The international system to aid people displaced by conflict is strained beyond the breaking point. Faced with the greatest flood of displacement since World War II—and with no end in sight—governments and international organizations need to rethink every level of aid, from funding to future outcomes, according to experts assessing the crisis in a discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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While the first task is to get more money into the hands of aid providers as governments duck their financial commitments, the system is also in need of organizational reform and new ways to analyze effectiveness. Beyond that, longer-term thinking is needed to avert the violence that causes displacement. That means bolstering weak states—and helping reform illegitimate ones—that are the source of the surge in refugees, said USIP President Nancy Lindborg, a member of the panel. The conversation was part of a USIP series on the intersection of violent conflict and state fragility—when governments are weak or illegitimate and leave their societies vulnerable to shocks or unable to cope peacefully with rising tensions.

“This is not fundamentally a refugee crisis.” – USIP President Nancy Lindborg

The statistics on need alone are alarming, said Richard Leach, who heads the United Nations’ World Food Program: 14 wars have forced 60 million people from their homes; Syrians account for 4.1 million of the refugees who’ve fled their countries and 7.6 million who are displaced internally. The shortfall in aid funding has forced the WFP to cut food assistance from $26 a month to $13.50 per month for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and raised the specter of deeper reductions for others.

Amid the soaring numbers, the character of the displaced population has also changed. It’s younger, majority urban and more often Muslim, and displacement now lasts an average of 17 years, said former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who heads the International Rescue Committee.

“It’s not just a question of there being more need for which we need more aid,’’ Miliband said. “There is different need for which we need different aid.”

The underlying causes of the refugee onslaught are sensitive to talk about, Miliband said. Foremost are fundamental questions about reconciling issues of democracy, modernity and theology today in majority-Muslim countries, he said.  Quoting a Lebanese academic Miliband met this year in Beirut, he said the Muslim world is “living through its own Reformation, Declaration of Independence, American civil war and the collapse of communism all at the same time.”

Fragile States, Fragmented Politics

Adding to the crisis is the growing number of states too weak or illegitimate to meet their own people’s needs or to contain ethnic, political and religious conflict within peaceful boundaries. Meanwhile, the international political system is more fragmented than at any time in the past 70 years, Miliband said.

To address these new circumstances, the humanitarian sector needs fundamental reform, according to Miliband, starting with an overhaul of the shared outcomes its groups are trying to attain. The new goals must bring together development and humanitarian programs. The humanitarian focus on keeping people alive must expand to include longer-term assistance such as education, for example, in light of the lengthening periods of displacement and the loss of potential or risks of frustration among a globally growing population of uneducated and unemployed youth.

The U.N.’s new sustainable development goals barely refer to people caught in conflict, a glaring oversight when states are imploding and the number of displaced will only rise, Miliband said. Obstacles to be cleared away should include the ban on World Bank involvement in “middle-income” countries such as Lebanon and Jordan, whose economies and infrastructure have been overwhelmed by the respective 629,000 and 1 million of Syrian refugees they’re hosting.

Among his other suggestions: The need for “evidence-based analysis” to determine whether an aid program is having its intended impact, not just how efficiently the assistance was delivered; randomized control studies of aid in conflict zones, which number 64 compared with at least 2,500 of general development initiatives; and a research and development budget for non-governmental organizations.

A purely humanitarian focus can distract from addressing the driving force behind the displacement crisis—fragile states, Lindborg said. Development and aid programs must work in alignment to help weak governments build institutions that afford their people opportunity, education and access to justice.

More Than a Refugee Crisis

“This is not fundamentally a refugee crisis,” Lindborg said. “We need to direct energy from the crisis to tackling the fragility and conditions that pull these communities out of their homes.”

The U.S. needs a single official to oversee and represent in international forums humanitarian programs scattered across multiple agencies, she said. Likewise, at the U.N., 50 years of proliferating mandates and bureaucracies fail to address the current reality, which lacks a neat breakdown of internally displaced people, cross-border refuges or host communities. A wider range of donors who meet their pledges will be necessary to fulfill the needs of crucial U.N. programs, she said. Only 60 percent of the U.N.’s coordinated appeal for $19 billion in humanitarian aid was met last year. This year, the appeal for Syria garnered only 44 percent of the request, according to Leach. The number of people needing assistance has doubled in the past decade, the U.N. says.

“The 60 million figure and the crisis in Europe is grabbing attention for this issue as never before,” Lindborg said. “There’s the opportunity to improve the humanitarian enterprise and create the understanding that it’s a symptom of a far deeper set of problems.”

The Humanitarian Summit that will be convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon on May 23, 2016, in Istanbul will offer a chance for progress on these issues, she said.

Apart from the moral dimension of humanitarian assistance, the security imperative is clear, said Philip Gordon, who until recently was a senior White House official coordinating policy in the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf Region.

“These wars are likely to get worse before they get better and will be with us for a very long time,” Gordon said. “We almost need a paradigm shift in the way we think about this.”

In White House situation room discussions over the years, Gordon observed, no one ever said, “We can’t do that sortie because it’s too expensive.” On humanitarian and development plans, by contrast, “people say, ‘Gosh, you can only ask Congress for so much. Once you accept that the issue isn’t going away and the human dimensions have strategic implications, maybe that new paradigm can come into play.’’

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