EXCLUSIVE: OIC Chief Calls for Fixing the Global Humanitarian System

A displaced Iraqi woman holds her child on a street as the battle between the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service and Daesh militants continues nearby, in western Mosul, Iraq, April 23, 2017. The markings on the child are from play and she is unhurt.

By Hesham Youssef
Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

The plight of refugees has once again reached the world’s screens. This time, it is not the sight of drowned children washed up on the beach or news reports about capsized boats overcrowded with refugees; It is U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent ban on Syrian refugees and nationals from six other countries as per Trump’s revised order that was issued on March 6.

But as horrific as these developments are, and as loudly as we must voice our concerns about them, they are still symptoms of a much bigger global problem.

Trump’s decision reflects, in the strongest and clearest way, a shift away from the spirit of global humanitarian cooperation. But there are also signs that this spirit of multilateral humanitarian cooperation is waning amongst the wider international community.

Just last week, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told the UN Security Council the world was facing the “largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations” with more than 20 million people facing starvation and famine across four countries.

The global humanitarian system is, in more ways than one, breaking down.

To fix it requires an international commitment towards pursuing a stronger global humanitarian ethic, more equitable burden sharing between countries.

As well, an acknowledgement that the global challenges of our day, be it refugee crises or climate change, represents a problem for us all and therefore, requires our collective resolve in finding solutions.

An unprecedented challenge

The scale of today’s global humanitarian challenge is, in many ways, unprecedented in nature and scope.

The size of that challenge is staggering; almost 50 percent of Syria’s population of over twenty-two million, and three million Iraqis are displaced, and at the same time, up to 80 percent of Yemenis need humanitarian assistance.

The seventy-first session of the U.N. General Assembly last September expects that the humanitarian situation will get worse almost everywhere.

That bleak picture is compounded by the international community’s inability to address the continued erosion of, and in some cases, shocking disregard to international humanitarian law in countless crises and conflicts. As Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, recently indicated, “Civilians are treated as pawns in geopolitical battles fought from the sky.”

The harsh truth is that the current humanitarian system is simply unsuited to dealing with a new type of asymmetrical warfare that has little respect for civilian lives. As such, we have admittedly been incapable of improving protection for civilians and vulnerable people in conflict zones.

The only effective way to reduce humanitarian needs is to end conflicts – something the international community has been unable to build sufficient consensus to achieve.

Until it does, the humanitarian system needs radical transformation to keep up with the magnitude of the world’s conflicts and natural disasters.

That transformation needs more than just money. After all, funds made available for humanitarian effort have been on the rise – but so, too, has the gap between the financial needs and available resources. It requires leadership and strategic foresight, political will and increased cooperation between governments and civil society to address unprecedented and evolving humanitarian challenges.

Collective challenges require collective responses 

The scale of this challenge can only be met through international cooperation. Humanitarian challenges are global in nature. They require a global response.

This is what makes Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ all the more troubling. It doesn’t just fall short of the mark – it is a giant and deliberate step in the opposite direction.

To make a truly global, collective humanitarian infrastructure possible requires a more equitable system of burden sharing. At the moment, we are witnessing a huge overburden for some and the death of compassion by others.

For example, while there have been increasingly inhumane anti-refugee measures taken by the U.S. and several European countries – it is the developing world that is carrying the majority of the burden by hosting an incredible 86 percent of refugees registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In fact, the Syrian crises gave a new meaning to burden sharing. One in every three living in Lebanon and one out of every four or five living in Jordan is a Syrian refugee. Turkey is host to around 2.5 million refugees and seven out of the ten largest countries hosting refugees in the world are Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states.

The real challenge then, is one of mobilizing leadership and supporting countries hosting millions of refugees despite limited resources. Geographical proximity should not constitute the sole criteria for receiving refugees. In that regard, countries like Sweden and Germany represent aspirational models for the rest of the developed world.

The humanitarian-development nexus

It is not just nation-states that must collaborate and join forces. So vast are the humanitarian challenges facing the 21st century that collaboration between humanitarian disciplines is also necessary.

The scale of the humanitarian challenge facing the world means we cannot just work harder, we must also work smarter. Resources and capabilities must be better utilised through new forms of partnerships and collaborations.

That means making progress on years of discussions pertaining to the linkages between development and humanitarian assistance. Such discussions evolved in the context of resilience efforts – with some limited progress having been achieved. However, they are yet to lead to a level of coherence that ensures a positive long-term effect.

That’s a shame because sustainable development needs are increasingly intertwined with humanitarian ones.

Take, for example, the need for long-term education and mental wellbeing amongst refugees (psychological trauma and mental illness being a major problem for many refugees). The lack of support for such problems contributes to the tragedy of the “lost generation;” a generation of Syrian children for whom conflict has become the norm and who are without the skills and sense of wellbeing to make a positive contribution to their societies. How well long-term development efforts complement humanitarian ones will determine how effectively such problems can be addressed.

The necessity of civil society collaboration

As agreed at the World Humanitarian Summit 2016, for humanitarian efforts to be “as local as possible and as international as necessary,” we must empower local civil society to play a bigger role in the decision-making process and within humanitarian assistance activities as a whole.

The new humanitarian infrastructure is one that must learn from the private sector, deepen the culture of continuous improvement in the entire humanitarian assistance cycle and take advantage of technological advances.

As the threat to global humanitarian well-being has become more elusive and all-encompassing, whether that threat comes from terrorism, civil war, climate change or natural disasters, so too must the response become more coordinated and the efforts of government, the private sector and civil society more fused.

At the crossroads: an uncertain future 

We stand today, at a crucial juncture in history. Whether history remembers us as the generation that pulled together in the spirit of global cooperation to fight on behalf of the world’s victims, or the generation that witnessed the death of compassion depends on how governments act today.

What is perceived as Trump’s ‘Muslim ban,’ is an alarming sign that the world is moving in the wrong direction – though the retorts of global leaders have been encouraging. To redress this imbalance requires political will and a renewed confidence in the multilateral frameworks that populist nationalism would have us turn our back on. In that regard, we are fortunate to have António Guterres, a man who is no stranger to the humanitarian scene and who could inspire confidence in that spirit of global cooperation, as the new U.N. Secretary General.

But this is a truly global endeavour, one that requires global public opinion and civil society to pull behind one of the most important struggles of our time. In the words of UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien, there is a very real danger that millions of “people will simply starve to death” without collective and coordinated global efforts.

To fail in such an effort might only hurt the world’s refugees, needy and impoverished today, but will create a world that will hurt us all tomorrow.

About the Author

Ambassador Hesham Youssef is Assistant Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. He is an Egyptian diplomat and was Chief of Staff to the former Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa (2003-2011). He joined the Arab League as an official spokesman in 2001. Ambassador Youssef’s career as a diplomat began in 1985 when he joined the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt. He went on to work at the Egyptian Embassy in Canada and then at the Egyptian mission to the UN and WTO in Geneva. 

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