Images of refugees fleeing from conflict into Europe have shocked the world and spurred a new debate over how citizens and the international community should respond to human vulnerability and desperation. Yet much of what is being called a “crisis” should not have come as a surprise. The crisis was several years in the making.

Humanitarian organizations and experts have for some time warned of the number of people on the move, the looming humanitarian crises likely to follow the wars in the Middle East, and the potential impact on social cohesion and security. Today, there are more than 60 million people displaced by war, up from 59.5 million last year. And those numbers are growing every day.

People continue to look for ways to flee and take extraordinary risks for the chance of safety and a better life. These events have taken the whole world by surprise and are putting Europe through the ultimate stress test, challenging its core values. While there have been instances of solidarity, there have also been more worrying trends: gains for the extreme right and instances of xenophobia. There are concerns that the European project and solidarity is withering as a result.


The new normal?

In spite of the staggering numbers, most refugees have actually remained close to home, hoping for a safe return in the near future. Over 4 million Syrian refugees are currently located in neighbouring countries, the vast majority in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. This is in addition to the 6.5 million Syrians who remain internally displaced within their country. However, many have come to realize their situation is no longer a temporary one, but is their new, yet undesirable, normal. The fragility of the region overall and the absence of leadership and political will to rectify the root causes makes a viable solution seem both distant and untenable.

How did this become the new normal? The current geopolitical and international security context makes clear that chronic and resurgent violence, conflicts and economic and social volatility will remain prominent features of our current and future reality. The rising refugee flows represent only one of the symptoms of a deep-rooted and protracted systemic governance crisis that is not being adequately addressed.

It’s important at times like these to take a step back from the headlines and recognize that violence and conflict affect communities across the globe. Refugee and humanitarian crises, along with more widespread fragility, are thus a global challenge requiring us to completely rethink our response – including the actors involved.

If conflict and fragility are the new normal, and political solutions are difficult to find,  then a wider range of stakeholders need to be involved in finding solutions to these pressing humanitarian crises. It is critical to advance our understanding of how, when and where the private sector can make meaningful and positive contributions.

Mapping a way forward

While donor contributions have continued to increase, the demands have grown exponentially in the past years, leaving the humanitarian system unable to cope with the situation by itself. For example, the average period of displacement now stands at 17 years. In other words, displacement is no longer transitory, and therefore carries with it a whole new set of complex issues related to urbanization, service-delivery and integration. All of this requires a wide range of investments in critical sectors.

The business world is already involved in innovative technological applications, social impact projects or in fields such as education and employability. But there is still an untapped opportunity to match humanitarian organizations and systems with the existing expertise and assets of the private sector, for example to improve the current planning, supply and logistics chain of humanitarian assistance. How do we start accelerating and scaling these existing partnerships, extending their reach to other areas of humanitarian relief? The first step is to have them involved in the conversation from the outset.

Business, rightly or not, finds the inner-workings of inter-governmental agencies to be a cumbersome process with limited impact. The irony is that when businesses invest in social impact projects, the results are often extremely positive, in terms of both profit and beyond. What these successful collaborations have taught us so far is that to increase private sector engagement, we must clarify and agree on the model of engagement and ensure it fits the operational context. Government agencies should also take a closer look at how the structure for providing humanitarian grants could be used to get more private sector involvement – in terms of both expertise and investment – in fragile settings.

Ban Ki-Moon, the UN’s secretary-general, and Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, recently stated that “we have entered a new era, and it’s not a peaceful one. It is an era of protracted armed conflicts, which add up to a world at war.” If we are to ensure everyone has the opportunity to live a safe, prosperous life in this new era, we need all hands on deck in tackling the challenges of fragility and humanitarian crises – especially the private sector.

Authors: Anja Kaspersen, Head of International Security and Member of the Executive Board; Andrej Kirn, Community Lead, International Organizations and Government Affairs, World Economic Forum

Image: Refugees and migrants arrive on a dinghy on a beach full of life jackets, deflated dinghies and life tubes left behind, on the Greek island of Lesbos, September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Dimitris Michalakis