Do One Better Podcast Logo 200.jpeg

Guest Profile

David Miliband

President & CEO

International Rescue Committee

IRClogo_RGB_sml.jpg

About David Miliband

David Miliband is the President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. He oversees the agency’s relief and development operations in over 30 countries, its refugee resettlement and assistance programs throughout the United States and the IRC’s advocacy efforts in Washington and other capitals on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people. 

 

David has had a distinguished political career in the United Kingdom. From 2007 to 2010, he served as the youngest Foreign Secretary in three decades, driving advancements in human rights and representing the United Kingdom throughout the world. His accomplishments have earned him a reputation, in former President Bill Clinton's words, as "one of the ablest, most creative public servants of our time.” In 2016 David was named one of the World’s Greatest Leaders by Fortune Magazine and in 2018 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

 

David is also the author of the book, Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time. As the son of refugees, David brings a personal commitment to the IRC's work and to the premise of the book: that we can rescue the dignity and hopes of refugees and displaced people. And if we help them, in the process we will rescue our own values.

Episode Overview

David Miliband, President & CEO of the International Rescue Committee and former UK Foreign Secretary, joins Alberto Lidji to discuss the plight of refugees and displaced persons globally.

 

David served as the youngest UK Foreign Secretary in three decades, driving advancements in human rights and representing the UK throughout the world. His accomplishments have earned him a reputation, in former President Bill Clinton's words, as "one of the ablest, most creative public servants of our time.” I

 

David talks candidly about the invaluable work of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the plight of refugees and displaced persons, and sheds light on the differences between being the foreign minister of a permanent member of the UN Security Council and leading one of the worlds most impactful NGOs.

 

The IRC was founded by Albert Einstein, who was in Princeton, in the USA, when Hitler came to power. And he founded the International Rescue Committee, the Emergency Rescue Committee at the time, in the 1930s, and he founded the organisation out of a burning sense that while he was safe, so many others were not safe from the Nazis. 

 

The IRC is an organisation whose purpose is to help people whose lives are shattered by conflict, persecution and disaster. They work in 40 countries, in what David calls the ‘arc of crisis’, from the war zone in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, through to the internally displaced, the homeless in their own country, who have had to flee to the houses of cousins or strangers in refugee hosting states.  The IRC is an $825 million a year organisation, with 13,000 employees.

 

David sheds light on his journey, from UK politics to the NGO world; he delves into the differences between the two and the benefit of having experienced both.  He describes the IRC as an organisation that is about solutions rather than suffering.

Episode Transcript

This is a transcript of the conversation between Alberto Lidji, host of The Do One Better! Podcast, and David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

Alberto Lidji  

David, a big heartfelt welcome onto The Do One Better! Podcast. 

 

David Miliband  

Thank you, Alberto. 

 

Alberto Lidji

It's wonderful to have you on the show. I'm here in London, you're there in New York. Let's find out by hearing a little bit about the IRC, the International Rescue Committee. What's it all about? 

