What Our Analysts Are Reading – July, 2023

Navanti’s data collection and analysis are based on networks of on-the-ground researchers from all walks of life: journalists, academics, and humanitarian workers, to name a few. Our analysts also keep abreast of open source reports to inform their work. Below, these analysts have summarized and contextualized the most important pieces they have read and listened to over the past month.

Food Security

Ukraine is one of the world’s top grain suppliers, particularly wheat. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, millions of tonnes of grains were prevented from being exported as a result of blockades of the Black Sea ports, causing world food prices to climb. To address this, a deal was made in July 2022 between Turkey, the UN, and Russia to ensure that Ukraine could continue to export grain and fertilizer through its southern ports on the Black Sea. The Black Sea initiative, aimed at relieving rising food costs, allowed for a 310-nautical-mile-long and three nautical-mile-wide corridor for cargo ships leaving the Ukranian ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhny/Pivdennyi for the Bosphorus Strait. Following the deal, world food prices declined by around 20%. A majority of the Black Grain Initiative’s exports went to developing countries, and supplied the World Food Program (WFP) with 80% of its grain over the year.

However, by April 2023, the tonnage of exports through the initiative decreased by 29% compared to the previous month,  decreased a further 66% by May, and finally ended in July 2023 when Putin called the deal unfair and accused the West of using the deal to prioritize its own markets.

Since the deal ended, Russian missile attacks targeting Ukraine’s ports in the Black Sea have destroyed around 60,000 tonnes of grain so far. International food markets have already felt the effects, with wheat prices rising sharply.  Food security is particularly threatened in East Africa, where many countries have imported significant amounts of grain under the deal. Despite this, Putin has refused to rejoin, and instead announced at a recent summit with African leaders that Russia would send up to 50,000 tons of free grain to several African countries in the coming months, an amount significantly less than needed to offset the impacts of a blockade on Ukraine grain exports.


The author of a Critique of Overpopulation as a Cause of Pathologies in African Cities: Evidence from Building Collapse in Ghana uses an accident research framework methodology to evaluate the claim that Africa’s urban problems stem from overpopulation. Using data from building collapses in Ghanaian cities, the author finds that this claim fails because it overlooks the impact of systemic underdevelopment conditions and the socio-political-economic order that itself stems from connects back to the colonial and post-colonial national policies and international programs, which have a far greater impact on urban social and economic conditions.


The past several years in Libya has seen the escalating fusion of private militia groups, the central state, and thriving illicit interests like human and drugs trafficking. The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime released a report in July detailing how criminal activity has penetrated the state, with militia leaders rising to levels of increasing political prominence and using this veneer of legitimacy to advance their interests. Wolfram Lacher agrees in a piece for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, arguing that “the institutionalization of these groups and the massive influence of their leaders at the highest levels show that the militias have become the state.”


A recent report by Russian investigative journalist exposed a Russian state-backed program aimed at luring women from a number of developing countries, including Tajikistan, to work in drone assembly plants. That Tajik nationals are being targeted is telling for two reasons. First, this recruitment demonstrates that work-related immigration from Tajikistan to Russia is still robust, even as sanctions threaten the Russian economy and Tajik workers seek remittance opportunities in other job markets. The other important aspect of Tajik workers in drone plants is the language connection, as Tajik employees are reportedly sought for their ability to communicate with Iranian engineers responsible for drone design. While the usage of Iranian drones by Russian forces in Ukraine has been widely reported, the intersection of Central Asian migration and the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows Moscow’s war-making has significant regional effects for the Eurasian landmass.

Saudi Arabia 

The Arab Center in Washington DC has published a report highlighting the growing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in the Arabian Gulf and the broader Arab world. Despite their outward appearance of being two sides of the same coin, the two oil-rich monarchies have been engaged in a quiet struggle to emerge as the preeminent power in the region. Economic competition, territorial disputes, and differing conceptions of national missions have contributed to the tensions. The UAE’s growing economic diversification, ambitious development plans, and closer ties with Israel have added to the rivalry, while Saudi Arabia seeks to challenge the UAE’s position as the leading business and transportation center in the Middle East. These differences may impact American security strategy in the region and complicate efforts to counter Iran and integrate Israel into the region. The United States could potentially leverage this competition to advance its security and diplomatic objectives in the Gulf.

Wagner Group

Brookings Institute has published a comprehensive report analyzing the future of the Wagner Group’s operations in Africa and the Middle East after its failed rebellion in Russia. Despite initial predictions of a decline, it is likely that Wagner’s operations in these regions will persist, as they serve multiple interests of the Russian state and can be separated from its operations in Ukraine and Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has confirmed that Wagner’s operations in Africa will continue. These operations are of strategic value to Russia, facilitating its influence, access to raw commodities, and revenue through smuggling and illicit economies. The report suggests that rather than liquidation, Russian intelligence services may restructure Wagner in Africa and the Middle East, weakening ties to its disgraced boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and strengthening links to the Kremlin. The African and Middle Eastern countries that have contracted Wagner’s services might find it difficult to fire the group due to their reliance on its military capabilities and support for authoritarian regimes. As Russia attempts to reassert control over Wagner, African governments will likely seek clarity on the group’s future during the Russia-Africa Summit.


UN News Center published a report about a remarkable UNDP-led operation that saved a stranded oil tanker named Safer off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea, preventing the risk of the fifth largest oil spill in history. The ambitious effort, which began on July 25, 2023, involved a two-year-long fundraising campaign and a dedicated UN salvage team tasked with transferring one million barrels of crude oil from the deteriorating Safer to a replacement vessel. The tanker’s operations were suspended in 2015 due to the Yemeni conflict, leading to structural decay and a potential environmental catastrophe. The UN warns of the ongoing threat posed by the tanker, as it could devastate fishing communities, endanger marine life, disrupt vital shipping lanes, and impact desalination plants along the Red Sea coast. The report highlights the urgent need for an additional $22 million to complete the mission successfully, and the key role played by UN agencies, including the UN Development Programme, in implementing this critical project.