David Miliband: Conflict, climate and Covid fuelling humanitarian crises

Exclusive: President and CEO of International Rescue Committee says people 'pushed very close to the precipice'

David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, warned that “conflict, climate and Covid" create a vicious circle. Victor Besa / The National
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As the world emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, there are fears of a global downturn, and possible recession, making humanitarian crises even more acute.

With the Ukraine war entering its tenth month, resources for other crises are becoming limited as they are diverted there.

In an exclusive interview with The National, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband warned that “conflict, climate and the economic consequences of Covid feed off each other in this vicious circle”.

Mr Miliband says there are three important numbers to keep in mind.

The first is 54 – the number of civil wars or conflicts going on around the world.

Those conflicts lead to the second number, and that is “100 million, the number of people displaced from their homes by conflict and disaster because of a conflict and climate mix”. Fifty-five million people are displaced internally within their own countries, while 45 million are crossing borders as refugees and asylum seekers.

The third number, which Mr Miliband called “almost the most chilling”, is 345 million, and that is the number of people “who will go to bed hungry tonight”. There is “the threat of real famine in Somalia, in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, maybe even Yemen and Afghanistan”, said Mr Miliband.

“More people than ever are dependent on humanitarian aid,” he said. “More people than ever are being driven from their homes as refugees, more conflicts are continuing for a long duration, which explains why refugees are out of their own homes for five to 10, or 15 to 20 years”.

This is all coming “at a time when global politics is in a mess. There’s gridlock in all sorts of international institutions. And people on the edge feel that they’re being pushed very close to the precipice”, said Mr Miliband.

The IRC works in 40 war-­affected countries, in addition to refugee resettlement and assistance programmes in 28 cities in the US.

Every December, it publishes an annual watch list of 20 countries at risk of major humanitarian disaster, based on about 80 different indicators. Last year, Ukraine was not listed, but it is fast becoming a major humanitarian crisis.

“We did miss Ukraine last year, and we kick ourselves for that, but it didn’t appear in our data sets,” Mr Miliband said.

“It seemed outlandish that in November, December last year, a permanent member of the Security Council should invade its neighbour without any provocation.

“Ukrainians are the biggest victims of the war in Ukraine, and it’s going to be a brutal winter … but we’re all victims of the war in Ukraine.”

Higher food and energy prices around the world and “global political tension that arises from the Ukraine crisis, is both a symptom of political breakdown and a cause of further breakdown”.

“There’s a real sense that global politics is broken down because of the Ukraine crisis,” he said. “And my concern as someone who’s running a humanitarian organisation is that those least able to fend for themselves are the greatest victims of the failure.

“I think this Ukraine crisis is a moment of reckoning, not just for Europeans. It’s a moment of reckoning globally.

Concerns at diversion of aid

“I’m very concerned at the diversion of aid from the ­Middle East, from parts of Africa into Ukraine. Yes, the needs in Ukraine are real, but we can’t have first-class aid in Ukraine and second or third-class aid elsewhere.

“It’s a very important part of our work in the rescue committee, saying, don’t forget the Somalias, the Syrias, the Afghanistans of this world. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should forget about Ukraine either. But it’s the global ­humanitarian tragedy.”

He said it would be “a double whammy if the poorest people in other parts of the world pay the greatest price for Ukraine”.

Mr Miliband is concerned about impunity in conflicts around the world.

“We’ve got too many tragic examples of our own staff and others being targeted because they’re aid workers,” he said.

A member of the IRC team in Ethiopia was killed last month as he was delivering aid in the Tigray region.

Mr Miliband said it was important that refugees received enough aid and support, while at the same time long-term solutions were sought.

Resettlement to third countries is currently at 8 per cent, while neighbouring countries bear most of the burden of hosting refugees.

“Frankly the countries in the world that are bearing the greatest responsibility for refugees are not rich countries, it’s the Lebanons, the Jordans, the Ugandas and Bangladeshes of this world,” said Mr Miliband.

Syrian refugees leave Lebanon — in pictures

He urged the US and others to take more refugees in, but added: “That is not the answer to the refugee crisis, because, for most refugees, their greatest dream is to go home … so they don’t want to travel to the other side of the world, they actually want to stay close.”

That requires two elements, “diplomacy that allows them to go home … and secondly, real support for the countries that are hosting refugees”.

