The Humanitarian Response to COVID-19: Protecting the World's Vulnerable Populations

Monday, May 11, 2020
Khalil Ashawi/REUTERS
David Miliband

President and CEO, International Rescue Committee

Michelle Nunn

President and CEO, CARE USA

Eric Schwartz

President, Refugees International

Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss

Founder and CEO, RockCreek

BESCHLOSS: Thank you very much. I want to welcome everyone to the inaugural Silberstein Family Annual Lecture and to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Virtual Meeting. We’re very grateful to the Silberstein family for being behind this very, very important topic, especially today given the COVID situation.

My name is Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss, and I’m founder and CEO of RockCreek, and member of the Board of Directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

As I mentioned, this endowed annual lecture was established in 2019 through a very generous gift from Alan Silberstein and the Silberstein family. The lecture provides CFR with an annual forum to explore emerging challenges in refugee and migration policy in the U.S. and around the world, and it is especially timely that we’re having this discussion today. And this inaugural lecture is titled “The Humanitarian Response to COVID-19: Protecting the World’s Vulnerable Populations.”

We are incredibly fortunate to have three of the most important and vocal participants in the world related to humanitarian aid with us today. I’m going to only provide a very short introduction. None of them need real introductions.

David Miliband is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, where he oversees the agency’s humanitarian relief operations in more than forty war-effected countries and its refugee resettlement and assistance programs in over twenty U.S. cities. David was secretary of state/foreign affairs of the U.K., secretary of state for the environment, and member of the Parliament.

Michelle Nunn is president and CEO of CARE USA, a leading humanitarian organization that fights global poverty and provides lifesaving assistance in emergency.

And Eric Schwartz is the president of Refugees International, advocating for lifesaving assistance and protection for refugees.

And for everyone in this group, I wanted to ask you, if you don’t mind, to provide an overview of what’s going on right now in refugee and IDP camps worldwide in regard to the impact of the pandemic, and what your specific organizations are focused on, and what are your partners on the ground seeing. Michelle, did you want to start, maybe, and we can go on to Eric and David?

NUNN: Yes. So, first of all, thank you. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to share with you and with this audience at a really critical and challenging time.

So just to give you a little bit of background, CARE operates in a hundred different countries around the world. We both do emergency response, humanitarian response, and also long-term development. At this moment, as you can imagine, the nexus of those two things is coming together in a significant way. And CARE is now responding in sixty-four-plus countries to the COVID-19 epidemic, and we are doing everything from basic community education—there is so much misinformation out there—to the—to the actual wash—the fact that, for instance, a fourth of hospitals and facilities around the world don’t have access to basic water; that 90 percent, for instance of the Syrian refugees that CARE surveyed didn’t have access to soap; and that we need to ensure, again, some of—as much as possible the preventative measures that can keep this pandemic from really wiping through the most-vulnerable communities.

And in addition to that, CARE really puts a premium on women and girls and their leadership. We know that they’re 70 percent to 80 percent to 90 percent of the frontline caregivers, that they’re giving 70 to 80 percent of the informal care in families and communities, so we want them to not only be equipped and prepared but also to have a seat at the table for the work that they’re doing.

And finally, we’re looking at what we call sort of the downstream impacts of this because it’s not just a health crisis. It’s an economic crisis. It’s a food-insecurity crisis. And we are both looking at preparing for that now and ensuring that we are getting, for instance, cash vouchers to people who are vulnerable, and also looking at the mid- and long-term response for this which we envision over the next few years.

BESCHLOSS: Eric, did you want to share what you’re up to?

SCHWARTZ: Sure. Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk to you this morning.

Well, first let’s talk about the populations that we’re concerned about. There are more than seventy million forcibly-displaced people around the world: the majority internally displaced within their countries of origin, about twenty-five million or more refugees outside their countries of origin, and probably another twenty/twenty-five million each year displaced as a result of natural disasters. And so over the past several days—and that’s the population we’re talking.

And Refugees International exists solely to report and advocate on behalf of the well-being and the interests of these communities. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored the importance of this job because those who are most vulnerable in the United States, as we have seen, are suffering disproportionately, and that is certainly the case and will be the case with respect to displaced communities. And this has been our focus and our concern.

My concern is that I fear that the COVID-19 pandemic is a test of our common humanity that we are at risk of failing. In his statement announcing an increased U.N. COVID-19 appeal for about $6.7 billion for about sixty-three countries, Mark Lowcock, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, talked about a need of about $90 billion for fragile states for the challenges that are related to COVID-19. I’m not even sure that’s high enough, but I know that—I know that not all of it will be provided through U.N. appeals, but even so I think we should be deeply concerned that the international response is going to be inadequate.

