Category Archives: Op-Eds

5 years too long: Why the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster must end

By Yacoub El Hillo and Kevin Kennedy*

The worst humanitarian crisis of our time has lasted too long as millions of Syrians have experienced widespread violence, destruction and displacement.  Since March 2011, hundreds of thousands have been killed, over a million wounded and half the population has been displaced or sought refuge in neighbouring countries. Schools, hospitals and other infrastructure have been reduced to rubble, and over 2 million children and adolescents are out of school. Four out of five Syrians now live in poverty.

In a country that was once known as the “cradle of civilization”, sieges are increasingly used as a tactic of war. In 2016, on average nearly half a million people have been trapped in their towns, deprived of essential aid and surrounded by armed groups. Millions more live in areas where aid seldom reaches.  Summary executions, arbitrary detention and horrific human rights violations are a regular feature of this crisis.

On 12 February, a landmark agreement was reached in Munich where a cessation of hostilities was agreed upon as well as accelerated delivery of aid to those most in need.  Despite ruptures, the agreement has mostly been respected offering a glimmer of hope to millions of Syrians.  It has presented a short respite for people who have repeatedly told us that all they want is to be safe and for their families to be protected from violence in a war that has endured far too long.  In towns across parts of Syria, there are signs of that hope as families are once again walking in the streets and children playing in parks.

At this moment, we must also take stock of what we have accomplished and where we have fallen short. Over the course of the last five years, the United Nations, the Red Cross/Red Crescent movement and the Non-Governmental organizations have delivered health services, medicine, food, clean water, sanitation and shelter to millions of people. It has come at a high cost as 85 humanitarian workers have lost their lives and hundreds of medical workers have been killed. Syrians themselves have played the lead role in alleviating the suffering of people in need – as first-line responders on the ground or hosting fellow Syrians fleeing conflict despite their own difficult circumstances.

Given the momentum started in Munich, we now have a unique opportunity that must not be lost. Humanitarian organizations are ramping up their operations but require access to all people in need on a sustained, unconditional and unimpeded basis. Sieges must be lifted and people allowed freedom of movement. The cessation of hostilities must be maintained and fully observed.   Most importantly, the political process must continue and achieve a permanent end to hostilities.

Five years of human suffering on an immense scale must be brought to an end. The Syrian people must have their dignity and security restored and have the opportunity to reconcile and rebuild.


*Yacoub El Hillo is the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria and Kevin Kennedy is the UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria

Social Protection is Key to Tackle Asia-Pacific’s Inequality Trap

Op-ed by Shamshad Akhtar

Rising inequality threatens to derail, from the start, successful implementation of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in the Asia-Pacific region. Stronger, more equitable social protection will be critical in overcoming these challenges.

New research by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) indicates that inequality, related to both outcomes and opportunities, is on the rise in the countries of Asia and the Pacific – and where it has not risen it has remained unacceptably high. This is having an adverse impact on sustainable development.

Growing disparities in income and wealth, as well as unequal opportunities, reinforce each other, creating an “inequality trap” that disproportionately affects women and the most vulnerable members of society, including the poor, youth, persons with disabilities, migrants and older persons.

This stands in sharp contrast to both the shared growth that defined the rise of the ‘Asian Tigers’ in the 1960s, and more recent trends in other parts of the developing world, in particular Latin America, where income inequality has been decreasing over in recent decades.

Over the past 20 years, the rich in Asia and the Pacific have grown richer, at the expense of the poor. Inequalities in regional opportunities also abound, with nearly 80 per cent of the population lacking access to affordable health care, and as many as 18 million children out of school. Access to these basic social services are considerably lower among low-income groups and rural communities.

In the context of the 2030 Agenda, inequality casts deep shadows on all three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental.

Economically, inequality threatens regional dynamism, is destructive to the sustainability of growth, and makes it more difficult to reduce poverty through growth. Had Asia-Pacific inequality not increased, an additional almost 200 million people would have been lifted out of poverty in the three largest countries in the region over the last two decades.

Inequality undermines social cohesion and solidarity. A growing divide between the rich and the poor is often a factor in rising levels of crime and social unrest, undermining trust and weakening bonds of solidarity. In extreme cases, especially where inequality manifests along ethnic lines, it can lead to polarization, radicalization and even failure of the State.

Environmental sustainability is also hampered by inequalities, which create resentments and disincentives and, in turn, generate pervasive free-riding and overuse of resources, with unsustainable environmental outcomes. For instance, evidence from India and Nepal suggests that inequalities in local rural communities actually intensify deforestation.

