Arwa Damon Speech at 2023 ISOA Indo-Pacific Conference





Thank you all for having me and choosing such a lovely setting.

I want thank my friend Justine Rukeba from Emerald Group, and Howie Lind for inviting me to share my journey with you all.  I went free diving with sharks yesterday – no cage – it was marvelous, you all should try it, good bonding 😊 But I also know that I never would and never could permanently escape, not knowing what I know. I have too much of a visceral belief that we have a moral obligation to fix what is wrong or at least try.

But I’m not here to harp on about moral obligation, this is about practicalities, logic and necessity.

Your collective work to stabilize and secure these tenuous and often combustible situations often in dangerous and hazardous places is an invaluable and critically needed service.  But something is being missed, something about the way stability operations and programs are being carried out is not working to the best of its capacity.

You see, all these different spheres we operate in when it comes to conflict or instability zones, they all coalesce around one main space that is too often not paid enough attention to or disregarded, and that is human emotion. Everything that we do to each other – from war to violence – all those drivers of everything wretched in this planet are propelled by human emotion. Greed, anger, desire for power, control, money … fear, desperation, distrust, hatred, humiliation.

We cannot speak about stability and neglect the human emotional factor in our calculations. The only counterbalance to the majority of drivers of violence is to change the narrative on the ground and double down on our efforts and investments in that.

Ignorance, poverty, disillusionment are a toxic and dangerous combination.

And that is where we are failing massively.

Those types of emotions not only serve to mold an individual, but also a society. And that in turn molds whether or not a society can grow and thrive in a post-catastrophe era or start to move towards stability.

I know war, very very well. I was with CNN for 17 years. I started my career as a journalist in Iraq in 2003 a few weeks before the US invaded. I was based out of Baghdad for seven years, I spent a lot of time embedded during most of the major battles that took place in Iraq with the added advantage of being an Arabic speaker, so I could talk to those whose homes were being raided. I was immersed in the dual perspective, that of the US troops – and I’m not just talking commanders, but the guys on the ground facing death on a near daily basis – and that of the Iraqi population.

I’ve been to Afghanistan, Libya, Niger, Egypt, Nigeria, South Sudan and so many more places covering revolutions, war, attacks.

We need the private sector that operates in these spaces to invest in them

If you strip away dignity all that remains is anger.

If you strip away education all that remains is ignorance

If you strip away pride all that remains is humiliation.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Syria, trying like so many others to raise the alarm of the radicalization of the revolution there, how more extremists’ veins were able to so easily hijack the dreams of those who just wanted freedom.

I’ve had close calls with bombs, bullets, IED’s, RPG’s … you name it.

I have witnessed time and time again the war can destroy a person’s soul, the way an individual ends up utterly shredded by the lack of comprehension when it comes to how to process their emotions, how to cope with the physical destruction of everything they knew to be real, How it claws at their mental psyche at every step of the way and steals away any shred of dignity that may remain.

I know what it does to a child and how it darkens “childhood” moments that can grow to define us. I know the danger of allowing humiliation, despair, rejection be the prominent emotions that shape a young life. And I am hypersensitive to how those emotions impact an adult.

And yet in all that madness of war and violence, when I rolodex through my memories, the prevailing freezeframe moments are of the people. The man who made me, my cameraman, and the Iraqi special forces we were embedded with during the push into Mosul, fried eggs as the firefight was raging outside of his door. The activists in Syria who gave us the last of their tomato paste and bulgur after we crawled through a sewage tunnel to report on their neighborhood under siege. I’ve been plenty scared, but what stays with me is how kind people were.

My point is how we relate to each other matters, it’s what defines and makes us who we are. Our experiences and how we are treated at our lowest points play a crucial role in who we become. Our key memories matter, they create the balance of our mind.

In 2015 I founded my charity INARA – the International Network for Aid Relief and Assistance. INARA’S focus is to fill in the gaps in access to medical and mental health care. We also have a rapid response program that identifies the gaps in emergency response and fills those.