Why do I have this fear? First, as limited as our health capacity is in the global north, in poor states, in fragile states, whether in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, that capacity is nearly nonexistent. In much of the global south, the worst effects of the coronavirus are still three to six months away. The vast majority of the world’s refugees don’t live in camps, but within communities or in areas contiguous to communities with citizens. So failure to address the most vulnerable will have dramatic impacts for broader communities. And perhaps most tellingly, the U.N.’s annual global humanitarian appeal of some $29 billion, which they issued in December, was already dramatically underfunded, which only increases the fragility of this situation.

And so what about the United States? I took a look at the list of invitees and I see that many are focused on U.S. foreign policy. In the COVID-19 appropriations, amounting to some $3 trillion, we could have designated 1 percent, a half of one percent, to the humanitarian response. That would have been—that would have amounted to $30 billion or $15 billion, respectively. But instead, the U.S. COVID-19 supplemental—supplementals—contain about $900 million for humanitarian response, give or take a few hundred million, meaning that .03 percent of the supplemental went to this critical area.

So my overwhelming concern from a (rights-based ?) perspective is that we need to be doing much, much more in this test of our common humanity, and I fear that we’re going to fail.

BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Eric. David.

MILIBAND: Thanks very much. So I’m David Miliband. I’m the president of the International Rescue Committee. And we work—(audio break)—

STAFF: Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen. We’re having a few technical difficulties with Mr. Miliband’s audio. We will be removing video from our speakers and going now to an audio-only discussion. Afsaneh, if you could keep the conversation going right now, that would be great. Everyone should be—

BESCHLOSS: Of course. Absolutely. Absolutely. So maybe we’ll go to Michelle.

Michelle, you mentioned how CARE has been involved in a lot of the emergency response, and talked—you talked a little bit about what are doing to stop the spread through providing access to clean water, sanitation, community education. Beyond these, Michelle, what else is keeping you up at night when it comes to providing relief to the people of these many, you know, developing nations? And how have you had to adapt your protocols during the crisis?

NUNN: Yeah, thanks. And I would—I just want to reinforce Eric’s point advocating for American—U.S. leaders—American leadership at this critical moment. It is incredibly important and I think it’s one of the obstacles that we’re facing. As an organization that was born out of crisis post-World War II seventy-five years ago and has lived through seventy-five years in which America has played a meaningful humanitarian role in every crisis, I think we are faced with a new day here that we need to, as advocates, I think shift and change as we go forward. So I would just—maybe just articulate a few of the challenges that CARE is seeing and that I’m sure that many of our peers are seeing.

So, first of all, we have—are inventing, like everyone else, global pandemic protocols. So we are used to working in seven, twelve, fifteen, perhaps, hotspots, but sixty-four hotspots all at once is an extraordinary challenge.

We are looking at the difficulty of raising money at a time when resources are feeling very scarce based upon the economic realities that so many face and also the sort of turning inward that Eric well articulated.

I think we also are looking at access issues for humanitarian response. In so many countries our teams are finding it hard to operate, literally, and so we’re having to find new ways of navigating, for instance, digital cash transfers, as an example, in Ecuador, which the team was able to create within the first week.

And then there’s also just an underinvestment in some basic community prevention. We know from Ebola, we know from Zika, we know from AIDS that community trust and community—basic community public health is so important, and yet we are rightly investing in some of the medical provisions, clinical and vaccine. But we also, at the same time, need to be supporting the community-based leadership that I think are represented by local organizations and INGOs.

So those are just a few of the things that I would highlight as being the challenges. And the next order, again, I talked to our team in Syria this morning, and while they have not yet felt the full repercussions of the health issues, as they described it they are experiencing an economic tsunami and at this juncture facing some of the greatest hunger challenges that they’ve faced throughout the conflict. So, again, health, economy, hunger: this is a great convergence that we’re going to have to respond to in unprecedented ways.

BESCHLOSS: David, you were starting to talk when you got interrupted by technology, but I would love to hear from you. But also, maybe in your comments you could mention a little bit more about the programs that you find have been most effective through the crisis to provide safety and security, especially for women and girls, because as you’ve always spoken about women—as has Michelle—more than 70 percent of health workers around the world are women, a lot of the people at risk are women. And it would be great to hear from you.

MILIBAND: Thanks very much. I hope you can hear me clearly.

I was trying to say that the framing for this has to be to see that there’s a double emergency. There’s a health emergency, which is acute in some advanced industrialized countries like the United States, but is many times more grave and dangerous in countries where the underlying health conditions are poor and the health infrastructure is weak to nonexistent.

