As we recognize the extraordinary deeds of aid workers around the world on World Humanitarian Day, we need to acknowledge that things have never been harder in our business. Having spent almost 40 years working on international relief and development, I can say that the confluence of challenges before us is unprecedented: more people displaced, more dangerous non-state actors, and less consensus among the international community for how to deal with it all.

We will take an important step forward this autumn, when world leaders sign on to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious 15-year, 17-point agenda that seeks to achieve global food security, combat climate change and end extreme poverty.

But the humanitarian community and the people we serve need the SDGs to do more. The goals are necessary for promoting good development, but not sufficient in making durable progress on the world’s greatest challenges. Our progress towards critical global goals such as eradicating extreme poverty will likely be undermined if world leaders fail to focus on the most chronic sources of misery and underdevelopment: fragile states and fragile geographies.

Fragile states are characterized by protracted crises, recurrent violent conflict and weak or corrupt governance. Fragile geographies are either the most vulnerable locations within fragile states or those areas in more stable environments that are subject to ongoing conflict and climate effects. They are also home to most of the world’s 60 million people forced to flee their homes due to conflict, a staggering statistic, higher now than at any time since the Second World War. Contributing to this instability, many fragile states are terrorized by notorious non-state actors, such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.

Extreme poverty is concentrated in fragile states. At present, the 50 countries on the OECD’s list of fragile states account for 43% of people living in extreme poverty. By 2030, unless the SDGs make progress, this percentage is projected to rise to 62%.

To meet the challenges of the SDGs, the international community must strategically engage underdevelopment in the most complex – and often dangerous – environments. In short, fragile states represent the “new normal” of development in the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the international system is poorly suited to meet this challenge. The aid architecture largely stems from the birth of the United Nations in 1945. Without doubt, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a pivotal achievement, as was the founding of key international agencies: the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The architecture and financing mechanisms are showing their age. Centralization has contributed to bureaucratic sclerosis and a top-down approach that strangles innovation and flexibility. As if this were not bad enough, the system is perennially underfunded: for example, the UN appeal for the regional Syria response is funded at only 19%.

A new approach is badly needed. In May 2016, the UN Secretary General will host the first ever World Humanitarian Summit. This is an opportunity to reform the international community’s approach, not only to saving lives but also to targeting root causes of underdevelopment in fragile states.

While the SDGs outline the desired destination, we need a new roadmap for getting there. Here are five ways to reform our efforts and help ensure success in the next 15 years:

1. Build engagement in fragile states around long-term strategies that integrate humanitarian and development approaches. The decades-old division of humanitarian response and development assistance is inefficient and outdated. Development progress in fragile states is not linear: it will be chronically interrupted by crises, often resulting in backsliding. Rather than organizing international efforts around the artificial sequencing of humanitarian and development programmes, we need to be more strategic, investing in multi-year strategies that transcend the humanitarian and development divide. The goal of these efforts, ultimately, is to improve the resilience of communities to anticipated crises.

For example, in the drought-prone Karamoja region of northern Uganda, weaning communities off food aid and improving agricultural and livestock productivity must be paired with efforts to make them less susceptible to the next drought. Improving the accuracy and transparency of early warning systems is one response. Upgrading infrastructure so that supplies can move more quickly between isolated communities is another. And where incomes are growing, encouraging savings so that locals can better absorb a shock will be vital to ensuring they survive a crisis and recover quickly after it has passed.

2. Shift away from a centralized approach to engaging and empowering local systems. The humanitarian system must decentralize, become more flexible and less UN-centric. We must leverage the resources and expertise of local communities, businesses and regional governments, who precede international aid organizations and will be there long after we have gone. 

Take the case of Lebanon, which is shouldering a refugee crisis of vast scale. Approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees have crowded in, now accounting for approximately 30% of its total population. Refugees are placing immense pressures on social services and schools, and tensions between host communities and refugees are on the rise. Because political gridlock hampers the ability of the national government to respond, Lebanese municipalities have borne the brunt. These municipalities are on the frontline of the refugee crisis; they must be supported. Rather than establish humanitarian structures that parallel and exclude local governments, the international community must be more agile, identifying where the needs and capacities are, and strategically developing the partnerships that can be most effective.

3. Integrate peace-building programmes and conflict reduction in development. Aid is no substitute for the political resolution of conflicts, but it can be an important tool. In conflict-affected states, mitigating conflict and building peace between groups is vital to achieving development outcomes and addressing root causes of instability.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, chronic inter-communal violence has been a nightmarish driver of misery and underdevelopment: since 1994, ongoing conflict has killed 5.4 million people and displaced 2.6 million more. And yet there has been little funding to address inter-communal violence and land conflicts. Until these challenges are placed front and centre, the plight of DRC will likely drag on, causing more misery and depressing good outcomes for the country and its people.

4. Leverage financial service innovations. One billion people living in extreme poverty lack access to proper financial services and 2 billion people are unbanked. By improving access to financial products – including payments, savings and credit – we can promote inclusive growth and mitigate risk.

Loan-guarantee programmes in northern Uganda are encouraging banks, for the first time, to enter rural areas and begin extending credit. In Kenya and Haiti, micro-insurance initiatives are reducing vulnerability, providing an important buffer for when the next crisis arrives. Enhancing financial services and investing in digital infrastructure are examples of development investments that can also facilitate emergency response.

5. Move beyond the UN architecture. We must acknowledge the limits of the United Nations in fragile states. The international system, centred on the UN, is inherently risk-averse and too often geopolitically constrained.

At the start of the Syria conflict, the Syrian state withheld access to suffering populations in the north, and was politically shielded by veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council. The UN was shunted to the sidelines as a grave humanitarian crisis unfolded. NGOs responded independently, delivering aid to northern Syria from across national borders, placing humanity over sovereignty. Millions of Syrians received lifesaving aid. It took two years for the UN to pass Resolution 2165, finally mandating cross-border aid. For many, it would have been too late. The humanitarian system need not provide a one-size-fits-all approach. Large-scale action is possible even in the absence of a UN mandate.

Consequently, the focus on reforming the formal, UN aid system should be redirected towards rethinking, reconfiguring and expanding the role of other actors, especially international and local NGOs. This will be necessary to alleviate suffering, advance human development, mitigate conflict and, ultimately, meet the development challenges of the 21st century.

Have you read?
What are the Sustainable Development Goals?
How can we make 2015 a turning point for development?

More from our Millennium Development Goals series

Author: Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps

Image: A displaced Somali woman carries a child and her belongings as she arrives at a temporary dwelling after fleeing famine in the Marka Lower Shebbele regions to the capital Mogadishu, September 20, 2014. REUTERS/Feisal Omar