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Gaza, 2023 AIN Media

Opinion We are living in difficult times – but we must not give up hope

Karol Balfe of ActionAid Ireland looks back at a year of global turmoil.

LAST UPDATE | 28 Dec 2023

THESE DAYS ARE bleak. As we celebrate Christmas and New Year there’s no escaping the devastating and brutal war in Gaza. There’s no escaping the fact that if the bombs don’t kill in Gaza, hunger and disease will.

As a humanitarian who has been working in the human rights and development sector for almost two decades, I can’t remember a year ending with so much turmoil and disregard for human life.

I can’t remember having such despair in our institutions. Despite some welcome efforts, including from Ireland, the world powers have been utterly incapable of stopping the killing of children, women and men at an unprecedented scale in Gaza.

There’s no escaping the wider challenges and crises that are ever present in many places were ActionAid works, and across the world as a whole – climate, hunger, poverty, inequality, gender-based violence.

A tough year

During 2023 we saw horrific violence. We saw millions forcibly displaced, mass destruction of homes, hospitals, schools, health facilities and other critical civilian infrastructure and increasing climate emergencies. But there are few clear political resolutions in sight to put an end to the numerous crises causing misery to millions.

It is the gut-wrenching carnage in Gaza that is currently front of everyone’s mind.

Over 21,000 lives have been blown apart, more than two-thirds of those innocent women and children. This conflict has been very real and very visible, mainly due to the bravery of Palestinian journalists. Through their lens, we have seen broken bodies of sometimes entire families pulled out from under the rubble of their destroyed homes; children screaming in pain in overcrowded hospitals being operated on without anaesthetic; human limbs being picked out of piles of stone, and burials in mass graves of people shrouded in blood-stained white sheets, many not identified. They were not even afforded the dignity of a proper farewell.

ActionAid Gaza Gaza, 2023 AIN Media AIN Media

But with the spotlight on Gaza, we must not forget other ongoing crises. The war in Ukraine continues unabated and will be two years old in February. More than 10,000 civilians have lost their lives and the impact of displacement, trauma and death are both immediate and long-lasting.

Also of deep concern is Sudan. It is seven months since fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces erupted and Sudan is now facing a severe humanitarian crisis with 5.8 million people displaced, making it the country with the highest number of displaced individuals globally. It is also among the top four hot spots for food insecurity.

Those suffering the most

The situation is particularly dire there for children. Three million have fled violence, marking Sudan as the largest child displacement crisis, and at least 700,000 children are now at risk of acute malnutrition and mortality. Concerns have been raised about the abduction and abuse of women and girls.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, nearly a million people have been displaced alone in 2023 due to the conflict. Overall, since 1996, the conflict is estimated to have cost six million lives. Sexual and gender-based violence is widespread. The presence of armed groups and the flow of arms are contributing to a highly precarious and volatile situation. Children are being kidnapped or recruited by armed groups, and many have not had a stable home or education for two years.

gaza Gaza, 2023 AIN Media AIN Media

And among the greatest threats we face is the very one we’re struggling to face up to — the climate crisis. People in the Global South continue to suffer the worst effects of climate chaos — more extreme and more frequent weather events. This compounds poverty and inequality and undermines attempts to alleviate poverty.

It is a crisis not of their making, but the result of the carbon intensive industrialisation of countries of the Global North and those countries’ insatiable need to live and consume at rates beyond what the planet can sustain.

The response of world leaders is still not one of urgency, despite the fact we are hurtling towards climate collapse evidenced by the fact that this has been the hottest year on record, leaving a trail of devastation and despair.

While there was some progress at the recent COP28 climate summit in Dubai, with indications of an increased appetite for climate action, it is not as strongly focused on a fast, fair and full phase out of fossil fuels as it needs to be. And rich countries are still not putting their money where their mouths are, with willingness to fund a fossil-free future sorely lacking.

Lower income countries are already being pushed into debt by the cost of climate disasters and the danger is they will be forced to make impossible choices between economic security and climate action.

Across all these crises — climate, conflict, and others — gender-based violence is not a byproduct, but rather a central feature.

During crises, gender-based violence increases, rooted in deeply unequal power structures and discriminatory norms and practices. For example, violence is multiplied when women and girls are displaced and/or in emergency shelters where there no reporting or protection mechanisms. Trafficking in women and girls for domestic labour or sexual exploitation has been found to increase up to 30 per cent in displacement sites and during a disaster.

Never give up

However, it is vital that we do not give up hope. Because there is always hope. As we greet a new year and bear witness to growing humanitarian needs and the tremendous suffering of millions of people, we find hope in the incredible resilience and courage of communities who rebuild their lives, against the odds.

There is hope in the vibrant feminist movements and women’s rights organisations around the world. They are the single most important factor in sustaining the critical fight to prevent gender-based violence.

There is hope in the courage and commitment of doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, and humanitarian workers – in Gaza and around the world — who are putting their lives at risk on the front lines to save lives.

There is hope in people power demanding more from governments. As our institutions let us down, everyday people, particularly young people, continually push for a better world, particularly in the area of climate change and calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

I look at my four-year-old daughter and wonder what sort of world will be there for her. She will grow up facing these challenges and the impact of the world’s failure to tackle the climate crisis, conflict and injustice. But she will also grow up among the young people who are demanding better.

Her generation will be our future political, business and social leaders, and with them comes the hope of a world where peace will prevail, and the climate crisis train will be slowed down. We must not let hope fade and do everything we can, right now, to make it better for them.

Karol Balfe is CEO of ActionAid Ireland. ActionAid has been working in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) for many years supporting Palestinian people living without access to basic services. For further information about their Gaza appeal see

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