But the second part of the emergency is the economic and social collateral damage that arises from this disease, but also from the consequential policies—notably lockdown and various other forms of economic change that are necessitated by our response to the disease. I think that if you take that frame, you then have a five-part policy response.

The first is prevention. One of my greatest frustrations with the major donors, including the United States but also U.K. and EU, is their negligence. They’re frozen in the headlights when it comes to the preventative activities that are still necessitated. By fluke or for other reasons, the disease has not yet become a tsunami in the places where we work—thirty-four countries, two hundred field sites that the International Rescue Committee focuses on. That may be because of the demography of the populations, but it also reflects the lack of connection to the global economy. The disease is there. It’s in danger of shooting up in a very dangerous fashion. But there is still time for prevention. And the fact that that’s not being taken seriously I think is grave and worrying. Michelle’s points about fake news and disinformation is absolutely right.

Secondly, we need a frontline health response which is not about jetting ventilators in South Sudan. It is about building up primary care up to the level of oxygen provision. But strengthening primary care, including the support for health workers in that context is worth remembering. Seventy percent of health workers around the world are women. And so the disease threatens them especially. Some statistics show four, five times the level of disease prevalence among health workers as among the rest of the population.

A third element of any systematic response has to be the focus on the immediate collateral damage, which is on two areas. One, livelihoods and, second, violence. We are already seeing across our programs obviously a cratering of livelihoods, and so an immediate need for cash support for these marginalized communities that are living on the edge, but also significant rise in violence against women and girls. And so protection services are doubly and trebly needed.

The fourth aspect of any programmatic response has to be to make other services outside health, education, livelihoods protection, COVID-proofed. We’re turning our education programs to radio because it’s not enough just to rely on online. That may be OK in some of the advanced industrialized countries. It’s not OK in many of the places that we work. I’m really proud of the way our team in the Middle East are working with the Sesame Foundation. We won the MacArthur Award to deliver 1.4 million children in-person support and 7.9 million children educational support digitally. I’m really proud of the way we’re pivoting our services to make sure that although we can’t bring people together in the way that we used to, we’re able to continue to reach out and deliver programs. And that pivoting of programs is a critical piece of innovation.

And then the fifth and final part, which is in danger of being completely forgotten, is that the true lessons of this crisis are about the holes in the global safety net. And if we’re not careful when it comes to discussions of vaccines, we’ll replicate many of those holes in the way that we deliver vaccine support. So we’re already saying to people: Look, we are the last ten miles when it comes to delivering vaccines. We’ve got to learn the right lessons of this crisis. And so I think we have to think about this across the arc.

Just one final point, since we’re speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, the geopolitics of this are really quite grave. I’m very concerned that the democracies of the world couldn’t even agree a statement at the G-7 meeting because of a ridiculous feud about whether to call it a Wuhan virus or not. And so the geopolitics of this are that liberal democracies look like they’re struggling. And I’m afraid that the autocracies of the world are making hay with the argument that they’re dealing with this better. Now, the facts don’t support that, because there are plenty of democratic countries—from Germany, to South Korea, to Ireland, to New Zealand—who are marshalling the strength of liberal democracy to tackle the disease and build on the social trust that exists in those countries.

But we also know that there are liberal democratic countries that are not dealing with the disease well. And that’s being used in quite dangerous ways. And I think that the geopolitics of this crisis, as well as the humanitarian aspects of this crisis joined together in fueling the sense of urgency that my colleagues on the panel have reflected.

BESCHLOSS: Thank you, David.

Eric, you just argued about the lack of resources going—or the very, very small amount of resources going internationally from the U.S. But if you put the resource issue aside for a second, what else do you think needs to be done so that local and international response—that has been another very big issue that has been discussed.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah. Thank you for that question. And I want to follow up on David’s points to really—to really focus on the fact that, to my mind, you know, all of these operational barriers, and policy operational barriers that both David and Michelle have alluded to, are critically important. But I believe this is also a challenge and a crisis of governance. And fundamentally, as I said before, a crisis that tests of our common humanity. And you know, I think that—I think that that factor has got to be injected into the discussion, because the operational imperatives flow from that factor. The importance of resources—resources flow from that factor.

So I want—maybe as an example I’ll talk a little bit about, you know, the situation of asylum seekers or people who are fleeing. You know, over the past several days many of you have no doubt read about the tragic situation of hundreds of Rohingya refugees in the Bay of Bengal. These are among the more than one million who have fled, you know, the brutal Myanmar military campaign against their Rohingya, and a campaign that we characterized as crimes against humanity and genocide. And it’s hard to argue that these beleaguered people should be left to perish at sea.

