World Humanitarian Summit: three tests for success

by Christina Bennett, ODI | Overseas Development Institute
Wednesday, 18 May 2016 07:33 GMT

Residents cheers as Kenya Red Cross rescuers evacuate a woman from the rubble of a six-storey building that collapsed last Friday after days of heavy rain, in Nairobi, Kenya, May 5, 2016. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

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If there is nothing in the way of a reset or game-changing moment, the fear is it will have been a gigantic waste of time, intellect and money

After months of feverish consultation, preparation and speculation, the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) will finally kick off in Istanbul on May 23. The two-day Summit will convene 6,000 aid leaders to decide on how better to respond to today’s defining crises. So, what will mark the difference between an anti-climactic letdown and a rallying achievement? Here are my three measures of success.

1) A-list participation

It’s unfortunate that one of the first pieces of mainstream coverage of the Summit was of the well-respected medical charity Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) very publicly pulling out of the conference. MSF lambasted the WHS as a ‘fig leaf of good intentions’ that would fail to hold states accountable for starting and perpetuating crises.

This boycott is significant as, like any gathering, the WHS will be judged on its guestlist, which currently includes top-level representatives from 50 countries. Not a bad turnout until you see that few of these states have the major sway that comes with being a permanent UN Security Council member, a major donor, a regional power or a country involved in conflicts. It’s also not so impressive considering that invitations went to 193 heads of state/government.

On the plus side, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has confirmed she will attend, signalling the importance of displacement as a humanitarian challenge worthy of global attention. Possible outcomes on this front include a multi-billion-dollar fund from development banks for protracted crises.

On the other hand, Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and key player in the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts, announced it would only send low-level emissaries and remain silent on any WHS result. Which is almost worse than not turning up at all. As for the other permanent members of the Security Council, they are not coming out in full force.  

2) A real deal, not just a Grand Bargain

The headliner at the WHS is ‘The Grand Bargain’, a financial reform initiative. This deal would involve the 15 largest donors giving more, longer-term and more flexible funding. In return, the 15 largest recipients of this funding would spend it more efficiently and transparently. All signatories would commit to concrete targets to spur the increased use of cash assistance (as opposed to giving out food, tents or other commodities), direct funding to national and local organisations by donors and reductions in U.N. and large international NGO overheads. These commitments are both necessary and welcome if they remain tangible and specific – less so if they are reduced to platitudes.

But financial inefficiencies are only a symptom of much bigger problems. A technocratic rather than a visionary plan, The Grand Bargain fails to even try to fix the larger, political, behavioural and structural problems that mar the humanitarian system. Addressing these fundamental flaws should be central to the WHS outcomes. States need to stop wringing their hands and get them dirty instead, with the hard diplomatic work of preventing and ending conflicts. We need to see unequivocal commitments to respecting International Humanitarian Law (laws for the conduct of war) and punitive sanctions for states that cross the line. And given what is happening in places like Syria and Yemen, major powers should use the WHS to end their material and technical support to countries – even allies – engaged in conflicts.

But most importantly, WHS outcomes should also include internal reform of the aid system, a business model designed more than 75 years ago but operating largely unchanged today – despite massive changes in the geopolitical landscape, the nature of disasters and the conduct of war. Any attempt at implementing the Summit’s core commitments will require uncomfortable and unpopular shifts in the approaches and business models of the major players. Unless those who wield the power and control in the humanitarian system are ready to commit to changes that will inevitably threaten their organisational survival, attempts at change post-Summit will at best be tinkering at the edges. 

3)  A change agenda

The minute the curtain falls on the WHS, questions about ‘how’, ‘who’, ‘when’ and ‘how much’ will quickly arise. Like any global process worth its salt, the WHS must quickly draw out a roadmap for delivering on all its commitments. As part of departing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s legacy, he must leave behind: a change agenda for his successor, an independent heavyweight to lead WHS’ implementation and – dare I say it – some kind of process for holding its participants to their promises.

There is palpable frustration among aid workers and civil servants alike that this will all have been a gigantic waste of time, intellect and money, which should have been directed at actual crises, if there is nothing in the way of a reset or game-changing moment. The WHS will culminate in an ‘Agenda for Humanity’, which needs to be more than the sum of its commitments, a manifesto for change in how the world comes together to respond to wars and disasters. To make this marathon of a process worthwhile, the Agenda needs not only to be believed in, but also acted on.

Christina Bennett is a research fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). She is the main author of HPG's landmark report, 'Time to let go: remaking humanitarian action for the modern era'.