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Will G20 save lives as well as jobs?

1 April 2009

As protesters take to the streets, our chief executive, Sir Nicholas Young, speaks about the Red Cross’ hopes for G20.

Nick YoungPeter Lawson (BRC)For most of us, the figures being thrown around as governments struggle to overcome the economic crisis are beyond comprehension.

It is virtually impossible to grasp the idea of $1 trillion dollars, what can be understood though is the difference money, or the lack of it, can have on individual people’s lives.  

As chief executive of the British Red Cross, there are two straightforward and universally applicable laws of economics I could not fail to have picked up.

The first is that the poorer a family is, the more likely they are to be affected by a crisis.

The second is closely linked: the poorer that family is, the worse the affects of any crisis are likely to be.

It is something I have seen at first hand again and again.

Current economic crisis

It doesn’t matter where you look - from Hurricane Katrina, which devastated some of the poorest communities in the world’s richest nation in 2006, to the ongoing food shortages affecting the Horn of Africa - it is the poor who bear the brunt, and the poorest who are most likely to die.

In terms of the current economic crisis, while the situation for developed countries and their citizens is clearly a major concern, the humanitarian impact on the world’s poorest countries will be truly catastrophic.

Last year it is reckoned around 44 million more people became malnourished as a direct result of the jump in food prices, the effects of the worldwide economic recession will make the situation even worse.

The World Bank estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 more children will die every year between now and 2015 as a result of the crisis.

Increasing vulnerability

This year, tens-of-millions of people in the developing world who had lifted themselves out of poverty will fall back into living on less than $2 a day - with a resulting increase in their vulnerability to disease, hunger and natural disasters. It is a downward spiral which will last as long as the crisis persists.

Secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Bekele Geleta has already warned that funding from governments and corporate donors for the organisation’s relief work is starting to dry up, potentially restricting the Red Cross’ ability to respond to the growing humanitarian need.

That our ability to respond should be compromised at a time when hundreds of millions of people around the world are becoming more vulnerable is a vast tragedy in the making.

Can it possibly be right that funding for humanitarian crises affecting the world’s poorest should be running short just as governments discuss spending hundreds of billions on “stimulus packages” for the developed world?

The needs of others

Over the years, the British Red Cross has found that it is often in times of economic hardship that members of the public give more, their own hardships heightening their awareness of the needs of others.

It is massively disappointing that, in stark contrast, some governments have actually begun to cut aid to the developing world as a way of shaving their budgets.

Especially as, whilst having vital lifesaving impact in recipient countries, donor governments’ aid is a tiny figure compared to what most are currently pumping into their own economies.

Of the 26 countries identified by the IMF as likely to suffer most as a result of the economic crisis, not a single one will be present at the G20 meeting where strategies to tackle the crisis will be discussed.

Vulnerable populations

These are not countries home to the banks and stock markets so widely reported as the major losers in the downturn.

These are places like Haiti, Angola, Liberia and Sudan - countries already home to poor and vulnerable populations, who are now set to become even more so. Countries which have struggled to overcome the effects of recurring and protracted humanitarian disasters since long before the credit crunch became part of our daily lives.  

It is vital that the voices of the vulnerable are heard at the G20, and that those countries which are present give sufficient consideration to the needs of those who are unrepresented, but for whom the decisions made will have a massive impact.

We all have to accept that we are living in financially turbulent times, but governments must not be allowed to use this as an excuse to backslide on pledges they have made to tackling poverty and humanitarian issues in the developing world.

Helping the poorest

Gordon Brown’s calls for a new global deal that will help the poorest through the recession, the pledges by the vast majority of countries not to cut aid targets, and assurances that the needs of the poorest countries will be on the agenda, are all to be welcomed.

That these issues are on the programme is extremely encouraging and we must hope that words are matched by actions and the G20 resolves to counter the huge immediate humanitarian impact of the crisis.

At a very minimum, existing budgets and pledges already made to provide aid to the world’s poorest countries must be honoured, including those made at the Gleneagles summit in 2005 to increase development aid by $50bn per year – a target countries were already falling behind on before the crisis hit.

But it is not a case of simply writing a big enough cheque.

Building resilient communities

We must go back to those two laws we are so used to seeing in our work at the Red Cross and find ways to combat them.

This means looking beyond GDP, economic growth rates and the volatility of the markets, and making sure assistance directly reaches the most vulnerable communities.

It means making sure that when we respond to the crises of today we protect people from the threats of tomorrow.

In its work around the world the Red Cross addresses immediate needs, such as food, shelter or healthcare, but also works to ensure communities are less exposed to risks and are more resilient in the future.  

Governments are willing to spend huge sums to save jobs, it would be unconscionable if they were found unwilling to save lives.

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