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Mercy Corps Iraq distributes hygiene kits to Yezidi refugees in Newroz Camp, northeastern Syria, August 2014. Photo: Will Carter for Mercy Corps.

Are We Making Progress in Addressing Humanitarian Crises?

Over the last several years, the world has experienced refugee crises on a scale not seen since World War II. Neal Keny-Guyer ’82, the CEO of the aid organization Mercy Corps, discusses how he leads an organization with a mission that keeps it immersed in the most troubled places on the planet.


Yale Insights recently talked with Neal Keny-Guyer ’82, the CEO of the aid organization Mercy Corps about a range of humanitarian crises facing the world today. Most prominent among them is the Syrian civil war, which is the deadliest conflict of the 21st century. More than 250,000 people have been killed, and half the country’s pre-war population of 22 million has been displaced. While most are either still within Syria or in camps in adjoining countries, the UN has tallied more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe.

The conflict has exacerbated geopolitical tensions as Russia, Iran, the U.S., Turkey, and European countries have aligned with different factions. Even areas of apparent agreement, such as the need to stop terrorist groups, including ISIS, have played out in ways that added fuel to a terrible tinderbox. The conditions are bad enough that John Brennan, the director of the C.I.A., questioned whether the country could be put back together again.

Mercy Corps is working in Syria and in surrounding countries to provide support to the refugees. Around the world, the organization is working in 40 countries.

Q: What is different about the Syrian refugee crisis compared to previous crises?

First and foremost is the scale and magnitude of the crisis. More than half of the Syrian population has been uprooted. More than six million people have been displaced within the country; almost five million more have fled to other countries.

That leads to the other distinction, which is the potential of the Syrian refugee crisis to create instability in the surrounding region and, as we’ve seen, in Europe itself. That is novel, when you compare it to the Cambodian refugee crisis or the Balkans and Bosnia.

A third distinction, I think, is that we've seen way more targeting of schools, hospitals, and aid workers than in any other crisis. There seems to be an erosion of international humanitarian law, and frankly that's worrisome for the future.

Q: Does the impact on Europe change the dynamic of the crisis?

I do think the fact that the refugee crisis has spilled over into Europe has had an impact. There might even be a positive impact, if the plight of refugees suddenly moves front and center on the global agenda. On the other hand, I think most fair-minded people would say that another chaotic wave of a million-plus people fleeing to Europe is just not sustainable or healthy.

It reminds all of us that we must get better at addressing root causes. The only answer to the refugee crisis, the only answer to the humanitarian crisis, is a political one. I think the world, the global community, the U.N., the nations that have influence, are challenged to again double-down to find a solution because if this drags on for many more years, it risks destabilizing the whole region. It’s putting tremendous pressure on Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. Never mind that each of those countries, especially Iraq, has its own challenges. In addition to that, you look at how the flow of refugees into Europe has, I think, spawned this kind of nativism that, as someone once said, never ends well in history.

Q: What are the areas of need that aren't getting attention, and how do you prioritize where you can make a difference?

That's a great question. First, in the modern world, the information flows—social media, and so forth—mean that we don't have as many hidden crises off the global radar screen as we used to have. What we do have is an unprecedented confluence of complex crises. Syria, Yemen, Iraq. South Sudan, North Sudan, Darfur. The DRC. Northeast Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and many other places.

More than ever before, we're being challenged to meet ever-more-complex crises, at ever-increasing intensity, in more locations, and at the same time. So for a group like Mercy Corps, the question is, where can we have the most impact? And the reality is, we're drawn into those places where really gnarly politics, poor governance, insecurity, conflict, extreme poverty, and need all collide. There are very few organizations that can operate at any kind of scale in conditions of extreme insecurity; we happen to be one.

Our challenge is really to step up in more places at the same time than ever before, which means finding the level of talent that can work in those environments and sustaining the resources that are required to bring about real change.

Q: How is the work on the ground different than it was when you started out?

When I started out doing this kind of work, it was a very different world. I even hesitate to put out the number of years. Let's just say, I started working with refugees from the killing fields of Cambodia just inside Thailand’s side of the border.

Obviously, the communication tools were very, very different. We had a telex. Then there was the fax. Now, we have Skype, mobile technology, and all the other communication tools. Secondly, we have much better tools for assessing what is happening on the ground. We have partnerships with NASA, for example. We have partnerships that give us the ability to assess long-term climate patterns. We have tools that enable us to do analysis and analytics on the ground that we couldn't do back then.

All this opens up the real potential to bring about change that we could only dream about years ago. On the other hand, today's world is also more fragile from a political standpoint. We're suddenly seeing an increase in violence, an increase in the number of fragile states, and complexity around the kinds of crisis that we face that we just didn't see before. That’s challenging us to rediscover how to prevent conflict, how to mitigate conflict, how to build good governance. I think we've moved away from that in the last years, but we’ve been reminded how critical that is to sustaining change.

Q: In recent decades, billions of people have been pulled out of poverty. By some measures, it is the least violent time in history. Given that context, how do we understand the crises we’re facing? Are we actually making progress?

Billions of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Morbidity rates, particularly infant mortality rates, have dropped dramatically. The world should celebrate this progress—it’s real. A few years ago, Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature reminded us that this is the most peaceful time in human history. I think we should celebrate that as well. But we also have to have our eyes wide open.