I think most of us would urge both the governments of Malaysia and Bangladesh, in the Bay of Bengal, not to abandon the principle of tolerance, non-return to persecution and torture, violations of human rights. Our common humanity demands no less. And I think that the conversations around resources have to include a discussion of rights. And that’s been the focus of our transition, transformation of our work around COVID-19.

But if that position makes sense, if it’s justified as a matter of humanitarianism, if it’s justified as a matter of decency, then governments must practice at home what we would preach abroad. And our position, and the position of—on this issue of many groups—is based on our common humanity. And so I think that the most important sort of undiscussed or unhighlighted elements in the response to this crisis has really been, you know, the focus on the rights and well-being of those who are most significantly disenfranchised in this—in this crisis.

Policies need to be evidence-based, whether they’re about—whether they’re focused on the border—the southwest border of the United States or the borders of Bangladesh, or the borders of Iran, or the borders anywhere around the world. And I think that focus, and that concern, and that accountability has really got to be part of this discussion. Otherwise, the operational imperatives, about which we all agree, are going to—are going to be given short shrift continually as governments really kind of vote with their dollars. So that, I think, has been our major concern. And I think it—I think it needs to be a greater concern of nongovernmental organizations, of governments, and others who, again, are really committed to our common humanity.

BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Eric. That’s really interesting. And also, I think, you know, as you’re talking about governance, at the same time the U.N. government and aid organizations have been talking how important it is to ensure local partners receive more funding and have more decision-making power in emergency response. Do you all, as you look at what each of you is doing, find that, you know, this is a time where more resources should go to the local level? More resources should be spent globally across? How do you see this dichotomy right now with COVID-19?

MILIBAND: I don’t think it’s right to see it as a dichotomy. I hear a lot of rhetoric about this, but I think that framing it as a dichotomy is real mistake. Because the truth is that if you localize without national, regional, international support, then you’re expecting people to sink or swim. When you pile onto that compliance requirements from international donors, then local groups are going to suffer and, more likely, sink. And I think it’s really important that we insist that the role of an international NGO is, of course, to support local action.

And it does that in a myriad of ways, including—and I’m sure this is true for CARE as well as for the International Rescue Committee—is to employ local people, is to support local capacity, is to partner with local groups in a range of different ways. But to recognize that global expertise, global standards, global insight, global evidence, global comparison is very, very important indeed. And so there is a danger of lurching into a crude embrace of, quote/unquote, “localism” that is not borne out by the facts. And I feel quite strongly that many of those who are most instant about localization are also most insistent about compliance standards that local community groups cannot be expected to meet.

And so I think it’s much more significant for us to recognize that international NGOs, international actors are needed when national and local action is ineffective. In some of the places where we work, there is no health system. And that’s why international engagement is important. It’s international engagement that must win the trust and support the action of local people. But I think we’ve got a real responsibility to speak the truth about this issue, which is that when it’s framed as a local versus national versus international, the people who lose are those in the greatest need.

NUNN: Let me just add—

BESCHLOSS: I think that’s really—I think, Michelle, that will be great to hear from you. And I think the experience in the U.S. also has been very consistent with what David’s saying. But please go on.

NUNN: Right. I think you’re right, that you can see here that of course a local response is required and necessary, but a coordinated response is most important, and one that is multilayered, and that is networked. And so I think at every level—at the national, at the local governance level, and certainly at the international level—there has to be a degree of cooperation, coordination, shared learning and planning together.

I do think, of course, that David is right, that we need to lean into our local partners, and we do. You know, CARE is—95-98 percent of our staff teams are from local communities, local organizations. But we also do have an opportunity for scale through global engagement. And I do think that this COVID-19 response will propel localization. Those who are our neighbors are going to be the ones that can most help us. And we are going to—and most quickly. But it has to be, I think, a broad international cooperation that is dependent upon national and local actors coming together.

SCHWARTZ: If I could just say a word on this, I agree with almost all of what David and Michelle has said but let me make another point. And I also agree with the notion that we’re in a situation now where we will make—where we will be forced, in a good way, to make virtue out of necessity, right? With limited travel—international travel, there will be—and concerns about spreading of the pandemic, there will be opportunities, and there have been opportunities, and will continue to be opportunities for localization. And when we talk about localization, we’re talking about not only local responders, but national responders.

And for CFR participants who aren’t kind of steeped in humanitarian—the humanitarian world, in 2016 governments, and NGOs, and others at a world humanitarian summit made a commitment or target—identified a target of 25 percent of humanitarian funding to local and national responders. And we have come really nowhere near that target, in part because governments, as David correctly said, have imposed the kind of requirements, the kind of reporting requirements that really made it much more difficult to move toward localization.

