Former Foreign Secretary Discusses Aid Reform

David Miliband, president and CEO of the global aid NGO International Rescue Committee, advocated for more responsive and collective relief efforts amid increasingly urgent humanitarian crises in a speech at Copley Formal Lounge on Wednesday.

Miliband said humanitarian efforts need to adapt to changing global crises.

“People in desperate straits around the world are not getting the help they need,” Miliband said. “The goal of humanitarian reform should be the idea of turning humanitarian action from a mission-driven but fragmented sector of activity to a high-performing and dynamic system of comprehensive work for people in humanitarian distress.”

Prior to joining the IRC, Miliband was the 74th foreign secretary for the United Kingdom.

Miliband was introduced by School of Foreign Service Dean Joel Hellman, who worked with fragile and conflict-afflicted states during his time as Director of the Center on Conflict, Security and Development for the World Bank.

Hellman said the current political climate and immigration crisis have created high demand for humanitarian efforts.

“The issue of mitigating the impacts of emergencies and disasters has created a well-known threat globally, linked to forced migration and has created an unprecedented demand for those who can mitigate the worst aspects of factors that force people out of their homes and out of their countries,” Hellman said.

Miliband said the world needs to expand beyond the existing humanitarian sector and create a humanitarian system, in order to better adapt to global crises.

“A sector is a diverse group of organizations each with a different focus operating on a set of shared principles. Think of the private sector. But a system, for example a judicial system, is directed to shared outcomes not just shared principles,” Miliband said. “A system has measure of success not just multiple measures of activity. I’d put it to you today that we have a humanitarian sector not a system.”

Miliband said the lack of defined shared outcomes undermines the effectiveness of humanitarian efforts.

“The humanitarian community has always embraced fundamental principles of independence, neutrality, impartiality and humanity. Unlike our development counterparts, we have yet to identify limited and specific results to guide programs and investments and to measure and track progress and performance,” Miliband said. “The absence of agreed-upon outcome measures prevents us from operating like a proper system.”

According to Miliband, a humanitarian aid system would address the global bureaucracy better than the current humanitarian aid structure.

“A system with clear goals, a dedicated evidence base and the right financial incentives would be better able to adapt to and anticipate change than the current sector,” Miliband said. “A system would break down the categories that currently define a lot of the policy debate.”

Miliband said one problem with the current humanitarian sector is a disconnect between its actions and purpose.

“The mandate of international institutions is based on the premise that poor people are only found in poor countries,” Miliband said. “The mismatch is not just one of resources. It’s also one of concept, institutions and mindset. There’s never been more money going to humanitarian crises but there’s never been a greater mismatch between need and the level of provision.”

According to Miliband, specific targets would help the existing institutions fulfill their goals more efficiently.

“In a way, it’s obvious, if you don’t agree what constitutes success, then the whole idea of results becomes a shimmer,” Miliband said. “In countries where needs most outpace resources, we need to agree on the most pressing changes that our shared activities are designed to achieve.”

Miliband said once goals are set, institutions should strategically allocate funds accordingly.

“If we want to sustain a system that is evolving and dynamic, we need to allocate risk capital for research and development. Crucially, funding needs to follow the evidence,” Miliband said. “Programs with high levels of impact need to grow while those without evidence need to shrink. That’s the standard we need to set for the sector.”

Miliband said humanitarian aid often fails to succeed because it does not coincide with foreign policy.

“One of the dangers for humanitarians is that we are locked outside the foreign policy box,” Miliband said. “I hear every day in my work stories of people being let down by the global community in responding to humanitarian crisis.”

According to Hellman, addressing how best to structure humanitarian efforts will become more important as problems worsen.

“There is an ever-increasing importance of the nexus between humanitarian and development issues,” Hellman said. “Because right now 15 percent of the world’s extreme poor live what we call fragile states and if we look at trends over the next 30 years, a conservative estimate of about 40 percent to a high estimate of about 70 percent.”

Zach Scherer (SFS ’18), who attended the event, said he appreciated Miliband’s approach to reforming humanitarian efforts.

“I thought he gave a really interesting perspective of not just calling for more aid. I think a lot of times that’s all humanitarian organizations do,” Scherer said. “I thought his practical approach to it was really compelling.”

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