Refugees who fled South Sudan receive food aid at Kule Camp in Ethiopia. By 2030 two-thirds of the world’s poorest population is expected to live in fragile and conflict-affected states. Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

Was it coincidental? Ironic? Or did U.N. press officers show some sense of history?

On June 18, while Europe marveled at the gun smoke in the bicentennial re-enactment of Napoleon’s final defeat in the Belgian fields of Waterloo, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees released its global trends report on forced displacement. Never before in history has armed conflict forced more families to flee their homes than today. A staggering 59.5 million refugees are on the run, hiding, surviving in camps, dying in the Mediterranean and now on the shores of northern Europe.

While Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Kenya, Uganda and others transform themselves by providing a safe haven for millions of refugees, Europe is politically paralyzed. It is feverishly defending its welfare states and borders by refusing care for those in need. But without long-term commitment and appropriate budgets to counter injustice and promote proper leadership and governance structures in the hotbeds of conflict, military force and political palavers will not protect Europe against tides of conflict.

In different ways we have all contributed to and even invested in the global violence and the flows of refugees that are coming our way. We do so in hard cash, with taxpayers’ money. A day before the Waterloo bicentennial, the Institute for Economics and Peace concluded in its “Global Peace Index 2015” that the cost of global violence is 13.4 percent of the world gross domestic product, being the equivalent of the combined economies of Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom. These costs are covered by many money flows, some darker than others, all of them richly flowing.

It takes years to forge the kind of political and financial goodwill that leads to the Millennium Development Goals and other agreements meant to tackle the roots of conflict — poverty, inequality and exclusion. It takes additional years to come to the conclusions that we are not able as an international community to keep the promises we make, and that paperwork agreements do not put out fires. Virtually none of the MDGs were achieved in areas where it is most needed: fragile and conflict-affected countries.

Meanwhile, the business of warfare remains business as usual. World military spending reached a whopping $1.8 trillion. Members of the U.N. Security Council, also deciding on peace-building missions, are among the largest producers and distributors of small arms, the weapons of mass destruction of the 21st century. How cynical is that? Industrialized economies and democracies are co-financing and arming the battlefields of which the dead do not reach our doors and shores — until recently.

We finance them just like we finance our infrastructure. Taxpayers around the globe finance war, defense industries and arms trade, much more and more unknowingly than they invest in development and nonviolent peace initiatives. In fact, our welfare systems enrich themselves by investing in warfare, even in corrupted warfare. Indeed, on the same day as the Waterloo bicentennial, Dutch media reported that some of the biggest life insurance companies and pension funds in Europe invest in companies supplying weapons to corrupt regimes and dictators. Our social security is linked to another person’s war and another population’s nightmare.

Many if not all of today’s worst conflicts are symptoms of fragility; they flare up in states where fundamental human rights are not being met, where gender inequality is rampant, children do not find their way to the classroom, young men and women have no job opportunities, and state authorities are sources of fear rather than protection. These are places that score high on the “Fragile States Index 2015,” such as South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan and Syria; war-torn countries with failing public services, failing economies and fleeing populations — places where the global trend of declining poverty does not apply.

Increasingly fragility, poverty and conflict go hand in hand and reinforce one another. By 2030 two-thirds of the world’s poorest population is expected to live in fragile and conflict-affected states. Nothing will stop them from escaping hell in growing numbers and seeking hope on the shores of the rich and well-protected.

The world is on fire and world leaders are putting out the fire with paperwork. As long as the North, the South, the East and the West do not show long-term political and financial commitment to address fragility, as long as taxpayers around the globe are part of political systems that prioritize military approaches to conflict and glorify gun smoke, we shouldn’t be surprised that, as the “SIPRI Yearbook 2015 on Armaments, Disarmament and International Security” put it, “the positive trend toward less violence and more effective conflict management … has been broken.” To put it differently: We shouldn’t be surprised refugees wash up on our shores.

It is time to look ahead and take action. To finish the job the MDGs started, the international community has set up the ambitious framework of the sustainable development goals, meant to eradicate extreme poverty in one generation. The only way to prevent this framework to become yet another broken promise for the majority of the poor is by putting and keeping fragility high on the development agenda and by fighting poverty right in the heart of fragile and conflict-ridden areas. Even if it may mean you need to take two steps forward and one step back. It is in countries like South Sudan and the Central African Republic that risks are high, but the potential for meaningful impact is at its highest.

World leaders and the global donor community will converge July 13-16 on Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for the third International Conference on Financing for Development, where the architecture and financing of the post-2015 development agenda will be negotiated. It is a key moment in which the global community can decide not to turn its back on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Not by producing more paperwork, but by quenching flames with concrete measures.

To do so, high-level decision-makers meeting in Addis need to earmark development finance for peace and state-building goals and distribute them fairly, including in forgotten fragile countries such as the Central African Republic. They have to establish funding mechanisms to promote and strengthen women’s and youth’s voices in national policymaking from South Sudan to Afghanistan. They have to make sure the world can track and monitor national and international spending on peace and security, health, education, food security and other common goods in today’s hotbeds. And finally, more fragile-sensitive investment funds need to be set up for local entrepreneurs and smallholders. They are creating job opportunities and feeding the hungry in the midst of turmoil.

If Addis can be the stage for this kind of commitment, it deserves a monument higher than the Lion’s Mound in Waterloo. Let’s make it happen.

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About the author

  • Simone Filippini

    Simone Filippini is the president of Leadership4SDGs. She is a former Dutch ambassador and former executive director of Cordaid and NIMD.