Because FPI is all about amplifying female foreign policy voices, we’ve rolled out a regular brain-picking Q&A feature with awesome interruptors.
This week, we want to make sure Elizabeth Ferris is on your radar.
Elizabeth is the co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement and a senior fellow in Foreign Policy, where she focuses on internal displacement, humanitarian action, natural disasters and climate change. Pretty much a light load.
Her book, The Politics of Protection, examines the challenges — and limitations — of protecting vulnerable populations from the ravages of war and natural disasters.
Our brain-picking session begins:
FPI: Back in January, you wrote a memorandum to the president on climate change. How is the administration getting it right when it comes to the issue? And how does it need to improve?
Climate change is a huge issue. Obama needs to make it central to foreign policy. Without U.S. leadership, the issue won’t go far internationally, and he needs to ensure his administration has a strong climate change legacy.
As I wrote, in the past year, there’s more and more scientific evidence that global warming is underway; sea levels will rise faster than previously predicted. The administration has made significant steps in regards to climate change, but Obama needs to take more additional steps both at home and abroad. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predictions for sea level rise by the end of the century are 50 percent higher than its previous estimates in 2007—and these figures are seen as conservative by many scientists.
Extreme weather events, strongly influenced by climate change, are more frequent and more severe. The estimated cost of Hurricane Sandy and severe drought in 2012 came to more than $100 billion altogether.
Ahead of the 2015 climate summit in Paris, the administration should play a leadership role in addressing the challenges of climate change. Among other things, U.S. leadership should aim to set more drastic carbon emission cuts at home and find agreement with other states, particularly China.
FPI: And with the humanitarian crisis in Syria?
Right now the international humanitarian system is so overwhelmed with many issues. While there is a lot of effort going into the refugee crises worldwide, I’m just not sure it’s enough. There’s not enough money or energy, for instance, going into the refugee crises in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Our best humanitarian workers are being pulled in all sorts of directions and there’s a complete and utter strain on the system. The UNHCR, IRC, and other groups have done some tremendous work, but they’re simply overwhelmed.
FPI: Which country or crisis needs a spotlight right now? Are there lower-profile crises that just aren’t getting the attention they deserve?
Well, I’d have to put that spotlight on Syria. As a political solution to the crisis seems increasingly out of reach, we need to focus on humanitarian civilian aid in Syria. But there are dozens of other humanitarian crises that aren’t getting enough attention. I’m not sure I’d necessarily label Darfur’s as low-profile, but there’s been a lot of escalation there which isn’t getting the attention it deserves. While a lot of money has been poured into that crisis, there is no real solution.
Also, we can’t forget Haiti. There was much attention after the devastating earthquake, but progress has been quite slow in building back necessary, basic infrastructure. Also, there’s the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the UN has geared up a new type of peacekeeping forces, but where violence is still widespread.
As I said, the humanitarian community is really strained at this point in history.
FPI: Has the Syrian crisis taught us anything in terms of management of refugees?
I think what we’re realizing is that we need to do more for refugees living outside of camps. The majority of Syrian refugees do not live in camps. We’re learning how to identity those groups, how to assist them, and how to make sure we’re not privileging some groups over others. We also must consider where we put our money. For example, should we put money into local infrastructure? Waste management? Hiring teachers? We can’t just segregate refugees into camps and leave it at that.
And I think the crisis has taught us we must also think more about neighboring countries, which deserve our appreciation and solidarity in hosting the refugees. It’s an incredible strain on their countries with huge economic, social, and political implications.
At this point in the crisis, we all need to be thinking about long terms solutions. For example, what will happen if Syrians don’t go back home and stay in Turkey? That’s a huge strain and a huge possibility.
So we need to start thinking about how we can work on reintegration efforts now – long term care and management. It’s challenging.
FPI: In terms of wider international disaster response, what are some positive and negative trends you’re seeing?
I think there are many positive trends. We can draw one of the most important trends from Southeast Asia’s Typhoon Haiyan last November. Given the reality of climate change, all governments are going to have to invest more in planning for potentially huge disasters, even if it means taking difficult political decisions. And we’re starting to understand that and governments are investing more in disaster risk reduction
And, in terms of refugees, international agencies have become aware of the importance of gender in terms of protection and the distribution of relief goods. For instance, while there are still examples of aid being distributed only to male heads of families, we’ve begun thinking about how these items should be better delivered to women. Sometimes goods are simply too heavy for them to carry. And sometimes they’re vulnerable to robbery and attacks.
It’s also important to keep in mind, as we mark the third anniversary of Japan’s Triple Disaster – the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident that hit Japan in 2011 [killing close to 20,000 people, tearing apart the Tohoku region, and displacing for the long-term close to 270,000 persons, who until this day remain in temporary housing] that children are not the only vulnerable group in disasters and that the elderly have needs that need to be addressed. They’re often a forgotten community.
The Triple Disaster also reminded us that governments must review how their laws and policies are prepared for disaster. In Japan’s Triple Disaster, and also with Hurricane Katrina in the U.S., governments were not prepared to deal with the influx of offers of foreign assistance. International disaster response law is a way to ensure that international relief can flow quickly – and appropriately – when disasters occur.
These are important questions for not just Obama, but for the whole world to consider.