No single organisation has the answer, at the UN we’re working with international and local partners to find better solutions
Of the 65.3 million displaced people in the world, over 40 million, or six in 10, are internally displaced – refugees within their own countries. They are the invisible majority of displaced people.
These men, women and children are among the most vulnerable people in the world. The term refugee officially means someone who has been forced to flee their country. But, just like international refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) have lost everything to conflicts or disasters – their homes, communities, assets and livelihoods. Unlike refugees, because they have not crossed an international border, IDPs do not benefit from special international protection.
IDPs are the most at risk when fresh disaster strikes, such as when drought rolls in and hunger takes hold. It is no coincidence that all four countries at risk of famine have significant numbers of internally displaced people. How are we best to support them?
This is just one aspect of the complex challenges we face, which have resulted in the highest levels of humanitarian need since the second world war. The majority take the form of crises that involve a devastating combination of natural and manmade hazards, as seen in the four countries facing famine today: Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. These crises often last for years, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.
In these scenarios, “business as usual” is not enough. No single actor or response can provide the solution. Recognising this, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) were among nine UN entities, with the endorsement of the World Bank, to sign a commitment to a new way of working at the world humanitarian summit a year ago in Istanbul. The objective was to bring humanitarian and development expertise together to deliver better solutions for people caught in complex crises. The plan is to work right across the UN system and with local and international partners towards collective outcomes, to support longer-term development progress while responding to urgent need in line with humanitarian principles, and working collaboratively based on each organisation’s expertise. The goal is to end humanitarian needs, not just to meet those needs.
Since then we’ve been putting this into practice. Seven countries facing complex emergencies – Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Somalia and Sudan – have multi-year humanitarian plans that support greater coherence with development frameworks. In Ethiopia, we are working to align humanitarian activities with the national social safety net programme. In Myanmar, Chad and Yemen, we have created new forums for dialogue to coordinate our analysis and planning. Meanwhile, the World Bank has committed over $14bn (£10.8bn) over the next three years to be invested in the crisis-affected states with significant humanitarian action.
In these protracted and recurrent crises, humanitarian and development actors have begun to work more closely than ever before. Is this counterintuitive? In the face of such acute need, should we be thinking about investments in democratic governance, livelihoods and climate and disaster resilience rather than focusing exclusively on the short-term goal of saving lives, and worrying about the long-term later?
The fact is that displacement, for example, like so many of the issues we face, is a long-term issue. On average, people are now displaced from their homes for 10 to 20 years. In these situations, humanitarians try to provide life-saving assistance and protection, such as emergency food, water and medical aid. This aid is vital, but it is not enough to address the longer-term challenges. Time and time again what we hear from people in these situations is that they do not want to become dependent on aid.
This is where development actors also step in to help internally displaced people find jobs, ensure children have access to school, secure access to land and housing, as well as support the local authorities to provide both host communities and displaced people basic services such as water, electricity and healthcare. Development actors also help to build the resilience of host and displaced communities so they can cope better with future shocks, including by reducing poverty and, wherever possible, reinforcing rule of law, security and peacebuilding.
The summit was just a starting point for these changes and many others. Its success will be determined by how we deliver and are accountable for the changes we have begun to make. But humanitarian and development partners cannot take the place of concerted political action to bring crises to an end, increase respect for international humanitarian and human rights law, and prevent future crises from occurring. It will take a truly global effort to deliver on the aspirations of the Agenda for Humanity and uphold our collective promise to “leave no one behind”. UNDP and OCHA stand by our commitment to do our part. We call on others to do the same.
Stephen O’Brien is undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs at the UN, and Tegegnework Gettu is undersecretary general and UNDP acting administrator.
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