David A. Morse Lecture: System Failure in the World’s Crisis Zones—A Conversation With David Miliband

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

President and Chief Executive Officer, International Rescue Committee; Former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, United Kingdom (2007–2010)


Senior Legal and Investigative Correspondent, NBC News; CFR Member

David Miliband discusses the countries most at risk of humanitarian deterioration in 2022, what is driving record levels of global need, and how the international system meant to prevent and address humanitarian crises is failing to combat displacement and suffering. The International Rescue Committee's 2022 Emergency Watchlist is available here.

The David A. Morse Lecture was inaugurated in 1994 and supports an annual meeting with a distinguished speaker. It honors the memory of David A. Morse, an active Council on Foreign Relations member for nearly thirty years.

MCFADDEN: Well, good morning, everyone, and welcome to today’s—to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, both virtual and actual, and on the record. I’m Cynthia McFadden. I’m a member of the Council as well as the senior investigative and legal correspondent at NBC News.

So this is CFR’s annual David A. Morse Lecture, which honors the memory of Mr. Morse: lawyer, public servant, and internationalist, and also an active CFR member for thirty years. I believe several members of Mr. Morse’s family are with us either in the room or virtually, and we want to extend a very warm welcome to them indeed.

Giving this year’s lecture is David Miliband. Mr. Miliband is well-known to many of you in this audience as the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs for the U.K. A graduate of both Oxford and MIT, I would say both a deep thinker and a man of action—a rare combo platter. It is my honor to bring him to the stage, where he is going to address the IRC’s latest Emergency Watchlist, which came out this morning, in an address entitled “System Failure in the World’s Crisis Zones.” Please welcome David Miliband. (Applause.)

MILIBAND: Thank you very much, Cynthia. Good morning, everyone. It is very nice to be in a room with people—(laughter)—rather than just in a room with a Zoom screen. I’m really grateful to Richard, to the Council for inviting me to give the Morse Lecture today, and very pleased to join the very distinguished list of previous speakers in this series.

As Cynthia said, today the International Rescue Committee launches its 2022 Emergency Watchlist based on sixty-six quantitative and qualitative indicators of state fragility, civil conflict, state capacity, climate vulnerability. The Watchlist pulls together our assessment of the twenty countries that we believe are most likely to be consumed by a humanitarian crisis next year. Starting with Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Yemen at the top of the list, it is a misery index of epic proportions.

Now, in the spirit of the CFR, I’m not going to run through the Emergency Watchlist on a world tour of humanitarian need this morning. Instead, I want to get into the guts of an obvious reality—an obvious reality, however, which is all too often ignored—that every humanitarian crisis is, in fact, a political crisis. And I think it’s very important that those of us in the humanitarian sector are not afraid to say so.

Here’s the argument that I am going to make this morning.

First, that there’s something profound going on when you look at the toll of humanitarian need today. I will call this system failure, understood in four dimensions: a failure of states, diplomacy, laws, and humanitarian operations.

Second, the drivers of this system failure engage high questions of international relations, not just technical questions of humanitarian tactics. Civil conflicts are out of control, fueled by external sponsorship. The guardrails on the abuse of power have been weakened by changes in geopolitics, with direct consequences for humanitarian need. And universal rights are in retreat under pressure from claims of state sovereignty.

Third, I’m going to suggest some ideas for the kind of change we need to be debating if this tide is to be reversed. And as a spoiler alert, the remedies go well beyond the confines of the humanitarian sector. And that’s why I wanted to come here today, to the Council on Foreign Relations, to launch the Watchlist.

I’m going to cover a lot of ground in a very short period of time to maximize the discussion period. I’ve been asked not to go on for more than twenty minutes or so. But a fuller text of this speech is going to be available on the IRC and CFR websites. The Watchlist is also there. And I’m pleased that the Economist are publishing a guest essay, as well, on these themes.

So the twenty countries of the IRC Emergency Watchlist, they have a combined population of 800 million people, so just over 1 percent of the world’s population—I beg your pardon, just over 10 percent of the world’s population. In these Watchlist countries, however, the total number of people in humanitarian need is 244 million, nearly one in three residents. And of course, for women and girls the proportion is higher.

This number of 244 million in need represents 89 percent of the total global humanitarian need, 76 percent of the total number of the internally displaced, 80 percent of the world’s refugees and asylum-seekers, 96 percent of the attacks on aid workers in 2021, and 90 percent of the total number of civilian conflict deaths in 2020. There will be a test later on those statistics—(laughter)—for any of you who are taking notes or not. But the point is, there’s a concentration of need in those twenty countries.

What’s more, these are not new sites of crisis. Eighteen of the twenty countries have previously appeared on the Watchlist in the last five years. Eleven have appeared in every single one of those years. In these places, the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals are not just a distant dream; they are receding further into the distance week by week. And these are the datapoints that lead me to say that we need to recognize that there’s something more serious going on here than a run of bad luck epitomized by COVID.

The system for preventing and addressing humanitarian crisis, built on the twin pillars of first state sovereignty and responsibility and second international law and rights, is failing. It’s failing for reasons that are structural, not peripheral. And that means things are going to get worse, not better, unless action is taken.

And this is what leads us to say that the experience in Watchlist countries represents system failure, not just the failings of states. We think that system failure is happening at four levels, starting with state failure. But states are not just poor and unable to support their own people; increasing numbers of governments are actively making things worse through sins of commission, not just omission—states bombing their own people, blocking the flow of food or medicines, fostering hatred of minorities.

And one facet or symptom of state failure is growing swathes of the population under the governance of armed opposition groups, nonstate actors. A conservative estimate by the International Committee on (sic; of) the Red Cross says the total number of people living under the control of nonstate actors is around 60 million.

