Lezing van David Miliband

We are meeting at a time of tragedy on the shores of southern Europe.  Who would have believed that in the second decade of the 21st century, Europe of all continents, Europe largely at peace for 70 years, Europe the world's largest richest single market, Europe the world's largest humanitarian donor, Europe the guardian of the European Convention on Human Rights, Europe the home of the Nobel Peace Prize, would stand accused of turning a blind eye to mass drowning in its own seas?

Europe whose self-image is of the highest virtue is now accused of great vice.  Europe which often seeks to persuade others is now told to clean up its own act.  Europe which embodies a new kind of internationalism is now challenged to live up to its own standards.

So the stakes are high.
Today I want to reflect on the tumult around the world that forces desperate people to flee to Europe's shores; I want to ask what the humanitarian system can do in response to that tumult; I want to make the case that the best thing we can do is strengthen the humanitarian effort upstream, because by the time ships are pulling bodies from the Mediterranean it is too late; and I want to announce what I believe is a really path-breaking new partnership between a great and renowned Dutch organization, Stichting Vluchteling, and my organization, the International Rescue Committee, to put these ideas into practice.

Decade of Disorder

Last year set a world record for the number of people displaced from their homes by conflict and disaster. Today at least 52 million people are displaced; 16 million crossed borders into other countries and 36 million remained displaced within their own country. A few specific examples shed light on these unimaginable numbers: 

In Syria, four years of conflict have left hundreds of thousands dead, and 11 and a half million people – half the country’s population – have been forced from their homes. Every second Syrian still in the country now needs humanitarian aid, as do the four million people who’ve fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. They have overtaken the Afghans to become the largest refugee population in the world. Syria’s neighbors are at full capacity and can no longer cope, forcing refugees to flee farther afield. More than 122,000 Syrians sought asylum in Europe last year. Over half of those refugees were so desperate they sought Europe’s shores by boat.

Pakistan currently hosts 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees, many of whom fled Afghanistan decades ago, or are the children of those who fled. Perhaps a million more are in the country unregistered, according to some estimates. Pakistan itself has experienced significant displacement within its own borders: violence, insecurity and severe flooding have uprooted around 1.2 million people from their homes, mainly in the country’s north-west, but also in the province of Balochistan and other areas.

The continent of Africa has a burgeoning middle class of 300 million people, but the story of ‘Africa Rising’ sits alongside that of ‘Africa Struggling’.  Given yesterday’s donor conference for South Sudan in Geneva I will touch upon the situation there. South Sudan – a country the size of France - is imploding. A year and half of conflict have plunged what was already one of the poorest countries in the world into a state of terrifying crisis. The economy is in free-fall. In May, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, reported that some 4.6 million people will be severely food insecure by next month. Continuing violence, coupled with the country’s minimal infrastructure and the onset of the rainy season means that it’s very difficult for agencies like the International Rescue Committee to get aid into the hands of those who need it. 

The conflict in Ukraine has special meaning here in the Netherlands, after the terrible downing of Malaysian Airliner MH 17.  The lives of five million people in Ukraine have been upended by the violence that broke out there in February of last year. More than 1.3 million people remain displaced inside the country, and hundreds of thousands more are sheltering in neighboring states. The conflict in Ukraine serves to underscore the very real risks that humanitarian workers face every day in delivering aid to those in need: at the end of April gunmen stormed my organisation’s office in Donetsk and detained 3o IRC staff. Two of them were held in captivity for ten days, in an appalling affront to the basic humanitarian principles that govern and underpin our work.

No wonder President Obama remarked that if you turn on the news you would think the world is going to hell.

And here is the paradox.  By the conventional measures of international conflict, in a way the most obvious measure of conflict, last year was remarkably peaceful.  If you believe the Ukraine conflict was a war within a state rather than a war between states, there were in fact no interstate wars as conventionally defined.  And there is the clue.  Although there were no hot wars between states there were plenty of wars within states.  Up to 42 on some counts.  42 countries that were imploding.  42 countries unable to keep difference peaceful.  42 countries like Iraq, Syria, Somalia, South Sudan, Myanmar where people resorted to violence to get their way.

The question is why. 

Schools of thought

There are really three schools of thought.

