Next week, I will join leaders from governments, the United Nations, business and civil society in Istanbul for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit. The aim is to make the humanitarian system fit-for-purpose in a world where crises hit with increasing frequency, intensity and complexity, and where wars seem endless and limitless. To do this right, we must radically change how we, as global humanitarians, face down conflict.
There are 1.5 billion reasons why conflict is the world’s single greatest humanitarian and development challenge. That’s how many people – one in four people in the world – live in societies plagued by chronic conflict. Right now, 89% of global funding for humanitarian aid goes to lifesaving assistance in conflict situations that have been dragging on for over three years. Humanitarian action will churn in endless cycles of crisis response – dealing with the consequences of conflict but never digging in deep on the root causes – unless we address conflict and its impact on fragile societies more effectively.
Tackle the causes of conflict early and head-on
We must address the root causes of fragility and conflict from the get-go of any humanitarian response, investing in conflict-management, peace-building and governance programmes alongside meeting basic needs like shelter, water and food. We’ve learned that attention to the “software” of fragile societies is at least as important as improving infrastructure. “Peace-building” might sound fluffy, but it actually works to mitigate the probability of violent conflict breaking out.
During the recent civil war in the Central African Republic, a Mercy Corps peace-building and conflict-management programme working with community leaders on both sides of the conflict had a profound impact. It transformed people’s views of the “other side” – there was an 86% jump in people saying they trusted the rival group, and 96% of people involved in our study reported feeling hopeful that they could deliver peace in their communities together. More than 200 fighters from rival militias voluntarily disarmed and joined community peace groups working to resolve tensions and rebuild their hometowns.
We see this kind of work making a difference. And from our experience, we have learned a vital lesson about how we can genuinely push beyond conflict and fragility towards more resilient people, communities and societies: we must unlock a future for the millions of youth trapped in conflict.
Invest big in youth
In most fragile, conflict-hit societies, young people encompass the largest single demographic – 60% of Afghanistan’s population and around 50% in Nigeria, for example. Young men in particular make up the bulk of fighters in violent extremist groups or insurgent militia. Yet, in most humanitarian responses, youth are an overlooked and underserved population. All too often, programming is designed in a silo and does not adequately meet their many needs.
Nowhere is this more evident than in today’s greatest humanitarian crisis: Syria. More than 1 million young Syrians risk a future of exile and alienation. They will be driven to risk their lives on deadly migration routes or be forced to live on the edge of society, suffering discrimination and exploitation. Yet Syrian youth, like their peers around the world, offer hope and possibility. In interviews with Mercy Corps, they tell us they are eager to start building their futures, and do not want to lose time as they wait for this war to end.
In fragile, war-torn societies around the world, what’s needed is big, smart investment in youth. We need to move beyond the same old top-down multilateral system and build new kinds of partnerships between governments, civil society and big business, focused on empowering youth, lifting their voices for non-violent change, strengthening their physical and mental well-being, and opening up access to education and employment.
These programmes will benefit young refugees as well as the communities hosting them, which are often in already fragile regions. For example, concentrated investment through proven vehicles like enterprise funds can kick-start the crucial small- and medium-business sector and produce jobs for refugees and locals alike. We need to match that with life- and job-skills training programmes that meet the needs and demands of local employers.
Justice matters as much as jobs
From research on our programmes in Somalia, Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq and, most recently, Nigeria, we found that many of our assumptions about what can best prevent young people from supporting, or joining, violent extremist groups were incomplete.
Previously, a lot of attention and money was spent on vocational training for young people in fragile, crisis-prone states on the premise that being poor and not having a job were the primary drivers of violent extremism. It turns out that poverty, unemployment and sectarian identity aren’t the main recruiting sergeants for al Shabaab, Boko Haram and the Islamic State. We heard from young people that it’s their sense of injustice and exclusion, together with doubt they’ll ever get a fair break and be able to make something of their lives, that influences whether or not they support extremists. People are less likely to feel the pull of extremism when they feel they have a voice in the future of their country.
In his report for the World Humanitarian Summit, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recognized that preventing and ending conflict is the “core responsibility number one” of humanity. He is absolutely right. But we will never bring peace and prosperity to the world simply by responding to conflict. We must commit to a proactive approach that tackles the root causes of conflict head-on, empowers youth and gives citizens a true voice in their governance. If the humanitarian community makes this commitment together, we can then say we are truly working towards a better future for every person on earth.
This is part of a series of articles linked to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, including: