Gideon Rachman: The rising toll of famine and conflict

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Gideon Rachman: The rising toll of famine and conflict

2022-01-14

Source: Financial Times    Published: 2022-01-13


Gideon Rachman

Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. In this week’s edition, we’re looking at the surge in the number of people around the world threatened by famine, war and displacement. My guest is David Miliband, a former British foreign secretary who’s now president of the International Rescue Committee, one of the world’s largest humanitarian relief organisations. The IRC recently issued its watchlist, an annual report on the countries around the world that are most at risk of slipping into catastrophe. It highlights 20 troubled spots, with Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen at the very top of the list. But in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, David Miliband made a broader point. He argued that behind these individual humanitarian crises is a global system failure. So what is this system failure and is there any chance of fixing it?


Many western governments and publics would doubtless be grateful if they never had to think about Afghanistan again. But in fact, a new and terrible crisis is building in the country that’s now under the control of the Taliban.


News report

A farmer walks across his parched land. These once fertile fields in Afghanistan’s Badghis province are now dry and barren. There’s no rain. There’s drought. I’d say almost everyone in this village has left for Iran. For those who remain, limited aid from the Red Crescent is a vital lifeline.


Gideon Rachman

Ethiopia is another country facing a complex political and humanitarian crisis. Back in the 1980s, the country was hit by famine and was the focus of a massive humanitarian effort and the Live Aid concert (live music plays in the background). But over the past 20 years, Ethiopia recovered and had actually become one of the most dynamic economies in Africa. However, a war’s broken out between the central government led by Abiy Ahmed and rebels based in the province of Tigray. The direct and indirect humanitarian consequences of that war have been dramatic.


News report

Survivors of an airstrike that aid workers say killed at least 56 people in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. It hit a camp for displaced people in the town of Dedebit and occurred late on Friday night, said the aid workers anonymously because they were not authorised to speak to the media.


Gideon Rachman

David Miliband argues that behind the headlines about individual conflicts and crises lies a set of broader problems. But before we got on to his argument about a global system failure, I asked him if it’s true that in terms of sheer numbers, the global humanitarian situation is the worst it’s been for many years.


David Miliband

Yes. I mean, saddening or sobering is a very diplomatic way of putting it. Horrifying, really. If you think about it in the 20 countries that we highlight in the emergency watchlist, the total population is about 800m so 10 per cent of the world’s population. But the number in humanitarian need, in other words the number of people dependent on the international aid system effectively to survive, is 274m heading for 300m so really a third of the population of these countries, and the sheer number is remarkable. The concentration of extreme poverty, I think, is very striking as well. This is 90 per cent of total global humanitarian need just in these 20 countries, 80 per cent of the world’s internally displaced, 80 per cent of the world’s refugees, 90 per cent of the attacks on aid workers in conflict. So the acute concentration of vulnerability and extreme poverty is a feature of the modern world, just as alongside the pinker argument that overall, the world is getting better. That may be true, but in these 20 countries, things are getting worse fast, and we made the argument this year that this isn’t just normal. This isn’t just the impact of Covid and climate and conflict. There’s a fundamental system failure going on, and we can talk about that, but I think this is a horrifying situation. And of course, it’s one that’s not stable. It’s getting worse, and it has ripple effects into political instability and insecurity.


Gideon Rachman

Yeah, we’ll come back in a moment to this question of the underlying causes and whether there is indeed a system failure. But let’s talk for a moment about the country, I think, that’s at the top of the watchlist which is Afghanistan. A lot of people listening will have read extremely concerning accounts of hunger there and threats of famine. How bad is the current situation and how quickly is it deteriorating?


David Miliband

It’s really bad. It’s really quite shockingly bad for a very simple reason. Afghanistan was a very poor country before the August takeover by the Taliban. It was a country that was hugely dependent on the war economy and on international aid — 75 per cent of government’s budget came from the international system, 40 per cent of the official economy outside the opium economy was internationally related. And essentially, that’s just been cut off. And so of the population of 38m, the UN figures are that 9m people are at what’s called level four of food insecurity. All I need to tell you is that level five is famine, that includes a million kids. And the UN figures essentially show that GDP per head that was very low before the August crisis has essentially been halved. And that’s how you end up in a situation where it seems almost unbelievable but 97 per cent according to the UN are going to be in poverty, the population. And so although a lot of the coverage in August was of the people trying to get out, the truth is that today it’s the people who are there who really should be an acute source of concern because the pain and misery they’re suffering after 40 years of civil conflict, uncivil in all sorts of ways, has now been compounded by an economic strangulation that is the direct result of the policies that have been pursued to freeze assets, to cut off the banking system, to end international support. And it’s really extraordinarily urgent that something is done about it by the by the World Bank, by the donors. Some of the frozen assets are actually private money of Afghan individuals and corporations, so there’s a lot there.