One view is that, just as the Reformation convulsed Europe half a millennium ago, so today the world is witnessing a struggle of similarly explosive potential within the Islamic world. From Syria to Afghanistan to Nigeria, we see this in our work every day.  This struggle within Islam pits pluralism against purification. It is ripping countries and regions apart, luring people to travel halfway around the world to join jihad, and threatens to unleash more violence against Muslims, as well against Christians, Jews, Yazidis and others. 

As Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid puts it: “This is above all a war within Islam: a conflict of Sunni against Shia, but also a war by Sunni extremists against more moderate Muslims.”

But the battle within Islam alone is not a satisfactory or sufficient explanation for the state of anarchy we see in a place like South Sudan, whose 11 million people gained independence three years ago. After Sudan emerged from a devastating civil war, South Sudan’s independence referendum received 99 per cent support. Yet today two million of the citizens of the world’s newest country have again been uprooted, which has nothing to do with Islam and everything to do with a struggle along ethnic lines for control of resources.

At least two other factors are vital to understanding the acute crisis in dozens of fragile states around the world today. 

The first is the flip side of globalization: Far from homogenizing the world’s population and erasing differences, our era is marked by the increasingly sharp assertion of local ethnic, political, and religious identities. And, critically, an increasing number of states are unable to contain these divisions within peaceful boundaries. Their political systems are too brittle, their populations too poor, and their neighbors too meddlesome to enable their leaders to find ways to share power and meet people’s needs.

There is a further factor at play, which contributes to the sense that we are entering a decade of disorder, in which destabilizing humanitarian crises in failing or failed states are not properly addressed. It is a factor easy to state and difficult to redress: The international system is weak and divided.

Though the Cold War was marked by global polarization, with distinct geopolitical blocs sponsoring conflicts, it was also a period in which the international system was more ordered than today. We should not mourn the Cold War’s passing, but we should recognize the consequences of the vacuum that has persisted in its place for the last quarter-century. Today, the world’s ability to come together in an effective way has become a dim memory.

Consider the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. A slow and weak international response meant that local community-based initiatives were not fully supported, yet were responsible for the heavy lifting. As a result, while Ebola was eventually beaten back, the death toll was nearly 10 000. 

The larger picture is one of international institutions besieged by competing demands and national priorities. Far from being overweening – an allegation that is frequently made against the European Union and the UN – they struggle to assert international over national interests.  That much is evident in the European migration crisis, where the response is inadequate to the scale and nature of the needs.  Alongside weak structures in fragile states, this is a recipe for chaos.

The Humanitarian Response

This is the context for discussing the role and response of the humanitarian sector today.
What do I mean by the humanitarian sector?  I mean $22 billion of spend; 35 government donors; nearly 300 international and 100 national NGO recipients of international funding; and nine UN agencies who combine roles of donors, fund-raisers, implementers, coordinators.
And why do I talk of a humanitarian sector, and not a humanitarian system?  It is not by accident.  I speak of a sector rather than a system because although the myriad of organizations helping to save and change lives share strong elements of a common mission – united by humanitarian principles of independence, neutrality, impartiality and humanity – there are not an agreed set of outcomes we are all pursuing.  The Sphere standards set aspirations, for example, for the amount of clean water available to displaced people specific to their time and place of displacement. These standards have changed the industry for the better, but they are only a floor on provision, rather than a ceiling, and a partial floor at that.
  • The humanitarian sector has grown up in an organic fashion over 70 years.  It is being supplemented every year by new donors, notably from the Gulf.  And it is being challenged ever more every year not just by increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict, but also by a growing mismatch between the assumptions on which the sector has traditionally functioned, and the realities of life on the ground in conflict settings around the world.
  • The sector is founded on the assumption that the main survivors of wars are refugees who cross boundaries as they flee conflict.  The reality is that refugees certainly need help, but there are twice as many internally displaced persons – those fleeing conflict but staying in their own country.  And then there are also those trapped in their own homes – those without even the resources to flee.
  • The sector is based on an assumption about the legal responsibilities of state actors.  But the reality of life in the front line is increasingly defined by non-state actors, who sign no protocols or covenants whether in Geneva or elsewhere.
  • There is an implicit assumption that help needs to be short term.  In fact, the average refugees is out of their own country for 20 years, and in reality the prospect of return for at least half those who leave is low.
  • There is an assumption that services should be geared around camp settings, but in reality 75 per cent of displaced people are in urban areas not refugee camps. This is occurring in tandem with large-scale urbanization around the globe. 
  • There is an assumption that the humanitarian sector can operate separately from development work.  But that means donors funneling money through different institutions to the same places: The $5.5 billion in humanitarian relief spent on the top 20 crises in 2013 sits alongside the $28.6 billion spent through different channels in the same countries on development assistance.
  • There is an assumption that regional crises can be contained. But the reality is that chronic conflict creates ripples of despair, pushing people farther from home to seek safety. Boats full of refugees on the Mediterranean shore are the direct consequence of the failure of the international community to find solutions to crises in the Middle East and Africa. 

