Just as world leaders and corporate titans gather in the Swiss Alps for the World Economic Forum, the world they influence looks like a pretty ugly and hopeless place right now — in fact, worse than it’s ever looked.
If we needed any confirmation, UN Secretary General António Guterres, in his annual outlook for 2018, told the UN General Assembly last week: “In fundamental ways, the world has gone in reverse. Conflicts have deepened and new dangers have emerged.”
Indeed, with at least 10 major crises crowding the caseloads of humanitarian aid agencies, we are witnessing the highest level of human suffering since World War II.
In the absence of fresh problem-solving, conflicts are sticking around longer. Syria is into its seventh year, the civil war in South Sudan into its fifth and the conflict in eastern Ukraine grinds into its fourth.
At least we have some sort of acknowledgment from Davos leaders that the world is in bad shape: The theme of the 47th summit is “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” Some 60 heads of state and government have plenty with which to grapple.
An inward-looking United States on retreat from global engagement is now a given. It’s abundantly clear that under President Donald Trump Uncle Sam has become a penny-pinching donor. The United States is also drastically capping acceptance of refugees — far below what agencies say is required to meet demand around the world. And just at a time when more conflicts are creating new waves of desperate refugees.
With so many simultaneous, complex emergencies, many UN agencies — especially those mandated to save lives — are cash-starved. Translation? More people will die in places such as Yemen, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Further into 2018, expect more cuts all over the world where major humanitarian agencies are working to alleviate human suffering. Several of UN funding appeals for major emergencies — in places such as Syria, the Central African Republic and the Congo — are not even 50% funded.
Recently, the World Food Programme let it be known it will be canceling its food assistance program in Ukraine — one of the poorest countries in Europe and the only that relies on food assistance. About 1 million people in war-torn eastern Ukraine will be affected. Earlier, and for the same reasons, WFP announced the suspension of nutritional aid to about 200,000 kindergarten children in North Korea.
A majority of the world’s hungry people live in conflict zones. WFP estimates that 60% of all the chronically food-insecure people on the planet, almost half a billion, live in countries affected by conflict. That means when conflict arrives on their doorsteps, they edge one step closer to death.
A big reason why conflicts are becoming more lethal is that they are occurring in heavily populated urban areas, and more people are in the line of fire.
Peter Mauer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, put it best: “City centers and residential areas have become the battlefields of our time. Wars have moved into the lives, cities and homes of ordinary people in a more vicious way than ever before.”
Indeed most of the horrific images we see out of Syria or Iraq are of helpless civilians caught in bombed-out city blocks.
Sadly, what makes the outlook especially bad for 2018 is that the political will to resolve conflicts and the public’s compassion appear to be waning.
As many world leaders sleep walk their way through climate change, natural disasters are happening more frequently and with more severity — and this siphons away attention and resources from the faraway, man-made disasters. If a “kindness begins at home mentality” takes hold in places such as the United States, it could mean a tougher slog raising money for the Yemens of the world.
Sure, my hope is that the Davos gathering comes up with more creative and sustainable responses to end the world’s conflicts. But there needs to be a realization that the longer conflicts drag on, the harder they are to solve, and the more likely they will be inherited by future generations.
Because Davos is one of the favored platforms for world leaders and corporate titans to meet and speak, it needs to move more aggressively to forge partnerships to solve problems in poorer countries. Because other than the obvious point that it’s the right thing to do, it also makes good business sense.
Think of this: Companies such as Coca-Cola have developed amazing logistics that allow it to deliver a bottle of Coke to the most remote parts of northern Nigeria. And guess what? The fizzy liquid in that bottle tastes the same as one purchased in Manhattan. What if Coke and the World Health Organization were to partner and use spare space on those red trucks to deliver perishable vaccines to some of the most difficult to access parts of the world?
With growing gaps in funding, UN agencies and other humanitarian players need to get smarter with their interventions and make hard-to-come-by aid dollars stretch further — and that means partnering with the private sector. And by the way, many people, having lost trust in other institutions, believe that businesses are the new agent of positive change in society.
While there will be plenty of self-congratulatory back-slapping in Davos by the likes of Bill and Melinda Gates on how they’ve managed to create impressive gains for children — the number of childhood deaths per year has been cut in half since 1990 — those gains are diluted when millions of children face starvation from blockades and unspeakably violent deaths from shelling and landmines.
At the end of the day, summits don’t end conflicts — political will does. And that seems to be something sorely lacking these days. When repeated calls for action for such emergencies as the largest famine the world has seen for many decades (Yemen) is met with little response, we are in a very sad place as humanity.
Who among the world’s leaders gathered at Davos will step up and have the guts to talk about solutions to these raging humanitarian disasters? The world will be watching, and history will judge.