The Human Tinderbox in the Middle East

A growing roster of global crises is putting strains on the ability of humanitarian organizations to provide aid. And the United States needs to step up and lead.


The 25,000 civilians who fled the Iraqi city of Ramadi after its recent fall to the Islamic State represent only the latest wave of tragic human dislocation resulting from violence in the Middle East. Turmoil across the region has displaced more than 15 million people since 2011, leaving their return uncertain. Today, a staggering 78 million people worldwide, many uprooted, need assistance to meet basic food and shelter needs. This reflects a steady and unrelenting increase, up from approximately 30 million in 2006 and 65 million in 2012.

This situation is the human byproduct of political disintegration in conflict-torn countries across the Middle East and around the world, resulting from weakened state authority, the rise of brutal extremism, and conflicts based on power, religion, and ideology. The dislocation and desperation this chaos produces will only continue to grow, overtaking our collective institutional capacity to deal with it, while accelerating the vicious cycles of violence and disruption.

The humanitarian machinery established by the international community, largely after World War II, along with private relief groups, does courageous and remarkable work every day. But we simply do not have the resources and capacity to meet the world’s exploding needs. Both the United States and the international community need to rethink their approach to this burgeoning crisis and how, creatively and practically, to scale up global efforts to break the cycle of devastation.

A good example both of the heroics of the humanitarian effort and the heartbreak of inadequate resources is the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which can mobilize and deploy its resources more quickly and efficiently than any organization in the world, outside of the U.S. military. Each year it aims to feed more than 80 million people around the world, meeting that goal last year with a budget of $5.4 billion, its highest ever. The United States was the WFP’s largest and most generous donor, providing more than a third of its funds.

Nonetheless, increased and unfulfilled funding needs have forced the WFP to reduce food rations for those most in need, in places such as Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Even for those caught in the maelstrom of Syria, WFP has been forced to carefully mete out its resources among people, frequently with different results for neighbors living under virtually indistinguishable situations. In the month of January alone, the WFP slashed the number of Syrian refugees receiving aid from 1.9 million to 1.7 million, and has since reduced benefits by another 30 percent. “We are unable to look refugee fathers and mothers in the eye and tell them we don’t know whether they will be getting assistance in June, July, and August,” says Joelle Eid, the organization’s spokesperson.

This situation is not unique to WFP. UNICEF, which provides vital support for children’s education, health, and nutrition, is facing strain in the face of these humanitarian crises. In Iraq, 77 frontline clinics have been forced to close due to a lack of funding. Nearly 3 million Iraqis have been internally displaced since the start of 2014 and face dire situations, according to the United Nation’s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq.

It is tragic that millions face daily uncertainty about their basic survival and dignity. But this also poses a broader risk to both the United States and the international community. We can debate the primary roots of violent extremism — the mix of poverty and hopelessness, ideology, and zealotry — but the presence of hunger and homelessness in large numbers weakens the grip of central authority, creating open spaces and desperate people for Islamic extremists and other militants to exploit. There are many reasons that Yemen has unraveled, for instance. But the fact that some 40 percent of its people do not receive their minimum food requirements is not immaterial. Poor governance, deteriorating humanitarian conditions, and conflict often go hand-in-hand.

The United States has done more than any other country to meet these global needs. Americans should feel good about that but hardly satisfied. The world is falling short — and by a large measure: only 52 percent of the United Nation’s overall appeals for humanitarian assistance were met in 2014. But it is not simply a matter of digging deeper into our pockets, although that is necessary. The international community must fundamentally reconsider how it approaches these issues.

First, we should view the challenges posed by these basic needs as threats to our own national security. Hard power and soft power are not separate instruments of power: They are a continuum of tools that, when applied together, advance U.S. interests and influence. Food security and humanitarian assistance programs are threat-reduction programs, just as much as those dealing with nuclear materials, biological agents, or chemical weapons. And our national security policy should reflect this. We should reshape and supplement the Overseas Contingency Operations portions of the foreign assistance budget intended for war zones and deploy them, through existing distribution channels, for basic relief in countries likely to become conflict zones or terrorist havens if their governments are unable to meet the basic needs of their people.

Second, our allies in the Gulf can do more to strengthen international relief efforts, while continuing to contribute to targeted Islamic relief groups such as International Blue Crescent. Last year, amid an acute funding crisis, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait made significant emergency commitments to the United Nations. Private Islamic organizations do reach people in need. But we should encourage countries in the region to strengthen the efforts of international groups like WFP and UNICEF that serve a more universal population, have greater transparency, and have the most efficient economies of scale.

Third, we need new funding mechanisms if we are to meet these enormous needs. One idea is a small surcharge on airline tickets. For example, France’s “solidarity tax” — as little as $1 per economy class airplane ticket — has raised over $1 billion since its inception to raise funds for drugs to fight AIDS, malaria, and other diseases in the developing world. This is not necessarily the only answer, but it suggests the type of innovative financing that could help us confront the scale of this challenge, particularly if pursued on a global basis.

If we don’t accommodate this new normal, our friends — particularly in the Middle East — will suffer under growing pressure, and our homeland will be less secure. But there is a compelling human dimension as well. You can see it in the faces of the 3 million Iraqis driven from their homes since the start of 2014; in the 80,000 Syrian refugees crowded into the Zaatari camp in Jordan; in the fear of the more than 1 million people who have fled from Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

But there is no place that presents that moral dimension more starkly than Syria. There, President Bashar al-Assad has conducted an unrelenting and brutal four-year assault that makes no distinction between combatants and civilians. Over 200,000 Syrian civilians have been killed, 6,000 by the most primitive weapons of modern warfare: barrels filled with shrapnel landing on villages and schools.

The world has been eerily quiet in the face of all this. Since 2013, fewer than 65,000 of the approximately 4 million Syrian refugees have been resettled. The United States has taken in around 700 carefully vetted Syrian refugees over the past four years, and there is an ongoing argument about taking in 2,000 more by this fall.

The United States can do more. The politics in Washington are difficult, although there has been a consistent bipartisan consensus over several years on humanitarian assistance. But just as important as generosity is leadership. America can spearhead the process — and include Europe, the Gulf States, China, Russia, and others, together with the public and private groups who are on the front lines every day — to create 21st-century solutions for dealing with the dire humanitarian needs that are right in front of our eyes.

We cannot choose not to see. We can only choose not to act.

Photo credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

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