So the mismatch is not just one of resources; it is also one of concept and institutions.  And the consequent need is not just for more aid, but different kinds of aid, to respond to changing needs.  

Europe's responsibility and opportunity

In this process of renewal and reinvention there is a special role for Europe.
After all European values have helped create the humanitarian sector.  The principles of humanitarian action were framed after European wars of the 19th century.

Some of the greatest crises are on Europe's doorstep.  The Middle East and Africa are far closer to Europe than to the United States. 
Together, the member states and institutions of the European Union constitute the world’s biggest humanitarian donor.   Collectively, they contribute more than half of official global humanitarian aid every year. In 2013, the EU’s institutions alone gave $1.9 billion, while countries like the United Kingdom, Germany and Sweden were among the top ten biggest donors. 
And Europe does have some very successful humanitarian practice that the world needs:
  • The EU Trust Fund for the Central African Republic, to which the Netherlands has been an important contributor, bridges the traditional divide between humanitarian and development funding in a novel and effective way.
  • The Start Fund, an NGO-managed, multi-donor pooled fund, enables agencies to respond quickly to small-to-medium-scale emergencies and slow-onset crises which often fail to receive sufficient donor support. The fund launched last August, with strong support from the UK Department for International Development, Irish Aid as well as the Dutch government.
  • The Dutch Relief Fund 2015-2017 constitutes a remarkable increase in Dutch financial support to humanitarian efforts worldwide. Beyond its flexibility, the fact that the fund is open to the Dutch Relief Alliance – a consortium of NGOs including SV – is obviously a very welcome development. As a result of the fund, the Netherlands will soon join the top ten European donors club once again.

For Europe to lead the humanitarian sector in policy and not just funding, the following changes seem vital.

First, Europe can lead the debate about the outcomes we are seeking for the people we serve.   At the International Rescue Committee, we are rewriting country programs according to our new five part outcomes framework.  But there is a wider issue here.

In the new Sustainable Development Goals due to be agreed by the countries of the UN in September, there is scant recognition of the extreme vulnerability of civilians in conflict. Despite 17 goals and 169 targets, there is no specific mention of protection for civilians in conflict, health care for women in emergencies, or education for children in protracted crises. This, despite the fact that the overarching goal of the SDGs is elimination of poverty, and 43 per cent of the world's extreme poor live in crisis states.

If this is not remedied, then next year's World Humanitarian Summit needs to pick up the pieces.
Second, Europe can set a new standard for the use of evidence. We believe all programs should be evidence-based or evidence-generating.  We must never stop questioning whether our programs are as effective and as efficient as they can possibly be, and, to this end, we need to radically improve our understanding of what works, what doesn’t work, and what works well. An increase in evidence will increase our accountability to our clients, to our donors and to each other.    
Third, Europe can bridge the divides between economic and social intervention.  As increasing numbers of displaced people live in urban and peri-urban areas – rather than refugee camps – and refugees are displaced for decades, not years, there will need to be a dramatic structural shift in the humanitarian aid provision. Instead of parallel systems, we will need to strengthen local education and healthcare providers so that displaced people can access the services they need, alongside the host population. And rather than distributing food and other items, there is an increasing case to give people cash to buy what they need, or pay rent, boosting the local economy.   Instead of working alone, humanitarian players must work more closely with development actors. This means incentivizing investment from international financial institutions like the World Bank and dramatically scaling up private/private partnerships in countries where the need is great.  
Fourth, Europe needs to lead the drive to make good on repeated commitments that women and girls will no longer suffer twice over – first because they are civilians caught up in crisis, and then because of their gender.   I am heartened that the Dutch Government is prioritizing sexual and reproductive health and rights. Through our experience, we know that family planning is the most effective way to reduce the number of unsafe abortions, maternal deaths, and pregnancy-related deaths, and is life-saving in an emergency.  Globally, unsafe abortions are responsible for 13 per cent of maternal mortality, but in refugee settings, this number can climb as high as 50 per cent. 
These are the building blocks of effective humanitarian policy.  But Europe’s challenge, and Europe’s opportunity, is greater still. 

