Making peace and stability a reality for refugees

Updated Apr 24, 2019
In the midst of the biggest refugee crisis in history, Canadians can’t lose faith in international aid.

By World Vision Canada CEO, Michael Messenger

We can all remember that feeling of walking into class on the first day of school. But what if, instead of the typical scene of desks, books and excited children, there were sleeping mats, cooking utensils and families taking shelter from conflict? That’s the reality of school in Central African Republic (CAR), a country I recently visited.

The families I met are part of the growing global number of those forced to flee their homes – 68.5 million overall with 40 million of those having fled internally, like those in CAR. Like the refugee crisis, the situation in CAR has been ongoing for years, with little sign of remedy.  And like many other crises plagued by conflict and poor governance it can be difficult to see signs of change.

Perhaps that’s why so many Canadians are skeptical about foreign aid and whether it really makes any difference. Crises don’t seem to end and they are more complex than ever, making it difficult to make a lasting impact. In a recent Angus Reid survey, 77% of Canadians said that no matter how much foreign aid is spent, the situation in developing countries won’t improve. That’s a high percentage of our country that doesn’t believe humanitarian and development assistance in difficult places, like Syria or South Sudan, will make a meaningful difference. 

Witnessing a classroom being used as shelter was a stark reminder that when disaster strikes, the priority shifts to survival. It’s easy to see why food and shelter take preference over healthcare or getting an education, which in a context like CAR, can seem like a luxury.

However, though survival interventions are critical, they don’t necessarily tackle root causes of conflict or contribute to long-term peace. For real transformation to occur, humanitarian aid must go beyond the fight to stay alive.

Consider the refugee crisis. Larger than any issue the world has faced since World War II, the average time a refugee spends displaced far from home is now 26 years.

Historically, though, longer-term interventions like livelihoods programming haven’t had a place in humanitarian response. They’ve instead belonged to the development sector, which relies on stability for long-lasting programs to work. The gap between the humanitarian and development sector couldn’t be clearer when you look at funding for education programming. Only 2% of humanitarian funds go towards education, yet with crises lasting longer than before, providing education is becoming more and more critical.

Working in these fragile, challenging contexts means recognizing that families won’t likely experience stability any time soon. Crisis is a way of life, but longer-term programming can be an antidote to conflict and even facilitate peace.

A young man who lost his right leg stands with his crutch in the middle of his village.
Sartourne lost his leg when the civil war escalated and conflict between armed groups erupted in his community.

Sartourne, a former child soldier that I met in CAR, is an example of this. In 2013 when Sartourne fled fighting in his village, he joined the Seleka armed group to avenge the killings of his brothers and sisters. In 2014 World Vision demobilized thousands of children from armed groups and Sartourne was one of them.

But our work didn’t stop there. Since then Sartourne has been part of World Vision’s “peace club” – a group for adolescents like him to talk about their experiences and what their future holds. Youth are given the opportunity to catch up on school or learn a trade. In a few short years, Sartourne has become a mechanic, which he says distracts him from his past and gives him a sense of purpose.

Our own government has also recognized the power that development programming has in humanitarian contexts. Recently at the G7 Summit, Canada raised more than C$3.8 billion from G7 countries and other organizations that will go to educating girls in crisis and conflict situations. Funding like this enables the aid sector to bridge the gap between humanitarian and development responses and create real change.
The humanitarian landscape is changing, and with it so are we. Some believe it’s impossible to move the needle in crisis-afflicted countries, but with the right programming and enough resources, we can. And, Canada is already helping to lead the way. That’s something to get excited about.