange from one end of Eurasia to the other (but introduced the first pan-continent war, killed millions of farmers & besieged cities). The mid-point of the millennium involved a point of inflection, when nations turned outward & began to explore, mingle, swap religions, foodcrops, technologies & diseases (& colonize). After 1492 trade between continents began an accelerating increas -- across the Atlanta, & soon after, the Pacific. The Pacific Rim achieved spectacular economic growth in the last 200 years, as economies converged in use of latest science & technology.

- This was the millennium when humankind discovered how to harness energy -- otherwise stored in gravity (water), coal, & then underground oil at the end of the 1800s, multiplying each person's power to produce, mold & travel. The multiplicative power of energy allowed an explosion of specialization: human labor was no longer tied to subsistence agriculture. The millennium's most important single invention was not technical, but legal: the corporation, beginning in the 1550s when the first public-owned corporations were created; soon followed by the rise of the British East India Company. But capitalism created divisions in society, alienation of workers, & induced the communist backlash.

- Ocean-based trade, then railroads & refrigerated preservation of food (both in the 1800s) gradually reduced the vulnerability of populations to famines based on their own bad harvest. Yet famines actually grew worse, as demographic growth outran economic growth, in China, India, Africa, & Ireland in the 1800s. More people died of large famines between 1840 & 1955 than in all the prior history combined: over 160M.

-A.D. 1000-2000 was the millennium of cities: metropolises like London & Paris, & small cities. But higher population densities allowed communicable diseases to emerge, including the bacterium (Y pestis) which killed 60M during the 'black death' of 1320-55; 7 intl. waves of cholera that began in 1817; & the influenza virus that killed over 20M in 1918-1920. During the 1500s, 1600s & 1700s, smallpox, measles, TB, pertussis & diphtheria killed 70-90% of the populations of south, central & north America. Later, the systematic slaughter of native Americans by westward-moving Anglo settlers was the largest multiple- genocide known, shortly after the horse re-arranged American ecology.

Human health improved dramatically starting in the 1700s, lengthening life-spans, mostly due to improvements in nutrition (reliability of food because of intensive, irrigated agriculture), hygiene (particularly when doctors learned to wash their own hands), & urban environmental health (sewerage systems built). In the last century only, additional gains in child survival came from the discovery of vaccines & antibiotics. As a result of public health, today the average Americans is a full meter taller than European ancestors were in 1400. & fertility rates began to come down worldwide.

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THE CENTURY-END REVIEW: THE 1900s

 

- Most of humanity (1.6B) entered the 20th century still living amid fields of grain, forests, & small villages. It ended the century, instead, largely an urban (or peri-urban) population: human ecology became one of metal, asphalt, concrete, plastic, & glass. Latrines became universal only to be replaced by sewerage systems. It became the century of cars, trucks, put-puts (motorcycles, mopeds, in India & Pakistan) & bicycles (China). Women at last gained increased suffrage worldwide. Child abuse was recognized. Europe's colonialism ended.

- Humanity learned to use energy to create weapons, & to transform matter into explosive energy, creating enough hydrogen bombs to destroy the entire biosphere (except blue-green algae), & enough other arms to fuel the deadliest wars in history: Over 50M perished in world wars between 1918 to 1947. At century's end, the capability for mass destruction lay in hundreds of independent hands: it had commercialized.

- The Century's mid-point saw a cluster of remarkable events in temporal proximity: massive attacks on civilian populations (Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki), & slaughter of unarmed civilians (Nazi deportations to genocide camps), followed shortly thereafter by a peace process that rapidly re-invested in the losing nations, promoting a lasting peace.

In 1949, the UN Convention on Human Rights was effected, synchronous with a Genocide Convention & the new Geneva Conventions, plus protocols. The UN itself was created, along with key aid agencies such as the World Bank, UNHCR, the World Food Programme & UNICEF. Also created were many of the international non-profits who today do the main field work in saving lives: Catholic Relief Service, CARE, Oxfam, Church World Service, & IRC (Save the Children was founded earlier, in 1919). They delivered unconditional foreign aid -- based on love -- to all corners of the world, as now. Independent intl. humanitarian action began to become regular & professional. Multilateral humanitarian cooperation peaked in 1984-86: the Organization for Emergency Cooperation for Africa managed relief to the Ethiopian famine, & sensitized a generation to humanitarian action. Despite the effort of NGOs, USAID, & other intl. aid agencies, it was the century of the demise of most of the world's indigenous cultures.

- HT's Person of the Century, the late James Grant- Dir. of UNICEF, lived a humanitarian vision focused on childhood immunizations, (EPI), monitoring malnutrition, eradicating deficiencies of vitamins & minerals, promoting breastfeeding, &, most important of all, dissemination of oral rehydration therapy ('ORS' which reduces death from diarrhea, the largest killer in the world). But the century ended with the HIV-AIDS virus reminding us (as TB had a century earlier), how little we know about communicable diseases. The century saw explosive growth in cigarette smoking which will kill 500M people alive today. The cigarette companies' deception about tobacco's health risks - kept from the public - only recently resulted in a court settlement costing them $200B, & became a century-ending movie success, "The Insider."

- More than anything else, it was the century when democracy & private ownership were accepted as the over-arching human motif. The move to private ownership & production in China in the 1980s foreshadowed the similar shift in the Soviet Union, & up-turned the terms of debate about economic policies in all developing countries. Today, few development planners in Africa or Latin America question the benefits of "freeing up" entrepreneurial creative productive potentials from private enterprise & individual freedom. The global convergence of technology has been & continues to be paralleled by a convergence of views about tolerance, peace & sensitivity to human rights & dignity.

