New responses to global humanitarian crises

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Last year was touted as experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945, with 20 million people in just four countries confronting starvation. This year, the British International Development Secretary, Penny Mordaunt, warned would be worse.

Chris Johnston cartoonA quick recap of the situation right now. South Sudan has returned to civil war at the same time as a famine, a left-right punch that has displaced about four million people. In Myanmar, the government's crackdown on Muslim Rohingya has led to an exodus of nearly 700,000 people in seven months.

Neither compare to the 11 million Syrians who have fled their homes or the 13 million in need of food and protection in Congo. If there was such a thing as a ranking of suffering, Yemen would be near the top, with 8.4 million people on the verge of starvation including 400,000 children who have severe acute malnutrition. Central African Republic, north-east Nigeria and Mali are just a few other places where the struggle for survival is ever present.

Of the over 30 million who were displaced last year, nearly 12 million fled from war — a figure nearly twice as large as the year before.

There are a lot of arguments for helping people in need. Some say that we should invest money to prevent fragile and failed states becoming breeding grounds for terrorism. The United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while Commander of US Central Command, pointedly said, 'If you don't fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.'

Others will say that Australia has an obligation as part of the west to pay reparations for benefiting from centuries of exploitation. A federation of Caribbean countries has formed a group to push for reparations for the ten million who were taken from Africa and transported to the Americas. Lastly, there is the moral argument, for some grounded in faith, for others in the secular version of do onto your neighbour as you would want done unto you. Pope Francis has argued that helping migrants is just as important as protecting unborn babies.

From among these, every Australian should be able to find one reason that motivates them to help people affected by war.

 

"We need aid workers whose passion for the people they are helping gives them patience for change that can sustain them through the years of struggle."

 

But one of the problems is that Australians tend to be generous when it comes to donating to some disasters, particularly those in our region, while others further afield are overlooked. In the last financial year, Australian Red Cross was only able to raise $1.08 million for Syria despite the desperate need and the enormity of the crisis, while in the previous year, following a cyclone that hit Fiji killing 44 people, they received $4.5 million in donations.

As for governments, most, including Australia's, focus on helping low-income countries join the middle-income club, leverage their aid to facilitate more trade or try to address inequalities in other societies. In the recently released budget for 2018-19 the Australian government committed less than ten per cent of the aid budget to humanitarian assistance. As a comparison the United States spends about a quarter of its non-military aid budget on humanitarian assistance.

A few years ago, I travelled back to the war zones where I had worked providing humanitarian assistance to see what happened to the people and projects, a journey that subsequently turned into a book. Looking back at that journey makes me realise that some things need to change.

One of them is that we need to give communities who have borne the brunt of wars more time to recover. The withering of social bonds, the psychological effects upon children and the breakdown of trust between different community groups takes decades and even generations to overcome. Instead, we provide aid for a few years and then our focus moves on to the next big disaster. Meanwhile the crisis returns, leaving the appearance to outsiders that there is little that can be done without acknowledging our own failings. This is what happened in South Sudan and Iraq.

The other is the people. Not those we are helping, but those we are sending. We need aid workers whose passion for the people they are helping gives them patience for change that can sustain them through the years of struggle. They need to be as familiar with the local language and customs as the international donor system and comfortable living in sparse conditions without the comforts of home.

Yet the bureaucratisation of aid and the big bucks funnelled through charities has led to the managerialisation of aid workers, who can balance books and write reports but are unfamiliar with how to engage with people and are even hesitant to do so.

With the right people willing to stand alongside communities for longer we can make a better response to the emerging global humanitarian crisis.

 

 

Denis DragovicDenis Dragovic is a scholar of religion and war and a practitioner having worked for over a decade in conflict and post-conflict environments. He holds a PhD in political theology from the University of St Andrews and is the author of two books and numerous articles.

Topic tags: Denis Dragovic, human rights, south sudan, Myanmar, Rohingya, Syrian, Congo, Yemen

 

 

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Existing comments

The moral dilemma : where does my responsibility lie ? Do I have an obligation to fund a foreign country whose values by and large I do not share or whose rulers funnel a large percentage of the aid into Swiss bank accounts ? Africa has too many souls and not enough resources. A tiny percentage of the refugee movement swamps our public welfare systems. Australia is already running deficits, should the 20% in this country that pay net tax be required to pay for the welfare of people in foreign lands who are fighting a civil war ? Moreover, should we be required to fund this expenditure via debt repayable over a 10 year treasury term ? I read an investment report some years ago that argued Syria would take 100 years to recover.. Iran now entrenched along with Russia and taking up arms against Israel. Yes, they will need funds and yes they will need long term support. I doubt it will be enough to stem the tide of Syrian misery, perhaps ever.
Patrick | 02 July 2018


Thanks for your article. It is galling to know that instead of providing assistance to those affected so intensely by wars that Australia has participated in and justified there is $3.8B set aside to fund arms manufacturing in Australia and a further $200B to be spent on military equipment including F35 JSF jets. The Independent and Peaceful Australia Network is running a campaign calling for the scrapping of tax funding for weapons of war. www.ipan.org.au
Annette Brownlie | 02 July 2018


I did indeed enjoy reading Denis' presentation. It was also great to learn of the dismissal of a Major General responsible of the fearful attacks on the Rohingya by the Army of Myanmar. I hope that things there are able to be turned around, Donation givings are awaiting the new Financial year for me.
John Morkham | 02 July 2018


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