Gideon Rachman

So why is the west being so hardline on this? I mean, on one level, I can understand it. They don’t want to deal with the Taliban, but if they can see that they’re actually driving people into famine, surely in the EU and in the US in particular, there must now be some kind of understanding that you have to relax these asset freezes and the economic isolation.


David Miliband

Well, there’s not enough understanding, Gideon, is the truth. The US has announced $200m of humanitarian aid. The EU has announced a billion euro programme, but the money hasn’t yet got through. The World Bank has only been allowed to spend $280m of its $1.5bn UN trust fund. And the explanation, I’m afraid, is not a happy one. I mean, the explanation is that in the wake of defeat, there is paralysis. The explanation is that in the wake of fear of political attack, there is refuge in the idea that not talking about Afghanistan or not engaging with the government somehow absolves the west of responsibility. And so we are in a dire situation. The International Rescue Committee, my organisation, we’ve got 2,000 Afghan staff in nine provinces. Forty four per cent of them are women. They’re not being stopped from working by the Taliban, either at local or at national level. But they’re running up an escalator that is going down very fast because there is an economic meltdown of severe proportions. And it’s a very weird mixture because on the one hand, the west doesn’t want anything to do with Afghanistan. On the other hand, it wants to micromanage any financial flows, and that makes no sense at all.


Gideon Rachman

But presumably, as you said, people would prefer not to think about Afghanistan at some point if the situation keeps deteriorating. They’re going to have to because you will get coverage of a famine that is traceable back to some of the actions being taken in western capitals. And presumably we’re also and already are getting once again massive flows of refugees heading towards Europe.


David Miliband

Well, it’s interesting you’re making exactly the right points, although to be accurate, there are not yet the massive refugee flows into Pakistan and into Iran. I saw a figure of 300,000 people have gone to Pakistan, which is significant but is not yet the exodus that you might expect. But you’re absolutely right. There’s undoubtedly a clear and present danger of more people trying to make it to Europe so that’s a good reason for Europeans, an instrumental reason if you like for Europeans to be concerned, not just a moral reason. But the argument I make is a simple one, western governments may not want to engage with the Taliban or let the Taliban get, “credit for the situation being ameliorated”. But sure as hell, the west will get the blame as you say, if people do starve and more likely to say when they do, because the people that we are seeing in our clinics, we’re putting 100 health clinics around the country, they’re severely malnourished and malnutrition is the cause of half of all under-five deaths in the world. There are 13-year-old girls being sold off for child marriage. People can’t get their money out of the banks, and the currency is going through the floor. So there’s a liquidity crisis and there’s a currency crisis, and it’s a country which can’t be made rich overnight, but it can be stopped from this descent into hell.


Gideon Rachman

Now, of course, Afghanistan heads the watchlist for reasons that should now be obvious. But as you say, there are 20 countries on it and some other extremely serious situations. Yemen has been disintegrating for some time, and there’s been hunger there, too. And Ethiopia is also now suddenly rising up the list, a country, ironically the leader of which got given the Nobel Peace Prize not so long ago, but which is now really in bad trouble.


