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IRC President On The Humanitarian Crises To Watch In 2021

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

* Of course, the global coronavirus pandemic has tested the world this year. But war, hunger and climate change have persisted and even grown worse at the same time. The International Rescue Committee publishes its Emergency Watchlist each year to try to alert the world to urgent humanitarian crises. David Miliband is the IRC's president and, of course, former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom. David, thank you so much for being with us.

DAVID MILIBAND: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: Where would you urge the world to look and to help in the year ahead?

MILIBAND: Well, our watchlist has looked at 85 different indicators of humanitarian need. And we've identified 20 countries that represent only 10% of the world's population but 85% of the humanitarian need in the world. The U.N. says that about 235 million people depend on humanitarian aid to survive. And these countries represent about 200 million of those people, led by Yemen, Afghanistan. And as you say, it's driven by this triple threat of conflict, the biggest driver of poverty and extreme poverty around the world, climate stress, but also COVID.

SIMON: And the report shows that women in particular are highly affected by these crises. Help us understand.

MILIBAND: Yeah, 70% of the women who are - of the population in humanitarian need are women and girls. There are multiple inequalities they face before disaster strikes. But all of the evidence that we have from our years of experience, as well as our impact evaluation studies, shows that those inequalities are magnified in emergency situations - not just that women and girls go hungrier, but there's more violence against women and girls and more early marriage in emergency situations.

And I think we face a real challenge here because on the one hand, 200 million people sounds like an absolute mountain to climb. On the other hand, when you say, look; there are 20 countries that constitute over 80% of this need and they need a different kind of politics, some of it internal but also external diplomacy - they need economic help because although there has been a rallying (unintelligible) to need on a national level in rich countries, the international donor community has not stepped up for the poorest countries in the world. And they need a different policy offer because in areas like malnutrition, the current systems aren't working and need to be changed.

SIMON: David, what do you say - in your time in politics, I think, you're used to confronting this argument, but it sharpened this year. What do you say to those people, particularly in democracies, who say, look; I think that's terrible, but look at the problems we have in our own country right now, and we are spending trillions to try and look after our own citizens?

MILIBAND: First of all, you say it's a good point. You recognize the point. Then you say charity should begin at home. But it shouldn't end at home. And that's the critical argument that we're making. For a fraction of the investment that's being made on the domestic front in countries like the U.S. or European countries, richer countries - for a fraction of that investment, there is enormous suffering that can be avoided around the world.

But there's also a strategic case. What we know about humanitarian need around the world today is that if it's left untended, it produces political instability, but it's also contagious. It affects neighboring countries. The crisis in Venezuela is not only affecting Venezuela. It's affecting Colombia. It's affecting the rest of Latin America. The crisis in Syria is not just affecting Syria. It's affecting Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, but also Europe. We're a connected world. I mean, we should emphasize that in the year of COVID that has been demonstrated. And so my plea to people would be to say, yes, focus on the problems that exist in America, but don't confine yourself to that because unless you think globally as well as locally, we're not going to address the problems that confront us today.

SIMON: Yeah. When I read your report - and we've just got a few seconds left - I couldn't help but notice when you mention Afghanistan, Syria, the DRC, the world often just looks away from those places.

MILIBAND: It does. And the purpose of our watchlist is partly for internal management at the International Rescue Committee so that we're - our 13,000 employees around the world are focused on the right things. But it's also a call and a warning to the international community. The neglect of diplomacy, the disengagement from diplomacy, the rise of impunity and war zones around the world, the killing of civilians and aid workers in conflict is a scar on the world, and it needs to be addressed. That's what we're saying needs to happen to make 2021 better than 2020.

SIMON: David Miliband is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. Thank you so much for being with us.

MILIBAND: Thank you so much, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FORBEE AND KYLE MCEVOY'S "SUNRISE ON SOUTHEY STREET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.