Responding to crises: What can we do? What’s next?

Although sometimes over used, the word 'crisis' accurately describes many challenges of today's world, such as climage change, war and refugees, economic volatility, pandemics, and the continuing unmet needs of the poor, hungry, and neglected. While much has been achieved — in reducing the incidence of poverty and infant mortality, especially — our bright hopes for the future could be dimmed by shocks that can overwhelm nations, international organizations, communities, and citizens.

UNU-WIDER’s ‘Responding to crises’ conference, held in Helsinki in September, aimed to improve knowledge about continuing, unexpected, and future crises. It also served as a forum to discuss the options available for governments, international agencies, NGOs, civil society and private citizens to respond.

The conference paid close attention to the economic and social impact of crises, the tensions that arise in responding to continuing crises while dealing with the unexpected, the resourcing of responses, and what the future might bring — for better or for worse.

Continuing crises

For the world's poorest people, each day is a crisis of finding work, enough to eat, and safety. Even for those who escape poverty traps, other challenges present themselves, especially in fragile states with weak governance and a lack of human rights. Gender violence, as a whole, is all too pervasive. Continuing crises such as poverty and hunger were the focus of the Millennium Development Goals and, as the new Sustainable Development Goals indicate, are still of critical importance today. 

Unexpected crises

The crises of the future will come in many different shapes and sizes. Wars, pandemics and natural disasters can sometimes be predicted, but we very rarely know when they will happen or how far-reaching their impact will be. In recent times, mass migration, Zika, and Ebola have reared their heads. Similar unexpected crises will, regrettably, continue to emerge. One of the best ways to limit their impacts is to raise the general level of development and thus ensure that countries have the resources and skills to respond in the most effective manner.

Future crises to grow from current problems

Even for crises that we’ve seen coming for a long time — such as climate change — the international community has been slow to act. The world continues to expect innovation and technological progress in addressing this vital issue. Certainly progress on renewable energy, and its take-up, is accelerating.  But clearly more action is needed if the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change is to be limited. Some politicians continue to put forward the view that prosperity comes before the environment. But if we destroy the planet, what are the chances of maintaining and raising the living standards for all of humanity? 

Population growth also requires attention as it adds to the urgent need to create low-carbon green economies that secure the environmental basis of continuing and rising prosperity. This must be done alongside job creation. Much of the poorer world is seeing increased economic growth but not enough new jobs to provide employment to an increasing number of people at ever rising levels of skill, and hopefully income. By 2050 there will 2.5 billion people in Africa and Nigeria’s population will be larger than that of the US. Hundreds of millions of people without decent livelihoods is a recipe for social and political turmoil. In a crisis of this scale, the potential exodus of people may far exceed that of the migrants and refugees seen today.

Threats can also be opportunities

Current crises and future threats can, however, become opportunities. If a successful war-to-peace transition is accomplished, a crisis of war and population displacement can yield a society that is more aware of how unmet needs feed grievance and, eventually, conflict. Crisis resolution may highlight the needs of the excluded, leading to investments in institutions that encourage the use of non-violent channels to address grievances. The last twenty years has seen conflicts end and societies rebuilt in countries such as Mozambique and Liberia. 

Natural disasters have sometimes overwhelmed human societies, leading in the worst cases to their eradication. But history is also filled with examples of humankind adapting to environmental stress and rebuilding its environmental capital. Climate change demands technological as well as social innovation on an unprecedented scale. Thankfully, humanity now has more resources and scientific knowledge at its fingertips to effectively deal with these issues than at any other time.

Humanity has come back from repeated pandemics across its long history — and has learnt from each terrible experience. Our task now is to put the responses in place, initiate fast action, and enable societies to rebuild quickly. At the same time, we need to invest more in organizations and technologies that meet everyday health needs, especially those of the poor. Once widespread diseases, such as polio, have almost been defeated. We must continue working to end the scourge of child and maternal mortality seen in the poor world today.

The demographic burden can become a demographic dividend if more young people find productive jobs in economies that have been transformed from their present over-dependence on exports of mostly unprocessed primary commodities. The political pressure resulting from young people’s frustration with the existing social and economic order can yield more inclusive societies that make the tough decisions to overcome persistent discrimination and neglect. Historically, this has happened: some societies, like Indonesia, have moved to better times through periods of turmoil during which the existing political structures have been questioned and overturned.

The bottom line

Crises create panic and bad responses when we don’t have the facts — or when we don’t want to face them. Preparedness based on sound evidence reduces fear, leads to faster action, and builds confidence. Everyone in society, both national and global, has a role to play in tackling current and future crises. Governments, international agencies, NGOs, civil society, and private citizens can respond in multiple ways, and need to work together to provide the most effective solutions. With conferences like this one, it is UNU-WIDER’s hope to help everyone make fewer bad choices and more good ones.

Tony Addison is Chief Economist and Deputy Director, UNU-WIDER. He is on Twitter at @TonysAngle.