At the end of each year, the United Nations releases its World Humanitarian Data and Trends report, which highlights the current nature of humanitarian crises, as well as their drivers. None of us in the humanitarian community were surprised to see one word come up over and over again in this year’s report: conflict.
Over the past decade, the number of violent political conflicts worldwide has increased dramatically. According to the UN, there are now 402 conflicts taking place around the world. We are witnessing a terrifying 25-year peak in global violence.
This alarming development is upending the way we apportion humanitarian resources. Twenty years ago, 80% of humanitarian aid went to people affected by natural disasters. Today, 80% of aid goes to people who are threatened by violent conflict.
In my long career in the humanitarian field, nothing has ever compared to the confluence of global crises we are witnessing right now. From Syria to South Sudan, Afghanistan to Ukraine, violence is now the driving force behind the bulk of human suffering. An unprecedented 65.6 million people are on the run, forcibly displaced from their homes and on a long, gruelling search for safety.
Equally concerning, the number of undernourished people worldwide has increased by nearly 40 million over the last two years. Last night, 815 million people went to bed hungry. And in South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria, some 20 million people are at immediate risk of famine. This is mind-boggling after years of progress towards eradicating global hunger. The primary reason? Conflict. After all, you can’t feed your children if someone with a weapon is standing between you and the food you need, or the work you do to earn money to buy it with.
Today, conflict is the number one driver of extreme poverty and hunger. It is propelling an unprecedented rise in fragile states after decades of decline. That is why my organisation, Mercy Corps, argues that the pathway to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals starts with goal 16 and its emphasis on peace, governance and justice.
In the face of such a fractured world, it is tempting to become distraught and believe that nothing can be done – except perhaps resorting to military options. At Mercy Corps, we see a clear-eyed path toward reducing – and even, one day, ending – the scourge of conflict.
We focus our theory of change on three challenges: grievance, governance and growth.
1. Mitigate longstanding grievances. A growing body of research argues that extremist organisations drive recruitment by capitalising on government voids, unresolved grievances and feelings of injustice. Mercy Corps’ own research in Afghanistan and Colombia found that – contrary to popular assumption – unemployment and poverty alone rarely dictate whether or not a young person will engage in conflict (although unemployment is often evidence of systemic sources of frustration and marginalisation). Instead, we found that young people are driven to take up arms by legitimate frustrations over experiences of injustice through discrimination, corruption and abuse.
2. Support good governance (or at least minimally decent governance). In Nigeria, we found that grievances with government failings created community acceptance of Boko Haram, which in turn helped the latter to recruit youth. Yes, the allure of improved economic status does play a central role in recruitment, but former Boko Haram members rarely cited poverty or unemployment as a driving factor in their decision to join.
We must encourage – perhaps even pressure – governments to be more open and inclusive, especially of the young people who are the future political and economic engines of their countries. Research has shown us that in high-risk places like Somalia, programmes that provide young people with access to education and nonviolent civic engagement reduce youth participation in and support for violence.
Good governance goes beyond better government. It is the healthy interaction between government, business and civil society. This is truly - and more than ever - a multi-stakeholder world.
3. Promote economic growth. Without inclusive economic growth, no gains in health, education and social welfare are sustainable. Furthermore, market forces can be a catalyst for peace. Establishing a stable economic environment can help people return to normality more quickly after conflict has torn apart their communities and destroyed their livelihoods. And here’s where the private sector can play a leading role in building lasting peace, by creating entrepreneurial and employment opportunities for young people. Africa is the world’s youngest continent, with 60% of the population under the age of 25. Like their peers in the United States, Europe, Australia and other economically healthy nations, young Africans deserve the opportunity to build a career and enjoy the benefits of financial security for themselves and their families. Economic opportunities should not be reserved for a privileged few.
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Moreover, when global businesses use their financial power and influence in countries affected by conflict, they can promote support for political peace efforts. After all, peace is good for business. Businesses can lobby political leaders into creating the conditions for peace, and can in turn commit to staying in the country as a secure, committed employer. This creates a more attractive environment for foreign direct investment, which creates a virtuous circle that drives stable jobs and thriving economies.
There are no simple solutions or silver bullets for resolving conflict and healing our fractured globe. But in this multi-stakeholder world, when government, business and civil society truly come together, transformational change can happen. It’s time for our better angels to shine again. Our world depends on it.