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Repeating past mistakes is no longer an option

Isn’t it time to rethink humanitarianism? The world has trapped itself in a cycle of saving the same lives year in and year out.

People drive their motorcycles in Damascus, Syria, where

People drive their motorcycles in Damascus, Syria, where a multiyear civil war continues to rage. President Bashar Assad's regime is notable for the way it controls commodities such as flour and seeds, thus cutting off bread from opponents and limiting who can engage in agriculture. Photo Credit: AP / Sergei Grits

The number of civil conflicts around the world has doubled since 2001. Breaking the cycle of conflict remains one of great unsolved problems of our times. The humanitarian consequences that accompany the fighting are evident in growing food insecurity and increased human migration. Internal fighting and violence by nonstate actors accounts for most of the horrific problems that have created more than 65 million refugees and internally displaced people.

In 2017, the United Nations Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance’s consolidated global humanitarian appeal — the annual worldwide assessment of humanitarian needs — was funded at more than $14 billion. More than 85 percent of this funding was directed at 10 countries: Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Afghanistan, most of which have been engaged in multi-year, bloody conflicts. These countries absorb much of the humanitarian assistance that is disbursed in support of saving lives.

As we mark World Humanitarian Day on Sunday, we must question whether the international community has given up on trying to fundamentally change the way we respond to crises and prevent conflict. We cannot continue to repeat past mistakes in the name of saving lives. How many Americans are aware that these 10 ongoing crises driven by man-made conflict continue to absorb 80 percent of funds that are allocated worldwide for humanitarian relief? Organizations like the World Food Program are operating in more than 70 other countries that are not making headlines, but could be if we don’t get ahead of the food crises facing those places.

Two years ago, the World Humanitarian Summit sought to revise the way the international community assesses the state of humanitarian assistance. Its agenda called for increasing political leadership to end conflict, safeguarding humanitarian norms and laws, leaving no one behind, and bridging the long-standing humanitarian and development divide. Yet today we face unimaginable human suffering with little progress to show for all the talk of new approaches.

Governments continue to allocate money to resolve the same problems that have existed since the end of the Cold War. Isn’t it time to rethink humanitarianism not as a handout but a way forward to solve the bad governance and root causes that create these problems in the first place? Every humanitarian intervention should be an opportunity for development.

Take food for example. Food security is a proxy for good governance. Democratic states do not starve their citizens; authoritarian ones do. Just look at Venezuela, a country once cited for its democratic values now governed by a man who uses food as a weapon to tame his opponents. Or the civil war in Syria. Bashar Assad’s brutality is notable for the way his government controls commodities such as flour and seeds, thus cutting off bread from opponents and limiting who can engage in agriculture. These humanitarian crises do not have purely humanitarian solutions, and short-term aid will not address root causes of these crises. Food assistance must be met with longer-term measures in these country’s food systems. Humanitarian assistance must be accompanied, when necessary, by capable diplomacy and effective security. Our interventions must be holistic, not piecemeal.

In the past, the United States was committed to tackling issues of poor governance and chronic underdevelopment while engaging in capable diplomacy to prevent the need for costly militarily interventions. If we continue to react to instead of preventing crises, if we continue to underfund humanitarian missions, and if we continue to neglect long term investments in development and good governance, we risk repeating the mistakes of the past and trap ourselves in a cycle of saving the same lives year in and year out.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a distinguished fellow and director of the Food Security Program at the Stimson Center, Washington, D.C., and creator of ConflictCuisine®, a project at American University’s School of International Service.

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