The Global Philanthropy Forum

Antony J. Blinken
Deputy Secretary of State
Redwood City, CA
April 6, 2016

As Delivered

Good morning all of you, and, Jane, thank you for a truly generous introduction. It is greatly, greatly appreciated and to you and the Global Philanthropy Forum, thank you for welcoming me here. As Jane said, we had the wonderful opportunity to work together for some years during the Clinton administration, and it has been a wonderful thing to watch as Jane has connected a global community of philanthropists and inspired a new generation of social investors.

And indeed a few months ago, we were able to collaborate here on a workshop that Jane had told you about—trying to bring together humanitarians, entrepreneurs, coders, and educators to help think about how we expand access to education for Syrian refugee children.

I think for me that day was incredibly powerful because it underscored the importance—and I would say even the necessity—of harnessing the great reservoir of talent that exists within our innovation and philanthropic communities to meet our most pressing challenges. And that is exactly what we’ve been trying to do with the State Department—not only bring the Department to the 21st century, but connecting with this community in ways to help us advance a common mission. When I think about everything that we’re trying to do around the world, it is abundantly clear to me that we need this infusion of expertise, of imagination, of resources now more than ever before.

You have all been talking about this for the last couple of days, but it was just about a year ago, when the winds warmed and the water calmed in approach of summer, and headlines around the world reflected the fact that there was a crisis at sea—as more than 1,300 souls drowned in the depths of the Mediterranean trying to make their way to Europe.

For several weeks, a record number of men, women, and children from Syria, from Afghanistan, from Eritrea, from Somalia, from desperate communities across two continents, had been risking everything to crowd onto the flimsy boats of smugglers and embark on a crossing to Europe.

Within months, even this exodus was eclipsed.

As summer turned to fall, great rivers of humanity displaced by war and shadowed by suffering made their way into Europe with their children in their arms and their only worldly possessions on their backs.

They echoed the footsteps of 60 million other people—across Southeast Asia, across East Africa, across South America—who have fled their homes in recent years from conflict, from violence, from persecution.

In their journeys, maybe they even traveled along the very same paths that many of our own parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents took to find sanctuary from war and a future for their children. They did that for us. And now the question is, what are we going to do for others.

If all the refugees and internally displaced persons today comprised the population of one country, it would be the 24th largest country on earth. Larger than South Korea. Larger than Spain. One out of every 122 people on this planet are forcibly displaced. This is truly a global crisis.

And of course there are millions more people on the move who don’t fit neatly into any of the categories we have established. They may not fit the legal definition of a refugee. They may migrate to escape poverty or generalized crime or violence, but they find themselves in danger and in need of assistance and protection, as well.

These are the thousands of unaccompanied Central American children who made the perilous journey north to the United States. Or the migrants and refugees from Burma or Bangladesh abandoned by human smugglers without food or water in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. We saw that so acutely last spring. Or a generation of Somali youth who have lived their entire lives in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya.

This great wave of displacement, the largest since World War II, is actually remaking our world. It’s changing our labor markets. It’s putting pressure on local infrastructure and national borders. It is changing the nature and makeup of our communities. It is affecting our sense of security.

Most of all, I think it is challenging us to live up to our common humanity.

The last time we faced similar questions of epic political, moral, and human consequences in the very heart of Europe, our predecessors went to historic lengths to establish and then guarantee the rights of those fleeing persecution.

This was not simply an act of altruism.

Having just emerged from a global conflagration, our predecessors knew that we could not simply wall our nations off—cut our ties to each other and reserve our most cherished values only for some.

They recognized—even then—that in an interconnected world, global leadership was an investment not only in our shared humanity but in our common security.

And so they built an international order of institutions, of norms, of rules dedicated to peace and dedicated to the progress of all nations. And within it, they created the world’s first legal protection regime for refugees and a global humanitarian system to respond to emergencies and crisis.

Today, as we see these heart-wrenching images from around the world, there is also something very powerful and maybe no greater symbol of hope, of compassion, of life than that of an aid worker’s vest, a humanitarian’s blue cap, a convoy’s red cross or crescent.

In support of this mission, the United States has been proud and indispensable in its partnership and leadership.

But here’s the challenge: the humanitarian system on which we rely for so much—to which we turn when epidemics flare or wars erupt—that system is under historic strain, buffeted by protracted emergencies, extreme natural disasters, and widespread displacement.

Simply put, our existing structures and approaches are being overwhelmed by the challenge at hand.

So our collective responsibility is to adapt and strengthen the international humanitarian system—honestly confronting its shortcomings while preserving the norms and laws fundamental to its construction: international humanitarian law and principles, civilian and refugee protection, and, of course, the foundation of human rights.