David Miliband

So the International Rescue Committee has an extraordinary heritage, you can't ask for better than to be founded by Albert Einstein. But the International Rescue Committee was founded by Albert Einstein, one of the world's most famous refugees. He was in America, in Princeton when Hitler came to power. And he founded the International Rescue Committee, the Emergency Rescue Committee at the time, in the 1930s, and he founded the organisation out of a burning sense that while he was safe, so many others were not safe from the Nazis. Our first employee was an incredible man called Varian Fry, who was a New York Times journalist who situated himself in Marseille, in occupied France, Nazi occupied France in 1940/41. And he showed the courage, commitment, ingenuity that we like to pride ourselves on, he issued 2,000, fake passports, to Jews, to intellectuals, to those who were persecuted by the Nazis, people who then escaped, Marc Chagall was saved by Varian Fry. So we feel we're standing on some extraordinary shoulders, the organisation went through a period in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, it was helping those persecuted, including under communism. But in the last 30 years, it's become a large international humanitarian aid organisation with a particular angle to it; an angle that attracted me to come and become the CEO seven years ago, and we can talk about that. Here's the angle: We're not a general anti poverty organisation, we're not trying to boil that ocean. We're an organisation whose purpose is to help people whose lives are shattered by conflict, persecution and disaster. We work in 40 countries, not 140 countries, we work in what we call the ‘arc of crisis’, from the war zone in Syria, or Yemen, or Afghanistan, through to the internally displaced the homeless in their own country who have had to flee to the houses of cousins or, or strangers in refugee hosting states. And you know, probably that most refugees are in poor countries, not in rich countries, they're in Bangladesh, or Ethiopia, or in Jordan, not in not in the United States or in Europe. And then we complete the journey for those who are displaced, we run programmes to help integrate Americans, new Americans, into 25 cities across the United States, we’re the largest refugee resettlement agency in America, also the number one rated for quality, which is very important to me. And we also do similar work in Germany, interestingly enough. One of the things that I said to the board of the International Rescue Committee, when applied for the job seven years ago, was that our origins are in the trauma of Nazism. And it's right that we should not just be raising money from the German government and the German taxpayer, which we are doing now, and German philanthropists. But we should also be working in Germany, because they have an interest in the refugee resettlement of the Syrians who came after 2015. So I'm very proud that we're working in 1,000 German schools, helping integrate Syrians into German schools, and also in the labour market to make for success because we believe that we should see refugees and displaced people, not just as a quote unquote, burden, but as people with potential to become patriotic and productive citizens. So that's the probably more than 32 seconds’ elevator pitch — just remember the Albert Einstein bit.

 

Alberto Lidji

Yeah, that's, that's a key one. And what's your organisation look like then, how many people are working there, where are you operating? 

 

David Miliband

So we've more or less doubled in size in the last five or six years partly because of increasing needs, and partly because we've got better and the money is followed us. I mean, we're now in $825 million a year organisation. We have 13,000 employees, and 17,000 auxiliary days staff in 200 field sites in the 40 countries that I mentioned. We are 75% government funded and 25% privately funded and that private support has doubled in the last five years as a percentage of our total take. And we're an organisation that works to clear outcomes. We ensure that every single one of our programmes fulfils one of the outcomes that we're pursuing: survival, health,  education, income and increased power for the beneficiary. And so, the shorthand is that we are tackling short term emergency but also long term problems and that's why we are proud to not just be a social service organisation keeping people alive until they go home. Because the truth is they don't go home, less than 3% of the world's refugees went home last year. And that's why we have to be concerned with livelihoods, with economic opportunity, but also with education, because we're talking about multi generational displacement. And just for the benefit of your listeners, benefit of you and your listeners, the size of the problem is often perceived to be daunting for people. But let me just give you two riffs about the way to understand the size of the problem and the scope of the problem that we're dealing with. 80 million people are forcibly displaced from their homes, about 45 million of them are internally displaced. So they're still in Syria, or they're still in South Sudan. 35 million are refugees and asylum seekers, in other words, they've crossed into another country, a neighbouring country or a third country, beyond. And for the first time, since records began, after the Second World War, more than 1% of the world's population are now forcibly displaced. So have that in mind. Second thing is that we've just published our Emergency Watchlist for 2021 — your listeners can find it on the International Rescue committees’ website Rescue.org. And that points out that 20 countries where we fear humanitarian crisis is gonna get worse this year, those 20 countries, they're only 10% of the world's population, but they are 88% of the world's humanitarian crisis. And that's, that's important, because when you think about it as 20 countries, it suddenly seems more manageable than 80 million people who are fleeing from conflict. And if you look at the top 10, what you see is that conflict, climate crisis, and COVID come together to be driving the increase in humanitarian need. So we're an agency that believes that you can't just be health, just be education, or just be water and sanitation. Because people don't have problems that; the people who've got health problems often have got education problems, often have water and sanitation problems too, and you got to try and help the whole family not just live according to the sectors that we are funded by.

 

Alberto Lidji  

Fascinating. And where do you start? I mean, the context, the picture that you've given us here is a sobering one. The numbers are not small. And you mentioned intergenerational elements; and also the fact that, thematically speaking, things are intertwined. You know, health doesn't just stand on its own, education doesn't just stand on its own. Where do you start? And are you doing the operations yourselves? 