Second, diplomatic failure. There are fifty-five so-called civil wars going on at the moment, although of course they are nothing—they are anything but civilized. Today they are ten times more frequent than in the previous two centuries if you follow David Armitage’s book Civil Wars. They last, on average, four times longer than the interstate wars because peacemaking is in calamitous retreat. Just twenty-one peace agreements were signed or declared globally in 2020, the lowest since the end of the Cold War. As of mid-2021, there had been just seven.

Then there’s legal failure. International law set up to defend the rights of citizens and establish responsibilities for state is on the—for states is on the ropes, with growing war crimes and attacks on humanitarians without accountability. I call this the age of impunity, power exercised without accountability leading to crimes without punishment. Seventy percent of the victims of war today are civilians, record numbers of aid workers are being attacked, and over the last five years hospitals and health facilities have been targeted as never before directly in contravention of the rules—the laws of war.

Finally, there’s breakdown in the international aid regime. It’s true that aid budgets have doubled in the decade since the global financial crisis, but the problem is that needs have trebled. So you end up with the distressing, appalling situation of the head of the World Food Programme having to turn to Twitter to beg for funds to tackle starvation in Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

But there are also major problems beyond the quantum of aid. Aid is being blocked, with large sections of the population cut off as a matter of government policy. Aid is being politicized, with aid directed on the basis of political interest. Aid is being instrumentalized to serve the needs of those giving, not those receiving. And U.N. officials and NGOs are being intimidated and put in the invidious position of keeping quiet or being kicked out of the countries in which they are serving.

So why is this happening? I think I don’t have time to go into everything that’s in the Watchlist analysis, but I want to pick out three elements of the drivers, three drivers of system failure.

First, conflicts are increasingly out of control in their number, their duration, and their virulence for a very particular reason: They’re being internationalized. If you take the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan as examples, the countries involved number twelve, seven, and five. Nearly all the severe conflicts happening in the world—and severity is defined—severe is defined as more than a thousand battlefield deaths—nearly all of them are internationalized civil conflicts. There’s been an unprecedented growth in the number of these conflicts where foreign powers provide guns, money, or fighters to one party in a civil war. Internationalization of civil conflict makes political settlement more complicated, incentives for compromise lower, accountability weaker, and accelerants of impunity stronger.

Second, changes in geopolitics have increased fragmentation of the international system and drained efficacy from global institutions. Instead of the multipolar world ushering in an era of collaboration to prevent and resolve humanitarian crises, global politics has fractured in fundamental ways, even to the extent where an incredibly mild form of accountability—namely, the Group of Eminent Experts who were working in Yemen just to monitor the conflict—even that was disbanded for reasons of global politics, not just local politics.

And the third driver of system failure is this shift away from universal rights in favor of assertions of national sovereignty. Where human rights are abused, sovereignty is being used as a shield for any government against scrutiny. This happens in almost every conflict to forestall accountability, prevent access, reduce transparency. Sovereignty is the rallying cry of populists in democratic countries and autocrats in undemocratic ones. The result is a pincer movement against rights that are meant to be universal.

There’s more on this analysis in the Watchlist and in the extended version of the speech that’s on the website. But in order to take the discussion forward—and Cynthia, you and I are going to have a conversation and then breaking for members of the Council to put their own questions—I want to talk a little bit about what can be done because I promised you more than a dirge about how bad things are.

Our job at the International Rescue Committee is, obviously, to help those who are stranded by system failure. As a humanitarian agency, our tests are about outcomes: How many people do we help survive, recover, and gain control of their lives? And the good news is that we’re helping more people in more profound ways than ever before. We’re not just now a billion-dollar organization instead of a $400 million organization; we’re an organization that does more with the billion dollars than we would have done five or ten years ago. But the bad news is that the gap between total needs and total provision is growing.

So when it comes to the question of how to combat system failure, our response has to fall into two categories. There are changes within our sector where we have some agency and then changes beyond our sector, essentially changes in the geopolitical sphere, where we are witnesses not protagonists. My purpose here is to set out some ideas of what should be on the agenda in each of those two categories, and we can talk more about it in the discussion if that’s of interest.

In the first category are measures that could be initiated now for 2022. If this test is saving lives next year, then the following are imperative.

We need to acknowledge or recognize that conflict is the biggest driver of extreme poverty today. More or less 50 percent of the world’s extreme poor live in conflict or fragile states. It’s estimated to be 70 percent or even 85 percent by 2030. But only 25 percent of bilateral overseas aid goes to fragile and conflict states. Of the $100 billion in official bilateral aid, only 25 billion (dollars) goes to fragile and conflict states. There’s 50 billion (dollars) that goes into the international financial institutions; even less of that goes to the fragile and conflict states. So we say, as a start, 50 percent of international bilateral overseas development assistance should go to these states, and it would raise immediately or it would increase immediately by 25 billion (dollars) the amount that’s going in there.

This is not just a—(coughs)—excuse me—a technocratic change. One country starved of aid at the moment is Afghanistan. The freeze on assets, the liquidity crisis in the banking system, the end of subventions for government services, the withdrawal of the war economy or the end of the war economy has created an economic implosion in a matter of months that other countries have struggled to cope with over a decade. And that’s why our own staff—we have 1,700 staff in Afghanistan today. We’re supporting more than a hundred mobile clinics. But they can’t do their jobs and people are literally starving in front of them. Nine million people, including 3 million kids, are at IPC—the international standard—level four, which is one step below famine. So it’s a policy matter, not just a financial matter.

We, obviously, need to tackle the COVID divide, the vaccine divide, now. A program of, quote/unquote, “humanitarian doses” to reach the 40 percent vaccination rates that are recommended by the WHO in Watchlist countries is trifling by the number of vaccinations that are happening in the richest parts of the world. But we also have to get the distribution systems right, not just the redistribution systems right, and we can talk more about that.