The idea for it was based on my years in warzones coming across children who needed medical treatment but were not accessing it. It was sparked by a story that I had done on this kid Youssif years earlier. Youssif back then was five years old, and when he was standing in front of his home in Baghdad, this is in 2007 when Baghdad was a city of sectarian faultlines, attacks, and unidentified bodies showing up everywhere, anyways so this little boy is standing in front of his house when a group of men in black masks threw gasoline on him and set him on fire.

We met Youssif about 6 months after the attack on him. His face was this hardened mask of rivers of scar tissue. He couldn’t open his mouth, he would eat rice by shoving a few grains between his lips. His little hands were scarred from where he tried to put out the flames. Youssif’s father had gone ministry to ministry, to hospitals, to NGOs, everywhere looking for help and then he landed at CNN’s door. The only thing we could do was report his story and hope that it made a difference. And I have to say that the day we put it out was among the best days of my reporting career. The story exploded, people around the world wanted to help this little boy. He ended up with his family in Los Angeles, getting the complex surgeries he needed. He doesn’t remember the attack anymore, its not his defining memory, his first memories are of the kindness of strangers.

We can change a child’s narrative. The whole family’s narrative, at times an entire community.

The moral argument is that we owe it to this generation of children to give them back the tools to build a better life for themselves. The practical and logical argument, more business brained argument is that doing that transforms them from being an economic drain to an economic contributor. Had Youssif not gotten the treatment he needs he would have been reliant on handouts for his entire life. What getting the treatment he needed gave him back was the ability to dream, to have agency over his own life. Today he manages a restaurant and has a little child of his own.

Take that idea and extrapolate it. This notion that we can transform people in need from being helpless and reliant into robust members of society. It’s not just about the child, it’s about also transforming the caretakers. Half of caretakers of the children that INARA works with reported increased livelihood opportunities due to their children being treated. How? For example, Mom no longer has to stay at home and look after the child because the child is able to go to school, physically overcome the injury and also through mental support able to stand up to bullies and no longer hides in the shadows of society.

I left CNN back in June of last year to work on a documentary and I’ve also immersed myself in the humanitarian space. I see with even more clarity how important it is, not in the “do-gooder” sense but that it is at the actual core of building a healthy, productive stable society with economic spending power. I am also able to see just how broken the humanitarian system is.

I was in NW Syria a few weeks ago, this cursed space that was incessantly bombed by Russia and the Assad regime until a ceasefire back in 2020 that is more or less holding. I reported on Syria since the start and I remember when the first tents sprung up amid the olive groves back in 2011. I remember driving through there and just thinking on repeat “its broken, the humanitarian response is broken”. It is crazy to me that today IDP’s still live in tents, that every year there are winterization campaigns for the same damn tents, pleas for funding by the UN that are barely 20% met, that families still have to rely on food baskets. It is illogical that the population there has swelled from 700,000 to 3 million and yet extra public schools have not been built. In fact if anything, the humanitarian response there, still so hyper focused on “emergency” – ie shelter and food eleven years on – is creating a helpless population. I met a young women whose tent had just flooded from the rains, the thick mud was knee deep, nothing was salvageable. She had fled bombings with her family and moved to an agricultural part of Idlib where for 4 years she and other family members worked in the fields. And yet despite that back breaking work all they managed to elevate their position to was to go from one tent to three. They couldn’t afford a house with walls.

The population there wants agency over their own lives. They want jobs, an end to the humiliation of needing to rely on handouts.

There is a very at risk population there – youth. Males ages 13-21 are loitering around the streets, bored, unemployed, poor – you all are smart enough to know how dangerous of a combination that it. Most programs focus on women and children. There INARA is now looking at building a program that focuses on them but also a program that focuses on the youth.

Right after that most recent trip to Syria I went to Ukraine. What really got to me – aside from the destruction and toll on the Ukrainian population, is that the response in Ukraine itself seems broken too. There are orphanages with disabled kids that need diapers and cleaning products. There are dormitories stuffed with IDP’s further to the east that need everything from ladies hygiene products to underwear, from notebooks and pencils and very important “safe spaces” for children mental health and psychosocial programs and daycares so that mothers – because these are mostly single mother households (the men are either fighting, dead or still at their homes protecting them) – can go out and find work. The economy in many places in the east, is understandably at a standstill, but take a city like Kharkiv where these families I am talking about have settled, where there are women looking for jobs but stuck taking care of the kids. What if we gave them what they needed? What if they could – rather than sit around waiting for a food basket– go out and start to crank the economic machine?

