Argument

Masters of Disasters?

The World Humanitarian Summit won’t solve the refugee crisis, but it’s an important first step to solving the really big problems.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (C) meets Syrian refugees during his visit in Hay al-Tanak an impoverished district that was turned into an informal Syrian refugee camp in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on March 25, 2016 .  / AFP / Ibrahim Chalhoub        (Photo credit should read )
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon (C) meets Syrian refugees during his visit in Hay al-Tanak an impoverished district that was turned into an informal Syrian refugee camp in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli on March 25, 2016 . / AFP / Ibrahim Chalhoub (Photo credit should read )

The global humanitarian system is cracking under the weight of perpetual crisis. There are some 125 million people in need of humanitarian aid this year, a staggering scale of misery on the edge of survivability. Of those in need, 60 million have been displaced by conflict and oppression. And the average length of “displacement” for a refugee is now 17 years. It’s a multi-generational catastrophe.

There are currently more “Level 3” humanitarian emergencies — the U.N.’s most severe designation — than at any one time ever before. But those headline-grabbers (Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen) account for just a fraction of those in need. There are hundreds of thousands of people displaced by conflict in Ukraine, Central African Republic, and Somalia — and Ethiopia is facing its worst drought in 50 years due to El Niño, putting nearly 20 million people in need of food and other aid.

The costs of crisis are, needless to say, escalating rapidly as well. The international donor community is spending 12 times on humanitarian assistance today than it did in 2000, but overall foreign aid has not even doubled in the last 15 years. No wonder the U.N. says there was a $15 billion funding shortfall to cover current humanitarian need across the globe last year.

There has long been an admirable consensus among public and private donors that humanitarian crises require robust responses — wherever they occur. Typhoon in pre-transition Myanmar? Send in rescue boats. Earthquake in Iran? George W. Bush sent Air Force cargo planes to deliver hundreds of thousands of pounds of relief supplies into the so-called “axis of evil.” But 80 percent of the humanitarian need is for man-made crises, not natural disasters, and that’s where things get tricky. Violent conflicts with millions of civilians caught in the crossfire are a little more complicated than feel-good logistics operations after a flood.

So with more people and more calamities costing more money — what’s the U.N. to do? Well, call a conference, of course. This week, the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit takes place in Istanbul, close to the action. Turkey is currently hosting more than 3 million refugees and asylum-seekers from Syria and Iraq, the most of any country in the world, according to the U.N. refugee agency. And that number is likely to rise following a deal with the European Union to stop further out-migration through Turkey.

The summit has big ambitions: a global recommitment of basic humanitarian principles (i.e., don’t bomb hospitals); more predictable funding goals to respond to crises; and more investment in early warning and risk analysis. And those are the easy ones.

These are noble goals. But as it stands, the summit is more confab than treaty convention, likely resulting in some great voluntary commitments but no real binding agenda for change. And that’s causing some frustration. Doctors Without Borders — a leading medical emergency organization — pulled out in advance because the conference didn’t have enough real member-state commitments. In a statement noting that 75 of its medical facilities were bombed last year — a gross violation of international humanitarian law — it called the summit “a fig-leaf of good intentions.” And on the other side of the spectrum, Russia’s Vladimir Putin isn’t going because he argues those pesky NGOs have too much say — and therefore might prevent U.N. member states from watering down the outcome.

So is there anything real to be achieved in Istanbul? The biggest difference anyone could make in the lives of the millions of people forced from their homes by savagery is to stop intentionally bombing and starving civilians and let them return and rebuild. But that won’t come out of a voluntary summit. The humanitarian expense of keeping refugee and internally displaced people camps on life support not only diverts resource spending from long-term development, but also drives the costs of lost infrastructure and economic growth into the trillions of dollars. While the summit will raise these issues, it is unlikely to make any progress in resolving them. As David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee and a former British foreign minister, said recently, “There is never a bureaucratic answer to a political problem.”

The next most important thing is the reform of the international humanitarian system itself. The collection of U.N. agencies and NGOs that sprung up over the last half-century was largely created to provide short-term emergency assistance, usually after a natural disaster, to keep people alive until they could get back home and rebuild. And this line of business has been largely successful. Investment in logistics, coordination, rapid deployment, and fundraising has made for very effective responses. Even more importantly, huge advances in reducing the risk of disaster in developing countries have been transformational in some places. In Bangladesh, in 1970, an average of 35,000 people died every year from storms and floods. Today, that number is approaching zero. A consistent, long-term investment in risk reduction by the United States and the U.N., combined with the political will and commitment to reform by the Bangladeshi government, has shown what is possible over time.

But the international humanitarian system is not really built for what it is mostly called on to do today — address long, slow, man-made crises. Can we really continue to think of Afghan or Somali refugees sitting in dusty border camps in Pakistan, Iran, and Kenya for several decades as a primarily humanitarian problem? We need to think about these populations as a longer-term development challenge. For hundreds of thousands of children who want an education, a job, or any semblance of a life with dignity — these camps are the only life they’ve ever known. For every Syrian refugee who has made the perilous journey to Europe, there are another nine who are refugees in poorer neighboring countries and millions more inside Syria who will have a rough road to recovery if the war ever ends.

There are two big changes being discussed in Istanbul that could really make a difference — and that the assembled NGOs, donors, and states could actually do something about. The first is to increase resources while shifting more of the spending toward helping people help themselves. There remains a vast need for rapid, life-sustaining action — but once people are out of immediate harm’s way, they need to get on with life. That means ensuring quality education and health care, access to training and work, and decent housing. This is particularly a political challenge for the countries hosting refugees, as they are almost always reluctant to see these populations putting down roots. Ironically, there is evidence that putting refugees to work increases economic growth and decreases criminality and other problems that arise from forced idleness and an identity in limbo.

One of the best ways to do this is to take some of the lessons from the big development changes of the last few decades — like using public funds to attract private investment — and apply them in humanitarian contexts. For example, the World Bank recently announced a $100 million investment to create 100,000 jobs in Jordan, split between Jordanian job-seekers and Syrian refugees. Or take Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder of yogurt giant Chobani and an outspoken humanitarian activist, who has advocated for a jobs-focused agenda to address the displacement crisis. He also hires refugees to work in his own factories.

The second is to make the humanitarian community itself more effective, more subject to transparency, and better coordinated. There have long been concerns about competition among the U.N. agencies and NGOs in emergency settings: that needs assessments and costs of delivering aid vary enormously, sowing distrust and confusion. In exchange for these improvements, the donor community may be more inclined to allow for longer-term planning and staffing of complex operations, rather than dribbling out funding commitments for only urgent necessities. This so-called “grand bargain” — proposed by the High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing — would bring the rigor of evidence-based decision-making and evaluation that has transformed the traditional development sector in recent years. Given that most of the money comes from a few donors, and most of the implementation is done by a few large organizations, an agreement among key actors could go a long way.

But let’s be real. There will be no peace agreements signed in Istanbul this week. The countries intentionally bombing civilians aren’t showing up to announce they will stop. In the months to come, the number of displaced people worldwide is likely to go up, not down. And the root causes of these global catastrophes will not be pruned at the summit.

But there is more money going from more organizations to more people in need than ever before in history, and preparation for the World Humanitarian Summit has forged a consensus that the international community can, and must, do better. It’s not a cure-all, but an important first step.

Photo credit: IBRAHIM CHALHOUB/AFP/Getty Images

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