To be brutally honest, the current pace of global geopolitical, economic and technological change appears to have left many international institutions in its wake. If multilateral bodies are to remain a significant element of global mechanisms for coping with such changes, they are not making a very convincing argument for it so far.
So much is shifting, and so quickly, the forces underlying current instability, tension and conflicts are often too complex and diverse to fully comprehend. That uncertainty is partly fuelling pervasive feelings of insecurity and fear, as well as driving unpredictable political swings and election outcomes. Unfortunately, when such uncertainty interacts with the growing awareness of pervasive and accelerating inequality, there is a risk that it leads to a steep fall in social cohesion and trust: A polarization in society, away from everyone being ‘in the same boat’ to people ‘fighting for themselves’.
Some of the longer-term consequences of such deep-rooted changes in values and attitude can feed back into to the failure of states and political tensions, and ultimately into the kind of unbridled conflicts and crises we see today, some of which are more protracted than ever. Where such instability and shocks persist, to undermine countries for up to 10 or 20 years in some instances, their overlap with natural disasters, extreme climate events, food shortages and outbreaks of disease becomes far more likely. All many international organisations seem capable of is to react to crises, emergencies or disasters after the fact, rather than initiating proactive programmes to help offset risk and vulnerability in the first place.
In many settings, this conflation of longer-term approaches and acute crises has led to an inevitable blurring of the lines – some argue dangerously – typically drawn between ’emergency’ humanitarian responses, crisis recovery and national development programmes. This overlap has been seen, in particular by the United Nations, as an opportunity to bring the development and humanitarian sectors closer together. However, some non-governmental actors have warned this could lead to humanitarian action – and its unique principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality, as well as upholding of international humanitarian laws – being “dissolved” into wider development, peace-building and political agendas. While inconvenient for some, this debate is a critical one to have and resolve transparently.
And while the discussions take place, the scale of today’s crises are entering uncharted territory. Latest estimates show that there are already around 1 billion migrants and displaced people on the move throughout the world, including 60 million refugees forced out of their homes by war and persecution. To find comparable refugee figures, you have to go back about 70 years to the time of the second World War. It is timely to recall that the human impacts of that war were so severe and widespread that they actually inspired the start of many of our current development and humanitarian organizations. And as we have seen with the Mediterranean refugee crisis, it is not just a question of numbers: The coping and survival strategies of desperate people seeking a home in the world are exposing them to new vulnerabilities as their resilience is continually stretched and stretched.
In addition to placing extreme demands on humanitarian assistance and sustainable development systems, the current era of financial austerity, self-interest and instability is delivering an additional body-blow to the international aid architecture: At the very time they are being called upon to do more, and to protect more people, overstrained humanitarian and development organizations are being forced to compete more fiercely for dwindling resources than at any time in their history.
That competition for resources may partly underlie attempts to improve coordination between the development and humanitarian sectors, and bring them closer together in the name of efficiency. But given the extent of wars, displacement, climate change, disease outbreaks and emergencies of all kinds, it would be shameful if financial crisis, self-interest and an inadequacy of generosity were allowed to prompt a significant compromise in the way we respond to such global challenges, rather than provoke the kind of humanitarian response we mustered the last time the world brought itself to this position.