The International Rescue Committee’s Watchlist is an annual report on the countries most at risk of deteriorating humanitarian crises. This year’s list, which is led by Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen, indicates something more serious than things getting worse.
Instead, it reveals what the IRC is calling a “system failure” sweeping institutions from individual governments to organizations that uphold international law and diplomacy to the United Nations itself. The systems set up to prevent and address humanitarian crises are broken.
Find out how we choose the countries for our crisis Watchlist and why we are calling for action to fix the “system failure” driving new and worsening crises around the world.
How do we know which countries are most at risk?
The IRC’s Watchlist is underpinned by a unique methodology that has over the years been tried, tested and shown to work. Our Crisis Analysis Team looks at more than 60 different qualitative and quantitative indicators, taking into account what factors they know drive crises.
“We look at both the likelihood of a ‘shock,’ such as a natural disaster or conflict, and its potential impact based on what people are already facing and how much their government can support them,” says George Readings, the IRC’s global crisis analysis lead.
“For example, a country like Japan may have a high probability of a natural disaster, but the pressures on the population–such as poverty or lack of access to food—are lower than elsewhere, and the government has the capacity to respond to an emergency.”
The report is also distinctive because of the input of the IRC’s 30,000 staff and volunteers working in crisis zones around the world.
“We get insights from colleagues that give us a clearer picture of what is going on,” says Readings. “They give us information we couldn’t get from other sources. That’s particularly important when we’re talking about places like the Central African Republic—crises that fly under the radar for many.”
Finally, the Watchlist aims not just to look at where crises are deepening but why they are deepening and what we can do about it.
“The last step is, we stand back and say ‘so what?’” says Bob Kitchen, vice president of emergencies at the IRC. “What does this list tell us about the world? And this year, the combination of climate change, conflict and COVID-19 is important. But what we've also seen is that the international system that has previously gotten on top of things that are going wrong is no longer working.”
What is a “system failure?”
Both Readings and Kitchen note that “there aren’t many surprises” on this year’s Watchlist. Many of the countries featured have been mired in years of conflict and disaster, while the international community—the states and institutions who could help—fails to step in.
“Wars are lasting longer,” Kitchen says. “They are more complex and more difficult to solve in and of themselves and impossible to solve when the international community isn't engaging.”
It was the intractable nature of today’s conflicts that led the IRC to the term “system failure.”
“Every humanitarian crisis, in its origin, is a political crisis,” Readings explains. “When we talk about systems, we’re talking about, for example, states that have a responsibility to look after their citizens. There’s diplomacy when conflict arises. There’s international law and institutions that are supposed to regulate how wars are fought and limit their impact on civilians. And if all of this breaks down, then the humanitarian system is supposed to come in and fill in the gaps.”
Readings points to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), sixth on this year’s Watchlist, as an example of what happens when all of these systems fail. The country has appeared on the list eight years in a row after years of violent conflict. It is currently facing one of the world’s biggest food crises.
Every humanitarian crisis, in its origin, is a political crisis.
“You cannot point to one specific thing that is really the dramatic driver of things going wrong in the DRC,” he says. “Yet it has more people in need than any other country on earth.
“It’s a system failure because, first, the state is not living up to its responsibilities. Second, regional powers are not trying to negotiate an end to the fighting, they’re intervening to benefit themselves. And the conflict is being fought with complete disregard for the rights of civilians, with massive abuses. As for humanitarian aid, the funding is not there. Last year, humanitarians only had 37 percent of the funding they needed to do their jobs.”
Readings is clear that the Democratic Republic of Congo is just one of many examples. “We are not pointing to failures that are specific to these countries. We're pointing to systemic failures.”
In the Watchlist report, the IRC looks at three critical changes that have led to this global failure:
Countries intervening in their neighbors' civil wars
There are more conflicts raging today and more people forcibly displaced from their homes than at any time since World War 2. Much of this growing violence is driven by the rise of what experts call “internationalized internal conflicts.” These are internal conflicts (countries fighting against non-state armed groups such as militias or opposition groups) where outside countries are backing one side. In many cases, there are multiple outside actors involved—up to a dozen.
Kitchen uses Yemen, third on this year’s Watchlist, as an example: “It’s not just a matter of the UN or other countries not getting involved to de-escalate,” he says. “What is happening instead is that other countries are backing one side or another. So in Yemen, Iran is backing one side and Saudi Arabia is backing another side. Global politics is fueling local conflict.
“Others who tried to help retreat and then Yemen is left in the hands of actors squabbling over who gets to be in charge. That squabbling comes in the form of a build up of funding and arms that fuel the conflict.”
Most of the conflicts driving crises for Watchlist countries fall into this category. That’s not a surprise given that internationalized civil conflicts account for nearly all of the most deadly conflicts in the world today. They divide populations, leading governments to view certain civilians as “the enemy.” Often hospitals, schools and other critical infrastructure are destroyed. For every battlefield death today, we expect to see nearly twice as many civilian deaths from preventable disease, hunger and other non-combat causes.
Internal conflict becomes even worse when outside countries are involved. By definition, these intervening countries are not accountable to the hardest hit communities and they pay a much smaller price for continuing the violence. Abuses are prevalent and negotiating for peace becomes even more difficult, making for bloodier and longer wars.
“The world has tried to figure [Yemen] out, but it’s just failed,” says Kitchen. “And now we're not really trying anymore.”
A changing world
As the nature of armed conflict changes, there has also been a change in how power is distributed around the world. The end of a world with the United States as the sole superpower could have presented a unique opportunity to establish new ways of collaborating to prevent and resolve humanitarian crises. Instead, the world has fragmented.
