Last week I was in Greece where more than 60,000 people remain in limbo, having fled the horrors of conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, only to have arrived in an increasingly fragmented, fearful and fragile Europe. They make up a small part of over 65 million people displaced globally – more than at any time since 1945. That's equivalent to the population of the UK.
As the Executive Director of Mercy Corps, a leading global humanitarian organisation, I know of course that Greece needs ongoing help from the international community; it is dealing with a crisis within a crisis, as the Mayor of Athens reminded me. Many of those stuck in Greece will be there for many months, even years. They will need assistance with meeting their needs, integrating into Greek society, and accessing the opportunities that all of us are entitled to, regardless of where we come from.
While there, two main themes came out of my reflections on the work we do in the aid community. First, we must do better at providing information. Information for refugees, on their rights, services and the resources available to them; and information for the UK public, about how aid works, in order to challenge the narrative that we are just supplying long-term handouts.
We must do better at providing information, in order to challenge the narrative that we are just supplying long-term handouts.
Aid is a huge and complex industry working on a vast range of challenges, yet too often we try to describe it in a one-line fundraising message. It has become something of a political football, as some seek to use it to divide us. But there’s no political distinction that sets apart those who want to make the world a better place from those who want to make aid more efficient, effective, and accountable.
UK aid has long been and remains highly respected around the world. To this end, we welcome the Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel reaffirming the commitment of 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income for foreign aid that was enshrined in law last year, at a time when hostility has been rising in some quarters.
This week, Ms Patel also threw down the gauntlet to the aid community, saying she wanted to "challenge and change" aid. There will no doubt be some discussion about what her remarks mean in practice, but we welcome the opportunity to have an informed and engaged conversation about how we can do things better.
This brings me to my second theme: we must seize opportunities to reform our sector. There is too much inefficiency, in the UN system and among NGOs. There are too many of us – as highlighted to me by the Brigadier General tasked with managing the response to the refugee influx in Ioannina in Greece – with unnecessary competition, operating within short term funding cycles and overly restrictive, narrowly focused frameworks.
There’s too much reluctance to look at new partnerships, new models, that might help us adapt in highly fluid contexts. This is as true in areas of protracted crisis such as South Sudan and Afghanistan, where we also work, as it is in Greece.
This is why Mercy Corps believes that business has a huge role to play in supporting NGOs to be more effective and efficient, and is at the forefront of some of the most promising new initiatives. I travelled in Greece with leading multinationals and tech companies - Mastercard, Microsoft, TripAdvisor and Airbnb – Mercy Corps partners in Greece and elsewhere. We need to work more with and learn from these organisations, both to provide immediate support, and find solutions to intractable challenges, such as the refugee crisis.
There is too much inefficiency in the aid sector, in the UN system and among NGOs. There are too many of us, with unnecessary competition
Equally, we work extensively with local businesses in some of the most fragile places in the world, such as Nigeria and Iraq – building relationships and harnessing expertise to bring about lasting positive change on a greater scale. We have even established our own incubator, Gaza Sky Geeks, to transform Gaza’s most talented youth into the business leaders of the Middle East.
But, at a time of such unprecedented need and global challenges, we must be honest about aid - the complexities and pitfalls as well as the extraordinary achievements. We cannot assume that just because we are trying to "do good" that everything we do is faultless. And we must work together – across government, NGOs, private sector, and across the political spectrum – to improve things. At a time of increasing polarisation, it's vital that addressing the root causes of such immense humanitarian need and resultant displacement is not politicised and deprioritised.
Poverty doesn't know Left from Right. It knows weak governance, conflict, corruption and exclusion. In today’s ever more interconnected world, it's in the interests of us all not to leave these untreated. Let's have a more thoughtful discussion about how best we do so.
Mercy Corps is a leading global humanitarian organisation working in over 40 countries. It has the largest aid operation inside Syria, after the UN.