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David Miliband: aid is failing to keep pace with humanitarian crises

The global humanitarian system is under “unprecedented strain” – with reactions to crises such as the threat of famine coming too late, according to David Miliband, head of the humanitarian relief group the International Rescue Committee.

Citing fresh figures showing that the 2017 humanitarian appeal for the crisis facing Somalia had achieved just 0.4% of the $863.5m (£690m) requested last month, the former UK foreign secretary said that rather than intervening early, the world was in grave danger of repeating the mistakes of the past when famine hits.

After being linked to a high-profile job at the United Nations overseeing its international development work, Miliband said: “I have not applied for a job at the UN and I am fully focused on my work at the International Rescue.”

However, he sketched out his vision for the reform of aid and development work, calling for greater interaction between the two, more “muscular diplomacy”, the UN playing a key role and the organisation’s military peacekeepers being deployed faster and with complete funding.

With drought conditions leaving many Somalis facing severe food and water shortages, the international appeal by the UN and aid groups for funds to reach 3.9 million people with urgent life-saving humanitarian assistance was launched on 17 January. About 320,000 children under the age of five are acutely malnourished and in need of urgent help.

Miliband was speaking as other figures from the humanitarian community warned that famine is looming in four different countries, threatening unprecedented levels of hunger.

Asked about the slow response of donors – not just to Somalia but to the appeals for Yemen, Nigeria and South Sudan – he said: “Overseas aid has not kept pace with the growing challenge of fragile states and displacement. The UK actually has a very proud record, but too many other governments have not been able to increase their funding and they fund on a very fragmented and reactive basis.

“One of the challenges of the international humanitarian system is to move on to a much more strategic, coordinated basis that would be a more proactive and pre-emptive basis of funding.”

As conflicts prevented aid getting to those in need in at least three of the four looming famine areas, and particularly in South Sudan where aid workers complain of being denied access, Miliband said there was a need for what he described as “muscular diplomacy”.

“Peacemaking and diplomacy are at an absolute premium. Obviously the military context is very important, the security framework is very important, but what I see in somewhere like South Sudan is a desperate need for an effective political and diplomatic process,” he added.

“You could also say – and obviously as humanitarians we have to be careful – when the UN security council vote to deploy peacekeeping missions they need to be fully supported and funded and that is an issue. And South Sudan actually is an example of where the African Union agreed to step in and so it’s slightly complicated. In the cases where international military effort is agreed through the UN then the deployment needs to happen quickly.”

On reports that the Trump administration is preparing to order sweeping cuts in funding to the UN and other global bodies, he said: “Obviously we have all read the draft executive order that went around, but it has not yet been issued and I hope that means there is serious inter-agency thought – involving the defence department and state department too – about the importance of the US contribution to the UN.”

Miliband, who backed the review being undertaken by the new UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, added: “Far from walking away from support for the UN, now is the time to build up support for multilateral institutions.

“Some parts of the UN work life-savingly well and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. In other ways the humanitarian aid system needs more than just more aid. It needs to be about better aid.”

The Guardian