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David Miliband: 'We need to reinvent humanitarian aid'

In an address at Harvard University, the IRC's President and CEO outlined steps aid groups, United Nations agencies and donors could take that included improving the evidence base of what works in aid.

Today International Rescue Committee President and CEO David Miliband delivered the commencement address to the 2015 graduating class of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The speech underscored what Miliband described as the vital importance of reinventing humanitarian affairs and foreign policy in a world of increasingly complex humanitarian crises. 

Congratulating the new graduates — students from around the world who have prepared for careers in public service — David Miliband reflected on his own experiences: as a student, politician, foreign minister of the United Kingdom, and now as leader of a global humanitarian agency that works on behalf of people uprooted by crisis.

He cited the example of the Syrian civil war: a man-made disaster in which civilians have become targets. Since 2011 the conflict has taken at least 260,000 lives and forced more than 4 million people from their homes — many to neighboring countries unable to bear the burden of hosting the refugees.

Not only has humanitarian aid not kept pace with the scale of the problem, Miliband said, western countries have been reluctant to admit the most vulnerable Syrians as refugees. At the same time, there is an extraordinary absence of a political process to seek to solve the problem.

As aid from donor countries dwindles, conflicts like the one in Syria have become more complex — and refugees are spending more time in exile, Miliband explained. Today more than half of refugees live not in camps but in cities, where they are harder to find and assist.

“That means there is a new and important agenda for the humanitarian sector,” Miliband said. “I want the IRC to lead that debate. We cannot just work harder or faster. We need reform of the system.”

Miliband outlined steps aid groups, United Nations agencies and donors could take that included improving the evidence base of what works in aid, and providing assistance — such as cash rather than goods and services — that empowers displaced people in urban areas.  

However, he said, we must also look to politics for solutions: "Even if we double the scale and effectiveness of the humanitarian effort, it can never be enough. It is only ever clearing up the debris once something is broken.”

Miliband spoke about measures in the realms of law and diplomacy that could be taken to better protect civilians, noting that he endorsed France's proposal for a new code of conduct concerning the use of the U.N. Security Council veto in situations of genocide and other mass atrocities. He also stressed the importance of strengthening U.N. peacekeeping.

In closing, he told the Harvard Kennedy School graduates that they have a role to play in creating the political will to end crises.

"Never forget a passionate desire to see a problem alleviated and the world improved. Never lose it.”

Read the full text of Miliband's remarks.