This week government, business and civil society leaders from around the world will make their annual trek to the small Alpine town of Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting. The meeting has come to symbolize globalization, so its commitment to make a connected world work for all, not just a few, has never been more important. It is no exaggeration to say that if globalization is not made more equal and more secure it will not survive, nor deserve to.
In a globalized world, we are only as secure and prosperous as the least secure and least prosperous societies around us. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, which set universal goals of ending poverty, protecting the planet, and achieving gender equality among others, are a recognition of this reality. But despite positive rhetoric about “leaving no one behind,” the truth is people in crisis are indeed being left behind, creating deep pockets of poverty and conflict with dangerous consequences for the world if left to fester.
In the three years since the SDGs were adopted by 193 countries, the world has made important progress toward the 17 identified goals for 2030 with more than a third of low and middle-income countries on track toward their targets. But a recent report from the International Rescue Committee and the Overseas Development Institute found that as many as 82% of fragile and conflict-affected states like Yemen and the South Sudan are off-track to achieve their 2030 targets.
Far from being the problem of a few unlucky states, the growing gap between stable and fragile states on the SDGs is a warning sign for the international community. This year Nigeria, with different types of conflict in three regions of the country, overtook India as the country with the most people living in extreme poverty. By 2030, fragile and conflict-affected states like Nigeria will be home to 85% of the world’s extremely poor, an estimated 342 million people. Similarly, 70% of the world’s childhood deaths are projected to occur in these countries, an appalling 2.4 million children under the age of five by 2030.
If you want a glimpse of the future of poverty, look no further than the Democratic Republic of Congo. A country of 81 million people – roughly the same size as Germany or Iran – Congo already ranked in the bottom 15 countries on the Human Development Index before it was destabilized by a political succession crisis and an uptick in militia violence in the country’s eastern provinces. When the first cases of Ebola were detected in the country last year, the conflict prevented doctors and aid workers from accessing patients to help isolate the disease. Now the country is home to the second-largest Ebola crisis in history, and neighboring countries like Uganda are concerned about the potential for refugees fleeing the political violence in the DRC to unintentionally bring Ebola across the border.
The SDGs are the best global tool that we have to measure the improvement in the wellbeing of the least well off - but will only be a tool for real change if the world makes people in crisis a priority. If not, the instability, conflict, and lack of opportunity that holds back fragile states like the DRC will inevitably bleed across the border, destabilizing entire regions with ripple effects felt from Beijing to Brussels.
We know governments around the world are in retreat from global commitments. “All politics is local” becomes an excuse for neglecting the global. This retreat means that the private sector and NGOs have to step up.
The private sector can partner with local non-governmental organizations to provide technical expertise and funding to help develop solutions that can achieve lasting impact. Civil society groups and humanitarian organizations can ensure the delivery of better aid to provide people living in conflict-zones the tools and resources they need to rebuild and reclaim their lives.
Together, the private sector and civil society can act as a catalyst for progress in tackling three of the most critically under-invested areas in fragile states: education, job-training, and child nutrition. Less than 2% of the humanitarian aid budget goes to education – an incredibly short-sighted strategy given the importance of education in developing human capital and creating access to job opportunities for people in crisis. But unique partnerships, such as the one between the IRC, Sesame Street, and LEGO in the Middle East and Bangladesh are bringing learning back to children whose schooling was stolen from them by conflict.
Second, these partnerships can also support livelihoods and the sort of economic opportunity that transform societies, particularly when we invest in women-owned businesses. In Mosul, IRC small-business loans and entrepreneurial classes are supporting women who are rebuilding the city’s economy after the defeat of ISIS. These sorts of investments, even in the most difficult environments, help people in crisis regain control over their lives and put them on a path to independence from foreign aid.
Finally, these private sector-civil society partnerships can transform the delivery of basic needs like healthcare and child nutrition even when government-provided services have broken down due to conflict. Nowhere is this more needed than on addressing acute malnutrition among children, which is the largest driver of child mortality in conflict zones. By combining aid delivery with private-sector like market-driving financing approaches, we can drive down the cost of delivering life-saving ready-to-use therapeutic foods.
But while the private sector and civil society must and has stepped up in the face of governments around the world retreating from their traditional responsibilities in these sorts of environments, they cannot substitute the scale and legitimacy of robust government action.
Populists on both the left and the right have promoted the false notion that because charity begins at home, it should end at home, too. But an open global economy cannot be maintained while we have such closed politics. Both the head and the heart should recognize that addressing humanitarian crises and supporting fragile states like Yemen, Nigeria, the DRC, and Iraq is both morally right and pragmatically sound.
We can and must do more for these countries. If we don’t act now, we will be forced to many times over in the near future.