Third, we need to bring crisis settings, which have done least to contribute to climate change but suffer the most from it, into the debate about adaptation to climate. At the moment, a small proportion of the proposed $100 billion—$100 billion global climate fund goes to adaptation. Half of it should, but it needs to reach the fragile states, not just the richer ones.

And fourthly, on the humanitarian front, refugees are amongst the most vulnerable, so we need a new deal for the forcibly displaced. This is an area where the Biden administration has taken bold steps. Two hundred thousand refugees will be admitted to America this year—70,000 Afghans, 125,000 from other countries. The rest of the world needs to match that because at the moment 85 percent of the world’s refugees are in poor countries, not in rich countries, who need economic support for the global public good that they’re helping to deliver.

Now, these ideas are the bread and butter of the humanitarian sector. They should have been done long ago. But if you believe the argument that I have made today, you’ll immediately recognize that system failure cannot be resolved by the humanitarian sector alone. It needs much broader changes. And here our role as an independent humanitarian agency can only be to bear witness and promote debate, suggest ideas that might make a difference. I just want to mention four briefly.

First, those of us working in the world’s warzones know that conflict is the biggest driver of extreme poverty, and we see very day the need to reinvigorate peacemaking and peacebuilding. For that, we need to break the global gridlock on the U.N. Security Council when it comes to mass atrocities, because it’s only the U.N. Security Council that can mandate peace envoys, enable U.N. sanctions, implement arms embargoes, send off peace missions. I’ve never—I never used the veto in the U.N. Security Council as U.K. foreign secretary. In fact, the U.K. has not used the veto since 1989. But it can still use the threat of the veto, and it’s the threat of the veto as well as the veto itself that is the encumbrance, the drain on diplomatic activity.

France has proposed that the veto be abandoned in cases of mass atrocity, and that proposal has been supported by a hundred other countries in the U.N. Security Council. I strongly support this move. I also think that we have to take onboard the obvious rebuttal that will be made, which is that there will be politicization of the definition of a mass atrocity. So we argue that there should be an independent panel that adjudicates which issues fall within the category of mass atrocity and therefore in which the veto should be abandoned.

Second, we need to take the realpolitik out of humanitarian access, out of the denial of aid, and the collective punishment of communities. And by realpolitik I mean the fear of U.N. officials, never mind aid agencies, that they can’t speak the truth to power for fear of the consequences. We all know that there is an Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. There is no Organization for the Protection of Humanitarian Access charged with the job of calling out the denial of aid without fear or favor. And remember, the denial of aid is contrary to international humanitarian law. We need new muscle and strength in that effort.

Third, many countries, led by the United States, which are committed to uphold international humanitarian law have military partnerships around the world. Yet, too often those military partnerships do not involve the upholding of international humanitarian law in the way that the United States and other countries are committed to do in their own armed forces. Now, there is an interesting model for how these kind of military partnerships and relationships could engineer, could leverage greater adherence to international humanitarian law. And that model is in something called the Leahy laws in the United States, which restrict U.S. government funding and actually ban U.S. government funding for any foreign security units that are implicated in gross violations of human rights. Now is the time, we argue, for more far-reaching efforts to institutionalize respect for humanitarian law in all military partnerships and incentivize much greater respect for civilians and civilian infrastructure, like health facilities and schools, in the conduct of conflict.

And fourthly, we need much more expansive use of universal jurisdiction laws to prosecute those committing the most egregious abuses in international humanitarian law. There’s a really interesting example of how this has been used recently from Germany over the Syria conflict, drawing government and NGOs together in partnership. This is the kind of practical step that should be, in our argument, at the heart of President Biden’s democracy summit and its follow-up.

Now, here’s the thing about those four ideas in the geopolitical realm: They’re, frankly, seen as politically unrealistic, when in fact they’re only a start. Even if you did them, it would only be a start. And that gives you a sense of the scale of the problem that we now face. Every year the Watchlist is a sobering document. This year it is especially sobering. But my argument today has been that the numbers need to promote reassessment not just shock, rethinking not just shaking of the head.

My IRC colleagues are on the front lines. They’re working with extraordinary ingenuity and skill, as well as diligence and courage. But the humanitarian emergencies will only get worse if their causes are ignored and neglected. That, I think, is the true message of this year’s Emergency Watchlist. And it’s a message that I need your help in taking forward and correcting. Thank you very much, indeed.

MCFADDEN: I’m coming. Just a second. Well, you’ve certainly given us a lot to chew over, both those in the room and those virtually. We’re going to have questions. Just a couple housekeeping matters. I will ask David questions for about ten or twelve minutes, and then we will go to questions from those who are virtually with us and from those of you in the room. I would remind you all that this is on the record, and that when you do ask a question, if you choose to, please identify yourself and your organization.

So I was furiously taking notes, although I have had the opportunity to read the report. And I must say, not only is it powerful in the—in the reporting that it wrangles, if you will, but it’s really well written. So bravo to the staff who did that.

MILIBAND: I can take no credit for that, of course. That was the team that’s—

MCFADDEN: OK, well, there you go. (Laughs.) Well, it’s really—I commend it to you. And it will be posted on the CFR website as well.

Before we go to questions, I want to just fill out your list of top ten. You mentioned the top three, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen. But for the purposes of the conversation, Nigeria, South Sudan is number five, the DRC, Myanmar, Somalia, Syria, Sudan. Perhaps no surprises, and yet the way the analysis is being conducted this year, it is, as you suggest, more than just a coincidence that we see these problems reemerging year after year in these same places around the world. You talked a little bit about solutions, but before we go to that in a little more detail can we take Afghanistan as an example of so many of the problems, the things that are going wrong—systemic things that are going wrong, and how you and your colleagues at IRC are trying to deal with that?

