December 13, 2022 —
IRC EMERGENCY WATCHLIST 2023: TIME TO REBUILD THE GUARDRAILS
SPEECH BY DAVID MILIBAND
Today the IRC launches its Emergency Watchlist for 2023. Using data-driven analysis and our teams’ on-the-ground perspectives, we have identified twenty countries that are at the greatest risk of a major new or significantly worsened humanitarian situation in 2023. Our analysis not only tracks current trends, but also pinpoints common symptoms that precede worsening humanitarian crisis.
The 2023 Watchlist is topped by Somalia, Ethiopia, and Afghanistan. These countries are emblematic of the challenges facing fragile and crisis-affected communities worldwide that are on the precipice of a worsening crisis. Conflict is bad enough; the climate crisis makes it worse; and now economic shocks, arising from the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine, are fueling record-breaking levels of humanitarian need.
The Watchlist therefore does more than sound the alarm about levels of need. It is not just a compendium of individual tragedies. The conditions in the 20 countries on the Watchlist can help us understand why humanitarian crisis has spiraled out of control and with that how we can diminish the severity.
Here is our dilemma. IRC is doing more good with greater impact to meet growing needs than ever before, reaching more than 31 million people across 40 countries worldwide. But our efforts are outpaced by a great and growing global crisis. This is the duality that the 2023 Emergency Watchlist brings to the fore.
Whether you look at 54 conflicts, or 100 million people on the run from conflict or disaster, or the 340 million people who will need humanitarian assistance in 2023, the IRC is more needed than ever, but so is fresh thinking about how to tackle causes as well as the symptoms of human misery.
The 20 countries on Watchlist, accounting for 13 per cent of the global population, account for over 90 per cent of humanitarian need. The argument of this year’s Emergency Watchlist is that there are three major accelerators of this record humanitarian need: conflict, climate disasters, and economic turmoil; and that the right response cannot be more of the same: we need to break the cycle of crisis not just run after it; we need to address impunity in conflict not just accept it as the natural order; and we need to better manage global risk, not just wait for it to overwhelm us.
So as well as being a warning on the risks of business as usual, the Watchlist is a roadmap, an agenda for reform to stop runaway crises from becoming catastrophes that claim the lives of more people.
The most important takeaway I will share today is that humanitarian catastrophe is the result of choices – and therefore not an inevitable outcome. If we are to reduce the scale of humanitarian suffering worldwide then we must start by incentivizing those in power to make the right choices to forestall and mitigate catastrophe.
Each year for the past decade, the Watchlist has helped the IRC focus our emergency preparedness and monitoring efforts, to ensure we are using our resources where they will have the greatest impact. But the Watchlist is also an important tool for raising the public alarm about the 20 countries where we see the greatest risk of major deterioration in the humanitarian situation.
The Watchlist is grounded in a unique methodology that combines quantitative analysis with qualitative insights from our frontline colleagues. Our Global Crisis Analysis team draws up the list by setting analysis of 67 indicators that all point to future humanitarian risks alongside analysis based on the in-depth knowledge and experiences of staff and experts working on the frontlines of these crises and in the communities these crises impact.
On average the Watchlist correctly predicts 85-95% of the 20 countries that see the worst escalations in their humanitarian situation over the following year. There are surprises every year, such as the war in Ukraine in 2022, which drive unexpected humanitarian crises, but the analytical framework of the Watchlist can help make sense of what can seem to be a chaotic world and can help us understand what to watch for as new crises emerge.
In 2023, 340 million people will be in humanitarian need. Based on current trends, that number will continue to rise. It is important to be clear why. We highlight three accelerators of crisis.
Conflict remains the primary accelerator of humanitarian crisis, driving 80% of humanitarian need worldwide. Conflicts devastate the infrastructure, livelihoods and services on which communities depend to withstand shocks. So yes the climate crisis and record drought are major reasons why Somalia and Ethiopia are on this year’s Watchlist, but it’s the years of conflict that have devastated both countries’ capacity to withstand such climatic and economic shocks that push them to the top of the list.