In many ways, we live in a tale of two worlds today. One is progressing, is moving ahead, is capable of benefiting from all the upsides of technology. The other world, seemingly, is on fire. I worry that if we can't extinguish the flames, it will start to spill over and undermine all the progress that we’ve seen. There is a lot at stake. When you have a good chunk of the world today wondering if their children are going to have a better life than they've had, well, we need to be concerned about that.

If you look back, around the time of the global economic collapse, we began to see rising fragility everywhere, largely driven by increasing conflict. And we know now, the World Bank and OECD say, based on studies, that the number one driver of extreme poverty in the world today is conflict. Not one of the drivers, but the number one driver of extreme poverty is conflict.

I think we should be concerned about rising fragility, increasing violence, increasing conflict in many, many parts of the world. And of course, the proxy indicator of that is 65 million refugees. I'm using refugee in the broader sense to include external refugees, those who’ve been forced to flee their home country, which is about a third of the 65 million, and internal refugees, those who are still trapped in their own countries but had to move because of violence. And that number is increasing.

We’re seeing the highest number of people forced to flee their homes because of violence at any time since World War II. So, yes. If you look at the percentage of the population that is experiencing relative security and peacefulness, it's the highest percentage ever in human history. But, at the same time, violence is on the increase. Conflict is on the increase. And the number of fragile states are clearly on the rise. And we should be concerned about that.

Q: What role is climate change playing in creating or exacerbating crises?

One of the things about climate change is, we don't know how quickly its worst manifestations are going to be seen and felt. The only thing we do know: it's going to impact the poorest countries and the poorest people worst and first. We hope that unfairness creates more urgency in the global community. We were all excited about Paris. Now we know we have to follow up to secure those agreements, to make them real on the ground. We have to do everything we can to ensure that global warming is kept to one and a half degrees, and certainly no more than two degrees. That is critical.

Meanwhile, we’re already seeing impacts. We’re seeing longer and more prolonged droughts. We're seeing more severe storms with greater intensity. The immediate impacts of climate change in already fragile lands where a lot of the world’s poor live are either causing mass migration to urban areas or conflicts as people compete for diminishing resources, particularly water, but also things like herders moving their animals to find grazing land which brings them ever more into conflict with farmers.

These conflicts fuel many of the complex crises that we see today. The crisis in Darfur and even the Syrian crisis are among the first climate-caused crises in the world. That better get our attention and motivate us to, first and foremost, ensure that the world community acts from local levels to global levels to cap global warming at one and a half degrees. And secondly, for an organization like Mercy Corps, to help communities adapt to the changes that are coming, and adapt in ways that let them manage the ongoing stresses and then transform for more stability and greater good.

Q: How did climate influence Syria?

Certainly the Arab Spring was a big factor. But prior to the uprising in Syria, there had been among the most prolonged and persistent droughts in Syrian history. That drought caused food production to go down and food prices to spike. People from rural areas moved into cities. They were forced off their land, not by the government, but because of climate. In that part of the world, land is so important.

In the cities, they were much more exposed to the concerns that created the Arab Spring. As in so many countries, it starts with that sense of “I'm feeling insecure.” It starts with pocketbook issues like the price of bread rising, which is a proxy for well-being. And with that the legitimacy of the government begins eroding.

Q: How do you and your team think about maintaining the emotional wherewithal to do your jobs every day? What formal systems does Mercy Corps use to avoid burnout?

The whole issue of avoiding burnout, particularly for front-line aid workers, is a big one. And it's one we take very seriously. I wish there were a magic formula, an algorithm, or better yet, a happy pill that we could just give everyone to manage stress and the trauma that they see and experience in this work. But there's not, so what we and many of our peers have done is recognized that psychological trauma is real. Burnout is real. We attract very passionate people who care about the mission enormously. They don't often draw boundaries around themselves. So we need to encourage that.

We need an organizational culture that values work-life balance. I think that's critical, but it's an art form, not a science. We need to uphold balance as something that we take very seriously. And that means being concerned about spiritual health. If it is faith that gives you spiritual health, then by all means seek it there. But I don’t necessarily mean it in a religious sense. It can mean mindfulness or other ways to manage stress. We teach techniques, very intentionally. And we promote work-life balance very intentionally.

In addition, we have counselors available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to anybody in the Mercy Corps world, national staff, international staff, for almost any language, so that anyone who suddenly feels, “Wow, I need to talk to someone,” they can do it right away. And then we have ways for those who need more in-depth help to get that. All of this is absolutely critical for the work that we do.

Q: Do the seemingly endless crises create donor exhaustion?

Donor exhaustion is real. I get exhausted at times, and I'm an optimist, and this is what I do. At the same time, I think we all realize that the stakes are high. Even within a crisis, even within the sense of feeling overwhelmed, we must never forget that, one, we have a responsibility to jump in and make a difference, and, two, it's not hopeless. It's only hopeless if we don't do if we don't try.

I've traveled to some of what you would think of as the world's worst places: Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria, Central African Republic, and on and on. And I never cease to come away inspired. Inspired by the incredible courage of ordinary people. Not big leaders. Not rich people. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help others under the most difficult and challenging circumstances.

CEO, Mercy Corps