MILIBAND: Well, it’s both typical and atypical, because it’s been a site of a twenty-year war involving the United States. And thankfully there aren’t too many other places like that. I mean, the features that it has is, one, denial of aid to those in need. However, I have to say, in as diplomatic a way as possible, the denial—because we’re on the record—the denial of aid today is not being exercised by those who fought and won in Afghanistan. It’s not the state of Afghanistan that is denying aid to its people at the moment.

MCFADDEN: So it’s not the Taliban?

MILIBAND: We are working in nine provinces. So I can speak for those nine provinces. In those nine provinces, there are 1,700 IRC staff today. Forty-four percent of them are women. None of those people are being told that they can’t work today. In fact, we are expanding the amount of work that we’re doing. We’ve talked to local Taliban officials and to national Taliban officials. There was a period in September/October where some provinces were waiting for an edict from the central government about how to relate and how much freedom to allow international NGOs. We’re now operating fully according to humanitarian principles of neutrality, independence, impartiality, and humanity in those nine provinces. In fact, we’re expanding.

But what we’re short of is not just the cash for ourselves and our staff, but we’re short of a banking system that can allow people to take out more than $200. We’re short of a currency that retains its value. We’re short of teachers, doctors and nurses being paid their salaries to make the system go. And humanitarian aid cannot make up for a situation where there isn’t an economy. Now, I know that there’s an unofficial economy in Afghanistan. There’s a drug economy that it’s important not to forget. But the central challenge in Afghanistan today is that the economic foundations have been—the economic rug has been pulled out from underneath the country.

And I get that there’s fear in Western capitals that if money is allowed to flow the, quote/unquote, “credit” will go to the current government. But I promise you, if people starve in Afghanistan this winter, it’s going to be the Western countries that get the blame for this. And so it’s both a typical case and an atypical case of a system failure of a really fundamental kind. Even to the following extent: The U.S. government has rightly and, I think, strongly created a carveout for humanitarian action for NGOs, good. But that’s been replicated for the U.N. sanctions that exist on the country at the moment. So right down to some micro-details, there’s real work to be done.

MCFADDEN: So, for example, is the World Food Programme operating in Afghanistan?

MILIBAND: Well, not in the way that it would like to. It could do, but it hasn’t got the funds to do so.

MCFADDEN: But you’re arguing that’s not because of the government, not because of the Taliban?

MILIBAND: Correct. That’s the—I can only report to you that we have 1,7000 staff working today. And we’re being encouraged to run more services, including girls education.

MCFADDEN: One of the things that you mention, and it’s teased out in quite good detail in the report, is the effect of civil war. And, I mean, I was stunned. You mentioned it in your remarks. Fifty-five civil wars, ten times more frequently than the last two centuries, and they last four times longer. That doesn’t just create humanitarian crisis in terms of people’s lives, it creates problems with solving those problems because who do you talk to?

MILIBAND: Well, I think this is a really fundamental point, because the tools of diplomacy are proving to be rather successful at preventing wars between states. But the tools of diplomacy for preventing wars between states are utterly inadequate for preventing and addressing wars within states. And that’s the mismatch that we are seeing. That’s at the heart, I think, of the diplomatic failure. And it goes to these bigger questions of geopolitics and the legitimacy. But we all know you make peace with your enemies not with your friends. And it’s obvious.

And so the fact that there are fictions preserved about who’s in the tent and who’s out—and this is where I think the Afghan case, I’m afraid, is very, very relevant. Because the Bonn Conference in 2001-(0)2 excluded precisely the people who are now running the country. And I think there’s a very powerful argument that if they had not been excluded from the beginning, we would have had a much broader base of power sharing. We would have had something more closely akin to a political settlement. And I spent three years arguing for this, unsuccessfully, between 2007 and 2010. And I think we’re paying the price now.

MCFADDEN: And it becomes even more complex when other international actors then get involved.

MILIBAND: Yeah. And the most staggering thing for me in this Watchlist is the numbers—is the internationalized civil conflict and the way in which it disincentivizes—it complicates peacemaking. It disincentivizes peace agreements. It encourages impunity. And you know, twelve different countries engaged in Syria—

MCFADDEN: You were the oldest child of refugees yourself.


MCFADDEN: Let’s talk about the refugee situation. And let’s call it a crisis, because indeed it is. And that the twenty countries that IRC identifies as in crisis are, in fact, the generators of, what percent? Eighty percent? A huge percentage of the refugees around the world. We know climate plays a role. We know there are all kinds of factors feeding in. But what—and you cite the president, increase to two hundred thousand, but—

MILIBAND: Look, the big solution, obviously, is not America taking refugees, Europe taking refugees. But it’s part of the solution. If you’re Jordan, and you’ve got 650,000 refugees, or you’re Lebanon and you’ve got 1.4 million refugees, or you are Bangladesh and you’ve got a million Rohingya, you need big—you’re delivering a global public good and you need support. But for the most vulnerable, you want other countries in the world to be stepping up. And that’s why we say that there should be a matching of what the president has done. Look, the fact that 85 percent of refugees are in poor countries not in rich countries, poor or lower-middle income countries, shows that there is an unfair burden being borne in these countries. And there’s no global responsibility being exercised in a serious way.

MCFADDEN: Yeah. Just to put a fine point on it, tens of millions of children will grow up, grow old in refugee camps around the world, many of them without any education. I know that’s something that you and Sesame Street and others have dug into. And it’s such—I had the opportunity to go to the Rohingya camps and look at it—I mean, when you realize that we are creating not just a problem for now but a problem for the future.

MILIBAND: Yeah. There’s one really interesting caveat to that, which is that most refugees are not in camps anymore. So you’ve got six million refugees or so, five or six million, in refugee camps. The good thing about that is they’re guaranteed food, and health care, and education of a sort, of some kind. The bad thing is they may spend their life there. So I’m afraid I talk about refugee camps as being funeral homes for dreams because it becomes a—I don’t want to say a life sentence—but they become long-term cities. Now, 60 percent of refugees are in urban areas. The good side of that, people can get work, they can access services. The bad side, they can be exploited in new ways and be in great danger. So it’s a real—it’s different kinds of problems depending on the setting. If you go to Istanbul, if you go to Beirut, it’s full of refugees.