Conflicts are increasing in both duration and spread, within countries, and across borders. The average length of conflicts in Watchlist countries is 12 years – double the length half a century ago – fueled in part by a large number of internationalized civil wars, where foreign countries send troops to at least one side of the conflict.
The number of countries experiencing multiple, separate conflicts simultaneously – such as Nigeria – has more than doubled in the past decade.
We are also seeing a growing trend where parties to conflicts are operating with impunity. They are pummeling civilian infrastructure, weaponizing lifesaving aid, blocking IRC staff and other humanitarians from reaching populations in need. Nearly 40 countries, including every single Watchlist country, are experiencing high to extreme constraints on humanitarian access.
Nowhere is the dramatic, sudden impact of conflict more apparent than in Ukraine, where the war that started in February has led to more than 14 million displaced, 17,000 civilian casualties, and significant economic damage that will take a generation to rebuild.
By contrast to the war between states occurring in Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo is experiencing multiple simultaneous, episodic conflicts that are protracted and rapidly changing. And while the conflict in the DRC is not new that does not make it any less urgent for 2023. The conflict has devastated the country’s health and response systems, leaving the country vulnerable to diseases like Ebola and has driven more than 24 million people into crisis or worse levels of food insecurity.
It is clear that escalating or episodic conflict is a significant indicator that a humanitarian crisis will get worse in the coming year.
Climate change is rapidly accelerating humanitarian emergencies despite the fact that Watchlist countries bear little responsibility for the climate crisis. These 20 countries contribute just 1.9% of global CO2 emissions and emit just a fifth of the CO2 per capita when compared to global averages. Despite this, they face some of the worst climate related disasters.
Somalia, which ranks at the top of this year’s Watchlist, is emblematic of how the climate crisis is driving humanitarian crises. A record drought and an unprecedented fifth consecutive failed rainy season – with a sixth season at risk next year – has led to a 91% increase in the number of people experiencing crisis or worse levels of food insecurity. The number of people facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity, meaning they are at risk of starving to death, is projected to rise to over 700,000 next year.
At the same time that a drought was putting Somalia on the brink of a famine, record rainfalls in Pakistan led to flooding that affected over 33 million people and submerged most of the country’s prime agricultural land underwater.
Natural shocks like these disasters were made more likely and more extreme by global warming. Droughts and floods like these will continue to become more common. Each year the world experiences more than 350 such climatic shocks, triple the numbers seen in the 1980s. Equally troubling, the readiness of Watchlist countries to respond to such climatic shocks is falling further and further behind the readiness of non-Watchlist countries.
It is no surprise that our global climate crisis is having a detrimental impact on the world, but it is also more clear than ever that the impact is a significant contributor to a deteriorating humanitarian situation.
Economic turmoil related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic is impacting supply chains, international trade, inflation, and food and fuel prices, all of which are driving food insecurity across Watchlist countries. We see the impact of the global economic crisis play out in places like Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria, and Venezuela. And the historic impacts of conflict and climate change in these countries have also reduced the ability of many of these communities to produce food locally, leaving them even more exposed to global inflation.
As global food prices rose to record levels in 2022, Watchlist countries have experienced food price inflation at nearly 40%, double the average for the rest of the world (19%). Meanwhile, weaker currencies in the face of a strong dollar have pushed inflation rates even higher for Watchlist countries, making it harder and harder financially for families to feed themselves.
For example, the economic collapse in Afghanistan and the subsequent impact on basic government services in the country has been the main culprit of the country’s humanitarian crisis. Today there is near universal poverty as the economy has contracted by 20% over the past year.
In Syria, another country whose decade-long war made it less able to withstand an economic shock, 90% of Syrians now live below the poverty line and 75% of Syrians cannot meet their most basic needs and food and fuel prices continue to rise.
As a result the Watchlist countries are pushed off the cliff of catastrophe. The 2023 Watchlist reveals a need for a step change in the way we approach humanitarian crises. At their heart, these are political crises, economic crises, security crises, and climate crises. But the erosion of guardrails meant to address these underlying issues means that humanitarian crises are spiraling.
