To prevent millions fleeing conflict, we must give peace its chance

Kerry: Russia needs to stop Assad from bombing people
Kerry: Russia needs to stop Assad from bombing people


    Kerry: Russia needs to stop Assad from bombing people


Kerry: Russia needs to stop Assad from bombing people 02:23

Story highlights

  • Violent conflict is the root cause of the refugee crisis, says Neal Keny-Guyer
  • World leaders are not doing enough to promote peace and end conflict

Neal Keny-Guyer is the Chief Executive Officer of Mercy Corps. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)This week world leaders are gathering during the United Nations General Assembly to tackle one of our gravest global challenges: a refugee crisis at a scale unprecedented for generations.

Both the UN Secretary General and President Obama have convened high-level summits to explore solutions. That focus is commendable -- but not enough. Both risk grappling with the symptoms of this crisis and missing out on what's heating it to fever pitch.
    Let's start by seeing the problem clearly. There is one big reason why over 65 million people felt they had to flee for their lives last year: conflict. Violent conflict not only fuels the refugee crisis; the World Bank now says it's the main cause of extreme poverty globally. Countries are caught in the conflict trap -- where inequity, injustice and exclusion spark violence, violence fuels more violence, devastation spreads, poverty deepens, and the poison of violent extremism takes hold.
    If we can't get serious about tackling the root causes of global conflict, then we will forever be struggling to cope with its tragic consequences. We'll all lose in a race to the bottom.
    You might say: "We can't end these wars -- that's the responsibility of those fighting; that's a job for international diplomacy. I look at Syria, or Afghanistan, or South Sudan, and I don't see much hope." We get it; my organization, Mercy Corps, works in all of the hot zones you can think of. Time and again, we feel the same frustration as peace efforts stumble or fail. But, even in the face of some of humanity's toughest challenges, there is always possibility. That's not Pollyanna do-gooding: we're powered by that belief because we've seen it work out on the ground.
    In Iraq, even at a time of great strife, we've worked with our national partner the Center for Negotiation Skills and Conflict Management to resolve disputes non-violently -- benefiting over 5 million people so far. The Center, which Mercy Corps established, has brokered deals that ensured the safe return of Sunnis to their community after Shi'a militia expelled them at the height of sectarian conflict in 2006; in the current crisis, it has led efforts to persuade provinces wary of terrorist infiltration to shelter Sunnis and Yezidis fleeing the Islamic State.
    Amidst the savage civil war in the Central African Republic, we worked with community leaders and youth on both sides to build peacebuilding skills and foster connections in the country's two biggest cities. The result: over 200 militia fighters disarmed, communities forged mutual pacts for peace and reconciliation, and, when violence again reared its head, they were able to defuse it quickly and prevent more bloodshed.
    In Guatemala, where civil conflict and endemic violence killed or displaced hundreds of thousands, we've worked with mediators, civic groups and municipalities to address disputes over land -- a main driver of violence, conflict and flight. Together we've resolved over 700 land conflicts, benefited 34,000 families, and visibly reduced violence and displacement in those communities.
    Call it peacebuilding, conflict mitigation, or plain good governance: it works. Yet, our analysis of funding for official humanitarian and development aid shows that, overall, there is a disproportionately low amount of money that goes to conflict prevention and resolution work. This is despite increasing recognition of its importance by key global actors.
    So we have a modest proposal for President Obama and others wrestling with what to do to stem the refugee crisis: double the global budget for peacebuilding and conflict mitigation in crisis response. Use your credibility to make sure that it is included in humanitarian response from the get-go -- because it's an essential, just like water, food and shelter. Leverage the private sector and development actors to invest in ways to reduce violence and increase stability. It can make a difference even in the hardest circumstances. By tackling the root causes of conflict, we weaken what pushes people from their homes, we increase their resilience, and we foster better conditions for return once wars burn out.
    Peacebuilding and conflict mitigation delivers results. It's value for money -- cents on the dollar compared to U.S. military assistance or UN peacekeeping. We have the knowledge and capacity to ramp this up straight away. What's stopping us?