A Conversation with David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC)

A Conversation with David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC)

David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), where he oversees the agency’s humanitarian relief operations in more than 40 war-affected countries and its refugee resettlement and assistance programs in over 20 United States cities. In 2019 alone, the IRC provided 1,474,900 children with schooling and education opportunities, provided 1,756,000 people with clean water infrastructure, admitted 122,100 children for urgent nutrition treatment, provided vocational and livelihood support to over 226,100 people, helped 151,700 mothers deliver new-borns and offered safe space to over 165,000 women and children.

From 2007 to 2010, Miliband was the 74th Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of the United Kingdom, driving advancements in human rights and representing the U.K. throughout the world. In 2006, as Secretary of State for the Environment, he pioneered the world’s first legally binding emissions reduction requirements. 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,” and as an effective and passionate advocate for the world’s uprooted and poor people. Miliband’s parents fled to Britain from continental Europe during World War II and its aftermath. As the son of refugees, he brings a personal commitment to the IRC’s work. Miliband’s first book, Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of our Time, was published by TED Books in November 2017.

In this exclusive interview, I spoke with David Miliband about the work of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and how we can create a better world for individuals fleeing conflict and disaster.

Q: What motivated you to work with individuals fleeing conflict and disasters and the international rescue committee?

[David Miliband]: In 2013, the International Rescue Committee were looking for a new CEO, and at the interview panel I said that I was applying for the job firstly because I thought some fo the questions at the intersection of foreign policy and humanitarian aid were some of the most difficult questions in global public policy. How do you get aid into Syria? How do you educate kids in Afghanistan? How do you tackle sexual violence in the Congo? Those are difficult questions, and I like difficult questions. Secondly, the International Rescue Committee have a special responsibility at a time of growing conflict, intrastate conflict and where there are growing numbers of refugees. IRC are not a general anti-poverty agency, but help people who are in poverty because of displacement, conflict or persecution – and I felt that the organisation needed to grow through leadership and voice. Thirdly, my parents were both refugees – and that gave me a personal link that allowed me to feel- that in some way- I was closing a circle, or repaying a debt, albeit to people in different parts of the world who were suffering in a way that had some intersection with my own family’s story 

Q:  Why do NGO’s need to operate in spaces which otherwise may be considered the domain of effective governments?

[David Miliband]: Even where you have effective government you need strong NGOs as there is no monopoly of wisdom in either domain. An effective society has a strong community, a dynamic private sector and an effective government. In a lot of cases, NGOs like ours have to work precisely because there isn’t effective government, nor any provision apart from what we provide. One of the first questions we ask in any geography we work is, ‘is there someone else doing the job better?’ – we have to be sure that we’re not staying beyond when we are needed, that we are meeting the criteria for us to be there, and that we are delivering against our goals.

Q: How (and why) are economic wellbeing and empowerment a priority for people fleeing conflict and disaster?

[David Miliband]: The traditional definition of humanitarian aid is around saving lives, and that wouldn’t typically include economic depression. We are very clear however that we are about livelihoods as well as lives. The displacement that people face is now over generations not just years. The idea that you should only be dependent on social services until you are able to briskly return to your homeland or hometown is betrayed by the evidence. The evidence is that displacement can be 15, 20, 25 years. In the case of the Palestinian people it is 70-80 years, many Afghans have been displaced from their homes for 40 years and Somalis for over 30 years. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, displacement appears to be a life-sentence not a short-term event. The old model was to keep people alive until they go home. That model is broken, less than 3% of the world’s refugees went home last year.

There’s also very interesting data that comes from the impact assessments of our social service work, especially in respect to women and girls (who make up two-thirds of our clients). It turns out that when you empower people economically, your social programmes go further. The idea that there is a stark separation between a social program that’s sustainable and economic program that’s a luxury doesn’t fit the reality. When you join economic empowerment to social protection, you get double the benefit and thus there is a very hard-headed reason to support livelihoods not just lives.

The most basic form of economic system is obviously cash distribution, and there’s a lot of data supporting the impact of that. It supports the local economy as well as supporting the people you give money to. Local shopkeepers are grateful as well as the refugees and displaced people caught up in the crisis. Remember that 60% of refugees are in urban areas not camps- but even in the camps you have an economy. When you talk of a market economy, it’s the training, the business formation, all these things form part of helping people sustain their lives.

There is a market everywhere, the critical question is to what extent that market is legal and lawful and not abusive and irregular. We hope that our method of supporting empowerment of people who are vulnerable slightly levels the playing field for them.

Our programmes have the aim of empowerment of people; that might be around their rights, access to justice, access to opportunity or safety. There are a range of ways in which the voices and choices and rights of individuals are a goal of our programmes irrespective of whether we are delivering health services, education, livelihoods or protection. Empowerment means that you are looking at other ends, not just the outcome of that specific activity. Empowerment means we are able to sustain hope in a situation that may – to many outsiders – look hopeless. 

