Remarks: 2014 Commencement Address at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies by International Rescue Committee President and CEO David Miliband on May 22, 2014

Today you celebrate the importance of hard work, free thought, fierce debate and the strength of community. You do so across lines of race, region, nationality and religion in a graduating class that spans the globe. I am therefore truly honored to have been asked to share this special day with you.

I am especially pleased to be speaking in this hall. It was here that Franklin Roosevelt came to address the Daughters of the American Revolution on 21 April 1938. The DAR was amongst the harshest critics of the President’s progressive politics. Yet FDR did not seek to placate them. He didn’t bother with any soft soap. Instead he delivered the ultimate put down of an organization whose members traced their origins to the founding of the Republic. He greeted the descendents of those who fought in the Revolutionary War with the memorable and meaningful words: “Good morning my fellow immigrants.”

If any of you want to go into politics, remember that.

Globalization of Conscience

I want first and foremost to congratulate today’s graduating class. I say that not as a perfunctory greeting but with feeling. Let me explain why.

Every country is today consumed with its own problems. President Obama has said it many times: “Nation building begins at home.”

Pope Francis has gone so far as to talk about “the globalization of indifference.” It is a telling phrase, speaking to the fact that a more connected world can convey daily images of murder and mayhem in Syria or South Sudan, but not the imperative to do something about it.

There is great pressure to think local. Yet you have defied that pressure. And I thank you for it.

By coming to this school you have shown a commitment to the rest of the world, not just your own city or country. By deciding to enroll in a school of international affairs you have declared that although nation-building begins at home, it cannot end there.

I ask you today to continue in that vein.

To continue to be different rather than indifferent; to continue to defy the siren call of localism; to continue to study international affairs; and in time to begin to shape those affairs, in an era when the issues are complex and the stakes are high.

Vaclav Havel said conscience must catch up with reason or all is lost. My hope is is that you stand up for the globalization of conscience against the globalization of indifference.

My Lessons

I came late to foreign affairs. My Master’s Degree was in Political Science and Public Policy. For a significant part of my career in politics and government I addressed domestic problems in the UK.

I started with my own party, developing policy ideas and writing party election programs that would win votes and change lives.

In government, looking at social and particularly welfare policy, I focused on how to modernize the welfare state and public services.

I then transitioned between domestic and foreign policy by addressing the question of how individually and collectively nations could make the transformation necessary to mitigate climate change.

Only then did I move into traditional foreign policy: I spent three years as Foreign Minister winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, strengthening peace in the Balkans, negotiating treaties in Europe, trying to negotiate nuclear agreements with Iran, trying and sad to say failing to prevent slaughter in Sri Lanka.

I was lucky that I had the opportunity not to just to work in politics but in government. It is a big miss.

Some of you have asked what did I learn?

I learnt that leaving problems to fester did not make them go away; in fact it made them more difficult to solve. I feel that about Syria.

I learnt that ideas and argument are the most important currency in politics. When the mainstream right and left leave a vacuum, it gets filled by the kind of populist scaremongering that is prevalent in Europe today.

I learnt that consensus is the right aspiration in any democracy but opportunity comes through controversy. The cycle of change usually runs from controversy through conflict to consensus.

I saw this in the big social reforms while we were in government. Gay marriage was controversial before it was talked about; by the time it was legislated it had become widely accepted.

I also learnt that the bigger the problem, the more inertia there was in the system. And the more inertia there is the greater is the need for a disruptive force. Climate change is a good example. Controversy about the politics is not a moment to run from the science; it is the time to embrace it.

As you all know, the electorate quit on my party before I quit on them; I left politics and government by necessity not choice; but I made a positive decision not to leave international affairs behind.

Instead of using government to solve problems, I am now looking through the other end of the telescope. I am trying through an independent humanitarian NGO, with 12,000 staff in 30 countries, to make a difference where it is the breakdown of government and politics that is the problem.

Think education for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Health care in South Sudan. Small scale infrastructure in Afghanistan. Child protection in Central African Republic. Water and sanitation in Burma/Myanmar. Support for women and girls in DRC and Burundi.

The argument I want you to think about today links my political history with my present humanitarian focus. There is a gap today between humanitarian need and humanitarian aid and it is our task to build a bridge.

The Mismatch of Humanitarian Need and the Humanitarian System

Let me start with what is a very big and growing problem: the number of people affected by humanitarian crisis has almost doubled over the last ten years, and the cost has trebled.

With more refugees and Internally Displaced People than ever before - 52 million last year, one every 4 seconds – the humanitarian system is stretched as never before by the weakness of the international political system.

The political response to monstrous abuse of civilian life is weak. The flouting of civilian rights in warfare, whether in Syria or Sri Lanka, rolling back decades of humanitarian law and practice, is making a mockery of declarations by the UN Security Council. The plain fact is that while many of you will have studied the “responsibility to protect” in international affairs, the “right to abuse” is stronger today.

The dangerous nexus between demand for food, energy and water is increasing insecurity, with the specter of “climate refugees” driven from their homes, never able to return.

There is frightening religious sectarianism, within Islam and between Muslims and Christians, not just in the Middle East but also in Africa. In the Central African Republic, the Muslim population has been driven from the country.