For instance, many powerful states are intervening to stop one of the world’s tools for lessening the impact of war: the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Five countries—China, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France—currently have the ability to veto UNSC initiatives, such as taking action against human rights abuses. In the 1990s, the veto was used just nine times; this rose to 14 in the 2000s and 22 times in the 2010s. Examples include Russia and China preventing discussion of Syria and the United States blocking discussion of Palestine.
“At the moment, the threat of the veto is sufficient for many countries not to go to the Security Council, because it's not worth it,” says Kitchen, “So we don't do anything about [crises].”
Finally, much of the conflict in the world today is driven by non-state actors. That includes local opposition groups, such as those in Yemen. It also includes criminal gangs, such as those in Watchlist countries Honduras and Haiti, or armed groups such as those that target the African states of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The prevalence of these non-state actors provide challenges for a system set up to negotiate conflicts between states.
Retreat from universal rights
In the wake of World War 2, the world came together to draft a “Declaration of Human Rights” to outline the rights to which all people in the world should be entitled. This emphasis on global human rights has been cited to protect civilians in conflict zones, to respond to human rights atrocities and to craft international law.
Today, countries of all types are emphasizing sovereignty to get around a commitment to these universal principles.
“That spirit of universal human rights has been abandoned,” says Readings. “And it's not just authoritarian states. It's not just states in the Global South, it’s also the Global North. It’s wealthy states and not wealthy states. Conflict affected and not conflict affected. They're all doing it.”
“Countries are turning inwards,” says Kitchen. “The major powers are focusing on their own problems and there is more nationalistic tendencies within a growing number of countries. Countries are becoming more focused on sovereignty and not accepting external offers for assistance or brokered dialogue toward peace.”
2020 saw more serious attacks on aid workers than ever before—484, of which 94% were targeted at local staff.
One impact of this trend is that many people are not receiving the humanitarian aid they need. 2021 saw significant deteriorations in humanitarian access in six Watchlist countries: Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria and Somalia. 2020 saw more serious attacks on aid workers than ever before—484, of which 94% were targeted at local staff.
In addition, wealthy countries are increasingly hesitant to contribute the resources needed to ensure universal human rights.
“Richer countries are supposed to be donating funds to help countries dealing with crises, and they're not doing enough. They’re supposed to take in refugees, yet only one percent of refugees are ever resettled.”
This emphasis on sovereignty has also led countries to block any accountability states may face when they commit human rights violations. In 2020, the Trump Administration went so far as to sanction International Criminal Court (ICC) employees, claiming that an investigation into alleged abuses by U.S. troops in Afghanistan was infringing on U.S. national sovereignty. Several African countries have likewise accused the ICC of being biased against Africans and undermining their sovereignty.
Readings notes that identifying these changes is unique to the Watchlist. “Many point at these systems to say ‘this isn’t working.’ We actually put forward our explanation for what we think is driving that–and what needs to change.”
What can be done?
Originally intended as a tool for humanitarians, Kitchen is proud that the Watchlist has become something “the world can depend on, and take seriously.”
He also hopes that this particular year will inspire world leaders to take action. The report itself includes solutions that both address people’s immediate needs and focus on the roots of the world’s current problems.
Helping people in need
“One [solution] that really stands out in my mind,” says Kitchen, “is that we need to spend overseas development aid in a way that's more responsible to the greatest needs. So channeling it into very fragile, conflict-affected countries, rather than using it for foreign policy investments, or business development, in stable developing countries.” The report calls for half of overseas development aid to be channeled into fragile countries, instead of the quarter that is currently spent.
Other suggestions include two of the largest drivers of suffering in the world today: COVID-19 and climate change. With 74% of COVID-19 vaccines having gone to upper and middle income countries, much of the world is being left behind. Closing this gap requires both donated vaccines and action to allow more poorer countries to manufacture the vaccines themselves.
Despite the fact that they did not cause climate change, countries on the Watchlist are among those bearing the greatest burden as the world warms. These countries need access to more financing in order to adapt as storms, drought, heat waves and other extreme weather pummel their population.
The report also calls for a “New Deal” for people who are forcibly displaced, which would include the resettlement of 400,000 refugees in 2022 and debt relief for the developing countries who host the majority of the world’s refugees.
When it comes to tackling the root causes of system failure, Kitchen cites an independent body to look at the ability of humanitarians to access people in need. He also noted a proposal to suspend the UN Security Council veto in certain cases.
“At the moment, countries see the UN as sometimes inert,” says Kitchen. “So they kick out aid workers and UN officials. And even though the UN says that's contrary to international humanitarian law, these countries know that nothing's going to happen.”
Other suggestions to address the root causes include building a commitment to international humanitarian law into any military partnerships, the use of a legal principle called “universal jurisdiction” to prosecute those who commit war crimes and human rights violations, and for social media companies to combat the fueling of hate and division in conflict-affected areas. Although there has been a lot of public attention paid to the spread of misinformation, nearly all of the companies’ efforts so far have focused on the U.S. and other wealthy nations. Meanwhile, social media has the potential to act as an accelerant to violence in countries already mired in armed conflict.
While all of this is happening, it’s critical to know that there is something that is not failing—and that is our work together. With the help of our donors, the International Rescue Committee is delivering life-changing humanitarian aid in the world’s toughest and most remote places. We are meeting the needs of the refugees and displaced people we serve, helping them to not only survive, but recover and rebuild their lives.