But I think it’s fair to say that, number one, had governments or the world, or NGOs, and others moved more quickly towards that objective, we would be in a stronger position today. But I don’t see—there’s not much value about looking at the past. I do think that this crisis does provide us with a real opportunity to move forward on that important agenda, but very much in coordination—in close coordination with international NGOs and governments of the world.

BESCHLOSS: It’s very interesting, as you’re talking, a lot goes on in the technology world, not just in Silicon Valley but also in Africa, in the Middle East, in Latin America, Asia, of course. At the same time, it seems like not a lot of that is going towards improving supply chain difficulties. And some of the challenges that the IRC, the Refugees International, CARE, and other organizations have been facing I think, as you continue to assist the vulnerable populations, has been on distribution. So it’s not just a question of availability, or resources, or having more funding going to the vulnerable populations, but also how distribution gets improved. Going back a long time ago, for those of us who studied development economics—and Martha Sands’ (sp) famous book on famine, where it was not about the availability only but also, very importantly, about distribution.

As you’re thinking practically about the issues that you all are looking at, how are you looking at the supply chain difficulties? And how is that impacting what you’re doing? And do you have any solutions? Sorry for this very long question.

David, did you want to jump in?

MILIBAND: Sure. I think the question was about supply chains. We were mobilizing in February to make sure that PPE kit was bought. I’m very proud that our emergency response in Bangladesh was buying PPE kit on the 8th of February. And so I think there’s been some quite impressive pre-positioning. We also—the biggest supply is people. And we’ve over the last five years trained in our country programs emergency reservists. So you might be a finance manager, you might be working on education, but you’re trained for emergency response. And I think that’s stood us in reasonably good stead.

The biggest blockage is actually not kit, per se, it’s actually domestic travel restrictions. And obviously we’ve moved to remote management in a number of areas. But it’s actually domestic travel restrictions that are preventing the movement of local staff that is the greatest impediment at the moment. We’re obviously concerned about the PPE supply issue, but one of the biggest problems is that because the funding for new health facilities, new isolation centers hasn’t come from the traditional donors, we actually want to be using up more PPE kit than we currently are. And that’s, I think, an important blockage.

So I’m concerned about PPE, but I don’t think it’s the main issue at the moment. The main issue at the moment is about a lack of mobilization to configure an effective response. I don’t want to sound like I’m just doing special pleading, but it is really important for people to understand that the funding of the frontline has come last in this crisis. Even the U.N. appeal document that came out first in March had a $2 billion appeal, and only $100 million for the frontline workers of NGOs who end up doing a majority of the work. And so the focus of activity should be on driving up preventative and response activity. And at the moment, I don’t see the kit issue as being the major constraint.

NUNN: I’ll just jump in and reinforce that. I do think that this issue of the local humanitarian access is perhaps the biggest impediment, as David said. I do think that there are opportunities, as alluded to, around really this question of frontline workers. I think it is so important to recognize that we need to get ahead. That prevention is the key to this dynamic of really flattening the curve or preventing a disaster in the making. And I do not think that we collectively have done enough around that. And, again, I think it’s less around the PPE than it is some of the more basic resourcing of the community ground troops, so to speak. And some of that is basic wash, and hygiene, and training, and supplies, and kits.

And some of that also will go into how do we ensure that people can stave off the hunger issues and the livelihood challenges that are before them with things like cash transfer? So I think all of us are very much mindful of also the local marketplace and doing whatever we can to support the local marketplace—whether it’s the procurement of PPE or whether it’s the procurement of foodstuffs for people who are in need.

SCHWARTZ: I’ll just make three very brief points and associate myself with both Michelle and David’s remarks. But first, I would just say I think the supply chain issue is not unconnected to the resource issue. And so I would, again, underscore your earlier point that I made about resources. I would also note that the U.N. has established a taskforce to coordinate a procurement and distribution in this area, supply chain taskforce, I think, with the WHO and World Food Program. And so that’s worth just being aware of.

But I think the most important point I want to make is that with respect to vulnerable populations, populations in need of relief, displaced populations—whether that’s seventy million or 100 million around the world—the large majority of these populations are not in camps. They’re not in formal encampments. And so your supply chain question is as relevant to the broader issues and will impact those who are affected by humanitarian disasters as it is to those—to those seventy, eighty, a hundred million people who are in need of humanitarian relief. Which underscores a point that we’ve been making about the critical importance of an integrated response. In so many ways, the displaced, the vulnerable, the victims of disasters are part and parcel of the broader populations. And so I think the supply chain issue has to be considered from that context.

BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Eric.