Q:  How effective are the international laws and treaties protecting communities fleeing conflict and disaster?

[David Miliband]: The international laws and treaties we have are not very effective at protecting people- not because of how they’re written- but because of the gap between rhetoric and reality. The UN Charter and UN Declaration of Human Rights set out civil, political, social and economic rights to people- but the gap between the situation of people caught in conflict and the rest of us is growing, not narrowing. 80% of countries who are fragile and conflict-affected were off-track to meet their sustainable development goals before covid struck, The gap is not going to be narrowed by trying to change the words on paper, we have to live up to them. In some ways, that’s relatively straightforward (if you’re only spending 3% of your humanitarian budget on education, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that three-quarters of refugee teenagers are out of school). Other aspects are far more difficult- when you’re trying to tackle gender-norms for example or a lack of protection and safety.

Q: Why are communities skeptical about aid, and how can we make a case for international aid?

[David Miliband]: Civil society varies from place-to-place and one has to be careful not to generalize. To those communities and people who are skeptical about the value of aid, I can see why they would hold those views. There is a concern that aid doesn’t reach the people who need it- hence the need for transparency. They may doubt the sustainability of the impact- but you can show them impact studies that show that aid does have a sustainable impact. They might feel they’re not bearing a fair share of the burden, and that is a good criticism however the United States spends 0.17% of national income on overseas aid compared to the 0.7% that the United Kingdom commits. People may also feel that too much money is being given to overseas aid- some opinion polls suggest that Americans think 25% of Federal money goes to foreigners- it’s completely untrue. There are a series of grounds for skepticism, and facts we can use to take them on.  There’s a more fundamental point however… The best people to explain the value of aid are not people like me… it’s our clients around the world for whom aid has made a direct difference to their lives. I recently heard from a woman in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo who said, ‘until I met the IRC, I didn’t know that rape was a crime… I didn’t know rape was even a word…’ that was immensely powerful. It’s imperative to get the voices and stories of those people who are benefitting from aid to show how it works. I don’t accept that people have lost their humanity when it comes to aid, but they need it explained to them by those people who are benefitting from it.

Q:  How can we build a more positive view of refugee and migrant communities?

[David Miliband]: We cannot be complacent; we cannot pretend everything is fine. We live in a deeply connected world, and if we want stability and prosperity in our connected world, we have to look after the weakest links as well as the strongest parts. That sense of unfairness that people have around who’s picking up the tab when it comes to aid is an important part of how perceptions towards communities fleeing disaster and conflict are shaped. The fact that some rich countries don’t live up to their responsibilities (the 0.7% UN target) makes it harder for other countries to justify why they should do so, and hence, directly impacts the world’s abilities to help the people who need assistance. One country, and one group cannot put the world to rights- it’s a collective responsibility.

Q:  What is the impact of crime for communities fleeing conflict and disaster?

[David Miliband]: There is certainly exploitation of the people who we’re trying to help. Some of that exploitation takes the form of organized crime, and people trafficking is the best example of that. If you don’t give people legal routes to hope, they will find illegal routes and put themselves in the hands of criminals. That’s the reality. We have record numbers of refugees and displaced people, and so for criminal gangs this is a business which is at scale, and which didn’t exist before in the same way.

People have always moved for economic reasons and that’s always been a striking feature of the global system. The proceeds of organized criminality are generally outweighed significantly by the proceeds of legitimate remittances by diaspora communities, and we must not forget that.

The critical thing is that we take-on organized crime and undermine it by leveraging the appropriate international support.

Q:  What are the flash-points you are most concerned about for the near future? 

[David Miliband]: The extent to which people are dehumanized by their own governments or non state actors, or through neglect by the international community, is a precursor for trouble. Around the world today there are a number of conflicts that could easily scale. One thinks here of the situation in North East Nigeria, South Sudan and Syria… There are more than 120 armed groups in Eastern Congo.

To understand where the next conflicts will emerge, you can also look to the existing conflicts that exist. We know that the most likely product of a civil war is, unfortunately, another civil war. There’s a lot of tinder around, quite a lot of room for fires at the moment.

Q:  What is the role of arts and culture in serving communities fleeing conflict and disaster? 

[David Miliband]: Education is key to dealing with trauma, as well as teaching maths, language and skills. Arts and education are hard to fund, they are seen often as a luxury, but we have to do more. In the places we work around the world you don’t have formalized cultural infrastructure as you may do in the towns and cities of the USA and UK, but you have a vibrant cultural life, and that- itself- shows the importance of arts and culture. 

Q:  What do you hope your legacy will be?

[David Miliband]: I haven’t thought much about legacy – I don’t’ accept that I’m 55 and i’m certainly not willing to write my own gravestone just yet. I try to act with integrity in everything I do- I think that’s the best maxim to live by. Sometimes you can make a huge impact when you least expect it, and sometimes you do big things, and nobody notices… I don’t spend too much time thinking about that, I still have too much work to do.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.