The 20 countries that form the 2023 Watchlist are the countries that are at the center of the global humanitarian crises. They represent a disproportionate share of communities affected by crisis. Watchlist countries account for 90% of the 339 million people the UN reports will be in humanitarian need in 2023 – itself a four-fold increase from 2014. Watchlist countries are the home of 4 in 5 people who are forcibly displaced – a number that recently surpassed 100 million, up from just under 60 million in 2014. And these countries represent 80% of the 140 million people facing crisis or worse levels of food insecurity – a number that has nearly tripled in the last five years.
In Somalia, we see a country facing the worst drought in 40 years, pushing the country to the brink of famine while non-state armed actors like al-Shabab make it harder for aid workers to deliver life-saving aid to people in need. In Ethiopia, we see how a toxic brew of armed conflict, economic turmoil, and climate change are driving people into desperate need. In Afghanistan, an unprecedented economic freefall combined with the near-total breakdown in public services has pushed half the country into acute food insecurity and two thirds of the country struggle to fulfill their basic needs.
Last year, we diagnosed what we described as “system failure” driving humanitarian crisis – namely the notion that deficits in respect of state actions, diplomacy, legal rights and humanitarian operations were driving record numbers of people in humanitarian need. This year’s Watchlist warns that the “guardrails” meant to prevent humanitarian crises from spiraling out of control are being weakened or dismantled completely.
Guardrails are the policies, systems, and actions designed to limit the impact of crisis on affected communities and to prevent crises from becoming catastrophes. Guardrails can operate at all levels to mitigate crises, from international institutions like the UN Security Council to diplomatic agreements to local and community-level efforts and humanitarian aid.
We’ve seen the power that guardrails can have when bolstered. The UN-brokered six-month truce in Yemen led to the longest period of relative calm that country has seen since the beginning of the war in 2014, leading to an 86% drop in fatalities. The 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, helping bring food prices down from their record peak and served as 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 the worst-case scenarios from occurring and saved thousands of lives each.
But these examples are the exception to the rule. Instead, at nearly every level of the global system these guardrails are being systematically weakened, dismantled, destroyed. Social services and safety nets are cut. Preventative and early action responses against crises are being underfunded. Conflict resolution is undermined. And accountability systems are ignored.
In Syria, the UN’s cross-border aid mechanism, which offers a critical lifeline for 2.4 million Syrian civilians, has been continually whittled down, constrained, and repeatedly put at risk of being completely shut down due to geopolitical rivalry within the Security Council. In Yemen, the UN’s Group of Eminent Experts, which monitored the conduct of the war in Yemen, was disbanded last year, and civilian deaths doubled in the immediate aftermath. Finally, humanitarian aid, which is the ultimate and final guardrail is continually underfunded – of the 17 Watchlist countries that had Humanitarian Response Plans this year, 11 received less than half of what they needed for the year.
The startling acceleration of crises globally highlights that action is needed now to save lives. It is needed in three critical areas. They are presented in the Watchlist as an agenda for change.
First, we need to break the cycle of crisis. We offer three examples for what this means.
It means rebooting the broken international response to the hunger crisis, by reenergizing the Secretary-General’s High-Level Task Force on Preventing Famine to fulfill its original responsibility of preventing famine before it happens. The lack of a body meaningfully leading on famine means a lack of attention on drivers and barriers to famine response and funding shortfalls across the board. It also means adopting on an accelerated basis the now-proven efficiency and implementation benefits of a single, simplified protocol to scale up access to malnutrition treatment for children.
Breaking the cycle of crisis 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. Currently just 3% of humanitarian funding supports education despite 260 million children left out of school. A commitment by donors to invest 50% of bilateral official development assistance (ODA) to fragile and conflict-affected states (up from 27% currently) would be a powerful step in the right direction if paired with governance and anti-corruption commitments by recipient governments. This is especially critical because despite the positive story of declining extreme poverty worldwide over the past several decades, the reality is that poverty has simply become concentrated in Watchlist countries. Watchlist countries will continue to fall further and further behind the rest of the world unless we prioritize these countries with the resources required to break the cycle of crisis, which we have shown is possible in stable contexts.