 

David Miliband  

Well, you start with a proper needs assessment. And if it's an emergency, then what counts is water sanitation, healthcare, and cash, because the market economy is global. People are surprised sometimes about that. They say, well, what about food? Well, the truth is the first three days, water, health, and cash are the most important responses. Secondly, it's really important to say, well, who else is there? We have very strict entry and exit criteria. And we do ask the first question, well, what are the needs? The second question is, who else is there because if someone else is doing the work, then we don't need to be there. And I don’t… we're not trying to grow for the sake of growing, we're growing because we think that we have got something distinctive to offer, through our focus, through our research and evidence work. We’re the largest impact evaluation agency in the humanitarian sector. And through our innovation, I think we're widely seen to run an R&D team, a research and development team that is pretty special. And so the second thing we ask is, well, who else is there? And third thing we ask is, well, what are the levels of poverty and vulnerability? Because that's an important decider. Now, unfortunately, there's too much poverty and too much vulnerability, and not enough people helping the most marginalised, and that's why we're growing. But we're growing for the sake brand, I'm really proud that we have an exit… entry and exit criteria, because otherwise you do end up boiling the ocean. 

 

Alberto Lidji  

Now, when you say ‘who else is there’ and so forth… you are growing and you're a successful organisation… I think your reputation is excellent as well. Does it ever present a problem that you have a certain profile? Do do governments perhaps they ‘look, you know what, we actually don't want you coming in here? 

 

David Miliband  

Well, no, but I tell you, here's the way or not quite in the way that you're saying… first of all, you asked us, well, who else is there? So governments are sometimes there, but sometimes they're the problem, let’s be honest. Other NGOs are there, but also local NGOs are sometimes there. And so we've got to be… we've got to have humility. Secondly, we sound being but compared to the scale of the problem, we're not. I mean, the truth about the humanitarian sector is it's very fragmented. You know, we've got a $30 million programme in Yemen. I'm incredibly proud of what our teams are doing there; amazing work in the most difficult circumstances — hopefully getting better with a change, of course from the Biden administration. But we're a $30 million programme. There are 20 million people in humanitarian need there. And the truth about the humanitarian sector is that the problems are complex. And too much of the funding is simplistic. The problems are long term, and the funding is short term. And the problems are intertwined. And the sector is fragmented. And so that's what we're battling against. So I wouldn't want people to have the sense that $825 million… well, that is a big thing. But I'm not sitting here with $825 million. 75% of it is unrestricted grants that we win. So we're not choosing that… Pakistan, reading projects, teacher education is important here or water and sanitation is important there. Government ministries are deciding… we think we want to do a water project in Niger, and then we have to bid for it. So it's a very fragmented sector, and it's not layered up to the Sustainable Development Goals in an accountable and metric driven way. And that's one of our frustrations. 

 

Alberto Lidji

Okay, why isn't? Could you map it up to the SDGs? 

 

David Miliband

Yes. And we've argued for that, but actually, you'll not reform the humanitarian sector by institutional reorganisation. You'll reform it through accountability for outcomes. And we've been arguing very… strongly that until the Sustainable Development Goals have targets for crisis affected populations, not just poor ones, and especially in four areas of income, health, education and gender equality.  Unless you have outcomes so that if you're running a refugee camp, you know, you're held accountable for the safety of the women there, if you're running a development programme, you can't just leave out the migrant populations. Until you get that accountability, you don't get the actions. 

 

Alberto Lidji

Interesting. Well you had the MDGs, now, the SDGs, maybe there's something to be said for having your fingerprints on the next set, for the 15 years from 2030 to 2045… 

 

David Miliband

Well, we'd like it, although we can't wait till 2030. And I always say to our private supporters, you know, they’re our risk capital, but they're also our reach capital. They help us go to places that governments aren't going to. And of course, we're living in a time when — you know this living in London — the UK Government has reduced its humanitarian aid spending at a time when humanitarian needs are going up. It's reduced its development spending. That's been the attempt of the Trump administration, and the US and UK are two very big donors. The EU is growing its aid programmes, Germany's holding them steady. But this isn't a… yes, this is a time when needs are growing from the populations… support from governments is at best flat and sometimes declining. So you've got a growing gap between need and provision. And that's why our private supporters — companies, individuals, philanthropists, foundations — are our risk capital for innovation because governments are leery of risk. And it's our reach capital too for marginalised communities. And marginalised… By the way, women and girls, you know that’s half the population, but they are marginalised in too many aid programmes. 