At this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. And I just wanted to remind everyone that this meeting is on the record.

Megan (sp), may we have the first question, please.


(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Bob Rubin.

Q: Thank you. The question is this: Eric referred to our common humanity. I’ll say this as a comment, but it’s actually a question. Having been involved around political activity for a long, long time, Eric, I think an appeal to common humanity is likely to have very little effect in today’s politics. So my question is, why aren’t there more voices making the case that this is enormously in our self-interest to deal with these issues because of the spread of disease in an interconnected work, supply chain issues people raised already, political instability, and so much else? Why aren’t you all making the case, but not only you all but those who engage with your activity, or in the political or maybe financial realm, making the case this is in our self-interest, leaving aside moral, social, and common humanity perspectives?

SCHWARTZ: Well, since—Bob, since you mentioned my name, I will—you know, I think yours is less of a question of why than an admonition that we ought to be doing that, to a much greater extent. Advocates must be—should be doing that to a much greater extent. I think that’s absolutely right. I think it’s related to the point I made before, about the fact that vulnerable communities are, by and large, not sitting in refugee camps. And so a failure to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable, whether it’s in the United States or whether it’s in Bangladesh, will have significant and substantial impacts with respect to the spread of this pandemic. I think we need to be doing much more in terms of advocacy in that respect.

And frankly, you know, that’s also the kind of messages that you would expect governments of the world, or at least some governments of the world, would also be articulating. Because I don’t completely agree with the notion—I know you aren’t necessarily suggesting it—but the issues of common humanity are not of concern to governments. They are, or they should be. And people who are very wise within governments, you know, fashion the kind of security-related arguments, to which you’ve alluded, in making the appeals to common humanity. So, you know, I just—I guess I am just affirming the comment that you made.

MILIBAND: I think I would answer it in a rather different way than Eric. First of all, I think you’re right, Bob, to say there’s a strategic, hard-headed interest in recognizing that there must be global action in this area. That’s a rational and good argument. The way I put it is to say there will be no return to anything like normality until the disease is defeated beyond our own borders, not just within our own borders. So I think that’s a powerful case. I think there’s a different argument, though, which is that the blessings of globalization, for those who’ve enjoyed them, will not be continued unless they shoulder the burdens of globalization.

And I’m afraid this something where there has been a real trepidation in too many quarters, not least in the business community but not only in that. And that trepidation stems from a range of fears, but I think is real. In the same way that wars shouldn’t be left to generals, and science can’t be left to scientists, I’m afraid the public policy debates about global humanitarianism can’t be left just to the humanitarians, because people expect us to make the moral case. And I think it’s very important that we make the strategic case too.

But the real power comes from a wider coalition. That’s the significance of something like the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which has military and business support, as well as humanitarian and development aid support. And so my answer to you, Bob, is you and I should do an op-ed together. And you can speak for the hard-headed strategic interests, as well as the humanitarian, and I will speak to both as well.

BESCHLOSS: Well, we look forward to reading that.


NUNN: Yeah. I just want to add, Bob, thanks for your point. I do think we all agree that there is both a values-based and a strategic argument on health security and economics. I do think that we have a coalition of organizations, as David said. But it’s no surprise that you don’t think it’s breaking through, partly perhaps because we do have a hard time breaking through sometimes around this issue. And especially in a political moment in which, for instance, any suggestion that PPE, as just one example, would leave our own borders to go assist or support somewhere else is considered to be, you know, something that would be quite I think—well, poorly regarded by some factions. (Laughs.) That we do need to break through on this argument of our strategic interest as well as our values.

I would highlight for this group, because it’s important, that we are hoping that in the next tranche of legislation will be a $12-point-something billion actual allocation to the international affairs, aid, humanitarian. And I will say, as Eric I think well-articulated, that that is very small in the realm of what is needed. And so this ability and necessity of making this argument more loudly with more actors and with a greater breakthrough I think is vital. And this is a group that can help shape that.

SCHWARTZ: Can I—can I just—I realize I’ve already spoken, but I want to make one quick point. I agree wholeheartedly with what everyone has said, in particular the point about humanitarians, the point that David made, that humanitarians cannot be given the responsibility of making these arguments by themselves. And I think that’s a critical point.

But I would not underestimate the common humanity point. When I served in government, when I was assistant secretary for refugees in the Obama administration, when I was at the NSC, and in the administration that Bob also served, in the Clinton administration, I was continually taken by the fact that our huge allocations on the humanitarian side, far more than, in many cases, that we actually requested in Congress—we would request a certain amount from an administration, and Congress would come back with much more—was primarily informed by the sense of members of Congress that we wanted to do the right thing in the world. So without dismissing any of the points about realpolitik, I think we don’t want to understate the political impact of humanitarian arguments as well.

