The geography of poverty

Mercy Corps is a 4,000-strong global aid organisation that, for three decades, has operated in some of the world’s roughest environments. CEO Neal Keny-Guyer explains why, if the world is to hit its future goals in eradicating poverty, hunger and disease, failing states must lead the agenda

The phrase we use is ‘the world’s toughest places’. We target the places where conflict, extreme poverty and poor governance have collided to trap people in situations that are unjust and marked by extreme suffering. These fragile states are our workplace. Mercy Corps itself was founded in 1979, in response to refugees fleeing the killing fields of Cambodia. When I joined as CEO in 1994, it was active in six countries, with an annual budget of $25m. Today, we work in 45 countries and our budget is close to $500m. It’s been quite a story of growth, for everyone involved.

At least half the work Mercy Corps does today is based in the Middle East, perhaps more. We reach 500,000 people each month in the north of Syria alone, and our running budget for Syria is $120m a year. I’m enormously proud of the fact that every day, we get 10 to 15 trucks of aid into northern Syria, thanks to the heroism of our Syrian team. Two of our employees have been killed, so it is an enormous risk to take. Yet the team still has the courage to continue, and to bring hope to their people.

At Mercy Corps, social entrepreneurialism is a core value. We live in such a dynamic world today that to really be effective, aid agencies have to think the way technology pioneers or startups do. You must innovate or die, and fail quickly, before you cause harm.There are always opportunities for big breakthroughs, if your mindset is to seek them out. It might be a new technology, partnership, or a big idea – but think outside the box, and you could move the needle in an area that really matters. Gaza Sky Geeks is an incredible Mercy Corps initiative, which support young Palestinian entrepreneurs. Gaza is home to so many young people who long to connect to the outside world, who have aspirations and dreams. When you feel their spirit and energy – it’s incredible. They’re representative of young people across the Middle East. If we can find ways to harness the energy of this new generation and unleash it in a productive manner, it has the potential to transform the region.

It’s fair to ask whether the global aid industry is still fit for purpose. Around the world, we’re starting to see truly thorny, tough crises crop up at a scale we’ve never seen before, and many are the result of unresolved political issues. I think many would agree that the aid institutions set up in the wake of World War II, were created for a different world. But the challenge is that we don’t know what the alternative to the current industry is, and if the pain of getting there would be too great. And the world can’t wait while we find out.

If our global goal is to eradicate extreme poverty, we have to focus on fragile states. Increasingly, the people with hunger, those without access to healthcare, the children not in school, the people most exposed to climate change – they are all clustered in these states. It’s like the challenge of the last mile. It’s not an accident that Ebola came out of countries with weak systems. We can’t make progress in these nations without minimally optimal levels of governance. It doesn’t have to look like a western democracy, but there has to be some legitimacy between government and citizens. It will be hard to achieve, but big change is always hard. The fact remains that if we can’t address root causes of conflict in Syria, in South Sudan, in Yemen, in the Central African Republic, the numbers of people who are going to continue to suffer will be in the millions. Money alone can’t solve those crises.

Prolonged instability is in no one’s interest. Today’s world is so interconnected, our global economies are so interconnected, that it doesn’t make any sense. It just seems to me that whatever the issue, together we must be able to find a pathway forward. There is a shared humanity and values that define all of us, and our societies are stronger when we embrace them. I think that is our message.

Photo credit: Mercy Corps