In the past couple of weeks, I’ve traveled from Haiti to South Sudan to this Swiss mountain village where the World Economic Forum (WEF) holds its annual meeting on the state of the world’s economy. Before I sit down with the leaders gathering here, I’d like to share with you a few insights from my recent trips.
I was in Haiti on January 12 as people dressed in white – their color of mourning – marked the anniversary of last year’s terrible earthquake. The feeling was sober and somber. Haiti still desperately needs our help, and will for a long time.
I want to say, too, that I think the humanitarian community has achieved more than the media has acknowledged. I saw progress in the areas of health and human services – such as our campaign to combat cholera and deliver clean water. And I saw social innovations that bring fresh hope and a kickstart to local economies, such as our introduction of cellphone-based “mobile wallets” that make it easy for people to save, spend and transfer money. Those are bright spots of good news.
I also saw areas where progress is being stymied by the stalemate among the various government and political forces – and by insufficient private investment and risk-taking, especially in agriculture and textile manufacturing. We want to see more forward-thinking companies step up and take advantage of a workforce that’s eager to move the country forward.
The feeling in South Sudan was quite different: hopeful, even historic. There is the palpable sense of a nation being born. The short-term challenges revolve around managing the border areas (especially Abyei) and people's mushrooming expectations of immediate change and betterment. The long-term challenges are enormous since South Sudan, from a development standpoint, is essentially starting from zero. And yet it’s thrilling to contemplate that Sudan can be a model for wise, humble, and transformational engagement – with the early evidence of a peaceful and dignified referendum that saw 80% of registered Sudanese cast their votes. Truly an incredible moment in Sudan’s history.
Let’s not underestimate the challenges and complexities of one country becoming two. Going forward, it will be critically important for the international community to continue to invest in both North Sudan and South Sudan, in response to urgent ongoing needs and to foster peace and stability.
There is never a substitute for good governance and local leadership, and nation-building never offers fast fixes or easy exits. In Haiti and South Sudan, there will continue to be a critical role for the international community to play. Both places need tremendous ongoing political and economic support and targeted humanitarian support. Both need comprehensive capacity-building in terms of civic institutions and civil society.
And both need loads of private investment. While the conditions are hugely challenging, the opportunities are commensurate. Now is the time for private investment to ramp up in both places in a serious way.
I also see opportunities for both Haiti and South Sudan to become platforms for social innovation – especially in the use of mobile technology for development, energy and water.
Let me end with a word of caution: There will not be rapid transformation in either country, even under the best circumstances. Without the wise, determined and persistent support of the international community, Haiti and South Sudan will be failed states, condemning millions of people to entire lifetimes of misery, suffering and injustice. The international community cannot guarantee their success. But we can help both countries and their people improve their odds for a better future.
Finally, let me just say a bit about Davos and why Mercy Corps is here for the third time. WEF is an independent international organization dedicated to improving the state of the world through global partnerships. This year’s meeting theme, "Shared Norms for the New Reality," reflects the concern that while our world is becoming increasingly complex and interconnected, we’re also experiencing an erosion of common values and principles. This erosion undermines public trust in leadership as well as future economic growth and political stability. It’s a heady topic and one that I expect will provoke some interesting discussions. Stay tuned.