Editor’s Note: David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, is a former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. View more opinion at CNN.
The rise of right-wing populism has many causes. The squeeze on wages, especially since the financial crisis. Discontent about migration. The sense that power and control over decisions had been lost.
There is also the decline in faith in the ability of government to answer these problems. This was important to the Brexit vote in the UK.
The sense of disconnect is exacerbated at the international level, when grand promises are not turned into real action. This is the danger with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a wonderful set of commitments to “leave no one behind,” covering areas from poverty to climate to economic development, agreed by all 193 UN member states in 2015 and under review at the UN General Assembly this week.
But as countries work to meet them, the world’s most vulnerable populations are indeed being left behind.
The SDGs are goals, not plans. Research published last year by the International Rescue Committee and the Overseas Development Institute found that four out of five fragile and conflict-affected states are off-track to meet the SDGs by 2030, as violence and instability have undermined economic development, health outcomes, gender equality, and climate change exacerbates resource stress. New research published this week by the International Rescue Committee finds an even bleaker picture for refugees and asylum-seekers, who are all but invisible in the SDGs.
This year, only 44 countries (42 when the IRC’s report was written) have submitted Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), which are optional self-assessments of national progress toward the goals. Fewer than one-third substantively address refugees. And not a single VNR includes socioeconomic data on refugees or other measurements of refugee progress towards the SDGs.
Far from leaving no one behind, the SDGs as currently implemented leave out some of the most vulnerable people in the world – the 29 million refugees and asylum seekers – and leave behind hundreds of millions of people trapped in countries like Chad, Yemen and Myanmar where conflict, corruption, climate stress, and economic inequality make the idea of ending extreme poverty a distant dream.
The General Assembly meeting needs a dose of reality, not more self-congratulation. That starts with bringing refugees out of the shadows and creating some accountability for their well-being. Better tracking data on refugees would allow governments and organizations to identify the unique needs of refugees and tailor health, education, and economic programs to this growing community, ensuring they are not left behind.
In addition, there needs to be course correction on three fronts. First, the SDGs will not be realized without a diplomatic surge in the world’s biggest conflict hotspots: Yemen, Syria and the Lake Chad basin of countries (Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Cameroon). In all three cases, international attention is episodic, action fragmented, and intervention ineffective.
For example, Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. More than 24 million people are in humanitarian need. The war strategy of the Saudi-led coalition has been a colossal failure. But the implementation of last January’s Stockholm peace accord is hindered by political punch-pulling.
Second, the crisis of fragile and conflict states is not just marked by failings of diplomacy and rising numbers of refugees. There is also the failure to combine humanitarian action (more immediate help, geared toward saving lives) with economic development efforts to reduce poverty. This will only change when there is real accountability for impact across the humanitarian/development divide, for donors and implementers (including NGOs) alike.
In countries like Jordan, Uganda, Bangladesh and Yemen – which are hosting large numbers of refugees or dealing with ongoing conflict – humanitarian and development actions affect the same people. Improving maternal health or tackling toxic stress among young children is both a short-term palliative and a long-term investment. But at the moment, the two systems do not work well together. They will only do so when there are shared targets for all organizations seeking to help – covering health, education, poverty, and safety among the most vulnerable communities.
Third, advancing the SDG agenda for refugees isn’t possible without the private sector, including in some of the tougher places. In nations impacted by crisis, business can leverage its resources and expertise to create economic opportunities for refugees as well as to support the local host community. Investing in vital infrastructure, financial services, and skills not only builds markets but promotes stability.
The determination of the World Bank to make itself a major player in countries bearing the greatest burden of humanitarian distress is a vital investment. It needs to be taken to impactful scale. The alternative is that local population will oppose help for those arriving from elsewhere, and political instability will result.
All of this takes leadership. That doesn’t just mean foreign aid. It also means wealthier countries doing the right thing at home. The truth is that the greatest burden is currently borne in the poorest countries. Turning that around would be a good starting point for the meetings this week.