Rebuilding a society – because that is what ultimately needs to be done – has to be addressed on multiple fronts. Of course there is the need for shelter and food, but the way the humanitarian space is now, it’s like when there is a long term need, it almost freezes a population in a cycle of dependency without enough focus on giving them the tools to retake control of their lives. Yes we need the traditional players, I’m not saying that their role should be eradicated and trying to change them would be akin to me trying to push over an elephant, but we need the ability to push the boundaries of the humanitarian space and the way it functions. Its stuck in the “now” rather than planning ahead, strategizing, recognizing that certain crisis are long term. There is also this wretched “burn rate” that most governments are obsessed with – they will throw a ton of money at a problem and they just want it spent which results in well, bad spending that rarely actually has a real lasting impact on the ground.

We cant keep begging for funding that isn’t even really there to begin with. We need the private sector, we need you to break this cycle.

Lasting security can only happen when the effected population have their basic needs met, access to medicine, education, jobs and ultimately, community.  Today I am asking for you all to think about what it could mean to your companies to work in tandem and in a recognized supportive role with charities that are quick and nimble, and are operating on the ground with the people.  If the securities private industry pledged a percentage of profits towards those charities, those dollars would be used to build communities back by providing targeted humanitarian aid furthering stability, security, and goodwill in the very communities you are serving.

At INARA, for example, we are flexible. We identify a gap and build a program to fill it. No frills or fanfare. But we’re also in a way handcuffed because our programs are very niche, by sheer virtue of them identifying gaps and that means that we don’t necessarily fit into the framework of grants that are available. Grant givers aren’t basing their funding on needs on the ground, but rather on what they want to do. I’ll use Syria again as an example, where you can get funding for a fair number of civil society and advocacy programs, but talk to Syrian living in NW Syria and they will tell you that they don’t have the headspace to focus on that because they are hyper focused on where to get food or afford rent. We need to NOW start working on the foundation for the future of a population, not wait for that future to arrive and try to rebuild what is going to potentially be irreparably broken. So what is actually needed at this stage is schools and job opportunities, more microgrants, agriculture and manufacturing projects and the like AND THEN focus on building up civil society.

In order to grow, to help stabilize more regions, we – the humanitarian sector – needs private industry funding.  We need partnerships with like-minded companies with similar goals.  These goals are different in different effective areas as are the security needs.  Therefore, like your respective companies, INARA assess’ each situation and pivots with agility depending on the pressing needs all with the underlying goal of creating security for the disaffected population.  These goals can only be met by a many pronged approach.  Organizations like mine cannot serve these communities without support from companies like yours. Otherwise its just going to be the same broken record on repeat.

We all know what a broken society can lead to. Why allow that emotional sess pool to reach combustion point, when you can invest in guaranteeing you can help individuals be agents of positive change?

No, this is not the moral argument. This is the argument that if we want to have a more stable world, a more economically viable world, we need to double down on eliminating the factors that lead to instability. We cannot negate human emotion, what leads to anger and hatred within a population.

We need to create foundations that through their sheer creation acts as a counterbalance to destabilizing actors.

We need to help populations rise up, pull themselves out of the poverty that war and conflict sucks them into, the humiliation of handouts.

By giving a population the tools – health, education, jobs – we create positive change in their own lives, their own society, which will transform them from being drains on economies to participants in allowing their economies and spending power to grow.

Our world is broken. Our systems is broken. And right now, the best way to try to sort that out is by the private sector actively jumping in. In the NOW.

Yes there are efforts to bring it all together – like what you have here – but its not enough, I am on “on the ground” operator and it’s not translating in the right way. Our spheres, the spaces in which we carry out our work need to not just brush up against each other, they need to burst and mix so that we can use all our colors to build a more stable world.