The first ever World Humanitarian Summit held in Istanbul on May 23-24, 2016 has brought humanitarian affairs in the global limelight. Attended by 9000 participants from 173 member states of the UN including 55 heads of state and hundreds of other stakeholders, the event is expected to mark a new beginning in a crisis riddled world. In conjunction with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the summit has paved the way for a global consensus on the “one humanity: shared responsibility” paradigm of thought and action.
Natural and human-induced disasters coupled with devastating conflicts have made life miserable for millions of inhabitants on this planet. At the outset of 2016, some 125 million people required humanitarian assistance and the number of forcibly displaced people soared to 60 million. Human society is witnessing the highest level of human suffering since the Second World War.
Natural disasters have surmounted all previous peaks. According to the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (EM-DAT) the world experienced 6,873 natural disasters between 1994 and 2013 that claimed 1.35 million lives i.e. 68,000 lives on average each year. The centre recorded an average of 341 climate-related disasters per annum, up 44 per cent from the 1994-2000 average and well over twice the level in 1980-1989.According to a 2014 report by the United Nations, since 1994, 4.4 billion people have been affected by disasters, which claimed 1.3 million lives and cost US$2 trillion in economic losses. EM-DAT data show that flooding caused the majority of disasters between 1994 and 2013, accounting for 43 per cent of all recorded events and affecting nearly 2.5 billion people.
Storms were the second most frequent type of disaster, killing more than 244,000 people and costing US$936 billion in recorded damage. Earthquakes (including tsunamis) killed more people than all other types of disaster put together, claiming nearly 750,000 lives between 1994 and 2013. Tsunamis were the most deadly sub-type of earthquake, with an average of 79 deaths for every 1,000 people affected, compared to four deaths per 1,000 for ground movements. This makes tsunamis almost twenty times more deadly than ground movements. Drought affected more than one billion people between 1994 and 2013, or 25 per cent of the global total. Asia bore the brunt of disasters, with 3.3 billion people affected in China and India alone.
Armed conflicts and civil wars are another source of human consternation. A blood-soaked war economy has gripped several parts of the world. Major civil wars increased from 4 in 2007 to 11 in 2014. Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Central Africa are among the worst hit countries where violence has ravaged vast populations rendering them hungry and homeless.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 3 million have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbours Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq and 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) Conflict, violence and natural disasters forced nearly 28 million people to abandon their homes and move somewhere else within their countries in 2014. Currently over 80 per cent of humanitarian funding request is meant for critical life-saving needs in conflict afflicted areas.
Almost two thirds of the UN’s peacekeepers and almost 90 per cent of personnel in the UN’s special political missions are working in or on countries mired into high intensity conflicts. The economic and financial cost of conflict and violence in 2014 has been estimated at $14.3 trillion, which is more than 13 per cent of the total global economy.
This explains the UN Secretary General’s five-point agenda for humanity. It emerged out of three-year consultative process that involved over 23,000 people in 153 countries. The secretary general called on the world leaders from all sectors of government and society to uphold five core responsibilities (i) prevent and end conflict (ii) respect rules of war (iii) leave no one behind (iv) work differently to end need and (v) invest in humanity. Ban Ki-moon sapiently encapsulated his call by saying “we can close the gap between the world that is and that world that should be. It is in our power, and there is no better time than now.”
Undoubtedly, it is an onerous journey that requires unflinchingly sustained political commitment by the member states and a string of symbiotic affirmative actions by the civil society, funding agencies and private sector. National governments and political leadership has to take a central role in achieving this Herculean objective. However, a multi-sectoral reinforcement would be inevitably required to augment the efforts of national governments.
Disasters and conflicts entail complex social and human dimensions and the state institutions cannot address them in isolation. Armed conflicts and egregious violence cannot be eliminated completely by only employing sophisticated arsenal. Whereas most of the preposterous violent armed conflicts are triggered by geo-strategic interests that require a greater role from the states and international community, internal strife and violent extremism often stem from social inequalities, discrimination, despotic regimes, lack of rectitude, bad governance and spineless institutions.
Civil society can provide invaluable support in such circumstances to eradicate root causes of social unrest and stich harmonious relations among embittered segments of society. Additionally, civil society can bridge the gap between governments and people. As human societies are becoming more complex and the governments are getting circumscribed by a variety of constraints, civil society is emerging as an opportunity to be treated munificently rather than being dismissive and insolent to it. Civil society, maintaining its independent position to represent and safeguard rights of communities, also bolsters government’s efforts to create resilient communities and satisfied citizenry ultimately leading to a stable society.
Hence national governments ought to consider civil society as a partner of choice and not a sceptic opponent. Forging mutually rewarding partnerships is the key to deal with the magnitude and complexity of the contemporary challenges. Openness, trust, accountability, transparency and shared responsibility are necessary attributes of a harmonious society. This explains the reason for governments to recognise and benefit from the potential of civil society by creating an enabling policy environment. Peculiar situation should not become an excuse to restrict the role of civil society. It rather requires a meaningful dialogue to build consensus on the role of various humanitarian actors in line with the local context.
Pakistan is among the countries that have been facing and managing menacing natural disasters and conflicts that have witnessed unparalleled intensity in the recent years. Pakistan had been treated by superpowers as a backyard to dump their war-garbage for several years and the country is now scrambling to clean the litter strewn all around.
Pakistan has hosted perhaps the largest refugee population in the post-colonial era for an elongated period of over three and a half decades. Being a surrogated battlefield of superpowers for decades, the country’s own social fabric has frayed. Extremism and violence has permeated in every artery of the society. The torment has been further compounded by a series of natural disasters during the recent years. Several distortions have festered its governance system rendering it disarrayed and autistic to other shades of society including civil society.
A nascent and fragile democratic order is battling with plethora of challenges and floundering for its existence. Inequality, extremism, poverty, insecurity, venality, violence, plutocracy, stifling debt and ailing economy have been testing the nerves of citizens and successive governments for decades. All this has culminated into a riven society and a paraplegic polity.
Situated in a highly volatile region, Pakistan’s strategic eminence is central to the regional peace and stability. Civil society of Pakistan has an enormous untapped potential to help create a harmonious society. It can bolster government’s efforts to make Pakistan a resilient and a conflict free country through constructive measures. Magnitude of challenge demands an inclusive approach to steer the country out of these crises and put it on the road to prosperity and stability. A vibrant and unencumbered civil society is required more than ever to gain roots in Pakistan.
The country can champion the dream of one humanity by promoting peace, justice, equality, harmony, democracy and social wellbeing. All it needs a visionary leadership that can translate this dream into reality.