MCFADDEN: So, OK, why? There are so many why questions, right, that we’re not going to have a chance to talk extensively about. But when you look at this report yourself, and you look the main “why” of it all, why are we in this mess? Because it is a mess, and it’s very depressing, your well-written report. What’s the biggest why?

MILIBAND: Well, the biggest why I think is that these are political crises not humanitarian crises. That they are generated by endless conflict. And that, you know this famous phrase, the most likely outcome of a civil war is another civil war. That speaks to various stressors—climate, resource stress, et cetera. But it also speaks to the fact that the global system is now in a state of fundamental disrepair. Now, in the Cold War you had organized opposition. Madeleine Albright says it was like two tankers trying to drive opposite directions along the Suez Canal. In the post-Cold War you had the—both the benefits and the dangers of a unipolar moment, so-called. We now are seeing that the idea of a multipolar world doesn’t—it conjures up a degree of order that I think isn’t appropriate.

That’s why I use the phrase “a fragmented world.” Richard wrote a book, you know, the disordered world. So it’s a fragmentation that has left a global vacuum of a very serious kind. It’s filled by rogue players, nonstate players of various kinds in different places. And the point is, unless we can get governance back, it’s going to get worse. That’s the central message of the report.

MCFADDEN: So how do you convince those with power in this world that this is something that needs to be attended to? You outline these four actions. You say yourself that they’re politically—it’s going to not be easy. And yet, they’re modest. I mean, they’re not going to really—they’re a beginning.

MILIBAND: Well, I would say two things about that—three things about it. One, if I really knew the answer to that I would be doing a different job probably. So it’s—you know, I think a degree of modest is important. Secondly, the question that your country faces as to what kind of role does it play in the world, and above all does it—the oceans on each side, the relatively friendly neighbors north and south, does that give an appeal to the, quote/unquote, “independent” America, in Ian Bremmer’s three scenarios of the future. If you decided that independent America can basically support itself—

MCFADDEN: Yep, go it alone.

MILIBAND: —then basically—well, it’s not necessarily isolationist.

MCFADDEN: No, no, I understand.

MILIBAND: I deliberately doesn’t want to use the pejorative term, isolationist. If you go for an independent America, basically the bad guys will win. That’s the—that’s the truth of it. So you’ve got to—and you’ve got a real question in this country about whether or not you want to be not a global policeman, but a global player of a serious kind.

And then the third sort of element of this is something that I’m very influenced by. And so Joe Nye wrote this. So it’s not—I can’t claim the credit for it. Or, he put me onto this. He’s written about it. Everyone talks about Thucydides trap, blah, blah, blah. Joe Nye wrote about The Kindleberger Trap. And The Kindleberger Trap, says that the real lesson of the interwar period is that the rising power—the United States at the time—was not willing to take on the delivery of global public goods. So his argument was that there was no systematic provision of global public goods in the interwar period.

Translated into the 2020s, the question is not whether China on its own becomes the focus, becomes the deliverer of global public goods. But we live in a world a thousand times more interdependent than a hundred years ago. And that’s true on climate. It’s true on refugees. It’s true on nuclear security. It’s true on health, pandemics, you name it. Unless the global public goods get addressed in a serious way, we’re stuck. Now, this is not—people say this is a matter of policy. What I was hinting at in my talk, it’s actually almost—it’s a matter of philosophy.

If you buy the argument that sovereignty—if you want to weaponize the Westphalian system as a tool to prevent international action, and you want to insist that this is a world of nations and nations alone, I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem. If you want to take seriously that national sovereignty is important but it sits—the sovereignty of states sits alongside the rights of individuals, universal rights—which is the promise of the U.N. Charter that every country has signed up to—then we’re in business. And that’s why I think it’s a philosophical argument not just a policy argument.

MCFADDEN: So be thinking about your questions. We’re going to go to online—but I’m going to ask one question while you’re revving up, which is vaccines. We have—I had the opportunity to go to Uganda last March with the delivery of the first U.N.-provided—the WHO-provided vaccines. It was clear even then, not only were enough vaccines sent to Uganda in that first wave for a tiny percentage, well under 1.1 percent of the population, but no delivery method. By way of example—(laughs)—they wanted to go—they wanted to go—they couldn’t afford the gas to put in the boat to get to the place. Simple as that.

MILIBAND: What you got to realize is that the cost of distribution is four to five times the cost of—

MCFADDEN: The cost of vaccines.

MILIBAND: Right. That’s the absolutely critical thing. And cold chains, transport, training, staffing, et cetera. Now, we’ve been going on about this. Redistribution, production, and then distribution. And the danger is that people say, oh, well, look, you send the vaccines to the poor countries, and they never use them, so we shouldn’t send them in the first place. No, you should sort out what the delivery mechanism is. But as you see from Omicron, we’re all taking a massive risk of our own. That’s the nature of the interdependence. And Omicron is not the last of it. The next one will be more transmissible and more deadly, if we’re not careful. So it’s both complicated, because it’s different in Uganda than it is in Yemen, but it’s also not that complicated because it’s a vaccination which we know how to do. And we know how to do community case management of vaccinations.

MCFADDEN: But it requires money. And, I mean, right now the money just isn’t there.