 

Alberto Lidji  

Yeah. And tell me a little bit about your funding structure or funding streams…

 

David Miliband  

Three quarters of our support comes from governments. We run about 450 international grants for… and contracts that we won from governments. They're pretty short term, I mean, it's sort of 11 or 12 months often. And so… an average of a million to $2 million a year, per grant and contract, then in the foundation and philanthropic sector, which are 25% of $825 million dollars, which is not to be sneezed at. We've got some great corporate and foundation partners, we are so proud to have won the MacArthur 100&Change Award, the $100 million prize that we won with Sesame Workshop to tackle trauma of kids in the Middle East as a result of the Syria war. We're also very proud of our partnership with LEGO in East Africa — Play Matters — which is an incredible partnership of investment in young people, and making sure that their social and emotional development as well as their academic development is probably rooted… in three East African countries, which is great. And then we have smaller family foundations that have helped us and that are committed to the kind of agenda around impact, evidence, innovation that we think is so value for money… that we think is so important.

 

Alberto Lidji  

And on that last bit, let me ask you: so there are many philanthropically minded individuals, high net worth individuals, smaller foundations, not like LEGO Foundation, or MacArthur but you know, smaller… and sometimes they're looking for guidance in terms of where they can get involved. They might have an idea that they're keen about gender equity or they're keen about refugees, but that's the extent of it, and they don't have any in-house technical expertise. If they pick up the phone, if they're getting, you know, if they get in touch with you guys… what does that process look like? Because I'm sure that you're not just looking for somebody to give you a check — even though that's probably not going to be a problem — but I'm sure you want that collaborative journey and working together with with long term partners. 

 

David Miliband  

Yeah, I mean, let me… I won't use the name, but yesterday I spoke to someone from a family foundation who's been a donor to us for 10 or 15 years. And who this week decided to give us $1.5m. And how does that happen? First of all, it happens through listening, we have to listen, you know, we're proud of what we do. We're zealous for… speaking for our clients. But the first thing we do is listen, because if you don't listen to where people or foundations are coming from, then you're not really showing respect. I used to be in politics, and politics is partly about talking. But I always used to say the best politicians are good listeners as well. And so the first thing you do is listen, I think the second thing is you try and explain where we're coming from, because real partnerships are based on shared respect. It's not the donor doing what the, what the organisation wants, it's not us doing what they want. It's a shared endeavour, where we learn from each other, and we go on a journey with each other. And in the case I'm thinking about yesterday, as it happens, we had a staff member from… who was on leave in the hometown of the person who gave us this $1.5m grant. And that was a an important thing, because this donor wanted to support her hometown girl, as she put it, quote, unquote, and was really impressed by the work that this person was, was doing. So I suppose the third thing is you… first you listen. Second, you try and explain where we're coming from, and the the emphasis that we put on impact and innovation and value for money. And transparency is important to that we don't hide that we, we spend money on human resources so that we hire good people, we spend money on safety and security, because we want our people to be safe. We spend money on IT because we wouldn't have been able to go remote during the COVID crisis if we hadn’t. Now that sometimes doesn't appear as quote unquote, programme money. But to call up bureaucracy or red tape or admin isn't fair. It's absolutely critical. I think the third thing you have to do is find points of connection, like the quote unquote, hometown girl point. And then, fourthly, I like your point, that it's not just write a check and see you in three years time. The sense that we love doing real visits — in the COVID age you can do virtual visits — we always try and put our staff and clients first we don't want… we don't want sort of humanitarian tourism. But the sense that we've got staff and clients who want to tell their story is something that's really meaningful, I think, to donors. We also have to tell the truth to donors, we have to say, look, multi-year is much more important… it’s invaluable, because it allows us to plan and we're not going to pretend to you we can solve these problems in five minutes. We also have to say to people look below a certain level give us unrestricted support, because we can't design a special restricted programme unless it says a substantial size. So in the case of the $1.5m we got yesterday, that's about extending a programme that we've already got. So there's a third lesson, I always say to people, we don't want… we don't need more boutique programmes in the humanitarian sector, what we need is to scale the programmes that we know work. And I think that's a degree of honesty that's important. And there's a real sincerity I think about the way the International Rescue Committee works — and I feel this from the top of the organisation from the board — it’s full of sincere people who want to understand and do serious work. And that requires us to be honest with donors as well. 

