05/10/2016 10:01 EDT | Updated 05/11/2017 05:12 EDT

Political Leadership Is Necessary To Prevent And End Global Conflicts

Ammar Abdullah / Reuters
Residents inspect a site damaged by an airstrike in Hafsarja, in the insurgent stronghold of Idlib province, Syria May 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Ben Ofori

This post is the first of a seven-part series on the themes of the High-Level Leaders' Roundtables at the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, to be held May 23-24 in Istanbul, Turkey.

Going into the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul, there are good reasons why conflict and violence remain high on the agenda, but these reasons are not new. Conflicts and violence exact a brutal toll on people and affected communities as tragic civilian deaths, injuries, rape and torture become a daily experience. Vital infrastructures like schools, health and water systems are destroyed, and children no longer in school become vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.

Agriculture and food production ceases, food stocks are depleted and acute hunger and malnutrition take their toll. People flee their homes into neighbouring towns or countries and some brave treacherous seas in search of refuge as seen in the graphic imageries of Syrians fleeing to Europe. The list goes on. Essentially, as the UN Secretary General notes in his report for the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), "countries coming out of prolonged civil war are never the same, their social and political fabric [are] changed forever."

Changing complexity of today's conflicts

Today's violent conflicts are notable for their number and complexity. There were 11 major civil conflicts in 2014, up from four in 2007-2011. The sheer numbers of actors and their divergent interests further prolong and make it difficult to resolve conflicts. Cities and urban areas have become major theaters of war and transnational criminal and extremist groups thrive in conflict and fragile states, prolonging violence and frustrating state-building efforts. In effect, the prospects of negotiating peace have become more difficult.

Meanwhile, conflicts exact a heavy burden on the humanitarian response capacity and resources of the international community. Nearly two-thirds of UN peacekeepers and about 90 per cent of UN personnel on special political missions are assigned to countries with high-intensity conflicts. More than 80 per cent of humanitarian funds requested by the UN goes to address problems in conflict areas. These funds could have otherwise been applied to build capacity and strengthen institutions, educate children, enhance the livelihoods and incomes of women and families, improve health care and support smallholder agriculture in poorer countries, etc.

Conflict-related costs of response

Speaking of funds, today's conflicts along with natural disasters and changing climate renders insufficient what is otherwise an unprecedented level of humanitarian generosity. In 2014, the UN humanitarian agency raised US$ 24.5 billion for humanitarian action, up from US$ 2 billion in 2000. Regardless, the UN recorded its largest ever shortfall as only 62 per cent of needs identified were being addressed.

In 2015, for example, 1.6 million Syrian refugees had their food rations cut and 750,000 of their children could not attend school. UN-run health care services shut down in several areas of Iraq leaving millions of internally displaced people without medical attention. Experts warn of potential further cuts ahead.

The cost implications of conflict-induced emergencies cannot be emphasized enough. Some estimates put the economic and financial costs at $14 trillion or 13.4 per cent of the global economy in 2014. If the current trends continue, some experts warn, the cost of humanitarian assistance will rise to about $50 billion and 62 per cent of the world's poor would be living in fragile and conflict-affected countries. This is why violent conflicts should be high on the agenda of the WHS in May.

Canada can lead by promoting human rights for all people (including women and minorities) and investing in good governance and institutional capacity building.

The elephant in the room

While humanitarian response and peacekeeping may ameliorate suffering and stabilize the situation in the near term, they cannot of themselves address the root causes of human suffering associated with conflicts. This could well be the elephant in the room at the WHS Roundtables in May. Experts agree that the way to prevent conflicts is to address their root causes using political solutions. Unfortunately, it seems easier to deliver humanitarian assistance than to invest in political solutions. Without the needed political and diplomatic efforts, humanitarians are left to shoulder a burden that properly belongs elsewhere.

Canada can seize on this opportunity on the global stage to provide leadership at the WHS Roundtable on conflict prevention. Canada can leverage its leadership in humanitarian response, peacekeeping and refugee resettlement to rally a coalition of donor countries around the cause of investing in conflict prevention. This includes taking decisive political leadership at the highest level and long-term investment in peaceful and inclusive societies. It demands building support for policies that uphold the humanity of others, invests in early risks monitoring and analysis, and encourages prompt early action when warning signs appear.

Canada can lead by promoting human rights for all people (including women and minorities) and investing in good governance and institutional capacity building. The preamble of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) captures the global collective resolve to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies free from fear and violence (also expressed in Goal 16). If the SDGs are to be realized at all, we must take investments in peace and conflict prevention more seriously.

Ben Ofori is Senior Policy Advisor at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

This blog series on the World Humanitarian Summit was convened by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. The views expressed in each blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CCIC, its members, or other participating organizations.

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