Global Cooperation

The 20 humanitarian crises the world cannot ignore in 2023 — and what to do about them

An internally displaced Somali woman stands near the carcass of her dead livestock amid severe drought. Somalia is among the places most vulnerable to humanitarian crises in 2023 — but the peoples' suffering is not a foregone conclusion.

Somalia is among the places most vulnerable to humanitarian crises in 2023 — but the peoples' suffering is not a foregone conclusion. Image: REUTERS/Feisal Omar/File Photo

David Miliband
President and Chief Executive Officer, International Rescue Committee
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • More than 100 million people today are on the run from conflict and disaster, and 340 million are projected to be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2023.
  • Every year, the International Rescue Committee compiles data on the world's most worrying conflicts: the Emergency Watchlist.
  • The Emergency Watchlist is more than a warning — it is a guide on how to avert or minimise those humanitarian crises.

As well as being a warning, Watchlist 2023 is intended as a roadmap for how we can choose to strengthen the guardrails meant to limit the impact of these crises.

David Miliband, President & CEO, International Rescue Committee

Every year for the past decade, the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) crisis response teams analyze swathes of quantitative and qualitative data to uncover the countries most at risk of humanitarian conflagration in 2023.

This is the Emergency Watchlist — and in 2023, the picture it paints is dire.

Humanitarian crises in 2023

Humanitarian crises in 2023 - Watchlist countries. Every year, the International Rescue Committee puts together the Emergency Watchlist.
Humanitarian crises in 2023 - Watchlist countries. Every year, the International Rescue Committee puts together the Emergency Watchlist. Image: International Rescue Committee

More than 100 million people today are on the run from conflict and disaster. 340 million are projected to be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2023 — a figure that has grown fourfold in the past decade.

Led this year by Somalia, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan, the 20 countries that form the 2023 Watchlist are emblematic of the challenges facing fragile and crisis-affected communities worldwide.

Armed conflict, the climate crisis and economic turmoil are pushing a growing minority of the world’s population into ever deeper crisis. These countries are home to just 13% of the global population and account for just 1.6% of global GDP, but they represent 81% of the forcibly displaced, 80% of the people facing crisis or catastrophic levels of food insecurity and 90% of global humanitarian need.

Climate change is rapidly accelerating humanitarian emergencies by exacerbating droughts, floods and other natural disasters. The countries on IRC’s Watchlist contribute just 1.9% of global CO2 emissions, yet they face some of the worst impacts of climate-related disasters.

Economic turmoil rippling out from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have disrupted supply chains, international trade and food and fuel prices, all of which drives food insecurity globally — and particularly in Watchlist countries.

Watchlist countries have experienced armed conflict for an average of 12 years: conflicts devastate the infrastructure, livelihoods and services upon which communities depend to withstand shocks. Climate crisis and record drought are major reasons why Somalia and Ethiopia are on this year’s Watchlist, but the years of conflict devastated the capacity of both countries to withstand shock, pushing them to the top of the list.

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Understanding crises — and doing something about them

But the Watchlist isn’t just a story of individual tragedies. The 20 countries collectively can help us understand why humanitarian crisis has been allowed to spiral out of control in deadly ways. We have observed a global weakening, or even complete dismantling, of the “guardrails” meant to prevent humanitarian crises from spiraling out of control: regional, national, and local policies and mechanisms intended to reduce the impact of crises on affected communities, from social safety nets to UN resolutions.

2022 provided isolated examples of how crisis can be mitigated with guardrails in place. The UN-brokered six-month truce in Yemen led to an 86% drop in fatalities — a guardrail that is now at risk with the expiry of the truce. Investments in coastal shelter systems in Bangladesh saved thousands of lives when Cyclone Sitrang made landfall this October. The Ukrainian grain agreement allowed more than 12 million tons of food to be exported through the Black Sea, a lifeline for low- and lower-middle-income countries suffering the worst effects of the global food crisis. None of these examples ended crises, but they prevented catastrophe.

The scale and nature of conflict, climate change and economic turmoil in too many places, left untended, is overloading these guardrails and creating runaway humanitarian crises. Needs will continue to grow in a world with hamstrung guardrails or without them entirely.

The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance worldwide is expected to reach 340 million in 2023.
The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance worldwide is expected to reach 340 million in 2023. Image: International Rescue Committee

Protecting the guardrails and rethinking our response to crises

The erosion of guardrails must be addressed.

Aid as usual will not meet the moment. We need fresh thinking about how to tackle causes as well as the symptoms of human misery. The 2023 Watchlist reveals a need for a drastic change in the way we approach humanitarian crises and tackle shared global risks. To reduce the scale of humanitarian suffering worldwide we must incentivise those in power to choose against catastrophe.

1. Break the cycle of humanitarian crises

Breaking the cycle means rebooting the broken international response to the hunger crisis, reenergizing the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Task Force on Preventing Famine and adopting a simplified protocol to scale up access to malnutrition treatment for children. It means investing in national responses to stop the slide from fragile to failed state by prioritizing restoration of basic service delivery like education and health systems. And it means funding frontline responders with a people-first strategy for multilateral development banks.

The length of conflicts is getting longer. humanitarian crises 2023
The length of conflicts is getting longer. Image: International Rescue Committee

2. Protect civilians in conflict.

It is essential that we re-establish the right of civilians to aid through the establishment of an independent organization, such as the Organization for the Promotion of Humanitarian Access, that could document the denial of aid and speak truth to power. Protecting civilians means tackling impunity for mass atrocities by suspending the use of the Security Council veto in the case of mass atrocities. And it means empowering women in peace and security efforts by ensuring women-led organizations are properly funded and have a seat at the table in peace negotiations.

3. Confront shared global risks

Addressing shared global risks requires addressing the devastation of climate change in humanitarian settings by fulfilling the long-delayed promise of $100 billion per year in climate financing for developing countries, with 50% dedicated to adaptation. It means pandemic-proofing the world by creating a Global Health Threats Council to mobilise a global effort to prevent, prepare and respond to the next pandemic. And it means striking a new deal for the forcibly displaced by scaling up funding for refugee-hosting states that commit to welcoming policies like access to work, education and health services.

The IRC’s data has highlighted the countries at greatest risk of worsening humanitarian need for the coming year — but this does not have to be a foregone conclusion.

As well as being a warning, Watchlist 2023 is intended as a roadmap for how we can choose to strengthen the guardrails meant to limit the impact of these crises on communities, preventing already runaway humanitarian crises from preying any further on the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable.

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