David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), visited SIPA on November 9 for the latest installment of the Spotlight Interview series hosted by the Institute of Global Politics (IGP). In a wide-ranging conversation with Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, Miliband — who is also one of IGP’s Inaugural Distinguished Carnegie Fellows — discussed IRC’s mission, the current humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza, and how to prioritize the support of girls, women, and children in the midst of humanitarian crises.
The conversation opened with a brief comment about the history, role, and aims of the IRC, which Albert Einstein founded in the 1930s to address humanitarian concerns that were too often failed by international politics. Over the intervening decades the IRC has grown to become a $1.6 billion organization (from $450 million in 2013, when Miliband became its president) that today employs 24,000 staff and maintains 300 field sites around the world.
To be a successful humanitarian organization you need to be a feminist organization.
— David Miliband
Miliband talked about the importance of working directly with impacted communities to distribute aid. “Neutrality, impartiality, independence and humanity,” he said, “are the ways we go about negotiating with local governing authorities in places where the value system isn't the same as the one that might be in this room.”
Clinton asked Miliband about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Israel and Gaza, in which the IRC had called for a five-day ceasefire. “The longer the argument for a humanitarian ceasefire is unsuccessful, the longer the ceasefire needs to be,” Miliband said, “in order to do the humanitarian work, because of the scale of the damage increasing.” (As of November 13, no ceasefire had been implemented.)
He continued: “I spoke to someone in northern Gaza today [November 9] and the lack of water, the lack of electricity, the lack of food, the lack of medicines to treat the injured — this is a humanitarian emergency of a really substantial kind.”
The conversation also covered broader trends in humanitarian crises, including the increasing impact of conflict and fragility on extreme poverty, the role of climate change as a driver of crises, and the economic fallout from events like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war.
“Risks are going global but the resilience is increasingly local,” Miliband said. “Somalia [for example] has done very little to create the climate crisis and is very vulnerable to climate disaster, but it isn't getting any help. We can see that global risk the same with COVID. COVID was a global risk. The richer parts of the world managed to catch up with it but in the poorest parts of the world we are behind.”
Miliband also highlighted the concentration of humanitarian needs in specific regions and the importance of engaging with nontraditional donors, such as China and the Gulf states.
“One of the current tragedies of the standoff between the United States and China is that the cooperation leg of the stool is shorter than the competition leg and confrontation leg of the stool,” Miliband said. “We have got to compete, confront on red line issues, and cooperate. But the cooperation is not happening.”
Clinton and the IRC are both leading voices on the impact of humanitarian crises on women and children, and Clinton made a point to ask about conflict situations — she cited a new report from the UN that more than 600 million women and girls lived in conflict-affected countries in 2022, a 50 percent increase from 2017 — and gender-based violence.
Miliband stressed the importance of tracking and managing gender-specific data, targeting assistance, and addressing economic disempowerment to combat gender-based violence effectively.
“To be a successful humanitarian organization you need to be a feminist organization,” he said. “One, you have to take seriously the structural inequalities that confront women and girls in the places we work. Two, you have to confront the structural inequalities in the humanitarian sector that disadvantage women and girls and confront the structural inequalities that exist in your organization in addressing the needs of women and girls.”
The event wrapped up with questions from the audience that touched on the potential impacts of AI on humanitarian aid, how to tackle food insecurity, and how to create and monitor effective strategies in humanitarian aid.
In his parting words, Miliband spoke about tackling diverse crises around the world: “There is not a singular fix. It is multiple dysfunctions feeding off each other and the argument is, as I understand it, that the answer to a poly crisis has to be plural, not singular. You can't tackle multiple crises with a singular solution.”