MILIBAND: Yeah, but have we discovered anything in COVID, it’s that money is not the problem at all. I mean, money’s the easiest thing. Writing the checks is the easiest thing. I mean, they—the global transfusion of money to relatively poor people in rich countries shows you that money is not the problem. Remember, the—I think it was Larry Summers and Tharman Shanmugaratnam ran a panel for the G-20. And they basically showed that if you spend a penny, you can save a dollar. I mean, it was absolutely—actually, it was if you spend two cents, you’ll save a dollar. I mean, there was absolutely overwhelming evidence of it.

MCFADDEN: And yet—

MILIBAND: More to say—there’s more to say—

MCFADDEN: So much more to say. And yet, 8 percent of the African continent is vaccinated.

Let’s go—let’s go to someone in cyberspace. Hello out there. We’ve got a question. Can you tell us your name?

OPERATOR: We’ll take the first question from Maureen White.

MCFADDEN: Maureen, hello.

OPERATOR: Ms. White, please accept the unmute now prompt. It looks like we’re having some difficulty with her line.

We’ll take the next question from Leonard Rubenstein.

MCFADDEN: Mr. Rubenstein.

Q: Thank you so much for this very compelling talk. I’m at Johns Hopkins and I chair the Safeguarding Health and Conflict Coalition.

As you know, one of the things we see in these conflicts is the utter destruction of health systems. And when you speak about the political changes needed, what is so striking is even the simplest changes are not being made. For example, the Security Council passed a resolution five years to protect health care in conflict by reforming their military practices, their counterterrorism laws, their accountability procedures. And in those five years, even the states that are most rhetorically committed to international law, including the U.S., have done virtually nothing. These are the easiest kinds of reforms, not the harder ones you mentioned. How do we address that? How do we create movement to put the kind of reforms needed into place?

MCFADDEN: Thank you.

MILIBAND: Well, thanks, Professor Rubenstein. That’s a great question.

Here’s my best shot at an answer: Those countries willing to do have just got to do it. I know that the coalitions of the willing have got a bad name, but frankly alongside trying to push for the universal solution, the coalitions of the willing have just got to go and do it. I’ve come to this view very strongly from serving on the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response, which was set up by the World Health Assembly last May, and which reported in May. And the most staggering statistic was that of the reform—over the last twenty years, eleven separate studies have proposed the pandemic preparedness and prevention reforms that were necessary globally, and they’ve just not been implemented.

And they’re not implemented by a really unholy alliance. There is bureaucracies that don’t want to change. There are idealists who want to do everything and so they make the best the enemy of the good. And then there are those countries who fear transparency. And it’s an unholy alliance that ends up without reform. That’s the basic story. And in the six months since our report, very little has happened, even the simple things. And it’s an interesting example, actually, where the U.S. policy—people often say the U.S. interagency process is very unwieldy. In this area, this administration has a very clear view. They want to have a global health threats council set up at head of government level, they want to have a $10 billion a year financing fund. They’ve got quite a good policy. But they haven’t been able to drive it forward.

And my argument now would be, to Professor Rubenstein, you need ten, thirty, fifty countries to go and do it because unless we get those coalitions moving we’re going to be stuck in negotiating pandemic treaties for the next ten years and won’t achieve anything.

MCFADDEN: Well, and if we can’t persuade people because of their humanitarian interest, perhaps their self-interest—

MILIBAND: Yeah, I don’t like—I mean, I don’t want to use the phrase—I don’t want it to be the phrase “coalition of the willing” because that has a problematic history. But it’s basically those who will, should.

MCFADDEN: Let’s go to the room. Who has a question? Yes, in the front row, right here. Here comes the microphone.

MILIBAND: I hope we get Maureen White back, because she’s a board member of ours. So we must try and get her back in.

Q: My name is Joanna Weschler and I wanted to thank you for very interesting remarks.

You mentioned several times throughout your comments the climate change is an important factor. And in your four points at the end, you listed breaking the gridlock in the Security Council and also dealing with the veto as one of the ways to get out. So what do you have to say about the fact that that the day before yesterday Russia passed a veto on a resolution regarding climate change? Will your list in 2022 be looking slightly different because of that?

MILIBAND: Well, it’s a very interesting point. And I actually—in piece I’ve written for the Economist I just added this yesterday, that there was a veto this week of the Council’s action on climate. And underneath it, if you talk to people who were in the debate, it was about sovereignty. Essentially the argument was, don’t get in our way. Don’t tread on our toes. And Russia vetoed, but there were others who were egging them on. And that is very, very sobering. Last year’s report, actually, highlighted COVID, climate and conflicts as the three drivers of the record numbers. So the Watchlist for 2022, which we just published, which was published today, recognizes how climate is a stressor that helps propel conflict. We do have to take the adaptation side much more seriously, I think.

I mean, half of $100 billion is peanuts compared to the $100 trillion that the world—that the International Energy Authority says has to be spent between now and 2050 on decarbonizing global energy supplies. So we should get this in perspective. But the truth about the people that we serve is that they are on the receiving end of the climate crisis, way down the chain. And they need some—we need to help them build their resilience.

MCFADDEN: Indeed. We’re going to go back to our virtual audience. Let’s see who we got. Maureen, is it you?

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Mary Boies.

Q: Sorry, David, it’s not Maureen. But she’ll be next.

David, since Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, Haiti, a country of only eleven million, has received 13 billion (dollars) in foreign aid. And two very good former presidents were initially in charge. There is very little to show for it. And one hesitates to send more funds. You say that money is not the problem. Where do you start, in a place like Haiti?

MILIBAND: You know, in America they often—people often say, that’s a great question. (Laughter.) And generally that—I think when people say that, that means that they don’t know the answer. So when I say that is a great question, Mary, I’m willing to confess to that. One important writer—I don’t really know, because we’re not actually there. I mean, one symptom of the problem you describe is that although we responded at the beginning there wasn’t space for us in the array of different institutions that were piling in there. And so we’re expanding in Latin America, we’re expanding in the Middle East. We pulled out of Haiti six or eight years ago. And obviously the recent news with the assassination speaks to a domestic political meltdown that, in the end, is absolutely fundamental to any of these places.