 

Alberto Lidji  

Yeah. And you mentioned the multi-year, you know, multi-year is much better than just a one off transaction. And what are the sort of… if there is such a thing as different price points, but at what point can somebody say, look, okay, I'm giving you unrestricted, at what point could they say, okay, could I be involved in that conversation in terms of what the programme looks like, or how it plays out? 

 

David Miliband  

Well, the conversation can always be real, but put it this way. If you're talking about half a million dollars, you can't design a new programme for half a million dollars, what you can do is expand the reach of an existing programme. And so we could say to people, look, we want to expand our network of legal centres in this… towards the southern border, the United States, because that's a key way of allowing asylum seekers to exercise their rights. Or we can say we've got an amazing community based education programme in northeast Nigeria… we want to extend that.  If you come along with $100m then we'll create a new programme. And that's what we've done with the MacArthur Foundation and with LEGO. And that's really exciting because we're co-creating something that's genuinely new.

 

Alberto Lidji  

And what are you extremely excited about today? And by that, you know, it's difficult to say, I'm excited about something having to do with with addressing refugee challenges, which can be very distressing, but... 

 

David Miliband  

Yeah, well, will you let me give two examples of things that excite me? 

 

Alberto Lidji  

Go for it. 

 

David Miliband  

One I mentioned already, which is this MacArthur programme that we're doing with Sesame Workshop in the Middle East, where kids between the ages of 3 and 8 are being exposed to digital and personal content and contact, and we’re tackling in the most severe cases is what's called toxic stress; brain trauma. That comes from kids seeing terrible things in war, which is what's happening in Syria. And we're working inside Syria, as well as in Jordan and Lebanon with the refugees and a little bit in Iraq. And it's a very exciting programme, we're now in year four, it's been very, very difficult as of COVID was, because of course, so much of tackling trauma is about bringing people together. And you can't do that in the same way in COVID. But the innovation to use WhatsApp and to go through carers has been really, really positive. The learning materials are fantastic. Sesame Workshop are an amazing organisation and we're working with them, it's been really great. Now, let me give you a second one where I'm really on the rampage, because…

 

Alberto Lidji

Let’s hear it.

 

David Miliband

… in outrage, but also inspiration, and it starts in a very dark place. There are 50 million acutely malnourished under five year olds in the world today. And 17, or 18 million of them are in fragile states of the kind of the International Rescue Committee works with, and 80% of those acutely malnourished under five year olds are getting no help at all from the international system. So that's why we should all be angry and the system is stuck — the system's a bit divided between moderate acute malnutrition and severe acute malnutrition, which are two different World Health Organisation protocols. But over three or four years ago, the innovation team and the health research team at the IRC, the International Rescue Committee came together to say look, we need a new model for tackling acute malnutrition among under five year olds. And instead of having severe acute malnutrition and moderate nutrition as different work streams, we should create a combined protocol because it's the same disease. It's just quantitatively different. But acute malnutrition is the same disease, whether it's severe or moderate. And they've created a protocol for tackling… for assessing, diagnosing, and then treating severe acute and moderate acute malnutrition with a single unified protocol. And they've shown how it can be delivered through community health workers, not through health centres. In other words, we've turned on its head the model of to get treated, you have to go to a health care centre, which in South Sudan might mean a three hour walk with conflict and all sorts of other trauma going on. We've shown how you can go to community health workers which are already used through integrated case management, which is well known in the health field, how you take the health care for people rather than expect the people to get the health care. Now, here's the most amazing thing our team did with a human-centred design. Many of the community health workers are low literacy and low numeracy. And what we've designed is training tools. So that low literate and low numerous community health workers can diagnose acute malnutrition, severe or moderate, using an upper arm circumference measure that has colours and no numbers on it. And then a prescription dosage system that is also based on colours  numbers. And a patient registration system that is based on thumbprint not on signatures, because many of the clients are low literacy, as well. And we're trialling this in Kenya and in Somalia and Mali, South Sudan, but we desperately need partners to do more, we're excited that UNICEF have now been… in significant part of the result of the work we've been doing partly in partnership with them. UNICEF have now been made the sole lead agency in the UN system for this, we're developing partnership with them. We are excited about the way the World Food Programme wanted to support it because they are technically responsible for moderate acute malnutrition at the moment, but they're going to work with this leadership of UNICEF and… but what we need is risk capital to do more of the randomised control trials to prove that our… the different elements of our system, which we've shown work… we've shown there's no negative impact on severely acutely malnourished children from being in this combined protocol. And we've also shown that community health workers can diagnose and prescribe in a way that's no worse than the medical facility, but… so we've done them separately now we need to do them together. And so what am I excited about? ...I'm appalled by the fact that we've got 80% of acutely malnourished under five year old kids not getting the help they need. But I'm excited that we're at the forefront of trying to change that. And I hope that by taking the message out through podcasts like this, we can get people engaged, they can write to me, david.miliband@rescue.org, or just go to our website at rescue.org. But those are things that make me feel that these are problems that can be cracked, because there's so much that is that can be done.

