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This refugee crisis is a major test for the SDGs

Written by Gideon Rabinowitz

​The shocking images from the frontlines of Europe’s refugee crisis have quite rightly focused political attention on how we can provide for vulnerable people seeking a safe haven in the EU.

But alongside our immediate response to the crisis, it’s important that we take time to consider how flaws in international action have helped provoke the catastrophe in the first place – and learn lessons for the future.

Although certainly not its primary cause, the international community’s inadequate support for countries facing humanitarian and conflict-related challenges has contributed to this crisis. The response must address these deficiencies.

Aid to poor and fragile states has stagnated

The latest United Nations report on funding for Syrian refugees states that only 41% of the funds required for 2015 have been mobilised by the international community. As a result, the World Food Programme announced in July that it was halving the value of food vouchers provided to Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Where such basic needs are not being met, the incentive is for Syrian families to seek better options elsewhere.

Fragile or conflict-afflicted countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Somalia are home to the majority of the world’s extreme poor. Their instability leaves millions of their citizens facing an insecure future. Given this context it may be no surprise that eight of the ten largest source countries for asylum seekers to Europe are categorised as fragile states by the OECD. In spite of this, aid to this group of countries has stagnated since 2009.

Of course, larger volumes of aid to these countries will not be sufficient to solve their problems and eliminate all incentives for people to seek refuge elsewhere. However, aid can help to improve the standard of living for people and prospects for stability, thereby giving people more hope for their future in their own countries and regions.

This crisis is the first test for the new Sustainable Development Goals

What brings these failures of the international community into even sharper focus is the fact that they are being exposed just weeks after the UN Financing for Development summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and weeks before the UN General Assembly meeting when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be adopted, the first of which is to ‘end poverty in all its forms everywhere’.

An international community which cannot adequately fund a humanitarian system and is unable to provide sufficient aid to its most fragile countries will fail to achieve the SDGs.

This crisis therefore provides the first real test of the international community’s resolve to take the financing actions required by the SDGs.

Global leaders have an opportunity to respond at the UN General Assembly meeting in two weeks’ time. A commitment to support refugees wherever they may be, but also to fully fund the humanitarian system and provide adequate funding to fragile states will help us to begin the long march to achieving the SDGs on the front foot. 

Moreover, it is important that increasing financing to address short-term challenges doesn’t leave other vital and linked goals in the SDGs under-resourced.

There is already talk amongst donors about how aid budgets can be used to support refugees in Europe. The OECD Development Assistance Committee sets strict rules on what constitutes overseas development aid (ODA), which include the basic subsistence costs of refugees for the first year of residence in their host country.  

However, raiding aid budgets to solve these problems is not a long term answer from a financing perspective. Recent ODI research revealed a global financing gap of $84 billion per year. Only taking genuine efforts to meet the commitments already made to substantially increase ODA and development finance on the scale required by the SDGs can ensure that adequate financing is available for the global challenges we face – including this migration crisis.