Mr Milband said a difficult aspect of the IRC’s work was securing funding for victims of drawn-out conflicts.

He said: “The plea not to forget us can’t just go to the West. There are responsibilities on all those with wealth.

“There are people in this region and there are countries in this region that have wealth, and there are global responsibilities that come with power and with wealth.

“Whenever I come to the Gulf, my appeal is this is a region that is remarkable for its ambition … just look around us,” Mr Miliband said, in reference to the advances in the UAE. “It’s a country that’s thinking how far it’s come in 50 years and what’s going to happen in the next 50. So the ambition is extraordinary. But the compassion is an important part of the culture too.

“The message of ‘don’t forget’, is a message that the International Rescue Committee has to take to its traditional western donors. It also has to take it to governments and the private sector, to philanthropists and businesses in the Gulf, because we need to be partnering with them too.”

Continuing mission in Afghanistan

The IRC continues to work in Afghanistan despite the presence of the Taliban-run government. “There’s a very important principle here, work through civil society. If you want to build a nation, you have to build it from the grass roots, if you want to support people, then support people,” Mr Miliband said.

He said the IRC had 3,000 employees in 12 provinces, while 4,000 more auxiliary workers depended on its support. Forty-four per cent of them are women, including in senior positions.

Mr Miliband said the IRC speaks to “the governing authorities at the national and local level”.

“But do we let them tell us what to do? No. Do we work in accordance with local customs? Yes … most of our employees [in Afghanistan], all but six of them, are Afghans. So they’re defending their own communities”

The issue of poverty and a collapsing economic system is one that plagues not only Afghanistan, but Syria too. Mr Miliband would not be drawn into the political discussion on engaging with the Syrian regime or the possibility of commencing reconstruction there.

“It is very important to speak to the humanitarian needs,” he said, including the issue of the cholera outbreak and support for the internally displaced. The IRC does not work in government-controlled areas.

A year under the Taliban in Afghanistan — in pictures

On Yemen, Mr Miliband was more optimistic after a truce earlier this year and lower levels of violence.

“It’s very, very interesting that in 2022, of many dark spots, Yemen is actually in a better place than it was a year ago,” he said. The conflict is in some ways “halted and life has begun to take some form … now we need to pile in behind those accelerators of progress, and try to mitigate the danger of relapse”.

He issued a plea “that we don’t throw it all away”.

“Yemen has been traumatised over the last decade, and the people of Yemen have been traumatised. [There are] still 23 million people that are in need of humanitarian assistance. So there’s a desperate need that the next year doesn’t see a relapse in Yemen,” he said.

Crisis watch list

It is likely that these countries will feature on the IRC’s annual crisis watch list, which will be published next month.

Mr Miliband said “conflict, climate and Covid” were the three big drivers of the watch list last year, but “there’s an additional driver this year, which is the economic downturn”.

“My message is there are real solutions,” he said.

“If you care about malnutrition, you can actually do something about it. If you care about the displacement of people, and how they’re treated, we can do something about it, we’ve got some real solutions that we can put into practice. And so what you can expect from the watch list is that it will follow the science, but also that it will be about the solution, not just suffering.”

The economic downturn is set to affect the humanitarian sector, with increased questions about the management of aid resources.

In the IRC, 87 per cent of funds go directly to beneficiaries, with the rest on management and running costs. Mr Miliband said transparency “through open books” was a must.

“We now spend 3 per cent of our total $1.5 billion budget on IT. That makes us more effective at the front line. So transparency, education and explanation is important,” he said.

UK politics role 'not on his mind'

While Mr Miliband has carved out a reputation as a leading humanitarian, he is still remembered in the UK for a political career that came to a halt when he stepped down from his parliamentary seat as a Labour MP in 2013 to take up his position at the IRC.

A decade on, he says going back to the UK to seek office is “not on my mind”. He repeated a line that he has become known for: “I make my professional decisions according to where I think I can make the most impact, consistent with my responsibilities to my family.”

He continues to follow UK politics closely and did not hide his disappointment over the events of the past few months, during which the country has had three prime ministers.

“I’m a British citizen, so I’m very proud of being British. I mourn the fact that we’ve humiliated ourselves in the last few years or months,” he said. “People want the UK to be a source of stability.”

However, he ended on an optimistic note, saying “the country still has strengths and it’s got to refine them”.

Updated: November 09, 2022, 4:53 AM
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