The Sustainable Development Goals will not be Achieved if the Humanitarian Community Fails Refugees and Internally Displaced People

As world leaders converged upon New York last week, it was difficult not to feel cynical about their ability to help the 65 million people forced from their homes because of conflict, violence and persecution.

Too often, we read about failed political attempts to end war, protect people from violence, or improve people's health and education services.

But amid the gloomy headlines, good news can be found in the practical solutions that exist to reform humanitarian aid and assure it has a bigger impact on people's lives.

The political, UN and NGO leaders should focus not just on the politics of refugee crises, but also on adopting new ways to improve the value of the money they spend to help people living in conflict, preventing the recurring conversations about how bad the world is getting for the people we serve.

I want to highlight three concrete actions the IRC advances as part of its 'better aid' platform.

Sustainable Development Goals and humanitarian settings

There is a significant overlap between the biggest gaps in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the contexts of displacement, conflict and disaster. For instance, of the 61 million children worldwide who are not in school, more than one third live in conflict affected areas.

Likewise, people in crisis-affected countries are more than twice as likely to be undernourished as those living in stable countries, and more than twice as likely to see their children die before they reach their fifth birthday.

Countries and donors therefore need more specific guidance, such as targets, on the outcomes that are relevant to displaced people. This is especially important given that refugees tend to remain displaced for an average of 17 years, while for internally displaced people the average length of exile is 23 years.

That is why it is so important that we name and define the key improvements in health, economic wellbeing, safety, education and power, which we want to achieve for the people we serve. If we can define these collective goals in specific and measurable terms, we will make better use of scarce resources, improve coordination and enhance accountability.

Invest in what works to achieve our collective goals

In addition to including humanitarian contexts and specific outcomes into the SDGs, we know that investing in research evidence provides much needed solutions for service providers, policy makers and practitioners the world over. Imagine if you went to the doctor and they told you that they really don't know how best to take care of you because there isn't enough research to provide actionable guidance. Instead, they rely on instinct and anecdote. Evidence-based interventions are spreading quickly in the development field - we need the same expectations and standards for humanitarian aid.

One such proven intervention comes from Lebanon, where a 2014 IRC study of cash transfers to 87,700 refugees showed that the payments enabled households to meet the needs they prioritized most, reduced negative coping strategies such as child labor, improved access to schooling for children, and did not have undesirable effects on local market prices. Additionally, each dollar of cash assistance spent by beneficiary households generated $2.13 of GDP for the Lebanese economy.

Another such intervention is 'positive parenting'. Since 2010, the IRC has been promoting positive parenting as a way to reduce violence against children in crisis zones. Working with families in Liberia, and along the Thai-Burmese border, this program involves introducing parents to techniques to communicate and problem-solve with their children, and discipline them without the use of violence. After one 10-12 week program, we found a reduction up to 64% in the use of beatings and threats, as well as a reduction in children's behavioral problems and an improvement in family relationships.

Synthesizing evidence and translating it into useful tools for policy makers and practitioners is becoming more common in development. The IRC has worked to apply this experience in the humanitarian sector, launching a new Outcomes and Evidence Framework (OEF), which drives all of the organization's efforts toward achieving five outcomes for the people we serve: Economic Wellbeing, Safety, Health, Education and Power.

Get away from COST as a four-letter word

It is crucial that we develop a better way of assessing cost effectiveness if we are to ensure that every aid dollar creates maximum impact.

Until now, the non-profit sector has characterized notions of efficiency and effectiveness as the degree to which a given organization channels funds directly to its programs. The related "overhead myth" is that an organization that has a low administrative to program ratio is more efficient and its programs more effective. This approach may serve a purpose in highlighting the worst actors, those with exorbitant overheads relative to their work, but it sheds little light when discerning among the majority of NGOs.

At the IRC, we have developed a simple methodology, called the 'Nutrition Label' approach, to assess the cost of a program relative to its achievements in the lives of beneficiaries.

The methodology not only assesses the cost of outputs - for example, the provision of training to local health workers - but also outcomes, such as vaccination rates among local people.

It is also designed to be comparable across organizations, so that it can be used to measure efficiency not just within the IRC but across the humanitarian sector.

None of the reforms I've mention in this article are simple. If they were, fewer families would have to flee their homes to avoid death, or to find food. More children would be going to school and fewer would be getting sick from preventable diseases.

But the task is not impossible, either. There are sensible, practical reforms that can and will make a big difference; we just need to implant them... together.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs, or, officially, "Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development"). The SDGs represent an historic agreement -- a wide-ranging roadmap to sustainability covering 17 goals and 169 targets -- but stakeholders must also be held accountable for their commitments. To see all the posts in the series, visit here.