 

Alberto Lidji  

Excellent. Tell me, how did you end up where you are today? First of all, it sounds like… it's a highly consequential job, but it also sounds like a dream job. And and just your trajectory is fascinating from the world of UK politics here, were you were foreign secretary. And now you've been there at the IRC for coming up to a decade…

 

David Miliband  

No, seven years. I'm not that old yet… 

 

Alberto Lidji  

…Alright, seven years. And yeah, give us a little bit of a flavour for that journey. 

 

David Miliband  

Well, I mean, I got here through successes and failures. I mean, life is never a seamless journey. I was very lucky to be part of a remarkable political project in the UK, which made the Labour Party electable rather than unelectable. And let us to three election victories, and helped change the country in really… in ways that we felt were fundamental, but in various ways have been rolled back in the last decade.  But I was lucky enough to be foreign secretary and Gordon Brown's government 2007 to 2010. Madeleine Albright always says there's no greater honour than to represent your country. And I felt that very strongly, very proud to be British and feel that that phrase competence and humility is really appropriate to the way in which you think about…     patriotism is not the same as nationalism. Patriotism is being proud of your own country without thereby disabusing or doing down other countries. Nationalism is a zero sum game; patriotism is just being proud of your own country, but open to the great things about other countries. And… but it was snuffed out to my period as foreign secretary by the fact that we lost the election in 2010, I lost the leadership election in the Labour Party in 2010, I remained a member of parliament, which is a great thing about the British system, I was the member of parliament for South Shields, which I really feel a great bond towards, and a great sense of gratitude, I learned so much from my constituents and feel very connected to people… I wasn't from South Shields, but I feel — it’s in the northeast of England — I feel very connected there. But in 2012, 2013, I felt that I had reached a bit of a dead end, I was in the uncomfortable position of either being divisive or being dishonest about what I really thought. And that's not a good situation to be in, in politics. And so I wanted to use my skills and experience and the job came up at the International Rescue Committee in 2013, which seems like a long time ago, and in various ways is a long time ago. But I, you know, the traditional view of the humanitarian sector has been that it’s, rightly, independent of politics, that's very important. But that doesn't mean it's separate from politics, because we're dealing with the consequences of failed politics. And so I always say to people that as a politician, and certainly as a Foreign Minister, you're looking through one end of the telescope, you've got the bird's eye view, and the danger is that you missed the people; in an NGO, you're looking from the other end of the telescope. The great thing is you can see the people; the danger is that you miss the big picture. And what I try and do in my job is be halfway along the telescope, and you can see both ends, and you don't get trapped in the middle. And that's what I'm trying to do. And it's been a very, very lucky job. I feel very proud… you said great job, I mean, it's been great learning every day, and great experience. And I feel I've put my heart and soul into it. And that's good. And we've got lots of people helping us. So that's good as well. 

 

Alberto Lidji  

Is it a very different world being in government versus running an NGO like you do? And, you know, do your emails get replied to in the same manner? Are you able to have the same conversations that you had before?

 

David Miliband  

No, you can't. I mean, let's be honest, you've got much less power. If you're the head of the NGO, then if you're the Former Minister of P5… of a permanent members of the security council.  But you've also… I always say to people, you've got more power in government, but you've also got more obstacles to exercising it, both in your own system and from others. In an NGO, you've got less power but fewer obstacles. And so that's the that's the trade off. 

