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Prevention Is the Best Migration Cure

By 2030, most of the world’s poor will live in regions suffering from some form of "fragility," forcing millions to flee their homes. Donors can prepare now by allocating money to address the causes of displacement, rather than focusing disproportionately on the effects.

PARIS – With newspapers full of stories about the challenges migrant families face, it might be tempting to assume that the causes of displacement are also being addressed. In most cases, however, such an assumption would be wrong. Today, solutions to forced migration focus almost exclusively on aiding refugees after they flee, rather than targeting the reasons for their flight. To resolve the world’s refugee crises, the causes require as much attention as the effects.

Why would parents risk their lives, or the lives of their children, to leave home and journey into the unknown? And what can be done to keep families from being forced to migrate in the first place? These are among the key questions that colleagues and I have attempted to answer in a new OECD study, States of Fragility 2018. The findings are as illuminating as they are troubling.

By 2030, more than 80% of the world’s poor will live in an area defined as “fragile” – a status that may reflect any number of political, social, security, economic, or environmental causes. Unfortunately, if current trends hold, far too little development aid will be allocated to address the factors contributing to fragility. In 2016, for example, just 2% of the $68.2 billion in official development assistance (ODA) that went to places affected by fragility was used for conflict-prevention activities, and only 10% went to peace-building initiatives. There is no other conclusion to draw: we must change how ODA is allocated.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, a record 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. Many of these people hailed from just five countries – Afghanistan, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria. But, while countries hosting refugees have an urgent need for money to support long-term relocation efforts, most ODA is still channeled to short-term solutions. Humanitarian initiatives – like food and shelter – accounted for roughly a third of all ODA last year, and that share has been climbing for nearly a decade.

By contrast, funding for construction of schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure continues to lag. While it’s understandable that donors would gravitate toward solutions that offer immediate assistance to the displaced, neglecting refugees’ long-term needs is shortsighted. Simply put, the international community’s ambition for aid must evolve beyond keeping people alive; it must also offer migrants a future.

If allocated properly, ODA can be a powerful tool in preventing conflict and reversing the trends that contribute to fragility. Moreover, this type of spending is often a source of hope for migrants, given that in many crisis-affected areas, ODA is among the most reliable funding sources. That is particularly true as emergencies age, because funding levels typically drop as donations from other sources dry up.

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To be sure, reversing current ODA spending trends will not be easy. Fragility manifests in myriad ways, and addressing challenges as diverse as violent extremism, climate change, organized crime, and gender discrimination will require a new playbook for development spending.

Still, the need for actions has become urgent. If unaddressed, conflict, violence, and other forms of fragility will set development gains back decades, further fueling the very dynamics that lead to instability in the first place. Unless the international community changes its approach to investing in fragile regions, the world will fail to achieve a key objective of the UN Sustainable Development Goals: to leave no one behind.

Spending on long-term solutions also makes financial sense. According to the UN and World Bank, if more money were allocated to conflict-prevention programs, up to $70 billion could be saved annually in refugee-relocation costs. While the world has accepted the premise of cost-effective prevention in health care (by promoting regular screenings and checkups, for example), this philosophy has yet to be applied to policymaking on migration. This can and should change.

The global migration crisis – the worst since the end of World War II – has consumed huge sums of financial and political capital. To address it effectively, the focus must shift to improving stability and security, and hope for better futures, in the places where migrants originate. And that means the development community, and especially official donors, must rethink their priorities and policies.

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