Will Humanitarian Summit Put People or Politics First?

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits an internally displaced persons camp as part of efforts to build support for the World Humanitarian Summit. Kichanga, Democratic Republic of the Congo, February 19, 2016. (Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

After years of planning and the growing intensity of the problems for which it seeks solutions, the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) is upon us. Some 6,000 representatives of aid organizations, charities, private companies, donors, and multilateral institutions, and more than 50 heads of state and government, are gathering in Istanbul from May 23-24 to “stand up for our common humanity and take action to prevent and reduce human suffering.”

Despite the lofty rhetoric, there has always been a risk that the WHS’s ambitious reform agenda would unravel due to infighting in a humanitarian aid sector characterized by a multitude of agencies, approaches, and principles. Several developments suggest this risk is greater than previously anticipated, and it may be even more difficult for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to unite participants behind his strategic vision, as outlined in his One Humanity, Shared Responsibility report for the summit.

MSF’s Gamble

Fraying at the seams was most evident earlier this month when Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced that it was pulling out of the WHS. This bold move prompted some observers to wonder if this was “the start of an exodus.” It also publicly exposed the depth of disagreement among humanitarian agencies regarding the most effective way to deliver aid.

MSF called the summit “a fig-leaf of good intentions,” and accused it of overlooking systematic violations of international law committed primarily by states, such as the April 27 bombing of a MSF hospital in Aleppo, Syria, which killed at least 14 patients and doctors. MSF also criticized the Secretary-General’s call for humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding actors to work together under the banner of “resilience,” fearing this would weaken emergency response capacity and compromise fundamental humanitarian principles of neutrality and independence. Although MSF sought to portray itself as rising above the fray, it is hard not to see its withdrawal as a calculated move designed to change the conversation around the issues it views as most important.

Of course, insiders have long recognized these differences of opinion over the appropriate role of development aid in the humanitarian space, the relevance of humanitarian principles in today’s changing conflict landscape, and the value of linking emergency relief with peacebuilding approaches. Nonetheless, one of the world’s largest and most respected aid organizations declining to join the conversation showed how intractable and deeply rooted these differences have become. It may also have emboldened others to limit or abandon their commitments made at the WHS.

Passing the Buck?

As scholar Catherine Bragg recently observed in the Global Observatory, criticism of the WHS reflects a larger trend: a shirking of responsibility by more than a few participants to engage in meaningful reform. It is easy to heap much of the blame for shortcomings at the feet of governments, for example.

This is not to say that those critics are wrong about the role of governments in precipitating and, therefore, solving the current crisis. This is particularly true of their responsibility to respect international humanitarian and human rights law and prevent and end conflicts, which they have failed to do in places like Syria. On the financial front, despite calls to “diversify the resource base” by drawing on private donations, faith-based financing, and other sources, donor governments will still need to make up most of the estimated US$15 billion shortfall to care for 125 million people affected by conflict and natural disasters in 2016, according to the UN’s High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing.

In this respect, it is telling that while at least 50 world leaders are expected to attend the WHS, those from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are not among them. And, as of May 22, only around 70 countries have agreed to a legally non-binding communiqué pledging broad support (but not increased spending) for the Secretary-General’s agenda.

The UN, meanwhile, has been reluctant to embrace internal reform, even as it appeals to others to do so. After interviewing several high-level UN officials, humanitarian news service IRIN concluded that there is only limited appetite for change, despite vague calls from the Secretary-General to “work across silos and mandates.” UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien told IRIN as recently as October that “the UN doesn’t have to change,” though he has since backtracked on this.

Will NGOs Step Up?

At this stage, any hope for substantive progress resulting from the WHS likely rests with aid groups themselves. It is worth remembering that the WHS was never intended to be a state-centric instrument like the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which commit countries to clear and measured progress towards a concrete set of targets. Nor was it conceived as a UN-centric review process, as with the Review of the UN Peacebuilding Architecture.

Instead, it opted for a format that welcomes the diverse perspectives of not only states but international NGOs, local and national responders, the private sector, media, and other diverse actors, according to early discussions. Taking a seat at the table alongside governments and the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs was designed to afford these groups an unprecedented level of ownership of the WHS, most notably in the three-year consultation process preceding it.

As I previously argued, One Humanity, One Responsibility is a cri de coeur for humanitarian organizations to move beyond fragmented approaches that keep millions “trapped in dependency on short-term aid” towards an integrated approach based on “ending need” by pursuing “collective outcomes.” To this end, the report offers several recommendations including: reinforce, but do not replace, the capacity of national and local aid workers; coordinate with humanitarian and development agencies to achieve common goals and timeframes; and anticipate crises by investing in data and risk analysis.

Given their outsized role in shaping the WHS, it should come as no surprise that aid groups and NGOs are being asked to undergo such a significant transformation. However, this may be too big a burden to bear alone. Crucially, it remains to be seen whether they are willing and/or able to implement potentially risky and costly recommendations, given what appears to be questionable commitments to concomitant change from others.

The recent addition of a voluntary, non-binding commitments platform at the WHS—as well as linking the event to the same arc of progress that includes the SDGs and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction—may be viewed as a last-minute attempt to mollify these concerns and respond to calls from key stakeholders such as David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, that the summit “deliver concrete results” from all parties.

A Mixed Legacy

Ultimately, the inclusiveness of the WHS is both a blessing and a curse. It has brought in diverse voices, highlighting the potential for NGOs and local and national responders to contribute to solving the current crisis in humanitarianism. At the same time, putting NGOs at the same table as world leaders has complicated the process of extracting commitments that would apply equally to all sides and provides a convenient pretext for some to avoid doing their part. Russia, for example, justified the absence of President Vladimir Putin on the grounds that it was a gathering primarily for NGOs and “failed to include…the views of member states.” Those WHS participants with the greatest ability to impact the emergency response system are arguably facing less pressure to change the status quo than those with comparatively less influence.

Despite the emphasis on commitments and outcomes, the summit’s enduring legacy may be the process itself. Even if it falls short of ushering in tangible change, its accomplishments already include kick-starting the biggest conversation in decades about the future of humanitarian action. More than 23,000 participants across 151 countries engaged in its consultations, its public submissions database includes some 165 contributions, and a search for “World Humanitarian Summit” on Relief Web’s article inventory yields over 600 results.

This is a conversation that is sorely needed. But, unless WHS participants can see the bigger picture and begin to work together, it is a conversation we will be having again very soon. Those seeking to reshape aid delivery in the future will need to reflect carefully on whether this historic gathering and its open-ended format ultimately served to build bridges, or walls, across the humanitarian sector.