The IRC President and CEO David Miliband in Goma. Credit: The IRC

David Miliband on the “Systems Failure” in the World’s Crisis Zones

David Miliband is the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. This is one of the larger global humanitarian organizations with relief operations around the world. It is also a major refugee resettlement agency in the United States.

David Miliband is a former member of Parliament in the United Kingdom and served as the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom prior to leading the International Rescue Committee.

At the end of 2021, David Miliband delivered a lecture at the Council on Foreign Relations identifying and defining what he called a “Systems Failure” in global crisis response, which is the topic of much of our conversation today.


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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What Global Emergency Are You, or the International Rescue Committee, Most Concerned About in 2022?


David Miliband [00:02:25] It’s not just one that comes off the top of my head. We’ve just published our emergency watch list for 2022, which looks at about 65 different quantitative and qualitative indicators of humanitarian crisis. And it lists the 20 countries where we expect there to be the greatest humanitarian need in 2022. Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Yemen are the top three in that list. They’re generated by conflict, by collapse of governance, and by enormous humanitarian need. In the Afghan case it is most dramatized by nine million people at the U.N. food insecurity level four—you’ll know that level five is famine so million kids are on the verge of famine in Afghanistan. And these are man-made, human-made emergencies that exemplify what I call the system failure—the global system at the moment in which you’ve kindly posted the speech of the lecture I gave at the Council on Foreign Relations to explain that.

What does the International Rescue Committee do in Afghanistan?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:03:36] Yeah, I would love to get into that. I want to drill down a bit on Afghanistan. Do you have operations on the ground right now in Afghanistan? And if so, what do they look like?

David Miliband [00:03:44] Yes, we do. We have over 1,700 Afghan staff working for us in nine provinces. We have 44 percent women amongst our staff. We are able to conduct our work in all nine provinces with the agreement of the authorities and we are being encouraged to expand our services, especially in the health field. We’ve traditionally not done health work in Afghanistan, but we’re now supporting over 100 mobile clinics because of the malnutrition crisis. We’re also doing cash distribution. We’re doing education for boys and girls. We’re doing child protection work as well and some economic livelihoods work although you’ll know that the economic situation is calamitous in Afghanistan. We can obviously say that the security situation is better than it’s been for a long time because the war is over. That’s not to make any comments about the outcome of the war, because we’re an independent agency that worked in areas that were previously controlled by the government and areas that were previously controlled by the Taliban, who now oversee the whole country. And so on the ground, we are able to do our work according to humanitarian principles, to meet humanitarian need but what we’re facing is a policy environment exemplified by the very limited international engagement with the country because of the government that is leading to disastrous effects for the people. And we have been very vocal in arguing that there needs to be an abrupt fundamental change in policy to avert real disaster.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:05:32] I wanted to know, has there been any material difference in your approach to Afghanistan since the Security Council’s decision in late December to remove some members of the Taliban from their sanctions list, ostensibly to help organizations like yours better be able to do your job? Has that made a difference at all yet?

David Miliband [00:05:53] We’re not seeing the difference on the ground. The change was to bring into the U.N. sanctions regime an exemption, a quite a broad exemption for humanitarian activities. And that’s a good thing. It’s an essential thing. Humanitarian activities shouldn’t be held hostage by politics. We haven’t yet seen big benefit of that on the ground. And of course, commercial activity, which is essential in any economy, remains sanctioned if it comes into contact with anyone associated with the regime. Obviously, that has an enormous chilling effect, not just on private sector entities within Afghanistan, but on banks in the international system who are worried about becoming tainted or affected by the sanctions regime. What people need to understand is that the economy is simply not functioning in Afghanistan. The banking system is not functioning; it doesn’t have liquidity. The assets of the country are frozen—some $10 billion of assets. The World Bank has released about $200 million of the $1.5 billion that it holds, but it hasn’t released the whole $1.5 billion. Salaries of public servants are not being paid—public servants, not just those technocrats running ministries, but also teachers, nurses, and doctors. So you have a situation which I described earlier in this interview as calamitous. That’s the only way to put it. And I’m afraid that while the exemptions from the sanction regime for humanitarian work are welcome, they don’t provide the full scale of an answer or even anything approaching the full scale of an answer that is essential. Humanitarians can do amazing work, but we can’t make up for the absence of an economy, an official economy, and that’s the situation at the moment.

Are women currently able to do humanitarian work in Afghanistan?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:51] Yeah, every moment over the last several months, I know Antonio Guterres has been warning of a liquidity crisis in the Afghan economy and the Afghan system in urging multilaterals and key international players to do what they can to to prevent the full-scale collapse of the Afghan economy. *So it was from this point on that the technical issues with Twitter spaces got a bit too onerous, so I began to direct message David Miliband my questions and the question I wrote to him here is whether or not his female staff on the ground in Afghanistan are able to work.*

David Miliband [00:08:33] You’ve asked whether our female staff are able to work. The answer is yes. We wouldn’t do our work if a government was telling us who to employ and how to employ them. But we have 44 percent female staff, including in senior management positions. 99 percent of our staff are Afghans. They are able to do their work and obviously they are very worried about the future of their country but that work with the IRC gives them meaning and a strong sense that they’re helping to hold together their nation. People often talk about nation building and what our staff in Afghanistan say to me is that they’re building the nation and the question is whether or not the outside world helps them or hinders them. And, obviously, 40 years of war have been a terrible hindrance, but now very direct policy is driving the country to disaster and it needs to change.

