8 things we need to do to tackle humanitarian crises in 2019

refugee crisis 2019

UNHCR/A. McConnell A group of Syrian refugees arrive on the island of Lesbos after travelling in an inflatable raft from Turkey, near Skala Sykaminias, Greece.

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Peter Maurer, President, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)


In Timbuktu, Mali this month I met with families without food whose crops have failed and whose children have been killed by improvised explosive devices (IED). I couldn’t help but be moved by the deep levels of people’s suffering; too many are living on a knife’s edge.

From West Africa I travel straight to Davos, Switzerland to impress upon leaders at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting the reality of human suffering in the Sahel.

Today, a colossal 120 million people globally need aid just to survive as a result of violence and conflict. Yemen, Syria and South Sudan are synonymous with suffering.

In the Sahel a new frontier is emerging: climate change is exacerbating the already devastating impacts of conflict, poverty and underdevelopment. People in the resource-scarce region already walk a tightrope of survival. With temperatures rising at almost twice the global average, we can only expect that without action, fragility and insecurity will escalate, as will the needs of the population.

Today, a colossal 120 million people globally need aid just to survive as a result of violence and conflict.

There are no shortcuts for responding to or preventing the harm from these large-scale, complex dynamics. Emergency humanitarian relief will always be needed but it is not enough to meet the great demands.

This is a crossroads year for humanitarian response, because long-term durable political settlements are still elusive in too many places. A more fundamental reorientation of humanitarian action – one that views and answers for the long-term, at scale – is critical. This year, I believe progress in eight areas will shift the needle on humanitarian needs.

1. Focus on the hotspots

Twenty of the most violent crises in the world are at the origin of more than 80% of displacement and humanitarian needs.

Stalemate must be replaced by decisive political action to break the cycle of violence and to support shaky stabilization attempts.

Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the Horn of Africa, the Lake Chad Basin and the Sahel, Afghanistan and the Myanmar/Bangladesh crises will continue to be hotspots in 2019.

2. Pooling insights, skills and resources

No single sector will be able to respond alone to the depth and breadth of humanitarian crises: progress will need strong support from states, international organizations and civil society at large.

While the neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian space is still the best place to reset lives and reconcile, humanitarian actors can spearhead efforts at frontlines and guide others through the landscape of fragmented societies, security challenges and multi-faceted needs.

Local and international organizations can complement each other. Academia brings critical thinking and measurability, while the private sector has a unique ability to get economies up and running and to support communities in developing businesses, capacities and skills.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is uniquely equipped to link international and local efforts and to trigger scaled-up responses in more than 190 countries. The UN system has a unique convening power to bring states together to respond more generously.

The Famine Action Mechanism developed by the World Bank, Google, Amazon, the World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross is a potentially game-changing idea, pooling new perspectives and expertise to tackle an old and life-threatening problem.

3. Freeing up new investment for sustainable action

The traditional humanitarian finance model is built on fundraising for humanitarian emergency spending. With more protracted, long-term crises and the gap between needs and response widening, traditional assistance must be accompanied by more targeted and sustainable investment in people, skills and revenues for communities.

The big question for 2019 is whether stakeholders will move forward and increase investments in fragile contexts, such as the Humanitarian Impact Bond, while sharing risk in ways that make innovative finance more scalable.

4. Supporting self-reliance not dependency

Communities affected by war have an inherent capacity to cope with crisis. Instead of encouraging aid dependency, we must help people affected to rapidly shift from emergency mode to income generation.

Cash transfers have replaced physical aid delivery in some areas while microcredits have opened paths to independent economic activity. Emergency assistance is still needed at considerable scale, but it is time for more sophisticated, durable and scalable solutions.

5. Designing new humanitarian responses

Given the world’s increased connectivity, humanitarian actors need to be closer, more engaged and more accountable to affected populations. They need to be more supportive of people’s own efforts as first responders, and more concerned about how to design an international response in support of local actors. This demands a change away from prefabricated solutions to more adapted, contextualized and eventually individualized support.

6. Harnessing digital opportunities and preventing harm

Digital tools have already transformed aid delivery and interaction with affected populations and will further do so in the future. Issues for 2019 range from information as a humanitarian benefit to the application of international humanitarian law in cyber warfare. Digital transformation is an opportunity – improved analytics and supply chains – and a challenge. A new consensus on digital identities and data protection is needed, in particular in conflict areas.

7. Addressing invisible trauma

Today we are increasingly confronted with more invisible suffering; mental health issues and the anguish caused by sexual violence are prominent examples. It is estimated that after sudden, major humanitarian crises, around 10-15% of people will develop mild or moderate mental illnesses and up to 4% will develop severe mental disorders. Mental health must therefore be a priority in humanitarian emergencies and taken as seriously as physical health. Supporting people’s mental health can be lifesaving in times of war and violence, just as much as stemming wounds or having clean water.

8. Respecting the law, no excuses

As the Geneva Conventions turn 70 in 2019, we recognize that over the decades they have undoubtedly saved millions of lives and minimized the impact of conflict on civilians, while creating conditions for stability and more durable peace.

But they need interpretation and implementation in view of contemporary challenges. In 2019 I want us to recommit to the use of force based on the law, the humane treatment of detainees and the protection of civilian populations. The respect of basic principles are priorities – even in armed conflicts – involving counter-terrorism operations, asymmetric warfare and situations of broad public insecurity or inter-community violence.

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