There is the politicization of aid, not least the growth of ‘jihadism with a human face,’ as Jabhat al Nusra in Syria and LET in Pakistan fight for hearts and minds through their social welfare programs.

I yield to nobody in my admiration for the work that I have seen on the ground by staff of my own organization. Dedicated people of incredible bravery doing vital humanitarian rescue, most of them in their own homeland.

But we have to concede that amidst the frenetic, life-saving activity there is also inertia in the humanitarian system:

  • We still have policy tailored for refugee camp situations when most refugees and IDPs are not actually in refugee camps.
  • Grants are short term and ad hoc when problems are long term and systematic.  
  • Programs currently respond to the requirements of donors when they need to focus on the reality of people’s lives.  Economic betterment is an add-on when helping those in long term need earn their own living needs to be central.
  • The rhetoric about prevention, so called “Disaster Risk Reduction”, is much stronger than the reality; only 0.5% of aid over the last 20 years was devoted to prevention and preparedness.

This is why people are able to write books called “The Tyranny of Experts,” “Aid on the Edge of Chaos,” and “How the World came to Save Haiti – and left behind a Disaster.”

So this is the challenge laid down: How do you harness the changes transforming our world for the interests of the poorest and most marginalized? How do we create a globalization for those who have so far been left behind?

Part of the answer lies within the humanitarian system and I would like to welcome those of you who are joining our sector to help us find the answers.

At IRC we are discussing how to promote accountability to people we serve. We are embracing a shift towards cash programming, so that people can make their own choices about priorities.

We are building innovation in our programs to meet the needs of growing numbers of urban refugees.

We are using technology to create more efficient and effective systems for aid delivery and for refugees to help each other.

But we cannot bridge the gap between humanitarian need and humanitarian provision on our own.

It needs a different relationship with politics and government. 20 per cent of your predecessors in last year’s graduating class went into government service.

In Syria or Central African Republic the breakdown of politics is the cause of humanitarian catastrophe. So the route to stop the violence has to be political too. The real issue is not politicizing the humanitarian system; it is bringing back humanity into politics.

But I want to leave you today thinking about how the relationship with business rather than politics could be transformative for the humanitarian sector.

44% of SAIS grads last year went into the private sector. For those of you pursuing a similar career path this year, your employers – multinational companies, global investors – will take you to new and exotic markets in the hunt for big returns.

And here is a strange thing. Humanitarian emergencies and high potential markets are often the same countries.

Burma/Myanmar is a hot investment opportunity. It is also a humanitarian crisis. DRC is one of the most richly endowed countries in Africa. In part for that reason it has also been one of the most war-torn. And so on.

Half the world’s poor live in fragile states. Yet over half of the world’s fragile states are already classified by the OECD as middle income.

Where the diplomat sees an ungoverned state and the aid worker see humanitarian need the patient investor can see a growth market. Just ask yourself why China is a long term investor in so many parts of Africa. In total over $50 billion a year of private capital is flowing into the continent.

These markets are among the most unequal, exploitative and unstable in the world. The point I want to make is that international investment can run both ways. It can either be part of the problem or part of the solution.

The wrong kind of investment takes a bet on part of the elite; it turns a blind eye to corruption; and defines the bottom line in a short term and narrow way. This kind of investment ends in tragic fire deaths that ruin lives and corporate reputations; or in the favored local elite being turfed out of office which leaves the investor short of friends.

The right kind of investment thinks about long term legitimacy as the way to sustain short term gain; it delivers benefits for the local economy as well as the global investor; it recognizes that the quality of local public health, vaccination rates for example, helps determine absentee rates; it is built on an understanding that the quantity of local education helps determine skill levels; good investors realize that a commitment to local hiring helps determine community acceptance.


So whether your career is taking you to public, private or NGO sector you can contribute to the great disruptions necessary to build a more equal, stable and sustainable world.

As you head for the financial district in New York or Shanghai, or government in Washington or Brussels, or development work in far flung fields, it will be important to nurture the links you have made, because our sectors are going to be more porous and intertwined than ever before.

The problems on my desk – reaching people through the rains of South Sudan, protecting women and girls from violence in Thailand, educating 250, 000 out of school kids in Lebanon – will never be solved by government, private sector or NGOs alone.

And for this we are all held to account. The biggest change in this disruptive age is the growth of moral accountability.

Moral accountability to citizens, to shareholders, to donors and supporters. We are all an internet connection away from a viral message that makes a reputation or breaks it. And when we hold ourselves to account, we need to explain not where we assimilated and excused, but where we disrupted and challenged. Disrupted the consensus that people and countries cannot address global issues at the same time as local ones.

Disrupted the assertion that the public don’t see the connection between the local and the global.

Disrupted the presumption that where there is complexity there can be no conscience.

And show that this generation can summon the values and the vision not just to make a living, but to make a difference.

Think of this.

“During bad circumstances, which is the human circumstance, you must decide not to be reduced. You have your humanity and you must not allow anything to reduce that. We are obliged to know we are global citizens. Disasters remind us we are world citizens, whether we like it or not.”

Not my words, but those of Maya Angelou. You have chosen to be global citizens.

It is a noble choice. And from all I have heard about you, you will do us all proud, and build that bridge.

Good luck on the journey, and see you there.

Thursday, May 22, 2014
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