The crisis we face is global, but, what I want to do today in the time that I have is to focus in on what’s in the headlines around the world—and that’s Syria—and the utility of thinking about solutions in terms of concentric circles, of which the inner most circle is Syria itself.

Five years ago, Syria was, in effect, a middle class country of engineers, scholars, shopkeepers, farmers. Today, roughly half the pre-war population has fled their homes from violence and deprivation unleashed by the Assad regime.

The single most effective thing we can do to reverse this tide is end the civil war, and that’s something that the Secretary of State John Kerry is working on almost literally 8 days a week. And now we may have the first glimmer of possibility with an agreement endorsed by the United Nations Security Council to pursue a political transition towards a peaceful and more representative Syria.

But in the meantime, there are other steps we can take—that we are taking, that we need to continue taking—to help alleviate suffering and reduce the drivers of flight: steps that will lessen the violence and increase humanitarian access. As I said, we are making progress on both of those fronts.

As a result of Secretary Kerry’s unrelenting determination, we have a cessation of hostilities that has now held for over a month.

Its imperfections are great, but it has defied expectations and, far more importantly, saved lives and improved the lives of Syrians on a daily basis. We have now seen a measurable decline in violence across much of the country, even as, in particular places, there remains an acute conflict.

Humanitarian assistance has also arrived now in communities that have been besieged and cut off for years from any kind of assistance, from food, from medicine, from basic sustenance. Since January, more than 45 convoys of life-saving supplies have reached 400,000 people—but there are still many, many towns and cities in desperate need of aid.

We will continue to urgently insist on unfettered humanitarian access throughout the entire country. At great personal risk, our heroic partners—UN agencies, NGOs, local organizations—are doing everything possible to help those Syrians most in need, and they are reaching millions of people every month.

But even as we have made this progress, we are deeply, deeply concerned about those areas we are not able to reach, about the persistent denial of humanitarian aid as a tactic of war, and about the Assad regime’s practice of removing badly needed medical supplies, including surgical kits, from convoys going in—supplies that literally mean the difference between life and death.

So working on that first concentric circle, we are also addressing the second one. Because when a comprehensive solution is reached, it will mean more than the end of war. It will mean the beginning of an effort to rebuild a nation—a monumental task that will fall not only to the millions in Syria but those who have fled to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, that second concentric circle, these countries of first asylum.

Like many of you, I had the opportunity to visit with refugees in frontline countries—to listen to them and hear their stories. And I think probably like many of you it resonates on a personal level, because so many of us come from similar stories—in my own family, it was my grandfather who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe and started over with nothing in United States.

In Beirut, I visited a counseling center run by an extraordinary organization Caritas, and they were providing services to mothers, fathers, and children. It was interesting because the mothers, fathers, and children were divided up into different rooms, receiving counseling, advice, and support. So I went room to room. The first room I visited had husbands and fathers. And if there is one word that jumps out to describe the feeling in that room, it was depressed. These were men whose dignity had been stripped away from them. They had been productive members of their communities, their societies back home in Syria and now here they were, despite the incredible generosity in Lebanon, unable for the most part to work. It had literally depressed them. You could feel it. Like a dead weight in the room.

And then I moved on to talk to the women, the mothers, the wives, and there was actually an incredible crackling energy in the room, but one that I think was borne of desperation—desperation focused on their kids. How would they be able to provide for them? How would they be able to go to school? They were fixated on ensuring their sons and daughters had an education, and therefore a future.

And then I spoke to the children, and it was remarkable, as I think so many of you have experienced. Despite the hardships they had endured, they still had an infectious sense of hope and optimism. There was in their spirit an incredible resilience, an incredible courage, and an innate faith that better days would somehow come.

In many ways, their small shoulders are carrying the heaviest of all the burdens.

Today, roughly three million Syrian children across the region are not in school. It is an absence so long for some that they wonder if they’ve forgotten everything they learned.

Local communities have generously opened their classrooms to these children, but the level of need continues to vastly outstrip resources that are available. There are not enough teachers or schools or classrooms and those that exist are deteriorating rapidly under the strain of double or even triple shifts.

Compounding this challenge, adults very often do not have legal access to employment—a reflection of how hard it is for local leaders and politicians to stand up and say they want to give a job to a refugee when their own people don’t have them.

Without access to work, we know that parents struggle to afford school fees and transportation, and entire families may subsist on the meager wages earned by their children, who can more easily work in the informal economy as street vendors, farm hands, or garment factory workers.

And of course, if they are working in those conditions, they are not in school, and they won’t gain the skills or knowledge they need to be successful in their own lives—let alone rebuild their country.

But that, all things considered, is the least of the concerns we should have.

Because we know this too, out of school, these children are susceptible to exploitation, to crime, to trafficking, to early marriage, even possibly to the siren call of extremism.

