Humanity stands at the edge of a critical decade.
At the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2019, only 10 more years will remain to meet two enormous global targets: the Sustainable Development Goals and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommendations to keep average global temperature change below 1.5 C.
According to experts gathered last week at the 9th annual United Nations Global Humanitarian Policy Forum in New York, convened by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN Foundation, hosted at the Ford Foundation headquarters, the two are braided together as one. Without rapid and massive changes in energy systems, with corresponding efforts to mitigate crises and adapt societies to the effects of climate change, poverty may grow, instability may increase, and the Sustainable Development Goals may appear out of reach.
This will be true for everyone to some degree, but especially so for the poorest, who contributed least to the predicaments facing human civilization.
Global Norms are Breaking; That’s Both Good and Bad
At this moment of decisive planetary-scale change, one of the crucial networks tasked with meeting these challenges, the “humanitarian system,” is facing its own moment of crisis.
The “humanitarian system” refers to a complex set of international relationships between government foreign assistance, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, foundation funders, and, to an increasing degree, private corporate funders, aimed at improving well-being and reducing suffering experienced by communities experiencing conflict, displacement, disaster, disease or some combination.
According to representatives from UN-OCHA, if we measure the health of this system based on the success of UN appeals for crisis response, things have arguably never been more promising. The world has never been more generous with its support. Total humanitarian funding is up over 2 billion dollars in the past year alone.
While humanitarian budgets may be rising, the scale of crises is also rising, in some cases much faster. Extreme weather events are intensifying in frequency and ferocity. Displacement is affecting tens of millions. New technologies like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and quantum computing are emerging in ways that make their effects felt faster than most people have a chance to understand. The pace of change is accelerating to a disorienting degree.
At the same time, the core set of principles which structures and animates the global humanitarian system appears under threat from what several speakers referred to as the rising tide of “norm breakers.” By this, they meant a new wave of nationalists and populists rising to power in countries throughout the world, many of them claiming to prioritize parochial interests over global collaboration. These “norm breakers,” some claimed, may have already undermined systems like international peacekeeping and conflict mediation, not to mention the Paris climate accords, by refusing to share commitments to the core principles expressed in foundational humanitarian documents like the Geneva Conventions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But “norm breaking,” several participants pointed out, cuts more than one way. The humanitarian system contains norms that are well worth breaking. Some norms may even be essential to break if the world is to meet the twin targets of the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change mitigation.
Take humanitarian budgets, for instance. While increasing financial support for humanitarian action is, in many ways, a good thing, those same budget dollars are still too often locked up in large scale organizations and incentives which prioritize the authority of headquarters in the global North over communities and decision-makers in the global South. Meanwhile the consensus of the World Humanitarian Summit in 2016, at this point largely unfulfilled, was that localization of humanitarian assistance is vital to assure that resources are spent effectively and with accountability by and for the communities most in need.
Achieving true localization of the humanitarian system will require more “norm breaking,” not less, even while some norms such as those expressed by the Universal Declaration have become more relevant to defend than ever.
The Key Problem is Global Inequality
When pressed to name the single issue that will most affect the future of humanitarian action over the next decade the participants responded in no uncertain terms: Inequality. What did this mean? Many different things.
Clear evidence now exists that even as many countries are becoming wealthier, they are also becoming more economically unequal. Among the consequences of this change is that a lower share of GDP may be available to improve conditions for those who are most vulnerable and may be squeezed the most by societal changes, in turn increasing the pressure on international systems to fund development and fill gaps during crises.
New dimensions of inequality have begun to impact the capacity of communities to respond and adapt to crisis. For example, harsh recent laws passed against the rights of sexual minorities in East Africa, some participants claimed, has undermined health programs, including HIV-AIDS spending, while increasing pockets of deprivation which are increasing social vulnerabilities throughout some of the world’s poorest regions.
Recent protests, from Hong Kong to Iran to Chile, were cited as a clear sign that inequality within nations, in some cases exacerbated by lack of accountable governance and the effects of climate change such as long-term drought, is driving a new round of global instability which may increase demands on the humanitarian system, without increasing resources.
Technological change may likewise be among the culprits in rising inequalities, although the outcomes of rapid technological changes are very much up for debate. While some participants foregrounded exciting new bottom-up innovation efforts happening among young people in Africa, for example, others sounded the alarm about the ways “big data” and artificial intelligence may be increasing digital divides and concentrating power and knowledge in systems and institutions rooted in the global North. Without strong and clear attention to global inequalities, organizations may find it increasingly challenging to unlock powerful new technological capacities to assist the health and well-being of the poorest.
No Magic Solutions
Issues of technological change, for better or worse, usually both at once, were threaded throughout the day’s discussions.
A discussion of 3D printing for hyper-localization of supply chains and highly adaptive health logistics also raised important issues of the responsibility of regulatory authorities to ensure safety of medical products produced in and for humanitarian settings.
A discussion of artificial intelligence as a means of automating complex modeling which may be essential to understand complex intersections between social change and climate change turned towards serious concerns with unaccountable algorithms and black-box systems.
A discussion of the remarkable power of social media as a force which enables communities to organize and express their needs and discontents with authorities turned towards disquiet over privacy rights, disinformation and the accumulation of striking new forms of power in large scale data corporations.
The theme running through all these debates was that although technological change will indisputably be a core part of any effort to solve the twin challenges of the SDGs and global climate change, there will simply not be any magical solutions which emerge from new technologies. All new developments also have significant concerns. For any new technology to affect genuine social improvement for those at the lowest ends of society it must be embedded within strong ethical frameworks and effectively localized applications.
The idea that no magic solution exists to the massive problems confronting humanity over the next ten years could be interpreted practically as a sign of despair, in the sense that no one, and no thing, is coming to the rescue.
On the other hand, the time is at hand when we may finally realize the solutions to global problems are not beyond us – they are up to us. The tools have been built to prevail in these challenges if people can behave equitably and ethically, learn from history, break the norms that need breaking, preserve the values which need preserving, and develop societies locally, with accountability and responsibility.
No magic solutions exist perhaps, but real solutions may be found, nonetheless.