BESCHLOSS: Thank you, Bob. And I think everyone will be looking forward to this op-ed that you both will be writing.

Megan (sp).

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Maryum Saifee.

Q: Thank you. So my question—I’m Maryum Saifee. I’m a CFR term member.

We know the pandemic has exposed deep-rooted structural inequalities in every part of the world, including right here in the U.S. According to a recent Bridgespan study, 92 percent of foundation presidents and 83 percent of full-time staff members in the U.S. are white. How can we build a more inclusive leadership pipeline in philanthropy and other institutions involved in humanitarian response, so that those most affected by the pandemic are actually at the decision-making table?

BESCHLOSS: Michelle, did you want to take this?

NUNN: Sure. I think this is a big part of CARE’s message. We’ve come out with two reports over the last couple of weeks that have focused on, for instance, the issue of gender and COVID-19, as an example, which I know is just one dimension of your question. But the importance of, for instance, gender equality and having women have a seat at the table I think is vital. We’ve seen, you know, anecdotally perhaps, but that those leadership—those in leadership positions in places like Taiwan, and Germany, and New Zealand, we’ve had some terrific examples of women in leadership. We all know, I think, that when we have diverse tables that we have better decisions.

And if you look at just the U.S. COVID taskforce, twenty-two members, two women, there is an opportunity to really ensure that as we respond to this crisis that we shift the dynamics for a more equitable and better future, and that in fact it will—it will be necessary in order for us to have the kinds of efficient and effective response that we need. And that’s also true, of course, as it relates to members of the Global South being at the table and leading in their own responses, as it relates to international NGOs, and the philanthropic tables. So I think we’re all mindful of that. I know that probably each of our organizations is and has very specific plans around that. But this idea of equitable tables, I think, is going to be critical to our efforts in this—in this response.

SCHWARTZ: I would say that—I would second everything Michelle said. I would say I think we are doing better as an organization, Refugees International, in terms of our policy advocacy and our reporting on the issues around diversity, equity, inclusion. We are doing better in terms of our reporting and advocacy than we are doing in our own organization. And both are critically important priorities. You know, in the first domain we have been extremely active in efforts to ensure refugee participation and inclusion in international deliberative processes involving humanitarian response. And that’s been a major priority for our organization. We’ve just issued a report over the last several days, and we’re advocating around the report, on the impact of COVID-19 on women and girls. And I think it’s a very important issue that we—that requires the focus and attention of the international community.

We are also in our own organization working hard to promote a more inclusive, diverse staff in our organization. And I think it’s incumbent upon advocacy and operational organizations to be practicing what we preach. And I think we have made progress in that regard, but there is much more that we can and will do.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Hadi Ghaemi.

Q: Yes. Hi. This is Hadi Ghaemi, director of center for human rights in Iran.

I want to ask you about vulnerable populations in heavily sanctioned countries, such as Venezuela and Iran. There have been questions if the existing humanitarian channels are adequate at the time of this crisis in being able to address the needs of vulnerable populations, such as Afghan refugees in Iran. And so I have two questions for you. The first is, I want to ask if any of your organizations has a presence in Iran, which has the largest outbreak in the Middle East. And if yes, what has your experience there been like? And also, how could the international community address legitimate concerns regarding transparency and making sure any aid will get to vulnerable populations in sanctioned countries? Thank you.

BESCHLOSS: David, did you want to talk about this?

MILIBAND: Sure. Thanks for the question. I’m afraid we’re not present in Iran. There are about seven hundred thousand Afghan refugees there. You’re right to highlight the danger. But the Venezuela case is one which I think brings out the enormous strains that are put on a society when it’s imploding and then has a health crisis piled on top of it. Where I think we do have some relevant experience for your question is on ensuring that there is no aid diversion. And the transparency with which NGOs work—Michelle runs a delivery agency, like I do. Eric is more on the advocacy side. But the transparency to which the international NGOs commit themselves to is very significant indeed. And you can trace the aid all the way through with the right systems, not least by systems for client engagement so that it’s your clients who give testimony as to whether or not they received the aid. So I think there is some good experience from many countries that can apply not just in sanctioned countries, but elsewhere as well.

SCHWARTZ: I guess the only thing—I certainly agree with everything that David has said. And those accountability issues are really important because they help, you know, if you can—if you can equip your organization with respect to those issues, you can deliver assistance. And that’s really important. As you know, Iran has suffered significantly from the COVID-19 pandemic. And as of many weeks ago, and those numbers may well have changed, there were about a couple of hundred thousand Afghans who had reportedly left Iran for Afghanistan, creating a potential and significant public health emergency in Afghanistan.

