World Humanitarian Summit: Historic achievement or failure?

(Photo Credit: World Humanitarian Summit/flickr)

Today saw the start of the first World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, Turkey. The gathering, meant to rally the humanitarian sector to make needed reforms, is being touted as “historic” for its potential to change the way the world responds to humanitarian crises. While there is general agreement that reforms are needed, not everyone thinks the summit is capable of ushering in change.

“We are here to shape a different future,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his remarks at the opening of the event. “Today we declare: We are one humanity, with a shared responsibility. Let us resolve here and now not only to keep people alive, but to give people a chance at life in dignity.”

A record 130 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and a record $28 billion was spent on international humanitarian assistance in 2015, according to Development Initiatives. The world is mounting an unprecedented response to an unprecedented number of problems but is under severe strain to meet the challenge. Yet, some see the current humanitarian system as broken and in need of major reform.

“The extent to which the international humanitarian system lies broken is alarming,” wrote President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in an Op-Ed for the Guardian, on Monday. “The international community in particular has largely ignored its responsibilities toward the Syrian people by turning a blind eye to Bashar al-Assad’s crimes against his own citizens.”

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) hopes to fix that problem. After four years of planning and consulting, there are high hopes for what might be accomplished in the next few days.

Doctors Without Borders sees it differently. The medical humanitarian group announced that it was pulling out of the summit in early May because it “no longer [has]any hope that the WHS will address the weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response, particularly in conflict areas or epidemic situations.”

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Doctors Without Borders praised the WHS process for being more inclusive of groups often at the sidelines of the humanitarian sector, in its withdrawal announcement. All the good work in the run-up to the event is for naught, says the group, because the final event will not lead to better protection of civilians and frontline aid workers. Attacks on medical facilities in the Middle East and the way that Europe is now treating refugees and migrants will be solved by accountability at state and international levels, not through sector reform, the group charges.

“As shocking violations of international humanitarian law and refugee rights continue on a daily basis, WHS participants will be pressed to a consensus on nonspecific, good intentions to ‘uphold norms’ and ‘end needs.’ The summit has become a fig-leaf of good intentions, allowing these systematic violations, by states above all, to be ignored,” according to the Doctors Without Borders statement.

The WHS seeks to get commitments around what are considered five core responsibilities: 1) Prevent and end conflict; 2) Respect rules of war; 3) Leave no one behind; 4) Working differently to end need; 5) Invest in humanity. The second responsibility is of particular concern to Doctors Without Borders, but there is no real way to uphold the commitments to prevent governments or rebel groups from violating them. Other major humanitarian organizations are in attendance but are delivering a similar message as Doctors Without Borders.

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“Leaders at the World Humanitarian Summit must make concrete commitments that deliver real change for civilians facing disaster and conflict,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, in a statement. “Fundamentally, we must see action from world leaders to reverse the shocking erosion of respect for International Humanitarian Law – this could be the Summit’s single most important legacy.”

That will be hard to achieve when Russia announced that it would do the bare minimum by sending a low-level delegation to attend the WHS. Only 50 countries are sending top-level representatives, further evidence that this is not yet an event countries feel warrants extra-special attention. Challenges aside, the event may see a deal where the top 15 donors pledge to give more money in exchange for the top 15 recipient countries pledging to be more transparent and efficient with how they spend aid money.

Achieving “The Grand Bargain,” as it is called, may be one of the few small victories that come out of Istanbul. For the millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance globally, it will be a notable improvement. For a system that is said to be broken, it will really be a continuation of the same problems that currently exist. Major aid groups and institutions still run the show – effectively sidelining local people, groups, and governments.

The WHS has the chance to live up to its “historic” claim if it can build on its achievements this week over the ensuing years. It also could be a failure if that status quo wins out.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.