David Miliband

Yes, you’re right to highlight those when the numbers are staggering because in Ethiopia you’ve got 10m people being targeted by the UN for help, 4m IDPs internally displaced in what the UN calls dire need. In Yemen millions too. And this is what led us to say that there is something more going on than just more poor. This is not just bad luck that’s happening here, and we call it system failure because what we’re seeing, not just in those three countries, but much more widely across the 20 countries of the watchlist, is a very clear syndrome, a syndrome of state failure where states are not supporting their own citizens, not just through acts of omission, not just because they’re they don’t have capacity to support their own people, but through acts of commission, the denial of aid into areas of the country, the bombing of their own civilians. Secondly, we see diplomatic failure. The fact that 2021 was the worst year on record for peace deals has left 55 civil conflicts blazing, including eight of them, which are counted as severe. There is legal failure because the international legal regime that’s meant to guarantee rights to civilians in conflict is being honoured in the breach, 70 per cent of all victims of war today are civilians, not soldiers. And there’s humanitarian aid failure as well. And not just because the quantum of aid is too small essentially needs have trebled in the last decade, but international aid has doubled only. It’s also that aid isn’t being allowed to get through. So you’ve got a true system failure. I trace that back very clearly to a breakdown in the basic post-1945 deal, which is that states had rights, states had responsibilities and states had accountability. And that is what’s broken down. And so the combination of rights for states and rights for individuals is now no longer working in these 20 countries, and we should discuss why that’s happening. But the fact that it’s happening, I think, the betokens are much more wide ranging discussion than one that simply says more aid because even if there was more aid and even if the aid system was reformed these are political emergencies, not just humanitarian emergencies, and that’s the point I was trying to get across in the speech I did at the Council on Foreign Relations about this because I think we need a much broader conversation than one that works on the technicalities of the tactics of the humanitarian aid system.


Gideon Rachman

OK, so you probably why is it happening? And if I could frame the question a bit more, I mean, it seems to be such a contrast to the period when you were in government, the first decade of this century when there was hope that we were actually strengthening the international system. Talk of a responsibility to protect of getting rid of state impunity and so on. Now, if anything, we seem to have gone a long way backwards. So what’s gone wrong?


David Miliband

Well, that’s undoubtedly right. I mean, 2005 responsibility to protect. We’ve gone a long way from that. We highlight three proximate drivers of this system failure. The first is the civil conflicts are out of control. Civil wars are out of control, and they’re out of control because of external sponsorship of actors in conflict. If you take Syria, Yemen and South Sudan just as three examples, 12 external actors in the Syria conflict, seven in the Yemen conflict, five in the South Sudan conflict. So civil wars are lasting longer. They’re more virulent. And the primary reason is external sponsorship of actors. The second is that the fragmentation of geopolitics and you’ve hinted at this in your question the emergence of a multipolar world, a fragmentation of global politics has taken away the guardrails on the abuse of power, and not least in the way that non-state actors have been able to fill a vacuum that has been allowed to exist in various parts of the world. The International Committee on the Red Cross say that around 60m people around the world are governed by non-state actors. And the third element also speaks to your responsibility to protect the point, which is the third driver, which is that the drive for universal rights that were guaranteed, at least on paper in the UN Charter, are being undermined by claims of sovereignty. The shield of state sovereignty is being used to prevent the assertion of universal rights that in fact, every country is signed up to protect in the UN charter by signing the UN Charter. And so it seems to me you’ve got these three drivers of this acute failure in the 20 countries that we are talking about. And those are deep in global politics. They’re not superficial. There’s a structural problems to do with the balance of power, not least between democratic countries and undemocratic countries. And if you look at the Economist Intelligence Unit, if you look at the University of Gothenburg centre on the study of varieties of democracy, if you look at Freedom House, they all show that it’s a small minority of the global population that are governed in democratic societies today, and that’s a big part of this story.


Gideon Rachman

Yeah, and an extremely difficult thing to address so in a way, it kind of suggests that if this is being driven ultimately by big shifts in geopolitics and shifts in internal viability of democracies, it’s really not something that’s going to be easily fixed. But you do have some suggestions for actions that can be taken to try to improve the situation. So what would you what would you highlight?


David Miliband

Yeah, but I think I want to make a particular point, which is that all of this is happening at a time when the world is more interdependent than ever before. And I think that is significant because it allows one to make a strategic argument if you like, not just a moral argument, that this humanitarian suffering is a problem. And that leads us to say, look, there are reforms of the humanitarian aid system that are important and they may be about vaccines, some vaccinations for Covid. They may be about the fact that aid needs to be concentrated in fragile and conflict states, half of the world’s extreme poor live in fragile and conflict states but only a quarter of bilateral aid and a small proportion of total aid goes to those states. But on the broader geopolitics, we do find an agenda that we think needs to be discussed. Let me run through a couple of the ideas. One, the French government have proposed that the veto in the UN Security Council be abandoned in cases of mass atrocity. Now, as UK Foreign Secretary, I never used the veto. In fact, the UK hasn’t used it since 1989. But of course, the threat of the veto, as well as the veto itself, is what strangles diplomacy. And so we say this French notion is right and it should be supported and we’re not naive. We don’t expect America or Russia or China to adopt it, but it would make a difference (inaudible) force diplomacy back on to the stage. A second example realpolitik is governing what NGOs can say, what UN officials can say. So we say that the debate about humanitarian access, the denial of humanitarian aid, life-saving aid, should be put on to an independent footing with an independent office for the protection of humanitarian access in the same way that you’ve got an office for the prohibition of chemical weapon use. We say that the example of the German government, which has used evidence from civil society to prosecute Syrian generals for war crimes under the universal jurisdiction and legislation, which, if it was added to the Magnitsky-inspired financial sanctions on those who commit war crimes, we think that could push back. And there’s also the point that countries like the US have military partnerships with up to 90 countries. Those military partnerships should build in international humanitarian law respect into the way they work. So, for example, in the Yemen conflict where you’ve had the Saudi-led coalition bombing coach-loads of children, the respect for international humanitarian law would be built in. Now, I want to immediately say too, Gideon, that what is necessary is not politically achievable, and what is politically achievable is way below what is necessary. So I’m not naive about this, but I think we’re honour-bound to bear witness to the fact that these problems we highlight in the watchlist can’t be solved or resolved within the humanitarian sector.