And we don’t have—we haven’t visited, we haven’t done a mission to Iran, at least during my tenure as president of Refugees International. But I do think, you know, humanitarian organizations, especially organizations like ours, do need to take a very close look at sanctions, and examine where sanctions are playing a significant and substantial role in limiting the capacity of international providers to supply critical assistance. I think that’s very, very important. And it’s our job to deliver hard truths to governments and international organizations.

NUNN: This is Michelle. I would just add, we do not work in Iran, but I do I think it’s critically important to raise the issue of, for instance in the Venezuela situation, and Iran it’s also true, how do we ensure that we do not neglect or displace the humanitarian crises that are in politically difficult environments. And so as you think about Venezuela, will millions of refugees, the ability for us to support them is now in many ways called into question, and both physically in terms of our access, but also from a perspective of the continued resources. That’s going to be true in many other places, like Syria as an example. So how do we ensure that COVID-19 does not displace our current humanitarian relief, and thereby cost the lives of many additional people, and create additional crises?

BESCHLOSS: Megan (sp).

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Nili Gilbert.

Q: Hi, everyone. Thank you so much for hosting this important discussion. I’m Nili Gilbert.

My question is, in the current environment with unprecedented amounts of funding, political will, recognition of our human connectedness coming forward, and while at the same time it seems clear that many parts of our economy and society that are currently failing will need to be rebuilt, what is the scope for building back better, with the resources and energy that’s rising in the current moment? Remarkably, in a recent poll asking U.K. citizens whether they wanted life to go back to normal after their shutdown ends, only 9 percent said that they wanted to return to the old norms. Do you see opportunities to leapfrog on some of the preexisting challenges that we’ve been urgently seeking funded solutions for anyway? Or do you think that the current crisis is so urgent that it’s difficult to execute deep, strategic, long-term reimaging and redesign, while also delivering urgent solutions?

MILIBAND: Nili, I think that’s a great question. And I only have one quibble with it, which is when you referred to building back better, because I very strongly believe that for the people that we serve around the world the idea of going back really doesn’t appeal to them at all. The old normal was not a good normal. And they want a new normal. So I think that you’re putting your finger on the leadership challenge that exists at the moment, which is to respond to an overwhelming once in a hundred year crisis with real dedication and professionalism, but at the same time preserve the brain space for thinking and addressing the larger questions that are raised by this crisis.

As I said with our—the five points that we’re working on, the third one—the fourth one around pivoting of our programs is precisely to embrace the kind of thinking that you’re referring to. And I just want to give one example. The digital revolution has basically not yet hit the humanitarian sector in the way that it works. In part, that’s because of the fact that too many of our clients are beyond the reach of a smartphone. But it’s also because of the funding structure and the market structure that the humanitarian sector works in.

From our point of view, the fact that we’re being required to close all of our offices gives us a new opportunity and a responsibility to think in different ways around the way that work, not just for our officer workers but for our frontline aid workers as well. And so from my point of view, the point you’re making is absolutely key. But it’s not a choice of whether to respond to the crisis or whether to think in new ways. It’s absolutely essential to do both. And I think you—I think you referred to unprecedented amounts of funding. If only that was the case. What we’ve got is unprecedentedly little funding coming into the top of the hopper from our traditional governmental donors. But I don’t that’s a sufficient excuse not to embrace the question that I’ve raised, and to provide some challenging answers.

SCHWARTZ: That would have been the only correction I would have also made to the question. I think the real challenge now is resources and leadership. And I think back to 2004, the Asian tsunami. And just prior to the tsunami there was a meeting in Kyoto, Japan, where governments of the world developed the Kyoto Framework for Action on Disaster Prevention and Response. And the meeting did not get a huge amount of attention until the Asian tsunami, which—in December—which resulted in the loss of—I believe over two hundred thousand lives were lost in that tsunami, maybe more.

And all of a sudden that Kyoto Framework for Action for Disaster Prevention took on a great deal of importance. And governments of the world, to a considerable extent—not as much as they should have—but to a considerable extent, you know, really used that experience to develop a range of disaster prevention mechanisms which were significant and substantial. And, you know, I think at this point, with the right international leadership, we have the opportunity to seize that kind of—that kind of opportunity again. But I think a lot—it will all depend on international coordination, on leadership, and, as I said at the outset of this conversation, the provision of resources.

BESCHLOSS: Excellent point.

Well, I wanted to thank you all for joining today’s meeting. And thank you to our speakers. And also thank you to the Silberstein family. Thanks for being with us today.


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