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THE 1990s DECADE IN REVIEW

 

Over 3M excess, preventable deaths occurred in the major crises: famines (Somalia, Sudan, N Korea); protracted conflict (Angola, Sri Lanka, Liberia), recurrent massacres (Burundi, Sierra Leone, Colombia), & genocide (Rwanda). But Internally Displaced Persons finally achieved a name (IDPs), a literature, a Special Representative to the Secretary General, & efforts to get more aid to them. The 1990s unleashed a growing plague of ptndi˘s sho each discovered & wrote at length about the "end of national sovereignty (as proven in Iraq & Kosovo)."

- THE 1990S WAS THE DECADE OF REPATRIATION, RETURN & RECONSTRUCTION: Intl. refugee numbers (growing for decades) peaked in the early 1990s (at 22M) & declined gradually, as long-term populations returned home to areas in Cambodia, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Somalia, Guatemala, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Sudan; & lately in Liberia, Kosovo, & (slowly) Bosnia. Peace broke out, & sustained, in Central America & Mozambique. But cyclical violence in Africa -- Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Uganda, Ethiopia, Angola -- led to the new 1990's paradigm of 'complex emergency' - unpredictable, multi-layered & political. Post-conflict reconstruction returned to the vocabulary of the World Bank; while "reconciliation, reintegration, peace-building, & conflict prevention" emerged as technical program areas for humanitarian agencies. Indeed, the 1990s brought a consolidation around the concept of 'humanitarian action (& 'humanitarian space') - influencing, for example, the renaming of USAID's relief bureau, & the naming of the European Union's new $1B Humanitarian Office (ECHO). (Prior to the 90s, disaster relief, conflict intervention, peacekeeping, refugee aid & human rights were discussed, funded & organized as if they were unrelated activities.)

- NEW TYPES OF HUMANITARIAN AID WERE DEVISED FOR THE FORMER SOVIET UNION including the Caucasus (beset by mass forced migrants), Central Asia (vulnerable elderly), plus Eastern Europe, Russia itself, & economic satellites like North Korea (worst famine of the decade) & Cuba, where adult mortality increased in the 1990s under sanctions. The greatest human impact was in the one renegade communist country that had cleverly avoided Soviet (Stalin's) control for decades: Yugoslavia.

- YET INTERNATIONAL AID DECLINED STEEPLY, REVERSING THE LONG-TERM RISE seen in prior decades. But as intl. official (govt) aid plummeted, private foundations gave more, funding neglected areas such as conflict resolution & the development of new vaccines. Foreign trade & investments continued to drive growth in many poor areas.

- REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH, CHILDREN, BIODIVERSITY & WEAPONS EMERGED as priorities of aid agencies: the special vulnerabilities of women & children (but not yet the elderly). "Child survival" & "reproductive health" replaced the 70s/80s focus on "MCH" (maternal child health) & supplementary feeding. Environment organizations agreed on "biodiversity" as what they want to conserve. NGOs, the IUCN, & UNHCR shared lessons on how to protect fragile forests in Africa during times of conflict. The 1990s included many robust efforts to limit weapons proliferation, not only nuclear weapons now, but also small arms, landmines & chemical weapons.

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1999 YEAR IN REVIEW

 

- The most notable event of the generation was one that did not occur: contrary to well-published predictions by the world's leading humanitarian analysts (Ehrlich, Paddock, Meadows et al.) in the 1960s & 70s, the century did NOT culminate in massive famines that were believed would kill hundreds of millions in developing countries, principally India & Bangladesh. Instead, the Green Revolution (new high-growth varieties of grain crops) helped improve production of rice & other staples production in Asia beyond expectations. Indeed, late in the century, general malnutrition rates decreased steadily in every part of the world, except sub-Saharan Africa. Food security improved due to improved market linkages, social safety net programs, productivity & entrepreneurship. While emergency relief NGOs lobbied for relief aid, a proliferating number of micro-credit NGOs quietly funneled more aid, through revolving credit, to the more vulnerable parts of the world.

- Armed conflict continued to be fueled by availability of light & medium armaments. The success of Afghanistan's Taliban, & Moslems in Bosnia & Kosovo to stand up to oppressors emboldened a new drive for independence in Chechnya & Daghestan. Unfortunately for the Chechens, the success of US/Europe airpower against Yugoslav ground forces emboldened Russia, in turn, to destroy Chechnya. But the largest & most lethal war, by far, was between Ethiopia & Eritrea, barely mentioned in the press. More people died in 1999, as well, in complex emergencies in Angola, Sierra Leone, Sudan, & Burundi -- each -- than in the well- publicized crises in Kosovo & East Timor, where UN teams will race (compete) to see whether multilateral action can build a nation: construct laws & civil society. Both Kosovo & East Timor crises could have been prevented, just as prevention might yet quell spiraling tensions & violence today in the Ferghana Valley, Colombia, Burma, Montenegro, Aceh & Ambon Indonesia. China appears closer than ever to its first-ever foreign aggression (Taiwan). Overall, funding of humanitarian aid only reached 69% of what the UN calculated to be needed, in its comprehensive appeals (published by OCHA).

- Non-profit humanitarian organizations increasingly came together to harmonize & share guidelines for humanitarian action, evidenced by the SPHERE standards published at the end of 1999, following a decade of technically brilliant guidebooks written by MSF (1999's fearless Nobel Prize winner) & humanitarian standards pioneered by the Red Cross.

Sharing of early warning observations & news has also matured, though not in formal systems, but through the private press. Whereas a millennium ago, it took a lifetime for news of a crisis to travel a continent, or across an ocean, today, circulation of news about emerging crises, massacres, or of humanitarian standards & views occurs almost instantly across continents, as this issue of The Humanitarian Times exhibits.

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