My own very—I don’t—the danger is that if you answer in thirty seconds you sound glib, and I don’t want to be glib about it. But if you take seriously what I say about every humanitarian emergency is a political emergency, every political emergency essentially speaks to the absence of a political settlement. A political settlement is an organized way of resolving conflicts and posturing compromise. And I don’t know enough about Haiti, but the international system will never be able to overcome a domestic meltdown. If you think about some of the difficulty—I haven’t got the same figures—but if you think about the state-building efforts in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, there are some related challenges there.

And just to be clear, Mary, I was saying money is part of the problem, but it’s not the only problem. And if we don’t take the other aspects seriously, we’re going to be stuck.

MCFADDEN: So let’s go to the room. Yes, sir, in the back row.

Q: Hello. Thank you. I’m Aaron Sherinian with the Deseret Management Corporation.

You outline a number of failures—failures of nonstate actors. What is the responsibility or the possibility for a failure of the media sector here, with the crisis that continues? And how and/or should the media be kept to a different standard, given this level of crisis?

MCFADDEN: I’m so sorry I called on you. (Laughter.) No, that’s a good question. I’m glad you have to answer that.

MILIBAND: Yeah. First, “the media”—there’s no such thing as “the media” anymore. We’re living in this cacophonous environment where everyone’s a journalist and everyone’s got an opinion. And so that’s the first thing.

Secondly, we do mention this actually in the Watchlist, the hate that—the fostering of hate on so-called social media—in fact, it should be called antisocial media—is a real part of the equation. The fostering of disinformation is a real part of the—

MCFADDEN: Yeah. Huge problem.

MILIBAND: —COVID distribution challenges that you’ve—I mean, I know it’s fashionable to attack the antisocial media companies. But actually, that’s a big part of it.

Now, when you say responsibilities of the media, are you talking about for reporting? Is that the—I mean, look, I’ve been troubled because one can just sound bien pensant about this, I’m interested in foreign affairs so I want there to be more media reporting. But I first came to America in 1977 as a junior high school student. And there have been many changes since then, obviously, not least the fragmentation or Balkanization of the country. I came back as a graduate student, as you said, in the late 1980s, for MIT.

But there’s this weird paradox that in various ways America has become much more engaged with the rest of the world, but it’s also become much more separated from the rest of the world. And that is not a sustainable basis for global leadership, really. Richard’s got a program for teaching not just civics in high schools, but teaching foreign policy in high schools. It would be interesting to know whether that’s working. I think that the conundrum is different for different generations. My instinct is that the generation born since 1996, I read yesterday 2 ½ billion people have been born since 1996, that’s a globalized generation, but not through mainstream media.

And that means that this social media question of what—who’s the publisher, what’s in, what’s out, what are the standards, it becomes absolutely core to this. And I haven’t got a good answer. But I’m sure that unless we recognize that the social or antisocial media companies are publishers, we’re stuck. But more important, the people at the sharp end are stuck as well.

MCFADDEN: We’ll go to someone from the virtual space.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Sherrie Westin.

MCFADDEN: Oh, hi, Sherrie.

Q: Hey, Cynthia. And David, I’m so happy to see you both. I’m sorry I’m not there in person.

But I have a quick question, David. Can you speak a little bit about the resettlement efforts that IRC is leading in the U.S.? I was just at Fort Dix on Saturday visiting Afghan refugees, some of whom were Sesame colleagues. And there are ten thousand Afghans waiting at Fort Dix for resettlement.

MILIBAND: Yeah. Sherrie, for those of you who don’t know it, is our amazing partner from Sesame Workshop who we, with her, won the MacArthur $100 million prize four years ago to—

MCFADDEN: That was $100 million. You slipped over that too quickly.

MILIBAND: Yeah. I’ve been in New York for too long. The $100 million seemed like a large amount of money when I arrived. Which is to address the kids who are affected by war in Syria, essentially, whether they’re living in Syria, or Iraq, or Jordan. And incredible reach that’s going on there.

I’m so pleased you went to see the—to Fort Dix. There are eight military facilities around the country where IRC staff have been registering 72,000 Afghans. About 36,000, I think I’m right in saying, are still on the bases. Of the 44,000 who have left the bases, 90 percent of them are assigned to a resettlement agency, of which we are one in cities and towns across the country. For those who are in the bases, there’s still processing of documentation. And it’s become a long slog for them. They’ve now been there for three or four months. And they’re still waiting for an assignment as to which town or city they’re going to go to.

For those who are—have been assigned and have left the bases, I’ll tell you their biggest problem. Their biggest problem is housing. I haven’t got the number, but a large number—I can’t remember—but a non-trivial number are still in hotel accommodations and haven’t yet—and if you’re in a hotel you don’t know—you can’t get your kid into school. If you can’t get your kid into school, you can’t get—and you haven’t got childcare—you can’t get a job. I mean, it’s a real—it’s a real problem. And they’re going to have to spend more money on it. They’re going to have to also I think find some way of tiding over these people, because otherwise they’re going to have a really—they’re going to have a double or treble trauma.

I just want to say one other thing, Sherrie. And I don’t know if you came across this. Obviously in many ways the people who made it to America are the lucky ones. However, the degree of trauma for someone who is separated from their mother and father, their brother and sister, because the only people who you’re allowed to bring are your immediate family—your spouse and your kids. So all of these people come from broken families now. And they’ve got—and what we were talking about at the beginning, that their friends and family are still in Afghanistan and they’ve facing a starvation winter, that’s playing on these people’s minds in a really traumatic way.

Q: And there are many—you’re right, David. There are also many single men. And I’m told that one of the biggest challenges is that they’re being pushed down on the list, even though they have arrived earliest. They’re not being resettled. Families are first. And they’re not single men, they’re unaccompanied men. They left their wives and children behind because they hoped to be able to bring them as soon as they were settled.