This is why tackling inequality must be central to the sustainable development agenda. Perfect equality of wealth and income is not attainable but, when it comes to inequalities of opportunity, such as access to health and education, Asia-Pacific governments should not settle for less than a perfectly “level playing field.”

It is encouraging to see that, in addition to traditional cash transfers, Asia-Pacific countries are introducing innovative measures to reduce inequalities, such as health equity funds, impact investing in education, universal health coverage and expanding access to old-age pensions.

Building on this momentum, countries could also develop sets of complementary policies to tackle inequality in all its forms:

First, national taxation systems could be strengthened. There is ample room to expanding the tax base and strengthen compliance frameworks across the region. This is an effective way of broadening fiscal space to finance redistributive mechanisms, while building solidarity across socioeconomic groups and generations.

Second, productive and decent work should be even more strongly promoted. Forward-looking macroeconomic policies, coupled with active labour market programmes and policies that encourage diversification, including industrial upgrading and productivity growth are critical. Such approaches will ensure that economic growth generates more and better employment for people working in vulnerable conditions, while avoiding a “race to the bottom” triggered by unfettered international competition.

Third, social protection should be enhanced to ensure that everyone has access to quality essential services. Transformative social protection policies need to be anchored in national legislation and aim beyond providing short-term safety nets, to lift people out of poverty and vulnerability. Complementing their redistributive role, well-designed and implemented cash transfers are an important vehicle of inclusive, pro-poor growth. Good practices from around the region illustrate that comprehensive social protection systems are feasible and affordable but necessitate political will. Strengthening the evidence base on inequalities and social protection will also further facilitate the development and implementation of effective policies and programmes. Innovative financing schemes, especially in partnership with the private sector, will be essential in this regard.

These three policy measures benefit all, from individuals and communities, to public institutions and private actors. They constitute a shared responsibility to inspire new partnerships and creative approaches, as we move to implement the 2030 Agenda.

Asia-Pacific inequality cannot be ignored. To do so jeopardizes the future we want of a more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable Asia-Pacific region.

Download ESCAP’s new publication: “Time for Equality: The Role of Social Protection in Reducing Inequalities in Asia and the Pacific” at

Dr. Shamshad Akhtar is an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. She has also been the UN’s Sherpa for the G20 and served as Governor of the Central Bank of Pakistan and Vice-President of the MENA Region of the World Bank.


An Agenda for Humanity

Op-ed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

More people desperately need humanitarian assistance than at any time since the founding of the United Nations.  More warring parties are brazenly violating international humanitarian law.  More resources than ever are needed to meet sharply escalating humanitarian needs.  Yet we face the largest-ever funding shortfalls.

For these reasons and more, I am convening the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, on 23 and 24 May in Istanbul.  I am urging global leaders, international organizations and others to commit to deliver more and better for those in greatest need.  There is no time to lose.

Climate change is affecting lives and livelihoods across our fragile planet.  Brutal and seemingly intractable conflicts, violent extremism, transnational crime and growing inequality are devastating the lives of millions of men, women and children and are destabilizing entire regions.  More people have been forced to flee their homes than at any time since the Second World War.

Around the world, more than 125 million people need humanitarian assistance.  If they were all in one country, it would be the eleventh largest nation on Earth, and one of the fastest growing.

Today’s complex challenges cross borders.  No single country or organization can address them alone.  We need to restore trust in the ability of our national, regional and international institutions to confront these challenges.

A sense of shared humanity must shape our politics and drive financial decisions.  In advance of the Summit, I have set out an Agenda for Humanity as a framework for action, change and mutual accountability.  It has five core responsibilities.

First, leaders must intensify efforts to find political solutions to prevent and end conflict.  The enormous human and economic cost makes conflict the biggest obstacle to human development.  We must move from managing crises to preventing them.

Second, countries must uphold the norms that safeguard humanity.   This means complying with international humanitarian and human rights law, and stopping the bombing and shelling of civilian targets and areas.  It also means committing to national and international justice and ending impunity.

Third, we must leave no one behind – and we must reach those who are furthest behind, first.  This means transforming the lives of the most vulnerable, including those living in conflict and in chronic poverty, and those living with the risk of natural hazards and rising sea levels..  We must reduce forced displacement, provide more regular and lawful opportunities for migration, empower women and girls and ensure quality education for all.  We cannot meet the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by world leaders last September, if we do not reach these people.

