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To End the Global Displacement Crisis, Tackle Conflict

Image of girls getting waterPhoto: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the headline: there are now over 65 million forcibly displaced people around the world.

Big numbers like that are hard to process. It means around 24 people fled persecution or grave danger every minute. If you use Facebook, imagine this: within the next 30 minutes from now, all your social network friends will be gone. They will lose their homes, most of their valuables and cash, and likely lose some people close to them. They won’t be ‘liking’ or commenting on posts – they will be running for their lives. Their plight is  harrowing and it is not getting any better. Why?

There is one big reason we are facing the gravest global displacement crisis since World War II: violence and conflict. So, if we really want to end this catastrophe, we must get serious about tackling violence. The first step to achieving this is to gain a better understanding about what violence and conflict look like today.


We face a paradox. On the one hand, mass violence and major wars are in historic decline. On the other hand, the number of active conflicts has tripled since 2010 and the world is experiencing a 25-year peak in violence. In 2017, the U.S. National Intelligence Council warned that rising tension within and between countries will be a major national security threat for decades to come.

The reason for this paradox is because the nature of war and mass violence has changed. Instead of wars fought between states, featuring big armies that largely respect international law, we now see a smaller number of intractable conflicts occurring inside states – mostly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. These conflicts are brutal and messy. They are more deadly – especially towards civilians. They frequently involve armed groups that do not feel bound by state control or international humanitarian law, like the Islamic State or al-Shabaab.

It’s not just war. Political instability and spreading fragility are driving increasing social violence outside conflict zones, too. This includes persistent global violence against women, a homicide epidemic in northern Latin America, and pervasive organized violence in Central America.

It all adds up to an unprecedented global displacement crisis. That isn’t just a human tragedy; it’s a fiscal disaster. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that violence costs the global economy $14.3 trillion every year. The World Bank and UN estimate that targeting resources for conflict management on just four countries at risk could save $34 billion in global losses every year. Poverty and mass violence interact to ensnare countries in a ‘conflict trap’, in which the biggest legacy of a civil war is more conflict. This impact can be intergenerational.

We know that the major cause of today’s massive numbers of forced migrants is violence. We know it is ruinously expensive in blood and treasure. What does that mean for how we best respond to this crisis?


The fact that violence and conflict drive the global displacement crisis raises three big challenges for how the international system – and big actors in that system like the United States – can begin to tackle the problem.

First, cycles of violence are hard to break. The simple fact is that exposure to violence is a strong predictor of future participation in violence. Nearly half the world’s population – 3.34 billion – has been confronted by political violence over the past 15 years. If you have been a victim of police violence, seen a drone strike on your village, or grown up in a violent household, you’re more likely to support intergroup violence. The reasons why people participate in violence and conflict are complex and nuanced. Building evidence for effective interventions is equally difficult.

Second, the international humanitarian system just isn’t set up to address violence and its consequences head-on. Its architecture was built at a time when 80 percent of global humanitarian funding went to natural disaster responses. Today 80 percent of aid goes to support people fleeing violence, violent conflict and oppression.

It’s reactive by nature – focused on emergency response. Yet, if we are to get upstream from where violence erupts, we need to emphasize prevention. But the system spends a tiny amount – roughly 1% of global humanitarian aid – on interventions like conflict mitigation and peacebuilding. Big humanitarian donors routinely fail to fund conflict prevention early, when it would make the most difference.

Third, any lasting solution to violence and conflict is political, but there is a global failure of political will and organization. Experts widely view the United Nations Security Council – charged with maintaining international peace and security – as having failed to prevent, contain or resolve conflicts. Wars today seem locked in a savage race to the bottom. The single most powerful actor in the international system – the United States – has no overarching policy to guide how it deals with fragile states in reducing violence and fostering stability.

All of this adds up to millions of people trapped on a terrifying, deadly and never-ending rollercoaster of conflict, displacement and crisis response – and trillions spent on humanitarian aid or lost to unchecked violence.

This leads us to the most important question: what can we do about it?


There are no easy solutions to this worldwide crisis of violence, fragility, and displacement. But some pathways forward are starting to become clearer.

The good news is that major global actors – like the UN, the World Bank, and the OECD – are together recognizing that international crisis response needs to undertake a dramatic shift from being largely reactive to investing more in prevention. The UN Secretary General has said his number one priority is rebuilding the architecture for international peace and security. The ‘Global Goals’ for sustainable development – endorsed by all UN member states in 2015 – include a commitment to promoting peaceful and inclusive societies. This is critical to real progress because by 2030 half the world’s extremely poor people will live in states affected by fragility, conflict and violence.

And it’s not just about ‘what,’ it’s about ‘how.’ At Mercy Corps, we are committed to building evidence for what actually works in reducing violence and conflict. For example, contrary to long-held assumptions, we have learnt that poverty is not necessarily the main recruiting sergeant among young people for groups like the Islamic State, Boko Haram, or the Taliban. Instead, youth tell us that they are drawn to these groups because of unfairness, injustice, and a lack of voice on the big decisions that get made about their lives. That means that funding programs should foster inclusive governance, build capacities for peace and conflict mitigation, and open up opportunities for youth to influence their communities. That’s not just do-gooding: we’ve seen it work even at the height of a crisis.

If shifting from reaction to prevention is to have impact, it has to involve more funding for well-grounded aid programs. Mercy Corps has called for the United States to double the proportion of its aid expenditures on good governance, conflict mitigation and peacebuilding. It is not necessarily about spending more money on aid overall – it is about smartly spending that money.

Effective interventions are not showy or expensive – they are tiny investments compared to costly military interventions or UN peacekeeping missions. For example, in 2011 the United States spent $47 billion on military operations in Iraq. In that same year, it provided only $184 million for democracy, human rights, conflict mitigation, and reconciliation activities: 0.004% of its military expenditure.

Finally, we must learn from past experience and better coordinate policy and action towards one overarching purpose: to reduce violence and conflict. At the global level, this means that humanitarian and development actors must work together more closely across the entire arc of a crisis. To be effective, major development actors like the World Bank or the UN Development Program must increase commitments and step up action long before peace deals are signed or refugees return.

It also means that the international community should careful reconsider its risk tolerance and how humanitarian actors – committed to principles like neutrality, impartiality and independence – should not only address the consequences of crisis, but also dig deep to tackle its root causes.

Here in the United States, there is an emerging bipartisan push to make violence reduction a central pillar of all foreign assistance. For example, representatives Ted Poe (R-TX) and Elliot Engel (D-NY) are working on legislation that seeks to replicate the strengths of successful programs, like PEPFAR and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and apply them to conflict management. This legislation would task the president to develop a strategy for ten countries suffering from violence and fragility. This strategy would leverage resources and foster enhanced partnerships to drive research on the most effective means to reduce violence and conflict.

The nature and scale of the forced displacement challenge are alarming. The case for tackling this crisis through a new focus on preventing violence and conflict is strong. The savings in lives and money from realizing this shift are significant. The international community has taken some first steps towards a solution – now we need a call to action from global leadership to deliver it.

Michael Young has worked on refugee issues for over two decades – in resettlement and asylum, in conflicts driving refugee flight, and post-crisis return. He began working with Bosnian refugees resettled to the UK under the temporary protection program during the Balkan wars, and has subsequently worked as a technical advisor, advocate and Country or Regional Director in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Russian North Caucasus, Iraq, Turkey and the Middle East. He currently works as a Senior Advisor with Mercy Corps, covering both policy and operational assignments – most recently with the regional response to the Syrian crisis as well as the war in Yemen.