What does system failure look like in humanitarian crises?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:09:33] *So here I messaged him a question, what does he mean by system failure? This was the topic of a speech he gave to the Council on Foreign Relations at the end of the year, in which he identified what he called a system failure in the world’s crisis zones.*

David Miliband [00:09:51] Look, we looked at the results of our emergency watch list: 20 countries that have a total population of about 800 million. So 10 percent of the world’s population. In these countries 274 million people are in humanitarian need, so nearly a third of them. And this represents between 80 and 90 percent of those in humanitarian need in the world—it represents between 80 and 90 percent of the forcibly displaced in the world. It represents over 75 percent of the civilian casualties in conflict in the world. So these countries are the concentration of poverty and vulnerability. But what came through to us very clearly in examining the results from our watch list survey is that we aren’t just seeing more poor. We’re seeing something different. And that’s where the idea of system failure comes from. The system failure that we diagnose has four elements. The most fundamental element is that states are failing in their responsibilities to their own citizens in these 20 countries. There are sins of omission, but there are also sins of commission. There are actions that states are taking that are emmiserating parts of their own population: bombing their own civilians, denying aid to their own civilians. So there is state failure. Secondly, there’s diplomatic failure. The fact that there are 55 active conflicts around the world—eight of them severe conflicts defined by more than a thousand battlefield deaths—shows that peacemaking has gone into reverse. The third part of system failure is a legal failure. The international legal regime gives rights to civilians in conflict; it gives people rights to aid. Those rights are being abrogated, being denied. So the international legal regime exists on paper, but it doesn’t exist in reality. That’s what I call the age of impunity where crimes face no accountability or no punishment. And then the fourth failure is operational failure. The international humanitarian system can’t keep up; it can’t do its job. It’s being prevented from doing its job, not just by failure to devote resources—I mean, the amount of resources for humanitarian effort have doubled in the last decade but the needs […]. It’s not just a resource question is also an operational question about where humanitarians are able to reach and how they’re able to reach. And so the point we make is that this is also a political crisis. Every humanitarian emergency is a political emergency. It doesn’t politicize humanitarian work to point that out and to bear witness to the consequences of failed politics, because that’s what we see around the world.

How do we solve system failure?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:41] *So here I messaged him a question, what remedies exist to what he describes as a systems failure? What can be done?*

David Miliband [00:12:49] Look, I obviously don’t claim IRC or I have a monopoly of wisdom on this but I think the way to think about the remedy for system failure is in two buckets. One is a humanitarian bucket, and then the second is a geopolitical bucket. Let me say something about both of them. In the humanitarian bucket we need to update the humanitarian sector so that it functions according to humanitarian needs as it exists today in a world of fragmented and failed politics, in a world of non-state actors, in a world where poverty is concentrated in fragile and conflict states. Now about 25 percent of bilateral international aid and about one-sixth (so 12 percent or a bit more than that 15 percent maybe) of international aid in total goes to fragile and conflict states. We argue that since half of the world’s poor is in fragile and conflict states, half of the aid should go there. We argue further that the COVID crisis provides an opportunity to reboot the international aid effort. In fact, what COVID has done is expose not just the inequalities of the international system, but has exacerbated those inequalities so that vaccination rates as one example that less than one percent are vaccinated in the Democratic Republic of Congo and less than 10 percent across sub-Saharan Africa are vaccinated. We argue that there needs to be a recognition that two-thirds of the clients of humanitarian agencies are women, and we say that we can’t be a successful humanitarian agency unless we’re also a feminist organization that takes seriously structures of inequality that affect women different from men and that affect girls different from boys. So there are changes where the humanitarian sector has its own agency but then there are geopolitical changes that we can bear witness, to that we can speak about, that we can say should be on the agenda, but which in the end we don’t have the power to execute. Let me give you some examples. The French government proposed that in cases of mass atrocity, the veto should be abandoned in the U.N. Security Council. I never used the veto in the U.N. Security Council as foreign secretary of the UK between 2007 and 2010. In fact, the UK has not used this veto since 1989. The threat of the veto in cases of mass atrocities strangles diplomacy, and so we say that there should be support for the French proposal to spur the diplomacy that’s necessary in cases of mass atrocity. We say that the politics needs to be taken out of the reporting on the denial of aid. So we argue that just as there is an organization for the prohibition of chemical weapons, there should be an organization for the protection of humanitarian access that independently is able to speak truth to power when governments or non-state actors deny aid to those who need it. We argue that those guilty of war crimes need to be subject to the law. And we point out, or I point out in the lecture, that the principle of universal jurisdiction was used by the German government to prosecute those accused of war crimes in the Syrian case. There are a range of geopolitical changes out with the humanitarian sector that I think need to be on the agenda if we are to truly recognize that stopping the dying is only one of the tasks. We also have to stop the killing. And that takes politics, not just humanitarian effort.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:36] All right big thank you to David Miliband for participating in this live recording and bearing with the technical issues that we faced. As always, if you have recommendations of people I should interview or topics I should cover, I’d love to hear from you. You can hit me up on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg or just send me an e-mail using the contact button on globaldispatches I will see you next time. Thanks, bye!