In two weeks, world leaders will ratify a new consensus to build a better world: the sustainable development goals. But we will not reach these development goals – nor can development be sustainable – without reaching the millions of children living in the midst of humanitarian crises.
Consider a few data points*. Children living in countries affected by humanitarian crises – conflicts, natural disasters and health emergencies – account for nearly half of all under-five deaths. How can we achieve SDG3, good health for all, if we don’t reach these children?
Four-fifths of these countries have stunting levels above 20%. Nearly two-thirds have stunting levels above 30%. Two-thirds have unacceptable levels of wasting, often associated with acute starvation. How can we realise SDG2, to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition, if we don’t reach these children?
Countries affected by humanitarian crises account for 43% of all out-of-school children at the primary and lower-secondary levels. SDG4 demands inclusive quality education for all. How will that be possible if we don’t reach these children?
The international community tends to compartmentalise humanitarian and development crises – separate funding appeals, separate advocacy campaigns and separate conferences. It is as if development and emergencies exist in different worlds.
But children living through crises see no distinction between humanitarian and development action – they only see whether they are getting what they need to survive, whether they are able to go to school, and whether they can dream about a better future.
When we educate a girl displaced by conflict, we’re not only giving her immediate protection. We’re helping her to shape her mind, build her own future, contribute to her family and society when she becomes an adult and perhaps even become a voice of peace in her community and country.
When we provide cash transfers to families living through natural disasters, we are not only helping see to their immediate needs. We are supporting them to prevent them depleting their savings, potentially enabling them to raise healthier, better educated children.
And sustaining the most disadvantaged and marginalised children in crisis with long-term development efforts is a practical, cost-effective path to fighting future extreme poverty – SDG1.
So, we need to keep breaking down the silos between humanitarian and development action.
Ultimately, our success in achieving the SDGs depends on addressing humanitarian crises themselves. This means, above all, refusing to accept a world in which we are unable to prevent or resolve conflicts.
Ending conflicts would open the single greatest pathway to global development; the best way to save lives; the best way to foster a generation of children ready, willing and able to sustain development into the future.
Approximately 246 million children live in countries or areas affected by armed conflict. Last year saw the highest number of child refugees since the second world war, with more than 25 million fleeing violence, destruction and deprivation.
Ending conflicts is not only in the interests of these children, though that is reason enough. It is also in the interests of every country in the world. The cost of a civil war can equal 30 years of GDP growth. Last year alone, conflicts cost the global economy an estimated $14.3trn – more than 13% of world GDP.
How can we sustain future development when we also sustain these losses, year after year? Can the world afford to lose more than 10% of its productivity year after year? How can we bring children out of poverty, poor health and despair when any progress made can be so quickly – so brutally, so needlessly – erased?
And what kind of future does humanity have when communities are battered by conflict after conflict, seemingly without end? When children fleeing these conflicts drown at sea, or suffocate in the backs of trucks crossing borders in a desperate attempt to escape the fighting?
Wouldn’t ending these conflicts be the best possible contribution to reaching the sustainable development goals?
Before we reject such a call as unrealistic, let’s consider the words of nine-year old Ali, from Sa’ada, Yemen – one of 1.8 million Yemeni children affected by the ongoing conflict there. He recently asked: “What did we do wrong? Why can’t we live like other children in the world?”
The world owes him an answer. He and every child has the right to the quiet blessing of a normal childhood.