A world beset by crises needs compassionate leadership

I always try to remain positive and optimistic, and to look for signs of encouragement. But I am moved to re-ignite my blog (sorry for the hiatus!) by the current rash of crises, both natural, and made or exacerbated by the errors and folly of human beings. And we seem to face very real and immediate risks that things will get worse rather than better. When a clever writer, thinker and former spy (John Le Carré), with experience of world war and cold war, warns that we face the conditions for the rise and spread of fascism, we have to take him seriously (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/07/john-le-carre-on-trump-something-truly-seriously-bad-is-happening). And when a human rights icon, a revered moral leader and a Nobel peace prize winner (Aung San Suu Kyi) betrays all she has stood for and fails to speak out against ethnic cleansing, as Le Carré says, “something truly seriously bad is happening” in the world. Malala and Tutu are not the only ones who have been shocked into reproach for their failing hero.

As the world stands closer to the brink of nuclear catastrophe than we have since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, it is hard not to be deeply worried. In 1962 Kennedy negotiated a way out of the crisis. Donald Trump is no Kennedy (and Kim Jong Un is no Khrushchev).

Meanwhile Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Jose are sending Trump (and the climate denying Governor of Florida) a very clear message amid the disastrous destruction being wrought across the Caribbean.

Mexico is clearing up the damage from its largest earthquake in a century as the death toll rises, while in South Asia the worst flooding in a decade has hit 40 million people, killing 1200 and leaving 1.8m children out of school.

South Asia floods 2017

So much for natural disasters (though, apart from the earthquake these are almost certainly climate related at least in their severity). The list of disasters that people (or their leaders) have created is long and deeply upsetting. In Myanmar (Burma) some 270,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced to flee their homes as villages burn amid allegations of persecution, rape, murder and the burning of bodies to destroy evidence. Amnesty International has reported that the Burmese military has even planted illegal landmines along the border with Bangladesh, through which desperate refugees must flee. According to Amnesty “what is unfolding in front of our eyes can be described as ethnic cleansing, with the Rohingya targeted for their ethnicity and religion. In legal terms, these are crimes against humanity that include murder and deportation or forcible transfer of population.”

In Yemen we face a crisis of epic proportions to which the world’s media and leaders pay scant attention. 1100 children have died, largely from bombing by the Saudi led coalition. The UN says that “human rights violations and abuses continue unabated”. Half a million people have been hit by a cholera outbreak in a country whose infrastructure is so badly damaged that 15m people are unable to access even basic healthcare while 30,000 health workers haven’t been paid for a year. 17 million people have faced food insecurity this year in a country described by the World Food Programme as being on the “brink of famine” while access for international aid has been severely restricted by blockades of ports and airports and by insecurity.

I could go on to list in detail the armed conflicts that are destroying lives today across the globe. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Northern Nigeria, Somalia, Libya, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Ukraine…. It is a sad and shocking state of affairs. Even sadder is the apparent indifference, incompetence or negligence of world leaders who too often seem obsessed by ever-deepening nationalism, focusing on their own or local interests as though we didn’t live in a single deeply connected world where inequality, exclusion and suffering anywhere will inevitably have impacts on us all.

But what I find most troubling is the evident lack of compassion exhibited by our leaders. They seem to have hardened their hearts so deeply that they worry more about votes and costs and trade deals than they do about the suffering of their fellow human beings, be they victims of austerity close to home or victims of war or flood or quake or hurricane elsewhere on our precious and very small planet. The brave example of Angela Merkel’s response to the arrival of desperate refugees into Greece was an inspiring exception in which humanity triumphed over expediency, at least for a time.

The UK has stuck to its commitment to the 0.7% of GNI aid budget even through a period of austerity, but even that is really not enough given the list of tragedies the world is facing – and globally aid as a proportion of income is lower than in the 1960s, and even than the 1980s.

ODA trends from 1960

Aid is important, both for immediate humanitarian needs and for long term development, but we also need an internationally co-ordinated foreign policy driven by compassion and respect for human rights if we are going to tackle the challenges we are all facing and find a way to end conflicts, negotiate solutions to threats and risks and build the world we have been promised in the Sustainable Development Goals. This can only happen if, individually and collectively, leaders put compassion ahead of self-interest, self-preservation and aggrandisement, electoral advantage or a narrow conception of national interest. It is time for principle to take precedence. In democracies that is up to all of us – let us head off the dire predictions of John Le Carré and by voting for principle and compassion and not for narrow nationalism. And in between elections, and where elections don’t offer real options for change, we can work together to campaign for a better way.  If our leaders (even revered ones like Suu Kyi) won’t speak out against injustice, poverty, war, inequality and human suffering, we must continue to do so and to hold them to account whenever they forget their humanity.

Suu Kyi should speak out and act against the oppression of the Rohingya, but also Theresa May should speak out against the indiscriminate bombing of Yemen from planes we sold to Saudi Arabia. Donald Trump should change his mind on climate change as his people are hit by floods and hurricanes. Vladimir Putin should drive his allies in Syria to the peace table. The Security Council should unite and work together to remove the nuclear threat in North Korea. The world’s richest nations should guarantee to fund in full the UN’s annual humanitarian appeal. None of the problems we face are insuperable given unity of purpose based on compassion and principle. Our crisis ridden world needs that now more than ever.

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