Resilience, Peace and Security

We need to rethink the divide between emergency aid and development funding

Children walk during rain in front of Saint Michel Catholic church in the town of Boda April 14, 2014.

Image: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Anthony Lake
Executive Director, UNICEF
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Leaders gather this week in Istanbul for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit at a time when humanitarian emergencies are on the rise – affecting hundreds of millions of people and costing the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars every year.

A time when a growing global humanitarian funding gap threatens our ability to reach people affected by emergencies. A time when international humanitarian laws are under siege as civilians increasingly – and deliberately – come under attack in protracted conflicts from Syria to South Sudan to the Central African Republic. A time when refugee flows are spilling into neighbouring countries and new regions as never before, posing new challenges and putting ever-greater pressure on both humanitarian and national resources.

As we chart our course through these stormy waters, we would do well to consider how investments in long-term development should be shaped to help head off humanitarian emergencies – and how more strategic humanitarian action in those emergencies can support long-term development.

As the recent report of the UN Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit puts it, it is time to move from delivering aid to ending need.

The divide we create between the two is arbitrary, because, on the ground, there is no clear dividing line between them. After a disaster, development progress may continue in some areas of a society, while being set back in another. And just as failures in development can cause and exacerbate conflicts and natural disasters, so disasters and conflicts can halt and even reverse development progress. Strong development will reduce the likelihood of future crises – and immediate humanitarian action in the midst of a disaster can be an opening to “build back better” and advance development.

Yet in many ways, our development work and our work in emergencies are highly segmented. We should remember that this is not the case for a child growing up in a conflict zone, or struggling to survive in a climate-related emergency that exacerbates deprivations, or on the move with her family as they seek safety. For such a child, her needs are a fully integrated reality. She has no idea whether her life is being lived in a “development” or “emergency” context.

And when we help a child displaced by conflict to go to school, we are not only giving her immediate sanctuary and protection from violence, exploitation and recruitment by armed groups. We are helping shape her mind. Build her own future. Contribute to her family and society when she becomes an adult. Development.

When we use cash transfers to help families living through disasters, such as the recent earthquake in Chile, we not only help them meet their immediate needs, we also help prevent them from depleting their own assets and, thus, strengthen their ability to weather future disasters. Development.

And when we and our partners worked together during the worst of the Ebola crisis, we not only built new community care centres to treat people infected with Ebola, we worked to revitalize existing primary healthcare centres to treat those suffering from other ailments. Development.

These marriages of immediate and future needs also help build and strengthen local capacity – from strengthened national healthcare and education systems to effective national social protection programmes.

So we can make deliberate efforts to amplify development issues in humanitarian contexts, and keep populations trapped in humanitarian crises front-and-centre as we implement the Sustainable Development Goals. And we must champion disaster risk reduction as another means of addressing climate change.

The need to do so is urgent – and growing. At UNICEF last year, we reached the highest number of forcibly displaced people since World War II. Over half were children. What becomes of their lives and their societies tomorrow if they are denied long-term support today?

Image: UNHCR

Leaders in Istanbul have a chance now to help change this bleak equation for millions of people. But this is not only a challenge for governments, or international organizations and NGOs working in humanitarian and development contexts. The private sector also has a stake in stability and predictability in markets. Investing in preparedness – within operations themselves and in the communities where they operate – helps in urgent crises and in the long term, and is good both for business and for society.

Together, we can support human development, strengthen our ability to respond in humanitarian emergencies – and in doing so, reinforce the bonds of our common humanity.

This is part of a series of articles linked to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, including:

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