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David Miliband: NGOs, businesses and private citizens must "step up" for refugees as governments retreat

Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, spoke at the Google Zeitgeist Conference on May 15, 2018.

Thank you for the invitation to be with you today.  I run an international charity that helps refugees and displaced people.  We were founded by Einstein in 1933 and today we work in around 40 countries, with 17000 staff delivering health care, education, employment support to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.  Last year we helped 26 million people.  We are, sadly, a growth business in a growth industry.  

Here is the question I want to address: what are our obligations, as corporate or NGO leaders, as citizens, when Governments are in retreat?

My answer is that with Governments in retreat across the western world, NGOs and the private sector need to step up, and step up together, to tackle the big global problems.  By doing so, we will not just make the world a better place, but also defend the vision of a connected, empowered, egalitarian world that is the animating idea of this conference. 

The last time I attended this conference was in 2007.  And before anyone says it: I know about the grey hair, advancing years, and loss of power.

When I spoke here in April 2007, the mood was confident and upbeat.  I argued that we were in a new period in Western history.  I explained that in the 1940s, the dominant ethos following the war was “we need,” which led to the creation of a type of welfare capitalism previously unknown. In the 1980s, the zeitgeist was defined by the consumerist culture of “we want.” And in 2007 we were in a new age of “we can.” It was an age of insurgency with unprecedented resources for individuals to write their own stories, to narrate their own biographies as Tony Giddens put it. 

I feel no shame in admitting that a young man by the name of Barack Obama did a better job than me in capturing the spirit of the age when he proclaimed: “Yes We Can.”

But I want you to remember the zeitgeist then.  It was positive, internationalist, optimistic.  I still believe it.  The resources for positive action have never been greater. 

But that is not the zeitgeist in the West today.  There is more distrust than hope. The zeitgeist is about divisions between generations, not support for the younger generation. It’s about economic decline, not the renewal of the West. It's about the withdrawal of international leadership, not the power of international cooperation. In the words of Richard Haas, it’s about the abdication of international responsibility, not the embrace of duty. It’s about the dysfunction of political systems, not the triumph of democracy. 

The West, which has been famous for tearing down walls is now famous for building them.

If the zeitgeist in 2007 was “Yes we can,” today it is “No we won’t”. “No we won’t” listen to experts and pollsters. “No we won’t” live up to our international obligations. “No we won’t” follow norms and expectations.

Some reasons for this change are obvious. The financial crisis has defined this current age.  The failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have sapped confidence.  Political and business scandals, exposed by the radical transparency of the modern age, have played their part.  The rise in inequalities within nations, the fantastical rent-seeking behavior of the most powerful, has produced a backlash that threatens globalization in its wake. 

And when I look at the reaction in government, I see retreat. 

There is retreat from the idea that in an interconnected world there is no such thing as far away. On July 4th 1962, John F. Kennedy spoke in Philadelphia and proclaimed a “Declaration of Interdependence.” He asserted the “indivisible liberty of all, not the individual liberty of one.” His argument was that in the global village we all live in, your neighbor’s problem is your problem. 

That’s massively more true today.  For example, the New York Times recently reported that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen isn’t just incubating massive human suffering, it’s incubating antibiotic resistant diseases that will soon leave Yemen and affect all of us. But Governments in the West are in retreat from tackling these global problems.  The Chinese and Russians think globally.  We don’t.

There is retreat from the notion that strong and effective international institutions are necessary in a connected world.  It has been replaced by the notion that international institutions are too strong not too weak. Whether it be in respect of refugees, or corporate taxation, or climate, or privacy, the most striking thing is the weakness of international institutions.  

Brexit provides the harshest lesson in this. Six months after I spoke at this conference in 2007, I took through the House of Commons the Lisbon Treaty which for the first time made provisions for a country to exit the EU, through the now famous article 50 process.  I remember saying to my staff that Article 50 was structured in such a way that no country would ever trigger it without knowing exactly how they wanted to leave. I thought that the only divorce from the EU would be a velvet divorce such as the split of Czechoslovakia. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe the UK would be the country crazy enough to trigger Article 50 without knowing what came next.

There is retreat from some of the most basic freedoms of the post war period.  I don’t just mean that civilians and aid workers are being killed in war zones, though they are.  Freedom House – a global watchdog of political rights and civil liberties – has shown twelve consecutive years of a decline in global freedom. It’s striking that two-thirds of the world’s 15 largest economies are autocracies, a number that would have been unimaginable in the 1990s. 

Ironically, this retreat has been compounded by the determination of Russia to interfere with global democratic rights around the world. This is not the place to debate the Russian hacking of the US election, but I am struck how grave is the charge of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum, and how little willingness there is to do anything about it.