And it means funding frontline responders with a people-first strategy for multilateral development banks (MDBs). In many of the Watchlist countries governments are unable or unwilling to support all populations, so the current MDB approach of partnering first with governments needs a mindset shift. A people-first strategy would allow MDBs to directly fund NGOs and local civil society that often have more access and understanding of hard to reach or underserved communities. MDBs should build on the ad hoc precedents set in places like Yemen, South Sudan, and Afghanistan where the World Bank and others funded the UN or NGOs to provide basic services. For instance, the IRC is partnering with GAVI to launch an ambitious effort across East Africa to reach “zero dose” children – those who have not received a single routine vaccine, often due to living in conflict-affected and hard-to-reach areas or places with weak or nonexistent health systems.
Second, we need to protect civilians in conflict. For example:
This means re-establishing 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. Currently many humanitarian organizations are unable to raise the alarm of denial of access to aid out of fear of retaliation. Even the UN is constrained in its ability to speak out as access becomes politicized. An independent body could break this dynamic by providing regular analysis and early warnings when access is deteriorating while being insulated from political pressure from member states.
It means tackling impunity for mass atrocities by suspending the use of the Security Council veto in the case of mass atrocities. France and Mexico, backed by over 100 states, have called for the five permanent members of the Security Council to voluntarily refrain from using their veto power when the most severe abuses of civilians are occurring. Currently politics paralyzes the Council in these critical situations, jeopardizing its credibility and allowing impunity to flourish. A new standing, independent panel could help bring rigor and humanity to the conversation – defining what a mass atrocity is and identifying in a clear, neutral way which cases merit veto suspension. When the Security Council falls short, the General Assembly should step up through a combination of the recently adopted Lichtenstein “veto initiative,” which convenes the General Assembly every time a veto is cast in the Security Council, and the “Uniting for Peace” mechanism to break gridlock on the Council.
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. The data shows that women and women-led organizations have an outsized role to play in strengthening the guardrails for communities impacted by these humanitarian crises. Women made up only 19% of participants in UN-led peace processes in 2021, but peace accords are 35% more likely to last at least 15 years if women participate in them. All states should codify UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security which urges actors to increase the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives into conflict prevention and resolution.
Finally, we need to confront shared global risks. We live in a world where risks are increasingly global but resilience is increasingly national. This makes no sense. Instead we offer the following suggestions.
The world needs to address 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. In addition to the amount of funding, it is critical to reduce the barriers to finance standing in the way of Watchlist countries. This requires a mindset shift by funders given the current risk aversion of current climate finance systems, which leaves the most at risk communities with the least support.
It means pandemic-proofing the world by creating a Global Health Threats Council to mobilize a global effort to prevent, prepare and respond to the next pandemic. As we have all learned first-hand, confronting a pandemic requires whole of society action which can only be mobilized from the highest levels of government and the international system. When the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response reviewed the international COVID-19 response, the panel recommended the establishment of the Global Health Threats Council to sustain political commitment to pandemic preparedness, identify gaps, monitor progress towards goals, and advise on the allocation of additional resources. Such a council could both support the national response plans while also holding everyone accountable for playing their part in a global response.
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. Refugees and other people on the move are not the crisis – mismanaged response to displacement are. The welcoming response to Ukrainians fleeing to Europe shows that refugees that are supported by generous, welcoming policies can thrive in their new environments without creating burdens on host communities. But most refugees are hosted by low and middle-income countries like Uganda, Jordan, Colombia and Bangladesh. International financial institutions and major donors should support these countries of first displacement with more ambitions aid and beyond-aid solutions, such as significantly scaling up the World Bank’s IDA Window for Host Communities and Refugees and the Global Concessional Financing Facility for states that commit to welcoming policies like access to work, education, health services and documentation.
None of this is easy. None of it can be done by the humanitarian sector alone. But none of it is impossible.
This is our argument as we look to the crises of next year. The guardrails against crisis are being eroded, but that doesn’t mean we are consigned to a future without guardrails. We can rebuild them together, but for that we need your help, your ideas, your advocacy, and your financial support.