Gideon Rachman

Yeah. So let’s get to the politics. I mean, you’re seeing in New York, the headquarters of the UN. You’re in the US, you know, with the Biden administration in power, and I would think probably at least sympathetic to the arguments that you’re making. So why, looking at those two key institutions the US government, the United Nations, why don’t you think they’re able to move the dial?


David Miliband

Well, I think that the gridlock in the UN is matched by the gridlock in US politics is the truth. There’s also a bandwidth issue. Twenty countries isn’t that many, but it’s more than enough to just stretch beyond the limit the efforts that are being made. But I think it’s also a matter of this paradox of this age of interdependence, which is that countries like the US are reserving 5 per cent of their time at most for international engagement. They’re not thinking strategically. And as interdependence has grown, Western countries have paid less and less attention to the international system, and that seems to me to be a fatal mistake in our own country, in the UK. The idea that we could have a divorce from the EU without it affecting our international engagement was obviously a complete fallacy. But it’s one that was sold to the British people. And so my argument is that, and that’s not what I make to the US administration. They’ve got a defence white paper coming up which could easily address these issues of international humanitarian law. The argument we’re making about taking the realpolitik out of humanitarian access is something the US should be and could be championing. But this is about a political narrative and a political understanding that international engagement of this kind is essential if you are to preserve the space for the domestic reconstruction that’s necessary. Because the problems that we’re highlighting around the world don’t stay far away. I mean, even in the US, which has the the blessing or the curse of being a long way from a lot of other places, you will get pressure from the south, migratory pressure. And that leads to the need for a far more proactive engagement with issues in Northern Triangle of Central America, etc. So it’s an argument we’re making. The Biden administration has three years to go. It’s held a democracy summit. These are the kind of ideas that I think need to be on the table.


Gideon Rachman

Yeah. Just to finish, though, I mean, I think one of the things you’ve alluded to is to the extent that there is bandwidth for foreign affairs and, as you said, limited at the moment, a lot of it is also being consumed by great power competition. And we’re talking in the week of vital talks between the United States and Russia and Russia and Nato with really the threat of a war in Europe looming over Ukraine. You and your period as foreign secretary dealt quite a lot with the Russians in that very difficult period in Russia and UK relations. So sitting from the outside, but with your insider’s knowledge, how do you see the current situation?


David Miliband

Well, I see it as very serious, and there’s some reassurance in what happened last year with the threats the Russians made, but they never followed through. But of course, the 2014 example should be very, very sobering. And what I see is a Russian government that is looking to smell weakness and then exploit it. And it senses that there is very little appetite in Europe or the US for confrontation, and it’s willing to use its own willingness to confront to try to exploit that. And I think that the time that’s passed over the last month has allowed the Europeans and the Americans to signal very clearly, but more important to organise very actively for the kind of retribution that they would take if the Russians do try to rewrite the map of Europe. But of course, there’s a lot of European concern. You’ll have picked this up at the idea of a bilateral American-Russian track on the future of Europe because Europeans need to be at the table, and that’s why you’ve got this rather difficult dance this week. The rise in the gas price obviously empowers the Russian government as well. They’re benefiting from that. But I’m afraid it’s a disunited west that empowers what Anne Applebaum called in her Atlantic piece the “Bad Guys”, and that is at the heart of the eyes of the confidence of the authoritarian countries, not just in their actual activities.


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