The good news for refugees in this second concentric circle in these countries of first asylum is that the violence that drove them to flee Syria in the first place, that at least is gone—but these other drivers, a lack of access to education, a lack of access to work, that deprivation, that continues and that is indeed what is pushing so many to leave not only Syria and leave countries of first asylum and go onto Europe, and there too they are putting their lives at risk on the fierce seas or in the sealed truckers of smugglers.

But if we can tackle these challenges, these access challenges, we can also lessen the overall crisis.

That is why we are working with our partners to expand access to education and employment, to strengthen the resilience of host communities.

We have renovated schools, trained teachers, provided psychosocial care, and helped schools manage double shifts.

Since the start of the crisis, the United States has provided more than $5.1 billion in humanitarian aid to the response inside Syria and across the region, in addition to development assistance to Jordan and Lebanon.

It is hard, but our country partners are also doing what they can.

Turkey has increased school enrollment from the start of the school year by 30 percent to 325,000 children. It aims to reach 450,000 by the start of next year. But that still leaves hundreds of thousands unattending. And they have begun to issue Syrian refugees work permits, allowing thousands access safe and legal employment.

Jordan has promised the expansion of double shifts to accommodate 50,000 more Syrian students and seeks to expand work authorization for up to 200,000 Syrians over the next several years.

And in Lebanon, the government has proposed a series of investment initiatives to donors that they estimate would create a total of 300,000 jobs—60 percent of which would be for Syrians. They are also aiming for the ambitious goal of getting all children—including Syrian refugees—into school by the end of next year.

But we have to be realistic about the magnitude of this challenge for these countries. We have to have a certain amount of humility even as we are pressing them to do more. Think about it this way. In Lebanon, depending on how you calculate it, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population is now comprised of Syrian refugees. Equate that to the United States for those of you who are American. It is as if we were taking in, in a space of a few years, 50 or 60 million people, and we know the debate that we’ve had over just taking in a few thousand. You can imagine what that would do in this country, and the challenge is similar in Turkey and in Jordan.

But working together, working with them, there are common solutions that can be sustainable for the local communities and really help refugees as well.

That gets us to a third concentric circle I wanted to talk about. And that is the international system itself. Because the truth is that the sheer number of people on the move—whether from Syria or from other countries around the globe—has forced our traditional systems to stretch perilously close to breaking.

We are all giving more than we have ever given before, and yet we cannot keep pace with the growing needs.

Built to weather the emergencies of the 20th century, the global humanitarian system we have today has to be adapted to face the challenges of the 21st.

This is the third concentric circle.

This May, leaders from around the world will assemble in Istanbul for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, where the United States will look to make progress on three core objectives.

First, we are going to reaffirm our commitment—with a loud and unified voice—to uphold international humanitarian law, to protect civilians, and to condemn the willful denial of aid and routine attacks on clinics, hospitals, schools, and even humanitarian workers themselves.

We do have rules of behavior as a global community. The regard for the sanctity of life remains one of the fundamental tenets of our basic humanity—and is lost at our great peril.

Second, we are going to try to reinforce and update the fundamental structure of the humanitarian system to contend better with today’s challenges.

The system’s priorities, resources, and decisions have to be oriented toward the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people rather than bent by the forces of politics or narrow mandates. And as you can imagine, that is a great challenge.

Third, we are going to look to build new and greater coherence between our humanitarian efforts on the one hand and development toolkits on the other hand in order to strengthen resilience to cyclical droughts or recurring natural disasters and to these tides of displaced.

One of the big disconnects in the system is exactly the one between humanitarian response and longer-term development efforts. We have to collapse the barriers that exist between them just in the way we do things because like it or not these problems are going to be with us and host communities not for months, not even for a year—but years and even decades. And unless a host community can see some benefit itself in supporting an influx of people from another country, it is not going to be politically, economically, physically sustainable. And so the development work that we’re doing in response to these crises has to address the refugees but it also address the needs of the countries they’ve gone to. There is a way to turn some of this into a win-win proposition.

Our experts and agencies are already collaborating in new ways—coordinating budgets, aligning projects, and helping host countries include refugees in their own economic development plans. They’re engaging the World Bank, other multilateral development banks, and the private sector to identify long-term solutions that promote integration and growth.

Despite the truly extraordinary budgetary pressure they face, middle income countries like Jordan and Lebanon cannot borrow at concessional rates, which are low interest loans reserved for the poorest countries.

That is why we are working today with the World Bank to develop new types of affordable loans—with donors possibly stepping in to provide loan guarantees or grant financing alongside a loan to reduce the amount that countries have to borrow.

Closely aligned with these goals, we are also preparing for September, when President Obama will convene a leadership summit on the margins of the UN General Assembly to focus on the challenge of the global refugee crisis. And he will be asking governments around the world to step up in three ways. These are asks we are already in the process of making.