MCFADDEN: It’s—we’re doing a film right now. We’re following a family. And all of the issues are so real, and so vibrant. And it’s going to be a long time before all those people are taken off military bases, because there just aren’t the accommodations and jobs, is the second-biggest problem.

In the room, I haven’t gone on this—no one on this side? What? OK, next to the last row, yes.

Q: Hi. Kira Kay. A member of the media. And thank you to the IRC for all its help in enabling field reporting over the years.

I’ll ask very quickly about the Rohingya. Huge headline, as far as media goes. Refugee crisis in the last few years, now disappearing from the headlines. Given the upheaval in Burma, what impact have you seen in the Rohingya areas in Bangladesh, Malaysia? And any buy-in from the government in exile from Burma, given that they tried to put a little more inclusive face on their ranks?

MILIBAND: Well, the thing to say to you is that the refugees, the people who have left, they’re stuck, basically. I mean, the vast bulk are in Bangladesh. Bangladesh opened its doors in a very serious way. But there’s no prospect of the people going back at the moment. And Bangladesh wants—there’s an argument about the island where up to one hundred thousand would be transferred. But the bigger picture of people who are essentially lost is very real. They’re not exactly stateless.

MCFADDEN: Well, they are, though. They don’t have passports.

MILIBAND: No, but they are—they’re unable to—they’re given permission to say. So they’re not—in that sense, they are. But they’re able to stay.

MCFADDEN: But they’re stuck. They’re stuck.

MILIBAND: Stuck. So it’s a very, very—it’s precisely the funeral home for dreams danger that I referred to earlier. And there are—there are Burmese, people from Myanmar, who are in Thailand who’ve been there for thirty or forty years. And there’s a real danger of a similar prospect.

MCFADDEN: As you all know, this is largest refugee encampment in the world, getting very close to two million people.

From virtual. Hello, virtual.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jody McBrien.

Q: Thank you so much, David, for your really insightful comments this evening. Or, evening in Paris. I’m in Paris. (Laughs.)

MILIBAND: I wish I was in Paris.

Q: (Laughs.) I’m a current CFR fellow working at the OECD for a year. And I’m a professor at the University of South Florida in global relations.

And I’ve been working for the last twenty years with refugee issues and research and service. And you spoke a lot about macro issues, and so I’m going to ask you about a micro issue. I’ve done a lot of work with refugees, but in the past year I have become acquainted with the particular traumatic agonies of LGBTQ refugees and working with a particular NGO on issues of LGBTQI refugees. And I’m just curious about the work of the IRC, or perhaps any other international NGOs, on intersectionality of some of the particular tragedies of minority refugees, of that—of LGBTQ or other minority refugees.

MILIBAND: Yeah. That’s interesting. We have significant and growing programs to help people who are persecuted or in fear of persecution for their sexuality. Significant programs in Latin America. Interestingly, very significant programs in Pakistan. And really proud of the fact that the way we have a new strategy, it’s called Strategy 100. It’s called Strategy 100 because in 2033 it will be the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the IRC by Albert Einstein in New York. So we’re trying to think long term. And part of that is that every country has its own strategy action plan where it assesses needs in its own country, or it assesses who else is there, and then it says: OK, so what should we do?

And one of the requirements in the strategy action plan is to identify a particularly marginalized group who we haven’t served before who we feel enjoined to go and help. And that’s helped sponsor some of this work for LGBTQ people. And happy to—for you to get more details on that.

MCFADDEN: Very good. I think we’re almost out of time. But with moderator’s prerogative, if you could only get one of your four solutions solved, pick one of your children.

MILIBAND: Oh, definitely if you could shake up the Security Council you would incentivize diplomacy. At the moment the veto in cases of mass atrocity, it doesn’t incentivize diplomacy. It incentivizes sort of gymnastics. And I think that it’s really important to bring back onto the table a whole set of issues that are currently off the table. Now, you know, it’s a—it’s a fight with every American administration to get this. The U.K. hasn’t formally committed to it yet, although we haven’t used our veto since ’89. But—

MCFADDEN: Any whispers from Washington about their interest?

MILIBAND: No. No. And obviously, Russia, China emphasizing—so it would change the game on the Security Council, because suddenly if you think about what’s happening in Ethiopia at the moment, which is a major, major political and humanitarian crisis, suddenly you get the diplomatic juices flowing in a much more effective way. And so all of the—to wish for a change, you know, at the click of a fingers, that would be the biggest change. It would be far bigger than any sum of money that was thrown at this, because it would get to the core issues of power and politics.

MCFADDEN: Well, this has been a fascinating and frustrating—only because we have so much limited time and so many things to talk to you about.

MILIBAND: Thank you very much.

MCFADDEN: We are grateful for your work. We are grateful for your presence here today.

Now, for those of you who loved the conversation so much you’d like to look at it on a loop, you can do that. It’s going to be posted on the CFR website. Or if you need it for a sleep aid tonight, I’ll be there. (Laughter.) We thank you, David.

The fuller version of David’s remarks—

MILIBAND: New York form of friendship.

MCFADDEN: Compliment.

MILIBAND: (Laughs.) Compliment.

MCFADDEN: That was a compliment from a journalist. (Laughter.) A fuller version of David’s remarks are posted on the website. And I really do commend to you the report as well, which is a real eye-opener, even for those of us who feel we spend a lot of time on these issues. And the bonus for the people who actually braved the wilds of New York with their masks on and came, there’s lunch. So welcome to lunch. And thank you so much.

MILIBAND: Thank you very much.

MCFADDEN: What a privilege to be with you.

MILIBAND: Thank you very much. Thank you.

MCFADDEN: Thank you for the report. (Applause.)


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