A new humanitarian compact is needed for victims of conflicts everywhere

The current humanitarian system is underfunded, overburdened and mistrusted

Palestinians take boxes from a humanitarian aid truck as it crossed into the Gaza Strip AP
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What are the prospects for humanity in 2024? They will be determined, as ever, by conflicts and disasters, as well as the state of national development and international co-operation. The trends are not hopeful.

Wars in Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan and Myanmar continue. As does conflict in the Horn of Africa, the Sahelian coup-belt, and with the Houthis in the Red Sea region, gangs in Haiti, and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Crises continue in Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Tensions mount in the South China Sea.

About two billion people – a quarter of humanity – are mired in violence ranging from some 55 raging or simmering wars to about 80 other conflicts. While humankind has always fought, contemporary violence plunges new depths. In today’s society-wide confrontations, sexual violence and other atrocities, siege and starvation are commonplace.

Conventionally, humanitarian relief is seen as a sticking plaster, which is to say not serious medicine or proper treatment

Impunity reigns as crimes against humanity, war crimes and violations of international humanitarian law are normalised. As helpless cries of genocide ring out in several places, our terminology for brutality has lost shock value.

Then there is the climate crisis. Will this year be worse than last year, which was the hottest yet? With El Nino added, more extreme disaster events such as heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and floods are anticipated. Their impacts are most profound among conflict-torn populations, and the climate crisis is itself a generator of competition and conflict.

Meanwhile, development to mitigate risks and create resilience and equity is lagging. About 700 million people are short of drinking water and 850 million go hungry. Surging environmental risks favour the re-emergence of previously vanquished diseases and the seeding of new pandemics.

The Sustainable Development Goals are well behind their 2030 targets. Poor and vulnerable people have traditionally moved for safety and survival. This coping mechanism is increasingly blocked, and the displacement of people adds to global friction.

Good governance indicators decline as authorities restrict human rights to control restive populations. 2024 sees two billion people across more than 40 countries go to the polls. In this unprecedented test for democracy, several elections are not seen as fair or free, or considered flawed in other ways. When the losers agitate, more violence is to be expected.

A consequence of greater instability is increased dominance by new blocs of likeminded countries, at the expense of inclusive global co-operation. The UN and regional organisations are routinely bypassed as the economically and militarily strong assert hegemony.

Denying our world’s perilous state is dangerous. But equally so is falling into gloom and despair. We are not dealing with inexplicable or alien phenomena. Historically, turmoil has always accompanied great changes, and there are rational explanations for today’s hurts and harms as a new world order seeks to emerge. To stop that would be as futile as trying to hold back the tide.

How long will it take for a fair and just world order to emerge, hopefully creating better conditions for peace and harmony? This is a generation-long contest. The good news is that while we endure and adapt – willingly or otherwise – to unavoidable changes, we have sufficient knowledge and resources to ease the pains along the way.

But we lack the shared political will to do so. When that emerges depends on rapprochement between competing perspectives. That will happen only when protagonists accept that there can be no absolute victory for any particular social or political ideology.

Our world is big enough to accommodate many diverse outlooks. Although their chances of co-existence appear dim at present, history shows that uniting against common threats is transformative. Conquering pandemics such as Aids and Covid-19 are examples – imperfect like all human endeavours but, nevertheless, catalytic for wider public health advances. Strategic patience is essential as illustrated by the 28-year struggle to agree on transitioning away from fossil fuels at the Cop28 climate summit in Dubai.

Could spiralling suffering from conflicts and crises provide another great cause to rally the world? Not by erasing our entrenched differences because we are not ready for that – but by buying space and time until our disputes are ripe for resolution.

Reducing human-made suffering is not just a matter of humanity but important because the noise this causes in our age of social media and human rights activism detracts from solving complex underlying problems. It also corners belligerents into hardline corners from where they continue their depredations with ever-greater impunity.

History shows that the chasm between war and peace must eventually be bridged by humanity. And gratuitously burning that bridge prolongs violence. Therefore, humanitarian aid to mitigate suffering during conflict bears directly on the chance and sustainability of subsequent peace.

It is evident from Gaza, Sudan, Ethiopia and elsewhere that humanitarian crises overwhelm and complicate peacemaking efforts. Therefore, it is in the interest of protagonists to take the heat of unmitigated humanitarian crises out of their arguments even if they insist on continued fighting.

Moreover, as today’s wars do not remain confined, peace becomes a common global good – like our shared environment or public health. Therefore, meeting the world’s humanitarian needs to create the conditions for peace becomes a shared moral responsibility. That necessitates equitable burden sharing among all nations, whether or not they are involved in a particular war.

In short, we require a new global humanitarian compact for the victims of conflicts everywhere and at all times, regardless of who is causing them. This is justified because the crises of our interconnected world are rarely due only to localised factors. They are consequences of historical legacies and often perpetuated by outside interests. We are all responsible – indirectly or directly – for the misfortunes of others.

But a new humanitarian compact necessitates radically different aid arrangements. Not least because the current humanitarian system is underfunded, overburdened and mistrusted. Because it operates like a lottery skewed by dependence on a few donors and large international organisations that monopolise the sector and its heavily criticised practices. No global good can be advanced in this manner.

Conventionally, humanitarian relief is seen as a sticking plaster, which is to say not serious medicine or proper treatment for worldly ailments but a temporary covering for wounds we are unable to heal. It is time to turn this notion on its head by making a reformed and trustworthy humanitarian enterprise central to creating the mindsets willing to mend our quarrels.

How to start doing that would be a worthy debate in 2024.

Published: January 10, 2024, 7:00 AM