 

Alberto Lidji  

Indeed. Tell me a little bit about success for the next 10 years. So the SDGs, 2030 is that target year. If you and I were having another podcast or a coffee in New York in 2030 and looking back, what would you like to see…? 

 

David Miliband  

Well, I could never concede that I'm 55. So God help me to be 65 is just totally antithetical to my sense of self. But here's the thing I have learned in the war zones in which we work, that there's a rise in impunity, the abuse of international humanitarian law, the abuse of civilians, the contravention of international norms. And the way I conceive the next decade is that there's a battle between accountability and impunity. Accountability means checks and balances on the use of power. Impunity is power without responsibility as Baldwin and Kipling, who by the way were cousins, both said, power without responsibility, the refuge of the harlot throughout the ages. And I think there’s, at a macro geopolitical level, there is a battle between accountability and impunity. And obviously, my concern is that the people that we serve International Rescue Committee are the are the most oppressed when it comes to impunity. If you think about the Rohingya, who were driven out of Myanmar. It doesn't get worse than that. You and I share heritage in European Jewry, and we were saying before the podcast, when people said never again after the Holocaust, they didn't just mean never again for Jews, they meant never again for anyone. And they built international institutions, designed to say, what happened to the Jews of Europe should never happen again to anyone. And so when we think about impunity, I think about what happens to the Rohingya in Myanmar, and that project of never again has failed. So impunity hits those… hits us the hardest. So my view is that within that battle for accountability and impunity, which involves profound issues about democracy, human rights, liberalism, there's a portion of it, which is about the work that we do. I think that at the moment, we've got a humanitarian sector that works according to a model of humanitarian need that's a bit out of date. It's a model of humanitarian need that people displaced for a short period of time before they go home. It's a model of humanitarian need that refugees are the product of wars between states, when in fact, they're the product awards within the states. It's a model that says refugees are in camps, where 60% of refugees are in urban areas, not in camps. So the model is a bit out of date but the sector doesn't yet operate like a system. And so what's my vision for the humanitarian sector — I don’t know about about 10 years, but as soon as possible —  is that we become a system not just a sector, in other words, where there's not just shared mission, but there are shared incentives and shared outcomes that we've talked about. But also, and I think this is critical, it's a shift… it's a system that's working to tackle the problems as they are with tools that are relevant and modern, rather than problems as they used to be with tools that aren't applicable to the world we live in. And that's the flip that we need to make as we try and shift from a humanitarian sector to a humanitarian system.

 

Alberto Lidji  

Are you feeling optimistic about the direction of travel? … putting COVID aside. 

 

David Miliband  

Well, I always say to people, what right do we have sitting in comfort to be pessimistic? So I prefer to suspend judgement and say that while our clients are courageous and resilient, and are able to smile when they think about the hopes for their children, then we better stay optimistic. There was this famous saying — or not very famous saying that should be famous — from someone who went to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and they say, if you look at the statistics, you get depressed. If you look at the people, you have hope, and that's my motto. 

 

Alberto Lidji  

Excellent. Excellent. Do you have a key takeaway for our listeners today? Anything in particular that you think look if they remember one thing about today's show, please keep this in mind. 

 

David Miliband  

I think that the one thing I was try to say to people is that… that phrase, the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice — it was a phrase that was popularised by Martin Luther King — it will only bend towards justice, the moral arc of the universe will only bend towards justice, if it is bent that way. And the most important thing, I think, for your listeners, is not to be daunted by the scale of the problem. Because the truth is that the humanitarian crisis we face in the 20 countries that I highlighted earlier that are responsible for 88% of humanitarian need, those problems are only unmanageable, if we don't manage them. So don't fall for the disempowerment that says these problems are insoluble. That's the prophecy of doom. And if your listeners want to remember that there is an organisation out there that's about solutions rather than suffering then we're it. 

 

Alberto Lidji  

Excellent. David, it really has been an absolute pleasure hosting you on The Do One Better! Podcast today. You've been listening to David Miliband, who is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the International Rescue Committee. David really great. Thank you so much for shedding light on the problems and for the optimism, the energy and I hope our listeners take everything on board, and by all means do get in touch if these sort of things matter to you, which I would hope they do. 

 

David Miliband  

Thank you, Alberto. Nice to be in touch with you.

Additional Resources

International Rescue Committee - Website