These retreats will not address the populist backlash.  They will compound it, rather than assuage it. 

And for me, this isn’t just an academic concern for me or a theoretical discussion. This affects the world I do every day of the week.

The retreats have immediate impact. 

  • The retreat from global responsibility has created a crisis of diplomacy, where wars seem endless, peacemaking is in balk.
  • The weakness of international institutions, the splintering and fragmentation of responsibility, leaves more and more people in limbo.
  • The compromise on basic rights and freedoms has led to the demonization of asylum seekers. 

So the question is what should we do.  My answer is that we need to step up.

The dimensions of the refugee crisis call for new thinking. 1 in 110 people on the planet is a refugee or displaced person. 80% of refugee crises last for ten years or more, and 40% last for 20 years or more. Less than 2% of refugees went home last year. 60% of refugees live in urban areas, where they can’t get access to many humanitarian services. The majority of refugees are women and girls, not single men. 88% are displaced to poor or lower middle income countries.   

All of this would call for a new partnership between NGOs and the private sector. But in truth the biggest case for a new kind of partnership is that governments are in retreat. Precisely at the moment when we most need a redoubling of effort, governments are reducing their effort. And that means NGOs, business, and private citizens need to step up in their place.

A great example of how to step up can be seen in the partnership between Google and the IRC. We knew the first thing refugees would do when they managed to get to Greece was to open up their phones and try to figure out where they were, but this was often expensive and in Greek. So with Google engineers we created refugee.info to allow refugees to find out where they are, what services are available, and how to report abuse. Over 800 000 unique visitors have used the website across 18 different countries. Just this month we hosted a group of Google engineers helping us build a refugee.info hub in Jordan.

We need more partnerships like this in three areas.

First is in cash. The biggest thing refugees and displaced people lack is cash, and the most powerful aid tool is cash.  We have built it into our emergency protocols established within 72 hours of a crisis.  We need to get cash to refugees in simple, secure ways, and we need to think about how to make cash payments work in fragile contexts.

Second is in the transformation of education. The most chilling experience is talking to refugees who say that they accept that their lives are over, but now they’re just fighting to ensure their children’s lives aren’t over. That’s what I hear this month when I was in Iraq. Three-quarters of refugee children are not getting an education and many of them have deep social-emotional trauma. Giving them a laptop isn’t sufficient.  We need to work with you on how to train and equip teachers and parents utilizing both technology and face-to-face interaction.

Third is engineering a new deal on employment for displaced people and the communities that host them. The countries where refugees are being hosted have employment problems of their own, so we need to change the equation, and that’s where the private sector has a role to play. This is true both in low and middle income countries, but also in developed countries like Germany or the United States. We need to make refugee integration happen through work and I encourage you all to follow the example set forth by companies like Intel and Starbucks who have given refugees real opportunities.

The people we work with every day are being dehumanized by hateful political rhetoric, and we need to work to help re-establish their humanity.  If the slogans of doing well by doing good are to mean anything they need to apply to these people. It’s a test that businesses can pass if they’re clear on what their role is and isn’t. I’m calling on all of you here to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.  And make no mistake, as the Pope said, the “globalization of indifference” is the heart of the problem.

The case for stepping up comes from the head as well as the heart.  In a connected world, if we don’t address problems like those faced by displaced people, we will all lose.  And that leads to my final point.

When I call for more effective humanitarian aid, I’m making a case for an investment in humanity, and an investment in political stability, but also a case for investment in a more connected world that is the founding ethos of this conference.

The rights given to refugees after the Second World War were part of a wider set of commitments.  And the attacks on refugees today are part of a wider attack on the idea of a more open, connected world.  Just as rights for refugees were a sign of light for the post-Second World War international system, the attacks on refugees are storm clouds for the rest of the international system. 

The biggest thing I have learnt in the last four years is that the work of rescue that dominates the name of the organization I lead is not just about the rescue of others.  It is also about the rescue of ourselves: of our values, of our moral standing, of our claim to be using our power to set the right example.

If we want the blessings of globalization, we have to take on the burdens.  That is the biggest idea we have to rescue.  And we have to do it ourselves. 

The post-Second World War period saw the largest advances in peace and prosperity the world has ever seen, and it was associated with the fastest ever spread of democratic government, regulated markets, inclusive welfare states and international cooperation.  

I don’t believe that combination was an accident.  Now the question is whether that period goes down as a blip.  We’ve had our warning in the growing gap between needs and provision for the one in 110 people on the planet who is displaced by war or persecution. It’s up to us to fight for them, to fight the virus of indifference, and in the process fight for the wider benefits of a connected world.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 28 offices across the U.S. helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.