The first is to broaden the donor base and increase contributions by 30 percent to chronically underfunded humanitarian appeals. We want to get countries that are already doing their part to do even more, and especially we want to get countries that have the means that haven’t been participating in the system to actually join in.

Humanitarian and education support are not one-time costs, and last year’s funding gap for basic, life-saving humanitarian aid was a staggering 46 percent. That is the gap between what was asked for and needed and what was produced and delivered.

Last summer, as the temperatures rose and desperation swelled, UN aid agencies were so short of funds that that World Food Program was forced to briefly cut rations for refugees. And throughout the year, UNHCR had to operate on just half the budget it had requested, as it grappled with staggering needs around the world.

We just can’t resign ourselves to these shortfalls. It’s not acceptable. And we have to get other countries to step up as we are stepping up ourselves to do more.

We need countries to pitch in today with the same extraordinary generosity we witness in the aftermath of earthquakes, tsunamis, and hurricanes. Because for a generation of Syrian children, this crisis is a tsunami without the water, a five-year hurricane without the wind.

The second goal for the Summit is to double the number of refugees worldwide who are offered the safety of a permanent home and the chance for a fresh start through legal resettlement and other forms of admissions. This is an area of policy where all of us—including the United States—has to do better. We’re working to do that.

Third and finally, we are trying to expand opportunities for refugees to enjoy greater self-reliance through access to education, job training, and legal employment by increasing the number of children in school and adults working by one million each.

Ultimately, however, no single NGO, no single humanitarian organization, no single country can meet the challenges of today alone. This is a time of unparalleled need, and every single one of us has a role to play and a responsibility to try to respond.

Which brings me to my fourth and final concentric circle—all of us in this room.

The community, your community, has its roots in two long-standing American traditions that are also shared widely around the world—innovation and philanthropy.

Inspired by the benevolence of giants like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, Leland Stanford and infused with entrepreneurial spirit of a new generation of Silicon Valley social investors, this community, your community, proves what is possible when you apply both your heart and your mind to a problem.

You know, I have seen this in my own travels, going around the world, talking to people in every part of our planet—government officials, individuals from all walks of life. And there is one thing, almost without fail, that attracts people around the world to the United States.

It is not always our policies. And it isn’t even our politics, hard as that may be to believe.

It is our desire to aim high, our courage to be willing to fail, our commitment to give back, our capacity to translate possibility into opportunity and into reality for all.

In other words, it is the profound attraction of our culture of innovation, entrepreneurship, and volunteerism. That’s what I hear around the world, and that is precisely the spirit and sense of purpose we need to bring to this challenge today.

The humanitarian crisis we face is in fact so immense, it has the perverse effect of providing almost limitless ways to help and make a difference.

As foundations, as philanthropists, as entrepreneurs, you can take risks and experiment in ways that government and the public sector cannot.

You have more flexibility to put resources and expertise into promising ideas and quickly scale proven ones.

You can pivot more nimbly and cast a wide net—knowing that the search for breakthroughs can also bring failures.

Corporate partners can deepen their investments in educating, training, and then employing this next generation of talent.

Community leaders can help schools in their own neighborhoods connect and partner with sister schools in the region.

Technology executives can build “donate” buttons into their pages—just as Google did in September. Three days later, it had raised $11.3 million for the refugee response.

Education firms can work with humanitarian organizations on the ground to provide virtual learning platforms.

Students can prototype new ideas like classrooms on wheels or language lessons on podcast.

And all of us can look at global problems in new ways—not as challenges over which to despair, but as great problems to solve.

I was in Jordan at the end of last year, sitting with a group of Syrian refugees—kids who were 15, 16, 17. We were having a conversation about how they saw the future. It was quite extraordinary because despite their circumstances, they had a real vision for what they wanted to do with their lives. They had goals. They had dreams. And they still had confidence that they could somehow realize them. One young woman wanted to be a fashion designer. Another a doctor. A third wanted to be in computers. They all had specific careers that they were looking at, and they all spoke with great clarity and great passion about their futures.

So I was curious about the extent to which they had access to computers, and what was interesting was that virtually all of them did have access. Some of them had access to computers at the UNICEF-run community center, but also even in their families, despite their circumstances, many had at least one smartphone in their family.

As we were talking about that, I asked how many of them knew about the iPhone, and of course pretty much all of them raised their hands. And I asked them if they knew what company made the iPhone, and they said “Oh, sure, Apple.” Then I asked them if they knew who founded Apple. They paused, and one person actually volunteered, “Oh, yes, Steve Jobs.” I asked if they knew where Steve Jobs’s father had come from. And there was silence. The answer, of course, is Syria.

Every young person in that room could be the next Steve Jobs. Our job is to give them that opportunity.

Thank you very much.