Tony Blinken
Secretary of State outlines President Biden's foreign policy
03:17 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: David Miliband (@Dmiliband), a former UK Foreign Secretary, is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid organization. Nazanin Ash (@NazaninSAsh) is the Vice President of Global Policy and Advocacy at the International Rescue Committee and formerly served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs during the Obama administration. The opinions expressed here are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

In his first days in office, President Joe Biden has prioritized immediate actions in America and for Americans. This is what he promised. But he has also committed to reestablishing international US leadership, with “humility and confidence” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, and started with executive orders on issues like refugees and the pandemic.

These measures lay the foundation for urgent action needed now more than ever in the world’s proliferating humanitarian crises, mired in the triple threat of untended conflict, unmitigated climate change and the scourge of Covid-19.

David Miliband

As IRC’s 2021 Watchlist reveals, this toxic mix is driving unprecedented humanitarian need and reversing decades of hard-won progress worldwide. As our report notes, the 20 countries in crisis on the list represent just 10% of the global population, but account for 85% of those in humanitarian need. They are also the countries driving the global displacement crisis, accounting for 84% of all refugees in 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased global humanitarian needs by 40% over the last year alone – increasing the pressure on already fragile societies.

Nazanin Ash

Against this backdrop, the world has been in retreat. Humanitarian aid levels declined in 2019 for the first time in a decade. According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, developing nations are struggling to host 85% of the world’s refugees, while wealthy nations like the US and European Union member states almost halved the number of refugee resettlement slots available to the most vulnerable.

And while wealthy nations have allocated over $11 trillion for domestic Covid-19 responses, the UNs’ Global Covid Humanitarian Response Plan – meant to coordinate and rally support for crisis – and conflict-affected countries – is currently less than 40% funded.

Covid-19 has shown that we live in a connected world. Analysis by the International Chamber of Commerce found that the global economy could lose as much as $9.2 trillion if vaccines are not equitably distributed to low-income countries, with wealthy nations bearing half that loss. Unmanaged instability, insecurity, migration and climate change have similar consequences for US interests.

Urgent and expansive humanitarian action from the new administration is therefore a necessity and not a luxury. America’s absence during the previous administration created a spiral of disengagement that has left the world leaderless at this crucial time. And while the US cannot resolve these challenges alone, US leadership can encourage others to share the burden.

Covid-19 takes priority because it has brought the world to its knees.

Of the nearly $4 trillion has allocated to combat the pandemic, just less than 0.2% has been allocated to support the international Covid-19 response, including $4 billion for the global vaccine effort. The ICC study indicates that the $27.2 billion needed to close the gap on global vaccine distribution could deliver a return “as high as 166 times the investment.”

So, too, will there be returns on addressing deepening malnutrition, poverty, health and education losses due to the pandemic. President Biden’s proposal of an extra $11 billion is a start, but it will take more.

The US can galvanize global partners by allocating $20 billion to the global response, in its new Covid-19 action package, and calling on wealthy nations to do their fair share.

The second order of business is restoring stability to the world’s worst crisis zones before they get worse. Humanitarian appeals for IRC’s Watchlist countries have been organized for an average of 11 consecutive years. Sustained improvement in these destabilizing displacement crises will deliver humanitarian and strategic benefit – but it will take aid, diplomacy, sustained engagement and coordination with donors, UN agencies and international financial institutions.

Dedicating 50% of humanitarian and development assistance to crisis-affected countries would reorder US priorities and tools to help stabilize these protracted crises. And it would deliver cost savings: The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates that for every $1 the US spends on conflict prevention, it saves $16 in response costs.

Women and girls bear the greatest brunt of humanitarian crises and are critical to resolving them and rebuilding their communities. With women representing 70% of the global care workforce and producing as much as 70% of the food in some low-income nations, there is a double dividend in prioritizing them.

Instead, IRC’s analysis indicates that less than 1% of global humanitarian funding is allocated to prevention and response to gender-based violence. A threefold increase in funding to prevent and respond to gender violence in humanitarian settings sends a strong signal that the Biden administration will lead the world in empowering women and ending violence against them.

Nowhere has the global retreat from humanitarian obligations been more visible than in the treatment of refugees. The Trump administration led a global race to the bottom, with 2020 the year with the fewest refugees resettled globally in two decades, and many refugees under increasing pressure from their hosts. The US can drive a new and different bargain with major refugee-hosting nations, with incentives to allow refugees rights to work such that refugees can move from aid dependency to self-reliance.

The US cannot lead without getting its own house in order – keeping President Biden’s commitment to resettle 125,000 refugees in his first year; building a humane, credible, efficient US asylum system that protects those in need of safety; reinvigorating humanitarian diplomacy, engagement with the UN and the multilateral financing institutions to leverage US resettlement and aid into global action. 2021 celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Refugee Convention.

The EU is negotiating a migration pact that will chart its course on resettlement and asylum. And the US is hosting the Summit of the Americas. Each of these are opportunities to drive greater global cooperation on refugees.

When war crimes go unpunished and the laws of war become optional, we all lose. Yet today we are living through a growing Age of Impunity. Perpetrators of violence and their autocratic enablers have defined a new and dangerous road map for civil conflicts, with indiscriminate and often purposeful attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, food and medicine withheld as weapons of war, and access to populations in need blocked. These are factors that sustain conflict and drive displacement, with their attendant consequences for lives, livelihoods and regional stability.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s new newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    If the US does not pledge to fight this, then no one else can. Again, action begins at home: Biden’s ending of American support for offensive operations in Yemen and suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia is a start to ensuring US security partners prioritize efforts to protect civilians in conflict and access to populations in need.

    With the US presidency of the UN Security Council in March, the Biden administration can lead the world in reinvigorating the laws of war and rally other democratic nations to hold violators accountable.

    It is tempting to say that America has more than enough on its plate on the home front. But there is no escape from pressing international events. Neglect them, and we magnify the problems on the home front. Almost 60 years ago, President John F. Kennedy outlined the need for a “Declaration of Interdependence” and urged Americans to “think intercontinentally.” It is way past the time to heed his call.