On May 10th, DCFR had the privilege of hearing remarks by John Keys, head of international programs of the International Rescue Committee. The IRC is one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in the U.S., working in over 40 countries. Keys says that two current trouble spots for the IRC are Somalia and Syria because of a lack of access; they are dangerous from both a security angle and logistically. “There is a term called ‘diminishing humanitarian space’ that refers to our group being unable to operate either physically or in an intangible way because of perceptions,” explains Keys. In Somalia, he says that when refugees make it to their camp, they can help them, but there are scores that they cannot reach. In other countries, the perception that a Western NGO reflects U.S. foreign policy positions also hampers the NGOs available space to maneuver. He cites Afghanistan where this is an obstacle.
The obvious thought of whether we are doing enough in humanitarian assistance can be easily asked. But the real answer involves more nuance. “Of course we could do more, ” says Keys. “It’s not a question of money. What happens when you cannot reach the refugees or the internally displaced persons? We received a grant to help in Syria but we lack the access.” Keys attributes some of this challenge to the American mentality of identifying a problem and resolving to fixing it in a certain amount of time. “We do a lot of good and make breakthroughs, but when this type of formula is applied indiscriminately everywhere, then we have problems. American policymakers and others could benefit from being more realistic about our role and what missions we can accomplish. We need to find a balance, considering possibly longer term, more sustained engagement over an ‘all-or-nothing’ or time-bounded approach.”
The challenge of dealing with refugee crises and humanitarian assistance stems from deeper issues within a country. Keys reflects, “When a humanitarian crisis arises in a country that is politically stable, like the U.S and the Katrina crisis or Japan and its tsunami, there is a reasonable expectation that the overall system of governance will return stability once the shorter term crisis is resolved. Katrina is a better situation to have survived than the situation in Port au Prince, Haiti. If you have a functioning society, it increases your chance of dealing with the short-term needs with a return to normalcy.” When natural disaster, governance troubles, and political conflict are in the mix, this work gets really hard. “Don’t just be interested in humanitarian issues because of refugees or the like,” suggests Keys. “Realize there is something about that society that needs addressing of a political nature or societal friction. Why are the refugees there in the first place? You cannot sort out the refugee situation without sorting out other issues over the long term.” Most refugees simply want to go home, Keys emphatically expressed. Roughly 5% of the Iraqi population, or 1.5 million people, are still displaced. The U.S. has resettled about 60,000 Iraqis since 2003.
An increase of natural disasters—drought in Africa and tsunamis in Indonesia, India, and Japan—coupled with areas of political conflict, require the skill sets of organizations such as the IRC. Drought in East Africa proves challenging, with 13 million people’s lives placed in hardship. In Mali, 20% of the population is affected by drought and political conflict, with severe food and water supply shortages. Population growth and urbanization trends also amplify the toll of crisis, says Keys.
Demographic trends in a refugee context highlight the disproportionate share of hardship directed toward women and children. In addition to addressing physical violence directed at women in crisis areas and conflict zones, the IRC has added to their mandate, now including broader women’s empowerment issues. Next week they will launch a special report about domestic violence produced from field work in West Africa at Council on Foreign Relations.