No one pretends that the migration crisis on Europe’s shores is anything other than complex and difficult. But Europe needs to show that it can link action upstream in fragile states to prevent, contain and cool conflict, with effective action within the EU’s borders to save lives, beat back exploitative criminal gangs and restore hope to those fleeing for their lives.  

The tools at Europe’s disposal – hard and soft power - are a unique set of assets.  They are needed to contain persecution, instability and conflict in countries like Eritrea, Afghanistan and Nigeria.   They are needed to offer humanitarian support to those fleeing for their lives in Syria, East Africa or South East Asia. They are needed on Europe’s own shores, where asylum-seekers and vulnerable people deserve humanity and dignity. 
There is a real choice here.  For some commentators, legal routes for migration and asylum are the thin end of the wedge.  But in our experience at IRC, legal routes to safety undercut the criminal and abusive smuggling that otherwise is the only hope for people fearing for their lives at home.  
This is the context for the new partnership I am delighted to announce today.

Stichting Vluchteling and IRC: Our Shared Task

The International Rescue Committee has its origins in the Second World War.  When Einstein came to New York in 1933, he helped set up the IRC to bring relief to Jews trapped in Europe.  Within a decade, heroes like Varian Fry helped not just expand the IRC, but save people like Hannah Arendt, Marc Chagall and Arthur Koestler.  Today we honor that legacy by continuing to resettle 10 000 refugees a year into the United States.
The parallels with Stichting Vluchteling are striking. 
SV too has roots in WWII. Aligned with the resistance movement, SV’s founders – Gerrit Jan van Heuven Goedhart and Cornelis Brouwer – risked their lives fighting for justice and freedom. After the war, with the support of the Royal family, they began advocating and fundraising for refugees across Europe. Goedhart’s first campaign in 1954 was called “an hour for a future”. Employees around the Netherlands were asked to give one hour of their salaries to refugees. This campaign ended up effectively covering half of UNHCR’s budget that year. 
SV and the IRC’s current work together stretches back many years.  In 2014 alone, the Dutch people, through SV, contributed $11 million to the IRC’s work.  The money has helped deliver lifesaving aid in acute crises, including Central African Republic and Northern Iraq, and also aid in protracted crisis, including those in Lebanon, South Sudan and Somalia.
Now we want to take the partnership further.  We are today inaugurating a Cooperative Agreement between the two organizations.  SV will make the IRC its sole implementing partner; the IRC will bring SV into the heart of its decision-making; SV will become a core part of IRC’s Europe strategy, which is managed from London; IRC will deploy one of our most experienced Deputy Vice Presidents to work here in the Hague as  Deputy Vice President for International Strategic Initiatives; and we will be able to apply together to the Dutch government as well as the Dutch people for support.  

For the moment we are independent organizations working closely together.  In the future we hope to move from cohabitation to marriage, so that SV becomes the public and private face of the IRC in the Netherlands, linking the Dutch people to our work in a substantive and systematic way. 
In a humanitarian sector defined by fragmentation, we hope this will be a model of integration – above all for the benefit of people in need, who will be better supported through our shared experience and commitment.


In December of 1955, after receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, Van Heuven Goedhart observed: “There can be no real peace in this world as long as hundreds of thousands of men, women and children, through no fault of their own, … still remain in camps and live in misery and in the greatest uncertainty of their future”. 
In the face of confluence of crisis around the world, and tough challenges at home, it is tempting to ask why should countries in Europe try and make a difference beyond their own borders.  There are really three reasons.

The first is avowedly moral. Whatever the problems at home, they pale in comparison to the suffering endured in the poorest countries in the world.

The second is instrumental. Thousands will continue to die on doorstep if the causes of forced displacement are not addressed upstream.  In an interdependent world we are all neighbors and Europe cannot be complacent. 

The third reason why we should make a difference is that we can.  The IRC was able to help 17 million people last year.  We have shown we can make a difference, and so to refuse to do so would not just be a shame; it would be an abdication.

For years, many of the Dutch public, and many of its policy makers, have set a standard for international action that is not just high-minded, but is also practical and impactful. That is a tribute to any country, and one that we at IRC are honored to join.