The fourth core responsibility is to move from delivering aid to ending need.  We need to close the humanitarian-development divide for good.  We must also anticipate crises, not wait for them to happen.  We must strengthen local leadership and capacity, reduce vulnerability, and increase the resilience of people and communities, who will always be the first and last responders in crises.

Fifth, we must find smart and innovative ways of mobilizing funds.  This will require diversifying and expanding the resource base and using a wider variety of financing tools.  I have proposed a new international financing platform with the World Bank to identify mechanisms to finance our response to protracted crises.

The Agenda for Humanity provides key actions and strategic shifts which the world requires to reduce humanitarian needs and contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.  I urge world leaders to come to the World Humanitarian Summit committed to promote sustainable human progress and a life of dignity and security for all.

Mr. Ban’s report, “One Humanity: Shared Responsibility,” was published on 9 February 2016.

Uniting to Prevent Violent Extremism

Op-Ed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Violent extremism is a direct assault on the United Nations Charter and a grave threat to international peace and security.

Terrorist groups such as Daesh, Boko Haram and others have brazenly kidnapped young girls, systematically denied women’s rights, destroyed cultural institutions, warped the peaceful values of religions, and brutally murdered thousands of innocents around the world.

These groups have become a magnet for foreign terrorist fighters, who are easy prey to simplistic appeals and siren songs.

The threat of violent extremism is not limited to any one religion, nationality or ethnic group.  Today, the vast majority of victims worldwide are Muslims.

Addressing this challenge requires a unified response, and compels us to act in a way that solves – rather than multiplies — the problem.

Many years of experience have proven that short-sighted policies, failed leadership, heavy-handed approaches, a single-minded focus only on security measures and an utter disregard for human rights have often made things worse.

Let us never forget:  Terrorist groups are not just seeking to unleash violent action, but to provoke a harsh reaction.

We need cool heads and common sense.  We must never be ruled by fear – or provoked by those who strive to exploit it.

Countering violent extremism should not be counter-productive.

This month, I presented to the United Nations General Assembly a Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which takes a practical and comprehensive approach to address the drivers of this menace.  It focuses on violent extremism which can be conducive to terrorism.

The Plan puts forward more than 70 recommendations for concerted action at the global, regional and national levels, based on five inter-related points:

Number one, we must put prevention first

The international community has every right to defend against this threat using lawful means, but we must pay particular attention to addressing the causes of violent extremism if this problem is to be resolved in the long run.

There is no single pathway to violent extremism.  But we know that extremism flourishes when human rights are violated,  political space is shrunk, aspirations for inclusion are ignored, and too many people – especially young people – lack prospects and meaning in their lives.

As we see in Syria and Libya and elsewhere, violent extremists make unresolved and prolonged conflicts even more intractable.

We also know the critical elements for success:  Good governance.  The rule of law.  Political participation.  Quality education and decent jobs.  Full respect for human rights.

We need to make a special effort to reach out to young people and recognize their potential as peacebuilders.  The protection and empowerment of women must also be central to our response.

Second, principled leadership and effective institutions

Poisonous ideologies do not emerge from thin air.  Oppression, corruption and injustice are greenhouses for resentment.  Extremists are adept at cultivating alienation.

That is why I have been urging leaders to work harder to build inclusive institutions that are truly accountable to people.  I will continue to call on leaders to listen carefully to the grievances of their people and then act to address them.

Third, preventing extremism and promoting human rights go hand-in-hand

All too often, national counter-terrorism strategies have lacked basic elements of due process and respect for the rule of law.

Sweeping definitions of terrorism or violent extremism are often used to criminalize the legitimate actions of opposition groups, civil society organizations and human rights defenders.  Governments should not use these types of sweeping definitions as a pretext to attack or silence one’s critics.

Once again, violent extremists deliberately seek to incite such over-reactions.  We must not fall into the trap.

Fourth, an all-out approach

The Plan proposes an “all of Government” approach.

We must break down the silos between the peace and security, sustainable development, human rights and humanitarian actors at the national, regional and global levels—including at the United Nations.

The Plan also recognizes that there are no “one size fits all” solutions.  We must also engage all of society – religious leaders, women leaders, youth groups leaders in the arts, music and sports, as well as the media and private sector.

Fifth, UN engagement

I intend to strengthen a UN system-wide approach to supporting Member States’ efforts to address the drivers of violent extremism.

Above all, the Plan is an urgent call to unity and action that seeks to address this scourge in all its complexity.

Together, let us pledge to forge a new global partnership to prevent violent extremism.