David Miliband on the Importance of Collaboration in the Covid-19 Crisis

David Miliband on the Importance of Collaboration in the Covid-19 Crisis

Ahead of the MayDay: Covid-19 Charity Auction, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, explains the importance of communication and working together in fighting the disease around the world.
Ahead of the MayDay: Covid-19 Charity Auction, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, David Miliband, explains the importance of communication and working together in fighting the disease around the world.

Let’s talk first about the challenges that the International Rescue Committee are facing in the eye of the COVID-19 storm. What would you say is your immediate priority?

The challenges to the International Rescue Committee are defined by the challenges for our clients. These are the 70 million displaced people around the world, refugees and internally displaced, and the host communities that are looking after them. These are people without the sanitation facilities that all of us take for granted. They are people without the health facilities that many of us take for granted and they are without the livelihoods. They are living in poverty that many of us can only imagine. For some of them living in war zones, there’ll be added complication, added danger and added risk of conflict.

David Milliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee

Our biggest challenges are to make a reality of the basic ideas of disease prevention by trying to establish hand-washing facilities, trying to explain the disease to people and trying to create the isolation spaces so that those who test positive for fever can at least be isolated from the rest of the community. We know that this disease has shown that the human chain is only as strong as the weakest links, and we’re working at the weakest links.

There has been much talk about how this virus ‘does not discriminate', but who do you feel are the most vulnerable people to face COVID-19 globally, and do you think that we’ve seen the worst of what is to come in that regard?

In some ways that’s true, but we know it does discriminate against people who live in highly densely-populated areas. It does discriminate against people with underlying health conditions and against people who are not able to wash their hands and who are not able to achieve social distance. So in that regard, this disease is doubly or trebly more dangerous for people in the areas that we work.

By quirk of fate, we still have a little time for preventative measures. We do think it’s a matter of when not if, the disease hits with full force in sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East outside Iran and in south Asia. We can see the warning signs; the official figures being reported to our health clinics are picking up and we are desperate to do both the preventative work that is still possible, and to prepare some health and economic response so that the most vulnerable will get protected.

Henry Kiduyu, Supplychain Manager with IRC Kakuma utilizing the handwashing facility at Kakuma refugee camp. Courtesy of IRC.

What does life look like on the other side of this pandemic for those people that are most at risk?

Well, in fact there’s a double emergency. There’s a health emergency because if you live in South Sudan there are only 12 ventilators in the whole of the country. If you live in Sierra Leone, there’s only one ventilator in the whole country. But additionally, there’s also an economic and social emergency, that when livelihoods plummet and when economic activity collapses, the poorest suffer the most.

We know that the social dimensions of this are real; that levels of domestic violence are rising, so if you’re a woman, your risks go up. When education closes down, the first to lose out are girls, so there are extra social dimensions as well, but we call it a double emergency, it’s a health emergency, but it’s also an economic and social emergency.

"This is a double emergency, it’s a health emergency, but it’s also an economic and social emergency."

With those incredibly stark warnings in mind, how important are charitable donations and initiatives to support organizations like the IRC at a time like this?

We are finding that governments, for obvious reasons, are focused on their own citizens and so that is understandable, but it also runs the risk of being myopic because this is a global disease of the connected world and there’ll only be a return to anything like normality in the UK or anywhere else when the disease is quashed globally. So private philanthropy becomes doubly important. Private philanthropy can fill in before governments get their game together. Private philanthropy can take the risks that governments are wary of taking. Private philanthropy can fill in the holes in the global safety net that are created by politics.

The work that your organization does is right on the front line, so how do you run an organization like that remotely, and online? There must be some challenges involved.

This crisis is obviously a challenge to all organisations. No part of the International Rescue Committee has been untouched, from our health clinics in Kakuma refugee camp to our cash distribution services in Yemen, to our livelihood services in northwest Syria to our maternal health services in Ethiopia, to our management team in New York.

I think the only way to “run” an organization in circumstances like this is to have strong communication, clear priorities, a culture of taking responsibility and a commitment to empower the front line. Our big call in the auction that we’re running with Sotheby’s is to get the funds to the front-line staff who can make a difference, because that’s what NGOs are able to do.

What’s the biggest shift for you from moving from the world of politics to the humanitarian sector, and what can one teach you about the other?

Well, in government, you have more power than in an NGO but more obstacles to getting anything done. In an NGO, you’ve got less power but fewer obstacles. And so, my aim throughout this crisis is to use the flexibility, the entrepreneurialism and the risk appetite that is granted to an NGO to make the most difference, and that’s what you’re helping us to do.

You can bid on a private virtual conversation with David Miliband in the MayDay: Covid-19 Charity Auction which opens for bidding on 1 May, by registering here.

100% of the proceeds will be donated to the IRC by the experience providers. Buyer’s Premium will be charged on all lots and 100% will be donated by Sotheby’s to the IRC.

Funds raised from the auction will support the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in their efforts to mitigate and respond to the spread of the COVID-19 outbreak within vulnerable communities in the United States and across Europe. From distributing meals in New York City to translating public health guidance into numerous languages for communities across Europe, the IRC response is built on years of experience in supporting people affected by conflict, crisis, and disaster in over 40 countries around the globe, and providing aid to the most vulnerable populations that are always impacted the hardest when a crisis happens.

The experiences can be enjoyed virtually via Google Meet video calls during this period of lockdown. Google Meet provides premium video conferencing built on Google’s robust and secure global infrastructure.


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